Risk and Reward

Risk and Reward

Sermon for Jan. 22, 2023, Epiphany 3A

Matthew 4:12-23  The Message Version

When Jesus got word that John had been arrested, he returned to Galilee. He moved from his hometown, Nazareth, to the lakeside village Capernaum, nestled at the base of the Zebulun and Naphtali hills. This move completed Isaiah’s revelation:

Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
    road to the sea, over Jordan,
    Galilee, crossroads for the nations.
People sitting out their lives in the dark
    saw a huge light;
Sitting in that dark, dark country of death,
    they watched the sun come up.

This Isaiah-prophesied revelation came to life in Galilee the moment Jesus started preaching. He picked up where John left off: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.”

Walking along the beach of Lake Galilee, Jesus saw two brothers: Simon (later called Peter) and Andrew. They were fishing, throwing their nets into the lake. It was their regular work. Jesus said to them, “Come with me. I’ll make a new kind of fisherman out of you. I’ll show you how to catch men and women instead of perch and bass.” They didn’t ask questions, but simply dropped their nets and followed.

A short distance down the beach they came upon another pair of brothers, James and John, Zebedee’s sons. These two were sitting in a boat with their father, Zebedee, mending their fishnets. Jesus made the same offer to them, and they were just as quick to follow, abandoning boat and father.

From there he went all over Galilee. He used synagogues for meeting places and taught people the truth of God. God’s kingdom was his theme—that beginning right now they were under God’s government, a good government! He also healed people of their diseases and of the bad effects of their bad lives. Word got around the entire Roman province of Syria. People brought anybody with a sickness, whether mental, emotional, or physical. Jesus healed them, one and all. More and more people came, the momentum gathering. Besides those from Galilee, crowds came from the “Ten Towns” across the lake, others up from Jerusalem and Judea, still others from across the Jordan.

Try to put yourself in this story.  You fish for a living.  You are living in Palestine.  Most of the time it’s hot, but you get to go out on the lake, so unlike the day laborers, the vineyard workers, and animal herders, you get some relief.  

But the fishing business is not what it used to be.  Rome has commercialized it.  Every fish pulled up in your nets is taxed, and that tax is in addition to the Roman tribute tax and the temple tax.  

None of those taxes were going to provide schools, health care, or social security.  They were spent on palaces, banquets, and Roman armor.  So, life is hard.  

You don’t like the current situation, but there is nothing you can do about it.  It is not like it was in the past.  You have been taught the stories of your people’s history, back when you were free from foreign domination.  

You remember the stories of the time of King David when the kingdom was united and free, but that was a long time ago. 

At the Sabbath synagogue service, you have also heard readings from your ancient prophets.  They had a lot to say about justice; mostly about injustice which they called out.  

But they also held out hope for a better future.  They spoke of days to come in which people who lived in circumstances that could only be described as dark would one day see a great light.  They spoke of those coming days when oppression would end using metaphors like the breaking of a heavy yolk carried on the necks of oxen.  

That sounds wonderful, but those prophets’ words seem like an ancient fantasy all these years later.  Now you wear the Roman yolk.  

But one day, as you are there in your boat not far offshore, casting and recasting the net, someone comes along and calls you.  You hear him say something striking.  First, he says, 

Change your life.” 

And then he gives the reason, 

God’s kingdom is here.”  

What could it mean to be called to change your life?  What would need to change?  What would that change require of you?  At first, you have no idea, but you feel compelled to follow this person who seems to have the confidence of one of those ancient prophets.  

As you listen to his teaching, you become aware that the call to change your life is going to involve some massive re-orientations.  You are going to have to think differently than you used to.  

For starters, he tells you that you will be fishing in the future, not for your supper, but for people.  In other words, your whole life orientation will become other-centered.  Your attention will be turned outward.  

There are people all around in desperate need of some good news, and you are going to be the one to bring them hope.  So, it’s not about you anymore; it’s about being a conduit of compassion.  

But the reason there is hope is going to involve another huge reorientation.  The reason for changing your life and becoming other-oriented is, he said, because “

God’s kingdom is here.”  

He explains, you are now 

under God’s government”.

That is puzzling.  How, you wonder, could that be true?  Roman soldiers enforce the Empire’s domination in every marketplace and over every boat.  

Well, this is just the beginning.  You will be learning a lot from Jesus in the days to come.  

You will soon hear the Beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount.  

You will learn how to pray in an intimate, personal way.  

You will hear some amazing parables and watch how he interacts with people, from sick people to critics.  

And you will begin to understand that the oppression you have suffered from all these years goes way deeper than politics and economics.  

You will start to learn that your mind has been dominated as well. 

That is why he began his call by saying 

Change your life.”  

If politics and economics were the deepest problems, as most of your compatriots believe, then the solution may be found in revolution.  

That is what a lot of your friends are whispering about on the boats and behind the market stalls.  Take up the sword where Joshua left off, they say, and rid the land of its current Philistines, the Romans. 

The one who called you to change your life is going to be teaching you that there are two problems with that plan.  

The first is practical.  Those who live by the sword die by the sword.  Revolution will produce a river of blood up to the horse’s bridle.   It’s a fool’s errand.   (Side note: they eventually did revolt and it ended horribly in the year 70.)

The second reason is deeper.  Violence begets violence.  The cycle will only stop when you learn to stop returning it.  Instead, turn the other cheek, go the second mile, and learn to forgive, even your enemies.   Love your enemies.  Change your life.  Start living as if God were king.  

Start believing that God’s will can be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Start forming communities of inclusion and compassion where sharing is characteristic, and no one leaves the table hungry.  

Do you feel called, like those people in the boat?  Come, Jesus says.  

Come to me all of you who are weary and carrying burdens.  

Matt. 11:28

Come, change your life.  Let God be in charge.  Open the door to others.  Share the table.  There is enough for all of us.  

This is good news. There is a risk he is asking you to take.  But if he is right, there is great reward.  Come.  

Come and See

Come and See

Sermon for Jan. 15, 2023 Epiphany 2A

Video will be available at the website of the Central Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith, AR after the service.

 John 1:29-42 

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Chosen One.”

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Sometimes the most important thing that can be said is not a statement, but a question.  

I heard a story about a famous Rabbi who arrived at a castle as night fell, seeking entrance.  A guard on the wall shouted down to him, “Who are you?  Why are you here?”  The Rabbi hesitated for a moment, then asked the guard, “How much are they paying you?”  

After the guard answered, the rabbi said, “I will double that amount if you will come to my house every day and asks me those two questions.”  

Who are you?  Why are you here?” 

Sometimes the most important thing that can be said is not a statement, but a question.  

Dr. Phil was famous for asking his TV counselees the question, “How is that working out for you?”  Just asking that question often turns on a light bulb that makes you want to change your life.  

What Are You Looking For?

In our Gospel reading we heard another powerful question. Jesus asks, 

What are you looking for?”

A famous New Testament scholar of the past generation wrote, 

It is the first question which must be addressed to anyone who comes to Jesus, the first thing about which he must be clear.” 

(R. Bultmann, quoted by Beasley-Murray in  John, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 36, p. 25)

What are you looking for?”

Clearly there are right things to come looking for and the opposite.  

Coming to Jesus for a rubber-stamped approval of one’s own personal ambitions was clearly mistaken.  The disciples had to learn that, when they asked to sit on Jesus’ right and left in the coming kingdom.  

I am constantly amazed at how often I hear people invoking Jesus to rubber stamp agendas which the historical Jesus would have abhorred.  

Power, glory, honor, wealth, or hatred, division, scapegoating; as if there was no record of what Jesus actually called people to, no sermon on the mount, no parables about good Samaritans or sheep and goats, no story of a person laying down his life, refusing the path of violence.  

Staying

But the text we are looking at is one in which they get it right.  

What are you looking for?”  

They answer, 

“Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?”

They want to know because wherever he is, that is where they want to be.  When they find out, that’s where they go.  And that is where they remain.  

Of all the things John could tell us about that moment, oddly he tells us the time of day it was when they finally left.  Literally, he says “the tenth hour” so our English bibles translate it “about four o’clock in the afternoon.”  

