Category Archives: Sermons

The Authority of Jesus

The audio for this sermon can be found here.

Galatians 1:1-12

Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the brothers and sisters with me,

To the churches in Galatia:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!

10 Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.

11 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

Luke 7:1-10

When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” So Jesus went with them.

He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” 10 Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.

Whitney and I spent a week or so in Southern California after my graduation a couples weekends ago, and while we were there, in addition to just getting some time away, we met up with some old friends and also met some new people – and for me, it was very interesting. The conversations that you tend to have with people in LA about being a pastor and studying theology in general are a little bit different from the ones I typically have in Charleston. For one thing, most of them were with people who are not Christians.

And what you do for work just tends to inevitably come up, and so for many, when they hear what I do, they’re surprised and confused or curious or something. This probably happened about half a dozen times! And I kept getting  questions, like…

“What made you want to do that? You don’t seem like the type.” Which, I don’t know how to take that, really. It could be good or bad I guess. But here’s what I’ve noticed is sometimes going on in these conversations: these people don’t necessarily have anything against what I do — sometimes they do. But mostly they just don’t understand why I would want to take my faith so seriously. It doesn’t connect with them: church, religion, the Bible — all this stuff. It just seems to many people to be like something they think society has just grown out of, or lost its need for . . .

And honestly, this can be hard to hear sometimes. It make you doubt yourself, and it’s almost like a spiritual battle and internal struggle — because these people are genuine. They’re searching for truth and meaning just like I am, but they see the world so differently. This can unsettle you — make you insecure in your faith.

And I know there’s intellectual explanations for this change in our culture and society in recent years — in communication and transportation and trade. It brings more different kinds of people together across cultures, which sometimes leads to the erosion of traditions. This is what the Israelites feared in Exile in Babylon — that they would become so assimilated to the Babylonian culture, that they would no longer be able to pass on their faith to the next generation.

When you have greater diversity of worldviews concentrated in a smaller geographical area, it just tends to relativize some of people’s core convictions.  

And there are both positive and negative aspects to this new reality. One of the biggest challenges we see, and I think this is the subject of the two readings for this morning, in some ways, is this issue of authority, and where we find it. Where now is our authority?

Authority is something we all experience and interact with on a daily basis in different areas of our lives. From government, to traffic laws, in business, sports, school — or even just in the family, where parents have authority over the children, or at least they try to for a while! And authority gets contested, when people are unhappy about something, but it does seem to be especially contested these days.

Just think about our own recent history as a nation, though. Things like the Iraq War, the Wall Street crash, the bailout of the big banks, congressional gridlock — all of this produced in an emerging generation of young people, a fairly unprecedented distrust the major institutions that hold our society together. And it doesn’t matter if you’re liberal or conservative — both sides have this attitude (which might be one of the reason why “outside” candidates are having more success these days in politics).

It all points to this sentiment today that those at the center of society, those who are part of the establishment, who control money and power are not to be trusted. On both the left and the right. Where is the authority?

And the authority of church and Christianity has hardly fared much better. There have been sex sandals, financial mishandlings, the abuse of power, and on and on. My own alma mater! Baylor University suffered a major blow this week, as a result similar problems. I’m sure many of you heard. And it’s like of course the media loves to point out the failures of Christian institutions, and they’ve been doing a very good job of that this week — and not without some justification. You know, you try to be great at football, academics by the world’s standards while also being Christian — sometimes you pick one more than the other.

And I don’t want to exaggerate or over-dramatize this, but I think it’s fair to say we’re living in an environment, in which not only Christian authority but authority in general is in a kind of crisis.

And yet. here’s what’s so fascinating: Somehow, for some reason, the person of Jesus, what he taught, and how lived, still carries with it, some significant authority, even in our society today. Overall, people remain reverent and respectful of Jesus. They’re intrigued by him, and admire him, even if they don’t worship him or claim to follow him. [IMAGE]

There was a book written a while ago now, but this pastor in Santa Cruz, CA, named Dan Kimball, and this is what the title was:

“They like Jesus, but not the Church.” – Dan Kimball

Or, we could maybe add to this:

“They like Jesus, but not the Bible.”

“They like Jesus, but they’re not so sure about Christians in general.”

“They like Jesus, but they’re not sure about the Christian idea of God.”

So Jesus’s authority or appeal to some extent is recognized even by those outside the faith. This is exactly what we find in the gospel text for this morning.

So Jesus is commending a Roman Centurion and says, this man has more faith even than anyone that I’ve seen in all of Israel! Ok, this guy is a Gentile. He’s not a Jew. And, he’s a representative of Rome, who’s really an enemy of Israel. And yet Jesus not only compliments him, but heals his servant.

Now, just because Jesus compliments the faith of the Centurion does not mean that he was blessing or approving of the Roman Empire or Empires in general — then or now. But Jesus sees the man’s faith as true. And the Centurion, an outsider to Judaism, is able to recognize Jesus’s Authority. That is what is so striking and important.

In the first reading we heard from the opening chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatian church, the issue of the authority and the authority of the gospel is also in question. Paul says, in verses 11-12:

…. 1:11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

Alright this, is kind of crazy! You know those people who say something that you maybe don’t believe, but then they back it up with God told me so? Paul is that person right now. That’s basically what he’s doing. And I know we’re in church, so we can’t be totally honest about this — we believe that God can speak to us — yes we do. But we are still a little suspicious of these things. Admit it.

So this is no easy claim to make, is it… that we have a message from God, it’s not of our own making!

Paul knows this though, so he’s determined to be persuasive Here’s what he says in v. 10:

“Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

First of all, typically, the truth — true authority — will upset certain people… On the one hand, if what you’re saying appeals to the whole crowd and the masses of a population, there might be cause for suspicion (which is why, at the end of the day, even though Jesus initially did draw crowds, they don’t stick around very long, at least not until they have a chance to condemn him… then they gather back).

At the same time, on the other hand, if only a special, elite group benefits from what is being said, that’s suspect as well!

So Paul’s trying to say, the authority of the gospel that does not originate in the minds of human beings for either of these purposes. It comes from God. He’s not trying to be a crowd pleaser or get in with some wealthy, powerful group. He’s just trying to tell people what he believes is authoritative — what he believes is truth! Now, that doesn’t mean he’s right, but he’s trying to explain his motives & sources.

Because many people would have probably been pretty surprised by Paul’s message here, as someone who used to persecute Christians before he received this revelation from God. And yet, sometimes that’s exactly when and how truth is able to make itself known. Take a look at this quote from C.S. Lewis:

“Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that [strange] twist about it that real things have.” – C.S. Lewis

Obviously, this doesn’t prove anything, and Lewis knows this, but I’m fairly persuaded that he’s on to something here.

And it might be why many of the Jews were so scandalized by Jesus’s message – because it was surprising and strange, and not quite what they would have guessed — and it was the same things for the Greeks — the Romans, the Gentiles — they too thought it was foolish. But Jesus wasn’t trying to impress them. He was telling them something he thought was true for everyone, but to please everyone.

And so Paul is criticizing what he calls a “different gospel” – as in not a true one, that people  were giving in to. And we’re no less at risk! It’s so easy to have the gospel right in our minds, while our hearts are tangled up in something else.

So what is this false gospel Paul is attacking? Well, it pretty much boils down to the same thing that gets played out in our lives just as it was for the Galatians.

I like the way Tim Keller says it, actually, in the book that some of us have been reading, Every Good Endeavor. At one point he says this:

“Without an understanding of the gospel, we will be either naively utopian or cynically disillusioned. We will be demonizing something that isn’t bad enough to explain the mess we are in; or we will be idolizing something that isn’t powerful enough to get us out of it.” Tim Keller

So the false gospel is simply what happens when we blame our problems on something other than sin. Usually it’s another person or Group or a situation in which we’ve suffered an injustice or been victimized — sometimes in terrible ways. So it’s not that there’s never any justification for anger in the face wrongdoing. God is a God of justice as well as mercy.

But the false gospel comes in when we put our trust in something other than God’s grace to fix or right a wrong. And usually this trust gets put in ourselves, or in other people — our own right thinking, or our own good actions.  Ok, this is what the Galatians were doing: with their Jewish-ethnic identity, their food laws, the practice of circumcision – imposing it on Gentiles for their inclusion.

And because we’re all involved sin, we cannot simply separate the world into good and evil. That’s the kind of thinking that is used to justify war, condemnation, self-righteousness. But we’re are part of the evil in the world. That’s the bad news of the good news. And there aren’t any exceptions. Now we may not be as responsible for some things, as others are, but we’re still responsible.

So the big question that I raised this morning, is where is the authority? And why, even when people look so unfavorably on Christians, does Jesus manage to still have some authority?

Well, one thing that Jesus seems to always do, is deal honestly with sin — by naming it, exposing it, cutting right through the ways we try to cover it up. But then, treating it, not with blame or punishment, but with the only cure there is: the grace & mercy of God. Honesty about sin, compassion toward sinners and rescue for the victims, for the weak, for the vulnerable — the outsiders. Ok. Jesus takes sin totally seriously & grace totally seriously. That’s not going out of style!

That’s why he always has the authority. It’s the authority of the truth heals and redeems, and is always trying to transforms us. We’re still working on our transformation, but it’s happening.

Judge a tree by its fruit, Jesus says elsewhere. The Centurion sees that fruit in Jesus, and it makes him fruitful. It gives him faith. He’s generous, he’s humble, and he’s pagan! There’s no boundaries on this stuff. That’s why it always has authority.

The Way of Grace and the Politics of the Ascension

[The audio for this sermon can be found here.]

A reading from the Book of Acts 1:1-11:

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with[a] water, but in a few days you will be baptized with[b] the Holy Spirit.”

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

Today we are taking a little break from the sermon series to celebrate and recognize the event of Jesus’s Ascension, which we just read about.

And at the same time that this sermon series on work and vocation has been going on, a smaller group of us in the church have been meeting in the classroom building before worship to talk about “The Politics of Jesus.” And we just finished up our last session this morning. So I thought it would good if I took some of what we’ve been discussing and going over together in that time this past month or so and tried to weave it to into the text and sermon for today, and it happens to actually fit pretty well — so that’ what I’m going to try to do!

Last week, we had three baptisms, and we recited the Apostle’s Creed together. One of the lines from that Creed is that Christ “ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father.” This statement comes from several places in Scripture, two of which we just read. And this past week in the Church calendar, on Thursday, though we don’t typically observe it as a church, was something called The Feast of the Ascension, which commemorates this very confession in the Creed that 40 Days after Easter, Jesus ascended to heaven and sits on the right hand of the Father.

Honestly, even for people are very comfortable with the Christian tradition and used to being in Church, this account in the gospels, this story, is probably a bit strange-sounding and maybe even hard to believe?! Is Jesus levitating? Is he flying? What’s going on? I mean, if you go up into the clouds, that way, for a long time, I don’t know that it leads to heaven, eventually. Maybe another galaxy, something like that. So what’s really happening? Surely there’s a deeper meaning to this story than the mere description of the physical events.

And might there be some connection between the Ascension of Jesus and our political hopes today? What is this telling us about who really reigns in the world today? What are we trusting in for our well-being and our safety? For our Way of life? It seems like this would be an appropriate to ask this questions, given the state of things, politically, in our country right now!

There’s a movie that came out in 2011 that some of you might have seen, but it wasn’t a big blockbuster really — even though it did get nominated for a number of academy awards. It’s called The Tree of Life [Slide]. But it probably remains fairly unappreciated because it was so unique — in terms of its cinematography and entertainment value. It was simple film.

It’s about a young family in Waco, Texas, in 1956. Whitney and I lived in Waco for about 7 years during and after college while I was in seminary. The oldest son in the family, who’s only about, oh, 10 years old or so, lives in this place of great tension, between the teachings of his dad, and the example and the care of his mother.

And then it like flashes forward to this moment several times throughout the movie when the oldest son, Jack, is all grown up. It shows him in like downtown Dallas in a high rise as a working professional in the business world. But he’s remembering during this time and thinking back to the parenting of his dad and the parenting of his mom, and you can just tell in the movie — what it’s trying to show you, is — this son, his name is Jack — and his parents are Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien — Jack is trying to figure out, ok, whose voice, and which parent do I listen to as I’m living my life today and making these decisions.

