Southminster Presbyterian Church

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The Wasted Life

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Mark 9:42-48, I Corinthians 3:10-15

Introduction to scripture reading:

            During the summer in our church services we are answering questions of faith submitted by people in the congregation.  I think it is good sometimes for pastors to address difficult topics related to our Christian faith.  However, when I planned this series of sermons, I did not take into account the Sundays of family worship.  Which means I did not fully realize until this week that on a family worship Sunday I would be preaching about hell.  But that is this week’s question of faith: What is hell?  So let’s jump in and see what we can learn.

[Read Mark 9:42-48]

            On my trip to Israel this spring I took this picture [Slide1] of a valley just south of the wall around Jerusalem. It is a pleasant looking valley, but it does not seem particularly striking or significant, until you know its name.  This is the Valley of Hinnom. [Slide 2] In Aramaic, the language Jesus used, it is called Gehenna. [Slide 3] This, ladies and gentlemen, is hell, or at least the place Jesus uses to describe hell.

            Here is another view of the same valley. [Slide 4]  It doesn’t look that bad. Evil often does not look that bad in its early stages.  For centuries this was an ordinary valley.  It seemed like a nice place.  But about 1000 B. C.—about 10 centuries before Jesus—dark things began to happen in this valley.  People in this valley began setting up images and altars to gods other than the Lord.  They were worshiping gods like Baal, which was an ancient god of military power.  Or they worshiped gods like Ashtoreth, a goddess of fertility, the god of sex and prosperity.  In this valley they built altars and offered sacrifices to these gods, and when they did not get what they wanted from these gods, when their sacrifices did not produce the power or the security or the prosperity they wanted, then they started making bigger and more elaborate sacrifices, until eventually they were offering their own children as sacrifices on altars built here in the Valley of Hinnom, what Jesus calls Gehenna. [Slide 5: Blank]

            It is kind of like Hitler in Nazi Germany.  Why did so many people follower Hitler?  Think about it.  He offered power, security, and prosperity.  He was the gods Baal and Ashtoreth rolled into one.  So people followed him and made sacrifices for him, sacrificing their freedom, their humanity, and eventually even their own children for the sake of his ambitious plan to take over Europe.

            That’s what the people of Israel did in the Valley of Hinnom, in the place Jesus called Gehenna.  They sacrificed their humanity and even their children to the gods of power, security, and prosperity.

            Then it all fell apart.  In 587 B. C. the Babylonian army conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the city, including the altars built in the valley of Hinnon.  Gehenna became a wasteland.

            Later, when the Israelites returned, they rebuilt the city of Jerusalem, but they left the valley of Hinnom as a wasteland.  In the time of Jesus it was landfill—the Jerusalem garbage dump.  Hence Jesus describes it as a place “where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.”  If you have ever been to a garbage dump, you know that a garbage dump produces two things: maggots and methane, and if the methane catches fire it can burn for a long time.

            So what does this mean?  Hell, as Jesus’ talks about it, is not a cauldron of burning oil into which God tosses people; it is the garbage dump of wasted lives.  It is the end product of people who devote their lives and sacrifice their families to false gods, who devote their lives and sacrifice their families to the gods of wealth or status or sex or substance abuse or anything else that might substitute for the God who created us and called us to love one another.  A life devoted to any other god will end up on the trash heap of history.  It will end up wasted.

            That’s why Jesus talks about not putting a “stumbling block” in the way of little ones.  Don’t devote yourself to false gods or false ambitions that will put a barrier in the way of your children or anyone else from coming to know God’s love.  That, according to Jesus, is a good way to waste your life.

            At the same time don’t allow things in your own life to cause you to stumble, to keep you from the life God wants for you and your family.  Power, wealth, status, sex, drugs, alcohol, even your own limbs are not worth keeping, Jesus says, if they cause you to stumble, if they keep you from the life of meaning and love that God wants for us all.

            But here is the good news: the life we live for God, the things we do to share God’s love with others, these things will not end up on the trash heap of history.  They will in fact be incorporated into God’s eternal kingdom.

            Recall our first scripture reading.  Paul talks about Jesus being the foundation of our lives.  But then he says, “Each builder must choose with care how to build on it.”  He goes on to talk about building materials.  We can build on it with gold, silver, and precious stones, or with wood, hay and straw.  This is symbolic, of course.  The gold and silver represent a life reflecting God’s grace and sharing God’s love.  The hay and straw represent a life lived for lesser things, like pride, greed, or control—the gods of Baal and Ashtoreth.  The good news is that the gold, silver, and precious stones will last.  They will not end up in Gehenna, the trash heap of history.  The things we do to show God’s love—even the smallest, the most feeble, even the imperfect things we do to show God’s love—will be built into the structure of God’s eternal kingdom, where they will be treasured and celebrated forever.

            That’s the opposite of hell.  If hell is a wasted life, then heaven is a life fulfilled, a life whose purpose and meaning is realized in unexpected ways.

            For me, that is the greatest hope of a parent or grandparent.  Because when it comes to our children and grandchildren, there are so many things beyond our control.  We can bring our children for baptism, but there are so many influences on them and things that can happen to them that we can’t shape.  We have to trust them to God every day.  But the promise is that the things we do to show God’s love to them—the things we do to help them love God and love other people—these things will not be wasted, ever.  They may not be fulfilled in our lifetime, but in God’s kingdom they will reappear as part of God’s amazing construction project, shaping lives in ways we never anticipated.

            That’s the opposite of hell.  If hell is a wasted life, then heaven is a life fulfilled, a life for which it is worth sacrificing our pride, our self-centeredness, even our bodies; a life that will be treasured and celebrated forever.

God Our Mother

Rev. Erin McArdel

Scriptures: Genesis 1:26-31, 1 Corinthians 12:12-14, 27

I’m going to say something shocking…are you ready?  God is not an old white man with a long white beard as say, this image might have us believe.  

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Of course, most of us understand that God is not literally a man, and yet the language and characterization of God most often used as we try to conceptualize God—He, Him, Father--is predominantly masculine.  For some, the predominant use of masculine images of God can be off-putting and may even cause a barrier in one’s relationship with God.  For all of us, the use of predominantly masculine language for God presents limitations in our ability to deepen our knowledge of and relationship with God.  Episcopal Bishop Moore goes so far as to say that our spiritual growth is obstructed, incomplete, and unrealized if it does not embrace femininity. He writes, “If the objects of devotion are only male, one cannot fully experience one’s own spirituality.  Everyone’s prayer life is impoverished if we can only relate to a male God.”

Today, we continue with the summer sermon series, “Questions of Faith,” with the question, “If Jesus of Nazareth refers to God as the Father, and he came to earth as a man, does this then mean that God is more akin to males or conversely  that males are more like God?   

The answer, is of course a resounding no…As we read in our Genesis passage, God created all of humankind in God’s image, both male and female.  Thus we as females and males are coequals and we both reflect the image of God.  According to the Harper Collins commentary on Genesis, made in the image of God we may all look in part like God since we collectively represent God on earth and embody some of God’s qualities and characteristics with respect to moral, spiritual, and even political qualities in so much as God calls us to live in relationship with one another and in stewardship over all other living things.

Likewise, in our New Testament passage, Paul discusses how each of us is baptized or reborn into one body, that is, the Body of Christ-the church.  He uses the image of the human body to illustrate how unity can exist in compatibility with our diversity.  Our individual and diverse attributes, including our masculinity or femininity, all come from the same spirit of God and are collectively reflective of God’s attributes.  We cannot therefore say that we have no need of any one particular attribute or function of the body, and we should have equal concern for each.  Since both males and females make up the body of Christ and since both the qualities which are traditionally (albeit stereotypically) characterized as more masculine or as more feminine are reflective of God’s qualities, we should have language in our churches and culture which reflects this inclusion.  When we refer to God exclusively in male terms, we repress God in that we miss out on or ignore attributes that may draw us closer to God, and furthermore, we oppress entire groups of people who may feel that their voices and experiences are somehow stifled or less important than the voices of their male counterparts.  This is humorously illustrated by a little girl in the popular, “Children’s Letters to God” books.  She writes, “Dear God, are boys better than girls?  I know you are one, but try to be fair…”    

In reality, God is not male or female.  As theologian Lynn Japinga wrote, our “Language about God should help us to understand and encounter God, but we should not confuse the reality of God with the limits of our language.” God is transcendent and incomprehensible, and all of the language that we use to describe God is limited and imperfect.  God is beyond our ability to name or imagine God, and the images we do use in an attempt to know God are limited, including when those images denote a particular gender.  Our images for God convey something which is both true and false, true in its ability to enrich our understanding of God but false in its limitations.  God is neither male nor female, and yet God has attributes that are like males and like females.  If we are willing to expand our use of metaphors for God to include feminine metaphors, our experience with God can be enriched, and we are all liberated to discover and affirm the divine and feminine attributes in each of us—male and female, since each of us is created in God’s image. 

The invitation to expand our use of metaphor is often met with resistance or discomfort, consider for a moment what it would feel like if, for example, we sang the doxology as “Praise Her all creatures, here below…”  We tend to be more used to depictions of God like this:

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but we wiggle in our seats a bit when God is depicted like this:

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However, the concept of female metaphors for God is not a radical feminist movement.  Though scripture does predominantly use masculine language to describe God, which is both a product of the cultural norms of the time at which it was written and is reflective of the patriarchal systems in place at the time of the canonization of the Bible, feminine language for God does have scriptural backing and was a part of early Christian history.  We will briefly explore some of those scriptural feminine images now.   

In the very opening of Genesis, there is imagery which illustrates the feminine characteristics of God. The creation story describes that God’s spirit moves over the primordial waters prior to speaking creation into being.  The Hebrew word often translated as moves or hover, “racaph” can also be translated as “brooding,” as a mother bird does over her eggs to bring forth life.  So God is described not just as speaking creation into existence but as brooding or birthing creation into being.  This birthing image is repeated throughout the Old Testament.  In the book of Job, God challenges Job to consider from whose womb was creation birthed?      In Deuteronomy, Moses refers to God as the one who bore and gave birth to the Israelites.  In Isaiah, God says, “like a woman in labor, I will moan, pant, gasp…”  The birthing metaphor is used in the New Testament too, for example when Jesus tells Nicodemus that in order to see God’s kingdom, he must be born anew and when the apostles speak of themselves as birthing and nurturing the churches they’ve founded.  The birthing metaphor is useful in describing the roles of both the Creator and the created, roles which involve suffering and risk, but which result in redemption and new life. 

            God is also compared to a nurturing and compassionate mother, one who does not forget her child, who feeds her suckling infant at her breast and who is a source of sustenance and comfort.  These metaphors are found in both Isaiah and the Psalms.  In the book of Hosea, God is likened to a loving mother who taught her child, Israel, to walk, took him up in her arms, lifted him to her cheeks, bent down to feed him, healed him with her kindness and love. 

Though nurturing and compassionate, God is also described as protective and willing to fight like a mother bear separated from her cubs and to challenge her young like an eagle who hovers over her young, yes, but also pushes them out of the nest, though she is ready to catch them when they fall.  Jesus mourns over Jerusalem, lamenting at their disobedience and sharing his heart and desire to protect and comfort them from the suffering that lies ahead, “How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.”  Jesus too, knows that we must be pushed out of the nest, though he is there to comfort us and catch us when we fall.   

There are also nonmaternal images of God found in scripture.  In the New Testament, the God is compared to a woman searching for a lost coin and a bakerwoman making yeast bread.  Perhaps even more notable is the use of the feminine word for God’s wisdom, the Hebrew word “Hokmah” and Greek word, “Sophia.”  Thus books such as Proverbs, which speak of God’s wisdom, would have been understood in their historical Jewish context as describing feminine aspects of God.  Theologian and author, Marcus Borg, argues that Christ, the incarnate God on earth embodies the Sophia wisdom of God.  This is not to detract from Jesus being a 1st century Nazarene male.  That,he was.  However, Christ, the divine part of God in the flesh, like God, embodies both facets which are traditionally thought of as more masculine and those traditionally believed to be more feminine.    

I always believed that becoming a mother would help me to better understand God’s love for me, and this couldn’t have been truer.  As a mother, my children have my whole heart.  I would do anything for them.  When they hurt, I ache.  When they feel happy, I rejoice in their delight.  I have been for them, as my mom was (and still is) for me, a source of emotional support, nurture, love, and sustenance.  They depend on me, and though I know I sometimes fail in my role as a mother, I strive not to let them down.  How much more is our Mother God, who doesn’t fail, who is our dependable provider, sustainer, source of love, nurturer, supporter, rejoicer in our delights, bearer of our pains and sorrows. 