Why in the world would we need to know that?  Because it gives John a chance to make a play on words and tell us that they “remained” all day.  

The word “remain” is the same as “stay” when they asked Jesus where he was staying.  So, it shows up three times in this little text: 

Where are you staying?  … They came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day.

Staying with Jesus is going to become a key theme for John – it is the right answer to the question, 

What are you looking for?”  

Looking for a way to stay, to remain, or in an older version, “abide” with Jesus is what makes all the difference.  

Later in John’s gospel, we will hear about the vine and the branches and how fruitfulness depends on the branch staying, or remaining, or abiding in the vine.  We are the branches, and Jesus is the vine.  

Our task is to stay, or abide, or remain, to draw our source from Jesus, and so to produce fruit. 

Come and See

So how did those two disciples find out where Jesus was staying so that they could remain with him?  Jesus invited them, saying, 

Come and see.

It sounds so much like the Psalmist’s invitation, 

taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”  

Psalm 34:8

Come and see is an open invitation.  It is not conditional.  There is no prior requirement, no probationary period.  It is immediate; come and see, right now.

This is the invitation we hear today.   

Come and see.”  

Come and see where Jesus is, and what life looks like staying there, soaking up Jesus’ teaching, watching Jesus’ life, noticing who he talks to, what he considers important, how he responds to his world.  

Our Quest

This is our quest – to come and see what the Jesus-shaped life looks like, and to stay connected enough to bear the fruit that vine produces.  

It will be recognizable as the fruit of compassion, of inclusion, of forbearance and forgiveness, and the fruit of an open-hearted, trusting spirituality, nurtured by daily practices.

This way of life bears fruit personally, and also produces a community.  A beloved community as Dr. King loved to say.  A community that is as open and welcoming as the original Jesus-community was.  

Open to women, open to Samaritans, open to lepers, open to Roman soldiers and Syro-Phoenicians.  

In John’s gospel, Jesus knows his hour has finally come because Greeks come seeking Jesus.  There are simply no barriers: racial, gender, class, status, orientation, gender identification — none of them is relevant in the beloved community of Jesus.

Today, we celebrate the joy and beauty of belonging to a community that is living closer to the ideal of a truly beloved community than we have ever been before.  

What do people come and see when they come here?  A community that has remained with Jesus long enough to bear the fruit of radical hospitality.  

We celebrate the gifts of women.  We are thankful for the people from the LGBTQ community who find God’s loving embrace here.  

We join with our African-American sisters and brothers in a common quest to ensure that there is justice and equity for all.  

We offer compassion to people in need.  We contribute to the sack lunch program.  We provide space for DHS children in crisis and supervised family visits.  We make supper for the Salvation Army, and we donate to disaster relief.

We celebrate this good, God-given planet, and we find ways to heighten our awareness of the dangers of climate change and our role in it.  

We are a long way from perfect, but we are on a quest to come and see Jesus, and to remain on the Jesus path together.  So we come together in worship and praise of  God who made this world and loves it, and who made every man, woman, boy and girl, and loves them.  

This is our invitation to our community: Come and see. All of us are ready to extend that invitation to our friends and neighbors.  Come and see.  The Spirit is here.  God is here.  

Back to the Questions

So let us ask the question again: 

What are we looking for?”  

We are looking for ways to remain with Jesus in our lives, in our community, in our world.  We are looking for ways to bear fruit.  

We are willing to keep reviewing the questions, why are we here?  What do we want?  We are willing to honestly examine present conditions asking, “How is that working out for us, and for others?”  

We are willing to ask questions that are difficult: questions about race, questions about privilege, and questions about poverty.  With hearts that are open to coming and seeing, we will open our eyes to everything the Spirit wants us to see.  And we will respond.  

We will remain, until the day when long moral arc of the universe that bends towards justice, as Dr. King said, has finally touched down and there is in fact liberty and justice for all.   That is what we are looking for.  Come and see. 

Significantly Human

Significantly Human

Sermon for Jan. 8, 2023, Baptism of Jesus Sunday, Year A

Video will be available at the website of the Central Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith, AR after the service

Matthew 3:13–17 

 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw God’s Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

I watched a short animated video which was amazing.  First, we see our earth from the vantage of space.  We see that familiar blue and white, bowling ball-looking circle against the blackness.  

Then the view zooms back to show the size of our earth in relation to the other planets in our solar system.  If Saturn were a basketball, the earth would be the size of a ping-pong ball.  

Then we see the earth next to the sun.  If the sun is the basketball, the earth is the size of a BB.  

Looking at the earth from Mars, we appear no larger than a little white speck, like a distant star.  If the earth is the size of a BB compared to the basketball sun, our sun is the size of a BB compared to other stars.  

The video animation keeps zooming out and out, further and further, until our whole galaxy is just a speck among galaxies.  

The Hubble space telescope took a picture of one little patch of sky in which there are thousands of galaxies, with billions of stars in them, each star with its own circling planets.  

At first, when you watch this, you feel small.  Then as it continues, you feel insignificant.  Finally, you feel minuscule at an unimaginable scale.  

One way to tell the human story is to say we do not matter.  We could blow up our entire world in nuclear war and the universe would take no more notice than we do of battling ant colonies beneath our lawns.  

Another Story

But another way to tell this story is with awe that in this amazing universe, we, and perhaps only we (although we do not know for sure) have been given the gift of consciousness.   Unlike those billions of galaxies and stars and planets, we know that we are here.  

Along with the gift of consciousness, we have been given other gifts of awareness as well.  Since humans emerged, we have looked out across the stars in the sky and have had a sense that we are not alone.  We have sensed that in spite of our smallness in the universe, we matter to God.  

How we matter to God has been a question answered differently across human history.  For much of the world and for much of that history, the idea of mattering to God has come with fear.  The fear that whatever God wanted, we were not giving it, or enough of it, or in the right way.  

We feared what God could do to us in return.  Everybody suffers, some much more than others, but we all experience pain and loss.  Maybe we were being punished by God?  

The Jesus Story

Into this rather bleak picture comes another story; the Jesus story.  In an utterly amazing and revolutionary departure from the narratives of fear, Jesus presents us with a transforming alternative narrative of love.  

How do we matter to God?  We matter like children matter to parents.  We are loved.  We are family.  

Jesus grew up in Nazareth, probably working alongside his father the builder.  But at about age 30, he left home and his family to join a growing movement of people.  

Their leader was a rough-dressing, rough-living man whom we know as John the baptizer.  Jesus went down to the Jordan River and became a part of John’s movement.  Three of the four gospels tell us about that one day, the day John baptized Jesus.  

We read Matthew’s version.  It leaves so many questions unanswered.  John objects to baptizing Jesus — he says, 

I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?

 Why?  What does he know about Jesus?   John, as a spiritually alive and aware person, a prophet, senses something in Jesus’ spirituality that made him feel lesser by comparison.  

Jesus Into the Water

But this is where the story becomes so radical.  Jesus, with his alternative vision of God, knows what he must do.  He must get down into the water with everyone else.  

He cannot maintain some kind of spiritual superiority, because the God that Jesus believes in does not do that.  Instead of staying on the mountain, as in the Moses story, with fearsome sights and sounds that make the people tremble. Jesus knows God as the father that runs to welcome his prodigal son back home.  

So Jesus gets into the water with everyone else and is baptized in those waters that everyone else has shared, in complete and total identification with them, demonstrating that they matter to God.  

It is in those waters that Jesus has the experience that propelled him into his own public ministry.  Matthew tells it this way:

When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

In the waters, Jesus became profoundly aware at a deeper level that he was God’s Son, the beloved.  In the waters, he became aware of the Spirit of God, upon him and within him.  

Our Baptismal Waters

Nearly everyone here has passed through the waters of baptism.  In that moment we have been named and claimed as children of God.  We have been given the identity of “beloved.”  We have become members of the beloved community, the body of Christ.  

Baptism is the perfect symbol for what we believe.  In its original context, baptism involved literally submerging under the water.  

Under the surface, suddenly the sounds and sights of the world change.  It is almost silent.  It is like a grave.  It is like death. Coming up out of the water, suddenly the world reappears; we can breathe again.  It is like rising from the dead.  

