Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Sermon: Through The Valley

Psalm 23

One of the most powerful phrases in the well-known 23rd Psalm is “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.” Let’s talk about that valley of the shadow of death.

Kristin Cooper King tells a powerful story about how her husband was killed by a distracted driver.

“In December 2009, my husband, Chris Cooper, and I were in a car accident that took his life. Through the grace of God, I survived the accident, but am having to learn to live my life without Chris. This blog is about my journey - as a young widow, a single mother to a beautiful 2 year old girl, and a true believer that God's hand is directing my days.”[1]

In her blog posts she reflects on that first year and its struggles. She talks about the heartbreak and struggle of that time and how hard it is to put into words, how at times it is hard to believe that he is no longer with them. What she feels at one week from his death, one month, one year. At one month she also talks about God’s presence in that valley time.

Let me warn you, I cried as I read it the first time, so no promises here as I share this with you: “On Sunday, my parents took Colleen to run errands and left me here to rest. I ended up not sleeping, but here in the office - his room. I took that time to do something that I had been putting off. I spent almost 2 hours reading all of the Facebook messages that people have sent me over the last month. I went to Chris’ fan page, read all of the entries, and re-watched the video from the memorial service for the first time. I logged into his old hotmail account, and read a folder of emails that he had saved from when we were first dating – over 6 years ago. And I let myself weep. I wept for myself, for Colleen, for our families. I wept for his friends, who loved him like a brother. I wept for the life that we could have had.”

“As I wept, I was listening to a song that someone had reminded me of right after the accident. It’s a song that I have heard before, but have never really had the context to understand. The song is a prayer, and as I listened I prayed her words. I prayed that God would lead me through this valley, this fire, to the life that he has promised. I prayed and asked for strength, the strength to not to have to understand, but just to know that God’s heart is full of love, and that he will never leave me. As I write this now, I can’t help but cry – but I don’t feel alone.”[2]

I’m not done yet, because where I first heard about Kristin was through her Poem “Through the Valley”. It is deeply powerful, and expresses just how hard it is to walk through that valley of the shadow of death, and yet just how much hope God’s light brings us in those darkest times.

I’ve walked through the valley. I’ve seen the shadow
the death.
I’ve had my life ripped apart at the seams. Stolen from
me in an instant.

I’ve lived through the days when I could only take
one step at a time. One foot in front of the other. One
minute. One second. Without being able to think farther

I’ve walked through the valley. It’s an ugly place. It’s
dark and cold. The mountains are high on each side.
Tall and forbidding. Too high to climb.

The path is windy ahead. It curves where I can’t see.
Each day I make it a little farther. I sleep alone. I’m

But there’s a tiny flame inside my heart. A first it is the
tiniest flicker. From the first moment I can feel it. As
cold and scared and dark as it is I can feel the burn in
my heart.

The flame brings peace. Comfort. Light.

The flame leads me. Shows me the way to the green
pastures of my home and the still waters of my family.
The flame anoints me with the warmth of love.

I cling to the flame. I seek it. Tend it. And it grows.

It can’t carry me out of the valley. That job is mine. But
it lights my path. Guides my feet. Stays with me. Protects
me from my fears. And day by day, step by step,
it leads me.

Outside of the valley there is a life waiting for me. A
life overflowing with goodness. A life full of mercy and
love. It’s my job to take the steps. But I’ll never be alone.[3]

Kristin learned: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil. For you are with me.”

But let’s keep looking “Through the Valley” is also the title of a memoir by William Reeder Jr. He was a senior captain on his second tour of Vietnam, flying OV-1 Mohawks on secret missions. While providing support to forces, his chopper went down and he was captured and held as a POW. What he faced was unimaginable. His accounts are not for the squeamish. And yet, if you look at the title of his book, Through the Valley, it is meant to be a reference to the valley of death in the 23rd Psalm. You see, at one point he finds himself mentally reciting what he can remember from the psalm, and it is primarily this one line that comes to him.[4] It helps him so that through it all he never lost hope, his faith would not die. It reminded him that the darkest valleys still have light. His book is not primarily a book about faith, and yet he talks about this moment of faith inspires him, and that inspires his title. It is what reminds him that the shadows do not win.

When we walk through the valley’s, when our hearts are broken, God is there to walk with us and light the way. They valleys need not defeat us, the troubles of life need not overcome us.

