Just Like Us: A Boy with a Lunch, Sermon on John 6:1-15

Note: if you would like to watch the recorded version of this sermon it can be found at nwumc.com/live. The sermon starts about 2/3 of the way through the recording.

I don’t often do it but sometimes I sit in the theater and watch the credits roll after a movie ends, partly to figure out who all these young actresses and actors are, but I also get a kick out of how many different kinds of people it takes to make a movie. I get a chuckle out of titles like “grip,” “key grip,” “gaffer,” and “best boy.” I’ve never been curious enough to google those terms before, but I did learn this week that the obviously sexist term “best boy” means the senior electrician, second in the hierarchy to the gaffer, who is the chief electrician. That’s your trivia lesson for today.

The other fun thing about the movie credits, and there is a point here, I promise, are the minor characters who are listed with descriptions like “bartender,” “taxi driver,” or “second police officer.” If they made a movie about our Gospel lesson for today from John there would be a listing for a minor character, “boy with lunch.”

Here’s John’s brief mention of this boy in case you missed it. When Jesus asks, “How shall we feed all these people?”  “Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.”  This is all we hear about this boy.  No name.  No explanation about why he has such a strange assortment of food with him.  Who eats five loaves of bread and two fish for lunch?  Maybe he was on his way home from the grocery?  Why does this kid not even appear in any of the other Gospels?  The feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle story that appears in all four Gospels and Mark and Matthew even tell it twice, but none of the others mention this boy and his food.  

We don’t know if he was a boy scout doing his good deed for the day and gave his food up willingly.  Did Andrew smell the fish the boy was trying to hide under his cloak?  Did the boy’s mom or dad have to nudge him to share what he had?   Did the disciples somehow shame him into it?  Did his example inspire others to share their stash of food?  That’s my favorite explanation.  Don’t we all carry an extra breakfast bar or some trail mix with us “just in case?”  Most women I know have a whole assortment of things in their purses. I know my wife, a former Girl Scout, certainly does.  And if this lad’s example inspired others to share what little they had till everyone was fed, isn’t that a miracle itself?

This is not the only time the Gospel writers drop in a reference to a nameless person to pique our interest.  Did you know there’s a streaker in the Gospels?  The Gospel of Mark includes this line right after the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Mark 14:51 says, “A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him,but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.”  And even more curious is the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus in all three synoptic Gospels.  Mark and Matthew even say of her,

“Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” And yet thanks to the patriarchal rulers of the church for centuries she is mostly forgotten.  

I found something very helpful in a book I read recently by Brian McLaren to describe the dilemma about how to interpret Scripture.  McLaren suggests we need to take a literary approach to biblical stories and not a literal one. 

Here’s part of what McLaren says: “The literary approach begins with this assumption: Jesus must have been so extraordinary as to become legendary. The Latin root of the word legendary means read, so the word suggests, ‘This person is so extraordinary that people will read about him or her in the future. ‘The word legendary can also mean fictitious. And many of us feel the tension between extraordinary and fictitious every time we read the gospels. When traditional Christians tell us that we have to take every word, every detail as literal fact, we find that hard to do, as much as we might like to. But that doesn’t mean we must throw out the gospels—and Jesus—entirely.”

I like the way McLaren describes that approach because of the power stories have to affect us holistically – that is, to move us emotionally and ethically, not just rationally or logically. And what’s more, stories are easy to remember and pass along. Remember, none of the Gospels were written until decades after Jesus’ resurrection.  So stories about Jesus passed from person to person were what gave those early Christians the courage to keep the faith in spite of horrible persecution by the Roman Empire. 

And consider this story about the boy with a lunch; there’s nothing logical about giving up my lunch with no promise that I’ll get it back or even more crazy to believe I’ll get more back counting the leftovers.  A literary approach doesn’t make Bible stories less “true.”  Truth with a capital T is more than just cold hard facts.  We feel Truth in our hearts, not just our heads.  A tear in our eye when we hear a special song or witness an act of compassion reminds us that whatever builds the blessed community and makes for peace and justice is True, and anything that destroys community is not the Truth Jesus meant when he said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”  

How many of you are or were Beatles fans?  I have a trivia question for you.  Which Beatles’ song mentions a preacher?  Here’s a hint:  “Father McKenzie, (pause) writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear, No one comes near.”  Ok, that’s a little depressing.  The song is “Eleanor Rigby,” but it’s the refrain of that song that comes to mind when I think of this crowd that comes to Jesus when he and his disciples are trying to find a quiet place for some much needed R&R.  Mark’s account of this story says they were so busy teaching and healing that they didn’t even have time to eat.  So the disciples were hungry too.  And the refrain to Eleanor Rigby speaks to that hunger.  It says “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?”

Jesus sees the crowd coming and immediately recognizes their hunger.  It’s not just hunger for pumpernickel and sardines; it’s a deep hunger for the bread of life.  “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?”  Neither John nor the Beatles tell us where they come from, but we know to whom they come – the church, and that doesn’t mean this building or The Church for All People, NNEMAP, or the Manna Café; it means the Universal Worldwide Church, the body of Christ that alone can satisfy our deepest hunger.  

But of course we do know where some of the lonely/hungry people come from.  They come from Wright Elementary School, from Abby Church and other neighborhoods right in our zip code, from homeless shelters and from people who are just down on their luck.  They come as refugees from violence in Central America, or from war – Ukrainians and Russians alike.        They are victims of Hurricane Ian and climate refugees from Sub-Saharan Africa.  All the lonely people, where do they all come from? And like the startled disciples we ask, “Where are we to buy food for all these people? We’re having enough trouble just dealing with our own hunger, grief, and loneliness!”

But you know what?  Those lonely people can feed us also.  Our amazing Brown Bag Lunch crew has provided thousands of lunches to families in our neighborhood over the years, but listen to these stories of sharing in return.  Denise Gorden told me of a day she and Doris were invited in to share a snack with an Iraqi family on the brown bag route. “With so little,” she said, “They brought out fruit and other goodies for us to eat. It was very moving.”

And Doris told me that once, “On a very hot day- One second grader on the BBL route saw me getting out of the church van with lunches and ran back inside his apartment and gave me a bottle of water. He said, “Ms. Dorrie- (He calls me Dorrie since it’s easier to pronounce)  looks like you need some help- it’s too hot today, drink some water so you can keep going. On a separate day, during reading buddies- we sat down to read books outside under a large tree in front of their home, and he said, “Ms. Dorrie, here is a bottle of water for you. Since you’re giving food to everyone, why don’t you take some of mine, here are some cookies. Eat with us and then I will read stories to you.” 

Our current sermon series is exploring how the characters in the Bible are “Just Like Us.”  So what can we learn about ourselves from this unnamed boy with a lunch?  How is he just like us?