Ok, now let me give you a glimpse into each of their worldviews, starting with the dad. Here’s a quote from Mr. O’Brien, talking to Jack. He says:

“It takes a fierce will to get ahead in this world.” – Mr. O’Brien, Tree of Life

This is what the narrator voice in the movie — which is the mother’s voice — calls, “The Way of Nature.” And the thing about the Way of Nature, is that, it’s true to a significant extent! You know? It’s the original way that human beings have been related to the natural order of things from very early – pre-historic civilization. It does take a fierce will to “get ahead” in this world — whatever that means. It takes some ruthlessness to oppose things that stand in your way. Some force and power. We live in a dangerous and competitive world.

And Jack’s dad loves him! He wants him to be safe, strong and not get taken advantage of! Dads I know you can relate to this. I don’t even have a son yet, though I’m supposed to soon, and I feel like I can already relate to this myself.

And the Way of Nature is also about, not just how do I achieve security and prosperity for myself or my family, but for my tribe or my religion — my nation.

Does this sound familiar? Does it describe any if the national, political rhetoric of the day? It’s the way of the kingdoms of this world. It’s the default. It’s what people tend to trust in.

The Bible talks about this Way as well in many places. And calls it by the name sin. It’s condition of self-centeredness and self-reliance. And actually, you don’t have to be a Christian to recognize that this is the way human beings naturally live.

When I was in college, I was an assistant instructor a class called “History of Economics.” I was an economics major. And I had lead review sessions for tests for large groups of students taking this class, and we would a book called The Worldly Philosophers, to learn about some of the greatest thinkers who helped to shape modern European society, particularly in politics and economics. And maybe the biggest name you could think of on the economic side of things as far as the time period of the Enlightenment goes, is Adam Smith — The Father of neo-classical economic theory and of the capitalist mode of production Here’s what Smith said about human nature:

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.”

— Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

It’s difficult to overstate the influence of this idea on the history of this nation. When was the Wealth of Nations written? 1776.

Human beings are self-centered. Smith knew this, and so did most of other modern European political philosophers. Ok, and what’s the strategy for survival in a world like this? Look no further than the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:

“The higher man is distinguished from the lower by his fearlessness and his readiness to challenge misfortune.”

This is the same advice that Jack’s dad, Mr. O’Brien, gives to his son in the movie — trust in your own might and willpower to be strong and fight hard against the odds to succeed in life!

Ok, now, at the same time, there is also growing tendency this day in age to think that human beings are somehow inherently good natured! Oh that this were true! I wish it was. It’s funny, it seems like I think the only times and places when people are able to think that, is when they’re very far removed from the violence and the brutality that’s going on all the time in the world. And usually these cultures that elevate the human being to a naive level of goodness are very sheltered from poverty and war.

It’s this idea too that human beings are capable of pretty much taking care of themselves through science, technology, or the free market. It’s a fairly new idea in human history, but it’s still a very popular one. But then the 20th Century happened… in which more people were killed in war than all the other wars in human history combined, that we know of.

So maybe Mr. O’Brien is right? Maybe we just need a fierce will to get ahead and survive in this world…

But what does Mrs. O’Brien say, the mother of Jack, in the movie? She says:

“Unless you love, your life will flash by.” – Mrs. O’Brien, The Tree of Life

This is what the narrator in the movie calls, The Way of Grace. Let’s watch and listen to how the movie itself depicts these two different perspectives.

“There are two ways through life, the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.”

“Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”

“Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.”

“No one who loves the way of grace… ever comes to a bad end.”

And in fact, there is tragic moment at the climactic point in the story of the movie, when someone dies, and it totally shifts the perspective of the dad, all of the sudden. It’s a brutal lesson for him. Because when you come to the end of someone else’s life that you love, which way are you going to wish you had been living by? The Way of Nature, or the Way of Grace?

It says at the beginning of Acts that,

After his suffering, [Jesus] presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.

Acts 1:3

So this was Jesus’s main teaching — the Kingdom of God. And he talked about the Kingdom of God before his death and resurrection as well. And what’s the Kingdom of God all about? It short, it turns the natural values of this world upside down. And in particular, ok, the kingdom is God a different way of wielding power — not the natural Way, but by the Way of Grace.

When Jesus is tempted in the desert by Satan after 40 days, Satan makes an offer to him. I’ll give all of the kingdoms of the world, if you would just bow down to me. In other words, Satan is saying, you don’t have establish a kingdom based on the Way of Grace. You can have the kingdoms of the Way of Nature now! But Jesus refuses.

And toward the end of the gospel of Luke, right as he’s being arrested, look at what happens:

 49 When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” 50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.

51 But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him. 52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? 53 Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour—when darkness reigns.”

The Kingdom of God, we learn, from basically Jesus’s whole publically, does advance by force or violence, but by sacrificial love.  It’s The Way of Grace. And this Kingdom, friends, at the moment of the Ascension, is being declared the real and true Kingdom. Look at what Paul says about this at the beginning of his letter to the Ephesians:

18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.

– Ephesians 1:18-21

So the Ascension of Christ, ok, is like the Coronation Ceremony for the Kingdom of God and the Way of Grace. It’s the declaration, the announcement! That the world is now being ruled under this different Way — the Way of grace rather than the Way of Nature.

But even after the resurrection, the disciples don’t seem to totally get what Jesus was up to though, do they? We know they didn’t get it before, but even after they’re still a little hazy. In the first chapter of Acts, which we read, they ask:

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

They’re probably like, so Jesus, now that you’re all resurrected and apparently more powerful than death, maybe you should lead the revolution! You can be our secret weapon…

Or, it’s also like they’re saying: “Jesus, when are you going to make things like they used to be? With King David, or King Solomon? When are you going to restore the glory days?

As Americans, some of us might say, when are you going to put someone back in the Oval Office like Ronald Reagan, or JFK, or FDR?! Y’all know we do the same thing…

And what’s Jesus’s answer in the next couple of verses? Basically, he says, don’t worry about that. Your job is to be a witness to the things that I’ve taught you about the Kingdom of God. And you’ll be able to do this by the power of the Holy Spirit, which is coming.

Now, I’m not saying God doesn’t care about politics, or that politics don’t matter. Quite the opposite, in fact. God does care, and it does matter. But I think what Jesus is essentially saying to the disciples, and to us, is: Stop trying to make me the King of the Way of Nature! I’m not going to be a king in the worldly kingdom! That kingdom is passing away anyway. I’m calling you to a live a different kingdom, the kingdom of Grace. And your job is to be like the yeast in the dough that infects the rest of the world with that kingdom. With my kingdom!

Satan tried to do the same thing with Jesus, basically, and so did Peter. Put Jesus on the worldly throne so we can feel like we’re on the winning team. Friends, when the church does this, it’s not pretty. Sometimes it’s even downright demonic.

That’s also why we need to be careful with this phrase, “seated at the right hand of the Father.” Jesus isn’t far away in some distant throne room. Because if we think Jesus is far away, just somewhere where we’re going to join him after we die, then we might just be able to get away with thinking that we can live by the Way of Nature in our politics. But that’s not how the kingdom of God works.

No, Jesus isn’t far away in heaven. He’s right here, present through the Spirit! And this Spirit is empowering you with a different kind of power. It’s the power of the cross – of sacrificial love! It’s the Way of Grace. The Way of God’s kingdom.

That’s why the Angel says, in v. 11, “Why do you stand here, looking into the sky?” after Jesus ascends. It’s as if the angel is saying, God will take care of what ultimately happens. You, though, have other work to do. You get to witness to this Kingdom, this Way of grace. Where power is exercised benevolently rather than selfishly. This is our mission. This is our politics.

And you know another way that Jesus makes himself present and visible to us is through the Communion Table. We believe in the real spiritual presence of Jesus in the bread and the wine, and it’s a sign to us of the kind of lives we’re to lead together when we leave here. Reconciled lives, that share the Way of Grace with others, because God has shared the Way of Grace with us. So let’s pray.

Keeping Jesus Weird: The Peace of the Resurrection

The audio for this sermon can be found here.

27 The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. 28 “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”

29 Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. 31 God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”  Acts 5:27-32

24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” – John 20:24-29

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Austin, TX, where Whitney and I are from, or if you’ve been there. But they have this saying: “Keep Austin Weird.” There’s a kind of pride in that saying, that you can notice if you spend any time there. It’s definitely something that is part of the city’s reputation, at least certain parts of it, and something that the people who have lived there a long time sort of see as making it special and unique. It stands out from other cities in Texas, culturally, politically, and just in terms of geography and aesthetics. It has a different look and feel to it.

But then sometimes, this pride about being different, being weird, can also be taken a little far. It can get silly, and sometimes people just try to be weird for the sake of being weird – not really for any other reason: people dressing is bizarre ways and doing things in public mostly for the purpose of being noticed.

But it’s hard to see the point sometimes of weirdness like that, other than maybe just because it’s based in a fear of conformity. Or an insecurity about not being special. Which is understandable. Really it is — it’s a deeply human thing to want. To stand out from the crowd. And I think that’s what the phrase keep Austin Weird is really getting at, at its best, “Don’t let this city become like all the other cities. There’s something special, there’s something different here, that makes this place what it is — don’t lose that.”

There’s this pastor I know in Austin though who has a blog called, not “Keep Austin Weird,” but “Keep Jesus Weird.” And I have to admit, I sometimes find myself wishing I’d come up with that title first. It’s pretty clever, and I think it says something important actually for us. In this case, in the case of Jesus, there can also be something very good and maybe even essential about being weird, and keeping Jesus weird.

And this is one of the things the church in America still has to learn, it seems to me: that being a Christian is not normal. And it never was supposed to be normal. But this is hard for us. Many of us grew up in a time and cultural setting when we maybe did think that being Christian was normal. Maybe in some ways we still think that way. But it’s not normal. And it was never intended to be normal. I should be disruptive of what is normal! And in fact, it’s precisely when the church gets to a place where being Christian can be seen as normal, that I think a problem arises. This is especially true when it comes to belief in something as revolutionary as the resurrection of Jesus.

Because there really is nothing normal about believing that a homeless Jewish rabbi from 1st Palestine not only rose from the dead but was the incarnation of the God of the universe. A universe in which this planet is only a speck of dust on the cosmic map — that hasn’t even been around that long compared to the rest of the universe, and human beings haven’t been alive on the planet compared to many other animals planet! It’s not normal to believe this. In fact, it’s weird. It’s kind of crazy. And the more we acknowledge that, and try to comfortable with it, the better off we’re going to be, I’d say. Our beliefs are Christians are  quite strange, if you don’t already believe them. The trouble is many of us grew up believing them. At least at a safe distance.

Are there are indeed many people in the world, 2 billion or so, apparently, which is hard to imagine, who at least, statistically, have some kind of affiliation, however remotely, with the Christian church. But many of them — like some of us too, maybe, some of the time — many of them want to tame that faith. Neutralize it. Adjust it so that it fits, so that it’s comfortable and meshes well with  our culture and way of life. And I’m not even talking about a bad way of life, necessarily. We just want to make it normal. Because weirdness is uncomfortable!

But I think we know that this tends to remove the essential ingredients from what Jesus was all about. And the disciple Thomas, I think, might be able to help us remember to keep Jesus weird. And to keep church and Christianity weird! Because Thomas it seems that Thomas maybe actually did appreciate just how much the resurrection would change things, if it was indeed true. So he says, I gotta see this for myself! Because of this is true, it’s a game-changer.

The tradition has somewhat unfairly named Thomas “doubting Thomas” though, as if we wouldn’t have doubted if we were him! I’m going to defend him a little bit here, I admit — because I’m pretty sure I would have done the same! And the other disciples had already gotten to see Jesus anyway. Thomas just wanted to see him too!

And I can definitely relate to the desire to make belief in Jesus something I can just “see for myself.” To make it normal and less weird. There was a time in my life when I really thought I could basically just reason with pretty much anyone about Christianity and convince them that it was perfectly rational and normal to believe in Jesus. You know, that it wasn’t weird.

A couple of my closest friends in high school growing up and still to this day are not Christians — so we’ve all had many conversations over the years about what makes our faith’s different from each other. And I remember several instances with one of my friends in particular when I basically tried to pin him down, back him into a corner — not literally, but figuratively — and get him to admit that he had rejected Jesus and I would demand that he explain why. I thought I could convince him of the normality and rationality of believing in Christ! I thought I could prove it to him. It wasn’t until much later that I saw the immaturity, naiveté and even arrogance of that attitude.

I still had a lot to learn, and one of the things I needed to learn was that we don’t come to faith through rationalization. Faith is weirder than that! We simply cannot force another to believe. Indeed, I can’t even force myself to believe. Let’s alone someone else. It has to be given. It’s a gift, really.