No! Rather, as the psalmist says, “I will fear no evil”. It echoes what Paul says to us in Romans, nothing can separate us from the love of God: not death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation. (Romans 8:38-39)

Yes, the valleys are real, they are dark. There is very real evil in them, and very real danger. Our lives have these valleys, they are often unavoidable.

But they need not defeat us, for God’s love is stronger than the valley’s. God is not just God when things are going well, not just when we are on the mountaintop and we have joy and peace, but God is also God in the valleys, and God’s presence is just as real in the low points of life. And just in case we do not believe it, all we have to do is look at Christ. Even though he walks through the valley of death, not the shadow of death, but actually through death itself; God walks with him. God loves him, and that love is so strong that Christ’s death is not the end. There will be resurrection.

Likewise when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, whether because someone near to us has died, or because we are near death, or even when it feels like all of our dreams have died and hope is gone, or we feel like we are walking alone through a dark time in life – remember this psalm which begins by saying “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” At the very least remember this one line, like William Reeder Jr. did -- “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil. For you are with me.”

God is indeed with you. Always. Even through the valleys.

[3] By Kristin, Cooper King, Seasons of the Spirit, 2018
[4] p. 66 chapter 7.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Sermon: Grace Is A Quiver Full of Arrows

Mark 9:2-9

The title of the sermon is from a phrase I read in the Seasons of the Spirit commentary. One of the things that the authors of that commentary remind us is that the Greek word for sin is hamartia. This word is also an archery term for letting the arrow fly and “missing the mark.” This was not new to me, but it was worth reflecting upon again.

How often do we miss the mark in life? I do it far too often. I strive for perfection to hit that bullseye, and sometimes when I am as lucky as this kid, I do.

Other times, I am not quite so amazing, and in the archery metaphor, I hit the next ring out, close but not quite a bullseye. But then, oh, then there are those shots in life that I let loose, and everyone should be running for the hills, because I didn’t even hit the bales of hay that support the target. I have let go an errant shot, an oopsy-daisy, a total and completely bungled attempt. Remember we are not really talking about archery here, we are talking about sin – about messing up in life.

How many of you remember the story of Roy Riegels from the University of California Berkley football team? It was the 1929 Rose Bowl and well, here is the video.

Interestingly, ESPN doesn’t tell the best part of the story. And it is what happened at half-time. In the locker room at halftime Roy Riegels sat in the corner with his face buried in his hands. Riegels was so distraught that he had to be talked into returning to the game for the second half. Roy said "Coach, I can't do it. I've ruined you, I've ruined myself, I've ruined the University of California. I couldn't face that crowd to save my life." Nibs Price the coach said, "Roy, get up and go back out there — the game is only half over."

And after the game, Coach Price defended Riegels, saying "It was an accident that might have happened to anyone."

So back to the very beginning of my sermon: the title. Grace, according to the commentary I mentioned that talks about about sin as missing the mark, grace is not just that God forgives us for the bad shot, but that God gives us a quiver full of arrows and says try again. I had never heard it expressed like that before. It was like it was saying: Get back out there, the game is only half over.

Grace is God saying take another shot, and another, until you get it right. Grace is a quiver full of arrows, a quiver full of chances.

I thought that that was a powerful image. I may fail today, I may fail tomorrow, but with God’s help, one day I am going to get it right! And not just because I was lucky, but because God has been patient enough to lead me toward perfection.

That is how Jesus treats Thomas on this day. Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to the disciples and he simply refuses to believe that Jesus could be alive. His belief arrow flew sideways and was nowhere near the target. Not that I blame him. I probably would be the same way. It is rather hard to believe a group of guys isn’t pulling your leg when they say they saw someone risen from the dead while you were out. I mean, come on. But despite the fact that Thomas’ disbelief made complete sense, he was wrong. Jesus was alive, and Thomas couldn’t see it. It was like he was running the wrong way down the field, heading away from the truth. The resurrection had happened, and Thomas’ reaction was off the mark.

But Christ gives him another chance and appears again, this time while Thomas is present. He even invites Thomas to put his hands on his hands and feel the wounds. Christ is giving him every opportunity to correct his mistaken belief, and of course, Thomas gets it right. He believes. He realizes that he was wrong, he admits it, and he acknowledges Christ as his Lord and his God.

So if I think about my life, if I think of myself as the Thomas of this bible passage: I am sure that there are a thousand arrows that I have fired that have missed the target. Everything from the way I have treated people, to the things I have said, to the beliefs that I hold. What this passage tells me, is that despite the fact that I have been wrong, despite the fact that I am running the wrong way down the field, despite the fact that I have missed the mark: God isn’t finished with me yet. (Can I get an Amen?)

