The other night I was watching a sitcom in which two of the characters are sisters. The older sister, the responsible, mature, stable one, is hosting a party to announce her pregnancy. She’s gone to great lengths to put on a marvelous party and thought out the perfect timing for the announcement. The younger sister, the impulsive immature one, shows up late, gets a little drunk, and ends an argument with her boyfriend by deciding that they should get engaged. At precisely the moment that the older sister is about to make announce her pregnancy, the younger one steals the spotlight and announces her new engagement instead. There follows a shouting match between the two, each accusing the other of trying to make everything all about them. “You make every party all about you!” “You are always stealing my moment!” It’s clear these siblings have more than a few issues to sort out, and quite clear that neither of them has much interest in anything not directly related to themselves. It is all about them.
In our story from Luke this morning, Elizabeth is on older woman who has just received the greatest news of her entire life. After watching her child bearing years go by without a single pregnancy, Elizabeth suddenly finds herself with child in her old age. It is a miracle, and it is her miracle, exactly the miracle for which she had hoped and prayed. The coming of this miracle was proclaimed beforehand to her husband Zecharaiah, the priest, by the angel Gabriel. Yet when he heard of it, Zechariah did not believe it could happen since he and Elizabeth were already so advanced in years. As a result of his disbelief, Gabriel silences Zechariah saying he will remain mute until the birth of the child. The man is silenced. The priest is silenced. This story isn’t about him, and he won’t have anything to say about it until after the climax. In Luke’s story, the men are relegated to non-speaking supporting roles. One more time, in Luke’s story of the birth of the Messiah, the Incarnation of God, and the redemption of the world, the women play the lead roles and the men are silent. In our present time, one in which we are confronting so many of the misdeeds of our men, Luke’s Christmas story is one from which men can learn a great deal. It may be that a quiet and supporting role to women is the only one God grants to men in the drama of salvation. Anyway, Elizabeth gets to enjoy her long hoped for and miraculous pregnancy, with what some women only dream of, a man who doesn’t speak but only listens.
While Elizabeth is living her own personal miracle, her young relative Mary, has also had a angel appear to her. Mary is but a teenager and she is engaged to be married to a young man named Joseph. Before their wedding, an angel appears to her and announces that she will conceive and give birth to a son who is to be the Son of the Most High and will sit on the throne of David forever. The long awaited and frequently prophesied Messiah, the Ancient One who is to redeem all of Israel, is to be Mary’s child. While thats a big pill to swallow, so is hearing that you will be pregnant for the first time, and Mary understandly focuses on that more immediate issue. “How can this be?,” she asks, “since I am a virgin?” The angel tells her that the Holy Spirit will help her to conceive and thus her child will be called the Son of God. And then, as if he knows that all of this is a lot to take in, the angel casually mentions that her relative Elizabeth has also conceived in her old age ostensibly to show that nothing is impossible with God, but possibly also to let Mary know that she wasn’t in this whole miraculous pregnancy thing alone. Mary, likely confused and scared, decides to go and visit Elizabeth, to see if she is pregnant as well, to see if she knows what to make of all of this.
So just when Elizabeth is finally having her moment in the sun, when everyone is ooohhing and ahhhing over her miraculous pregnancy, her comes Mary with her own pregnancy to announce. A younger woman has arrived at her home with a story just miraculous enough to top her own, Mary is going to upstage Elizabeth during her one and only pregnancy. We might expect that Elizabeth would react poorly to Mary’s appearance, that she would view Mary as a competitor for attention, might expect the two of them to shout it out like the two sisters from the sitcom. But Luke is overturning expectations in this story. He has silenced the men, Zechariah by an angels fiat, and Joseph just without any lines. Just as God helps the men to realize this story is not about them, so too does God help Elizabeth to recognize and accept that Mary is the star of this drama.
And how does Elizabeth become aware of Mary’s pregnancy and its supreme importance? Does an angel descend to tell her? Does a man interpret it for her? No, her own body tells her. When Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, the fetus in her womb, leaps for joy. It is only after this cue from her body that the Holy Spirit descends upon her to confirm what her body already intuitively knows, Mary is carrying the child of promise. I draw out this point, because for much of the Western Christian tradition the body has been opposed to the Spirit, the spirit being what is good and righteous, and the flesh, the body, being sinful. In many Christian contexts people, but women especially, are taught to distrust their bodies. To identify their bodies as the site of sin, as something to be overcome. Yet here, in this most important of Christian stories, it is a woman’s body which recognizes the Messiah, which intuits the presence of God. And then it is the Spirit that confirms the bodies intuition. So far as the opposition of the flesh and the spirit refers to the opposition between centering your own needs and desires above those of God and God’s creation it is a helpful conception. But so far as it leads to the denigration of our divinely created bodies it is a sinful lie. Women’s bodies are miraculous. They are the good creation of our Great God. It is from the bodies of women that all human life comes, it is from the body of a woman that our Redeemer comes, and it was the body of a woman who first recognized Him as such.
So Elizabeth confirms for Mary what the Angel had told her. Not merely that she is having a child, but that this child will be the LORD. And then Mary, overjoyed by the welcome of her sister and her affirmation, says what has become one of the most recognized portions in all of the Bible, the Magnificat. In this poem Mary begins by giving thanks to God for the great thing that God has done for her. But she quickly moves from speaking of herself to speaking more generally. God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, God has brought down the powerful from their thrones. God has lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. God has helped Israel and remembered God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants. The focus quickly becomes what God is doing in the world, for Israel and for all people. Through the support of her friend Elizabeth, Mary has moved from focusing on what this pregnancy means for her, to what it means for the world. She too has come to see that the story is not about her, it is about what God is doing through her. And she doesn’t just think these things might occur, she believes so strongly in what God is doing that she speaks of them in the present tense. God HAS scattered the proud and lifted up the lowly. God HAS filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. She believes so completely that God is about to accomplish these things that she speaks of them as though they have already occurred. For if God has spoken these things than they are just as good as done. Mary, the young woman chosen by God to bear God into the world, is the very model of faith for us all. She is able to believe that God so valued her in her lowliness that God would do such an incredible thing for her. God also values us, not because of our greatness, but precisely because of our weaknesses, our lowliness. But Mary was also wise enough to see that the story wasn’t just about her, it was about what God was doing for all the earth. And with the help of Elizabeth she was able to believe in these miracles as well. As much as God loves and values us, we too are only a part of what God is doing in the world. Its not just about us. May we ever hold up Mary as an example for ourselves. May we recognize when our role is one of quiet support. May we seek out the advice of wise women. May we trust women and may we trust and value the divinely created miracle of their bodies. And may we come together to see that all of the blessings God has given us are meant to be used in bringing about the redemption of all people. Amen.
When I lived in California, I was able to take a couple of trips to visit the
Great Sequoia trees, in the national parks there. If you’ve never been to such a place, to what is called an old growth forest, it is hard to forget. They are called old growth forests, because the absolutely massive trees in the forest can be as many as 2,000 years old. When you stand on the forest floor you can’t even see the top of them, their branches disappear into the clouds. They are ancient, and sturdy, and huge. They look as if they have been there forever, and as though they will always be there. But that’s not true. Even a 2,000 year old life must come to an end. And these trees do die, they do fall over making a huge crashing sound and sending vibrations for miles on the forest floor. Its remarkable to think that something that big, that strong, and that old, could just one day fall down.
Jeremiah was a prophet in the city of Jerusalem at the time of its fall to the Babylonians. At the time of the Babylonian invasion, Jerusalem had been the capital city of Israel, and later Judah, for nearly 400 years. Throughout that time the people had gone from being a rag tag group of escaped slaves and nomadic tribespeople, to becoming a mighty nation, with kings and armies, palaces, and a glorious Temple. From the tiny seed of the exodus community had grown a magnificent tall and sturdy oak. Jerusalem and Judah were the people of God living in the city of God and they were sure that God would keep things going just as they were, just as they had been for the last 400 years.
Jeremiah had the unfortunate task of telling the people of Jerusalem that a change was coming. It was not to be a small change, nor was it to be a popular one. Jeremiah received the word from God, that Jerusalem would be punished for her sins, for her oppression of the poor, and her idolatry. What’s more he received the word that the punishment would come at the hands of the Babylonians, the raging empire would come and utterly destroy Jerusalem and its Temple, and would cart off the Judeans to live in exile in Babylon. The mighty oak that was once Judah and Jerusalem would be chopped down, leaving nothing but a stump where it once stood. It was Jeremiah’s task to bring this word from God to the people. Jeremiah had to bring bad news to a people who had begun to think they were immune to it, he had to tell people that their world, the world they were accustomed to was over.