Now, I have to be open to it. Have ears to hear, eyes to see, as Jesus sometimes talks about. And it may be that part of that sometimes means, because of questions that come up when things aren’t making sense, having to do some learning and figure out if something is inconsistent. So I do think it is necessary in faith to try to rule out irrationalities. But ruling out contradictions is not what brings us to faith. It simply makes way, makes room for faith. Faith is still going to require a leap.

So even though Thomas was doubting, I don’t think he was really a skeptic. There’s a difference. A true skeptic would still doubt even after seeing Jesus. And in fact some do. The Bible talks about this. How some believed, but some still doubted — even after they saw Jesus! (Matt. 28) In contrast, Thomas wanted to believe! He was hungry. He had already been with Jesus and been groomed for discipleship. He had seen and tasted the goodness and beauty of God in Jesus’s life! He just had to be sure, because he knew it would change everything! But then he gives this powerful statement, My Lord My God!

But even when he overcomes his doubt, and after seeing Jesus’s wounded body, it’s not like this meant it was all of the sudden easy for Thomas or any of the other disciples to follow Jesus, totally trust him, and live out their faith! No, that was still difficult, even for them.

And it certainly didn’t become normal or easy to believe in Jesus even after the resurrection. It wasn’t for another 300 years or so, when Constantine came around (he’s usually the person that we blame for this), that Christianity achieved a culturally prominent status. And maybe not so coincidentally, that’s also when being Christian started to no longer require looking very much like Jesus.

And again, in fact, what we see throughout church history is that, when Christianity is normal, it tends not to look very much like Jesus. It looks more like Caesar — like power, like wealth, like success and comfort.

And I think this points to something else that’s essential about what Thomas the disciple wanted to see before he could believe… not just Jesus, but his wounds. This might be an essential detail in the story.

The wounds tell a story, don’t they. Maybe Thomas knew that the wounds were crucial. And that’s why he wanted to see them.

If Jesus had come back and not had the wounds, it might have been easier to forget about or dismiss the fact that, in order for the resurrection to mean something, he had to face the sin of humanity in all of its hate and violence and destruction, and ultimately the death and separation that it brings from God. The wounds are a reminder of the reality of this story and tell us to remember to count the cost of it. It’s a reminder that dying comes before rising.

The past two days I went on a retreat with some guys — some in the church, and some not, and we were just learning more together about what it means to be a disciple-making disciple. And there was a question that came up. I thought it was great. One of the guys in the group asked: Y’all make this sound pretty terrible. Why wouldn’t anybody want to do it, this whole discipleship thing?

This was a really good question! We’re talking about Jesus’s wounds, and dying and suffering before there can be a resurrection? Who would sign up for this? No wonder nobody wants to keep it weird! We prefer a normal Jesus, and understandably so!

Remember what Jesus says though when he appears to the appears to the disciples: John 20:26 Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” (acknowledge that Jesus goes through a wall)

Jesus gives them this peace. This trust. This assurance. He had been abandoned and unjustly condemned and tortured and killed. And he comes back from the dead, not with vengeance, but with peace. That’s going to leave an impression on you, if you witness that. It does give you peace, and it takes away your fear.

So the apostles are then able to testify with confidence and without hesitation, and even though there were all kinds of risks and dangers as a result of that.

And in the passage in Acts, they don’t try to argue their way out of being in trouble. It’s a lot like Jesus really, when he was arrested. They just testify! They tell about their experience of coming to know the good news of repentance and the forgiveness of sin — with their life on the line!

29 Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! . . . 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

That’s maybe the only argument that ever mattered or the only convincing that’s ever needed. I believe he was Lord and Savior because I’ve come to know and trust and see the transformative power of his message, and of a relationship with him for myself, and in the lives of others.

And that’s how it manages to get passed on, even to those of us who haven’t seen! This is what’s so amazing. And the way that happened, was through someone showing us and teaching us about the love of God with their life, and by inviting us into a relationship with Jesus.

You know that’s the true sign of a lasting movement: when it makes it through the third generation. Not just the second. That is, when it has grandchildren. People who believe without seeing it the way Thomas did.

The same thing has to happen in churches actually. And the spirit behind the third generation of something is always a special kind of phenomenon because it does not in-person contact with the founding moment. And in the case of Christianity, this spirit of course is God’s Holy Spirit which continues to make present to us Christ’s Spirit even though he’s no longer physically with us. It keeps the weirdness going!

And so I think for us at Saint Peter’s, the challenge is to recognize that the faith we hold onto is intended to be passed on, with the weirdness preserved! And the way it’s passed on is by pointing people to the beauty, and the goodness of the source, which we don’t need to prove. We just have to testify. We just have to show it: how has it changed your life? Why is life following Jesus better than life by yourself? I think we can do that. I think we believe without doubt, that it’s better. Life with faith in the resurrection is better. It’s actually truer. Not because it’s normal. But because it’s weird in the best possible way. And we want share that with others.

Good Friday

Reflection on John 19

John tells us that this is all happening on Passover, the annual celebration of Israel’s liberation from slavery, God’s victory over Pharaoh through the Exodus, which was always potentially a politically sensitive time. It isn’t hard to connect a few dots in your mind between Egypt and Rome, in other, if you were in Pontius Pilates place, you never knew when some Galilean hothead would stir up riots against the hated Empire. (Barabbas in Luke’s account as an example of this!)The religious leaders knew this and were taking advantage of it in how they were bargaining with Pilate.

Pilate’s job was to make sure that an uprising would not happen. There was enormous pressure on him to maintain order.

How does the conversation between Pilate and Jesus go? When asked if he’s a king or what he has done to upset the Jewish priests, Jesus tells Pilate, “My kingdom is not of the world.”

Pilate, who only knows of one world, this world — not Jesus’s world — doesn’t understand what Jesus is talking about, and only manages to grab hold of the word he does understand, and asks him: “So you are a king?”

So he totally misses it. “My Kingdom of not of this world.”

Friends it doesn’t matter how many times we hear this. Christians have always struggled with how to interpret Jesus’s statements about the Kingdom of God. Even if we think we’ve got it nailed down conceptually — practically, we’re never quite sure how to work it out. What does this mean, we want to ask Jesus? Many of us have probably heard the saying, “in the world but not of the world,” but the implications of this are rarely clear. Most of the time, we take choose one or the other — in or of — and run with it!

Because, on the one hand, when we’re looking for redemption, as Israel certainly still was, the temptation is to trust in their effort to acquire or benefit from worldly power. The power of Rome’s political and military might. The religious leaders were trying to manipulate it for their own purposes so they could keep the Temple life and Jewish community the way they wanted it to be!

I mean, how many times do we do this! Obviously, it’s happening right now in the political arena in our country. But it also happens in every area of life. We resort to manipulation, deception, passive aggression, resentful treatment of each other in order to get our way. We make power moves and play these political games to fight over getting our share of the pie. This is human nature. Or, on the other hand, we want a savior, a messiah, who just goes and gets these things for us! Gives us what we want.

And finally, there is also the path that lets us check out altogether when it comes to concern for the kingdoms of this world. It’s a way that we look for escape, so that we can create our own separate, uncontaminated space in the world on the sidelines, where it’s safe from harm. It’s how we can sometimes mistakenly understand what it means to not be of the world — by looking to escape it.

Now, Pilate doesn’t seem too alarmed at first, when Jesus says he’s a King, because he doesn’t appear to be very threatening. He doesn’t have armed followers. He’s not talking about a political revolution. But then the religious leaders say that “if you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar’s. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar!” Again, they’re playing the power game.

And then we’re told that Pilate becomes afraid. And when he asks them, finally, “shall I crucify your king?” What is there response? “We have no king but Caesar.”

The question that I think this poses to us is fairly straightforward: whose Kingdom are we living in? Because how easy is it, to want Jesus to be a king that looks more like Caesar? I mean do we not want that? Of course we do. We want Jesus to be in control, and in charge of everything that’s happening. We want him to command everyone’s attention and allegiance and worship because of how grand and majestic his works are on the earth. We want Palm Sunday, but without the donkey. Let’s put Jesus on a high horse!

Yeah, because what we don’t want… is the call that comes with citizenship in his kingdom. And that is the call to follow him. It makes me a think of story from earlier in the Gospels.

If you look in your booklet at the beginning in the section that walks you through the stations of the cross, I want to call your attention to two statements in the liturgy there. First the passage underneath the heating of the Fifth Station — the second half of that first paragraph.

If you’re familiar with the Gospels at all, you’ve probably heard these words from Jesus, so I’ll read them:

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

Stopping there for just a moment.. (Jesus says this in Mark 8, Matthew 14, Luke 9)

Jesus says this to Peter right after what’s called the transfiguration. It’s the turning point in Jesus’s public ministry.  He’s been teaching and healing people, and now he’s turning toward Jerusalem with a mission to go to the cross. But Peter doesn’t want him to do this, does he. What does Peter want. Peter wants to build an altar, a place of worship, to stay there and probably have some good church services every week in this sacred and holy place, where he can always be reminded of what happened and what he saw there, when God showed up in a powerful way. This is what the Temple had become!

But honestly, Jesus seemed much more interested in teaching people to follow him than to worship him. But I think what we actually learn from the passion narrative is that we are supposed to worship Jesus, and the way we do that, is by following him. We do not follow Jesus, by worshiping him, we worship Jesus by following him.

Ok but then look what it says after that: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Now, this is not the next verse in any of these passages. Whoever worked to compile this liturgy pulled this verse, from a totally different place (three chapters earlier in Matthew 11). Which can be a little bit misleading, because as you’re reading this, you might think the verses are right next to each other in the Bible, but they’re not.

But actually, I think this is very good theology. See this is what theology does. It backs up a little bit from the zoomed up view, and tries to connect the idea in one revelation in Scripture, with another, and from what is often a very different place — one that might even seem to contradict the first one!! But it tries to then make sense of how the two can be part of one and the same  truth.

The truth is paradoxical, in this case. Y’all know what that means, if something is a paradox, right? It’s not a contradiction rather an apparent contradiction. In fact, there is a deep resonance between them! It’s like hitting a high and a low note on a musical instrument at the same time. As long as they’re in the same key, they be can octaves apart and still sound good together. And they can be different notes too! Because they make a chord! That’s what harmony does. The beautiful harmony that we enjoyed from the band last night and today.

Flip back one page now to the write-up for the First Station of the Cross in your bulletin to the prayer portion in the middle of the page — it’s the second paragraph. Halfway — about three lines down:

“Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.”

Friends, this is the scandalous claim that the whole Christian faith hangs on: somehow, in mysteriousness of God’s wisdom and love, the way of the cross, is also the way of life and peace.

And we actually, like Peter, don’t like that. We don’t want it. We don’t really understand it. Most of the time we reject it. It scares us, it disturbs us… so we turn the cross into something else. We make it into a mechanism, and a means, rather than the path itself that we’re called onto.

We heard this last night too: when Jesus washes the disciples feet. Aren’t we supposed to wash Jesus’s feet?! This doesn’t make any sense. The God of all creation, comes to us, to serve and unconditionally give of himself.

This the good news of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom that Pilate has no way of understanding, because he lives in a world of fear and preoccupation with power and control. This is the world that God’s love subverts and undermines — not with worldly force, but with divine love, which, as the cross shows, is more powerful than worldly force. This is the way of the cross, and somehow, it brings peace and life. It feels like dying at first, and it is a kind of dying. But it’s what produces transformation.

There is no transformation without great love or great suffering. On the cross, Jesus embraces both, and calls us to be ready to do the same. That’s the mystery of the Kingdom of God, and that’s the good news.

I am Thirsty

The audio for this sermon can be found here.

“I am thirsty.”

In almost feels underwhelming statement, for someone who is being crucified. It reminds me of other times when the Bible seems to have a way of understating things. Like, after Jesus fasted for 40 days, it just says, he was hungry. Yeah, I imagine he was! And “I am thirsty,” is certainly not as dramatic as the saying from last Sunday: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

And I guess what I’m most struck by is simply that, “I am thirsty” is not really what you’d expect Jesus to say right before he dies. He’s enduring this agonizing death, and thirst was no doubt an extreme part of that — he would have lost a ton of bodily fluid through what he had endured even prior to crucifixion. But of all the different pains he’s experiencing, why the emphasis on thirst?

John tells us it’s to fulfill Scripture, and of course that’s part of it — John would have been conscious of writing to Jewish audience who still didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah, so showing how he fulfilled Scripture is important. But surely that’s not the only reason he says this.

It’s also kind of challenging as a verse in Scripture to focus on in a sermon because it’s not giving us a moral teaching. And it’s not a big claim about doctrine or theology either, at least not directly. On the surface it’s more of an existential cry about his physical condition.