I remember my first dramatic roles in elementary school.  We did two short plays.  In one I was the star as Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up.  That’s probably why I’ve been so short all my life!  In the second play my only part was from off stage where I was to make bird noise sound effects at the proper time. My prop was a small whistle shaped like a bird.  You filled it with water and blew into it to make chirping sounds.  Nothing to it, right?  Only one problem; before it was time for the birds to chirp I got thirsty and drank the water in the whistle; and those birds never chirped.  Mrs. Kay, our teacher was not pleased.  It turns out that “small” part of making bird noises was just as important as starring as Peter Pan.

To borrow a phrase from Donatos Pizza, every part counts.  Every voice in the choir or bell in the bell choir contributes to the whole musical sound.  The person who sanitizes the Operating Room prior to surgery is just as important as the surgeon or the anesthesiologist.  It’s a team effort.

The nameless boy in John 6 is used by Jesus just as much as Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene.  Most of us are fairly anonymous in the world’s scheme of things.  We are more like the gaffer or the key grip than Lady Gaga or Matthew McConaughey.   To paraphrase Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg, “The world will little note nor long remember what we do here,” but God will; because every one of us counts.  We can all make a difference to someone by simply sharing what we have and who we are.  Notice in this story that Jesus doesn’t ask the boy to give more than he has; that would be very unfair.  Jesus simply asks the boy to share what he has.  After all, we are just giving back to God what God has given us.  It isn’t our stuff anyway.

When we start thinking we own parts of God’s creation we get possessive and worry about losing it or that we don’t have enough.  We live in a scarcity mindset.  But when we live in
God’s abundance and share what God has given us there is enough to feed 5000 people and have enough leftovers to feed the next bunch of hungry people already coming down the road. 

Jesus never asks us to give more than we have, just all that we have, just as he gave his all for us. 

We are all like the boy with his lunch.  We all count – nameless or not, because God knows our name and knows we can all make a huge difference in the world. 

We recently passed the day on the calendar marked Fall Equinox, but we don’t need a calendar to tell us that the hours of daylight we have now are shorter each day and the temperatures are dropping.  Calendars help us count our days, but it is up to us to make our days count.  You don’t have to be a biblical or other kind of heroine or hero.  Notice most of the characters in the Bible are just like us, flawed and fallible human beings who remind us that all of us have what it takes to make a difference in the lives of those around us.

Jesus himself was a poor peasant boy who never traveled more than 200 miles from the tiny village where he was born, and yet his disciples all over the world will feast at his table and remember his call upon our lives on this World Communion Sunday.   As we gather at his table today, pray for God’s guidance to show you how to maximize your witness.  Each of us has a different role to play, but each one is important to the worldwide kin-dom Jesus calls us to help create.  Amen

Preached at Northwest United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio, October 2, 2022

“Distracted Hospitality,” Luke 10:38-42

[I preached this sermon at an ecumenical vespers service at Wesley Glen Retirement Community in Columbus, Ohio, July 17, 2022]

Have you ever had someone drop in unexpectedly when your home wasn’t ready for company?  Tom, one of my clergy friends tells one of those stories that are funny when they’re over, but not so much as they unfold.  He and Elizabeth, his wife, lived in one of the tiny efficiency apartments on the campus of the Methodist Theological School.  They were one-bedroom apartments with a kitchenette that was half the size of a closet.  They were relaxing one Sunday afternoon when Tom got a call from his District Superintendent saying he and his wife were in the area and would like to stop in for a visit.  

When you are a Methodist in seminary you usually haven’t learned yet that it’s ok to say “no” to a District Superintendent because they are the people you depend on for a job when you get out of seminary.  So even though the apartment was a mess and the little kitchenette was stacked high with dirty dishes Tom said, “Sure, come on over.” When she heard that, Elizabeth went into a panic.  She said to Tom, “I haven’t showered yet; so since you invited them over you can deal with cleaning up the apartment.”

 Elizabeth took the fastest shower of her life and came out of the bathroom to find the District Superintendent and his wife chatting with Tom in the living room.  The apartment looked like a photo from “Better Homes and Gardens;” so the whole time they talked she was dying of curiosity about how Tom had pulled off such a miracle.  After a short visit their guests left, and as soon as they were out of earshot Elizabeth asked Tom what he had done with all the dirty dishes and other clutter?  He sheepishly led her into the kitchen and showed her where he had put all the dirty dishes – in the oven, refrigerator, and cupboards—and then to the closet where he had thrown all the magazine, books and things that had been on the tables, couch and chairs.  After a good laugh they started washing the dishes and reorganizing the books and magazines.

I don’t know if Martha and Mary were expecting Jesus in Luke’s account of his visit.  We can’t tell from these few verses, but I want you to notice something in the very first verse of that story.  We almost always list Mary first when talking about these two sisters.  Mary and Martha just flows of the tongue better than Martha and Mary, doesn’t it?  But when Luke describes this incident, notice that it is Martha who is named first.  She’s the one who invites Jesus into her home, and then we learn that she also has a sister named Mary.  

Mary gets Jesus’ praise at the end of the story because he says she chose “the better part,” namely to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his teaching, but I think Martha deserves some credit too.  Which role in this mini-drama would you choose?  If Jesus knocked on your door, would you sit and listen to his every word, or would you be like Martha scurrying around trying to be the hostess with the mostess?  After all it would be a real faux pas to not offer a guest some food or drink, and an even bigger no-no not to offer the very best hospitality to Jesus!

Mary reminds me of a song from “Fiddler on the Roof” where Tevye sings about what he would do if he were a rich man.  After listing the fancy house he would build and all the privileges of being wealthy, he says, “If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack to sit in the synagogue and pray, and maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall. And I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men, several hours every day, and that would be the sweetest thing of all.”  But Martha shows up in that song too.  Tevye sings about Goldie, his wife, having all the servants she needs to cook and do other household chores, that is take care of hospitality.

A very dear friend of ours named Sonnie died earlier this year after a long illness.  Sonnie was a great cook, and one of the things I said about her at her funeral was that Sonnie never met a person she didn’t feed.  I especially miss her carrot cake, which was the best ever.  But hospitality is so much more than food and drink.  My wife and I visited Sonnie in the hospital early on in her illness. While we there two women whom Sonnie had recently welcomed into our church the first time they came to worship also came to visit Sonnie.  The fact that these two women became active members of our church might have happened anyway, but not nearly as quickly if Sonnie had not extended hospitality to them on that first Sunday.

After the two women left the hospital room I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that I asked Sonnie if she knew if the two women were a couple.  You need to know some history before you can appreciate Sonnie’s response.  She grew up on a farm in one of the most conservative counties in Ohio – wonderful people live there, I know, but for many of them their hospitality includes only those who look and think like they do.  So, I was a little shocked and very pleased when Sonnie responded to my question.  She said, “I don’t know if they are a couple or not, and it’s really none of my business.”  That’s real hospitality.