By grace God has given me a quiver full of arrows to try again. Thank you, Lord!

Although some of you may be so thankful, because here’s the thing, when I sin, I know that some of you get hit by my errant shots and hurt.

And I do apologize for that, I really never mean to harm anyone, it’s just I’m still not very good at this archery of life. I’m still working toward perfection, I’m not there yet.

And while Jesus grants us the grace to try again, and it can be hard for us to give people that same grace, especially if they have harmed us with one of their failed shots. I mean who gives another arrow to the person that just shot them? So it is really interesting, in this passage, that Jesus actually specifically addresses how we forgive others. He says, that what we forgive on earth, those sins are forgiven; but then he goes a step further, and says the sins we don’t forgive on earth, they aren’t forgiven. So you all have a lot of power. I am depending upon your forgiveness for my peace. Oh, I am not alone, this applies to us all.

Perhaps Jesus is reminding us that we are all still learners, still working on getting it right in God’s eyes, and that we all need a little patience and a lot of forgiveness until we get it right. Then he uses Thomas as an example for how we should deal with others – with patient correction and careful instruction. With a willingness to walk alongside them as they try to get it right. Without judgment or anger. Without taking personal offense at what they have done, but leading them to the truth.

In summary: This teaching from Jesus is wonderfully good news for us when we get it wrong, when we miss the mark.

He is offering us another chance, to get back in the game and to try again. But the teaching is also a challenge to us to offer the same forgiveness to others that Christ offers to us. To forgive 70 times seven times, to forgive the quiver of failures that others let loose, and to strive to help them get closer to the mark. To forgive as we have been forgiven, and love as we have been loved.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Sermon: Peter's Easter Sermon

Acts 10:34-43

I have been a pastor for 24 years now. Which means I have been through 24 Easters. One of the challenges of that is trying to continue to tell the story of Christ’s resurrection in a way that is meaningful and fresh. Not that this amazing and incredible event needs to be freshened up, or changed, because it is a powerful story from the very first. But the reality is, to keep myself spiritually growing (and probably for you to keep spiritually growing) we need to keep listening for what God is telling us anew even in the old stories. And that can be quite hard.

So this year, rather than focus on Mary meeting Jesus in the garden, which is an amazing story, as we saw in the video, I want to focus on the passage that was just read where Peter is speaking in the book of Acts.

Here Peter tells us how he interprets the events of Easter. He was one of the first witnesses to the resurrection, and we have been given the gift of hearing what he thinks it means. What does he feel is important, what does he want us to learn from this event?

He starts with a brief retelling of Jesus’ life. How first there was John who prepared the way by preaching about baptism, and then Jesus came doing good and healing. Then they killed him, but God raised him up, and we saw him. Not everyone saw him, but there were those of us who ate and drank with him after he had been raised from the dead.

Now, what I notice in this retelling is that Peter is a very matter of fact, short and sweet, and not a lot of emotion, kind of guy. His story is plain and to the point. He doesn’t get into how he felt when Jesus died, he doesn’t tell you that Mary was all teary-eyed at the tomb. Jesus simply died and was alive again. That’s all there is to it. Partly that is his personality, but I think it is also because Peter doesn’t think that Easter is about the emotional reunion with Jesus. He doesn’t think that Easter is even about the suffering of Jesus. The miracle itself isn’t even all that important, other than it happened.

Instead, Peter tells us that the resurrection of Christ is an event that teaches us that through Christ’s death and resurrection he has been appointed as judge of the living and the dead, and that anyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

In many ways, it isn’t how we normally approach Easter. Normally we think of Easter as the victory over death, the surprising reality that the power of God can bring life from beyond the grave. But Peter isn’t really surprised by that. I think as a devout Jew he already believed in life after death – that wasn’t what shocked him – he already expected to meet God after he died. What Peter emphasizes is that in that meeting, through Jesus we have a judge who bases his decisions on forgiveness.

What has changed is not that there is life beyond this one, he has always believed that. But what has changed is how he sees God. God is no longer a harsh judge, or a judge who favors one group of people over another. No longer is God the one who is eager to sentence us. Rather, God has shown us something quite different through Jesus. Sinners could be forgiven. The unloved could be loved.

“A large prosperous downtown church had three mission churches under its care that it had started.

On the first Sunday of the New Year all the members of the mission churches came to the city church for a combined Communion service. In those mission churches, which were located in the slums of the city, were some outstanding cases of conversions thieves, burglars, and so on but all knelt side-by-side at the Communion rail.’