But we know that John is always making use of symbols and metaphors and choosing words with layers of meaning. And Water and thirst are literary themes throughout the gospel of John.

In his conversation with the woman at the well in John chapter 4, Jesus talks about the difference between physical and spiritual thirst when he refers to the living water that he provide for us — the kind of water that quenches our thirst permanently.

As human beings, we have a spiritual thirst and longing for meaning and purpose, and significance in our lives. We want to be whole. We want there to be abundance in our lives.

In the story of the woman at the well, in her case, she had apparently been trying to satisfy that spiritual thirst through her relationships with the men her life, and she had made a total mess of things!

So there’s definitely a spiritual meaning to this idea of thirstiness, and I want to come back to that. But I think it’s also appropriate to stay with the literal and physical nature of his statement for at least a little while. Because sometimes we overlook it, and sometimes as Christians, especially in church, we rush to the spiritual, we focus on the spiritual — for obvious reasons — but we can do this to the neglect of the physical. Or more dangerously, we risk dividing the spiritual and the physical.

So here are three things I want to suggest to you that we can see from this statement about Jesus’s thirst:

  1. First, God is with us in the physical, and Jesus fully experiences it.
  2. Secondly, the spiritual and the physical are inseparable — they’re not the same, but neither are they separate.
  3. And third, that God through Christ on the cross, is reuniting the spiritual and the physical, and healing the false divide that gets put between them.

Since moving to Charleston almost two summers ago, we have not had drinking water in our house because we’re on a well. I mean the water’s fine, we use for everything else, but even when it’s filtered, it’s not quite up to the standard of what you want for drinking. So I go to the grocery store every week, because there’s a place to refill water jugs in the back of the store. And it’s pain, I’m so spoiled, but it saves money by not paying to have water delivered, and it’s super close to our house, so I have no reason to complain. But it’s like this small discipline in my life that reminds of my physical need for water that I would normally just take for granted — I can’t just turn on the faucet.

So again, it’s a small thing, but it’s a good practice, even though it’s pathetic as I get annoyed by having to do it, but it’s a reminder of this basic physical need and dependency in my life.

You know there are also these crazy statistics about water, and it’s hard to make sense of them unless you’re a chemist or something, but supposedly our bodies are made up of 60%-70%.  Water really is our life source — that and oxygen, which are the two things that kill Jesus — his lack of oxygen and loss of water.

If anyone saw the movie, The Martian this past year, it’s a pretty visceral depictions of the severity of the physical world and the elements that we need to survive. It was originally a book, I’m told, which I’m sure was better than the movie like everybody always says. But in this movie, and this doesn’t give anything away, the main character Mark Watney played by Matt Damon, gets stranded on Mars, and has to survive on a limited amount of water for several years. He has some water, but he has to make more — he actually makes water! — not only to drink it, but to grow more food, because there’s no vegetation. He literally has to make water.

And I guess it just put in perspective how fragile life is on our planet, how much it depends on all of these incredibly fine-tuned conditions, like the availability of water, oxygen, the right temperature the right pressure.

We hang in this delicate balance between existence and non-existence, and it’s just incredible that life came to be and that there’s something rather than nothing. I know I’m getting all philosophical, but I think it’s appropriate. When Jesus says, I am thirsty, it’s a profound. Because as Christians, what we believe about that is, somehow, God can relate to thirsting. God enters it, blesses it. Calls it good.

Jesus subjects himself to frailty and dependency on something as specific as water and oxygen, on this one little planet, in this gigantic, vast, expansive universe, for this one tiny little span of time. This Christian story that we’re telling and believing in is extraordinary and so remarkable, I just think we have to stop and meditate on the gravity of it, for a minute. Letting ourselves be made to wonder, and be awed by it.

II. The second thing, the thirst of Jesus shows, is the inseparable link between the physical and spiritual. The physical and the spiritual are not the same, they are distinct, but they’re deeply connected.

“The Bible’s aim is not the freeing of the spirit from the world. It is the handbook of their interaction.” – Wendell Berry

The story of the Bible is one that tells of the relationship between God and humanity, the divine and the human, and how we through our physicality, and our bodies, our material existence, get to receive and to participate in God’s redemptive work.

In the late first century when the gospel of John was likely written, there had started to develop in its early stages of what would become a popular movement or school of thought called gnosticism.

Gnosticism took many forms, but at its root was essentially the idea that the body and the soul, or the material and the immaterial world are separate, and that the significance of the immaterial far outweighed the material. In fact, you could even say that in its most extreme forms, gnosticism held that the physical world was bad, and the spiritual world was good.

So in the worldview of some ancient Greeks during Jesus’s time, this was the assumption — They separated the physical and the spiritual, the bodily and the mental/intellect, and the physical world was almost like a trap that you needed to escape in order to find salvation — in order to be free.

And so what gnosticism tended to teach as well was that knowledge was the key to salvation. What you believed, in your mind, was more important, more lasting, than what you did with your body, you could say. For this reason, too, there were some people who were saying, for example, that Jesus couldn’t have actually had a body, because if he did, then he would be corruptible like the rest of us. This was a heresy called Docetism. The claim was that in fact, he actually only appeared to have a body, and that he was really just a spirit.

The gnostics also believed that God couldn’t suffer, so Jesus couldn’t be God! But the writer of the Gospel of John is saying exactly the opposite of that:

“The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” (John 1:14)

This is a staggering claim, really, that Christians make. It always has been. It’s the most distinguishing claim, I think. Because, if you look at other religions, both Jews and Muslims reject the idea that God could share in human nature, because that would go against God’s nature. On the other hand, Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, tend to say that God is not really God at all — not in a personal sense, and not in a way that distinguishes between the physical and spiritual. For them, the physical and the spiritual are virtually the same. Whereas, for us as Christians, we still want to make some distinction, and Jesus gives us the picture of that.

You know it’s a common thing for non-Christians to question how it is that Jesus as a human could also be divine — that God could be fully in him. And that’s an understandable question. It’s a question we try to wrestle with in the Alpha course each fall at Saint Peter’s. But what’s more surprising is not that non-Christians question Jesus’s divinity, but that Christians forget Jesus’s humanity.

We tend to at least subconsciously, maybe, assume that Jesus was like superman or something because he the power of God is in him, so that it wasn’t very hard for Jesus to do the things that he did or go through what he went through in his life — not just his death, but everything else as well, and the ordinary things that we all go through. But I think we risk misleading ourselves if we assume that.

You know in the letter to the Philippians in the Bible, the Apostle Paul writes that Jesus humbled and emptied himself of his glory, taking on the very form of a human being to be with us, to live on earth, and so on. Ok — he gives us the advantages of divinity without losing his shared nature with God, which is of course a very mysterious doctrine, but as Christians I think we need to try take it seriously!

The past two Sundays, I had the privilege of leading us in the celebration of communion for the first time. And here are some of the words from the liturgy that we’re using right now: that Jesus “was tempted in every way as we are — and he is ultimately able to resist those temptations — but not because he has special powers. I’m serious! It sounds shocking at first, for Christians especially, but I think it’s true.

This may sound kind of crazy to say, but we forget that Jesus is able to live the way he does by accessing the same resources that you and I have. Namely, through his dependency on the Holy Spirit, and his intimately close relationship with God the father. He lived so much in step, so much in tune with God, that he was able to do what he did.

III. Thirdly, God’s reunion and healing of the physical and spiritual divide. There’s a famous quote for early church history around the time that the Nicene Creed was written — toward the middle of the Fourth Century, by a church Father and theologian named Gregory of Nazianzus:

“What is not assumed, is not redeemed.”

When Gregory wrote this, he was still fighting the old Gnostic battle against those who were suggesting that Jesus might not have been fully human. But Jesus had to assume all that it meant to be human in order to redeem humanity. He had to take on the physical in order to redeem the physical. God in Christ covers the deepest and widest possible distance between the sin, darkness and horror of the cross and the beauty and glory and goodness of God.

Through Jesus, God is stepping into the world in the most complete way, touching and taking on everything that human beings go through, absorbing it into himself and, and transforming it, so that there’s no longer any separation between us and God — between the physical and the spiritual.

Here’s a final thought: When Jesus says, “I am thirsty,” the guards take it as a request for something to drink. In response, the soldiers gave Jesus “sour wine” (v. 29), a cheap wine that was commonly drank by the lower class at that time. It would not have quenched his thirst at all. It would have been bitter. Most scholars that John had in mind Psalm 69 when he wrote this, which says,

Their insults have broken my heart,
and I am in despair.
If only one person would show some pity;
if only one would turn and comfort me.
But instead, they give me poison for food;
they offer me sour wine for my thirst. (vv. 20-21)

It makes me wonder what this passage might means to people who thirst or who have to drink unclean water in the world. Water that’s more like poison. Water Mission International here in Charleston reports that 842,000 people die each year globally from diarrhea due to inadequate drinking water, sanitation, and hand-hygiene. That’s about 2300 per day. And 2.4 billion people are living with unclean water. That’s about 35% the world population.

So this is another part of what I think we can see happening in the death of Jesus. It’s the kind of sin that Jesus dies for, and he tastes its sting. No child who dies of preventable, waterborne disease is alone. Jesus suffers with them. He too says I am thirsty, and then is given this sour drink.

Or I even just think of the stories of suffering in our own church. People getting cancer, cancer coming back, parents facing infertility, those who’ve lost children — there is this pain and this thirst, that you have, and Jesus identifies with it.

TJ talked last week about sin and judgment, and the hope that we have because God is judging the world for all of its sin — the sin that leads to children dying of waterborne diseases, malnutrition, the sin that leads to people living in sexual slavery or being exploited for their cheap labor, as was talked about at the Illuminated event this past week.

Jesus suffers the consequences of our broken relationships with God and each other, the consequences of which are what send people to the cross. You see, God doesn’t crucify Jesus! We do. And he dies for our sake, even though we reject him.

There’s a spiritual thirst, and there’s a physical thirst — they both matter, they can’t be separated, and God in Christ heals the divide between them by embracing and fulfilling our thirst.

You know when the woman at the well asks Jesus about the water he says he can give her (John 4):

13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

There’s this song that I know some of you will remember it from growing up in church. I’m not going to sing it, but it’s goes like this. I’m going to let it be the closing thought here. About thirst. About the source of life. And about the living water that Christ gives.

I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me. Makes the lame to walk and the blind to see. Opens prison doors, sets the captives free. I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me. Spring up oh well, oh my soul. Spring up oh well, and make me whole. Spring up oh well, and give to me, that life, abundantly!

Confession, Accountability and Vulnerability

As the season of Lent begins, this message seems like an appropriate one. Below is the manuscript of the sermon I preached at Saint Peter’s Church on Jan. 24, 2016. And here is a link to the audio.

Psalm 32:3-5 (NIV)

Blessed is the one
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the one
whose sin the LORD does not count against them
and in whose spirit is no deceit.
When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.
5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the LORD.”
And you forgave
the guilt of my sin.

Luke 18:9-14 (NIV)

9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Well so as many of you know, we’ve been in a series since the beginning of the year called Unimaginable, and what we’re trying to say with that title, is that often we find ourselves in a place in life that we didn’t imagine we’d ever be in. We don’t know how we got there. It’s not what we hoped or planned for. But we’re there, and we’re stuck. We’re stuck, or we feel like things are out of control.

But where we’re going in this journey that the Christian faith takes us on, is to a place that, we also could not have imagined, because it’s so good. But it’s probably not good in the way that we expected it to be. And it may not be good in the same way that the world and culture around us often tells us it should be. And so, understanding the difference between what the world we live in tends to call God, and what God views as good, is at the heart of why we gather as a church, and how we discover what our purpose is. That’s the big picture of what we’re talking about.

More specifically, though, in just a moment, we’ll get into what is really the 5th step of the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous — even though it’s the third week of the series (we’re condensing a little bit) — which is the step that deals with the importance of confession and accountability in the process of recovery, but also, more broadly, it’s a key step in the process of discipleship, that is, following Jesus.

So this past week in the Connect Group that I’m part of, which meets every Wednesday, as part of in initiative at our church right now called Illuminated, we watched a documentary about human trafficking and sex slavery. And as expected, it was difficult and eye-opening to sit through, but it was gripping. I think all of us were really on the edge of our seats. Not because it was entertaining but because for me, and I think for many of us, it revealed the nature of sin in the world in a way that makes it very difficult to deny how much we’re all susceptible and all caught up in this problem, however removed or indirectly — how much we’re all responsible at some level and keep the cycle harm turning.

It makes you think about how every time we buy something that was made by a company that uses slave-labor, we’re part of the problem. Every time someone looks at pornography, that’s part of the problem.