Over the course of my life, the branch of the Christian Church that I serve here in the United States, mainline protestantism, has undergone a steady decline. The heyday for our denominations, for the mainline church, was the fifties and early sixties. As people returned from war and started families in record numbers, they also flocked to our churches. If you ask Mr. George he can tell you that in the 1960s we had nearly 200 kids in Sunday School here at St. Paul’s. We even had two Sunday services just to fit everyone into the sanctuary. Things were going well, and looking even better. But as the sixties progressed, the trend towards decline began. There are numerous reasons given for why, whole dissertations and books on the subject, but whatever the cause our church’s started shrinking, and closing, and becoming fewer and fewer. This happened all over the country, and it happened here at St. Paul’s too; by 2013, this church had only 6 regular worship attendees.
This long and slow process of decline has meant that I have spent my life in a denomination that is already quite aware of the crisis it is in. The work of Jeremiah in bringing attention to the coming crisis had already been done. By the time I came of age, I was already overly familiar with the doom and gloom scenarios about the future of the mainline church; I had already heard again and again that we are shrinking, we are aging, we are in serious decline. It is good to be honest and straightforward about the challenges that you are facing, its is the only way to deal with them. But after awhile, once everyone knows that there is a crisis, continuing to preach doom and gloom is a little sadistic, instead of rallying our forces to address the problem, it leaves us in despair that nothing can be done, that no change is possible. We are a dying people, in a dying denomination, we were once a mighty oak, and now we are no more than stump.
Stumps are funny things; although they remind you what once lived there, the fully grown tree, they are more than just tree grave markers. They are often not quite dead. Its been awhile since I’ve mowed the grass around the church. Daniel and John and I get together every couple of weeks on a Saturday morning and mow the lawn here at the church, and trim the edges. Typically, I get to push the mower, the job I like best. Along the sidewalk in front of the parsonage on Eleonore Street there is a stump in the grass. It is the stump of a crepe myrtle tree which our next door neighbor chopped down sometime ago. Often we think of tree stumps as being dead, they are what’s left when you kill the tree, when you chop it down. But this particular crepe myrtle stump is stubbornly holding on to life. Everytime I mow the lawn in that spot, I can see the stump before I get to it, because it has all these brand new little shoots. New twigs growing from the stump, with new little leaves. Fresh new attempts of this crepe myrtle to live again. To again become a tree, where there once was only a stump, there is the potential for a brand new tree.
After God’s word to Jeremiah came true and the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and took the people into exile, it was no longer necessary for him to convince them that disaster was coming; it had already come. The people are living in despair, their home, their loved ones, their whole world seemed to have been destroyed. Living as exiles in Babylon they were without hope, they were mired in despair. It is at this point that God’s word to Jeremiah changes from judgment and warning to comfort and hope. Jeremiah acknowledeges the plain truth of the situation: The House of David had been cut off, the people of Judah have been chopped down, all that remains is a stump. But this does not mean there is no hope. This does not mean that God has forgotten or abandoned God’s people. Just as brand new shoots can spring forth from a seemingly dead stump, so too will God bring forth from the stump of Judah, a shoot, a branch that will fulfill God’s promises to the people. This branch will grow to be a new, strong and sturdy tree and it will execute the justice and righteousness of God, it will save the people. Things are bad now, yes, but the days are surely coming, says Jeremiah, when God will fulfill Her promises, when the people will live in peace and security and know the righteousness of God.
When a big tee falls, when something that we have come to take for granted is taken away, it can feel like the end of the world. When people here that the church or the denomination they loved is dying, it can be overwhelming, it can be devastating. When people see their country changing in ways they don’t like, it can seem like all is lost. When we hear about the coming disaster of climate change, of whole cities being swept into the ocean, it can lead us to panic and a sense of hopelessness. But all trees eventually fall. All things eventually change. Even the tallest, sturdiest sequoia falls. The one thing that we in the Christian Church believe never changes, the one thing that is always true, the one thing that will never pass away is the Word of God in Christ Jesus. This eternal Word proclaims to us that God has acted in the past, and that God will act to save in the future as well. God saved the people from slavery in Egypt, God led the people through the wilderness, God established a kingdom in David, and God brought the exiles back to Jerusalem. This very same God caused a branch of righteousness to spring forth from the stump of Jesse in Jesus Christ who comes to us in love, salvation, justice and righteousness. Jesus Christ is the new shoot, the new branch, the new tree, bringing life from the death of the past.
It is because of God’s saving actions in the past, that we have hope that God will act again. In Jesus Christ God brought the light of the world out of the stump of Judah. Though our denomination may only be the stump of what it once was, God can still bring forth new shoots of life from it. Though our heyday of the 1960s has been chopped down, there are still living roots in the UCC and here at St. Paul’s. We continue to look for new shoots, new possibilities for sharing the gospel, new opportunities to serve our community, new chances to be instruments of God’s grace and love in our world. We must continue to tend carefully to each new shoot, each new ministry that we begin, nurturing them, allowing them to grow, and trusting in our hope that God will bring forth a new shoot of love, justice, and peace here at St. Paul’s, here in the United Church of Christ, and here in the United States. We can be so audacious as to hope in the future impact of St. Paul’s and the UCC because we base our hope in the God of Israel, the God of Jesus Christ, the one who has acted to save in the past, and will once more come to save our lives, our church, our country, and our world. May we hold fast to this hope and may we ever be on the lookout for the new thing God is doing, the new shoot of salvation of which we are invited to be a part. Amen.
A short time after we were married, my wife Shannon and I discovered that one of the seldom spoken of perks of marriage is that you now have someone else to blame for all your mistakes. When I was single and I misplaced my keys, it was always my fault. But now, when I lose my keys or misplace my phone, I don’t have to shoulder all the responsibility myself, I have a wife to blame! I have someone else to curse out under my breath as I search the house for my missing items. This is obviously not the greatest perk of marriage, but it is sometimes nice to shrug off some of our responsibility for the ways things are onto someone else.
Unfortunately, blaming others, especially women and foreigners, is a time honored tradition that I cannot claim to have invented myself. Indeed the practice of blaming women for the problems of the world goes back well into the BC era, and can be found in several places in our Bible. Throughout the centuries many Christians have interpreted the story of Adam and Eve in such a way as to make Eve responsible for bringing sin into the world. This is quite a stretch considering that only Adam was commanded by God not to eat the fruit and that he made his own decision to do so. Nevertheless, this text has been used countless times to place the responsibility for sin onto a woman.
Where it really gets bad, this blaming of our problems on women, is when the female and the foreign overlap: our own women are bad enough, but foreign women, they are truly to blame. When the very survival of Israel as a people was threatened during their time in exile in Babylon, the leaders of the community insisted that the best way for Israel to survive as a distinct people was to avoid marrying women outside of Israel. In this way, they believed they could preserve the distinctive identity of Israel; they could avoid assimilation. Even after the exile, when the Judeans began returning to Jerusalem, this prohibition on mixed marriage remained strong. Ezra, the man sent to help rebuild the Temple, insisted that the Judeans not intermarry with the other peoples. These foreigners, these women, would dilute the faith of Judah and lead its people into sin and abomination. According to this view what was holy about Judah was its racial purity, the Judeans were God’s people by birth and any mixing with other ethnicities would damage this identity. So it was these foreign women who were the problem, they were destroying the racial purity of God’s people.
Given this male tendency to blame women, especially foreign women, for the ills of the world, one has every reason to expect that the biblical book of Ruth, which is about a moabite woman, a foreign woman, is all about how she ruined everything. This is not the case. Ruth is lovely little short story about how a daughter-in-law’s love and devotion to her mother-in-law saved their lives and helped to make a new life for themselves in Bethlehem. Ruth the Moabite woman, is the hero of this Israelite story. That alone would be enough for this book to be incredible, it is quite rare in the world, even today, for a man to lift up a woman, especially a foreign woman, as a hero.
As remarkable as that is, the book of Ruth is actually far more radical. Though it may appear as nothing more than a quaint short story about how two women help one another survive, the ending of the book reveals the hidden impact of the book of Ruth. Ruth, the Moabite woman, was the great grandmother of the legendary King David. The great patriarch of Israel, Judah, and Jerusalem, the Israelite par excellance, has foreign blood running through his veins. David himself was racially mixed. And if David wasn’t racially pure, than neither were his descendants that ruled after him. The kingdom of David that Ezra and his contemporaries held up as the ideal to be restored through their prohibition on inter-marriage was always a kingdom of mixed race and ethnicity. Racial purity was a myth. It never existed. So the way to God, the way to holiness, cannot be racial purity.