“On one such occasion the pastor saw a former burglar kneeling beside a judge of the Supreme Court of England it was the judge who had sent him to jail where he had served seven years. After his release this burglar had been converted and became a Christian worker. Yet, as they knelt there, the judge and the former convict neither one seemed to be aware of the other.’

“After the service, the judge was walking home with the pastor and said to the pastor, "Did you notice who was kneeling beside me at the Communion rail this morning?"

“The pastor replied, "Yes, but I didn't know that you noticed." The two walked along in silence for a few more moments, and then the judge said, "What a miracle of grace."

The pastor nodded in agreement. "Yes, what marvelous miracle of grace."

Then the judge said "But to whom do you refer?" And the pastor said, "Why, to the conversion of that convict." The judge said, "But I was not referring to him. I was thinking of myself." The pastor, surprised, replied: "You were thinking of yourself? I don't understand."

"Yes," the judge replied, "it did not cost that burglar much to get converted when he came out of jail. He had nothing but a history of crime behind him, and when he saw Jesus as his Savior he knew there was salvation and hope and joy for him. And he knew how much he needed that help. But look at me. I was taught from earliest infancy to live as a gentleman; that my word was to be my bond; that I was to say my prayers, go to church, take Communion and so on. I went through Oxford, took my degrees, was called to the bar and eventually became a judge. Pastor, nothing but the grace of God could have caused me to admit that I was a sinner on level with that burglar. It took much more grace to forgive me for all my pride and self deception, to get me to admit that I was no better in the eyes of God than that convict that I sent to prison."[1]

What Peter learns through this the death and resurrection of Christ is that Jesus forgave him even when he turned his back on him.

This coming from a man who just prior to Jesus’ death denies him three times before the rooster crowed. When he denied knowing Jesus, Jesus loved him anyway. He has learned that God, rather than wanting to condemn us, wants to forgive us. That is what God would prefer. And God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another in offering that. God has set up Jesus as our judge and he has shown that he is willing to welcome all people, even those who would turn their backs on their best friends in times of trial. That’s what Peter has learned.

As people who claim and follow the resurrected Christ we far too often want to put limitations of the reaches of God’s forgiveness, we far too often want to suggest that God does play favorites, we far too often act like God judges different types of people using different criteria.

Peter at one time fell into that error himself. He thought God favored the Jews. He thought that forgiveness was limited to those of his own religion. But through life experience, dreams, and the Holy Spirit he realizes that that is not what Easter teaches. Easter is about God’s love for all who believe. No matter what color their skin, no matter what nation they come from, whether they are immigrants or native peoples. No matter their gender, their criminal record, the size of their feet, or what they had for breakfast this morning. Not even their favorite sin matters, or the struggles they have in life. Christ died and rose to forgive you and you and you and them and them and them.

Easter is more than just a story about a man who was dead who suddenly wasn’t dead. It is about the power of God to bring life in all things, especially to things that seem to have no chance at life.

In his nearly incredible report out of South Africa, No Future without Forgiveness (New York: Image Doubleday, 1999), Archbishop Desmond Tutu's seems to see Jesus in a very similar way to Peter – although he is a man of much more flowery language, he says much the same thing.

Listen: "There is a movement, not easily discernible, at the heart of things to reverse the awful centrifugal force of alienation, brokenness, division, hostility, and disharmony. God has set in motion a centripetal process, a moving toward the center, toward unity, harmony, goodness, peace and justice, a process that removes barriers. Jesus says, 'And when I am lifted up from the earth I shall draw everyone to myself' as he hangs from His cross with outflung arms, thrown out to clasp all, everyone, and everything, in a cosmic embrace, so that all, everyone, everything, belongs" (p. 265).[2]

For Peter that is the miracle. No longer are we subject to sin, to death, to shame, or to evil. Because we are drawn into the embrace of God through Christ. Now we can live, fully and completely in Christ’s name. And all of this is Christ’s gift offered to us without price.

[1] Tyndale, Illustrations Unlimited, by James Hewett
[2] ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., ChristianGlobe Illustrations, by John Gibbs

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Sermon: Two Parades

Mark 11:1-11

Theologian and author Marcus Borg suggests that on Palm Sunday there were two parades of very different types. The first parade we know about, it is Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. And the people were so excited that they cut branches from the fields, took off their cloaks and coats and spread all of this stuff on the road. The idea is kind of like rolling out the red carpet, they were giving Jesus something special to ride into town on. They were making the road beautiful, welcoming him. And as he rode by they shouted, “Hosanna (or save us) Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!”