Most of you know that I work as a palliative care and hospice chaplain at the VA Hospital in Seattle.  The importance of expanding our understanding of God to include maternal God has been evident to me in my ministry there.  As chaplains, we hope to bring something of God’s presence into the room with us when we visit a patient, to be for and with the patient an embodiment of God’s compassion and hope.  My boss has often said that we female chaplains at times seem to have an advantage over our male counterparts amongst our population of veterans which is predominantly male.  He has said of his own preferences, “When I am lying on a hospital bed, I would much prefer a female to sit with me and provide me comfort….someone that reminds me of my mother comforting me when I was sick as a child.”  Recently, I visited with a man, Mr. A who had been abandoned by his father but also had felt emotionally abandoned and abused by his mother.  As is so often the case, having been abused, he himself went on to perpetuate the cycle of abuse---and though he had turned his life around, as he lay on his deathbed, he was paralyzed by a tremendous amount of guilt and self-hatred.  He could only imagine God as angry and punitive—and he wanted nothing to do with that God.  It struck me that much of his fears and feelings were rooted in the sad reality that he had never experienced unconditional love from a parent or from anyone, and thus how could he relate to a God of unconditional love.  In that moment, I hoped more than anything as I sat with Mr. A, that I could convey something of God’s feelings toward him of unconditional love, compassion, and forgiveness.  I felt toward him as a mother feels toward her hurting child, and I pray that he might have experienced—through my presence with him the embodiment of Mother God, who has not and will not ever fail him, even though his earthly mother had.  The image of Mother God is needed in our language and consciousness of God’s character.     

There is a risk of emphasizing any one metaphor for God over another that the metaphor itself can become a form of idolatry.  Therefore it is important that we use, what Dr.Christena Cleveland of Duke University Divinity School calls a “chorus of metaphors” to describe God, so that we might start to expand the boxes in which we try to stuff God and the boundaries and margins by which we try to define God.  Each of the feminine metaphors for God I’ve mentioned serve to provide a more integrated and fuller understanding of the mystery of God and builds a theology which promotes unity and equality amongst females and males created equally in the image of God.  I would challenge us today as a church to be willing to step outside of our comfort zone and of the status quo, to resist the predominant use of masculine metaphors for God, and to expand our vocabulary and make room in our hearts for use of feminine language and conceptualization of God.    We may be surprised at the transformation that could occur as a result. Amen.

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God, Science, and Faith

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Genesis 1 (selected verses); Hebrews 11:1-3

            As I said in the church eNews this week, one of the children in our church recently said to his mother, “I’ve been thinking.  If Santa really exists, why doesn’t he show himself and prove it.”  Then he added, “I wonder the same thing about God.”

            Which just happens to be almost word for word a question asked in a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip.  It’s Christmas time, and Calvin says to his pet tiger Hobbes, “This whole Santa Claus thing just doesn’t make sense. Why all the secrecy?  Why all the mystery?  If the guy exists, why doesn’t he ever show himself and prove it? And if he doesn’t exist, what’s the meaning of all this?”  Hobbes says, “I dunno.  Isn’t this a religious holiday?”  Calvin says, “Yeah, but actually, I’ve got the same questions about God.”

            In our recent high school confirmation class I showed a movie called Contact.  Jodie Foster plays an astronomer named Dr. Ellie Arroway who uses large arrays of radio telescopes to listen for transmissions from intelligent life in distant galaxies.  She is befriended by an ex-priest name Palmer Joss, played by Matthew McConaughey, who now writes books on science and religion.  Early in the movie they attend a dinner party at which they begin a running conversation about science and God.

Ellie: What’s more likely, an all-powerful God created the universe and then decided not to give proof of his existence, or that he does not exist at all, and that we created him so we wouldn’t have to feel so small and alone.

Palmer: I don’t know.  I couldn’t imagine living in a world where God doesn’t exist.  I wouldn’t want to.

Ellie: How do you know you are not deluding yourself?  For me, I’d need proof.

Palmer: Proof.  (Pause) Did you love your Father?

Ellie: Yes, very much.

Palmer: Prove it.

            In our first scripture reading, Hebrews 11 says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Faith is not something you can prove.  It is more like the question, “Do you love your father?  Or your spouse?  Or your children?”  It is not a matter of proof, it is a matter of commitment, a commitment that changes your life precisely because you make it.

            Let me illustrate using the story of creation in Genesis 1.  For some the Bible creation story is itself a barrier to faith.  One of the questions of faith submitted this spring asks, “How does the Old Testament creation story connect to science?”

            On the back of the bulletin insert are some scientific descriptions of creation.  According to science, the world came into being over billions of years, but the Bible says it happened over seven days.  For some that is a contradiction disproving the whole Biblical idea of creation.

            But only if you don’t read Genesis carefully.  Because if you read Genesis carefully, you will see that the reference to “days” in Genesis 1 is symbolic.  It is not meant to be taken literally; it is meant to be taken symbolically.  The proof is in verses 14-19.  These verses describes the creation of the sun and moon, and it says they were created on the fourth day!  What does a day mean, if the sun and moon are not created until the fourth day?  Clearly, the word “day” in Genesis 1 has a symbolic meaning.  What does it symbolize?  I will come back to that in a minute.

            But notice how Genesis describes creation as a process.  Verse 11: “Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind that bear fruit with the seed in it.”  This is not all that different from the biology text book quoted on the back of the insert.  The middle paragraph says,

Just how atoms and smaller molecules are assembled into the intricate patterns of organic molecules is a matter of great interest to biochemists today.  Somewhere in this maze of cell chemistry must lie the key to life.

            In Genesis, God says, “Let the earth put forth vegetation….”  There is nothing in Genesis that excludes the idea of a process by which inorganic material—the earth—becomes organic material, and then a living thing that grows and reproduces.  The Bible in no way requires that we turn our back on science.

            But science does not give us the whole key to life.  Despite what the biology text book says, you won’t find the key to life in the maze of cell chemistry.  Science can try to explain how we got here, but not why.  The Bible deals with why we are here.  You may be the result of a process that took billions of years; you may even be the end product of millions of years of evolution, but that is not the whole story.  The Bible says you are here on purpose.  You are not just an accident, a random collision of molecules that after enough tries finally produced a human being.  You were put here by Someone who wanted you here, someone bigger than your family, bigger than your school, bigger than the whole world.  You are here, because the Creator of the universe wanted you here.

            Why?  That brings me to verse 26: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness….”  There have been many interpretations of what it means to be created in the image of God, but the best explanation, I think, is that we are created with the capacity for a relationship to God.  I have no problem with the idea of evolution, but somewhere in the process God made human beings capable of knowing God and loving God.  That’s what I think it means to be created in the image of God.  It means we were created with the capacity to experience God’s love for us and share that love with others.

            Now back to the question of why creation is described as happening over 6 days, culminating in the 7th day?  By describing it this way, the Bible makes clear that creation is unfolding toward a goal.  According to the Bible, nature is not an endlessly repeating cycle, which is how nature is portrayed in many other religions.  Many religions portray nature as an endlessly repeating cycle.  But the Bible sees life as an unfolding plot, a story moving toward a goal or climax.  And that goal is symbolized by the 7th day of creation, which in the Old Testament is called the Sabbath, the day of rest and worship.

           One of the confessions in our Presbyterian Book of Confessions is called the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  A catechism is a confession of faith in the form of questions and answers.  The first question asks, “What is the chief end of man?”  Or to put it another way, “What is the goal of human life?”  Answer: “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

            That is why the Bible describes creation symbolically as unfolding over seven days culminating in the Sabbath.  The Sabbath is the day of rest and worship.  It is the day for glorifying God and enjoying God’s gifts along with the whole creation.  All the hopes for life in the Bible—for peace, fulfillment, joy, hope, right relationships, and blessing for all people—all these hopes are symbolized by the seventh day of creation: the Sabbath.  That, according to Genesis, is the goal of creation: to glorify God and enjoy God forever.

            You won’t find that in any science book.  Did you notice how Genesis repeatedly says that the world is good?  You won’t find that word in a science text.  Science may try to tell us how the world came into being, but it cannot tell us that the world is good, because that is a value judgment.  It is not an empirical observation; it is a statement of value by the world’s Creator.  Unlike science, the Bible explains why we are here, where we are going, and why we matter to Someone who is greater than we are.

            In the movie Contact Ellie Arroway finally makes contact with radio signals from deep space.  Eventually these radio signals are decoded and found to contain complete drawings for making a space craft capable of traveling to a remote part of the universe and making contact with the intelligent beings who sent the radio signals.  So NASA builds the space ship and Ellie is chosen to fly it.  She makes the trip, but because the travel involves a time warp, it appears that she never left.  From the point of view of observers on earth she is gone for no length of time and has no proof that she went anywhere.  But she did go somewhere, and it was a life changing experience.

            Near the end of the movie Ellie is summoned to testify about her trip before a committee of Congress.  And here is the scene where Ellie has to explain and justify what she has experienced.  A counsel of the committee accuses her of being deluded, and the committee chair says to her, “Are we supposed to take all this on faith?”  In response Ellie says,

I had an experience.  I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything I know as a human being, everything I am tells me it is real.  I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever: a vision of the universe that tells us how undeniably tiny and insignificant and how rare and precious we all are, a vision that tells us we belong to something greater than ourselves, that none of us is alone.  I wish I could share that; I wish that everyone even for a moment could feel that awe and humility and hope.

            I cannot prove to you that we were created by God.  But I can offer you a vision of how small and insignificant and rare and precious we are, a vision that tells us we belong to Someone greater than ourselves and that we are not alone.  I wish for every one of you that awe and humility and hope.

The Difference Between Resurrection and Reincarnation

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Romans 6:1-11; Genesis 2:4-8

            Once again our question of faith for this week is anticipated by Calvin and Hobbes.  They are sledding down a hill, and Calvin turns to his pet tiger Hobbes and says, “I have a question. Do you believe in life after death?  You know, reincarnation?”  Hobbes says, “You just steer, okay?”

            Did you notice how Calvin equated life after death with reincarnation? I once visited with a man who believed that reincarnation was simply another way of talking about resurrection.  He said to me, “They are both about life after death, aren’t they?  Why aren’t they compatible?”

            Which is our question of faith for this week: Is reincarnation compatible with Christianity or the Bible?  In a word, No.  At this point we guess we could sing the final hymn and go home.  But there is a little more I need to say about this.  Genesis tells us that humans were created by God out of the dust of the earth.  There is no indication in the Bible that humans had a prior life before they were born.  The one exception to this is Jesus.  The gospel of John says that the eternal word of God became flesh in Jesus, but that is never said about anyone else.  None of us except Jesus existed before we were born.  But God does want us to live with Jesus after we die, and that is the difference between resurrection and reincarnation.

            There are two problem with reincarnation that we need to understand before we can appreciate the grace that God has shown to us in Jesus.

            Problem #1: Reincarnation overestimates human beings.

            One of the games I remember from my childhood and the childhood of my children is Chutes and Ladders.  You spin a spinner to see how many spaces you move trying to get to the top—square 100.  Sometimes if you land on the right space you get to climb a ladder that takes you on a shortcut higher up the board.  Often that square has a picture on it of a boy or girl doing something nice.  Do something good, and you get to climb the ladder.  But if you land on the wrong space, which often has a picture of doing something bad, you slide down the chute to a lower square.

            That, to me, is a picture of reincarnation, at least the traditional Hindu version of it.  The idea in reincarnation is that we keep recycling through life until we get it right.  Or to put it another way, we work our way up the ladder by being good and faithful creatures at whatever level we find ourselves.  If you are a lower class human, struggling with oppression or poverty, but are nevertheless good, kind, and faithful, you might come back the next time as a person with a higher station in life.  But if you are not good, when you die you slide down a chute.  You come back as a person lower down on the scale of being where you must face the consequences of the things you’ve done and work through those issues in your life before you can climb back up again.

            Inevitably, whenever I played Chutes and Ladders, just when I was getting near the top, I would hit one of those chutes and slide back down.  Then I would have to work my way back up.

            That, for me, is like reincarnation.  Reincarnation is a program for works righteousness, a method by which we try to earn our salvation.  You keep cycling through until you get it right.  But the Bible tells me that we are never going to get it right, not on our own.  Because sin is not just this or that misdeed we have done for which we need to atone.  It is a chronic problem from which we need to be delivered.  In Romans 6 the apostle Paul says that we are baptized into Jesus so that “we might no longer be enslaved to sin.”  Those are Paul’s words: that “we might no longer be enslaved to sin.”