In baptism we symbolize dying to an old way of being, and rising to a new life.  It is like emerging from the dark waters of the womb into the light of life.  

We may be specks of dust in an enormous universe, but we are children who matter to our God.  Our identity then, gives us our vocation, our calling.  

As the beloved community of the baptized, as children of God, we are called to get down into those waters with everyone else.  We know that we, ourselves, matter to God.  

We also know that every one of us matters to God.  We know that our place is not to remain aloof on the banks, but it is down in the waters with the rest of humanity, because that is where God meets us.  

On this small blue planet, we humans have had a difficult time, over the years, recognizing each other as beloved children of God.   

Throughout history we have characteristically seen our differences as reasons to divide, and having divided, we have treated others with suspicion, and even harm. But it doesn’t have to be that way.  

Our baptismal calling, is to get into the water with those who differ from us.  Our identity as children of God calls us to get up and move to where sisters and brothers, children of the same God, have been harmed, and to stand with them, recognizing them as we recognize ourselves: as beloved children of a loving God before whom we are significantly human. 

Empires and Immigrants

Empires and Immigrants

Sermon for Jan. 1, 2023 at Central Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith, AR.

Audio is at the church website.

 Matthew 2:13–23 

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt,  and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.  Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” 

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”  Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.  But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.  There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

On social media I saw two pictures of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol in the Christmas season, the first from last year and the second from this year.  It was a helicopter view of the theater that became famous as the place all those hundreds of women and children sheltered from the shelling.  

They had written in huge letters the Russian word for children on the big squares in front and back of the theater, so that anyone targeting the shelling would know to avoid it.  Nevertheless, the theater took a direct hit, killing an estimated 600 people, mostly women, and children.

The picture taken last year featured a huge lit-up Christmas tree on the square, and decorations all around.   The contrast was stark.  The Christmas celebration of a new birth is now a ruin; a place of mass death.  

That contrast of new birth and death, hope and terror is at the heart of the Christmas story.  In the story, as Matthew tells it, Jesus is born to Mary and Joseph, not in the best of times, but at least, in safety, at first.  

The wise men come and present him with gifts, honoring him as the newborn king of the Jews.  But the reigning king of the Jews, Herod the Great was not having it.  

In a macabre replay of Pharaoh’s slaughter of the Israelite baby boys, Herod orders a massacre. That is what empires do. Matthew says, 

he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under….

What parent could possibly remain under those conditions?  Matthew’s interest is in Jesus’ story, so he says nothing about what others attempted to do, but we can imagine the mass panic and desperate attempts at escape. 

We can imagine the weeping.  Matthew recalls a couplet from the prophet Jeremiah who looked at the captured Israelites, stopping in Ramah en route to  Babylon.  The prophet imagines Jacob’s wife Rachel, mother of several of the 12 sons of Jacob, the eponymous leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel.   Rachel died in childbirth, weeping for her children.  

A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” 

Rachel stands for all the mothers of Israel in so many generations, weeping for their children.  In this latest round in the time of Jesus, it is the mothers of Bethlehem, under Herod’s cruel decree, who weep.

But Joseph and Mary somehow successfully escape.  They take the baby Jesus with them to Egypt, out of Herod’s reach.  

Now they are refugees, immigrants.  People who fled intolerable conditions in their own country to try to survive in another.  People who fled in fear for their child’s life.  People who were willing to risk everything to protect him.

At the heart of the Christmas story, the hero of the story, Jesus, begins life as an immigrant to a foreign country.  This will not be their last move.  

When king Herod died in 4 BCE, so brutal had been his oppression that revolution broke out throughout Israel.  The Roman army brought its legions in to crush the revolts, killing tens of thousands and enslaving more.  But in the end, Herod was gone, and it was now safe to return to their native land.  

But not to Bethlehem.  After his death, Herod’s kingdom was split up between his sons.  Archelaus was governing Judah.  Archelaus had a terrible reputation.  He was so cruel, as his father had been, that the Judeans complained to Rome.  Emperor Augustus removed him from his post in 6 CE, and from thence, Judea was ruled directly by Roman governors.  

So, to avoid the dangers of living under Archelaus, Joseph and Mary move again, this time from Judea up to Galilee, to the town of Nazareth.  They have been uprooted again out of fear of the dangers of the political world they lived in.  

The Christmas story is not all angels and shepherds, wise men, and gifts. It is about death, the fear of death, and escape.  It is about politics that makes it intolerable to stay home. It is also a story of dislocation, of immigration.

How does this story speak to us in the season of Christmas in 2023?   I cannot imagine living in conditions so bad that I would set out on foot with my wife and baby, face the dangers along the way, to get to a country where I did not speak the language and had no employment or lodging.  

I cannot imagine it, but the Venezuelans can.  According to Chatham House, up to 

six million people have fled Venezuela due to the economic and humanitarian crisis in the country… Since 2013, the economy has contracted by 75 per cent and inflation in 2021 is expected to reach 1,800 per cent. Close to 80 per cent of the population is in poverty and around two-thirds are malnourished.” 

https://www.chathamhouse.org/2021/10/migration-latin-america

I cannot imagine it, but the people of Guatemala and El Salvador can.  

Guatemala and El Salvador have some of the most unequal distribution of land in the world. Opportunities are limited in a stratified class system, and both nations were wracked by civil wars during the 1980s with 200,000 people killed in Guatemala’s wars alone.” (Ibid)

Could I stay with my baby in Honduras? 

Honduras is now the murder capital of the world with a worse murder rate than Iraq at the height of its war.” (Ibid.) 

Refugees have reasons.  Many reasons.  Overwhelming reasons.  

If Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus showed up on our border, would we let them in?   What if they came from Central or South America?

Where does this leave us?  As Christians whose story of Jesus begins with Jesus and his parents as immigrants, how should we feel about modern issues of immigration?  

I do not have all the answers; no one does.  But as a Christian in a majority Christian nation, I have some thoughts I hope we can reflect on.

First, though foreign aid cannot solve all the problems and make these countries acceptable, it can make a real difference. 

So, some thoughts about foreign aid.  There is, in some circles, a myth that foreign aid has no effect.  That is simply not true, and no one should believe it.  

Millions of people have been saved from starvation, and millions have survived the AIDS and Ebola epidemics because of foreign aid.  

Second, foreign aid given to people in anti-democratic governments does not go to those governments.  It is distributed through non-governmental relief and development agencies.  

The myth that foreign aid simply gets sucked up by corrupt governments is simply a phony reason not to give. 

Third, most Americans vastly over estimate the amount of foreign assistance we give.  According to the Brookings Institute: 

foreign assistance is less than 1 percent of the federal budget…There is a broad international consensus that wealthy countries should provide annually 0.7 percent of GNP to assist poor countries. Five countries (Norway, Sweden, Luxembourg, Denmark, and the U.K.) exceed that benchmark. The average for all wealthy nations is around 0.4 percent. The U.S. ranks near the bottom at below 0.2 percent.

https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/what-every-american-should-know-about-u-s-foreign-aid/

We are a great nation; we can be a great nation in generosity if our people demand it from our politicians.  But let us not believe myths.  

Even if we doubled our foreign assistance, I am sure we would still have immigration at levels that challenge our current capacity.  

But why is our current capacity so limited?  China can build entire cities from scratch, and they are far behind us in development and prosperity.  

Why is it so much easier to raise money for Patriot missiles at $4 million apiece than for humans at our borders?  

Budgets reflect our values.  We Christmas-story-Christians should be taking the lead in challenging our value system. 

The Presbyterian Office of the General Assembly’s Office of Immigration issues reminds us that, 

The history of Presbyterians advocating on behalf of immigrants dates back to 1893 when the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. opposed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Today Presbyterians continue this legacy by working locally as well as nationally to join the struggle to ensure immigration policy is more just and consistent with Christian principles.”  

Finally, what kind of issue is immigration?  It is not first a political issue nor an economic issue.  

If we as Christians begin with the Christmas story and reflect on the plight of Jesus and his family as immigrants, we come to understand that this is a human issue.  