Like all biblical stories, we need to put the Martha and Mary story into the larger context of whole Gospel.  Even though Jesus says Mary has “chosen the better part,” he often himself provides the Martha-like hospitality to those who need it.  He makes water into wine at the wedding in Cana.  He feeds the 5000 when his disciples urge him to send the crowd away to McDonald’s; and that story also says there was enough food for the women and children in the crowd, namely those who had no standing in society.  Jesus included them all.  Robert Frost was once asked, “What is the ugliest word in the English language?” His response was “exclusion,” the polar opposite of hospitality. 

Extending hospitality to people we love is easy, at least most of the time, but both the Old Testament and Jesus tell us and show us a much more radical kind of hospitality.  Even the book of Leviticus, one of the most rigid and exclusionary books in the Bible, also includes some of the best words of hospitality.  Leviticus 19 includes these words often quoted by New Testament authors: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”  I still remember teaching a Bible study on that passage, and the good church folks in the class said, “But that doesn’t apply to us today does it?”  Oh, yes it does, and it is never clearer than Jesus telling us in Matthew 25 that how we treat the “least of these,” including the strangers/immigrants/foreigners, even those we label enemies, is how we treat Christ himself.

So, the bottom line about Martha and Mary is this, like so much in the Scriptures and in life, the choice between listening to Jesus and doing acts of hospitality is a false dichotomy.  It’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and.  The letter of James captures that perfectly when it says, “Faith without works is dead.”  We need times of prayer, Bible study, and worship, but sitting at Jesus’ feet is meant to help us have an attitude of radical hospitality toward everyone we meet. 

Now I know you all don’t have to do yard work or cook and clean anymore, and I’m jealous of that.  But it’s because Wesley Glen (a local retirement community) is a place of hospitality for all of you at whatever level of care and service you need.  But that doesn’t mean you can only be on the receiving end of hospitality.  How you treat the people who clean your rooms and those who prepare and serve your meals can either be hospitable or not.  The way you interact with people here who may be hard to love can be hospitality or it’s opposite. 

Now I know very well that kind of hospitality can be hard to do sometimes.  When my chronic back pain is really bad, or when I’m stressed or overwhelmed with things I need do, it’s all too easy to be anything but hospitable to people who move too slow in traffic or even in the grocery aisles.  That’s because I’m “distracted and worried by many things,” just like Martha.  I don’t think Jesus was being judgmental about Martha’s acts of hospitality; he was concerned about her being distracted and worried by many things.

These days it is almost impossible not to be worried – about the sad state of affairs in our nation and the world; about what the future holds for our kids and grandkids and great grandkids; and about our own health and mortality.  How do we deal with all those concerns that distract us, all those things we really have no control over?  When we take time to sit at Jesus’ feet and hear the good news of salvation, we can trust God to be victorious over all the evil and sin humankind can create.  We can rest in awe over the incomprehensible pictures we’re getting from the Web telescope.  If our God can create such a magnificent and endless universe, God can certainly welcome us with unconditional hospitality.  And that is why no matter what happens to us or around us, we dare to sing “It is Well with My Soul.”  (This beautiful hymn was written by Horatio Spafford in1873 after he and his wife had experienced a horrible tragedy.  If you don’t know their story you can find it at https://www.bethelripon.com/life-stories/horatio-gates-spafford.)

“Peace Be With You,” John 20:19-31

I spent most of the 1980’s doing youth ministry and was blessed to have a whole crowd of wonderful volunteer adult leaders, including one who played guitar and led our youth groups in singing.  One of the songs we did often came to mind this week as I was working on this sermon.  It’s an old Peter, Paul and Mary song called “Day is Done,” that includes these lyrics:

“Tell me why are you crying my child, I know you’re frightened like everyone.  Is it the thunder in the distance you fear?  Will it help if I stay very near?  I am here.  All will be well when the day is done.”

In our Scipture for today Jesus is saying to the disciples, “I am here.”  He says that with the phrase, “Peace be with you.”  In these 13 verses from John’s Gospel Jesus utters those 4 words not once or twice but three times.  And those words are the first thing he says when he appears mysteriously in a room with locked doors.  “Peace be with you.”  Why are those doors locked?  Because of fear.  And what do we need when we’re frightened- we need peace.  Jesus understands that his friends are afraid, and he has come to bring them peace that only he can provide, the peace that passes all human understanding.

Don’t we all yearn for that kind of peace?  Many tomb stones or sympathy cards include the phrase “Rest in Peace” That prompted someone on Facebook to ask recently, “Why do we only rest in peace? Why don’t we live in peace too?”  The good news in this post resurrection text from John is that we can.  We don’t have to die first.

I had an insight on Maundy Thursday this year about the disciples falling asleep while Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.  We worshipped on-line and then I sat down to read.  But I couldn’t stay awake, and I wrote a short blog post about that experience.  In part, I said, “I’m not physically tired, just exhausted with world news overload. Maybe it’s compassion fatigue or just frustration that there seems to be so little I can do to save the world from its warring madness. I can’t not watch the news, and if the scenes from Ukraine or the New York subway shooting aren’t fatiguing enough they are interspersed with incessant mean-spirited and fear-based political ads.

Instead of judging the disciples for napping, maybe they were just worn out from all the weird stuff going on around them. They had to be confused trying to understand Jesus’ determination to put himself in harm’s way and with all his talk about death and resurrection. They had been on an emotional roller coaster from Palm Sunday’s high to this strange trip to the Garden in the dark. Jesus’ strange behavior, insisting on washing their feet, a job only done by servants, not a Messiah. And what did he mean about his broken body and his blood shed for them?

It was too much to comprehend. Maybe their bodies just shut down to get a respite from the confusion in their minds and spirits. They had hoped he was the one to throw off the Roman oppressors and bring them peace, but they were wrong.”

I had stopped at a Tim Horton’s earlier that day which was just two days after the subway shooting in New York.   As I waited for my coffee I found myself looking around for a place to hide if shooting suddenly broke out.  That’s a symptom of the low-grade fear that clings to us like a dryer sheet on a pant leg.  We try to shake it off by turning off the TV and social media, but we can’t unsee those pictures of Putin’s crimes against our sisters and brothers in Mariupol and Kyiv.  We can dress up and have Easter egg hunts and excellent worship to mark Holy Week and Easter (or Passover or Ramadan), but we’re still afraid of what’s happening to our world.  We’re already so awfully tired of COVID.  Wave after wave of extreme weather keeps leaving a path of destruction as they sweep across the country on a weekly basis, and still many people are in denial about climate change. We’re tired, Jesus!  Where is that peace you promised?