They were welcoming him as the one who would save them, who would make everything good and right, who would be king – like David – and restore their country and themselves in the eyes of God. Of course, your heard all of that earlier in the story. So we have heard about that parade already.

But although we know about Jesus’ parade, there was very likely a second parade on that same day that was better known by the people of Jesus’ time. You see, the Passover was coming. The largest religious observance during the year. Tens of thousands of Jewish pilgrims filled the city. And because of this it was a time of the year when the Romans were afraid.

Remember, Rome ruled over Israel. The people were ruled by outsiders. And during this festival, when there were lots of people together, it made those rulers nervous.

If there was going to be any violence or revolutionary moment, if there was going to be a riot or any attack on the Roman government buildings, this would be the time. So right about a week before the Passover, the extra security details from Rome would arrive. Imperial troops and cavalry to reinforce the Roman garrison, and to keep the peace. That is usually the way outsiders try to keep the peace, by using a show of force, military power and police presence.

So this parade would not have been popular with the people of the city. It was a reminder that they did not rule themselves. It was a reminder that they were subject to another’s power, and that if they tried to change that there would be bloodshed. So you can imagine that the welcome the troops received was not positive. There were probably shouts of, “Go Away!” and insults about the emperor.

So Marcus Borg is saying that Jesus chose that day to ride into Jerusalem to make a statement. His parade, his leadership was very different from the Romans.

He did not lead with armies, warhorses, and weapons. Just a few rag-tag disciples; he isn’t on a warhorse, just a donkey. “According to the prophet Zechariah, the king entering Jerusalem on a donkey was to banish the weapons of war from the land and speak peace to the nations. The kingdom of Rome on the other hand was based on violence and the threat of violence.” The so called Pax Romana or Peace of Rome, was a peace brought by the sword.

So there is quite a contrast between these two parades. Imagine the atmosphere at each, the emotions on the streets. The Roman one would have been stern, frightening, and angry. Its tone would be ominous. The marching of feet, the sounds of the horses, the rattling of weapons. Children were probably kept off the streets, just so they wouldn’t be harmed. In my mind it is like a parade of Imperial Stormtroopers walking through the city. But perhaps that is a bit too silly and cinematic and geeky.

In reality it would be more like living in a place where there was a military dictatorship, and the soldiers walked down your street to keep you under control. Where the message was submit or die.

Compare that with Jesus, whose message is peace to the nations. Real peace brought by a very different method – by changing hearts, by bringing people to God, by loving neighbors, by restoring relationships. These are the things he had been teaching. Peace through God’s kingdom. So the people did not cower in fear from him, or shout insults. Rather they came out in joy and welcomed one who would save them. This parade’s atmosphere was celebration. There was no fear of what might happen to their children and so whole families gathered. People were rolling out the red carpet, they threw their coats on the street, they shouted religious greetings. Like the Memorial Day parade here in town, where everyone is smiling.If you had to choose, which parade would you attend? [pause] I’d go to the happy one, personally.

Now in my imagination, as a worst case scenario, I wonder what if those two parades collided downtown in Jerusalem?

What if the two routes crossed and suddenly you had the Roman army facing down Jesus and his disciples? You had the fear of oppression clash with the joy of freedom. What would happen? Frightening thought isn’t it? It might end in a massacre, as people shouted for Jesus as the new king, and the power of Rome moved to crush it. Actually we don’t have to imagine too hard. Because it actually happened in 70CE, less than 50 years after Jesus. [pause] It started with riots in 66CE, and erupted into a 4 year war which ended when the Roman army surrounded the city just a few days before Passover, then marching into the crowded celebration, and eventually destroying the Jerusalem temple. See it really happened.

But it also happens with Jesus, this collision of parades. Not literally. Not on Palm Sunday. But eventually the things they represent clash. The military parade and the Messiah of the people are destined to cross paths. And in the end, the violence of Rome is so threatened by the Messiah who speaks peace, that Rome cannot bear it and tries using all of the weapons in its arsenal to silence it. They put him on trial. The soldiers strip him, whip him, and call him names. They execute him publically, trying to humble him and silence his message. It looks like a massacre. And yet what happens? Well, if it had worked we would not remember this parade that welcomed Jesus, the violent one would have won out.

But it did not, God would not allow Christ’s life to be silenced, the dream of peace cannot be quieted by the noise of oppression. Eventually, the love, the power, and the forgiveness of God win.