            Sin is less like an action and more like an addiction.  It starts out as an action, like excessive drinking or gambling, but it becomes an addiction.  It becomes something that has us in its grip.

            And that’s why I think reincarnation overestimates human beings.  It assumes that if we have enough second chances we will finally get it right.  I don’t think so.  In fact the very effort to “get it right” plays into our pride, which is part of the problem.  If you think you can climb your way up to salvation, you are not overcoming your pride, you are reinforcing it.  And the pride of accomplishment will lead you to look down on those below you.

            The only antidote for pride is grace.  We will be finally liberated from pride and the arrogance that looks down on others only when we realize that eternal life is a gift of God’s grace.  We cannot climb our way to the top.  We must be airlifted there by Jesus.

            And that brings me to the second problem with reincarnation. Not only does it overestimate human beings, reincarnation underestimates God.  In Romans 6:9-10 the apostle Paul says, “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.  The death he died, he died to sin, once for all.”

            Jesus is not an example of reincarnation.  He is the forerunner of resurrection.  He did not have to die and be reborn over and over to get to God.  He was raised never to die again, and that is the gift we are given when joined to him in baptism.  Hence Paul says in verses 3-4:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

            Jesus’ death and resurrection was a once-for-all event that opens the door once and for all to eternal life.  We receive this gift only by God’s grace, not as an accomplishment of our works.

            This week I had a wonderful conversation with Walt Edmiston following his colon surgery.  He was physically weak, but he was in a surprisingly chatty mood.  He actually told me quite a bit about himself.  One story he told was about boot camp in the army.  He said that during boot camp he finally understood what it was like to be a slave.  All day every day someone is yelling in your face telling you what to do.  It’s like being a slave.

            Interestingly, boot camp is also a lot like reincarnation.  If you mess up you get recycled.  You have to start over.

            In boot camp Walt experienced what it was like to be slave.  But one day, it was announced that any recruits who wanted to could go to chapel on Sunday morning.  Walt was stunned.  The drill sergeants never let them do anything.  Every moment of their day was prescribed.  But here were the drill sergeants giving them a couple hours off to go to church.  Walt said he thought, “Wow, someone around here has real pull.”  Then he realized it was God.  He said that when he realized God had more power than the drill sergeant, he became a lot more interested in Christianity.

            That’s what Paul is telling us in the scripture.  Pride, selfishness, and greed are not things you are going to overcome by yourself.  We are enslaved to these things.  Thinking we can overcome them on our own will only make them worse.  Deliverance from these things requires someone with more pull, a once-for-all act of God’s grace, and accepting that gift will change our lives forever.

Beyond Death

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Philippians 1:18b-26, I Thessalonians 4:13-18

            I mentioned last week that many questions submitted to be answered in sermons this summer are already found in my collection of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips.  For example, Calvin says to his pet tiger Hobbes, “I wonder where we go when we die.”  Hobbes replies, “Pittsburgh?”  Calvin says, “You mean if we’re good or if we’re bad?”

            What happens when we die?  That is this week’s question of faith.  More specifically, a person in the congregation wrote, “Many people think the soul goes straight to God at death.  The Bible states we rest in the grave until Christ’s second coming.  Which is it?”

            The idea that we “rest” in the grave until Jesus’ second coming comes from several places in the Bible, but particularly from our first scripture reading in I Thessalonians 4. In verse 13, the apostle Paul says,

“But we do not want you to be uniformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died [in Greek “those who sleep”], so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”

The idea of “sleeping” in the grave suggests that our consciousness is in a sense on hold until Jesus returns and raises us from the dead.

            Notice, however, that Paul expects this to happen fairly soon. Verse 15:

For we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.

He says that the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then he says in verse 17,

Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever.

Paul expects Jesus’ return and the resurrection of the dead to happen at any moment, possibly during his lifetime.

            But then we come to our second scripture reading in Philippians chapter 1.  At this point Paul is in prison, probably for preaching that Jesus is Lord instead of any other gods, including the Roman Emperor.  Paul knows that such talk could get him executed, so at this point he is not so sure he will still be alive when Jesus comes again.  But he is not afraid.  Verse 19: “For I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance” [in Greek salvation].

            What does he mean?  Is Paul expecting deliverance from prison, or is he talking about his ultimate salvation even if he dies?  Probably both.  The point is that either way he wins!  Verse 21: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”  In other words, if he lives he gets to serve Jesus longer, and if he dies he gets to be with Jesus now.  Verses 23-24: “I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.”

            Paul does not say anything here about resting in the grave until Jesus returns.  He talks only about going to be with Jesus if he dies.

            So which is it?  When we die do we go immediately to heaven to be with Jesus?  Or do we rest in the grave until Jesus comes again?  According to the Bible, both are true.

            How does that work?  The classic explanation is that when we die our souls go immediately to be with Jesus, while our bodies are cremated or decay in their graves.  Then when Jesus returns we are raised from the dead with a glorified body that is united with our soul and we live with Jesus forever, body and soul together.

            I don’t know if that is the best explanation or if it is better to think that in heaven time does not mean the same thing it means here.  For us there is a time gap between a person’s death and the resurrection of the dead when Jesus comes again.  But maybe for those in heaven there is no time gap.

            But either way we win!  That’s Paul’s point.  If we go to be with Jesus immediately after we die, or if we “sleep” in the grave until Jesus wakes us up and takes us to be with him forever, it does not matter.  Either way, death loses and life win!

            As an aside, let me say here that as Presbyterians we have no problem with cremation.  If God can raise from the dead a body that decays for decades or centuries in a grave, or a body buried at sea that has long ago been eaten by the fish, then God can certainly raise us from the dead if our ashes have been scattered on a hillside.  Cremation is not barrier to resurrection.

            But here is why the resurrection is important.  If all of us who believe in Jesus go to be with God when we die, then we win, but God doesn’t.  Because the world is left behind still in the same mess it has always been.

            The Christian faith is about more than our personal immortality; it is about God’s redemption of creation.  It is not just about God collecting a bunch of disembodied souls to inhabit heaven.  God wants to save a messed up world.  That’s why we believe in the resurrection of the body.  God is not out to get rid of bodily life but to transform it.  God intends to create a new heaven and earth where death and suffering will be no more, where there will be no more hunger, violence, disease, poverty, injustice, or hate, where people of all nations, races, and languages will be stand around the throne of God shouting “Hallelujah!”  That is how the book of Revelation describes heaven.  The immortality of our personal souls is not the whole story.  God wants to redeem the whole creation, making it the good thing it was intended to be all along.

            Beginning in 1993 Jonathan Kozol spend a year interviewing children and families in the South Bronx of New York.  He wrote a book about these interviews called Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation.  At the time, South Bronx was one of the poorest districts in the country.  In 1991 the median household income was $7,600.

            One of the children he interviewed for his book was a 12 year-old boy named Anthony.  Anthony was an acolyte at St. Ann’s church in the heart of the South Bronx.  One day they were talking about heaven and the kingdom of God, things Anthony had been learning in church.  Pointing to his street Anthony said, “This out here is not God’s kingdom.  A kingdom is a place of glory.  This is a place of pain” (p. 84).  Then Jonathan Kozol asked Anthony what he thought heaven would be like.  So Anthony went home and wrote an essay about it.  He called his essay: “God’s Kingdom.”  He wrote,

God’s Kingdom.  God will be there.  He’ll be happy that we have arrived.  People shall come hand-in-hand.  It will be bright, not dim and glooming like on earth.  All friendly animals will be there, but no mean ones. … No one will look at you from the outside.  People will see you from the inside.

Anthony was African American.  I wonder if he meant that people will no longer look at him suspiciously because of his race, but will respect him because of his heart.  He continues,

All the people from the street will be there.  My uncle will be there and he will be healed.  You won’t see him buying drugs, because there won’t be money.  Mr. Mongo will be there too.  You might see him happy for a change. … No violence will there be in heaven.  There will be no guns or drugs or IRS.  You won’t have to pay taxes.  You’ll recognize all the children who have died when they were little.  Jesus will be good to them and play with them.  At night he’ll come and visit at your house (pp. 237-238).

            I was struck by how realistic Anthony’s picture of heaven was, and how bipartisan.  No taxes: that will make the Republicans happy.  No guns: that will make the Democrats happy.  No drugs: that will make everyone happy, except maybe the pharmaceuticals.  It is a very bodily picture of heaven, very down to earth, but it’s a transformed earth.

            That’s why as Christians we believe not just in the immortality of the soul but in the resurrection of the body.  The resurrection means that God will not give up on bodily life.  And every time we feed the hungry, every time we heal the sick, every time we visit the lonely, every time we work to reconcile broken relationships, every time we invite others into a life with Jesus as part of a family of faith, we demonstrate how this new life will look and get a taste of it, even while wait for its coming.

 

What Do Passover, Communion, and Independence Day Have in Common?

By Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Exodus 12:21-28; Luke 22:14-20

            The question in the sermon title this morning is not one of the questions of faith asked by someone in the congregation.  We will get to more questions of faith next week.  The question this morning is a riddle I would like ask you:  What do Passover, Communion, and Independence Day have in common?

The answer is not one thing but three things, so this is going to be a three point sermon, a rare chance to take notes if you want to.  What do Passover, Communion, and Independence Day have in common?  First, Commemorating the Past.

            During her last two years of life my mother lived in an assisted living facility near our home in Spokane.  At that point her memory was beginning to fail.  Sometimes when I came to see her she would say, “Oh, I am so glad to see you; it has been so long,” and I would say, “You mean since yesterday?”  And she would say, “Oh, did you come yesterday?”  And I would nod, and that’s kind of how it went.

            But one time when I went to see her, out of the blue she said to me, “I love that song ‘In the Garden.’”  “In the Garden” is a song about Mary Magdalene meeting Jesus in the garden outside his tomb on Easter morning.  Then my mother, without hesitation, began singing the whole song, all the verses including the chorus:

            And he walks with me and he talks with me,

            And he tells me I am his own;

            And the joy we share as we tarry there,

            None other has ever known.

            I said to her, “Mom, sometimes you don’t even remember when I have been here.  How do you remember all words of that song?”  She said, “Sometimes when I sit here feeling sad and lonely, I remember this song, and I know I’m not alone.”

            That’s what I mean by commemorating the past.  When her memory was failing, my mother was sustained by her faith because she had spent her life commemorating it; not just remembering it, not just reading about it, but commemorating it—singing about it, celebrating it in worship, embodying it in rituals that were repeated over and over.

            In our first scripture reading Moses instructs the people of Israel on what to do during the Passover.  God was determined to set the Israelites free from slavery, so God sent a plague on the Egyptians to force Pharaoh to let them go.  Moses told the Israelites to sacrifice a lamb and put its blood on the door frame of their houses so that the plague would “pass over” their houses and not affect them when it came upon the Egyptians.

            Admittedly, this seems kind of weird.  Why does God need lamb’s blood to know which houses belong to the Israelites?  I will come back to that in a moment.  But here is what I want you to notice at this point.  Moses does not intend this to be a one-time act.  He wants it to be a repeated celebration, an observance passed on from generation to generation.  Moses tells the people of Israel,

When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance.  And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’  you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’”

            More than telling the story of the Passover, the Israelites are told to commemorate it.  They are to re-enact it and celebrate it in worship, so that it becomes embedded in their souls.

            Independence Day has different rituals—fireworks, parades, and dressing in red, white, and blue, but the idea is the same: to commemorate the gift of freedom we have been given.

            Jesus does the same thing at the Last Supper.  To help them understand his approaching death, he takes a piece of bread and says, “This is my body given for you.”  Then he says, “Do this in remembrance of me.”  He establishes a ritual—an act of worship—that can repeated over and over, so that the meaning of his death would be embedded in our souls.

            I have seen this work.  I have taken communion to people in nursing homes, people who could not remember who I was or even who some of their family members were but who recognized that little tray of bread cubes and those little cups of grape juice, and who could say the Lord’s Prayer with me word for word.  The memory of communion and worship was embedded in their souls where dementia could not get at it.

            And that brings me to the second thing all three have in common: First is Commemorating the Past.  Second is Anticipating the Future.  When the delegates to the Continental Congress signed their names to the Declaration of Independence, they were still a long way from independence.  At that point the Continental Army had about 17,000 troops.  On the other side, the British had more than 40,000 troops.  By the end of the year the British were in control of the very building where the Declaration had been signed.  But the Declaration of Independence anticipated a future that did not yet exist, just as the Passover anticipated the future freedom of the Israelites that did not yet exist.