I find it helpful to step back and examine this need for peace through the stages of grief developed by Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her classic book, “On Death and Dying.”  She describes 5 stages of grief people go through if they or a loved one are dying:  Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally a stage of peace she calls acceptance I think the disciples in the Holy week experiences are in the early stages of grief.  Jesus has told them goodbye at their Passover meal, and they are already grieving.  Sleeping in the garden could be a form of denial, an escape from the reality of the moment.  When the soldiers come after Jesus one of the disciples grabs a sword and lops off the ear of a servant – that’s anger, another natural part of the grieving process.  

And now on Easter night John tells us that the disciples have already been told that morning by the women who were first-hand witnesses that Jesus is alive again.  Two of the disciples, being guys who don’t trust a woman’s word, ran to the tomb to see for themselves.

They call Missouri the show me state because people there insist that only seeing is believing. I don’t think any of the disciples were from. Missouri, but they act like it.   The disciples have not yet seen the risen Christ; so who can blame them for still locking the door?  They are like a little girl crying in her bed during a thunder storm.  When her daddy goes in to comfort her he hugs her and reminds her that Jesus is always there with her.  She looks up at him and says, “I know, Daddy, but sometimes I need someone with skin on them.”  Don’t we all?

Peace comes in many shapes and forms; a hug, a kind word, or just a willingness to sit with someone in their sorrow.  

I have had a springtime ritual for years that I’ve ignored during the COVID years.  For many springs before that I have watched Susan Sarandon and Kevin Costner in my favorite baseball movie, “Bull Durham.”  I happened to see it listed as I was channel surfing recently and recorded it; and Diana and I watched it about the time baseball season started.  What struck me this time through were some words that Costner’s character, Crash Davis, says to Annie in the final scene.  Crash is a veteran Minor League catcher, which means he’s good, but not quite good enough to make it to the Major Leagues.  He has just quit the game after setting the dubious record for most home runs in the Minors.  He comes back to Durham and to Annie who is a die-hard baseball groupie and intrepid philosopher of the game.  When Crash, bedraggled and exhausted, tells Annie that he’s hung up his catcher’s gear for the final time she launches into one of her treatises about baseball being a non-linear game.  Crash holds up his hand to stop her.  He says he wants to hear all of her crazy baseball theories but not tonight.  Tonight he says, “I don’t want to think about baseball or anything else.  I just want to be.”  

Isn’t that the peace of mind and soul we are so hungry for?  To rest, to stop worrying and thinking. And just BE.  In the Rock Opera “Jesus Christ Superstar,” there’s a scene about just that.  Jesus is frustrated because his best efforts to move people closer to God’s kingdom of peace and justice are being ignored.  His friend Mary Magdalene tries to comfort him.  Many people see that scene and get distracted by theories that there was a romantic relationship between them, but that’s not the point.  Mary sings a sweet lullaby to Jesus where she says, “Try not to get worried, try not to turn on to problems that upset you, oh don’t you know everything’s alright, yes, everything’s fine, and we want you to sleep well tonight. Let the world turn without you tonight.”

That kind of peace is what Kubler-Ross calls acceptance – the final stage of grief, making peace with the new reality that a loved one is gone or a job has disappeared or a relationship is irreparably damaged.  Or a world has gone mad.  It’s the peace the risen Christ offers his disciples and you and me, but there’s a paradoxical irony in this story.  John tells us that before Jesus offers peace to the disciples he breathes on them.  You have to let someone get very close to breathe on you if you can remember back before the 6 feet of separation we’ve lived with recently.  Breath, of course, in the Scriptures is the word that also means God’s spirit that can create something out of nothing. So the paradox is that we have to have enough peace to let Jesus get close enough to give us real peace! 

I don’t know about you, but on my less faithful days I’m not sure I want Jesus getting that close.  I’m afraid to be that vulnerable; so my own  or doubts  keep Jesus at a safe distance because of fear –fear of judgment, or rejection because I haven’t always lived a virtuous life.  But here’s the key to this story and to the Good News of the Gospel.  Remember that the disciples to whom Jesus offers his peace are the same guys who just 3 days ago denied and abandoned Jesus in his greatest time of need.  If Jesus offers them God’s peace he certainly can do the same for us. 

That’s the friend we have in Jesus we can take everything to in prayer.  If we try to hide parts of ourselves from God we are not only kidding ourselves, we are also revealing our mistaken belief in a God who is way too small.  St. Paul in Romans 8 says “nothing in all creation can separate us from love of God in Christ Jesus.”  And that nothing means nothing. No powers, no principalities, and no Putin can stop God from loving us.   No matter how many of the big 10 commandments we’ve broken Jesus offers us peace. He makes us new creations by breathing the peace that breaks the chains of addiction, hatred, isolation, guilt, and despair.

Rev. Fred Shaw, a friend and colleague and a wonderful Native American storyteller, put it this way recently in a Facebook post.  I liked the way he said it and asked if I could quote him.  He said, “We move too quickly from Good Friday to Easter, and then we fairly fly from Easter back to “normal.” I want to carry both with me throughout my life.

On Good Friday, the most significant words uttered by human lips are heard again, “It is finished!” The Greek word for “finished” carries the meaning of completion, wholeness. For Native people, it is the fullness of the Circle.

All of the love that our Creator has for us from the beginning of time came to fruition in the death of Jesus on the cross. The greatest horror of which humanity is capable, the murder of God’s own innocence. Even that could not separate us from God’s love.

The curtain in the temple that had divided the people from the Holy Presence of God was ripped…from the top down! God’s full acceptance of who we are, and God’s declaration that God loves us anyway, was declared beyond words.”  Let me say that last part again: “God’s declaration that God loves us anyway was declared beyond words.”

What does all this say to our broken, fearful world today? We don’t know when, where, how or even why God will forgive humankind’s unfaithfulness, but in God’s good time, not ours, it will be done. Even if we destroy ourselves and this precious earth God has entrusted into our care, we and all of creation will live and move and have our being eternally in the cosmic source of all Being. Because we put our trust, not in weapons of death and destruction, but in the power of resurrection that assures us that “all will be well when the day is done.” 

You know the line about opera – that it isn’t over till the fat lady sings?  I thought about that when I heard that John Lennon’s son Julian recently sang his father’s wonderful song, “Imagine.”  What makes that remarkable or ominous is that Julian has always said he would never sing that song publicly.  And at least once he qualified that remark by saying, “maybe if it was the end of the world.”  I don’t know if the state of the world had anything to do with it, but he recently sang “Imagine” publicly. 

I’ve always loved the hope that song describes.  Nothing has ever been created that wasn’t first imagined, and those of us who have received Jesus’ gift of peace are called to keep the dream of peace alive, especially when it seems so absent. The song says,

“Imagine all the people
Livin’ for today
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too

Imagine all the people
Livin’ life in peace
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.”

Easter is our invitation to join those who dare to imagine a world of peace.