One of the biggest themes of the film is that the more these investigators started to learn and uncover about the relationship between the sex trade and prostitution, the more it became evident that prostitution is almost never something that any woman chooses for herself. It’s almost as if, because of the incredibly grim circumstances of her life, prostitution chooses her. It has a power over her that she doesn’t control.

And one story in particular really showed this. There was the woman interviewed in the documentary talking, her employer, and how he would abuse her, and manipulate and deceive her, and how terrifying and tormenting this all was — but then a little while after she got interviewed, she ended up going back to this guy, even though she had been rescued from this situation and given the opportunity to find another job.

And apparently, this is not unusual at all. And in almost every instance, what the movie demonstrated is if the women or girls have the right kind of caring and supportive community around them, during the recovery process, they can perhaps move on and see transformation in their life. But if they don’t, the chances of going back into the business are very high.

1. Because there is no freedom in isolation. And without encouragement, accountability, and someone in our life who fully knows us, we’re very likely to fall back into some form of slavery. But much of the time we’re in denial about that.

You see, a “me-too” church, which is what we’re trying to be, happens when we become willing to say, yeah, I’m not the person that I want to be a lot of the time either. I yell at my wife or my husband, at my kids. I put money first in my life. I’m impatient. I’m easily aggravated. I’m not living very generously. I’m mostly living for myself. Being a me-too kind of church, means creating an environment together, in our community, where it’s ok to not be ok. And to talk about is ok! Because we’re all not ok. So what was the first step that we confessed together?

Step 1 – “we admit that we are powerless over our attraction to do wrong and that our lives have become unmanageable.” This is huge. It can’t be skipped.

And then last week, TJ preached on steps two and three, which state that “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us.” And then that “we made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.” And as TJ said last week, even if you’re not sure what you think about God, or Jesus, or the Bible, you can still take this step, and many people have.

Of course, these steps are ones that many of us are trying to make, and it’s one that we have to repeat over and over, because if we’re earnestly embarking on the journey of following Jesus and pursing spiritual growth, we’re always going to be discovering new ways that that our lives are not turned over to God’s care.

And then we come to steps Four and Five, which are the focus of our time this morning: “We resolved to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” This one’s fun…

And fifth —  “We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” (James 5:16a) And here, this is where so many people get stuck and hit a wall. Here’s what the Big Book says:

“But of the things which really bother and burn us, we say nothing. Certain distressing or humiliating memories, we tell ourselves, ought not to be shared with anyone. These will remain our secret. Not a soul must ever know. We hope they’ll go to the grave with us.”

This is why recovery groups can tend to look pretty different from regular church groups. Recovery groups are full of people that in same area of their life are actually willing to admit that they don’t have control over something, that it’s become unmanageable, and that the only way they’re going to heal from it is if by crying out for help. But we prefer to hide!

It’s like in the story when Adam and Eve realize what they’ve done, and God confronts them about it. God asks Adam, “Where are you?” Adam replied, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” And then of course, Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the serpent. It’s just classic. It’s the story of all of us.

We’re like children hiding behind closed doors when we get into trouble — this same fear that Adam had lives in us and leads us to conceal stuff – to cover up our baggage and our shame.

But I think we know that when we hide and when we cover up, and when keep things inside, they start to eat away at us. In AA, they found a person who could follow each of the first few steps with as much conviction and sincerity as possible, but if they stop there, it was almost impossible to stay sober.

Whitney and I have been married for more than 7 years, but we also knew each other for more than 7 years before we got married. And we were very young when we met. We dated off and on throughout high school, and when we finally got engaged, it wasn’t a very romantic time in our lives. In fact, at times it was a pretty bumpy road. There was a point in our engagement when I realized that there were things I had kept from Whitney, some sin that I hadn’t acknowledged, that needed to be dealt with, and that she had a right to know about, and confessing that to her almost delayed our wedding. It was not good. But by God’s grace and because of Whitney’s love for me, and her forgiveness, we made it.

2. But the simple lesson is this: we cannot heal what we do not acknowledge – to God, ourselves, and at least one other person.

There’s a famous researcher and author by the name Brene Brown, and she has specialized in studying vulnerability and shame. Here are some of the things she says about vulnerability:

  1. Vulnerability entails emotional risk, exposure and uncertainty. Which is partly why it’s so scary.
  2. Brown tells a story in one of her TED talks about how all these businesses called her after one of her videos went viral and said hey, we want you to come speak to our company, but we’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t say anything about shame or vulnerability. We just want you to talk about creativity, innovation and change.Brown responded by saying that’d be ok except that, she had become convinced by her research, that vulnerability is actually the birthplace of creativity, innovation and change.
  3. Finally, Brown makes what she feels the most important observation of all, which is that vulnerability is not weakness; in fact, it’s the most accurate measurement we have of courage.

The story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11 is maybe the most famous example in the Bible of the consequences that can follow in the wake of unacknowledged sin. David sleeps another man’s wife while he’s away at war, and then basically after this man Uriah proves his faithfulness to David, David makes certain that Uriah dies in battle so that no one finds about David’s adultery. Which of course doesn’t ultimately work. A little secret needs a bigger one to remain hidden, and it ends up costing David almost everything.

3. The cost of concealment is always greater than the cost of confession!

As it turned out, the first sin that David committed was not the biggest problem or his biggest enemy. It was his unwillingness to face it! But what’s crazy about David is that, in spite of this story, he’s still so revered by the Jewish people. Because he does finally repent of his wrongdoings. He’s considered a model for how we’re to be related to God, and yet he was the worst of sinners!

This is why AA starts off every meeting by saying, “My name is [blank], and I’m an alcoholic. Not, “I’m a pastor, I’m a realtor, a teacher, an entrepreneur… I’m a mother, a parent, I live in Mt. Pleasant, or whatever!

Again though, like David, most of us have to be forced to do this. We won’t choose it. The test of whether you actually want to change is simple: Are you willing to tell another person? We will dare to be that vulnerable?

Now, before wrapping up, I want to say just a couple of things about what confession and accountability is not:
Look at the quote in your bulletin for a minute.

“God does not love us if we change; God loves us so that we can change. “

See, the reason we confess our sins, is not so that we will be forgiven. Now, we do experience, we do receive benefits of forgiveness when we confess our sin. But the offer is always already there. We confess our sins because of the reality of God’s love — that we get to live in it.

God does not love some future version of you. God loves you right now, exactly as you are. Sin and fear, hurt and shame, guilt and all.

Another thing that confession and accountability is not about is the pursuit of moral perfection. As grow in our dependence on God’s grace for restoration, and practice vulnerability, the fruit will be a change our character. But if you just to manage the behavior itself, on your own, you’re either going to fail, or worse, think that you can succeed.

This is what Jesus’ parable in Luke 18 about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is trying to tell us. Who does Jesus say went away justified? The guy who does what he’s supposed to, or the guy who realizes there’s no way he can do what he’s supposed to do, and because of that he cries out for mercy and help? This principle gets illustrated over and over again in the Gospel stories.

This is what the cross is all about! This is how God lures us own and woos us: by loving us in spite of ourselves in the very places where we cannot or will not or dare not love ourselves.

So yes, ok: God loves us and meets us at our worst. But God loves you too much to let you stay that way. So we gotta confess. And we ask others to hold us accountable.

The more you have hidden, the more alone you’re going to feel, and the more in danger you are! Seriously, this is what can ultimately lead to affairs, to financial ruin, to broken homes — to suicide. I know you’ve all seen it.

But even when we know this truth about God’s grace, it’s not like it becomes easy to do. It’s embarrassing to confess sin. It doesn’t make us look good. It’s possible that people might think less of us because of it.

Here’s what happens though when we do confess. You’ve all experienced this at one time or another. When you confess to another person, you feel immediate relief. And it literally, almost instantly, lifts weight and produces a new sense of humility and gratitude, even though it stings and there are still consequences.

Grace sometimes feels like punishment at first. It burns like fire, because it’s purging. It destroys the parts of us that don’t belong. But then what it ultimately does is purify, heal, and mature us. This is why the fire, is such a common biblical image. We think of it as a bad thing, but it has a refining purpose.

The sex trafficker from the documentary, King David, the tax collector in the parable — they all go on this same journey of being refined by the acknowledgement of their sin to others.

So I do invite you, encourage you and challenge, to, if you don’t have this kind of relationship in your life, to commit to establishing it. And praying, that God would make it clear to you, who that person should be.

What the Magi Reveal: From Instinct to Wisdom, and Wisdom to Worship

[This is the manuscript for a sermon that I preached on January 3, 2016 at Saint Peter’s Church. The audio can be found here.]

Today is the is the final Sunday of our Advent and Christmas sermon series. And if you’re new to the Anglican tradition, you may not know that we actually often continue to talk about Christmas even after Christmas, because it’s so central and foundational to our faith.

This year we’ve studied a number of different characters in the Christmas story: Zechariah, Elizabeth, Joseph, Mari… Simeon — and this morning we come to the Wise Men, or, the Magi as they’re also called, who are perhaps the most mysterious of all these characters. As we’ve studied each of these figures and their faith journeys, we’ve asked the question of what they can teach us about God and about ourselves, and what does this mean for our lives.
So with the Magi, I want to ask, what makes them wise? Why do we call them that? And how are they different than Herod? Which might seem obvious, but it’s a significant question for how Matthew tells the story. So we’ll look at Herod too. And then, finally, how does God through Jesus cause the Magi’s wisdom to become genuine worship?

Whitney and I were blessed to get to travel back to Austin, TX this past week where both of us are from, to see our families and stay with them. We had a great trip, and got to do pretty much everything that you hope you get to do with family on Christmas and for the holidays. We left just feeling very grateful for the special time we got to have with everyone. For the freedom that we have to travel safely and be with people we love. I share this because as I continued to reflect on this on the way home, it just struck me how radically different and how far removed our experience of Christmas usually is from the one that Mary and Joseph and Jesus had.

Because there are some seriously disrupting and disturbing aspects to this whole episode. The first couple years of Jesus’ life were pretty rough and dangerous! It’d be nice if we had a different story to talk about for the first Sunday of the 2016 – one that would provide a more light-hearted reflection – maybe some inspiration for New Year’s Resolutions. But there’s things about this story that are dark, and horrific!

Of course, this is not the first time that such a slaughter of infants occurs in the Bible, as many of you probably know. In the Exodus story, Pharaoh did the same thing! — by ordering that all male infants under the age of 2 be cast into the Nile, but Moses like Jesus is able to escape because of God’s warning and the help of others. So clearly Matthew is trying to connect the dots between Israel’s expectations for deliverance and Jesus’ fulfillment of that expectation.
The Tradition has called this story the Flight to Egypt, which also has connotations of the Exodus, but later on the church started calling it the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Sometimes the infant victims are even referred to as the first Christian martyrs. So maybe as much as any, this story highlights the harsh reality that the world is not a safe place, and God does not necessarily protect us from having to endure suffering, loss, and injustice and tragedy. It’s a difficult truth.

There’s some non-biblical historical credibility to these events as well, at least insofar as we know that Herod really was the kind of king that was capable of make such a cruel order. We’re told that he had three of his sons executed who he accused of conspiring against him; and before he died, he supposedly ordered that on the day of his burial, one member of every family in his kingdom was to be killed so that the nation might actually mourn.

We don’t know how many babies Herod had killed. It probably wasn’t as many as Pharaoh, because Bethlehem was very small. Some archaeologists have estimated that it might have been several dozen. But really, the number doesn’t matter. Regardless, it makes you want to ask, why couldn’t God have warned the families of all the other babies, if he was able to warn Joseph and the Magi about Herod’s intent to kill Jesus? Where is the hope and comfort in this story? Is there any hope or comfort in it? I think it’s fair to ask this.

Or, the other thing we might be tempted to do just to blame Herod — to call him crazy and evil and let that be the end of it. Which seems reasonable! But we may also want to be careful not to distance ourselves too much and too quickly from Herod — horrible as his acts were, terrible as he was. Even though we’re not in the same situation, and even though we’d never do the things that Herod did, it may still be the case that there’s a little bit of Herod in each of us.

Here’s what I mean by that: Herod is living according to his instincts. He’s in survival mode. He’s motivated by fear and the desire to be safe and in control. Herod is fixated, he’s stuck, in a self-centered, self-serving existence. He can’t see beyond his own interests and concerns. This is what allows him to devalue human life and make decisions without any regard for others. And while it may not show itself in the same extreme ways, we often get stuck in instinct mode ourselves. I know I do.