We know that, that’s why we celebrate today. The end of the story tells us, love wins, peace wins. The man on the donkey defeats the army on horseback. The man on the cross defeats those who try to put him to death: the governors, the executioners, they cannot stop his power to change the world.

Still today there is this conflict between forces of oppression and those of freedom. There are those who would use fear, violence, and oppression to gain power. There are countries that abuse their own people. There are places where police are not protectors but enforcers. There are places where the military does not represent freedom, but it is meant as a threat.

And in those times and places, Jesus still rides into town on a donkey suggesting that there is a different way. That there is a way of ruling humanity that is built on very different principles. Where peace does not come through death, but through God. Where life is meant for celebrating and experiencing the joy of knowing that you are loved. His resurrection is a reminder that this second way, is stronger than the forces of oppression. That even executions and death cannot stop God from freeing God’s people.

For those who live under the thumb of military and police violence, it is no wonder that Palm Sunday is such a huge celebration. It is no wonder that they want to march the streets carrying palm branches to celebrate this Messiah still today. There is hope, that he will ride into their town, through their streets. That he will confront the hatred and brutality they face each day, and overcome it. That is why we still shout the words, Hosanna, save us! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Because we call for his reign in our midst, and a new day for all of God’s people.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Sermon: Giving Up Our Lives

Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11:1-45

As you know, our theme this year is about giving things up, and my subject that I was given to talk about is giving up our lives. How many of you have heard the old story of the boy who misunderstood what would happen when he gave blood to save his sister’s life? [look around] It isn’t new, so I expect you will recognize it when I tell you. And yet it is powerful.

The pediatrician told a little boy that he could save his little sister's life by giving her some blood. His six-year old sister was near death, a victim of a disease from which the boy had made a miraculous recovery two years earlier. The little girl's only chance for restoration was a blood transfusion from someone who had previously conquered the illness. Since the children both had the same rare blood type, the boy was an ideal donor.

"Johnny, would you like to give your blood for Mary?" the doctor asked. The boy hesitated. Then he smiled and said, "Sure, I'll give my blood for my sister." Soon both children were wheeled into an operating room. Mary was thin and pale. Johnny was robust and full of life. Neither of them spoke.

As Johnny's blood siphoned into Mary's veins, one could almost see new life come into her tired little body. The ordeal was nearly over when Johnny's brave voice broke the silence, "Say, Doc, when do I die?"

It was only then that the doctor realized what the moment of hesitation had meant earlier. Johnny actually believed in that giving his blood to sister meant giving up his life. In that brief moment, he had made his great decision.

Obviously, in Johnny's mind his act of love toward his sister had no personal reward. In fact, he believed that in helping her, he would not even be around to enjoy whatever relationship he might share with his sister. He was willing to give up his life for his sister.

It is an old story but it still brings a tear to the eye. He had deep love for his sister. The story led me to a thought experiment. Thought experiments are things that physicists, like the amazingly brilliant Stephen Hawking who died this week, that these physicists use to explore the depths of our universe. Einstein used them to work out his theory of relativity. The idea is that you think about a situation, and work out from what you know about the world what the possible outcomes are.

My thought experiment today started out from that story – who would you die for? Who do you love so much that you would die so that they could live? Just shout out some people that come to mind – who would you give up your life for? [open it up]

Now, although giving up our lives is a big deal, as Christians we have scriptures like the story of the dry bones, we have stories like Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, that tell us that death is not the end. So giving up our lives isn’t quite a hopeless trade off. The expectation is that God will raise us from the dead, that we will enter into the heavenly realm, and that we will dwell in the house of God forever. So giving up our lives is a sacrifice, but not it is not without its reward. Unlike the little boy, we have an expectation of life after death.

So I took my thought experiment a little further, and some of you might find this a bit sacrilegious, but hang with me for a bit. Who would I be willing to give up eternal life for, so that they could have eternal life? I don’t mean like selling your soul to the devil, and going to hell – I mean, who do you love so much, that if you could guarantee them a place in heaven, you would be willing to give up your place in heaven? Who do you love enough to let your final breath be the actual end of your life, and let the grave truly be your final resting place? Is there anyone that you would risk that for?

And that is trickier in some ways, because now there really is no reward for our act of love. There really is no promise of resurrection. And yet the gift that we are giving is so much bigger than even the gift of life on earth. We are giving the gift of heavenly peace and joy for eternity. Would you be willing just to die and be done with life so that someone else, anyone else might have life in heaven?