            In the same way Jesus’ last supper also anticipated the future.  During the supper he says to his disciples, “I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”  Jesus’ last supper anticipates the future kingdom he came to bring, a kingdom of freedom, justice, and peace for all people.

            But there is one more thing in common between Passover, Communion, and Independence Day.  First, Commemorating the Past.  Second, Anticipating the Future.  And third, and this is perhaps most important point, Making Sacrifices in the Present.

            Why did God need the blood of a lamb to identify the houses of the Israelites?  Does God need GPS to know where we live?  I don’t think so.  I think God used the lamb to make a crucial point: that freedom always comes with a sacrifice.  Jesus made the same point at the last supper.  Freedom from sin, freedom from evil, requires a sacrifice, and when we are talking about evil on a global scale, God had to be the one making the sacrifice.  That’s why we believe God was in Jesus reconciling the world to himself.  The defeat of sin and evil on a global scale requires a sacrifice only God can make.

            But it does not end there.  Because remembering Jesus’ sacrifice, setting us free from sin and death, forces us to ask, “What sacrifices are we called to make so that others may experience the blessings of freedom and new life that God wants us to have?”

            There is a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip where Calvin says to his pet tiger Hobbes, “A lot of people don’t have principles, but I do!  I’m a highly principled person! I live according to one principle, and never deviate from it.” Hobbes says, “What’s your principle?”  Calvin says, “Look out for number one” (Complete Calvin and Hobbes, vol. II: 372).

            I don’t think that was the goal for which God set us free.  We were not given freedom by God so we can be self-indulgent, so we can think only of our own interests. [Slide 6: Blank]

            Which brings me back to the question: What sacrifice are we called to make so that others may experience the blessings of freedom and new life that God wants for us all?  I have come to know a lot of people in the church who have made sacrifices for their family, even if at times they have had to confront them.  I also know people in this church who have made sacrifices for our community and our country, in order that the blessings of freedom and new life in Christ might be experienced by others, including the next generation.

            But right now I am also wondering what sacrifices we need to make so that people of other countries may experience the freedom and blessing God wants us to have.  As I think we all recognize, that is not happening when children are forcibly separated from their parents in a strange land and taken someplace far away from them.  So how do we deal with this?  Here I think we need to ask ourselves a deeper question: How do we help people on both sides of our border have a better life?  Because as Christians we have to be concerned about people on both sides of the border.  We have no choice, because the Kingdom of God has no borders, and when the Bible says “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” it means just that.

            We have some great Presbyterian mission workers, as well as other Christian organizations, working in Central America and other places to make life more of a blessing for people in their own countries.  But they will need a lot more support than we have given them so far.  A lot more.  And we may also need to think about the policies we pursue in those countries and the effect they have on the people most desperate to leave those countries.

            But as Christians, looking out only for ourselves is not an option.  To do so would desecrate the freedom we have been given and demean the sacrifices that made it possible.

 

Why We Sing in Church

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Psalm 34:1-8, Psalm 142:1-7

            In 2016 the Chicago Cubs went to the World Series for the first time in 71 years.  Mariner fans have been waiting 41 years to get to a World Series, so we are starting to feel their pain.  But the Cubs fans waited 71 years to get to a World Series and finally made in 2016.  I did not see much of that series, but I did see game five.  The Cubs had their backs to the wall.  They were down to the Cleveland Indians three games to one.  Game five was played at Wrigley Field in Chicago, the last game of the series that the Cubs would play at home.  In dramatic fashion they pulled out a 3-2 victory, and the fans went crazy.  It was like the Kingdome in 1995 when Edgar Martinez hit that double to score Ken Griffey, Jr.  Forty two thousand fans at Wrigley Field jumping and screaming and waving banners with tears running down their faces.  And then I heard a sound that I had never heard before at the end of a major league baseball game.  Listen.  [Video]

            The crowd was singing.  Not “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” for the seventh inning stretch, not “Sweet Caroline” like they do in the eighth inning at Fenway Park.  They were singing at the end of the game to celebrate their victory:

            Go, Cubs, go!  Go, Cubs, go!

            Hey, Chicago, what do you say?

            Cubs are going to win today.”

            What I found particular interesting is that the series wasn’t over.  This was only game 5.  The Cubs still had to win two more games to win the World Series, which would be a daunting challenge since the last two games were in Cleveland.  Yet they sang.  Cubs fans are a parable of faith.  They waited 71 years for a chance to win the World Series, and when it came they sang.

            Which is why we sing in church.  As Christians we have been waiting over 2000 years, waiting for God’s final victory, waiting for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.  But when Jesus rose from the dead, it was like winning game 5.  Now we have a chance to win.  In fact we are assured of winning.  It is only a matter of time.  And so we sing.

            Go, God, go!  Go, God go!

            Hey, Southminster, what do you say?

            God is going to win some day.

            It is no accident that the longest book in the Bible is a songbook.  God’s people have always had reason to sing, because they have always had hope.

            A good example is Psalm 34. It did not show on the screen when Rob read it, but Psalm 34 has a title.  It is called “A Psalm of David when he feigned madness before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.”  This refers to an obscure story in I Samuel 21.  David is running for his life from King Saul, the king of Israel, who sees him as a threat and wants to kill him.  The only safe place for David to flee where King Saul can’t get to him is to go to the Philistines, the enemies of the Israelites.  But when the Philistines find out who David is, a former commander in the Israelite army, they want to arrest him and execute him.  But David pretends to be severely mentally ill—drooling, disheveled, incoherent.  So instead of arresting him, the Philistine king sends him away, and David escapes.

            Psalm 34 was written in honor of that bizarre rescue.  “I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. … This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble.”  Psalm 34 is what we call a psalm of thanksgiving, a song of gratitude and relief, like the Cubs surviving game 5 of the World Series, only bigger and a lot more important.

            But not every Psalm in the Bible is a song of victory.  Which brings me to Psalm 142.  Psalm 142 also has a title: “A Maskil [which probably refers to a certain style of song like jazz or blues] of David, when he was in the cave.”  This refers to something that happened right after David escaped from the Philistines.  Remember, David had fled to the Philistines because Saul, the Israelite king, was trying to kill him.  But when David got away from the Philistines by feigning madness, he ended up back in Israel and had to hide from King Saul in a cave.  Now listen to Psalm 142:

Verses 1-2: “With my voice I cry to the Lord; with my voice I make supplication to the Lord.  I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him.”

Verses 6-7: “Give heed to my cry, for I am brought very low.  Save me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me.  Bring me out of prison, so that I may give thanks to your name.”

            We don’t sing only when we are happy or relieved or grateful for God’s work in our lives.  We also sing when we are fearful or confused or devastated by some setback or loss.

            I don’t imagine the Cubs fans sang after game 4 of the World Series, when they lost and found themselves down 3 games to 1.  At that point they were facing elimination with slim chance to win all three of the remaining games.  I did not see game 4, but I doubt the Cubs fans were singing at the end.

            But we Christians do.  We sing even when we lose.  We sing even when we are face setbacks or suffering or injustice or even death.  We sing because we know that God is not finished yet.  We sing because God raised Jesus from the dead and showed us what God can do in the face of injustice, suffering, and tragedy.  We sing because we believe, in the words of that great civil rights song, “We shall overcome some day.”

            So I invite you to sing this morning, no matter what you are experiencing, whether you are experiencing joy or sorrow, whether you feel hopeful or depressed, whether you are confident or worried.  I invite you to sing because the game isn’t over, and God is not finished with us yet.

            I know that some of you, at times, don’t feel able to sing.  Maybe a song is unfamiliar, and you don’t know how to sing it, at least not until the third or fourth verse.  Or maybe you think you are not very good singer, that you can’t carry a tune.  My father-in-law did not consider himself a very good singer.  He had a deep voice but it was not terribly melodic.  I liked to say he sang percussion.  But he always joined in.  Sometimes his voice quietly rumbled under the parts, but he was always saying the words of the song, even if he was not singing them out, and he let the singing around him carry those words up as an offering of praise to God, and sometimes I think the singing carried him too.

            I invite you to do the same.  If you can’t sing, then mouth the words.  Say them softly with us as we sing them, and let the harmony of everyone around you carry your words up as an offering of praise to God, an offering that may end up carrying you too.

            Go, God, go!  Go, God, go!

            Hey, Southminster, what do you say?

            God is going to win some day.

 

The Real Body of Christ

Ken Onstot

Scripture: I Corinthians 11:17-22, 23-34

            I once talked to a church member who told me she never takes communion if she is mad at someone.  If she has gotten mad at someone and hasn’t forgiven them, she feels unworthy to take communion.

            That might limit the number of us taking communion this morning.  Especially given the scripture we just heard.  In verse 27 the apostle Paul says, “Whoever, therefore, eat the bread or drinks of the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.”  Then he says, “Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  For all who eat and drink without discerning the body eat and drink judgment against themselves.”  Then to top it off he says, “For this reason many of you are weak and ill and some have died.”

            Wow.  I am ready to say the benediction and go home.  Taking communion is dangerous, especially if you have not considered what you are doing, if you have not examined yourself to see if you are taking communion in a worthy manner.

            So what does the Bible mean here?  First of all, Paul does not say we must be worthy to take communion; he says we must take communion in a worthy manner.  There is a difference.  None of us here is worthy to take communion.  That is the point of communion.  Communion remembers how Jesus gave his life for us on a cross, how Jesus’ body was broken for us, how his blood was shed for us.  Jesus did not need to do that if we were already “worthy” of receiving him.

            One of the scandalous things about Jesus was his habit of eating with tax collectors and sinners.  He seemed to welcome almost anyone to his table, from Pharisees to prostitutes.  Think about the people who were with Jesus that night at his last supper.  One of them was about to betray him, one was about to deny him, and the rest would end up deserting him.  That’s the group of people with whom Jesus shared the first communion.

            You don’t have to be worthy of receiving communion this morning.  If you were worthy of communion, you wouldn’t need it.  Jesus gave his life to forgive you, even if you are mad at someone this morning, even if you can think of all kinds of things you have said and done that you regret, even if you have committed your life to Jesus and keep messing up, which is what I see myself doing, you are still welcome at this table because you need it.  We all need it.

            The Bible does not say we must be worthy to take communion; it says we must take it in a worthy manner.  So what does that mean?

            The key is in the phrase: “discerning the body.”  Paul says, “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”  What does he mean by “discerning the body”?

            The context gives us the answer.  In the prior chapter, I Corinthians 10, Paul is again talking communion and says, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”  He is talking about the church, the body of people gathered to partake of this meal.  Then in the next chapter, chapter 12, Paul uses the word “body” 19 times.  In every case he is talking about the church, the gathered community of believers.  For example in verses 12-13 he says,

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

            Discerning the body means recognizing that communion is unavoidably communal.  You can’t receive the body of Christ broken for you without a new sense of care for the body of Christ around you, the people God has called into fellowship around this table.  And that, in turn, leads us to concern about the world for whom Jesus gave his life.  Receiving Jesus’ body given for us in communion makes us part of Christ’s body given for the world.

            That was the problem for the Corinthian Christians.  In our first scripture reading Paul says to them, “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper.  For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.”

            Apparently when the Christians in Corinth had communion, they combined it with a full dinner, a kind of first century potluck.  Only it wasn’t really a potluck.  The richer Christians brought their own food and drink and consumed it before the poor Christians arrived so they did not have to share it.  This explains what Paul says later in verses 33-34:

So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.  If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation.

            Paul was furious because the Corinthians treated communion as their own private meal, and in the process they forgot about the community, especially the needs of the poor.

            Failure to care about the people around us can be destructive.  That’s why Paul talks about people getting sick and dying.  When we are not paying attention to each other, when we are not caring for each other, especially the poor, then people get sick and suffer and die.

            Receiving Jesus’ body given for us necessarily implies becoming part of Christ’s body given for the world.

            I have mentioned before a book by Sara Miles called Take This Bread.  Sara grew up with parents who were avowed atheists, and she inherited from them their distaste of religion.  But one day during a walk on Sunday morning, she decided on impulse to go into a church near her home—St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church.  She got there just as the service was starting, and to her surprise she was hooked.  Sitting in that church service taking communion, she found something she did not even know she was missing: a sense of being claimed and loved by Someone greater than herself and participating in a mission—a purpose in life—that was bigger than her own self-fulfillment.