And secondly, if we just blame Herod, we risk putting ourselves in the place of the same people that Jesus later most directly challenges in his public ministry: the religious leaders of his day. Those who were always ready to demonize or make an enemy out of another group, and to do so while ignoring their own responsibility for the sin and suffering and injustice in the world. Jesus calls them out on this, because he has the authority to do so.

And the final thing about blaming Herod is that he’s also the product of a whole system and empire of sin and injustice — it’s not like he’s working alone, or like he doesn’t answer to someone. Herod is allowed to have power and be a king only because Caesar approves of him and views him as politically advantageous. There’s a structural nature to the violence and fear-based governance that rules the world in the First Century, and we see that same fear-based governance at work in the world today! It’s always on the defensive. It’s willing to harm others in order to protect itself. It’s anxious. It’s always just trying to compete and survive. But this is also natural, it’s normal, it’s conventional — It’s instinctual.

It’s the way of the world. It’s the way of Herod, of Pharaoh, of Caesar… And it’s the instinctual way of human nature that many of us find ourselves living in at times.

But then, there’s the Magi, and they weren’t like Herod. This is the contrast that Matthew is drawing. Because they were wise. They weren’t instinctual – they were wise. The wise men saw the world differently, and they were living for something different. They weren’t living according to their instincts. They were able to see beyond themselves. They were pursuing God, even though they do not know God yet. And somehow, they had the wisdom to see that the true king wasn’t Herod, who was the official king, but Jesus!

Now, we don’t actually know how many of them there were, and there’s no indication that they were kings. Rather, as the name “magi,” suggests, they were like astronomers, magicians, or interpreters or dreams. So maybe they marveled at the vastness of the cosmos, and maybe they looked to the stars, because they were seeking, they were searching for more truth, because they knew that their lives and their purpose depended on something bigger and much more important than themselves. They’re after truth for truth’s sake! Not just for their own benefit or the benefit of the group they were born into.

And this is really important, because many skeptics — they wonder how Christians can believe that something that happened at one time and in one place could have significance for all people and throughout all of history. Sometimes theologians call this the “scandal of particularly.” The idea that God acted most decisively at one moment, in one person, through one group, in all of history. This can be a hard pill to swallow, and understandably so.

Maybe you know people like this today, who aren’t Christians, and still have a lot of questions, but are drawn to God. It’s one of the largest and fastest growing groups of people in country, according to many sociologists — those who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. I think the Magi were kind of like this, and it’s important for us to listen to people like this today.

But the wise men in this story are meant to reveal something to us about precisely this issue — how God does indeed work through one person, one people, and one time and place in history, but in order to reveal something and to do something for the whole world — for everybody throughout all of history. The gospel is breaking down all the barriers of worldly kingdoms. As Paul says in Galatians, in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, which is probably why both Jews and Greeks weren’t sure how they felt about this.

For example, in Luke’s version of the story, it was shepherds, not wise men, who came to Bethlehem. They were basically the exact opposite of the wise men. They were poor, uneducated and probably Jewish, while Matthew tells us about these wealthy, educated, and non-Jewish Magi. Which just further testifies to the universal appeal and reach of the gospel to the whole spectrum of social classes.

So the way Matthew narrates what’s going on here not only sets up a contrast between Herod and the Wise Men, but also between the Kingdom of God, which is for all, and the Kingdoms of this world, which elevate one group above everyone else. Jesus’s birth itself begins a new drama and battle between the kingdom that Jesus inaugurates and the on-going kingdoms of this world. Herod is just one example of a worldly king. There are many other Herods today! And the conflict is intensified as the two realms draw closer to each other.

During this week in the new season after Advent which the church still calls Christmas, there is on January 6th, something that the tradition calls Epiphany — the feast of Epiphany. We hear this word (epiphany) and we probably think about having an epiphany, right? A moment of clarifying insight or vision, an ‘aha’ moment, where things that were blurry before, that puzzled us, come more sharply into focus. Well, the church throughout the ages has had something similar in mind with its inclusion of this story during this season of Epiphany. The story has been seen as symbolic of God’s revelation and coming to the Gentiles — the non-Jewish world, and, it’s telling us something about who God has been all along, but that we just didn’t fully know yet.

The magi, then, once more, are part of this same “unveiling”: they help to disclose the mystery of the nature of God’s kingdom ushered in by Jesus!

Ok, but here’s the final act of the story: there’s a limit to all of this wisdom. The wise men take their knowledge as far as it can go! We’ve seen this contrast between instinct with Herod, and the wisdom of the wise men, but what does the birth of Jesus teach the wise men, ultimately, that even they couldn’t have figured out in their own wisdom?

The clue, I think, is that Jesus comes in the most unsuspecting, unimpressive way. As an outside, essentially, and from the margins! There’s nothing safe or ideal about his circumstances. He comes as one who isn’t even welcomed by his own. Rather, he’s excluded and rejected. As Jesus himself would later say in Matthew 8:20, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

Like the nation of Israel itself had been for centuries, Jesus and his parents are forced into Exile because of Herod. And like many people then and now, the Son of God had to seek political asylum and become a refugee. They likely had to flee quickly with very few possessions, and it might have been difficult for Joseph to find work in Egypt as a carpenter and as a migrant. They would have been dependent on others to take care of them. They wouldn’t have any citizenship to rely on.

So Jesus is excluded, he’s marginalized. He has enemies who want to kill him, even though he hasn’t done anything wrong. His plight is like that of the murdered children in the story. And even though he’s initially spared, he ultimately shares in their fate, as the holy innocent one who is slaughtered, who does an unjust death.

Now, the Magi don’t understand all of this yet, but they recognize Jesus as king, and that’s what’s even more amazing about their journey. It says in v. 4 that when the star stopped over the place where the child was, they were overjoyed, and they paid him homage in the form of three gifts (which is probably why the tradition has said there were three kings), at least two of which were symbolic of Jesus’ priestly role, and the death he would later endure.

The familiar passage in Philippians 2 retells this whole story, essentially, in poetic form, about Jesus Christ’s descent, to this lowly place, and the ascent and worship that he receives as a result. It says:

Have the same mind in you as Christ Jesus,Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place, and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

I imagine that this gospel proclamation, though they maybe didn’t hear it, is what the Magi saw, it’s what they observed and experienced when they came to the place where Jesus lay, and it’s what moved them from a place of mere wisdom and searching and expectation, to actual worship and adoration, joyfully giving costly gifts.

So in closing my prayer is that it would be so with you and all of us, that we would be compelled and drawn by the light of Christ that has come into the world at Christmas and into this year, that it would give us an Epiphany, that we’d be compelled and drawn to have the same mind as the Magi, who were wise beyond what they knew, and searched and searched until they found the one who was calling them all along. Calling them beyond their instincts, and beyond their best wisdom to worship the true king and savior of the whole world.

Joseph’s Story as a Gospel Story: God’s Will and our Plans

[Below is the transcript of the sermon I preached on Dec. 14, 2015 at Saint Peter’s Church. The audio can be found here.]

This morning we’re in the third week of our Advent series, where we’re looking at a different character each week from the birth narratives of the Gospels — in the Christmas story. And this Sunday we come to the character of Joseph. And as we’ve been asking for some time now, we’ll continue to raise this central series of questions: What do we see for our lives in this story, particular in what it tells us about God and about ourselves? So that’s where we’re headed.

I’m sure many of you since Thanksgiving have already purchased and decorated a Christmas tree. Well, Whitney and I did this about two weeks ago, and after decorating it – after she mostly decorated it – we were sitting in our living room, and out of the corner of my eye I look over and noticed that the tree was beginning to fall over, and before I can even do anything to get over there and catch it or something, which probably would have been a disaster anyway — it had already just crashed into our coffee table, and it sounded like all of our more fragile ornaments had broken. It didn’t catch on fire or anything, but for a moment it did kind of feel like I was in the Griswald family living room from the Christmas vacation movie.

Thankfully, we actually only lost a few ornaments, but the reason the tree fell over was because we had propped it on this box that we thought made it look better, and put a skirt around it — just the way we liked. But the box was just not giving it the support or the surface area that it needed into order to be balanced, so we had to abandon that plan, and now it just doesn’t look as good.

And I don’t want to take the Christmas decoration example too far, but obviously it’s appropriate given the season and how much in our culture that we love to decorate for the holidays.

One of the beloved Christmas stories of our time that highlights some of the superficiality of our decorating habits during this time of the year — I’m not talking about anyone at Saint Peter’s, only everybody else in Mt. Pleasant — Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” No doubt you all know it. And probably most of you have seen the movie that came out staring Jim Carey as the Grinch in the year 2000. This was actually the movie that Whitney and I saw on our first date about 15 years ago – so for the longest time we watched it every year on that day. I will admit I eventually got kind of tired of it, but we still love to quote it, and it’s just full of satire about the consumer experience of Christmas.

One of the most memorable moments from the movie, as it relates to decorating for Christmas, is when Betty-Lou Who, is competing with her neighbor, Martha May, to win the prize for the best decorated home in Whoville. Martha May pulls out a Christmas-light machine gun to decorate her house [picture], and of course she wins. This scene in the movie is an exaggeration, of course, of what we do on Christmas to make everything look good and feel good, but it also pin-points exactly what TJ was talking about last Sunday with the look-good, feel-good culture that we live in.

This can be missed sometimes in the Grinch, because of the humor, but throughout the movie there’s actually this fairly strong critique of our society’s obsession with self-image and self-presentation.

We make plans, and we make ourselves presentable. But these plans and the way we try to present ourselves often get in the way of what God is trying to do in our lives. And one thing the Joseph story seems to be teaching us, is that ultimately, God doesn’t care very much about our plans or image.

Now, it’s one of the stories in the Bible that doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to appreciate. Those of us who are men, especially, can pretty easily put ourselves in Joseph’s shoes to think about what it would have been like, socially, to agree to marry someone, who’s already pregnant claiming that the pregnancy had divine rather than human origin. (Of course, Mary’s circumstances were probably even more terrifying, but we’re looking at her story next week.)

It sounds totally scandalous though, that’s she’s pregnant by the Holy Spirit – it sounds like she’s completely making it up. And of course Joseph is made to look like a total fool if he claims to believe her and not divorce her.

In the First Century, even when two people weren’t officially married yet, if they were engaged, for the Hebrew people this was still a legally binding agreement, unlike it is today. And so after finding out that she’s pregnant, it would have been within Joseph’s right, certainly his interest, and even his obligation, legally, for him to publicly expose and shame Mary.

So this is the situation that Joseph finds himself in. But Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man, that he was just – not unlike Zechariah and Elizabeth – and that he because of this, he was willing to divorce her quietly when he learned about the pregnancy, and to take the significant social risk of not making a big fuss about it. People would still eventually find out, and that would really be embarrassing. But he’s willing to face that.

So at this point in the story, before the angel speaks to him in his dream, Joseph is already portrayed as a upstanding, God-honoring man, who’s merciful and compassionate toward Mary – even though he has good reason not to be. He spares her from disgrace. This might remind you of other moments later in the gospel when Jesus steps in and spares people from disgrace. So Joseph is not far from the Kingdom of God, even before Jesus or John the Baptist has announced it. He knows the law not merely at the external level but at its very heart. Much like King David, and as descendant of the house of David, Joseph is a man after God’s own heart.

And I think this is important for helping us understand the relationship better between the Old Testament and New Testament a little better. Joseph is standing right in the middle, between the old and the new — his story is part of a key turning point. Joseph is a bridge figure, because he anticipates the new thing that God is going to do in Jesus. He sees beyond the conventional understanding of the Law and God’s commandments. He has an intuition into Christian love, which, though implicit in the Old Testament, has not yet been fully demonstrated and made explicit until the person of Jesus comes on the scene.

This is why Jesus says later on in Matthew, in the famous Sermon on the Mount, “You’ve heard it said, an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth…” — This is Jesus quoting Exodus 21:24, and it’s the “let the punishment fit the crime” mentality, which many of us naturally default to — but, Jesus says, “I tell you, do not resist an evil person…” (5:38-39a). And this raises all kinds of complicated questions for us today, in the age of terrorism and mass shootings. But I think the point about the movement from the Old to the New, is that justice is not served by simply letting the punishment fit the crime. The gospel is telling us something different.. Ultimately, there is nothing we can do to justify ourselves before God or before others. And if we can’t justify ourselves, neither can we justly condemn anyone else. Even if what they do is evil.