You may have noticed the white post out by the parking lot as you came up the hill this morning.  We’re going to dedicate it after the service today.  On that Peace Pole are the words “May Peace Prevail on Earth” in English and seven other languages representing God’s children in every part of the world—including Spanish, Hebrew, Swahili, Arabic, ASL, Chinese and Japanese.   The Peace Pole is there where we will see it each time we come and go from here as a reminder to us of God’s peace and as a symbolic beacon of hope in a world bloodied by the ways of war.

Peace is our hope and our prayer, but wishing won’t make it happen.  Prayers without works are dead on arrival, and that’s why Jesus says something else to the disciples and to us after he says “Peace be with you.”  He says, “As God has sent me, so I send you.”  We can’t be peacemakers until we have surrendered to the peace that comes when we get up close and personal with Jesus.

I want to leave you with a thought from a Brazilian writer and journalist, Fernando Sabino.  He wrote, “In the end, everything will be all right.  If it’s not all right, it’s not the end.”  That’s the message for this frightening time in our world.  “Peace be with you.” 

Preacher’s Saturday Prayer

O God why must you work in such mysterious ways?   Couldn’t you just give me a message straight without so much work?  Your spirit came through again today as always, but couldn’t you have done that two or three days ago!  Why do I have to worry and wrestle with your Word like Jacob to find a 10 minute sermon?  Yes, the process is good for me, but I’m already limping from way too many years of sweating Saturday sermon preparation.  I do believe, Lord, honest I do.  I’ve literally experienced this miraculous process hundreds of times, but I’m old and tired and it’s harder work than it used to be.  Is that because I am afraid that I don’t have many more times to get this right?  Preaching is an awesome and awful privilege.  How can I dare to get up and presume to speak for you?  Yes, I know John Wesley said, “Preach faith till you have it.”  That’s why I’m still at it.  And this time, really “Let the words of my mouth be truly acceptable in your sight,” for I couldn’t do this if you were not my rock and redeemer.  Amen

“Beloved Knows No Zip Code” Luke 3:15-22

Here we are, nine days into a new year.  We’ve changed the numbers on the calendar, but things look the same as year one and two of what one young child calls the Pandamnic.  We’re still wearing masks, the Omicron numbers are scary high.   New Year’s used to be more a time of out with the old and in with the new, but 2022 feels a lot like the movie Groundhog Day, like we’re stuck in a very deep rut.

You may have seen the cartoon of a baby talking on a cell phone about her baptism.  She says, “I tell you this guy in a dress tried to drown me, and my family didn’t do anything but stand around and take pictures!”  I saw another one where Jesus is complaining to John the Baptist that he was trying to drown him.  John replies, “Sorry, if you wanted to be sprinkled you should have gone to John the Methodist.”

How many of you were baptized as infants or as a small child?  For that many of us at least we have no conscious memory of that important event that was a major force in shaping our faith journey.  That’s one reason this Sunday after Epiphany is called the Baptism of the Lord; so we can all reflect on the promises that we made or were made for us at our baptism. 

One of the best things about studying the Scriptures to prepare to preach or doing Bible study is noticing things we’ve not seen before in familiar stories.  All of us are somewhat guilty of making what a friend of mine calls Gospel Stew.  We take the different accounts of Jesus’ life and mix them all up together into one almost Bible narrative.  But each of the Gospels is a unique testimony by its author, and it’s important to take time to focus on each one to see what treasures we can find when we do just that.

For example the account of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel of Luke we read today has one big difference from the other three Gospels.  Did you notice it?  Listen again to these words from verses 19-21: “…because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison. [pause]  Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…”

In the three other accounts in the Gospels John plays a much more central role in baptizing Jesus.  John’s role is implied here, but Luke seems to make a point of getting John out of the spotlight in prison before Jesus hears the heavenly voice proclaiming his belovedness. 

Luke gives John a lot of time on stage prior to this, but now it’s time for a new beginning for putting away the old wine skins that can’t contain the Gospel of Grace that God has come in Jesus came to proclaim.  Now, it’s a new year and time to clean out the old to make room in our hearts for the incarnation of God’s spirit.  The Holy Spirit comes not just in Jesus, but in all of us who have been claimed as God’s beloved. 

When I was teaching a preaching class at the Methodist Theological School in Delaware one of my students, Mike Doak, dug into this text and did a really creative look at this story from the perspective of John the Baptist who is cooling his heels in jail when Jesus emerges as the Messiah John has been proclaiming. 

My student imagined what it might look like if John the Baptist wrote us a Letter from the Jerusalem Jail: 

“Stunned… I tell you I was stunned as these events unfolded.  You could have heard a single drop of rain fall at that moment, in the midst of that gathering.  As for me, one touch of a feather would have keeled me over.  Where was the winnower, fork in hand, striding onto the threshing floor?  What of the fire, the unquenchable fire, into which the chaff was to be cast?  Was there no axe to be laid to the root?  We expected a Messiah, a ruler grown from the tree of David would Lord it over Israel with a strong hand and a mighty arm.  Why were there no trumpets to announce the coming king; why did thunder not clap as heavens rent open? What manner of king is coroneted with a dove in place of a crown?  If I may appropriate a few of your own symbols, I preached Rambo but behold Gandhi.  I expected God’s unparalleled judgment yet beheld God’s unparalleled grace.  I preached unquenchable fire, but witnessed unquenchable hope.  Self-doubt overtook me as days passed into weeks in the solitude of my prison cell.  Though I had thrived in the wilderness all my grown life, I was then never so alone.  How was it that one called “forerunner” could become “forlorn.” 

John has been the star of the show.  Huge crowds have come to hear him preach.  Some people even think he might be the Messiah himself. That’s pretty heady stuff.  But Luke makes it clear John is the forerunner, the warm up act, not the featured attraction.  It’s time for a changing of the guard. 

Have you ever resented someone who made the team while you got cut?  Or some whippersnapper got the promotion you thought you deserved?  Or becoming a big sister or brother and all of sudden not getting attention from Mom and Dad or your grandparents who only have eyes for this new little stranger who has invaded your home?  If so we can understand how John might have felt.

John says he is preparing the way for Jesus, but Jesus doesn’t turn out to be the Messiah John and most of the Jews were expecting.  John was a hell fire and brimstone preacher, a little on the wild and crazy side.  He preached a Gospel of repentance based on fear of God’s wrath.  He expected the bad dudes to get their comeuppance and the chaff of society to be burned and the sooner the better.  We all have our own list of who those bad dudes and dudesses are don’t we!

But John didn’t find in Jesus what he hoped for and expected.  This most unlikely carpenter’s son is named God’s beloved son, the one with whom God is well pleased.  Baptism is all about new beginnings, but John’s new beginning is a stark reminder that God is the boss and we aren’t.  No matter how much we want to pass judgment on people we think are sinners, that’s not our job.  Our job is to be messengers of repentance and hope, the good news of new beginnings, and leave the judgment to God. 