            She kept going back to the church week after week.  But over time she discovered that she had issues dealing with some of the other people in the church.  She writes,

Probably because I felt so defensive about my lack of formal education, money, and official Christian formation, I tended to get irritated with the members of St. Gregory’s community. I thought they were clubby and precious; I sneered at their early music concerts.  As I ducked out the door at coffee hour, fleeing from one more generous attempt at conversation, I would feel by turns superior, condescending, horribly inadequate.

Yet my own snobbery couldn’t protect me from being drawn, more deeply, into the place.  I had to admit that these people, all their specific flaws intact, had opened the door to grace—not because they had good taste, not because they were rich, not because they were exceptionally intelligent or even likeable, …[but] because they—no matter how imperfectly—were committed to letting in clueless and unprepared strangers like me: because they believed in the absolute value of welcoming people who didn’t belong (p. 81).

            That’s what it means to discern the body when you are taking communion.  It is kind of like marriage.  When you marry someone, you also get their family.  You may not have chosen them as the kind of family you want to hang out with.  But they come with the package.  So it is with communion.  Receiving Jesus’ body given for us make us part of Christ’s body given for the world.  And that, believe it or not, is part of the blessing.

One God or Three?

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Luke 10:21-24; Matthew 28:16-20

            I have mentioned before a book by Robert Coles called The Spiritual Life of Children. Coles, a Harvard researcher, interviewed children from all over the world about their concepts of God.  In some cases he asked them to draw pictures of God.  He writes,

Often children give God their own hair color; indeed, a blond Lord, a blond Jesus, give way to darker divinities as one moves from Sweden to Hungry and Italy, thence across the Mediterranean ….  The same thing happens with the eyes—a preponderance of blue eyes in the drawings of Swedish children yields southward to brown and dark eyes.  In North and South America a similar pattern holds (p. 44).

            One day Coles was sitting with a group of children looking at drawings of God, and a girl named Betsy held up the drawing of a 10 year-old boy named Hal.  She pointed out that Hal gave God the color of his own eyes and hair.  Hal defended himself.  He said, “No one has ever seen God, not before you die.  So how can you know?”  Then he pointed at the stack of drawings and said, “There’s no correct answer—they’re all right.  You see God, and I see Him, and He’s how He looks to you and how He looks to me.  He’s both” (pp. 44-45).

            I was struck by Hal’s argument.  Since no one has seen God, we can picture God any way we want.  Is that true?  Do any of you see a danger in that?

            Larry did.  Larry was another one of the children in the group looking at pictures of God.  Only Larry noticed that none of the pictures looked like him.  Larry was 11 years old with dark hair and wide brown eyes.  His family came from Puerto Rico.  He said to Robert Coles, “The priests here treat us [Hispanics] like we’re not as good as they are, their people.  To them, Jesus must be Irish! They’d tell you—they’d draw Him as if he has the same color hair they have, the same eyes” (p. 45).

            You see what happens?  When people picture God anyway they want, they often end up picturing God like themselves.  Then they use that picture of God to put down people who are different.

            That, friends, is why we believe in the Trinity.  The Trinity, as I will try to explain, is what keeps us from picturing God anyway we want.  It keeps us from turning God into a self-made idol.

            The word “Trinity” never occurs in the Bible, but there are many places in the Bible where the Trinity shows up.  One is the scripture I just read from Luke 10.  In verse 21 Jesus rejoices in the Holy Spirit that the hidden God has been revealed, not to the wise and intelligent but to infants, meaning to his disciples.  Then in verse 22 he says, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”  It is God the Son—Jesus—who reveals to us God the Creator, a God who is, in a sense, hidden from us.

            Last year at a church dinner I shared a chart that I like to use to explain the Trinity. [Slide 1]  On this chart I picture God as a cloud.  In a sense God the Creator is hidden from us.  We can learn certain things about God from looking at the creation.  When we look at the universe we realize how big and powerful God is, and sometimes how artistic.  A few nights ago I took this picture of the sunset at the Des Moines Beach Park. [Slide 2] I remember thinking, “Okay, God, now you are just showing off.”  Sunsets don’t serve any evolutionary function in nature.  I think they are just God showing off.

            But nature can be deceptive.  The same nature that produces beautiful sunsets also gives us terrifying volcanoes and devastating earthquakes and frightening hurricanes, not to mention drought, cancer, and Ebola epidemics.  Nature is ambiguous.  From looking at nature you might just as easily assume that God is a capricious tyrant, like the gods of Greek mythology.  From looking at nature, we cannot really tell what God is like.  So that is why I picture God like a cloud. [Slide 3, Click 1]  God the Creator is hidden from us, no matter how wise or learned we are.

            But that’s why we believe in Jesus.  The Son shows us what the Father is like. [Click 2]  We know that God forgives us, because Jesus forgave us.  We know that God loves us, because Jesus gave his life for us.  We know that God has a future for us, because Jesus rose from the dead and promises to raise us up to be with him.  Jesus shows us God’s heart.

            At the same time, Jesus prevents us from making God look anyway we want.  For example, if God is revealed in Jesus, then God cannot be anti-Jewish, because Jesus was Jewish.  I know there are Christian groups in history that have committed terrible atrocities against Jews, but they did so by forgetting or ignoring who Jesus actually was.  Jesus was Jewish.  He didn’t look Norwegian, he looked Middle Eastern.  He probably would have been pulled out of the line at an airport.  If God is revealed in Jesus, it means we cannot assume that God looks like us and cares only about our kind of people.

            But if God is revealed in Jesus, there are also other things we learn about God.  If God is revealed in Jesus, then God cannot be the kind of God who turns away from the poor, the hungry, or the sick.  Because Jesus fed the hungry, healed the sick, and brought good news to the poor.  If God is revealed in Jesus, then God is not a vengeful God but a forgiving God.  If God is revealed in Jesus, then God is determined not to wipe out the people of the world but to redeem them, even if it means dying for them, and that includes us.  If God is revealed in Jesus, then the key to our future lies not in money, power, or reputation, but in our willingness to accept and live in God’s grace.  Jesus shows us what God is like, and that changes how we see God and how we see ourselves.

            But where does the Holy Spirit fit in?  If Jesus shows us what God is like, then the Holy Spirit is the power and presence of God showing us what Jesus is like. [Click 3]  Jesus lived 2000 years ago.  He died, rose from the dead, and then ascended into heaven.  None of us living today have seen Jesus.  But we have learned about Jesus from the Holy Spirit working [Click 4] in the church.

            It began when the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles at Pentecost.  It continued as they started churches and wrote down the words and actions of Jesus in the Bible.  It continues today in the people who have translated the Bible so we can read it in our own language and in faithful pastors and teachers who have taught the Bible.

            I know there have been plenty of unfaithful pastors throughout history and even today.  There are plenty of unfaithful pastors and even unfaithful churches.  But you can recognize them by comparing their actions and teachings to the actual words and actions of Jesus.  To expose a false teacher, read the Bible, not just the few verses that the false teacher may quote, but the whole thing; at least the whole New Testament.  The Holy Spirit is the power of God that helps us know Jesus, and it works through the people who gave us the Bible and faithfully taught it generations after generation to people who worshiped and served Jesus together in churches.

            One more note about the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit also tells that God is not male.  The language of God the Father and God the Son can be misunderstood to mean that God is male and that males are more like God than females.  We are in an awkward position here, because Jesus was male.  To be a real human being he had to be one gender or the other.  But that does not mean God is more male than female, any more than God is more Middle Eastern than European.  So the Holy Spirit is a corrective in that regard.  The Holy Spirit is not male or female but works through both males and females to show us what God is like.  Thus at Pentecost we are specifically told that the Holy Spirit came upon both men and women in that upper room.

            The same is true of nationality.  Jesus does not mean that God is more Middle Eastern than African, Asian, or European.  At Pentecost the Holy Spirit spoke through multiple languages to tell us about Jesus.  Jesus shows us what God is like, and the Holy Spirit works through both men and women of all nations to show us what Jesus is like. [Slide 4: Blank]

            In our first scripture reading Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name (singular!) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  One name, three persons.

            As Christians we do not worship three gods, we worship one God, revealed to us in the Creator who gave us the world, the Savior who died for us on a cross, and the Spirit who works in our lives today.  That is the blessing we are given in baptism, a blessing that prevents or at least restrains us from making God into our own image.

Foundations and Floods

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 7:24-27; Matthew 16:13-18

            There is a story about William Gladstone, a former British Prime Minister, talking with a young man about his career plans.  I have not been able to verify this story from any historical source, so it could be legend, but it was shared in a graduation speech by the President of Princeton Seminary, so I’m going to go with it.  Gladstone asked the young man about his plans, and the young man replied, ‘First, I plan to complete my studies at Oxford.”

            “Splendid,” replied the Prime Minister, “and what then?”

            “Well, sir, I then plan to study law and become a prominent barrister.”

            “Excellent,” responded Gladstone, “and what then?”

            “Then I plan to stand for election and become a member of Parliament.”

            “Wonderful,” said Gladsone, “and what then?”

            “Then, sir, I plan to rise to prominence in the party and be appointed to a cabinet post.”

            “A worthy ambition,” replied the senior statesman, “and what then?”

            “O, Mr. Gladstone,” the boy blurted out self-consciously, “I plan one day to become Prime Minister and serve my Queen with the same distinction as you.”

            “A noble desire, young man, and what then?”

            “Well, sir, I expect that in time I will be forced to retire from public life.”

            “You will indeed,” replied the Prime Minister, “and what then?”

            Puzzled by the question, the young man said hesitantly, “I expect then that one day I will die.”

            “Yes, you will, and what then?”

            “I don’t know, sir, I have not thought any further than that.”

            “Young man,” said Gladstone, “you are a fool.  Go home and think your life through from its end” [Thomas Gillespie, “And What Then?” Princeton Seminary Bulletin (Nov. 2000): 279].

            I thought about this story when I recalled a visit I had with an elderly woman in Spokane named Alvida.  Alvida had been a widely respected member of the farming community in Reardan, just west of Spokane.  She had moved into town after retirement and became an elder in our church and served on the boards of several community organizations including a group home for children with special needs.  That day when I visited her she was in a nursing home under Hospice Care.  Almost all of her family had gathered in her room, and she asked me to say a prayer.  Before I prayed, I said, “Alvida, a lot of your family is gathered here.  What would you most like to tell them.”  “That I love them,” she said.  Then she paused, thinking about my question, and said, “And I want them to live their lives so as always to be prepared for the day of their death.”

            There was a silent shock in the room as this sank in.  “I want them to live so as always to be prepared for the day of their death.”  None of us, including me, had expected this bit of parting advice.  But we all joined hands and I prayed that we would do as Alvida said, as Alvida did, that we would live our lives always prepared for the day of our death.

            In a way, that is what Jesus’ parable urges us to do—to think through our lives from the perspective of their end.  Because one day the end comes to all of us.  The storm comes to everyone.  That is an important point in this parable.  Being wise does not exempt you from the storm, and neither does being a follower of Jesus.  Sooner or later the flood waters crash in on everyone—the wise and the foolish, the good and the bad, the successful and the unsuccessful.  All of us must one day face the day of our death, and most of us will suffer lesser deaths along the way—the loss of a job, the loss of a spouse, the loss of our health, disappointed dreams, disappointing relationships.  In one form or other the storm beats against every door, and the question is whether the life you have built will stand or get washed away.

            But notice this in the parable.  The difference between the wise man and the foolish man is not their skill in building.  This is not a parable about works.  This is not a story of how success comes to those who are smartest or work the hardest.  The difference between the wise man and foolish man is not their skill in building nor the size of the house they build.  The difference is the ground on which they build, the foundation on which they base their lives.  Both of them could be first rate contractors, but if they are not building on the right ground, it doesn’t matter.

            And that brings me to our first scripture reading.  One day Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter replies, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Jesus says to him, “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 to him, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades”—meaning the gates of death itself—“shall not prevail against it.”

            So what does it mean to build our house, our lives, on the rock?  In Matthew’s gospel it is clear.  It means to build on Jesus.  It means to anchor your life in the good news of Jesus’ forgiveness and in the hope and power of Jesus’ resurrection.  That is the rock to which we can cling, when everything else gets washed away.

            Which brings me to confirmation.  Emma, I wish I could say that committing your life to Jesus means that everything will go well in your life.  I wish I could promise that confirming your faith would guarantee you a full and healthy life with loving and committed relationships and fulfilling, productive work.  But that is not what we are promised.  The truth is that one day your health will fail.  We hope it is not for a long time, but one day your health with fail. But when that day comes, you will stand, because your life is built on the Rock—on the good news of Jesus’ forgiveness and the hope and power of his resurrection.