If race or ethnicity is not what defines God’s people, than what does define them? What made Noah, and Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Ruth, and David people of God if it wasn’t race? The people of God are people who live in covenant relationship with God. Noah lived in covenant with God long before the birth of Israel. Abraham was a wandering Aramean who entered into covenant with God and then became the ancestor of Israel. Ruth was a Moabite, but she too made a promise, a covenant, with God and Naomi when she said, “Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.” What gave Israel its identity as a people was not their race, their ethnicity, or even their homeland, what gave Israel its Identity was that they lived in covenant with God.
As followers of Christ, we too live in covenant relationship with God, a relationship opened to us by Jesus Christ. What makes us Christian is our adherence to this covenant- our promise to follow in the way of Jesus Christ. It is not our history that makes us Christian. It is not our nationality, ethnicity or race. It is not our culture or our good fortune. What makes us Christian is our decision day after day to try to live in covenant relationship with God as we know Her in Jesus Christ. The God of Jesus Christ is the very same God as the God of Ruth. This God does not love us because of our race, or our ethnicity, or our homeland, for this God created all lands and all peoples. This God loves us simply because we are Hers, and She calls us into loving relationship with Her and with the rest of Her creation. Racial purity is always a myth, it does not exist and it is of no concern to God. All of our other identities are meant to melt away in the presence of our identity as people of God. We are not American and then Christian. Not white and then one of God’s people. We are, first and before all things, beloved children of God seeking to live in covenant with Her. When we fail to do so, when we value our national, racial or gender identity above our identity as God’s people, we cease to be people of the covenant, we cease to be the people of God. And when that happens it isn’t the fault of women, or of foreigners, or of anyone but ourselves. We must take responsibility for our identity as God’s people and our actions as people who live in covenant with the God of Jesus Christ. May it be so. Amen.
I’ve been trying to spend less time on social media of late, trying to keep my head out of my phone and to actually experience life rather than read about it on a screen. My success has been minimal, a fact I try to excuse by telling myself that some of my social media use is on behalf of the church, though to be honest, it is certainly a small percentage of the time I spend on theses sites. At any rate, I saw a little video on Facebook the other week, one of those real sappy, sentimental, ain’t the world grand stories. Usually, I don’t particularly like the sappy videos, I try to avoid them, but this one drew me in for some reason. It was a story about a little girl who was very sick and needed a blood transfusion to survive. Unfortunately, she has a rare blood type that means finding the right blood may not happen in time. This leads the doctor and the parents to the girls younger brother who has the same rare blood type. The doctor explains how serious the situation is, that his sister may die without a transfusion, and asks the boy if he is willing to donate the blood to his sister. The boy thinks it over for a long minute, and then says simply, “Ok, I’ll do it.” After the transfusion is complete, the boy looks up at the doctor in confusion and asks, “When am I going to die?” He had given the blood to save his sister’s life even though he thought it would mean death for him.
I have no idea if this story really happened, and it does raise some concerning questions, like what kind of a hack doctor doesn’t explain to his patient that the proceedure they are about to undergo will not kill them. On the other hand, I have met some absolutely amazing children in my life, many of them here, children who seem to instinctually understand the suffering of others, who are naturally drawn to generosity and self sacrifice. What I really couldn’t get over was how the little boy in the story perfectly exemplified the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The story gives precious little background on the boy and his family, we do not know where they are from or what religion if any they happen to practice. Yet somehow, this little boy more perfectly lived out the Gospel in a such a way as to shame myself, and anyone else who might claim to be follower of Christ. When a need arose, he decided to meet that need by sacrificing his very life. That is the gospel of Jesus Christ, no matter where it occurs, and no matter who might enact it. It is the embodiment of the love of God we know in Jesus Christ.
The book of Ruth is an absolutely phenomenal short story that sits in the bible right after Judges and right before 1 Samuel. It is noteworthy for several reasons, but the one that kept jumping out at me this week, is that Ruth is a biblical book, a book written by a man of Israel, in which the hero is a female immigrant: Ruth, the Moabite woman.
Just two days ago, I was at Octavia books with Ruth looking around for a new book for her, and they had this great little one called Baby Feminists, on each page is a picture of a famous feminist with a sentence about her life, and underneath the picture is a baby. For instance, Before she was a Justice on the US Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a baby! The message being, of course, that the baby reading the book could one day also grow up to be a feminist. I love this book, I love that book exists, because I like Ruthie to see female role models. However, the book as I found it, was in a special part of the children’s section which was dedicated to Women. As though women were a special subgroup and not a little over half of the world’s population. Seeing that centering women in our stories is still seen as novel and new today, makes the centering of women in the book of Ruth all the more remarkable.
The story of Ruth begins with Elimelch and his wife Naomi who live in the town of Bethlehem. When a famine comes to the land of Israel, Elimelch and Naomi and their two sons, immigrate to Moab to find a better life. There both of the sons marry Moabite women and live happily. Until one day, Elimelech dies, leaving Naomi to the care of her two sons. Then tragedy strikes again, and both of her sons die as well. Naomi, by now and old woman, is widowed and without any male relatives.
In our time, not having any male relatives might seem like a fluke, an odd coincidence, or possibly good luck. In the Ancient Near East however, men were the only ones with rights, with the ability to own property, with the ability to generate an income. To be without a man, was to be desperately poor and incredibly vulnerable. Naomi is alone and vulnerable in a foreign land. When she hears that the famine in Israel has lifted, she decides that she will be best off returning to her home and throwing herself on the mercy of her people.
Naomi’s two daughter-in-laws are in a somewhat less precarious situation. They are still young and still have living parents. Each of them could return to their mother’s homes and try again to create a family. Out of their love for her, both Ruth and her sister in law, Orpah, walk with Naomi to the border of Judah. There Naomi tells them to go back to their land and their mother’s homes, for she will not be able to provide for them in Judah. Both of them insist that they are going with her, but Naomi carefully explains that they will both be better off at home in Moab. Orpah hears the truth that Naomi is speaking, that her chances at a happy life are better if she stays at home, and decides to return. Ruth does not, instead she clings to Naomi. When Naomi tells her to follow her sister, Ruth again refuses to leave her saying, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” In this beautiful statement of personal devotion, Ruth insists that she will never leave Naomi. There is nothing that Ruth is willing to place above her love for Naomi.
What makes Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi all the more amazing is that Ruth has no reason to think that this decision will benefit her. Naomi was correct in saying that the better choice for each of the two daughters was to stay in Moab. Ruth knows this. She knows that choosing to go with Naomi will be difficult. They will have to risk a dangerous journey together, they will have to search for food and shelter, they will have to throw themselves upon the mercy of strangers. Ruth knows that it will be difficult for both them. So why does she choose to go? Why not obey Naomi, and choose the better life at home? I believe the reason that Ruth chooses to stay with Naomi, is because she knows how desperate and vulnerable Naomi is. As hard as it will be for the two of them, it will be impossible for Naomi to start a new life on her own. Ruth places her love for Naomi, above her personal well-being. She places her compassionate love for Naomi above her nationality, her family, even her religion. Ruth gives up her very life so that Naomi might live.
Ruth’s generosity saves Naomi’s life. Ruth’s generosity transforms her own life and the life of Israel, for Ruth becomes a mother, and a grandmother, and a great-grandmother. And her great-grandson, a shepherd boy by the name of David, becomes the Lord’s annointed King over all Israel. Without the bravery of this poor immigrant woman and her love for her friend Naomi, there is no David, there is no Davidic Kingdom, there is no house of David, and there is no Jesus Christ. Ruth’s choice to place her love for Naomi above all else, to give her very life for Naomi’s, has incredible and reverberating consequences even to this day.
Today we had several new members join the congregation here at St. Paul’s UCC. This is always a joyous occasion, it is our little family growing in numbers, in love, and in the impact our work has on the community. One of the greatest functions of a church is the opportunity it gives us to practice self-giving love and transforming generosity. The world will always give us countless reasons not to be generous, reasons not to care about others, reasons to limit our loving relationships to family, or race, or creed, or country. You’ve heard them repeated again and again, “We have enough poor people here, we can’t care about poor people born in other countries,” “If they wouldn’t break the law, they wouldn’t get shot by police.” “Nobody ever gave me a handout.” These are all excuses for why we don’t need to see the suffering, the vulnerability, and the desperation of our neighbors. They are reasons to limit our love and concern to those most like us. In this world, we need the book of Ruth, we need her example of transforming generosity, we need to continually practice widening our circle of love and care. For the gospel of Jesus Christ is not about making the choice that benefits you the most, it is about freely giving of your very self so that others may live. I’m overjoyed to have these new members become a part of our community, because just by being who they are, they will challenge us to expand our circle of love to include their unique individual selves and they will help us to model here at St. Paul’s that love is the highest law. They will help us to practice placing love for God and others above all other loyalties, above our loyalty to our country, our family, and our very selves. With the grace of God, we have a chance to practice growing in love here at St. Paul’s and we have the incredible blessing of seeing with our own eyes how this love transforms our lives and the lives of others. May we continue to grow in ministry, in numbers, and most importantly in self-giving love and transforming generosity.