And for Matthew, who tells it a little differently than Luke — Luke narrates from Mary’s perspective — for Matthew, Joseph is the person in the story that really signals toward that true justice, the heart of the law which is love. Because when he receives the angel’s message he’s not offended by it — he’s not scandalized by it. There’s no indication that he doubts it. He might have struggled with it before making a decision — it may have been a very difficult decision. But he’s able to make the decision to believe it and respond in faith.

Now, without the angel’s message, he’s not going to stay engaged to marry. He can’t. It would be unthinkable for him. He has to divorce her – it would be viewed as impious not to. This is the difference between the gospel, and the best that religion and morality has to offer. Showing some mercy but finally walking away is the most that human beings in their own strength and wisdom can do without God’s love. Without God’s love, good, honest, ethical people, run out of imagination. Only love would compel someone to marry a crazy, poor, pregnant woman. Only love could see an act like this as God’s will and trust it enough to follow through on it.

This is where God breaks into the story. It’s where God interrupts it, and disrupts it. It’s what moves the story onto a whole new playing field. It becomes a gospel story, a story about radical grace rather than just a story about kindness.

A well-known author by the name of Joseph Campbell has a famous quote that goes like this: “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

We can say that in a Christian way: We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned so as to enter the Kingdom of heaven — which is how Jesus describes it in the gospel of Matthew. We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned — we must be willing to let go of the image we’ve protected — if we want to live life in the Kingdom of God.

Joseph completely gives us his plans, which were good plans, but he gives them up. Joseph lets go of the self-image he had, of the reputation he’d kept — and he did this in a culture that would never look at him the same way again. This is the kind of stuff God works through — even though it looks like foolishness to the world sometimes.

When I was in seminary, I worked as a chaplain in one of the dorms at Baylor University. And I was married at the time — yes, Whitney and I lived in a dorm together one year (which was special). And I was leading a Bible study with a group of freshmen one year. One of the most common themes and questions that arises in a college-student Bible study — some of you will appreciate this — is that of God’s will and how to know God’s will for your life. There’s this desire among young adults with a certain kind of Christian background and church experience – to talk about just wanting to stay in God’s will for their life. You know, you think about the big decisions we’re making in life that often come during or soon after those years of young adulthood, and it’s usually stuff like: What should I major in, what do I want to do when I graduate, where do I want to live, who am I going to marry?

And when you’re in college, if you had a traditional college experience, it’s like the only thing that adult ever asks you about, when you’re in this stage of life: what are you studying, what are you going to do with that degree? So you can’t really blame them for being preoccupied with these questions. And then what’s funny is that as we get older, those questions don’t really even change that much – they just kind of morph. They become, what neighborhood should we buy in, should I make a career change, should we move, where are we going to send out kids to school? Are they going to get into a good school? Can we afford to send them there? Adult versions of the same kinds of questions.

So there’s a pattern here with the way we think about God’s will for our life remains at the external and circumstantial level. It’s not that these questions are unimportant — they’re not — God cares about them, and we should pray through them. God’s will does pertain to these questions. They matter.

But if we look back not just to the First Century but also any century since then until now, most of the time, you didn’t even have the luxury of asking most of these questions! Where are you going to live, what a career are you going to choose, even who you’re going to marry — these big life choices, weren’t choices. They were pretty much decided for you.

And so maybe having these choices in the first place is part of the problem. It let us assumes that we’re the ones in control of our lives, and that we get to make our own futures. This freedom becomes an idol, and as an idol, it’s at the root of our culture’s obsession with planning and with self-image. So much so that we take whatever we plan and however we want to present ourselves, and call it God’s will or we trick ourselves into thinking it’s God’s will.

We have to be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned, and the self-image we prefer, in order to live in the Kingdom of God.

So just looking at the Joseph story one last time: is the lesson simply that we need to pay attention to our dreams so that we can hear God tell us what we should do? I don’t want to rule that out necessary, and in fact that can happen.

But most of the time, we find ourselves struggling to know what to do because we’re not clear, and because we’re not certain, about what God wants, at the external level.

So why doesn’t Joseph say, oh that was just a dream. Who knows what God wants? The thing that most determines whether we’re living in God’s will for our life is not so much the choices about the external, circumstantial things. But about the kind of people we decide we want to become before we even face those choices. Who are we going to follow? What are we going to trust? How we answer those questions will largely determine everything else.

There are couple places in the New Testament that stand out where this question about God’s will is addressed:

  • Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. – Rom 12:2
  • It is God’s will that you should be sanctified… give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. – 1 Thess. 4:3a; 5:18

The reason that Josephs responds the way he does, when the angel tells him in his dream not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, is because he had already chosen what he was going to live for, and who he wanted to be. This made him open and ready for God to move and speak to him in an unexpected way.

Joseph could never have guessed what the angel was about to ask to do, and yet, when he gets the news, he believes it, and when he’s to ask to stay with Mary, he does it. He is willing to set aside his previous understanding of God’s will in favor of a deeper and higher understanding of it — one the leads to the kingdom of God, the heart of the law, and that is governed by God’s love. This is what makes the Christmas story a gospel story.

So before closing, here are two questions for us to continue to reflect on:

  1. Are their plans in your life, they could be good plans, that God might be calling you to give up?
  2. Is there an image that you’re keeping, that you’re trying to protect, that God is asking you to let go of?

So in our lives, let those words of Paul be your guide: Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world! Rather, with Joseph as our example, do not let your plans and your self-image get in the way of what God wants to do! But be transformed and sanctified by the renewing of our mind, in the light of your love, and by the heart of your law.  So that we can live and walk in your kingdom.  So that we can know what your will is — your good, pleasing and perfect will. Amen.

Fear, Doubt, and Silence in Zechariah’s Faith Journey

[Here is the audio for this sermon that was preached on Sunday, November 30, 2015 at Saint Peter’s Church.]

Scripture: Luke 1:5-25; 67-79

One of the most commonly-stressed themes during the season of advent, is that we are entering into a time of waiting, hoping, longing — with expectation — that God is going to come and do something new, something remarkable in our lives and in the world. Which might seem strange, given that we already know the outcome of this story. Are we just pretending to be waiting to find out what’s going to happen?

Well one reason we wait is to practice waiting, because so much of life is waiting — being patient, preparing, trusting, having faith, even when we don’t know what’s going to happen. This takes courage. It’s scary, and many times, we doubt. The character of Zechariah in the first Christmas story illustrates this as well as any.

We’re told in the text that both Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were righteous in the eyes of God, and that they came from the order of the Jewish priesthood, so he had some special responsibilities as a religious leader. And so he knew as well as anybody what the Jewish hope was for a Messiah. The way that the angel Gabriel speaks to Zechariah, further suggests that he had been praying for years to have a child.

And yet, his hope for this had all but run out, given his age and his wife Elizabeth’s barren state. He could never have guessed that he would be the father to John the Baptist, the greatest prophet Israel has ever known! The most he could hope for was that someone else would have such an honor.

For those of us familiar with the Old Testament, when we hear this story, we probably immediately think of, among other stories, the most famous: God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 17-18) – we also think of their reaction, their disbelief in response to the announcement. Actually, they laugh, when God tells them they‘re to have a son. And eventually they end up taking matters into their own hands.  Abraham sleeps with Hagar who gives birth to Ishmael, who was not the son that God had promised. So the scene with Gabriel’s announcement to Zechariah follows a similar pattern, and this is intentional on the Gospel writer’s part.

One of the questions we’re asking each week in the e-devotionals that will be going out starting tomorrow, is a question we’ve been asking as a church throughout this fall when we read the Bible together: What is this story telling us about God, and about ourselves? And obviously one of the things it’s saying is that God is faithful. That God’s commitment to accomplish his purposes is not going to be hindered by human weakness: age, infertility, insignificance, poverty, whatever! In fact, God consistently chooses to work through these weaknesses. But we forget this: that God is steadfast, that God is on the side of the weak. Zechariah doubts too, and as a result he carries the mark of his doubt by losing his speech. But ultimately, because of God’s mercy, Zechariah’s story doesn’t end with doubt. As we read, it ends with song and praise.

So we’re going to look more at how that happens. What are the causes of Zechariah’s doubt? And how does God take Zechariah — and us! — on a journey from doubt to faith?

I know not everyone here as seen the movies or read the books, but I can’t help but mention the Hunger Games Trilogy as an illustration of what it might have been like to be a Jew in First Century Israel-Palestine. Because the last movie just came out, and because I know some of you have seen it, and all of you have probably heard of it. Whitney has read the books, so she kind of got me into it. But it’s really this compelling picture of the experience of living in a colony that’s occupied by a foreign Empire. Some people want to revolt. Others think it’s better to wait, but everyone knows there’s an enemy, and everyone is waiting to see if a true anointed leader is going to rise up and bring them liberation. So maybe this helps us imagine with a more contemporary example, what people like Zechariah might have been feeling. Otherwise, I think it’s very difficult for us to relate to this, given when and where we live.

Before this moment in Israel’s history, and many of you know this, there had been foreign occupation, after occupation – hundreds of years. Yes, many of you have known pain and loss, and what it is to face incredible difficulty and even tragedy in your lives. But few if any of us have lived through something like what the Jews as a whole people had endured under the Romans and in previous generations under the Greeks– was almost unimaginable. The Jewish historian Josephus writes that around the time of Jesus’ birth, there was a revolt when Herod the Great died. After the Romans repressed the rebellion, they crucified 2000 Jews to make a statement about what happens to insurrectionists. This is why in one of the reasons why in Zechariah’s song, there’s such a strong theme of God taking the side of those who have been cast down, and of delivering Israel from their enemies. This is the political climate that Jesus comes into. And this is the historical situation in which Zechariah is trying to have faith.

Another element in the story is that, culturally and religiously at this time, having children was essential for carrying on the family name, perpetuating God’s covenant with Israel, and providing oneself with care in one’s old age. So barrenness, or infertility, was regarded as a tragedy, a disgrace, and even a sign of God’s punishment. Zechariah and Elizabeth were stigmatized and already likely somewhat estranged from their community because of this.

Historically, they’re discouraged, and culturally and religiously, they’re discouraged. So it’s hard to blame the guy for a doubting a little when he hears this news! So naturally, what does Zechariah says when he hears the good news that Elizabeth is going to have a son, and not just any son, but John the Baptist?

v. 18: Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” “How can I know that this is so?” Some translations say. Zechariah wants to know: how can he be certain about what the angel has told him? It was a way to ask for proof.

So what is the cause of Zechariah’s doubt? The first thing is, his desire for certainty. The desire for certainty is not only one of the main causes of doubt, but it’s also one of the greatest barriers to faith. One of the theologians I’ve read over the years, John Henry Newman, says that: “If we insist on being as sure as is conceivable… [then] we must be content to creep along the ground and never soar.” (Flying is risky much like faith is risky.) Faith is not the same thing as certainty. And if we wait for certainty, we’ll never “take off.”

It is true that real faith does brings with it, assurance, and confidence, and trust, a kind of security, but it’s the kind of security that brings peace even in the face of uncertainty, rather than certainty itself. Maybe we could say it this way: Faith is knowing that everything is going to be ok even if everything is not going to be ok. Which doesn’t sound very happy, I realize, but there’s a real freedom that comes with this faith, a freedom that eases the urge to want to secure everything in our lives: our children, our financial futures, our relationships, our reputation… Some of this stuff has to be done – we have responsibilities – but when our responsibilities are carried out from a place of gratitude and trust, then what is uncertain won’t unsettle us so much.

Now, this moment for Zechariah would have been a very important moment in his life. He wasn’t simply performing a weekly duty in the temple. He would have been chosen by casting lots, as the text says, and the honor of offering the incense in this particular ceremony usually only came once. And everybody else was waiting outside, praying! So there’s some pressure, and he’s already pretty nervous! When Gabriel shows up, it says Zechariah is gripped with fear!

And the first thing the angel says to him, v. 13, is “Do not be afraid Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.” – Do not be afraid. Did y’all know that the commandment not to be afraid, to fear not, occurs more times in the Bible than any other? If one of the greatest barriers to having faith is our desire for certainty, then at the heart of our desire for certainty is fear. It’s one of our strongest emotions and instincts, maybe the most difficult to overcome.

Now, sometimes it’s true that, we doubt because there’s a lack of evidence, because something isn’t reasonable — because an argument doesn’t hold up. And I’m not dismissing good questions, or intellectual objections. And too many Christians settle for weak answers to good questions. Nonetheless, more often than not, when it comes to having genuine faith, the Bible seems to suggest that fear is a bigger stumbling block than our intellect.