            And along the way their will be lesser deaths in your life: plans that don’t work out, dreams that are disappointed, relationships that in one way or another let you down.  But when that happens you will stand, because your life is built on the Rock—the good news of Jesus’ forgiveness and the power and hope of his resurrection.

            Harold Kushner, a Jewish rabbi, tells a story of sitting on a beach watching two children build an elaborate sand castle near the edge of the water.  It had walls, gates, towers, passageways, and a moat running around it filled with water.  It was a beautiful piece of work.  But just as they were putting on the finishing touches a big wave crashed onto the beach, washed over the castle, then slid back into the ocean leaving behind nothing but a pile of wet sand.  The rabbi said he expected the children to burst into tears, but they didn't.  Instead, laughing and holding hands, they ran up the shore away from the water, sat down, and started building another sandcastle.  He concluded with this observation:

I realized that they had taught me an important lesson. All the things in our lives, all the complicated structures we spend so much time and energy creating, are built on sand.  Only our relationships to others endure.  Sooner or later, the wave will come along and knock down what we have worked so hard to build.  When that happens, only the person who has somebody's hand to hold will be able to laugh (Harold Kushner, When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough, p. 166).

            That, I believe, is what God has given us in Jesus.  Even relationships can get washed away in a storm.  But Jesus is the rock to which we can cling in any flood.  His is the hand we can hold when everything else in our lives is washed away.  That’s what you are receiving this morning, Emma.  That’s what we are all invited to receive.  Jesus’ love is a rock on which we can stand in any storm, and not even death will separate us from him.

 

Being Judgmental

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 7:1-5, John 8:2-11

            My older son was about four years old when he first noticed someone smoking.  He pointed to a man on the street and said, “What’s that in his mouth?”  “That is a cigarette,” I said in a hushed voice.  “That man is smoking, but he shouldn’t.  It can make him sick.”  The next time my son saw someone smoking he grabbed my arm and said, “Dad, look, that man is smoking, and he shouldn’t.”  I told him to keep his voice down, but I was pleased he had learned this lesson.

            One day, however, we were at a potluck at the Lutheran Church in Potlatch, Idaho, where I was the pastor along with being the pastor of the Presbyterian Church.  We were sitting across from a large man in bib overalls who had a pack of cigarettes in his pocket.  Suddenly my son pointed at them and said to the man, “What are those?”  The man said, “These?  Well, uh, they’re cigarettes.”  Before I could stop him, my son said to me in a voice that echoed across the room, “Dad, that man smokes, and he shouldn’t.”  It didn’t help that he was talking about the president of the congregation.

            To me this illustrates the problem that every parent has, that every Christian has: how do you hold meaningful beliefs or values without in some sense judging other people?  How do you tell your children that smoking is bad without appearing to judge someone who smokes?

            In our scripture for today Jesus says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”  But it is quite clear that Jesus does a lot of judging.  A few verses later in Matthew 7:15 Jesus says, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will know them by their fruits.”

            Jesus does not seem afraid to judge other people, to draw clear distinctions between right and wrong, true and false.  So what does he mean when he tells us, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged”?

            Two things.  This will be a two point sermon, and here is point number one.  When Jesus talks about not judging others, he means that our focus should not be on persons but on actions.

            Recall what Jesus said about false prophets.  He said, “You will know them by their fruits.”  We are to judge the validity of a prophet, or a minister for that matter, not by how they dress or how they appear, but by what they do.  We judge their actions, not their personhood.

            This spring our church sponsored a class called Active Parenting, led by a family counselor at the Samaritan Center.  We were told that when confronting problem behavior in a child, we should focus on these four steps (from the book Active Parenting by Michael Popkin):

1)      Name the behavior or situation you want changed

2)      Say how you feel about the situation

3)      State your reason

4)      Say what you want done

What is not helpful is to say,

-          “Why are you so stubborn?”

-          “How come you never listen?”

-          “Why can’t you be more like your brother or sister?”

Parenting works best when we focus on the actions of a child that are causing a problem rather than on the character or personhood of the child.

            Earlier this spring in our reading of Matthew’s gospel we heard Jesus give instructions about confronting people in the church who do wrong.  In Matthew 18:15 he says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.  If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”  The idea here is not to condemn the person but to deal with the actions of the person that are causing harm.  The goal is not to condemn the person but to be reconciled.

            And that brings me to point number two.  Point number one: focus on actions, not personhood.  Point number two: start with yourself.  Jesus makes that point clearly in our scripture reading.  He says, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

            Notice how that works in our first scripture reading.  A woman is brought to Jesus who was caught in the act of adultery.  Of course, my first questions is “Where’s the man?”  Apparently this is two thousand years before the “me, too” movement.  The authorities don’t pay any attention to the man.  They bring the woman to Jesus and want him to condemn her, thus taking a clear stand for morality.  But notice how Jesus responds.  He says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  In other words, judging must begin by judging ourselves.

            Jesus does not condone adultery.  At the end he says to the woman, “Neither do I condemn you.  Go your way and sin no more.”  Notice how even here Jesus judges the action but not the woman.  That is point number one.  But he also illustrates point number two.  Before we condemn other people, before we say what is wrong with other people and how they need to change, we need to look at ourselves.  We need to ask, What do we need to change?  Of what actions do we need to repent?  What does God need to do in us before we can even begin to suggest the changes that should happen in other people?

            There is a great story in Donald Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz.  I have shared a couple stories from this book before, but this is one of my favorites.  A group of Christian students at Reed College in Oregon decided to set up a booth during a student festival.  In the past this student festival had turned into a beer drinking, pot smoking orgy, so one of the Christian students suggested that the booth could be a kind of confessional.  The other students laughed but one of them, a guy named Tony, said, “That’s perfect.  We are going to build a confession booth.”  He goes on to explain:

We are not actually going to accept confession … we are going to confess to them.  We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry.  We will apologize for the Crusades, we will apologize for televangelists, we will apologize for neglecting the poor and the lonely, we will ask them to forgive us, and we will tell them that in our selfishness, we have misrepresented Jesus on this campus” (p. 118).

            So that’s what they did.  Donald Miller, the author, said he was sitting in the confession booth when the first student came in, a young man named Jake.  Here is what happened:

“So, what is this?  I’m supposed to tell you all the juicy gossip I did [this weekend], right?” Jake said.

“No.”

“Okay, then what?  What’s the game?” …

[I replied] “There is this group of us on campus who wanted to confess to you.”

“You are confessing to me!” Jake said with a laugh.

“Yeah.  We are confessing to you.  I mean, I am confessing to you.”

“You’re serious.”  His laugh turned to something of a straight face. … “What are you confessing?” he asked. …

“There’s a lot.  I will keep it short,” I started.  “Jesus said to feed the poor and to heal the sick.  I have never done very much about that.  Jesus said to love those who persecute me.  I tend to lash out, especially if I feel threatened, you know, if my ego gets threatened.  Jesus did not mix His spirituality with politics.  I grew up doing that.  It got in the way of the central message of Christ.  I know that was wrong, and I know that a lot of people will not listen to the words of Christ because people like me who know Him, carry our own agendas into the conversation rather than just relaying the message Christ wanted to get across.  There’s a lot more, you know.”

“It’s all right, man,” Jake said, very tenderly.  His eyes were starting to water.

“Well,” I said, clearing my throat, “I am sorry for all of that.”

“I forgive you,” Jake said.  And he meant it. … [Then he said] “You really believe in Jesus, don’t you?”

“Yes, I think I do.  Most often I do.  I have doubts at times, but mostly I believe in Him.  It’s like there is something in me that causes me to believe, and I can’t explain it.”

[Jake pondered this then said] “You said earlier that there was a central message of Christ.  I don’t really want to become a Christian, you know, but what is that message?” (pp. 122-124).

        

You see?  If we judge ourselves first, we may not need to judge other people.  Jesus will work on them for us.

Narrative Matters

Friends, this morning I am setting out to persuade you of two things. First that your narrative, your worldview, matters a great deal to you and to God, and second, that Jesus calls us to live within a particular narrative arc--the great narrative of God’s kingdom.

This is hard! “Don’t worry,” he says…

Of all the many things Jesus told his followers, of all the ways to live handed down from him to us, this is among the hardest. Well, I suppose dying to self is a challenge too, but living free from worry is pretty aspirational, if you ask me.

This difficulty we face in being free from worry has remained pretty much the same for two thousand years too. Listen to the specifics: Jesus told the crowd gathered on that mountainside not to worry about their clothing, their food, nor should they worry about the span of their life, or even tomorrow. Daily needs and future concerns are the very things we all worry about too. Maybe some of the specifics have changed, especially for those of us who are privileged to lead a middle or upper-middle class life. I don’t truly understand what it is to worry about my next meal or about clothing, but I do understand what it is to worry about the span of my life, and tomorrows concerns frequently bleed into today.

As a general rule that stands across millennia, workers and owners alike will be concerned about wealth, parents will worry about their children, outsiders will worry about being in, and insiders will worry about whether they should welcome or exclude the outsiders.

Today we add to this new worries about fake news and the political polarization that feeds it. We worry about international bad actors and the threat of nuclear war or maybe just a dirty bomb. We worry about the impact of pornography on minds, hearts, and relationships. We worry about casual hook-up culture. We worry about energy security, sea-level rise, and global warming. We worry about fairness. We worry about retirement and whether social security will be there for us.

Worry is a pervasive feature of our lives today, and so I think that when Jesus tells us not to worry, we have to start somewhere. This is one of those times we may need to start with faking it, and then fake it ‘til we make it, because building a narrative takes time, and may even require rewiring our brains a bit.

Jesus says that the eye is the lamp of the body. Our focus matters. In couples counseling, one common starting point is the observation that over time focus shifts from facing each other to facing the world together. This shift can take place literally too, say in a transition from playing games in the evening to watching TV. Focusing on the world together is not bad or wrong, but couples must also recognize their need for intimacy, or to focus on each other as well.

Our focus matters. Does your personal narrative focus on God or wealth? on fear or hope? Do you live within a narrative of scarcity or abundance? The world around us persistently reinforces a worry-filled zero-sum narrative that is rooted in a culture of death.

The powers of our world tell us to secure our borders, hoard our wealth, protect our own tribe, and to measure our worth against our neighbors.

We have a need for a new story. Jesus calls us to live in God’s story. A narrative rooted in the story of God’s Son, who entered into our life and gave his life for us--for you, for me, and for all humanity.

This week, my wife, Laura, told me a story about her co-worker. They work downtown in the County Administration Building. On May Day, this coworker stepped out during her lunch break and walked down to Westlake. As she was watching the various political protesters, she noticed a man with his arms very full, and she asked if she could lend a hand. The man thanked her and passed a third of his load to her. There in the bundle in her arms was a baby! The coworker was shocked. This man had entrusted her with one of his children!

She was living in a narrative that says helping a stranger is the right thing to do... but the man she offered to help was living in a narrative that places tremendous trust in strangers. Their narrative shaped their actions.

Our Christian narrative runs against the world’s grain, and it always has. The narrative of the kingdom is not about personal gain, conspicuous consumption, or constant comparison.

It is said that comparison is the root of all of unhappiness. Of course, as with every aspect of the world’s narrative, comparison is hard to let go of. I had a little bit of a wake up call when Laura and I were talking to our financial advisor. He’s a faithful Christian and a wise partner who we greatly appreciate. During our conversation I asked a version of the comparison question, “How are we doing?” Our advisor was quick to call out the question, noting both how frequently he is asked, and how comparison only ever results in either pride or envy. Pride if you compare well, envy if you don’t. He referred us back to our own goals and noted that we are on track.

Jesus knew how easy comparison is. I love his examples: lilies don’t compare themselves to roses, sparrows don’t compare themselves to eagles, grasses don’t stare up at the overhanging trees wishing they could have more of that sweet sunlight. Creation participates in God’s kingdom narrative of plenty.

The kingdom life to which we are called rearranges our priorities and changes our narrative. We participate in God’s narrative here at SPC when we make space for each other, in our caring, sharing, and in the way we support one another. Every time we pray for each other and our world, God’s narrative settles down a bit deeper into our hearts.

In God’s kingdom community we focus on the others around us. In God’s kingdom community we are invited to a life not focused on every worry that occupies our thoughts, but instead we witness to each other the miracle of God’s provision and care.