A little over a month ago, Shannon’s water broke at our house and we needed someone to watch Ruthie while we went to the hospital. She stayed with Val and Tess for the afternoon and then Mosoba and Dorcas came and took her to spend the night with them. That evening, on my phone, I received several videos of Ruthie and Mosoba playing and getting ready for bed. In one of the videos, the two girls are in their pjs, laying on the bed and Ruthie is holding Mosoba’s phone and watching cartoons. Dorcas, filming the scene, asks Ruthie to look at the camera and say something to her parents. Ruthie is completely absorbed in the cartoon and doesn’t even look up. After trying several times to get Ruth to look away from the phone, Mosoba finally snatches it out of her hand and then points Ruthie to Dorcas camera. Ruth looks up with shock on her face, stares at Mosoba, and shouts, “Mine!” Of course, the phone was not hers. It was Mosoba’s. Mosoba had given it to her only moments before. But in those few minutes with Mosoba’s phone Ruth had begun to feel that it was hers. That the phone belonged to her, that she had a right to watch the cartoons on the phone, that she was entitled to this phone. In only a few moments Ruthie had gove from the grateful recipient of Mosoba’s generosity and mercy to an entitled jerk, convinced Mosoba’s phone was her birth right, and dismayed that anyone would have the gall to take it from her. Its an unfortunately common trait in us human beings, this jumping from gratitude to entitlement- and it can bring out the worst in us.
The story of Blind Bartimaues comes at the end of the middle section of Mark. The first half of Mark has Jesus doing ministry in Galilee and doing his best to keep his Messianic identity a secret. In the second half of Mark, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where he will confront the authorities and be crucified. But this middle section, this is the part where Peter correctly guesses Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, and where Jesus attempts to describe that as Messiah he will suffer and die. The disciple’s have a terribly difficult time understanding and accepting that Jesus’ fate is to suffer; their minds are stuck on the possibility of their own glory. If Jesus is the Messiah, and they are his followers, surely they are headed to glory and greatness. First there is Peter who outright rejects Jesus’ own claim that he will suffer and die. He rebukes Jesus over his claim that he will suffer, insisting upon the glory that he has only just begun to imagine. Then the disciples begin to focus on themselves, their own role in what they are sure is Jesus coming glory, they argue over which of them will be the greatest. Finally, James and John, work themselves up into a blinding sense of entitlement and approach Jesus by demanding that he do for them whatever he ask of them. Can you imagine? Like a 6 year old trying to tie the hands of their parent, “Whatever we ask you, you have to do for us.” And what it is it that they feel so entitled to demand of Christ? That they be allowed to sit at his right and left hand in glory.
Before Jesus found them and called them to follow him, these disciples were fishermen and tax collectors. They were ordinary people, living ordinary lives. Everything that they now have, their relationship with Jesus, the authority that comes with being among his select followers, the prestige amongst the crowds, the incredible responsibility to follow Jesus, all of this has come to them from Jesus’ free gift. From his decision to call them, these ordinary people, with ordinary lives, to be his followers, these men have been given new lives and great new importance. And now, only months after their call, they seem to have forgotten their gratitude entirely. Instead of remembering that they were outsiders called to follow out of God’s mercy and grace, they have come to think of themselves as part of the in crowd, deserving and entitled to perks and benefits that must be denied to others.
In addition to the entitlement of the disciples, this middle section of Mark, also introduces the story of the rich man who wishes to follow Jesus. He asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus replies that he must follow the law, he must love the LORD his God with all his heart, and mind, and strength, and spirit and love his neighbor as himself. The rich man happily replies that he already does all of this, and asks if there is anything else. To this Jesus replies that he must sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. And the man, turns away, chooses not to follow, because he had many possessions. In a society as materialistic as ours, it is almost possible to miss the humor in this story, for we tend to value possessions over nearly everything else. Jesus has just told the man the secret to eternal life, he can live forever, all he has to do is give up his possessions, and he chooses instead to hold onto his stuff and die. Why? What a crazy choice! The answer may be in how the rich man views his possessions. Are they gifts from God, given to him freely out of sheer grace? Or are they His possessions, the things he worked for and acquired himself, things that he deserves, possessions to which he is entitled? This man who knows the law of God and seeks to follow it, he too, has forgotten that everything he has, everything he is, is a gift of God’s mercy. His sense of entitlement keeps him from sharing his gifts, it keeps him from helping others, it keeps him from eternal life.
By any reckoning we, each and every one of us, are among the most blessed and fortunate people ever to walk the earth. We live in the wealthiest country in world history. We live free of the violence of war. We have access, to varying degrees, to food, to health care, to employment, to education. We have a government that has peacefully changed hands for over 200 years. We have religious freedom in a society where our religion is the norm. As we all know these blessings are not universal and timeless, we are among the minority. The vast majority of the world’s people do not have such fortune, such incredible blessings. The question that Mark’s gospel raises for us today, is how we are to think about such blessings? Are we to understand them as the entitlements granted to Jesus’ in crowd, those closest to the Messiah? Are we to understand them as our just deserts, things we have earned and worked for and come to deserve? Are we entitled to these blessings because of our hard work and virtue? How are we, as Christians, to think about our great privilege?
After the disciple’s miss the point, and the rich man chooses his wealth over eternal life, it is Blind Bartimaeus whose story ends this middle section of Mark. Jesus is in the midst of a great crowd of followers and disciples when a blind beggar sitting by the side of the road calls out him, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The term Son of David, is a messianic one, the Son of David, was to sit on David’s throne, he was to be the Messiah. Bartimaeus has correctly identified Jesus as the Messiah, just as Peter had done. Without ever having met him before, without hearing his teaching, without the gift of sight, Bartimaeus knows Jesus to be the Messiah. Yet this knowledge does not lead him to view himself as deserving, entitlted, or part of the in crowd. Instead of demanding that Jesus do whatever he asks him, Bartimaeus instead says, “Have mercy on me.” Batimaeus knows that he is need of Christ’s mercy, he knows that he cannot earn his sight, he cannot deserve healing, but through the mercy of God he may be healed regardless. When he hears that Jesus has called him, Bartimaeus throws off his coat, his one and only possession, and eagerly goes to Jesus. There is nothing he is not willing to set aside, no possession he feels so entitled to that he cannot give it away to come to Jesus. Finally, When Jesus asks him, using the exact same language as when he asked James and John, “What do you want me to do for you?” Blind Bartimaeus does not ask for glory, but merely for sight… “My teacher, let me see again.” He wishes to see, to regain his vision, but also to truly see, to see things the way they are, to see himself for who he truly is, to see who he is before God. To this Jesus replies, “Go, your faith has made you well.” When he regains his sight, Bartimaeus immediately begins following Jesus on the way. He has been given the ability to see that all he is is due to God’s mercy and that the only response to such an incredible gift is to give yourself to Jesus, to God, to others. Bartimaeus, though blind, came to see what the disciple’s and the rich man could not, he saw that his very life was contingent upon the mercy of God.
What might we, the fortunate children of the United States in the 21st century, from Blind Bartimaeus? Remember from where our blessings have come.All that we have and all that we are is a gift from the God who created the heavens and the earth. We do not deserve any of it, nor are we entitled to any of it, it is all a gift of God’s mercy. Remember that we are called to throw off any possession that would keep us from following Christ. Our incredible fortune is not a private treasure to be hoarded, it is to be shared with all God’s children as they have need, and as God calls us to give it away. We must remember that our being Christians does not grant us entrance to an in-crowd more deserving of God’s blessings than those outside. God calls those on the outside to the center, and God calls us to do the same. If we wish to follow Jesus in 21st century America we will have to share our blessings with the rest of the world, we will have to ask for vision to see the sufferings of our neighbors, and we will have to remember that we live and breath only by the mercy of the God who loves the entire creation and all of Her children throughout the world. Amen.