If it is a human issue, then it is automatically a spiritual issue.  It was Jesus, the former immigrant who said, 

I was a stranger, and you welcomed me… ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these… you did it to me.

(Matt. 25)

Shepherds and Angels

Shepherds and Angels

Sermon for Christmas, 2022

Luke 2:1-14

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  3 All went to their own towns to be registered.  4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 

2:8    In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 

Does God even care about what is going on in the world?  You watch the news, and that seems like a fair question.  A person could give a glib pious answer: “Of course God cares.”  

But a thoughtful person might want to ask how you could tell?  Everyone here could instantly come up with a list of horrors going on right now if they wanted to.

What would it look like if God showed up?  Who would God care about?  How would God deal with this world and its people?

The way the gospels tell the story of Jesus, they are telling a story of God showing up in the world.  So, let us look at Luke’s version of the Christmas story that way: as a story of how God would show up in the world.  Then we will return to our original question.

Luke begins with a  story of forced dislocation.  Mary and Joseph are uprooted from their home in Nazareth, at the order of a foreign power that dominates their nation and their lives.

They are dislocated for the sole purpose of paying a tax.  The tax will not fund roads, schools, or health care systems.  It will instead pay for palaces, banquets, swords, and spears. So this is a story of an oppressed people at the mercy of an Empire.  The main characters are powerless peasants.

Those main characters, Joseph and Mary are betrothed.  Their families have agreed, the contract is binding, they will soon be married.  Mary is pregnant.  Far from home, they seek shelter but find nothing but a stable.  They are literally homeless people at this moment.

In the Roman Empire, they announced the birth of an heir to the throne with publicity and fanfare.  They had a special word for such announcements: they called it “good news.”  That is the same word that gets translated “gospel” in older English.  

The baby born to Mary gets a birth announcement too, which is also called “good news.”  But the announcement is not made from the palace and it is not announced to the governing elite.  The announcement is made to shepherds, the lowest rung on the employment ladder.

Nevertheless, the announcement is made by a divine messenger, an angel; a gloriously shining creature, a bright light in a dark sky.  The message outshines the gospel announcement of an heir to the Roman throne.  He says,

I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

Early Christians loved the stories of Jesus. Before they wrote them down, the handed on, by word of mouth, the stories of how he lived with great compassion for the poor people he spent his short adult life within Galilee.

They remembered him having dinners that were open to all of them without any judgment.  They recounted stories of him welcoming into his company everyone he encountered, without prejudice or discrimination.

They told stories of when Jesus taught them about turning the other cheek and going the second mile for each other. 

They remembered how Jesus taught them about how God was too.  That if they got off track, God would seek them out like a shepherd looks for lost sheep.  They felt the presence of God so strongly in Jesus, they were drawn to him. They found his presence healing to them.

So, if God was at work powerfully in Jesus, then that meant that God was concerned about them; little people, poor people, peasant people, marginalized people.  So when they told the stories of Jesus’ birth, of course, the cast of characters had to be poor peasants.

But the story also had to have angels — lots of them in Luke’s version — to make sure that the story was a God story.  

If God ever showed up, the kind of God Jesus loved, prayed to, and taught about, that God would show up among peasants in a stable.  His first community would be common shepherds.  But make no mistake about it, he was going to grow up to be someone they were happy to call Messiah, Savior, even Lord.

It is odd to say those things about Jesus; a man who lived such a short life, never had any power, never wrote anything, never became famous in his lifetime outside his small region, and whom the Romans ingloriously executed.

But that is because execution was not the end for Jesus.  His community continued to keep his memory alive by telling his story.  “Remember” they would tell each other, “never forget.”  

They had been transformed by his message of forgiveness.  They had been healed by the way he taught them to be set free from the tyranny of their own ego demands.

They formed inclusive communities of sharing across all kinds of barriers of exclusion that used to seem so important.  They had been saved from a small life of self-concern for a large life of compassion for the world.  That was good news indeed, and the grounds for peace on earth, good will to all people.

But look around at the world; is that a true story?  Is it believable?  

For me, it is profoundly believable.  The way God shows up in the world, is not with coercive force, stamping out evil, giving the villains their due.  

Rather God shows up in people who, in spite of the way of the world, respond to the lure to goodness.  

God shows up in people who live compassionately on behalf of others.  

God shows up among the poor, the dislocated immigrants, the homeless, as opportunities for showing love and among the marginalized as opportunities for seeking justice.

God showed up in Jesus.  Now, let it be, that God shows up in me and in you, and in all of us.  

If God does, maybe someday there will be peace on earth, and goodwill among us all.

The Miracle of Surrender

Sermon for December 18, 2022 Advent 4A, Central Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith, AR

Matthew 1:18–25 

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be pregnant from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to divorce her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall become pregnant and give birth to a son,
    and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” 

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had given birth to a son, and he named him Jesus.

Could you have played the role of Joseph in this story?  Joseph is the central character in Matthew’s version of the story of Jesus’ birth.  Luke gives Mary central stage, but for Matthew, it’s Joseph. 

The main story is all about Jesus, whose mother is Mary, but Joseph gets the dreams and the encounters with angels.  It is Joesph’s thoughts we get to hear, not Mary’s.  On Christmas Day we will read both stories, noticing the difference.  But today we consider Matthew’s story.  

They say the basic way stories work is that there is a plot line, then a complication, followed by a resolution.  The plot line is the story of Jesus, the complication is that Mary is expecting before the wedding and Joseph has some hard decisions to make.  The resolution is that he stays betrothed to Mary, and Jesus is born to an intact family.  

That was a close call, with enormous consequences.  Betrothals back then were legally binding contracts that could only be ended by certificates of divorce.  Although betrothed couples did not live together during the betrothal year before the wedding, nevertheless, they were called “husband and wife.”  

If Joseph had issued a certificate of divorce, even privately so as not to increase Mary’s shame, her child, conceived out of wedlock would be illegitimate.  He would be called a B-word, in English.  In Hebrew the term is mamzer.  

Being illegitimate was a serious problem in the Jewish community of those days.  According to the law of Moses, 

Those born of an illicit union (mazer) shall not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” .  

Deut. 23:2

A mamzer could not hold public office.  Their inheritance rights were disputed, and they did not have legal standing in court.  (See: The Gospel According to Jesus, Stephen Mitchell, p. 25, citing Shaberg, p. 57)

It would have been quite unlikely that Jesus could ever have been considered a great spiritual leader if he had had to wear that moniker.  Who would have listened to the Sermon on the Mount from such a person?  Who would have broken bread with him?  If he walked by the sea and said to the fishermen, “Come, follow me,” I doubt if any would have.  

But that plot complication was avoided.  Joseph did what I am not sure I could have done; he stayed with Mary in spite of all the consequences he may have had to endure in their very small, everybody-knows -everybody’s-business town of Nazareth.  

We do now know anything about the reactions in Nazareth to Jesus’ untimely birth; that is not of interest to Matthew.  The point is that Jesus was born into an intact family, adopted by a father who was in the lineage of the great King David of Israel’s long past glory days.  

That reference to royalty sets the stage for the scene which follows this one.  Wise men from the East will follow a star to the capital of the country, Jerusalem, and ask Herod, the reigning king of the Jews, 

Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”  

When they find him, they offer him gifts worthy of a king, gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  The theme that Jesus is the newborn king is important to Matthew, but the angel announces to Joseph, an even more important role that Jesus will play.  The angel tells Joseph, 

you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 

And that is exactly what Joseph did.  

We know very little about Joseph outside of this story.  We know his occupation. He is a carpenter, or we would say, builder.  That is all we know outside of this story.  

But this story tells us a lot about Joseph’s spirituality.  How does he show that he deserves to be called, as Matthew does, a “righteous man?”  Because in spite of the world of uncertainty he is being asked to embrace were he to continue to embrace his marriage to pregnant Mary, he surrenders.  

Luke gives us Mary’s great surrender as she tells the angel, 

Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  

Luke 1:38

Matthew gives us Joseph’s surrender.  