Like I said, it is a thought experiment, because I don’t think that God works like that. I don’t think we can go and barter with God and say, let my sister into heaven in my place. Rather, the idea is to get us to really think about what we are willing to sacrifice for those we love. Would we give everything?

As Jesus sat with his disciples at that last meal with his disciples almost 2000 years ago, as he looked around at their faces, it was much more than a thought experiment. He had given up his place in heaven to live among us on earth. He had lived with these men and women, journeyed with them, taught them. Did he love them enough to risk death, death forever, that they might have life?

As he walked out into the garden of Gethsemane to pray, as these people could not stay awake for even one hour. Did he love them enough? Enough to overcome the betrayal? Enough to overcome the denial? Oh, he knew the plan. The plan was that God would raise him from the dead. But what if it didn’t work? Yet even in the midst of the questions and the heartache, his love remained strong, and he went forward. Walking toward the cross so that others might have eternal life. That’s love.

Who do you love enough to give up your place in heaven so that they might have eternal life? I can come up with a list in my mind. People that mean that much to me. But I am not sure I would include in that list people who have betrayed me, people who turn their backs on me, or people who I have never met. I am not sure that I would include on that list murderers, or thieves, or sinners of the worst sort. And yet Jesus did.

And I am called to love people like he did. So I have to go back to my heart and try to tell it to grow big enough to understand that others are worth the risk. You see, the power of resurrection is not in the magic of conquering the grave. The power of resurrection is in loving others enough to go to the grave in the first place. That’s what makes resurrection happen. It is love that overcomes death. It is love that knits together dry bones, it is love that calls Lazarus from the tomb and bids him rise. Love at that depth has the power to overcome anything. The betrayals of this world. The fears of this world. The uninspired, tired and brokenness of this world. Love can overcome all of that. And in their place, offer heaven.

So who do you love enough to do what Jesus did for them? Do you love the person in the pew next to you that much? With God’s help, may it be so! Do you love the people in your home that much? With God’s help, may it be so! Do you love the people you work with that much? With God’s help, may it be so! Do you love the person who cut you off in traffic that much? With God’s help, may it be so! Do you love the broken, the hurting, the wounded, the lost, the hopeless that much? With God’s help, may it be so! Do you love the sinner, the accuser, the abuser, the betrayer, the oppressor, and the fool that much? Only with God’s help, but may it be so!

Sermon: On Our Hearts Until It's In Our Hearts

Jeremiah 31:31-34

So I talked to you earlier about the new covenant that God promises to the people of Israel while they are in Exile. Jeremiah shares an interesting image – rather than engraving the law on stone tablets God will now engrave the law on our hearts. We won’t have to try to learn it, or teach it, it will just be there – guiding us.

Jeremiah’s vision is an amazing word of hope in times of evil and injustice. The days are surely coming, when people will no longer be confused about good and evil. It is certain, it will happen, people will be guided by what is right and just. God will make a new covenant with us, and this one will be written on our hearts.

As I was researching this sermon, I found this reflection from Anne Lamott. “There’s a lovely Hassidic story of a rabbi who always told his people that if they studied the Torah, it would put scripture on their hearts. One of them asked, ‘Why ON our hearts, and not IN them?’ The rabbi answered, ‘Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your hearts, and then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.’”[1]

When I first read that story, it was clear that the rabbi was talking about this scripture passage from Jeremiah. But I was not sure where to go with it. I knew that it would take further thought. I mean, what is the difference between having the covenant on our hearts instead of in our hearts. Why did the student ask the rabbi that? Why did it matter to him?

It is such a small difference, that difference between on and in. It is one of the most difficult things to learn when you are learning a different language.

For example, I was an exchange student in Germany, so I learned rather quickly that in German you don’t stand in a field. People think that is funny, because it means you are buried up to your neck in the field. Rather, you stand on a field, on the top of it.

But we don’t think of it that way. We think of being in the field, like we are standing within its borders, while if I told you a farmer were standing on his field, you would understand me, but you think it sounded strange. Why would I need to tell you he was on top of it? I mean, if he weren’t on top of it, if he were under it, that would imply something very different in English! Poor Farmer Fred is six feet under his field.

The difference between in and on in this example is quite slight, and yet somehow to each of our languages it is important. Likewise for this student of the rabbi, the difference was probably slight but significant.

So I thought more deeply about it. If I say that you and your family have been on my heart, what does that mean?