Baptism is still a sacrament of new beginnings, even in yet another Covid year.  But it’s important to see baptism as a beginning and not the end of a journey.  Baptized children are preparatory members and it’s the job of all of us– parents, teachers, grandparents, fellow church members – to be their village and help prepare them for full membership and claiming their belovedness for themselves.  Now don’t go guilt tripping yourselves about your shortcomings or failures as parents because your kids or grandkids haven’t turned out as you hoped they would.  Imagine how Elizabeth and Zechariah felt about this miracle child of theirs living in the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey!  Our job as role models for the younger generation is to show them they are beloved even if they are covered in tattoos and have green hair.  The rest is up to them and God. 

I want to pause here to acknowledge everyone involved in the amazing children’s ministry here at Northwest.  I’ve been part of 8 different congregations in my life and the amazing job Doris Ing and all her servant leaders do with our kids here is by far and away the best I’ve ever seen.  Our children get a balanced spiritual diet of hearing the stories of the Bible, and then they practice those values by living them out working in the children’s garden alongside adults and a whole host of other service projects that teach them to treat all of God’s children as the beloved people they are.

Those kids grow up before our eyes oh so fast.  Diana and I have been part of the Northwest family for almost 8 years now, and I am amazed when I see children who were toddlers back in 2014 who are now singing in the children’s choir, and teaching us elders what love in action looks like.  They grow in wisdom and stature like Jesus to help deliver brown bag lunches and go on youth mission trips.  One of my favorite projects in recent months came out of the concern from youth in our confirmation class about climate change.  They’ve helped us implement new recycling opportunities and designed these wonderful reusable cups so we can stop adding to the problems Styrofoam cups cause for mother earth.  And best of all they put on these cups words that remind us whenever we drink from it that “Love Has No Zip Code.”

I already knew in my head how unjust our society is based on which zip code you happen to be born into.  But I really learned about that in a heartfelt way when I was working at Ohio State several years back.  I was helping facilitate a partnership between OSU and Columbus City Schools.  Many of us at OSU volunteered to be tutors and my school was Medary, one of the  elementaries in the University District.  At the same time my grandkids were in elementary school in the Olentangy School District.  I loved working with the kids at Medary, but it hurt my heart when I would go from there to visit the Olentangy schools on grandparent’s day or other occasions.  The differences between the new school buildings and the resources available to my grandchildren were like visiting another planet.

I am grateful for the amazing experiences my grandkids have had at Olentangy, but very troubled that the urban kids are not getting the same benefits.

I’m using Olentangy as an example, but we know the same stark differences apply to Dublin and Hilliard and other suburban schools.  The way we fund education via property tax, i.e. by zip code, is inherently unjust.  That system has resulted in the resegregation of our schools and perpetuated and widened the gap between the privileged and the marginalized.  And those disparities have only been multiplied by Covid. 

Climate change and education are just two of many injustices we are called to address.  None of us can make a big difference in any or all of them, but we can start by asking God how we can make a difference wherever we are. Luke describes the baptism of Jesus in 2 verses and then devotes 12 verses to the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness that immediately follows.  This warns us that we are all tempted forever as Jesus was to cave in to the seduction of worldly comfort and power, but because we are followers of Christ we can say no to Satan’s clever sales pitches.  

I don’t know about you, but when we baptize cute babies up here I don’t pay much attention to the words of the baptism ritual.  I’m just oohing and aahing over a precious beloved child of God.  Babies are such a miracle that they melt our hearts.  But there are important words in the ritual that we all need to hear.  As a congregation we promise to help raise those children in the faith; so we shouldn’t just sign on for that important job like we click agree without reading all the fine print on a new app. 

Listen to what one of those vows asks us to agree to:  “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”  That’s a heavy promise, and it comes before the next promise where we are asked: “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior and put your whole trust in his grace…?” We can’t renounce and resist the forces of evil on our own.  We can only do that through the power of the Holy Spirit descending on us and declaring we are God’s beloved children.   

The last line of the baptismal vow says we “promise to serve him as our Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?”  Brothers and sisters, all means all.  Just as we can’t choose our relatives, even the crazy uncles and the weird cousins, we can’t exclude anyone from the body of Christ.  I know how hard that is.  The partisan paralysis in our government that has made this pandemic last so much longer than it needed to and taken so many beloved family members and friends from us makes me furious.  But the Gospel message is that even those I vehemently disagree with about vaccines and masks, yes, even those people are God’s beloved children.

Baptism means we all belong to a great and mysterious God who created this vast universe long before any humans ever set foot on this tiny planet.  God created us, male and female, and declared us good and blessed from day one.  And no matter how badly we or anyone else screw things up, our blessedness doesn’t expire. 

In one of those special God incidents, I got a wonderful idea for how we can all practice our baptismal vows and celebrate our blessedness every day.  It came just yesterday in a daily devotion I get from Father Richard Rohr, and it suggests this simple practice.

The exercise goes like this; looking, really looking lovingly, not staring or seeing any flaws, look at yourself in a mirror or at another person, and as you breathe in and out pray silently these words:

Breathe in:      I see you with love

Breathe out:   gifted, cherished.

Breathe in:     Grateful

Breathe out:   for who you are.  [Repeat this with congregation, looking at another or imagining someone]

And here’s the best part–Father Rohr goes on to say,

“We can also bring this practice out into the world. How often do we really see another person beneath their role, under our expectations? What if we paused at the grocery store and for a moment brought eyes of love to the stock clerk or the cashier. They don’t have to know what you’re doing. You don’t have to stare, just take in their image, then close your eyes for a moment, breathe, and bathe them with love. Pause and see the other person as beloved and beautiful as they indeed truly are.”

My beloved sisters and brothers, this is a day of new beginnings because God’s “Belovedness Knows No Zip Code.”  Amen

Preached at Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH, January 9, 2022

Recorded from Livestream @  https://youtu.be/bLS32pkXHAU

GOD’S CHOSEN SERVANT, SERMON ON ISAIAH 42:1-9

Today, the Sunday after Epiphany, is the Sunday in the church year when we celebrate the “Baptism of the Lord.” Matthew, Mark and Luke all report in identical words that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River and that when Jesus came up from the water “suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

That Scripture tells us who the Messiah is, and the Isaiah Scripture we read today is one of Servant Songs in Isaiah that describe what kind of Messiah this beloved Son of God will be. Listen again to what these words from Isaiah say:

I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;

In case we might miss the point this text tells us three times that “he will bring forth justice.” I’ll come back to that later, but I want us also to notice that this Servant Song not only emphasizes the Messianic purpose of justice; it also makes it very clear how justice will be accomplished, and that is in a peaceful, non-violent manner. God’s servant is gentle – does not shout or lift up her voice; does not quench a dimly burning wick or break a bruised reed.

More than ever in the nuclear age we need to remember that the ways of Christ are non-violent and peaceful.