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

Joseph is not given any assurances.  He is not told, “all will be well.”  He is not told there won’t be trouble in the village.  All he is told is that Jesus’ birth will be a sign to him and to them, just as the birth of a child in Isaiah’s day was a sign, that they were not in this alone.  The child is 

called Emmanuel which means ‘God is with us.’”  

That is enough.  If God is truly with us, then Joseph can surrender; he can trust what he cannot possibly understand.  Surrendering, he names the child Jesus.

Jesus, in Hebrew, is Joshua, a name that means, “God saves.”  Matthew adds an important qualifier to that name: the salvation Jesus offers, is “from sin.”  In the time of Jesus, most people wanted to be saved from the Romans.  No people have ever liked living under foreign occupation. Just ask the Ukrainians.  

But by the time Matthew wrote the story down, Jerusalem had been turned into a smoking ruin by the Romans, following the Jewish revolt.  

Clearly, if Jesus had any significance for Matthew’s community and for the future, the salvation he was bringing had to be about something deeper, something larger than political salvation; that ship had sailed.  

The kingdom that Jesus is going to announce is not going to have lines on a map nor armies at the ready.  The kingdom of God that Jesus is going to spend his short adult life teaching about is a kingdom of people who, like Joseph have learned the miracle of surrender.  They have said “yes” to God, not for assurances of comfort and ease, but for the liberation of “yes.”   

They are the ones whom Jesus will teach to look up at the birds of the air, and to look around at the flowers of the fields, and surrender into the arms of their Heavenly Father/Mother, not from a place of certainty about what that will mean, but from a willingness to believe that Emmanuel: God is with us.  That is called surrender.

The story of Joseph’s surrender is what allows the story of Jesus to unfold as it does.  In the end, Jesus’ mission and message will have the effect that the angel predicts.  Following Jesus who was the ultimate example of someone who surrendered to God has enormous capacity to save us from our sins.

Surrender is spiritually liberating; it has the power to save us from many sins.  It saves us from pride, from selfishness, and from the arrogance of thinking we know best. Surrender saves us from needing to protect our egos.  

Surrender saves us from the sins of bitterness and vengeance, from needing to get even, and from harboring resentment.   

Surrender,  as Jesus taught, saves us from slavishly clinging to traditions that are no longer life-giving and humanity-affirming.  Surrender in this respect, allows us to trust a God of inclusion and welcome, rather than a God of Pharisaic legalism and separatism.   

These are difficult, confusing, uncertain days.  We are all standing in Joseph’s shoes.  So we are here to affirm the message of Advent: that God has not abandoned us, but is with us.  We are here to celebrate the hope that Jesus can keep saving us from our sins as we learn deeper and deeper levels of surrender.  

We are here to acknowledge that the child adopted into David’s line opened our eyes to the presence of the Kingdom of God, where God’s will may be done on earth as it is in heaven; where justice can roll down, where the meek and the peacemakers are blessed, and where righteous is its own reward. 

The Road Jesus Took

The Road Jesus Took

Sermon for Dec. 11, 2022, Advent 3A, Central Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith, AR

Matthew 11:2–11 

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken” is ambiguous; people take it differently.  It ends with a sigh, and a look back at a long life.  The woods are yellow, says the poem; it is the season of the autumn of life, just before winter.  There are two paths that diverge; which to take?  

The author chose the one “less traveled,” aware that that that choice, back then, all those years ago, he says, has “made all the difference.”  

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?  People have read it both ways.  

I have always wanted to read it as a good thing.  There is the way of the crowd, but the crowd choice is often not the best way.  It may be the easiest thing to do, to take the path of the majority, but history is filled with majorities that were wrong.  

Think about how many majorities accepted slavery or the subjugation of women, not to mention support for wars of aggression.  Majorities err.  

So, the “road less taken” may turn out to be the right one.  Taking it can make all the difference.  I thought of that poem as I was looking at this text from Matthew this week.  

That is how Jesus looked at it, I believe.  He looked at what was happening in his time in which so many were suffering, and said, in effect, “It doesn’t have to be this way.”  He considered what the majority of the people had accepted as true, and concluded that their thinking was misguided, even destructive.  

But then, I reflected on how few people, through the years, have paid much attention to Jesus.  Listening to Jesus seems to be one of the roads less traveled.   

It is so ironic that when you put someone on a pedestal, it is somehow easier to ignore them.  For example, the Buddha taught non-violence, but Buddhists in Myanmar, who revere him, are brutally persecuting the Rohingya Muslims.  

In the same way, Christians through the centuries have put Jesus on a pedestal of worship, only to completely ignore his vision of a non-violent, reconciled, inclusive, and compassionate humanity.  The cost of veneration is always cheaper than the price of justice. 

Our quest is to try to faithfully follow the Jesus-path, even if it is the road less traveled.  So, we will look at this text from Matthew’s story of Jesus, and try to listen to him.  We will see how and why his vision confused John the Baptist, but how it has the capacity to lead us to enlightenment, even to transformation.   

John’s Faulty Expectations

So, what was the issue with John?  Why did he send people to Jesus with questions after Herod Antipas arrested him?  It was because Jesus was not doing what John expected.  

You will recall that John expected Messiah to come with a force of arms to liberate the Jews from Roman imperial oppression.  He talked about the ax being ready to start swinging at the trees and the fire ready to burn up the chaff.  

John believed that God was supposed to intervene with force, as he did in the old days, according to the stories, back when Moses went up against Pharaoh or when Joshua conquered Jericho.  

John came by that expectation honestly.  The prophets in the Hebrew bible spoke of a future day; often they called it “the day of the Lord.”  They imagined a future of prosperity and abundance, of justice and equality — a beautiful vision.  

But that day, they imagined, would also include vengeance against enemies.  So, along with the beautiful vision expressed as a time in which:

the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” 

We also hear that it will be a time when: 

God…will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.”

 Isaiah,  35:1-10 

 The beautiful vision of shalom comes along with an expectation of retributive justice.  That was the majority view.  That is what most people wanted:  a time of peace and well-being, with lots of fresh Roman graves.

The Sources of Jesus’ Vision

But Jesus took a different view.  We do not know how Jesus came to his vision of non-violence and restorative justice as an alternative to retributive justice.  Perhaps he knew many stories of the cycles of violence that are kept spinning in service of the quest to get even.  

I have heard that the longest odds are those against getting even, and I believe it.  I have witnessed what happened when Serbs tried to get even with the Croats for what they did during World War II; it looks like mass graves.  

One generation’s “getting even” is simply the next generation’s justification for atrocities.  

But I believe the source of Jesus’ vision probably goes deeper than that.  I believe that Jesus’ vision for the future was the natural result of his re-think about the nature of God.  

Jesus knew his Hebrew Bible, but the question of how to imagine what God is like and what God is up to is vexed.  Running through the Hebrew Bible, a careful reader will notice, are many conundrums.  

For example, God is the creator of every human being, all of us are made in God’s image, yet God selected the Jews as the Chosen People.  A conundrum.

The land of Canaan was promised to the Jews, the Bible tells us, but for most of their history, including the present moment, for Jesus, it was ruled by gentiles. Another conundrum.

The law of Moses says that if you are good, you will be blessed, but if you are bad, you will be cursed.  But the book of Job spends 40 chapters protesting that Job’s suffering was not a consequence of anything bad he did.  

God says, “Thou shalt not kill,” but then provides direct assistance to Joshua’s ethnic cleansing campaigns. Did these conundrums matter to Jesus?

Apparently so.  As he observed the world, the suffering of his people, most of whom were peasants, contrasted with the gross prosperity of the aristocracy, as he reflected on the oppression of his people under the vast power of the Roman military machine, he concluded that God was demonstrably not out to get retributive justice.  It just didn’t work that way.  

So, instead of embracing John’s vision of the Day of the Lord coming with vengeance, in the future, Jesus grew to embrace a vision of the kingdom of God, or as Matthew likes to have him say, the “kingdom of heaven,” as a present reality of restorative justice.  

The kingdom is not waiting for Divine intervention, but is present, calling for our collaboration.  How do we collaborate?  By living as if God were indeed king, right now.  

So, instead of a world of people bent on getting even, Jesus said, 

“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 on the unrighteous. 