One of my best friends in high school was a terrifically funny guy by the name of Cliff. Cliff was a little older than the rest of my friend group and was the first of us to drive. Maybe its not the same anymore, but when I was a freshman in high school having a car instantly made you the coolest kid around. Just about everyone with a car knew this and so most of them liked to play up their cool factor while driving by leaning back in the driver’s seat one hand on the wheel, smoking a cigarette and blasting music at ridiculously loud volumes. Cliff was never very into being a cool kid, at least not as much as he was into mocking them. So whenever Cliff picked me up in his car- he’d hand me a pair of aviator sunglasses and then turn his car radio to NPR and blast the news. We’d drive around St. Louis with the news bumping out of our stereo. Nothing was better than pulling up next to a car at a red light, having them look at our car in bewilderment and then watch Cliff give them a cool head nod, as if to say “You down with the news too?”
Lately, the news has been overwhelming. One natural disaster after another, one mass shooting after another, the blatant lies and manipulation coming from our political leaders, the world’s largest refugee crisis since World War II and of course, climate change. There is no need to bump the news anymore, it already feels like its been turned up as loud as possible and set to fast forward. The scandals and crises are so constant that its impossible to pay attention to them all. Its enough to make you crazy, enough to make you despair. I have heard a lot of people say in the past few years that they stopped watching the news. It was too depressing. Too overwhelming. Its easier and safer and more comfortable for some people to just tune out. To stop paying attention to anything outside of themselves and their own lives.
In this morning’s Gospel reading from Mark, James and John approach Jesus with a special request. When they approach him they state rather boldly, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus refuses to aquiesce to their demand before hearing what it is, and so he asks them, “What is it you want me to do for you.” To which the two disciples reply, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” The request is self- centered, they are asking Jesus to give them what they want. Their request is also notable because it mirrors what Jesus has said will happen to him after his death and resurrection: He will sit at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Jesus knows, and has told the disciples’ that his path to glory require his to give up his very life for the good of other human beings. So when the disciple’s flippantly request to be served and honored by Jesus, he responds by asking them if they too are willing to give up their very lives for others, ““Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I baptized with?” Using the metaphor of cup and baptism, Jesus is asking the disciple’s if they are ready to suffer and to die. This is a heavy question, something to be considered and meditated upon, for it means enduring pain, and suffering. At the very least you would want to sleep on such a question, or get back to Jesus, but no, not James and John. They immediately respond, “We are able,” a response that demonstrates that they have a very optimistic view of the costs and trials of discipleship. Indeed at the end of Mark’s gospel, James and John abandon Jesus at the cross. They were not ready, they were not able. They had vastly underestimated the cost of discipleship.
This is the problem with optimism, it is often an ill-informed hope. Optimism underestimates the difficulties that are coming its way, it reports sunshine and blue skies, even when a storm is obviously approaching. Optimism turns off the news when its too depressing. Optimism chooses to isolate itself from the suffering of others, living a life where the less fortunate can be ignored, and its navite can go unchallenged. James and John are concerned with themselves and their reward and so they are optimistic that they are up to any test involved. They have tuned out Jesus repeated warnings that his destiny is to suffer and die. So when the time comes for them to drink the cup, they are not at all prepared, they never imagined it would cost them their lives.
If the disciple’s have trouble fully facing the cost of discipleship, then what hope do we have for so doing? After all they had a living breathing Jesus in front of them warning and teaching them, and they still couldn’t fully face the suffering of the world, they still couldn’t give their lives freely for others. How can we find the strength to face the world’s suffering and yet not run away, not isolate ourselves in despair or indifference? Especially when many of the problems we face are global in scale and seemingly beyond our capacity to do anything to fix? How can we read the UN Report on climate change, acknowledge our leaders unwillingness to tackle the issue, and not simply melt into despair?
My family isn’t terribly athletic, my father is short and somewhat round, with a bad back, so he didn’t play a lot of sports with us. But he did for one year, coach my kindergarten T-ball team. We were, most of us, a rag-tag group of kids who were more scared of the ball hitting them than we were excited about the opportunity to hit it. But we had one boy on our team, who was possibly the world’s largest kindergartener. I can’t remember his name, but I remember him being a full foot taller than anyone else on our team. And I remember where he batted in the order: he was fourth, he was clean up. The first three batters would do their best to make it to base on a slow ground ball, or unintentional bunt. And then our big guy would come up to the plate and hit a home run. Like almost every time. We scored in multiples of four, this giant would usually hit two or three grandslams every game. So despite my teams lack of talent even courage, and despite my father’s inexperience at coaching, we went undefeated that season. We had a secret a weapon, our own giant kindergartner who could carry us home we if we could just get on base.
Perhaps the greatest difference between us and those original 12 disciples, is that we have a secret weapon, we have faith in the risen Christ. Its true that Jesus told the disciples repeatedly he was going to die and rise again, but its one thing to hear it, and quite another to witness it, to experience it. After the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the very same disciple’s who abandoned Jesus at the cross, became the foundation of the church. Their faith in God’s miraculous defeat of sin and death in Jesus’ resurrection completely changed them. The bumbling hard headed disciples become brave and bold in speaking truth to power, they perform miraculous healings, they begin a movement that has not stopped growing for over 2,000 years. And they did all of this while facing oppression, torture, and execution. Indeed we know from the book of Acts, that James did drink the cup of suffering, he too was executed. And hundreds and hundreds more over the first three centuries of Christianity would meet the same fate, torture and execution; yet they would face it with joy.
This is the difference between optimism and faith. While optimism underestimates or outright ignores the risks and costs involved, faith looks soberly and squarely at all the problems of the world, the countless, global, overwhelming problems of the world, and does not flinch. These problems are real, they are urgent, they are causing terrible consequences, and they will be nearly impossible to solve. That is true, and any faith worth the time, must be able to acknowledge that. But faith in the risen Christ is faith in a God for whom anything is possible. It is faith in a God of abundant grace and unparalleled power. It is faith in a God who conquers sin and death. This faith faces the crises of the world in all their horror and urgency, and nevertheless proclaims that God’s resources are greater than any of these problems. That God can and will and is working for justice, peace, and righteousness in the world. We can be realistic and yet still have hope, for our hope is not in ourselves, our hope is in the God who defeats sin and death, the God who can and will redeem anyone and anything. Our task is to be set free from despair, from indifference, from apathy, by our faith in God and to go about doing whatever small thing we can do to be a part of God’s saving work in the world. We can’t win the game by ourselves, we can’t even score a run by ourselves, but we can get on base if we try. We can do our small part and trust that God is always batting clean up. That God will bring us home. May we all find this trust, find this faith that sets us free to hope, and find ways in which we all can partake of the salvation that God is bringing to the world. Amen.
When I was in 8th grade I discovered Creedence Clearwater Revival. Granted, Creedence had already been around a good thirty years by that point, but eighth grade was when I first heard them. And I loved them. I liked Put Me in Coach, I liked Proud Mary, but absolutely loved the song, Fortunate Son. Fortunate Son had just enough rebellion, just enough disgust and disdain with the status quo, to really appeal to my rebellious adolescent spirit. The lyrics proclaim that the singer is not a Fortunate Son, “It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate Son, Oh it ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no Senator’s son.” Not only is the singer among the unfortunate, he also heaps judgment upon the wealth and injustice of the fortunate: “Some folks are born silver spoon in hand, Lord, don't they help themselves, oh But when the taxman comes to the door, Lord, the house looks like a rummage sale, yes.” The singer is upset, he’s angry at the injustice of some people, the fortunate ones, taking all they can, well beyond what they need or can create, and then refusing to contribute to the well being of all through the paying of their taxes. These fortunate sons take and take and take and when it is their turn to give, their turn to pull their weight, to take responsibility for their actions, they are nowhere to be found.
Amos, the Israelite Prophet of the 7th Century BCE, was decidedly not a Fortunate Son. Amos came from the small village of Tekoa, where he worked with his hands. He was not descended from a line of prophets, he did not grow up in a prophetic school, he was merely a common man, a laborer. Amos simply believed he had heard the word of God, and that he had been called to speak God’s word of judgment to the newly prosperous kingdom of Israel. God’s message to Israel was not good news for the fortunate of their society. Amos was a prophet with precious little good news to share, he was a prophet of doom.
Why? Why was God so upset with Israel? Why is God threatening them with annihilation? Isn’t this the same God of Jesus Christ, the God of grace, and mercy, the God whom John identified as love itself? How can such a bright, sunshiney, loving God be so eager to condemn, to punish, to take from the people their wealth and their security? What could the people have done to provoke the wrath of God?
Amos is not shy about publicly listing the sins of Israel; their actions which have brought about God’s wrath. The people have turned justice to wormwood, and they have righteousness to the ground. They have trampeled on the poor. They have built vineyards and houses and fortunes from the sweat of other men’s brows. They have pushed aside the needy, they have abhored the truth, they have taken bribes. What is worse, they have done so all while claiming God’s blessing. They have deceived themselves so thoroughly that they have come to believe that God has given them the wealth which they have taken from the poor. That they, the fortunate, are God’s chosen people.