Because there are some things that we’re never going to be able to understand – at least not in the way that we’d like to. A Catholic priest and author by the name of Richard Rohr calls these things the big five, and he names them as birth, death, suffering, love, and God. Don’t try to make too much sense of these aspects of life, Rohr says. They’re non-rational. They’re not irrational, but neither can they be understood by reason alone. They’re mysterious. I’m reminded of Saint Augustine’s words here:

“We are talking about God. What wonder is it that you do not understand? If you do understand, then it is not God.”

Again, this is not an excuse to justify irrational beliefs. But neither is the absence of certainty an excuse for your lack of faith, for your doubt. Do not be afraid, the angel says, your prayer has been heard.

You see, to doubt something though, is always to trust something else more – there’s no such thing as pure doubt. We doubt because we trust something else instead. What are you trusting more than the good news? What are you afraid of that’s causing you to doubt?

The trouble with fear and doubt though is that we can’t just will them away. We’re so naturally prone to both! And familiarity with the faith or church attendance doesn’t necessary guarantee our protection from them. So what can we possibly do about this?

Well, it may be that the best direction we can take from the story is just to look at what God does to Zechariah. He shuts him up! He loses his ability to speak for like 9 months! I don’t think I’ve gone without speaking for more than about 9 hours, the majority of which was probably during sleep.

At first, it might seem like God is punishing Zechariah, and I’m sure that it felt like it. I bet those first few days and weeks, maybe even months, were miserable. But where does Zechariah end up at the end of the story?

His song in v. 74 and few verses after declares that God has come to

enable us to serve him without fear, to give his people a knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God!

Not only does Zechariah now believe, having seen his wife give birth, but somehow, during the suffering and frustration of his mandatory silence, he’s come to believe in the good news without fear, to believe that it means salvation, rescue forgiveness and mercy.

It might be that Zechariah’s forced silence was the best thing to ever happen to him. Sometimes the only way to quiet the echo chamber of our mind, with its voices of fear and doubt, might be to just find the time to stop talking for a little while.

So maybe just as one takeaway for us this week, we can try to observe some voluntary silence. To practice our waiting. To give room for God to grow our faith in those places where fear and doubt linger. Let’s pray.

The Widow’s Mite or the Widow’s Plight? What we do with what God has given us

[This is the transcript for the sermon I preached at Saint Peter’s Church on November 15, 2015. The audio can be found here.]

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” – Mark 12:41-44, NIV

So as some of you know, we are right in the middle of a short three-week series that began last Sunday in the book of Numbers, where we looked at the story of Joshua and the 12 scouts or spies that were sent out to investigate the land of Canaan — the promise land. 10 of the 12 that came back did not believe that God could help them, and the people as a whole were persuaded that it was not possible to take the land that God had promised. They thought that God was setting them up for defeat. It’s a really a tragic story in many ways, as it shows that there are serious consequences for refusing to claim what God has given us, and to steward it with a willingness to risk and make sacrifices — to trust that God will make good on his promises!

For today though, we’re looking at this short little story in Mark’s Gospel (it also shows up in Luke), but it actually asks very much the same question of us: “What are you going to do with what you’ve been given?”

Every time I read this story, I think of this coin that Whitney has. It’s supposedly a “Widow’s Mite” – a Greek Lepton (1/64 of a day’s wages then — it’s worth a little bit more than that these days though!) Her family on her mom’s side is from the Cayman Islands, and somehow a number of these coins made their way to the Caribbean on ships, and they’ve been dated back to the early Roman era. So she and her three brothers each have one. And like her favorite piece of jewelry — besides her wedding ring of course — because it symbolizes her family heritage.

But, the coin is also valuable to Whitney and me because of the story it represents. It’s a famous story and for whatever reason it’s one of those that really seems to resonate with people — there’s just something about the way something so insignificant can be seen as invaluable in the eyes of God.

Now, when we hear the word temple, which is where it says this story took place, we might be tempted to think of something like a church. But as some of you may know, this was a massive, public space. It probably looked and felt more like a marketplace. There were a number of places scattered around where you could purchase birds or wood for offerings, or frankincense. There was also a place for the free-will offering, which is where Jesus and this woman were.

The wealthy, powerful and important people would have been visibly giving large offerings, and you would have been able to hear the noise of their big gifts being tossed into the treasury.

And Jesus is not impressed — especially since they were giving their gifts in such a way as to be noticed. The widow, on the other hand, gives everything she has to live on, it says — her Bios! is the Greek word, and it probably goes totally unnoticed, but not by Jesus. He recognizes her radical trust in God to provide for her.

Jesus then goes on to point out that the rich after giving their large gifts were still rich. The rich in this story give out of their abundance, but they do not sacrifice their abundance. They share their leftovers. It’s kind of like famous billionaires we know of, some of whom are even very socially conscious (Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, Oprah…). And I’m not bashing them. I’m just saying, they’re still very rich even after they give.

And of course we do the same. We usually just give what we can afford to, even if that’s a lot. Most of us probably do not eat less, or dress worse, or travel less, because of what we give… Our giving doesn’t cut substantially into our life. We don’t give up control. But the widow did.

So Jesus tells us that the offerings of the wealthy pale in comparison to the sacrifice that the widow makes. She’s living on the currency of the Kingdom of God! While the wealthy people give what to be noticed, they give what they can spare, they give to stay in control.

And so this is the common, straightforward reading of the story, and it’s a good one. It teaches us something very important. That God looks at their heart — not the amount of money that we give. That we’re to give sacrificially, and joyfully. That we’re to give because we’re seeking God. Not because we want something from God. And finally, it poses the question, not just what are you giving, but what are you holding back. Is trust informing your stewardship, or is fear ruling over you?! What’s keeping you from giving more of your life away? What are you going to do with what God has given you?

As is often the case in reading the Bible though, and you all know this, to get to the best stuff, sometimes we have to dig a little deeper. And we don’t have to be scholars to do it! Sometimes it just takes one google search. Again, the natural thing to assume I think is that the Temple was kind of like the church, or that tithing to the temple was like tithing to the church. But the Temple was more like the city government than it was like a church, and tithing was more like paying taxes than making charitable donations. It likely added up to something much higher than 10%.

Because the Temple had a political and economic function just as much as a religious one. Church and state were not separate. It was public and central to society. Of course they were occupied by the Romans, so they weren’t totally in charge. It was more like a colony within the Empire. But the Temple had long been accused of collaborating with the Empire. This is what led to some of the rebellions that we can read about.

But the point is, there was a hierarchy. And at the top were the political and religious leaders. We really need only look at the previous three verses to see this, and to see what Jesus was saying about these people:

38 As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 40 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”

Mark puts these verses about the corrupt leaders right next to the ones about the widow’s offerings for a reason! And keep in mind, this is a holy week story. Jesus has already rode in a donkey and disturbed the peace by driving out the moneychangers in the temple.

Why does he say though, for instance, that the teachers of the law “devour widows’ houses”? Well, from what we can know historically, the scribes and the teachers of the law were part of the literate class that worked for the wealthy. So this is most likely a reference to their activity of administering loan agreements and foreclosing on people’s property when loans couldn’t be repaid! And obviously, widows in the First Century had no way of making any money.

But in ancient Israel, widows and the poor were not supposed to be required to make offerings to the Temple. So something isn’t right about this picture. Mark is pointing this out, and Jesus is criticizing it! In other words, here the passage can be heard not just as praising the widow, but as condemning the way the poor are being manipulated to give to the temple!

And this criticism from Jesus falls right in line with the Prophetic tradition — the second half of the Old Testament — where we read again and again God’s warning to his people about their social responsibility for the marginalized and for the poor. Hear what the prophet Zechariah says (7:9-11):

8 And the word of the LORD came again to Zechariah: 9 “This is what the LORD Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’11 “But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears.

Reflecting back on the message of the earlier prophets and what led Israel into Exile, God is basically saying through Zechariah, “my heart is so bound up with the needs and the circumstances of the poor & weak, that if you act against them, you act against me!” Ignoring them is to ignore me! (like Matt. 25: “What you do to the least of these…”)

Now, this is not to say that when you take care of the poor you’re somehow earning God’s favor. What it does mean though, is that, if you don’t have room in your heart for the poor, you don’t have room in your heart for God.

So yes, this poor widow has a beautiful, generous heart, and she’s an example to us, but she’s also a victim of an unjust society. The temple had become a place where widows were robbed. Though the affluent were tithing, the weightier matters of the law are neglected (Matt 23:23). The money the widow gave was going to the very same people who would take money from Judas only a few days later to capture Jesus and have him crucified!

For some reason though, these circumstances seem to be the kind in which God meets people the most — identifying with the plight of the widow and the marginalized. The widow is a victim of a self-righteous and unjust society – Jesus lets himself become victim to a self-righteous, unjust society. The same sin and suffering that takes advantage of her sends Jesus to the cross. We could say the same sin that lead to a mass-shooting, terrorist attack in Paris two nights ago, in Beirut last week, in Charleston earlier this year — this same sin puts Jesus on the cross. He enters into the sin, suffering and death of the world on a mission to redeem it.

Next Friday I’m going to Atlanta for a day to hear the world-famous German-theologian Jurgen Moltmann speak at a conference about his 40-year-old book now, The Crucified God. He’s 89-years old now. Moltmann was a POW after fighting for the Germans in WWII. During his time as a Ally prisoner, his cell was decorated with images of the concentration camps so as to remind him and his cellmates of what they had done. Moltmann says that at that time he would have rather died than had to face the truth and the shame of his country’s crimes and his role in those crimes. Here’s a quote though that captures the conclusion he ultimately came to in his book:

“God allows himself to be humiliated and crucified in the Son, in order to free the oppressed and the oppressors from oppression and to open up to them the reality of a free, generous and compassionate humanity.”

Friends, no other religion says anything like this. Jesus dies for the widow, but he also dies for perpetrators, the Pharisees and the terrorists. There is no one is out of the reach of the grace of God, and there is no thing that can separate you from it.

And if we grasp this – if it grasps us – it’s no longer a matter of trying to figure out what God wants us to do. Or how much God requires us to give. Those are very moralistic and religious questions. When the story of God’s love seizes us, we’re moved to give our whole lives to it — our bios, like the widow. We don’t have to be in control anymore, because of our gratitude, and because of our trust!

So is this passage about tithing? Is it about giving and stewardship? Yes it is, but it’s also about the Gospel itself, which is the real reason why we give anything.

As members of Saint Peter’s, your tithes and offerings, your gifts — whether in terms of money, time, or talents — are not gifts to the institution, or to the staff, or clergy. This church, this staff, is not separate from you. You know this! but this is not a transaction. Yeah there are operating costs, which we try to keep as low as can so that we can give as much as we can directly to the ministries that God has entrusted to us and to things outside of ourselves.

But truly, you are not giving to the church. Rather, you are the church, and as the church, you give. We give as the church, and, when we do, God is really the one giving, through us. That’s how we become the body of Christ, tangibly, his hands and feet in the world. So that we can do our ministry, but also so that we can work to take care of the poor, the orphan, the widow and the stranger.

And this means we partner with others. The church can’t do it all, and shouldn’t try! Maybe some of your money needs to go to sponsor children through Compassion International or World Vision. There are water wells to be drilled, good micro-finance banks to be funded, possibly. Human trafficking to be stopped. Environmental restoration projects to be supported.

So as a church we partner with Suzy McCall and LAMB in Honduras, where our team of 12 women is currently serving. We’re sending a team to Haiti again in January to work in the medical center we sponsor there. We’ve partnered with the Pink Bus on the East Side. We’re forming a new Art Bus team, and we’re looking for other local ministry opportunities. We give to our diocese which goes to support church planting.

Tithing is not mentioned very much in the New Testament, and when it is, the details are unclear. But rather than being an excuse not to tithe, if anything, Jesus raises the standard to a much higher level. He tells the rich young ruler to give everything! Now he doesn’t tell everyone to give everything, but the chances are that he’s challenging each us to give more than we’re comfortable giving.

There’s a quote in your bulletin from C.S. Lewis that has stuck with me on this question:

“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.”

What we’re going to see next week, as we turn back to the Joshua story, is that even when we’re up against giant obstacles in our life, when we trust, and risk, and give, God is with us. I know that can sound a little bit cliche or just like a Christian platitude — I hear it even as I say it — but I really believe that when we step out and let go of the need to control in generosity and in sacrifice, that Christ is there, just as he was in this widow’s life.

The widow in the story gave everything. The rich people let her do it — while they only gave for show, while they gave what they could spare, and while they gave to stay in control.

Our giving, by comparison, is a response to what God has already given us. So the challenge is simply this, as we ask of ourselves again, each day: What are we going to do with what God has given us? Let’s pray.