It can be hard to believe this works, so we get to build this narrative together. After all, faith is the hope in things unseen, the belief that the fish are going to swim from across the world to be caught by little Marco in McElligot’s Pool.

Our narrative starts with Jesus, with loaves and fishes, and with his own death and resurrection. God the Father was faithful to Jesus.

Our narrative grows with the early church, where Luke tells us in Acts 2 that, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. All who believed were together and had all things in common. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” God was faithful to that first community of believers.

The narrative continues with us today.

  • I watched it grow as a couple members of our church family participated in the “thankfulness project,” noting something they were thankful for every day.
  • Years ago, I watched it grow as many of us, over several years, built a relationship with Mr. Roy, whose house was devastated in Hurricane Katrina. We helped he and Ms. Charlotte rebuild, and then some of us remained in communication with him for years.
  • It grows in extreme circumstances, but also in mundane, day to day interactions.
  • I watched it grow in our parenting class that ended this week here at church, as parents from Southminster, Lake Burien, and our community were real and honest with each other about the challenges we face as parents and were met with compassion, support and care.

The narrative on which you focus becomes the life you live. I was stunned this week to read a story in the Indianapolis Star about a letter penned by a mother in Auschwitz. Vilma Grunwald’s youngest son was crippled and so the Germans were sending him to his death in the gas chambers. Vilma chose to die with him, so he wouldn’t be alone. This story may have played out over and over in the genocidal German concentration camps, but what sets this moment apart is that Vilma was not just allowed to pen a letter to her husband, but that the guard chose to deliver it. This is the only known communication like this. Her husband was a doctor and both he and their oldest son survived the camp, eventually coming to live in the States. Her letter, in its original Czech, is preserved today in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. As I read, consider the narrative threads informing her life that propelled her to this action.

“You, my only one, dearest, in isolation we are waiting for darkness. We considered the possibility of hiding but decided not to do it since we felt it would be hopeless. The famous trucks are already here and we are waiting for it to begin. I am completely calm. You — my only and dearest one, do not blame yourself for what happened, it was our destiny. We did what we could. Stay healthy and remember my words that time will heal — if not completely — then — at least partially. Take care of the little golden boy and don’t spoil him too much with your love. Both of you — stay healthy, my dear ones. I will be thinking of you and Misa. Have a fabulous life, we must board the trucks.
--Into eternity, Vilma.”

Her oldest son, Frank (then known as Misa), kept the letter hidden in his desk for years, reading it every few weeks. The narrative that she established, that formed her response to unimaginable oppression passed on to him. As he said of the letter, "There's not a word of anger or hatred or resentment or bitterness against the Nazis," he said. "It's all focused on my father and me, on the future."

The kingdom narrative grows every time we gather, every time we lift our voices in praise of God, each time we pray as one, and each time we come to the table to eat the bread and drink the wine. These practices bind us together with all Christians across the world and thousands of years.

Together, we are invited to cast our worries upon Jesus, for his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

Good Secrets

Rev. Aaron Willett

Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Good Secrets

When Laura was pregnant with Thea, I caught a woman on the radio giving some advice for raising children in our world today. You know how these things go--she had lots of good advice. But one nugget stuck with me: She and her spouse are raising their children with a wholesale ban on secrets. There are surprises, but never secrets. There are lots of advantages of this, first and foremost around specific instances of child abuse and the way children can be pressured to keep secrets, but far beyond that, it seems to demystify many things about life. We don’t keep secrets from each other, and we hope that Thea will grow up knowing she can trust us.

But there is no way surprises would convey the right thing here in this passage. Jesus is definitely talking about secrets, good secrets. These good secrets are a practice of faith that rejects show, pomp, noise and exhibitionist expressions of faith. Church goes wrong when we, whether as individuals or as a body, focus our worship on ourselves instead of God.

There’s good reason for this. When our focus is on ourselves, on our own display, our own status, people get lost. According to the Barna Group, the percentage of people who “love Jesus, but not the church” has grown to 10 percent of Americans today, up from 7 percent in 2004. That’s 32 million. Overall, about half of Americans do not go to church. There are some problems with the perception of “church” in our world.

When author Anne Rice 'quit' Christianity back in 2010, she said, "It's simply impossible for me to 'belong' to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else." (Christianity Today)

Six years ago Jefferson Bethke released a spoken-word video called “Why I hate religion, but love Jesus.” It was pretty popular, some of you may have contributed to its 33 million views on youtube. I suspect that Bethke might have been rolling verses like these from Matthew around in his head. Maybe for him and the Americans who “love Jesus but not the church,” the experience of church is one of ostentation, of noisy giving, public prayers, and attention-seeking ritual.

But here’s the rub. As Christians, we don’t get to claim independence from the body. The body of believers is what defines us as Christian. Laura Turner of Christianity Today put it this way, “To say that you love Jesus but hate religion is akin to saying you love your best friend but hate his wife. That relationship will not last.”

So, if Jesus isn’t condemning “religious practice” what is Jesus really saying?

He starts by condemning the hypocrites. Now hypocrite was the Greek word for actors, who often performed in masks. Thus these hypocrites “acted” in one way in public and another in private. In Jesus’ telling, these hypocrites act out for each of us our desire to be

  • seen by others
  • heard by others
  • and praised by others.

The risk we run when our practice of faith is principally about public performance is that the form of our faith can replace the faith itself. We can sometimes become so accustomed to our longing for God that we forget God’s desire is for us to be filled with God’s very self! This doesn’t mean that faith is not about practice though.

In our passage, what practices does Jesus encourage?

  • Giving in secret.
  • Praying in secret.
  • Fasting in secret.

These are Good Secrets.

These good secrets are Means of Grace. They draw us into communion with God. John Wesley describes such means as the “outward signs, words, or actions ordained of God, and appointed for this end--to be the ordinary channels whereby God might convey” grace to people. These are means, not ends. Our practice of faith can open a channel for God to reach us. It is God’s action, but we are invited to participate in it. Giving, praying, fasting--these are tools we can use to draw near to God. But sometimes, in our anxiety, preoccupation and self-consciousness, we turn them into performance.

Our motives in worship matter here. Are we focused on ourselves or on God? As a worship leader, I regularly comb over the words of worship music. So much of our worship music focuses on ourselves, rather than on God. Asking God for things is so much easier than appreciating, even adoring God, just for God’s self.

This kind of attention seeking in worship may start with our leaders. In Canada, narcissistic personality disorder occurs in less than 5% of the general population. Now, studies have shown rates closer to 20% in the medical field and the military, but a 2015 study of clergy in the Presbyterian Church of Canada found that roughly 30% have narcissistic personality disorder (American Association of Christian Counselors, September 26, 2015). I suspect those churches might have more than their share of noisy giving, public prayers, and attention-seeking ritual.

We have to do our part to guard against this though. The form of our religious practice is so much easier than the raw, intimate work of faith!

Every night I give Thea blessing from Number 7. It’s familiar. It starts, “May God bless you and keep you…” One night last week I decided to use some alternate language for “the Lord lift up his countenance upon you” and said (somewhat artlessly), “may God look at you.”

From the dark of her bed, Thea quickly interrupted me, “But I don’t want God to look at me.” She probably meant she wanted me to say the normal words... but maybe she was tapping into a deeper truth. Maybe this was the same instinct that caused Adam and Eve to hide in the garden. Maybe we don’t want God to see us in secret. In the secret, it’s just us and God--for some a frightening proposition!

In Joel 2:13 God tells us to “rend your hearts, not your garments.” God knows that clothes rend so much easier than hearts, and God wants our devotion to start with the inside, not the outside.

When our practice of faith of starts with our hearts, its value is twofold. First, we bring glory to God, and we bear witness to the inbreaking of God’s kingdom. Secondly, giving, prayer, and practice all deliver us from our oppressive need to pay attention to ourselves. Each of these actions pushes us away from self. We are liberated from the burden of self for the “other.”

This is a “let go & let God” kind of thing.

In the spring of 2007 I had the opportunity to lead a trip of youth from our church and two others to Bay St. Louis. On our way home we were delayed by storms for two days in Atlanta. We ended up seeing two very different kinds of churches.

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The first, we stumbled upon as we were walking from our hotel to the nearest grocery store. Our hotel was in the middle of nowhere out by the airport and it was a three mile walk to get food. We encountered a building that seemed out of place. “World Changers Church” it read over the door. It’s giant copper dome towered over us. The doors were unlocked, so we wandered into the empty and massive building. The sanctuary had seats for thousands, and every fixture in the whole place was brass plated. It was a surreal kind of experience. It was later that I learned that this church was (and still is) pastored by Creflo Dollar, one of the most prominent proponents of the anti-Biblical prosperity gospel. With his multiple million-dollar homes, Dollar is unabashed about his exorbitant wealth. He even proudly raised 65 million dollars for the express purpose of buying a Gulfstream G650. World Changers Church describes this as a “necessary expense for spreading the Gospel.”

MinistryWatch, an organization that reviews Christian ministries based on their financial accountability and transparency awarded Creflo Dollar Ministries an F rating and has added it to their Donor Alert listing. The flash, the glitz, the ostentatious wealth--these are markings of today’s hypocritical worship.

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Contrast that with our other experience of church during our stay in Atlanta. The next day we planned a trip to the Open Door Community. At the Open Door, we saw no brass fixtures or soaring copper domes. They’ve never raised 65 million dollars in all their history. We were welcomed to the Open Door to eat alongside their homeless neighbors. The Open Door relentlessly practiced radical hospitality and advocated for those who have no voice. Their prayer and practice was simple, their alleluia adorned only by flowers drawn by their guests.

The Prophet Isaiah reminds us that the fast of God’s choosing is to “loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to share our bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into our homes.”

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Or, as they put it at the Open Door community, “Share the Eucharist, do works of mercy, shout for justice, make art,” and, as they say, “go to jail.” 

So, what are we to say, that all ritual is to be avoided? No! Jesus’s life was full of ritual which has passed down to us. Jesus fasted, he went to temple, he memorized Scripture, he celebrated the feasts of the faith. In other words, he was a good Jewish Rabbi. But Jesus was religious and spiritual. He prayed alone, he called God abba, or “daddy,” he loved people who were shunned by others. As Amy Becker puts it, “His religion gave him boundaries for his spirituality. His spirituality gave him freedom within his religion.”

Jesus’ point is not that we should be timid about our faith. Our faith is not a secret to be kept, but to be shared. In Matthew 10:27, Jesus says to his disciples, “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.”

Rather than suggesting his followers only practice their devotion in secret, Jesus is warning against the kind of hypocritical, self-oriented action that would harm their witness. From the outset, the church refused to be a private cult. The reason they were persecuted by the Romans was because of their perpetual insistence that they were the ecclesia theou, or the public assembly of God.

Christian faith always has a private and a public dimension. The Gospel is a good secret, but it is an open secret, a secret for the world to hear shouted from the housetops and reflected in our daily lives of service, love, forgiveness, and grace. This secret changes lives. True faith liberates us from ourselves, our preoccupations, and true faith sends us out, to participate in God’s liberating work for the whole world.

Dealing with Abuse

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Matthew 5:38-48, Romans 12:14-21

            In 1982 the Academy award for best picture went to a movie about Mohandas Gandhi.  Early in the movie Gandhi leads a struggle for human rights in behalf of people of color living in South Africa.  This is back when Gandhi was young and still had a lot of hair.  He meets a white clergyman named Charlie Andrews who wants to help.  As they walk down the street, Gandhi, the Hindu, quotes Jesus to Charlie Andrews the Christian minister, and here is what happens: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ft4eTzhaUAc (scene 3, 17:43-19:36).

            “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”  Did Jesus really mean that?  In the era of #metoo, when women are finally speaking out against sexual harassment and abuse, isn’t this scripture a dangerous step backward? Where would we be if everyone in the world had turned the other cheek to Hitler?  Where would our justice system be if every time people brought suit we simply gave them whatever they wanted?

            To me the most disturbing misuse of this scripture is in situations of domestic violence.  A battered wife or an abused child should never … NEVER … be told by their pastor simply to turn the other cheek.

            There is a reason Charlie Andrews considers these words of Jesus “metaphorical.”  In many situations they seem inappropriate if not plainly destructive.  But I don’t think Jesus is being metaphorical in this scripture passage; I think he is being illustrative.  He is using vivid examples to illustrate a point.