Amos comes to remind them of their covenant with the One True God, the God who created the heavens and the earth. This belief in single God, a God not of a certain people, but a God who creates and sustains all of the Universe, was and remains the unique and special gift of Israel to the rest of the world. What made the Israelite belief in a single deity so significant was that it tied faith in God to ethical action in the world, it was and is, an ethical monotheism. The connection between belief in God and ethical action is all over the bible, it is most succinctly stated in the summation of Israel’s law, “To love the LORD your God with all your heart, and mind, and spirit, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” This two loves, that of neighbor and of God, are inseparable; for the God who created and loves you, also creates and loves your neighbor. To love this One God, requires loving what She loves, loving all the creation.
The wealthy of Israel have broken their covenant with God. They have not loved the poor, but exploited them. They have not sought the well being of the needy, but pushed them aside. Like any mother who sees an older son beating and abusing a younger, weaker son, God chooses the side of the oppressed and abused and meets the abuser with wrath. If the people of Israel continue in this oppression, “God will break out against the house of Joseph like fire, and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.”
The message of Amos to Israel should hit us like a ton of bricks in our present situation. The wealth of our nation came largely from the sweat of other men’s brows: 400 years of slavery, a continued history of exploited immigrant labor, extraction of wealth and natural resources from the third world. Our political leaders have thrown off any semblance of shame and lie routinely and boldly to the nation, its people, and the world. They abhor the truth. The gap between the poor and the obscenely wealthy continues to grow, and there seem to be a never ending supply of preachers scrambling to bless the wealthy to declare their prosperity a sign of God’s favor rather than a sign of their hatred of justice and the poor. If Amos brought a message of doom and destruction to 7th century Israel, what message would he bring to 21st century America?
We may not need to wonder any longer. In the last week the United Nations released a report on climate change which states clearly that without massive and immediate government intervention the consequences of climate change will be severley felt by the year 2040. Coastal cities and communites will be washed away. Famine, drought, and flooding will ravage the globe. Plant and animal species will go extinct at alarming rates. Disastrous weather, hurricanes, typhoons and tornadoes will increase in frequency and intensity. And all of this will happen, all over the globe, by the time our children are in their twenties. It would seem that God’s wrath is about to be poured out, or at the very least God seems to be leaving us to face the consequences of our sin. The coming disaster has been foretold. The question remains how will we respond?
Although Amos had a lot of bad news to give to Israel in the 7th century, he did hold out just the tiniest speck of hope for the people. “Seek good and not evil, that you may live; And so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said.Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” In the face of a global enviornmental crisis, it is natural to feel overwhelmed. It makes sense to feel that their is nothing that we alone can do. In fact, that is precisely what the UN report says, volunteerism will not solve this crisis, it will take massive government intervention just to lessen the disaster. As people of faith, people in covenant with God, what should our response be? The new covenant, of which are a part, proclaims that through the power of God’s grace we can be saved, we can be set free to pursue righeousness, to seek good and not evil.
This is precisely where Amos locates hope, in the grace of God, “It may be, that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” God’s grace is what saves. God’s grace is what makes possible newness of life, and transformation. It is in the grace of God that we must put our trust and our hope for salvation.
Does that mean that we are passive, that we keep on living the same way we have been, hoping that God will miracoulsy save us? No. Grace is transformative. It calls us to new life. It makes it possible to seek good over evil. If we are to trust in God’s grace that requires that we begin living as a people transformed, here and now. In the face of the coming disaster, in the face of the consequences of our sin, we must begin bearing witness to God’s saving grace by our actions as the church. We must bear witness with our lives together to God’s saving power by changing our ways. We must seek to care for the creation, to live in greater harmony with nature and our neighbors. How can we as church live more sustainably, how can we limit our pollution, our carbon footprint? We must seek to care for the poor and oppressed who will face the worst of the climate crisis that the wealthy have created. How can we help refugees? How can we work for justice for the poor and exploited? We must seek to tell the truth, even the difficult truth of the coming disaster and our responsibility for it, in love. How can we as church bear witness to the importance of truth telling? How can we help people out of denial and into a new life of covenant responsibility? The Church can be that faithful remnant of which Amos spoke, the seed of a new world of justice, righteousness, and truth. We can bear witness to a more just world, to the world that God is calling us to be. But we will have to choose to do so. This transformation of our selves, our congregation, and our community, will not happen if we don’t work for it. It will require our generosity, our giving of our money, our time, our love, and our compassion, and it will require our trust in the saving grace of God. My prayer is that we may find renewed enthusiasm for the work and ministry of St. Paul’s UCC. We are called to be a light to the nations, to model the kingdom of God for the world, to be a people who seek transformation through the giving of ourselves and our gifts to God and God’s plan for all creation. May it be so. Amen.
Sometimes it's easy to miss the point. When I was in seminary I noticed a flyer on the wall of our cafeteria that advertised a preaching competition. I was taking a preaching class at the time, and had newly discovered that I had a bit of a talent for it. I was also flat broke, and the competition offered a $300 prize. Needless to say, I was intrigued. I picked up the flyer and looked it over and thought about entering. I thought about how I could probably win it, how it’d be fun to win it, how I could celebrate my win and my winnings with Shannon. Fortunately, I was busy with my other classes and with work and I actually had to think about if entering the competition was worth my time. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized it wasn’t. Preaching isn’t about being the greatest. You preach to share the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ, not to win a contest. You preach to a congregation of sisters and brothers not to a panel of judges. Preaching is meant to uplift the people of God, not merely yourself. One might think that humility comes easily to clergy, it does not. We like all other human beings enjoy being good at something. We share that human tendency to make things all about us, to center ourselves and our need for importance. We also need to be reminded that life is not about how great we are.
When we encounter Jesus and the disciples in the 9th chapter of Mark, He has already told them once that he is to be betrayed and executed. Jesus tells the disciples on three separate occasions in Mark’s Gospel that he is going to be killed, and yet they are still shocked when it comes to pass. Some biblical scholars have taken the disciple’s surprise at Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion as reason to believe that perhaps he was not as explicit in his predictions of his death as Mark makes him out to be. Yet, that need not be the case. No special reason is needed to explain why the disciples struggled so mightily to understand that Jesus was to die. They believed that they had found the messiah, the one God had chosen to redeem Israel. As far as greatness was concerned, he was tops. He was to restore the kingdom of David, to reign over God’s people, death was simply incompatible with their understanding of his greatness. He was to bring about the glory of God and they expected plenty of greatness for themselves riding on his coatails. So Jesus 2nd prediction of his suffering and death went right over the heads just as the first had done. They did not understand and they were too afraid to ask, so they chose to ignore, to pretend he hadn’t said it at all. They continued thinking that greatness was the destiny of their leader and themselves.
As much as they wanted to ignore his odd predictions of his own humiliating death, the disciples’ must have known that Jesus’ own conception of greatness differed from their own. For when Jesus asked them what they had been discussing amongst themselves on the walk to Capernaum, they were silent. They did not wish to tell him that they had been arguing over which one of them was greatest. So Jesus, seeing that they were still holding to worldly measures of greatness, tries once again to instruct them on how greatness is to be measured in the kingdom of God. He stops walking there on the path. He sits down. He calls all the twelve to sit beside him. He says, “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” As if to demonstrate the meaning of his words, Jesus took a child and put him in the midst of them. He took the child in his arms and he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
What does this mean to receive a child in the name of Christ? Certainly it means welcoming children into our communal lives. Certainly it means valuing them as individuals, meeting their needs, extending to them love and grace. But there is more to it than that, more humility to be learned from receiving a child in the name of Christ.
This Monday evening I witnessed the miracle of my son’s birth. This is round two for Shannon and myself and so this time I had some expectations about what was to occur. All seemed to be going well up until we got to the labor and delivery room. One of our nurses noticed that the baby’s heart rate had dropped substantially and she was trying to calmly deal with the situation that clearly disturbed her. She called in another two nurses and they helped Shannon to roll over, gave her oxygen, and soon the baby’s heart rate returned to normal. The nurses assured us that this was perfectly normal and everything was fine. However, about 15 minutes later it happened again. This time the nurse seemed a little more worried, and she called for the doctor. Once the doctor arrived their frenetic movements and curt hushed tones, told me that not everything was fine. The doctor announced that she would check to see how dialated Shannon was, and to her great surprise she had gone from 3 cm to 10 cm in less than an hour. The baby’s heart was down because he was coming out. He was being born right then, before any of us had expected. A great flurry of activity and three pushes later and out came baby Samuel.