(Matt 5:44-45)

So Jesus’ reply to John’s messengers is all about the way the kingdom of God was made real in Jesus’ ministry, not of bringing vengeance, but of bringing restoration.  

In his reply to John’s questions, Jesus was actually riffing on the vision of Isaiah as he told John’s messengers to tell him:

“the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.

Experiencing Healing and Transformation

That was not the majority view; that was the minority report from Jesus who took “the road less traveled.”  And that view “makes all the difference.”  So, instead of merely venerating a silent Jesus, I want to listen to the voice of the living Jesus. 

I want to ask myself what I have been blind to that I need to see in a new light?  

I remember when I used to believe God was going to judge people and condemn the vast majority of them to hell.  I was blind to the awesome extent of God’s love for all the people God made.  

I remember when I was lame, crippled by guilt and shame, growing up in a fundamentalism, in which it seemed that we were a constant disappointment to God, instead of being God’s beloved community. 

I remember being homophobic.  I remember when I thought I needed to avoid people who are considered ”lepers”, people who were thought to be unclean, people who did not keep to the straight and narrow, even though those were exactly the kind of people Jesus hung out with.  

I remember being deaf to the cries of the poor because we believed what God wanted was to save their souls, more than to feed and house their bodies.  

And for a long time, I had no idea of what the “good news” was that Jesus preached to the poor.  I never heard of the year of Jubilee that stands behind that phrase “good news”, and “the year of the Lord’s favor,” the time when debts were forgiven and people who had lost everything got a re-start.  

Now, I am so thankful for the journey I have been on, for the healing I have experienced.  

But at this moment in the life of our country, the Jesus-path looks to me like the road less traveled.  

What have we learned from Jesus’ interaction with John’s messengers?  That although we would never claim to be able to speak of God adequately, due to our limitations as finite mortals, nevertheless, there are some ways of conceiving of the Divine that are closer to the truth, and others that are further away.  

John’s view of a vengeful God had lots of precedence, and was the majority view, but Jesus rejected it.  

Jesus taught us to understand God through the metaphors of a loving father, a good shepherd,  a mother bird protecting her chicks, and as the source of rain and sun equally given to all.  

That view has direct consequences for how we live, how we treat people, and what we want for our community, our society, and for the world.  It is the vision of a reconciled, restored world that Jesus called the Kingdom.  It is not a future state, awaiting Divine intervention, it is a present reality, calling for our collaboration.  

That may be the road less taken, but it will make all the difference: our healing, and the healing of the world. 

Because No One Knows

Because No One Knows

Sermon for Advent 1A, Nov. 27, 2022

Matthew 24:36-44

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in the days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so, too, will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken, and one will be left. Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

Sometimes the choice is between grim realism and confident hope. Maybe the people of God always live between grim realism and confident hope.

The grim realism looks around and what is happening and makes a sober assessment. But in the midst of that acknowledgment, the person of faith finds also reasons for confident hope. In the meantime, we wait.

The first week of Advent presents us with both experiences. Matthew’s version of the gospel presents the grim realism. Bad times are ahead.

When the Roman army sweeps through, you will not have had any warning. You will be thinking that everything is normal, just like the people in the story of the days of Noah before the flood came.

It’s like the person who gets robbed in the middle of the night. Suddenly, it is too late to prepare; it’s happening.

When the Roman army arrives, for every two men out harvesting in the field, the Romans will get one. For every two women grinding that day, the same fate.

In other words, the expected survival rate is 50%. Grim realism indeed.

By the way, the popular “Left Behind” reading of this text that suggests the ones taken away are caught up in a rapture miss the point. When the Romans come, being “taken” means taken by the sword. The ones left behind are the lucky survivors.

How could this possibly be called the coming of the “Son of Man”? The language is from the apocalyptic sections of the Book of Daniel in which the “son of Man,” a collective symbol, journeys upwards (not downwards) to the Ancient of Days to receive a kingdom.

This, according to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus applies to the victory of the people of God after the coming destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus’ kingdom, the kingdom of God is triumphant. But not until after an army of humans causes much suffering and a 50% death rate. Again, grim realism.

Because the coming days will be so violent, and no one knows which side of the 50-50 split they will end up on, Jesus cautions everyone to vigilant readiness.

No one knows when it’s coming, no on knows who will survive it, so everyone needs to live in a state of readiness for the end.

We all live in exactly that situation every day. No one has any guarantees about tomorrow. No one knows when any number of things could happen, from accidental to medical, or even criminal, to cut our days down in mid-stride.

That is the grim reality of being mortal; being human. All of us, no matter what age, are vulnerable to the thief in the night.

The text of the first week of advent challenge us to be frank about end-of-life issues; our last days in this life. I have some pretty clear ideas about those days, and I’m sure you do too.

Not the specifics, of course, but the characteristics. I know that I want to get to those days, knowing that I have loved as best I can, and I want to know that I have been loved.

At the end of my life I also want to be able to say that whatever came of my life, good or bad, successes or failures, I lived authentically; that I was true to myself and my values. I know I do not want to get to those days with unsettled regrets.

None of that is going to happen by accident. In order to have those positive elements characterize the end of our days, we intentionally set ourselves to live in certain ways that will produce those outcomes, and to not live in ways that produce opposite outcomes.

Nothing about this is by chance, any more than being in good health or being an accomplished musician happens by chance. You have heard of the 10,000 hours of practice that it takes to become an expert – the same principle holds for the spiritual life as well.

This is why we believe and teach the importance of the regular practices of a Christian. Practices like daily prayer and meditation, regular gathering for worship and fellowship, regularly giving of ourselves and our resources for others.

These are the normal and indispensable practices that, over time, produce the outcome of the life we want to have lived.

We just celebrated the American holiday of Thanksgiving. Giving thanks, being people of gratitude is another intentional, regular practice of a Christian.

We recognize that everything is a gift of God, our Creator. Every breath, every bite of food, every smile, and hug and expression of love and respect is a gift of God. We do not take any of them for granted. We are people of gratitude.

Advent: Waiting and Hope


So, this is the first Sunday in Advent. Advent is the first Sunday in the Christian year. Advent means “coming”. It is the four week season during which we wait for the coming of Christ, the birth of Jesus, on Christmas Day.

The text from the Gospel According to Matthew is about waiting for an event that Jesus called the “coming of the Son of Man.”

In some sense, a Christian community is always a community in waiting. That means we are not only a community that of grim realism, we are also always a community of hope. Hope is a necessary part of waiting. In fact in Hebrew, the same word is used for both. To wait is to hope.

But we are not just waiting for the end of our lives to roll around. We are waiting with a vision of what our lives are, and what to hope for, what to wait for. This vision, too, is something to give thanks for.

We do not believe in blind fate. We do not believe we are left alone in the universe to work it out as best we can. We Christians have a vision of the world as it should be, and we believe that we are called to cooperate with God, who intends a very specific kind of world.

The Hopeful Vision


The vision we have of the world we are hoping for, waiting to see accomplished, and working towards, by means of our daily Christian practices, is given for us in places like the beautiful text we read from Isaiah.

This is where we move from grim realism to confident hope. Isaiah says:

“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.”

Our vision is of a reconciled world in which all the nations come together in common purpose. We refuse to accept the inevitability of division between peoples. We notice that this vision is not that all the people will dissolve their differences.

Not at all. It is that all the nations, with all their differences, will seek a common good. With all their different languages, customs, cultures, and all their different perspectives, they will all come together in a common quest.

Now, we are not naive children. We do not take such poetic visions as a literal description. We do not believe in a fantasy world in which Taliban leaders stream to Israel to learn Jewish Torah.

But we believe in a vision of a world in which Muslims of goodwill and Christians of goodwill can live together, sharing a common planet, even sharing a nation and a local community, in a spirit of mutual respect and appreciation.

That vision calls us to live every day in such a way that the end result we wait for, and hope for, becomes more likely instead of less likely.

So, for example, we practice meditation because we know that the long-term effect is to open our hearts to people who are different from us. Our daily Christian practices, in these days of waiting, are helping us to get to the end we imagine; the end that our vision calls us to.

Isaiah’s vision for the future gets even better:

“they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.”