I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said “Another United Methodist for Peace and Justice.” My son asked me about that slogan one day. To him it seemed contradictory to talk about peace and justice together because like many people his concept of justice was one of punishment and retribution, as in giving people their just desserts. But that is not the biblical meaning of “justice.” In biblical terms justice means wholeness, equality and fairness for all, and when we understand it that way we realize that peace and justice are not contradictory terms at all, but in fact unless there is justice for all there can be no true peace.

Here’s a case in point about what an unending cycle of retribution and revenge produces. The Treaty of Versailles ending WWI was signed 100 years ago last summer. That treaty, over the strong objections of President Woodrow Wilson, extracted harsh and unjust punishment on Germany, and just twenty years later Hitler used the German resentment of that punitive treaty to plunge the world in WWII.

I remember learning that in a college history class, but what I learned recently is that in those same treaty negotiations France also refused to give Viet Nam its freedom, which led to the communist take over there and eventually to our own involvement in the Viet Nam War. And if that’s not enough, that same treaty also carved up the Middle East into countries doomed to failure because people who hated each other like the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites were forced into impossible situations like the new country of Iraq. I don’t have to tell you how that worked out!

“Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” doesn’t mean God is vengeful. It means we humans shouldn’t play God and dish out our idea of “justice” because that’s way above our pay grade. Jesus repealed the Old Testament law of “an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” in the Sermon on the Mount because he knew such misguided justice only creates a world of blind, toothless people. We can and must do a better job of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

I must confess this has been a hard week for me. In addition to the all the bad news bombarding us from Australia, Puerto Rico and the Middle East I have had to deal with personal grief over the death of a friend who died suddenly last Friday and concern for our 11 year-old great niece who had open heart surgery yesterday. Such times as these make preachers dig deeper to find good news to proclaim, and when that happens there is no better source of comfort and strength than to return to the very basic Truth of the Christian Gospel found in the Sacrament of Baptism.

When my son was 7 or 8 we were attending one of my daughter’s piano recitals in a church that had a baptistery for immersion up in the chancel. As curious children are want to do my son was exploring the sanctuary after the recital, and after his reconnaissance mission he came running back to me excitedly and said, “Dad, they’ve got a Jacuzzi up there!”
How different our versions of baptism are today from Jesus’ immersion in the muddy Jordan. We sprinkle a few drops of water or use a heated pool are. We have watered down (pun intended) the significance and the way we do baptism so much that we have forgotten what baptism teaches us about the cost of discipleship.

I can’t remember the source, but I’ll never forget this story about a Roman Catholic Church in Latin America. A young couple presents their infant to the priest for baptism and the Padre submerges the child in the baptismal water and says, “I kill you in the name of Jesus.” An American visitor witnessing this sacrament is aghast, and then the priest lifts the child above his head and proclaims, “And I resurrect you in the name of the living Christ!” That illustrates the total transformation of true baptism. We literally die to our sinful human nature and are resurrected as new beings in Christ. In other words, we are saved from sin and death, but that’s just step one. What we are saved FOR is to be agents of love as citizens of God’s kingdom here on earth.

One of the things I like best about being retired is that it’s so much easier to really worship sitting out there. When I’m leading worship I am busy thinking about what comes next in the service, is my microphone turned off during the hymns so I don’t frighten anyone with my lousy singing; did someone remember to put water in the font, are my sermon pages in the right order?

I experienced real worship one Sunday recently during a service of baptism. The familiar liturgy that I’ve led many times was used, but I heard it like I suddenly had ears to hear. It was the part of the Baptismal Covenant that asks the parents or sponsors of a child or an adult being baptized, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

Let me repeat that. “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

So much power is packed into that short sentence! My first thought about it went to the phrase “resist evil, injustice and oppression.” There is so much evil, injustice and oppression filling my news feed that I want to just say “stop the world I want to get off!” Cancer and dementia and addiction attacking good, innocent people. Refugee families being ripped apart; political contributors being rewarded with government offices they are not qualified to fill, and protections for God’s creation being discarded for greedy short-sighted goals. I look at my young grandchildren and wonder what kind of a world we are leaving for them? It wearies my soul.

Your list of evil and injustice may be very different than mine, but the responsibility of Christians to resist evil in the name of God is the same for all of us. The Christian responsibility I just read is not from a service of ordination or consecration for someone dedicating her life to full-time Christian service. This challenge and empowerment are for all of us at our baptism. This is a bold affirmation of the priesthood of all believers, and it makes me wonder how many Christians would agree to be baptized if we took those words to heart?

Babies often don’t take too kindly to baptism water being poured or sprinkled on their heads. A cartoon circulated on Facebook awhile back showed a baby talking on a phone to someone and saying, “You wouldn’t believe it. This guy in a dress was trying to drown me, and my family just stood around taking pictures!” I remember one baptism where a young child resisted the chilly water by pulling away from the pastor and wailing for all to hear, and I commented “Maybe he understands the significance of baptism better than we do.”

Resisting evil and injustice can be dangerous work, and the coward in me tends to see the baptismal font as half full when I focus on the heavy responsibility those words carry. But then I read the first part of the vow again and I see the meaning of those words in a whole new light. The sentence begins, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you….” Working for justice is not a burden to endure; it is a talent to be embraced, a gift of freedom and power to be accepted. God is not asking us to do the impossible all alone but is gifting us with the unstoppable power of the Holy Spirit to do the work God calls all of us to do.

I am reminded of Jeremiah’s call from God when he was just a child. To paraphrase Jeremiah’s response – he says, “Not me, Lord. I’m just a little kid. Nobody will listen to a teen-ager?” And God said, “Don’t worry. You don’t have to go alone. I’ve got your back. I’ll tell you what to say.”

By its very nature, baptism is not an isolated anointing. It is a sacrament of inclusion in the Body of Christ. It is a celebration of the power of community. No one gets baptized alone. The whole congregation promises to be the village that raises a child or a newborn Christian of any age. Baptism is a statement to the world that together we who have heard the call of Christ can and will support and encourage each other. We will celebrate the freedom and power to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever form they present themselves, even when that means admitting we are part of the injustice.
The Hebrew prophet who wrote this part of Isaiah knew that way back then. Listen to the second part of our text for today:

I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
7 to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
9 See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.

Those words are addressed collectively to the nation of Israel by their creator and sustainer. They are God’s chosen people – not chosen for privilege like a Jacuzzi baptism, but to be God’s servants to open blind eyes, release those who are captives to sin and death, to be a light to the nations. And as followers of Christ we are the New Israel called to that same mission and purpose. Born of water and spirit we are all God’s beloved children given power and freedom by the one who makes all things new to be God’s chosen servants in the world.