            The key to this scripture is in verses 44-45. [Slide] Jesus says,

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

            The key to this scripture is to look at other people the way God looks at us, the way a parent looks at his or her own child.  Think about it.  Loving those who do not always love you back, helping someone from whom you don’t expect to get anything in return, caring for someone who sometimes takes a wild swing at you—isn’t that a description of parenting?  Parents must keep on loving their children, even when they don’t get much love in return, which is what God does.  But that does not mean we tolerate or condone anything they do. [Blank slide]

            Last year an ABC news station in Washington, D.C., broadcast a story about a father in Maryland who called police when he found a journal belonging to his teenage daughter with detailed plans for carrying out an attack at her high school.  When police searched the home, they found a shotgun that the teen had purchased, along with ammunition and a collection of bomb making materials: pipes, fireworks, shrapnel, caps, and fuse material.  The girl was arrested and taken to the psychiatric wing of a hospital.  Police credited the father with averting a disaster.

            When Jesus says we should love people as God does, he is not opposing accountability.  Jesus is not against stopping people from doing bad things, any more than we would be opposed to someone who took action to stop our own child from doing bad things.

            But how does that fit with turning the other cheek, or letting someone defraud you of your coat, or allowing an enemy military officer to commandeer your donkey and make you carry his supplies, and then going with him an extra mile?

            These are examples—illustrations—of Jesus pushing us to think outside the box.  They are almost humorous, when you understand the culture.  For example, think about the statement: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek…”  If someone hit you with their right hand, they would not hit you on the right cheek; they would hit you on the left cheek.  So if they hit you on the right cheek, it means either they hit you with their left hand, which no one in the ancient Middle East would do—in the ancient Middle East the left hand was used for other purposes that I won’t describe—or it means they slapped you with the back of their right hand, to humiliate you, like challenging someone to a duel.  So Jesus says, “When someone slaps you with the back of the hand, instead of immediately slapping them back, turn to them the other cheek, as if to say, ‘I am not that easily humiliated; try again.’”  Jesus is not saying we should lie down and let someone hurt us or abuse us.  He is saying, “When someone tries to provoke you by humiliating you, don’t take the bait.  Don’t be dragged down to their level of injury and retaliation.  Show them an alternative to the endless cycle of retribution.”

            A similar thing is going on in the next example when Jesus talks about someone who sues you and takes your coat.  Our English translation does not quite capture the drama of this example.  In Greek it says literally, “If someone sues you and takes away your undergarment”—that is what the Greek word in this verse means literally—“if they sue to take your undergarment, then give them your outer-garment, too,” which means you will walk out of court naked.  How is that for a protest?  “You want to take away my clothes!  Go ahead.  Here, have all of them.”

            In both cases Jesus suggests a shockingly unexpected response—a response that breaks the usual cycle of injury and retaliation.  The goal, Jesus says, is not to defeat your enemy with power or violence or even snarky postings on Facebook.  The goal is to open up a new possibility of love—a new way of relating that does not simply repeat the past.

            In the movie Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye says, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and soon the whole world will be blind and toothless.”  We have seen that pattern between factions in the Middle East, warring tribes in Africa, and political parties in the United States.  We try to control the behavior of other people by punishing them, and only end up creating more animosity.

            Jesus offers an alternative: to look at other people the way God looks at them.  Every morning, God gives another day of life to bad people as well as good people.  Every moment of every day, God gives breath to people who are honest and to people who tell lies, to people who work hard and to people who exploit the labor of others.  God loves people the way a parent loves a child, seeking the best possible life for them.  But that does not mean God condones wrongdoing.

            I have shared this example before, but it is a great example for this scripture passage.  Lewis Smedes, a former professor at Fuller Seminary, tells of a man named Joe who owned a bakery on the edge of a poor urban neighborhood.  One day as Joe was closing his store three kids from the neighborhood walked into the store, pulled a gun, and cleaned out Joe’s cash register.  Then, as they were leaving, one of the kids, a boy named Sam, inexplicably shot Joe in the stomach.

            Thankfully Joe survived, and while he was in the hospital many people from the neighborhood came to see him, including Sam’s parents who expressed deep remorse about what Sam had done.  Finally, one day Sam himself came to the hospital to ask Joe’s forgiveness.  In response Joe did two things.  First he testified against Sam at his trial, and Sam was sentenced to a year in juvenile detention.  Joe made sure that Sam was held accountable for his actions.  But when Sam was released a year later, it was Joe who helped him find a part-time job.  The job was working in Joe’s bakery (Forgive and Forget, p. 47).

            That’s the kind of unexpected response that Jesus illustrates in this scripture passage, a response based not on retaliation but on the love of a parent for a child, the kind of love God shows us every day.

            Near the end of the movie Gandhi, Gandhi faces a new dilemma.  Having won independence for India from Great Britain, he must now deal with fighting between Hindus and Muslims within India.  Deeply disturbed by the violence that his countrymen are now committing against each other, Gandhi goes on a fast—a hunger strike—determined not to eat until the violence stops, even if it means his own death.

            In this scene near the end of the movie, Gandhi lies on a cot seriously weakened by his hunger strike.  Suddenly he visited by a young angry Hindu militant who has been fighting the Muslims.  Here is what happens: www.youtube.com/watch?v=GORZLseVx8E (scene 27, 254:47-256:14)

            The key to Jesus’ teaching is to see the enemy, not as your enemy, but as your own child, and to treat them that way, because that’s how God treats us.

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.

The Crowd, the City, the Church

Aaron Willett

The Crowd, The City, The Church

Scripture: Matthew 21:1-17

And so Lent, our season of “getting ready for the Mystery of Easter,” as we say in our Godly Play classes, draws to a close and Holy Week stands before us. It’s a special week for the church. I enjoyed hearing Pastor Lauden of City of Glory reminisce that back in Kenya they would hold worship services every evening during Holy Week. Our week might not be that full, but we are nonetheless each invited to walk the last days of Jesus’ life with him. We are invited to cheer with the crowds, waving branches and shouting “Hosanna!”, and then we are invited to turn away from Jesus on Good Friday. There’s some good news today too, but we’ll leave the real celebration for next week.

As those of you who read my sermon teaser will know, this morning I was intending to preach a sermon on the perils of triumphalism. I confess I was envious that Ken got to spend all of last week watching The Empire Strikes Back, and I thought I would mine some similar Star Wars gold to help us understand Palm Sunday. However, while the perils of triumphalism definitely exist in that galaxy far far away and right here in our Scriptures, I felt God’s gentle push towards a different message this morning.

So, instead of the Perils of Triumphalism, today our message is “The Crowd, The City, and The Church.”

The CROWD

It all started with a reassessment of the nature of the crowd, and particularly Matthew’s distinction between the welcome on the road, and the confusion of the city. While certainly none of the people who welcomed Jesus with all this pomp stood up for him before the chief priests or Pilate, they aren’t necessarily the crowd shouting crucify, either.

In fact, it seems likely that this crowd is made up of the very people who have been following Jesus through the countryside. Yes, we can be certain that if Jesus’ own disciples, the twelve who were closest to him, didn’t understand what he meant by his repeated predictions of his death, neither did the crowd. In some part, they probably were expecting a messiah in the mold of King David--a political and military leader who would lead them in a divinely assisted expulsion of the Romans. The crowd that gathered before Pilate did choose Barabbas, who Mark’s Gospel notes was a notorious insurrectionist. But, if this is the crowd who has been traveling with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, then maybe they did have some understanding of the peaceable kingdom Jesus was ushering in.

Jesus, it seems, even goes out of his way to arrange this scene to call attention to the prophecy of Zechariah, starting with their point of departure: the Mount of Olives. Zechariah 14:4 declares that the inauguration of God’s new creation will begin on that very spot:

[SLIDE]

“On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east.”

This continues with an appeal to chapter 9, verses 9:

[SLIDE]

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!     

Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!

Lo, your king comes to you;     

triumphant and victorious is he,

humble and riding on a donkey,

   on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Given the difficulty of riding astride two animals, we can assume that Jesus in fact making a clear and symbolic appeal to this specific passage, which goes on to declare what sort of King is coming:

[SLIDE]

He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim

   and the war-horse from Jerusalem;

and the battle bow shall be cut off,     

and he shall command peace to the nations;

his dominion shall be from sea to sea,

   and from the River to the ends of the earth.

If this crowd has been listening to Jesus during their journey, and if they know their scriptures, they know that Jesus, the Son of David, has come not to seek power, but to command peace.

Now, Matthew makes clear that the full procession takes place outside the city, and when Jesus finally enters Jerusalem, the locals don’t understand. In the NRSV, we read that the “whole city was in turmoil.” The word “turmoil” here doesn’t capture the greek “seis” as in “seismic” very well. We ought to read that the whole city was shaken, as in to its very foundations.

And so here we are, the context for Jesus’ arrival in...

The CITY

The residents are abuzz with the question: “Who is this?” Maybe they’ve caught the tail end of the procession, or maybe they just caught word of it. It clearly wasn’t big enough to attract the attention of the Romans.

Regardless, the faithful Jews of Jerusalem haven’t yet had the benefit of getting to know Jesus like the crowd had. They’re curious about him, curious about his agenda, about his good news. They’re hoping someone will restore Israel to greatness, that someone will prove their hope in God not in vain. They’re hoping in the promise of a savior... but, they haven’t seen one yet. All the covenant promises of God have resulted in decades of Roman occupation. The tension is rising. Maybe their hope is waning, and so they ask, “Who is this?”

Jesus Is on the Bus Slide.jpg

Our city is asking this question too. I’m reminded of City Church’s “Jesus Is___ campaign from a few years ago. With one in three Washingtonians self-described as “religiously unaffiliated” or the “nones” as the Pew Forum calls them, odds are that if you, as a Christian, are sitting with one person on either side on the bus or a park bench, one of them doesn’t know who Jesus is. Maybe they’re wondering who he is, or maybe they just don’t care.

Jerusalem needed a compelling witness, and so does Seattle. Recall that no less a luminary than Gandhi declared, “I’d be a Christian if it were not for the Christians.” Gandhi found Jesus to be entirely compelling, but when he tried to enter a church one day, he was turned away, as that church was for high-caste Indians and whites only.

And so, Jesus’ followers do answer the city’s question: they say, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth.”

Maybe they could have said more, or maybe they suspected that Jesus would reveal himself soon enough. And Jesus does. He answers their question by walking straight into the temple and casting out the moneychangers. Jesus, the gentle king, turns over the tables and chairs of those who have profaned the temple.

I don’t know what the city thought of that, but we know that the chief priests and scribes became upset when Jesus begins receiving and healing the blind and the lame. The celebration of the children seems to have just sent the elites over the top.

Jesus answers the question of the city with action, as he will through the rest of his days in Jerusalem. Jesus is the Gentle King, but even his gentleness upsets the system. He will speak of love and truth, and he will completely enflesh the good news of God’s peace all the way to the cross, the grave, and beyond.

And so, here we are, today...

The CHURCH:

Hosanna translated literally means “save now.” The Hosanna cries of the crowd sound to me not unlike the cries of high school students across our country who gathered yesterday for the March to Save Our Lives. Our world is crying out for salvation, from guns and war, from sexual predators, and a host of other threats.

This is where Jesus’ re-enactment of Zechariah 9 becomes instructive for us today. The King of Zechariah’s hope will come to usher in an age of peace, to cut off the chariots and break the bows. This King will bring a dominion of peace.

This is not the peace of the Romans, the Pax Romana, enforced at the end of the spear and under the heel of their legions. This is not the peace of mutually assured destruction. Jesus has sternly refused to raise an army, to consolidate power for himself, or to raise even a hand in violent resistance.

Jesus’ dominion is our hearts, and our souls--to be sure--but Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth! Our present world, full of sin and brokenness and fallen people as it is, is just as much a concern of Jesus as is heaven. Jesus has inaugurated his peaceable kingdom, and world, and yes, our city needs to hear the good news.

Our giving--of self, time, and treasure--is one way we participate in Jesus’ giving of himself--his life--for the life of the world. Just like Jesus, we are called to lose our lives that the world might share in the life Jesus gives us.

As we look ahead to Holy Week before us, let us bear in mind that Jesus’ triumph is not accomplished with power, but gentleness; not by force of oppression, but by submission; not with bellicose bluster, but with quiet action; not as a conquering king, but as a servant; not with pride and self-puffery, but with humility.

Jesus’ triumph looks like an empty tomb, filling the women who discovered it with mingled feelings of fear and joy.

Jesus’ triumph looks like a stranger beating it out of town like a refugee with two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

Jesus’ triumph looks like the persistence of a church that continues to search the Scriptures, continues to gather, to pray, to sing praises, to witness in the world, and to yearn together for the inbreaking kingdom of heaven.

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.

"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