This is a vision of the weapons of destruction becoming tools of productivity and fruitfulness. Instruments meant for killing become implements for growing food; for sustaining life.

Not only will fighting cease, but in this vision, even learning the art of war comes to an end. It would be as archaic as learning to light a fire by striking rocks together.

We live into this vision of peace. We are on the side of life. We do not participate in a culture of death. We believe that every life is sacred, so we live in such a way as to make peace more likely than war.

We refuse to scapegoat people of other nations or other religions. We reject false binary narratives of either-or, of all or nothing, of “us” versus “them.”

These are the narratives of our ancient human ancestors on the savannah, with their sharp spears and animal skin clothing, but we do not live in those barbaric days.

This too is something we can be grateful for every day; that we have a positive, hopeful vision of a reconciled peaceful world to live for and work for. As we wait, in Advent, we wait as people of hope that we can be a part of God’s dream of a world at peace, where war is a distant memory.

Other Visions of Hope


As I started reflecting on this great vision of Isaiah, feeling so thankful that we have this gift with which to direct our lives, I began to think of the other parts of the Christian vision we affirm that give us hope and joy, even as we wait.

I immediately thought of our Reformed traditions. How we have been blessed by those who struggled 500 years ago to free us from the darkness of medieval theology.

We no longer believe that a priest stands between us and God.

We no longer believe that God is angry with us, looking for reasons to smite us, and threatening us with eternal conscious torment in hell.

We no longer believe in an original curse that makes us all guilty and shame-based.

Rather, we believe in an original blessing. We believe that God is for us, with us, loving us, and luring us to embrace a vision of life at peace with God and with our neighbors.

We rejoice that we can be a part of that great Reformation motto: “the church Reformed, always reforming” always responding to our new contexts with a fresh reading of our ancient scriptures, open to the Spirit of God teaching us things, as Jesus told his disciples, that we could not have previously been able to hear.

The Community and our Vision


We believe that God has given us each other in this community to help us embrace and live into this hopeful vision.

Granted, this vision is an alternative to the dominate narratives of our day, that accept violence and division as inevitable.

Therefore, we need each other to encourage and strengthen our practices of this alternative way. Just as a log burns brightly, as long as it is in the fireplace or the fire pit with the others, but goes out quickly when pulled out, so we need each other in this community to keep this vision’s fire burning.

Let us begin this new year for the church on this first Sunday of Advent, with joyful gratitude for the beautiful vision of life that we have been called to live into with realism about the difficulties ahead, and hope in God’s future.

Because no one knows what lies ahead, we stay prepared, and wait, with hope.

Saying vs. Doing

Saying vs. Doing

Jesus’ Questions #10

Sermon for Nov. 20, 2022, Christ the King Sunday C

Luke 6:46—49         

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?  I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them.  That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built.  But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”

When Christian missionaries first brought their faith to the Pacific Solomon Islands, they found people with beliefs they considered pagan.  

For example, they had sacred trees which they believed were inhabited by spirits. They said that horrible consequences would befall anyone who dared to cut them down.  

The missionaries did not believe in any such spirits, and so to demonstrate the falseness of that belief, they would cut down sacred trees, and suffering no ill effects, prove their religious case.  

Their attempt, however, failed.  It took the missionaries a long time to realize that the trees, in the islander’s view, gained or lost spiritual power in proportion to how zealously they were venerated by offerings.  

The islanders took it for granted that they had simply been insufficiently dutiful in offering to the trees which, therefore, lacked the spiritual power they needed to punish the missionaries.  

They knew their religious duty toward the sacred trees, but they were not sufficiently rigorous in their religious practice.  They said the trees were sacred, but they did not do what they should have done.  

This is probably a problem in common with all ethical and religious traditions. It is easier to proclaim high moral standards than to practice them.  

But Jesus saw this as a serious problem.  In his day, the Romans had a short creed that indicated loyalty to the emperor.  They said, “Caesar is Lord.”  

Followers of Jesus, on the other hand, said no, “Jesus is Lord.”  Saying that Jesus is Lord means that they considered themselves citizens of Jesus’ kingdom, the kingdom of God, not Caesar’s kingdom of Rome.  Jesus, not Caesar, deserved their loyalty.

But then, just as now, it was easier to say, “Lord, Lord,” than to do what Jesus tells us to do.  So to illustrate the importance of doing, not just saying, Jesus told the parable of the two builders.   They were only distinguished by the foundations they chose to build on.  One built on rock, the other on sand.  

That foundational decision made all the difference.  When 

a flood arose and the river burst against that house” 

the one built on the rock was not shaken, while the other, built on sand, 

immediately…fell, and great was the ruin of that house.

To hear Jesus’ words and act on them is to build on rock.  To hear without acting is to build on sand.  The spiritual consequences are dramatically different.  

So we must ask ourselves, why would a person fail to ack on Jesus’ words, even after acknowledging him as Lord?  

This is a poignant question to ask on this particular Sunday in which the church celebrates Christ as King.  If Christ, not Caesar is King, why would the subjects of his kingdom fail to act on his words?

I suppose there are as many reasons as there are people, but I want to consider two today; one structural, the other social.  

The first is that as soon as Jesus was no longer physically present, his early followers started asking the wrong questions.  If you ask the wrong question, no matter how much time you spend on the answer, you will not get the right answer.  

One of those questions was, how were Jesus and God related?  Everyone knew that Jesus was deeply spiritual.  They could observe his prayer and meditation practice and see that he regularly spent long periods of time communing with God, as the gospels tell us.  

Today we would say Jesus was a mystic.  As New Testament scholar Marcus Borg wrote,  Jesus 

was—someone who experienced God vividly and whose way of seeing and life were changed as result.”  

(Borg, Marcus J. Jesus (p. 110). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.) 

People felt the presence of God when they were around Jesus.  

They brought their children to him so he could bless them.  

They came to him for healing, reportedly in great numbers.  

He taught about God with the authority of someone who had a personal relationship with God.  

So after he was no longer physically present, people wondered how to think of that connection.

They came up with dramatically different ideas in the early years.  One group called the Ebionites believed that Jesus was just a human,  born the natural human way, the child of Mary and Joseph.  But Jesus was exceptional.  As a Jewish person, Jesus kept the entire Law of Moses perfectly.  So, at his baptism,  God adopted Jesus as his beloved son. 

Another group who followed Macron believed that Jesus was not really human at all; he just appeared to be human. In actuality he was spiritual, that is, divine.  

Others, such as the Arians, believed Jesus was created by God and did not pre-exist.  

All of these explanations of how Jesus related to God were finally considered heresies and condemned.  The view that won at the Council of Nice in 325 CE followed bishop Athanasius who taught that Jesus was both fully God and fully human.  All the other views were suppressed, and this became the orthodox Christian view from then on.  

So, at Nicea, and subsequently and other church councils, they made creeds to say what all Christians were supposed to believe was the correct answer to the wrong question: how did Jesus relate to God?  

The creeds tell us nothing about the life and teachings of Jesus.  There is nothing between the lines of the creed which say Jesus was 

born of the virgin Mary,” 

and that he  

suffered under Pontius Pilate” 

except a comma.   

For centuries, the difference between being a good Christian and a non-believer was simply a matter of saying you believed the creed.  

That is a lot like saying “Lord, Lord.”  But there are no teachings of Jesus involved.  There is no listening to his voice in order to know how to do what he told us to do.  

So the focus on faith defined as believing a list of dogmas became the center of being a Christian, instead of a dedicated life of following the teachings of Jesus.  That is one reason it has been so easy to call Christ “Lord” or “the King” without doing what he said.  

The creeds demand nothing of a person but words.  They may answer the question, “how did Jesus relate to God?” But that was not Jesus’ question.  Jesus’ question was 

Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?”  

So, the structural reason why people say but not do, is that it was baked into the cake back in 325 when believing creeds was made the main thing expected of Christians.

There is one other reason it is hard to put Jesus’ teaching into action to briefly mention.  It is the cultural reason.  

Our culture lures us into conformity.  It is what New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan calls “acculturation.”  