In the unexpected rush I had begun to worry that things were not going well. And when Samuel came out he didn’t look like Ruthie had looked. He was all purple, almost blue. And for maybe two seconds he was silent. That moment was a long moment for me. My whole being, my whole life was completely invested in this moment. More than anything in the world I wanted that little baby boy to breathe, to make a noise, to be alive. I would have given my life and anything else that I could give for that breathe without a moments hesitation. In those two seconds it became clear to me how little I mattered. It became clear to me that this tiny, helpless, infant, was infinitely more important than I.
At the end of the two seconds, Samuel cried. A great relief, followed by immense joy washed over me. My son was alive and I could let go of that worry. I hope, however, that I will not as easily let go of that moment of clarity, that moment when it was so stark and obvious to me that I was not what mattered, that there was nothing more important than life and well being of this child. That I believe is the deeper meaning of recieving a child in the name of Christ; accepting so fully that how we treat the vulnerable is the measure of our greatness that we are willing to give our very lives for that of a tiny, helpless, infant.
Rev. Traci Blackmon, the UCC minister for Justice and Witness Ministries, as a way of judging the justice of our society, often asks the question, “How are the children?” This is the gospel standard for the greatness of any society: How are the children? The children are those who are most vulnerable, those with the greatest need, those with the least to offer us. “If any would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” If we are to be great people, a great church, or a great nation, by the standard of the gospel we must be willing to accept that children are more important than any of us, and we must be willing to sacrifice ourselves for our children.
How are we doing with this standard, with this measurement of greatness? In the United States, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, over 21% of all children live in poverty. Nearly one in four. When children come to this country with their parents seeking asylum and an escape from violence and poverty, do we receive them in Christ’s name? Is our greatest concern how we can sacrifice for their well being? When children have their homes and their families destroyed by wars in which our nation fights do we welcome them as refugees, granting them safe haven and new opportunities? By any Christian calculation the answers to these questions are far more important data points than our GDP or our military budget.
Unfortunately, the question of How are the children in our churches is a difficult and painful one to ask at present. The very instituition which preserved and passed along the Gospel of Jesus Christ and its unique standard for greatness has been guilty of living by human standards of greatness with horrific results. The sinsickness and evil that leads one to abuse a child are beyond the scope of this sermon. But the impulse to cover it up, to protect the reputation of men and the reputation of the institution, before the well being of countless children, this is the perverse desire to care more for one’s worldly greatness than life of a child of God. This is a whole hearted abandonment of the gospel and its standard for greatness. Although it has been systemic within the Catholic Church, we must not be so arrogant and naive to assume such atrocities are not committed throughout all denominations. Any clergy and any church which practices ministry in the name of Jesus Christ must be willing to constantly and honestly ask themselves, “How are the Children?”
We have chosen to make ministry to children the focus of our work here at St. Paul’s UCC. Its an honorable commitment and one that, should would adhere to it, can keep us focused on doing the will of God. Let us always remember that our care for children is not merely a feature, or a strategy for church growth, but is rather the purpose for our being in the world, and the standard of greatness which our loving God has given us. Let us seek to welcome all children in the name of Christ and let us live our lives together as though there were nothing in the world more important than so doing. Amen.
During college I had the unbelievable good fortune to take a trip to Israel. I went with the Classics department of my college to work on an archaeological dig at the foot of the Golan Heights. It was an incredible, life changing trip for me, and if you ask me about sometime I tell you some of the more important things I did, and some of the incredible things I learned. But not now. Now I want to talk to you about Ketchup in Israel. One of our group leaders was an Israeli man by the name of Gabe. One of our first days I got to talking to Gabe at the work site and we began discussing the cuisine of our respective homelands. Gabe said the one American food that baffled him the most was Ketchup. I found this difficult to believe, that someone could feel strongly about not liking ketchup, among the most bland of all the condiments. But that afternoon as we ate our lunches in the Kibbutz where we were staying, I got a big helping of fries and took several packets of ketchup with me. When I opened the packets and squeezed out their contents, I was appalled. I don’t know what that stuff was, but sure as heck wasn’t ketchup. It was like a salty, runny, tomato jelly. It was gross. When I asked Gabe if this was what he meant by ketchup, he said, “Yes. Ketchup is awful.” I lost touch with Gabe many years ago, but I wonder if he ever got to taste real ketchup, heinz 57 ketchup. I wonder if tasting the real thing could have change his mind.
After spending months with his disciples publicly teaching, healing, feeding and forgiving, Jesus takes them to the city Caesara Phillipi where he asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” Apparently, Jesus had been causing quite a stir because all different kinds of people, had all kinds of different ideas about who he was. Some said he was John the Baptist, back from the dead. Others said he was Elijah, the prophet swept up in God’s chariot and due to return one day. Others simply thought he was another in the long line of Hebrew prophets. There was widespread disagreement about who Jesus was during his life.
Today widespread disagreement about who Jesus was, and who Jesus is remains. To some Jesus is wise old sage whose ethical teaching is extraordinary and worth following. There are those who believe that Jesus is a social and political revolutionary, subverting the power of Rome and of the religious authorities in Jerusalem. To others Jesus is the Son of God and True God, the incarnation of God’s love in the world. There are other questions as well, questions about what Jesus does. Does Jesus exclude people from salvation? Is Jesus particularly fond of America, does he put America first? Is Jesus Lord only over our religious lives, with no place in our social, economic and political lives?
Though not ultimately significant, what other people say about Jesus is important to all of us. For the way that we all begin to learn about Jesus, is by hearing others talk about him. We learn from Sunday School teachers, from songs like Jesus Loves Me, from books, from sermons, from our parents. One way or another we are always introduced to Jesus by the words, actions, and thoughts of others. For some of us, what we first learned from others about Jesus was helpful and healing. For others of us, what we first learned about Jesus from others was to fear His judgment, to hide from him our shame, to attempt to attain moral perfection in our following of him. These early lessons about who Jesus is have a way of sticking around, of becoming concrete in our minds. We may hold onto to the belief that Jesus is a demanding judge eager to punish as if that were all that Jesus could be. As though our teachers, our parents, had a monopoly on the understanding of Jesus. This is who Jesus is they say, and we accept it because we don’t yet know Jesus for ourselves. We have yet to taste Heinz 57 and yet we are already claiming that we hate ketchup.
Jesus is not satisfied to hear only what others have said about him. He asks the disciples directly, “Who do you say that I am?” Now is not the time fall back on blandly repeating ancient creeds, now is not the time to say what “those Christians say.” Now is the time for you, yourself, to decide what you think about Jesus. Who do you say he is?
The answers to this question have been as diverse as the people who have attempted to answer it. We each bring our own experiences to the question. We bring along lessons we have learned in childhood and life, our gifts and talents, our traumas and our baggage, and maybe even our hope, as we approach this question. As we are all different, so too will are understandings of Jesus be different. That is ok. In fact it is better than ok, it is good. It is good because Jesus is not a formula, he is not math problem, there isn’t just one right answer. Jesus appears differently to different people in different contexts. By hearing these other perspectives we can a greater, more profound understanding of what Jesus means for us. For ourselves.
However, being that I am a preacher of the gospel, I will suggest a broad understanding, a framework for our thinking about Jesus. Over centuries of debate, councils, conflicts, reformations, and even all out war over the question of who Jesus is, there is one answer broad enough to be inclusive of nearly every view of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the revelation of God. That is to say that for Christians Jesus is what God is like. We learn about God, about God’s love and grace, from the stories of Jesus. How we understand God, and how we understand Jesus to be like God, are ongoing questions, they evolve just as we do. What we believed about God and Jesus as children is likely different from what we believe today. That doesn’t mean we were wrong then, or that we are wrong now, it means only that we continue to wrestle with our faith, with our answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?”
We are starting our confirmation class this afternoon. Over the next year our youth will learn about the Bible, about Theology, about Church History. They will get to read and hear what other people, both dead and alive, have said about who Jesus is. But we won’t stop with them reciting other people’s opinions. We will ask them to state what they believe right now. How do they understand God and the world? Who do they say that Jesus is? We ask this question knowing full well that over the course of their lives these beliefs may change. They may find a new of thinking about Jesus during the course of their lives, they may discover that what they thought was ketchup was really just runny tomato jelly. They may stumble onto a new understanding that feels like Heinz 57 to them, like the real deal.