This Sunday when we remember the baptism of Jesus is a perfect time to reaffirm our own initiation into the Body of Christ. I know many of you, like me, were baptized as infants or children and don’t actually remember the occasion of your own baptism. I know some of you may not have been baptized yet, and that’s ok because water doesn’t make us children of God. We are all born that way. Water used in baptism is just a symbol of the cleansing and renewing power of the Holy Spirit to make us new creatures as followers of Christ. That commitment to Christ is something we all need to recommit ourselves to on a regular basis because it is not easy to follow the narrow path of discipleship, especially in trying times like these.

So I invite you to reaffirm your commitment to be a faithful follower of Christ by responding to these questions as you are led by the Holy Spirit.

Brothers and sisters in Christ: Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s holy Church. We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.

Through the reaffirmation of our faith we renew the covenant declared at our baptism,
acknowledge what God is doing for us, and affirm our commitment to Christ’s holy Church.
On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?
I do.

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression
in whatever forms they present themselves?
I do.

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened
to people of all ages, nations, and races?
I do.

According to the grace given to you, will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy Church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world?
I will.

THANKSGIVING OVER THE WATER

The Holy Spirit work within you, that having been born through water and the Spirit,
you may live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.
Amen.

Messiah Vision, Advent Sermon on Matthew 11:2-11

When I told my wife, Diana, that I was preaching on this text she correctly pointed out to me that this story seems strangely out of place for the 3rd Sunday of Advent. We’re still 10 days from the birth of Jesus and the lectionary text for today jumps 30 years ahead where John the Baptist is in prison. It seems chronologically out of whack, but if we take off our historical/literal glasses and dig into John’s important question we find it is very relevant for us in this Advent season 2000 years later.

The text tells us “When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”” Why would John be asking that question? He of all people should know who Jesus is. He is the one who baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, and in that story all 3 synoptic Gospels report that after the baptism “a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” That seems pretty convincing to me and not something John would have forgotten.

So why is John asking, “Are you the one?” Let’s back up a minute to the first part of that verse. It says, “When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing…” That’s what prompts the question. John is confused as many were in Jesus’ day because Jesus wasn’t acting like the Messiah they were hoping for.

Did you ever get a Christmas gift that wasn’t what you expected or were hoping for? Kids are pretty good at showing their disappointment when they tear into a package they think contains the new X-box from Santa and find instead underwear and socks.
That kind of disappointment is at work in John’s question: “Are you the one or should we wait for another?” Jesus didn’t fulfill the Christmas wish list the oppressed Jews were hoping for. They wanted a political/military liberator and they got a suffering servant. They were hoping for Rambo and God sent Gandhi instead. They wanted a Messiah who would take to the streets and give the hated Romans their just desserts. Instead they got Jesus who ate dessert with tax collectors and sinners.

Let’s remind ourselves again of the situation and the audience Matthew was writing to. Mathew’s Gospel was written 40-50 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, which puts it sometime after the year 70 C.E. That is a very significant date for the Jewish Christians, rather like 9/11 for us, because we know that the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. The temple was God’s residence in their midst and now it had been reduced to a pile of rubble. That had to be a time when the Jews and their hopes for deliverance by the Messiah hit rock bottom. They were feeling like John, imprisoned and questioning their faith. So John’s question from his prison cell awaiting execution reflects the doubts of his readers, the Jews and new Christ followers sitting in the devastation of their city and their hope.

Are you the one, Jesus? Why haven’t you delivered us? It’s the question disciples of Christ have asked in every generation when suffering and despair threaten to drown our faith. Who is this Jesus, and why is there still so much injustice and suffering in our world?

The rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice came out when I was a senior in seminary, and I was drawn to the way it asked that same question about Jesus. The title song of that musical has Judas asking,
“Jesus Christ Superstar, Do you think you’re what they say you are?”

I talked one of my theology professors into letting me do an independent study on the theology of “Jesus Christ Superstar”. He was not a fan of rock music and very reluctant at first but finally agreed. I remember in particular one conversation we had about the scene in the musical where Jesus finally loses his cool and turns over the money changers’ tables in the temple and drives them out with a whip.

I was young and full of righteous indignation then. Now I’m old but still full of it. In 1970 I was idealistic and very impatient with the social injustices of war, racism and sexism – sound familiar? At any rate I was drawn to this angry Jesus upsetting the apple cart in the temple, but Professor Hopper cautioned me to put that incident in the context of Jesus’ total ministry. Yes, Jesus got angry a couple of times. He was human after all. But those incidents of anger are very rare and atypical of the patient, kind, compassionate and forgiving healer that Jesus was.

And that’s why John the Baptist is questioning Jesus’ Messiahship. Jesus isn’t doing things the way John would have done them. Pastor Chris reminded us last week what a wild man John was. He was a man of action, calling out the sins of the big shots of his day. He followed the examples of Amos and Micah and the other Hebrew prophets who were hell fire and brimstone preachers warning God’s people of the wrath to come if they didn’t repent of their sinful ways.

But Jesus broke the mold of the angry prophet and replaced it with the Messiah
who hangs out with the outcasts of society, who is the good shepherd who goes looking for the lost sheep instead of blaming it for wandering off. Instead of heaping guilt on the oppressed he offers forgiveness and grace to prodigal daughters and sons like you and me.

So this question is exactly what we should be asking as we prepare for Christmas. Who are you Jesus? What kind of Messiah are you really? If we don’t understand the nature of God’s incarnation in our world, if we’re looking for the wrong kind of Messiah we will miss out on the greatest gift any of us can hope for.

My heart has always been touched by a song much older than “Jesus Christ Superstar” that poses the same question. It was written during the Great Depression, another time of great suffering in our country. Robert MacGimsey was a white composer, but he wrote this song in the style of an American slave song. The version I grew up with was recorded by Mahalia Jackson, but it continues to be recorded today by other artists because it raises an important warning that we’ll miss Jesus again if he’s not what we expect. The song says,

“Sweet little Jesus boy
They made you be born in a manger
Sweet little holy child
We didn’t know who you were.
Didn’t know you’d come to save us Lord
To take our sins away
Our eyes were blind, we could not see
We didn’t know who you were.”

Do we know Jesus today? Would we recognize him if he or she appeared to us in the checkout line at Kroger’s or at the food pantry? Do we treat the telemarketer or an ungrateful child as we would treat Jesus? Do we take time to pray and ask ourselves if the Jesus we want for Christmas is the one God sends to upset our values and call into question our way of life?

I had cataract surgery on both of my eyes this fall. I can now see much better than before because the old clouded lenses have been replaced by new ones. Someone has joked that we will all see 2020 come January. But the real question is will we have Messiah vision? Will you join me in praying for new spiritual lenses so we can see clearly who Jesus is and what he expects of us as his followers?

Yes, Jesus is the one! And we don’t have to wait for another because God’s Emmanuel is with us here and now every step of the way. We just need Messiah Vision so we don’t miss out on his Kingdom because of preconceived notions of what that kingdom should look like. Amen