It is the pull of our culture to go along to get along.  It is the pressure to conform that we all are socialized into accepting.  We want to fit in.  We do not want to rock the boat.  We do not want to seem odd or extreme.

Crossan writes,

…acculturation [is]…the conscious or unconscious submission to the drag of normalcy, the lure of conformity, the curse of careerism that can…turn some of us into monsters, many of us into liars, and most of us into cowards

Crossan, John Dominic. Render Unto Caesar (p. 276). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. 

For Jesus, such acculturation was flatly rejected.  He famously said, 

Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”  

Caesar’s things are often at odds with God’s things.  Our culture believes many things that Jesus rejected.  

For example, our culture believes in the myth that we will be saved by violence.  Personally and nationally, our culture, on the whole, accepts violence as necessary.  

Recent polls even tell us that violence in the service of political goals is acceptable to many who identify as Christians.  

But Jesus taught us to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, and not to live by the sword.  Our culture, even those who call Jesus Lord and King, disagree. Acculturated people may call Jesus Lord and even King, while not doing what he has told them to do.

Our culture accepts, homelessness, medical bankruptcy, poverty, and gross income disparities, as if they are normal and inevitable conditions, even though other nations have significantly reduced or eliminated them.   

Jesus taught that the rich man who overlooked Lazarus at his gate would not have a happy afterlife.   He taught that loving God entailed loving neighbor.  How can Jesus be Lord or King in anything but name only under such conditions?

We seek a different path.  That is why we have committed ourselves to both calling Jesus Lord and King and acting upon his teachings.  

We know we will never be perfect, but our quest is to not to fall prey to acculturation.  Our quest is to build on the rock-solid foundation of being doers, not merely creed-reciters.  

We know that floods are coming.  The river is rising.  There will be times in which the river will 

burst against the house 

we are building as we live each day.  But we are people of faith and hope who believe that building on the foundation of doing will mean that when the waters subside, our house will not have been shaken, but will stand firm.  

Understanding the 12 and 7 Baskets

Understanding the 12 and 7 Baskets

Jesus’ Questions, #9

Sermon for Nov. 13, 2022, Pentecost, 23C

Audio and video will be available at the website of the Central Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith, AR after the service,

Mark 8:17–21           

[Jesus] cautioned them, saying, “Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.”  They said to one another, “It is because we have no bread.” And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they said to him, “Seven.” Then he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”

One of the things that I love about this congregation is how welcoming and inclusive you all are.  For years you have welcomed people of all sorts.  

You have reached out to serve communities that are different from you. You have joined in collective efforts to bridge divides and find common ground.  

I want to affirm today that in so doing, you are following Jesus in one of his core values.  Jesus was remarkable in his own openness to people whom his family, his community, and his nation considered outsiders, others, “them.”  

He had a strategy for teaching radical compassionate inclusiveness to his disciples as we will see again today.  

But he had a hard time.  The lesson of compassionate inclusion is not learned easily or quickly for people raised to exclude.  

The sad fact is that most people are raised in communities that teach exclusion.  I know numerous ethnic communities for whom marriage outside the community is considered an act of betrayal.  

I have had conversations with people who despise those of other races.  I have lived in communities that taught me that we alone had the truth, that we alone were the true believers, and that we alone would be saved.  

Faith communities are notorious for dividing up people between believers and unbelievers, which is to say, insiders and outsiders, people who answer “yes” to the litmus test questions, and those who answer “no.”   

Did Jesus ever do that?  Quite the opposite.

But the early followers of Jesus, his inner circle of disciples, had a hard time learning that lesson.  The author of the Gospel according to Mark seems to take delight in throwing them under the bus.  They fail to understand Jesus so many times that it becomes a sub-theme.  

We are in a series in which we are looking at the way Jesus taught by means of asking questions.  In this text, Jesus asks no less than eight questions to his disciples.  They are:

  1. “Why are you talking about having no bread? 
  2. Do you still not perceive or understand? 
  3. Are your hearts hardened? 
  4. Do you have eyes, and fail to see? 
  5. Do you have ears, and fail to hear? 
  6. And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” 
  7. “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” 
  8. Do you not yet understand?”

By asking those questions, according to Mark’s gospel, Jesus was attempting to get them to reflect on his ministry strategy and learn something crucial from it.  So far, they had missed the point, but what was the point?  

These questions challenged them to put together two previous episodes, the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand, and learn from them.  What were they missing?

Between those two feeding episodes, there is an account of a difficult sea crossing.  The way Mark tells the story, there are two levels going on at once.  

On the surface, the disciples are in a boat on a lake, experiencing strong headwinds; the crossing is difficult. But when Jesus comes walking on the water, which Mark ominously calls the “sea,” and gets into the boat, the headwinds die down and everything is calm; the crossing gets easier.  

On a deeper level, other things are going on.  First, right after the feeding of the five thousand Mark says that Jesus “made them” get into the boat and cross over to the other side.  Why did he have to make them?  What was it about that crossing they were reluctant to do?  

The “other side” was the Gentile side.

We have to recall that the separation between Jews and non-Jews in those days was profound.  The writer of Ephesians describes their feelings about each other as a “dividing wall of hostility.”  Each despised the other.  

Not that that hostility is in any way unique.  People all over the world and throughout history have had enemies.  There have always been tribal animosities, religious wars, and wars of ethnic cleansing.  There has always been enslavement, oppression, and discrimination; this is an old, old human story.  

Crossing over to the other side has always been difficult.  The headwinds are strong.  

The question is, could the presence of Jesus in the boat make that crossing easier?  Could adopting Jesus’ vision of a reconciled humanity undo the centuries-old habit of otherizing?  

For the disciples, not yet.  So, Jesus asks his questions.

The questions Jesus asks first demonstrate how important the lesson of compassionate inclusion is for Jesus.  It is not trivial.  

People who don’t get it are held accountable.  

They are hard-hearted which entails being intentionally unsympathetic.  

They are blind to things they should see in plain sight.  

They are deaf to voices they should be listening to.  

But what about the last two questions about leftover baskets?

Again, Mark wants us to understand this on two levels.  On the surface, the answers are obvious and banal.  There were twelve baskets of broken pieces left over after the five thousand were fed, and seven baskets of broken pieces left over after the four thousand were fed.   

The difference was that the twelve baskets were left over on the Jewish side of the lake, and the seven were on the Gentile side of the lake.  

Even the number of baskets signals a deeper meaning. Twelve corresponds to the twelve tribes of Israel.  Seven, according to the list in Deuteronomy (7:1), corresponds to the number of Gentile nations that had occupied the land of Canaan before the Jews.  

The word for baskets is even different, and some have suggested that one is more Jewish and the other more Gentile in origin.   

And yet all were fed.  There was an abundance for both Jews and Gentiles.  No one went away hungry.  All were fed. 

The point is that God is the God of all people and cares for all people.  The dangerous yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod that Jesus warned them about was that both were pursuing purely nationalistic projects; Herod’s project was political, and the Pharisees’ was religious.   

Both were blind to the fact that one God was the source of every person on earth.  Both were deaf to the cries of the hungry people around them.  Both were hard-hearted in their lack of inclusion and compassion. 

The question that Jesus’ strong rebuke asks is first, who is on the other side for us?  Who is the “other” that we find it difficult to engage?  Whom do we tend to keep away from or feel uncomfortable around?   

Happily, most of us come from a tradition that has been on a quest of expanding inclusion for many years.  This congregation is remarkably open, affirming, and inclusive.  

But we are not in the majority.  In fact, we hear people openly and without shame speak derisively of the “other:” of immigrants, of gay and trans-gendered people.  

We have heard leaders in our own city suggest that the solution to the problem of homelessness is to stop providing any services at all for them, as if, in one of the richest nations on earth, we simply believe there will not be enough, if we try to meet their needs.  

There is enough.  And there is no “other” who should be excluded from the table.  We are the ones, then, to speak up when the “others” are being “otherized.”  

So the second question this text asks is how can we be agents of the kingdom of God in our context?  We, who have learned the lesson of inclusive compassion, must not remain silent in the face of exclusion and neglect.  

We may not be in the majority, but we do have a voice and a vote.  May we use them to follow Jesus.