As for us adults, we too must continue to answer this question about who Jesus is for us. We are many different people, with very different backgrounds, and very different understandings of Jesus. I have no desire to create and enforce a singular uniform understanding of God and Jesus here at St. Paul’s. However, I do want us to create a safe space in this church and in our hearts to explore the question of who Jesus is for us. To do that we have to be willing to open ourselves again to the question. We have to be willing to have our hearts and minds changed. We have to brave enough to throw out ideas of Jesus that no longer serve us, ideas of God that have caused us trauma. We have to be willing to take up what heals us, and to always be trying to grow in spirit and in understanding. My prayer is that we not be content with what others have told us about Christ, but rather that we will find the courage to leave behind understandings that have become problematic, and to dare to answer for ourselves what Jesus really means for us. My prayer is that we grow together in our diverse understandings of God and Christ, so that we can get ever closer to experiencing the truth of Christ, ever closer to finding that real stuff, that Heinz 57 Jesus that is out there for all of us. Amen.
The other day, I was trying to get a little work done while I was hanging out with Ruthie. The two of us were in the living room, her playing with her toys and me reading and using the computer occassionally. During a moment when I was particularly engrossed in what I was reading, Ruthie knocked over her sippy cup of milk on the coffee table, the top popped off, and milk begin to stretch over the table, slowly approaching my laptop. The spill jerked me out of my book and back to reality and without thinking I reacted. “No Ruthie!,” I yelled. “No, no, no!” I repeated as I frantically removed my computer and books and everything else from the milk soaked table.
And then, I caught myself. After my initial reaction faded, I was able to see myself in the situation. I could see what I was doing, and what I was teaching my daughter to do. I was crying over spilled milk. Worse, I was scolding her for having spilled the milk. As though spilling your drink as a twenty month old is somehow beyond the pale of expected behavior. I was teaching Ruthie that her mistakes were not acceptable. I was teaching her that small accidents could provoke outsized reactions. I was teaching her that the proper response to spilled milk is to cry.
There is difference between a reaction and a response. A reaction is quick, instantaneous, instinctual. Reactions don’t involve thought and analysis, they simply let slip whatever is on the mind or heart with no concern for the consequences. A response on the other hand is slower, it allows for thought and consideration. A response involves choice, we choose how to respond, but not how to react. When Ruthie spilled the milk, I reacted. Without a moments pause I shouted my first thought, “No!” I might have acted differently. I might have paused after the spill, thought about how I wanted to respond, and then chosen the response I felt was best for the situation. I could have chosen to respond in a more gracious and kind manner.
There are days when I do I precious little responding, days when I can feel myself moving from one reaction to the next. These are days when I’m especially irritable, when it feels like everything is out of my control, that nothing is going my way, that I am fighting 100 different battles on a thousand different fronts, and losing them all. My first reaction on these days is to search for someone to blame: its the cable company, or the stupid computer, it’s the dog that’s driving me crazy, or its Ruthie and her reckless milk spilling. However, along my exceedingly slow journey to some semblance of spiritual maturity, I have learned that when everybody and everything is driving me nuts, the cause is usually to be found in me rather than anywhere else.
We recently welcomed a group of Alcoholics Anonymous to begin meeting each Tuesday evening in our sanctuary. There is phrase commonly used in AA circles, a question of whether you are spiritually fit. Spiritual fitness is meant to refer to the state of your spirit, how are you feeling inside? Are you bouncing from one reaction to the next, increasingly angry and frustrated and edging towards despair? If so, you are not especially spiritually fit. To become spiritually fit, is to make room for a pause, to allow ourselves to remember that we have entrusted our lives to a loving God, to invite the spirit of that God into us, and to attempt to respond with that same loving spirit. How one becomes spiritually fit will of course depend a great deal on the individual, but in general the idea is to do whatever it is that helps bring you into a closer relationship with God. Pray. Come to church. Go to an AA meeting. Call a friend. See a therapist. Exercise. Write a list of all you are grateful for. We all must find what works for us, what helps us to connect to a power greater than ourselves, what helps us to escape our anger and reaction and helps us to find serenity.
The letter of James in the New Testament treats just this topic of spiritual fitness. James writes that all good things come from God. He further counsels us, “Let everyone be quick to listen, and slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” Be slow to anger. There may be situations of intolerable injustice, systems that degrade the dignity of the image of God in our sisters and brothers, and at such systems and situations anger may be a proper response, anger like that shown by Jesus when he threw out the money changers from the temple. But this is a slow rising anger, it is anger as an appropriate response, and not as a first reaction. “Be slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” If we want good to be in our lives it does not come from our anger, rather it comes only from God. It is God and God alone who produces God’s righteousness. Our angry reactions are futile attempts to control our surroundings, to change what has already happened, to reject our lot in life, and they keep us from welcoming a more gracious and loving spirit into our hearts. These are all a result of our lack of spiritual fitness. If we wish for good, for God’s righteousness to take the place of our anger, we must learn to pause, to ask for God’s presence, to welcome God into our lives, to allow the Holy Spirit a more firm grip upon our souls. As James says, “Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” This is what is to be spiritually fit, to have rid yourself as much as possible of your self-centered wickedness, and to be able to welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
When James refers to the implanted word, he is referring to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The content of this Gospel, this good news, is both so simple it can be understood by any and all human beings, and it is so infinitely complex that it has inspired and will continue to inspire countless minds to explicate it and investigate its implications. The simplicity of the Gospel is this: God has chosen to love us now in the present moment just as we are, despite all of our sin, our faults, and our shortcomings. The Gospel is the good news of the unmerited grace of God. James wants us to welcome this word into our hearts. James wants us to truly believe that we are loved and loved unconditionally. He wants us to be constantly reminded of the depth and breadth of this unconditional love. He wants us to allow that unconditional love to transform us, to lead us from reaction to response, he wants it to save our souls.
How might our lives be different if we took James’ advice, if we welcomed the unconditional love of God into our hearts and let it guide our responses? If I want my response to Ruthie to teach her of the unconditional love of God, I do not want to give her the impression that her mistakes are unforgivable breaches of ettiqutte, I don’t want to shout No Ruthie at her, I want to respond with grace. I want Ruthie to know that accidents happen, that we make mistakes, and that no mistake she could make would ever stop me from loving her. I want her to feel and know that she is loved without condition. This is what James means when he says that we must not only be hearers of the word, but also doers of the word. It is not enough for me to know that through God’s grace I am loved unconditionally, if that knowledge does not somehow transform my behavior towards others. The grace of God has transformative power, to truly hear it and accept it, is to have you life transformed. It is to live not from a place of reaction and insecurity, but rather from a place of abundant love and generosity. It is to live with a desire to love as freely as we have been loved.
Finally, I want to speak a word on James’ measure of religion that is pure and undefiled before God. At the very end of today’s reading, James claims that true religion is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world. Certainly James believes that we ought to care for all people and not only widows and orphans, right? So why does he single them out? What is special about widows and orphans? The times in our lives when we most need love are not the times when we are doing the best. The times when we most need loving care and support are when we are in distress, when they’re is no one to care for us, when we have been abandoned, when we are in need, that is when we need love the most and that is precisely when the world makes it most difficult for us to receive love. Who needs love more than the abandoned child and yet who is less likely to receive it? It is always easier to love the people closest to us, it is always more materially beneficial to support those who are doing well. The world will always give us reasons to support those in power, those dripping with success. The world will also give us countless excuses not to care for those in distress. We can blame their distress on them, they are lazy, they should have stayed in their own country, they should have followed the rules and waited their turn. We can believe that to help those in distress will only ruin their personal responsibility and teach them to look for a handout. We can even decide that they are not the same kind of people as us, they are not Christians, not Americans, not law abiding citizens, and therefore not as deserving of our love and care. Yet what all these excuses not to love and care for those in distress have in common is that they place conditions upon the giving of our love. Though God loves us without condition, the world will always demand conditions for our love and care. If we are to welcome the implanted word that will save our souls, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the unconditional love of God into our lives, we must cut through every excuse the world gives to not freely love and care for others. We must seek not to react to people’s distress by finding fault in them, but rather respond to their distress with the unmerited grace and unconditional love that we were fortunate enough to experience ourselves. To love God is to love what God loves. God loves all of us, but God most especially loves those of us who are most in need of loving support and care. God most especially loves those that world has cast out and found excuses not love and care for. If God’s love is truly unconditional and truly for all, it must be lavished upon the widow and the orphan and all others the world has deemed unworthy. The test of our true religion is the unconditional love of God, a love that can never leave any out, a love that seeks out the lost, a love that especially embraces the widow and the orphan. Let us welcome this unconditional love into our hearts and let us share it as wildly and freely as it has been shared with us. Amen.
Rev. Andrew Greenhaw
Eternal Student, Christian Minister, Buffalo Wing Enthusiast