I think it means I am thinking about you. I have been feeling drawn to you, as if I should reach out to you. It is a yearning, a desire, a need for connection.

But if I say that you and your family are in my heart, it sounds like the connection is more continual: like I am always carrying you with me, that our emotional link is always there.

And perhaps that is what the student was getting at: he or she didn’t just want to yearn for scripture or just have a desire for connection with it; but the student wanted scripture to be carried around within their heart at all times, to be always linked.

So I think that explains the student’s question, but then there is the rabbi’s answer, which explains that while studying the scripture can put it on our heart, only God can put it in our hearts. And then he talks about how we read scripture until our hearts break, and then the holy words fall inside. And again, I was sure that rabbi was thinking about this passage in Jeremiah, so I looked at it again as well.

And the word that most helped me, was the word that God uses for how these words will be put upon our hearts. The phrase used is “I will engrave them on their hearts.” Engrave.

What do you engrave words on? [expect answer of stone] Engraving is something you do to write on that which is hard, that which is resistant to change.

When we read scripture, it is engraved upon our hearts. And the process of permanent change begins, but it is not completed, because our hearts are still hard, they are still stone. But God can cause a change, and I think the rabbi is referring to Ezekiel 36:26, where God says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove your stony heart from your body and replace it with a living one, and I will give you my spirit so that you may walk according to my regulations and carefully observe my case laws.”

In a sense, I think that is what the rabbi meant by our heart breaking. When he says our hearts break, I don’t think he meant it like we think of some lover with broken heart, I think he may have meant when our stony hearts break, when we allow them to become softened with love, when they become alive and shed the stony exterior, then the words get inside, and then we can carry them with us all the time. Then our connection with them is constant and complete.

After struggling for a while with the passage, that made sense, imagine the stone heart, where God writes a new covenant on the outside, and these words slowly cause the stone to erode and crumble until our hearts are flesh. But just reading the scripture, even though it is amazing can’t do that. The change of heart is so drastic, that to really soften us, to break away the stone, requires God’s help. Then the new covenant can be lived. I think that is what the rabbi is trying to tell the students.

The interesting thing is, I don’t think we are born with stone hearts. I think we build them up over time. People hurt us, friends disappoint us, and slowly layer after layer our hearts become stone. Kind of like the process of an oyster creating a pearl. Only our stone heart isn’t very pretty. It starts with an irritant and we try to protect ourselves. We don’t like to get hurt. So we try to shelter our emotions, and we prevent ourselves from loving others like God does.

Glynnis Whitwer writes in a devotion on, “My daughter Cathrine held out her hands, palms up, for her brother to see. "Look, I have bumps on my hands ... what are they from?"

Robbie ran his fingers over her palms and answered with the authority of an older brother, "These are calluses, you got them from lifting weights at school. Look at mine."

He turned his hands over, and she ran her fingers over his palms and grinned.

My children's hands are a resume of their work in the gym. Calluses formed to protect their tender skin from harm as they lift weights.

I sat at the table, watching the interaction, and then looked at my hands. Smooth palms and short nails revealed my hardest workouts came at the keyboard, not the gym. But a thought skirted in and around my mind: Where else might calluses have formed?

Turning back to my computer, my eyes stared out the window and my fingers stilled on the keys as an image came to mind. My heart ... covered in calluses.

I closed my eyes and sighed. That explained a lot. My heart is harder than it used to be. And sadly, much harder than I'd like it to be.

It's easy to see how I've gotten here. Each time I've been hurt, my approach to dealing with pain has been stoic. The warrior-like determination inside me to protect myself had affected the softness of my heart. With each offense, each lie, each rejection, I made a silent declaration to not be hurt like that again.

… My empathy was diminished, which is a very dangerous heart-position for someone whom God has called to love others.

I'm convinced these calluses aren't supposed to stay there. A callused heart may protect me from great pain, but it also keeps me from great love. To love deeply, to love like Jesus, requires risk.[2]

Boy Oh Boy, do I get what Glynnis has written here. My heart has callouses! Yet, this passage is talking about the cure for those callouses, that opens us up to loving God and others like we are supposed to. As though one day we are insensitive and incapable of loving like God does. Our hearts are self-centered, they keep everyone except family and a few closer friends at a distance. We can hear about loving our neighbor, but it just doesn’t soak into us. The stone prevents us from changing.

But as time passes we learn to see all people like God does, and we realize that they are connected to us. And the stone is broken away. We allow others into our lives, we carry them with us. And slowly this circle of people grows, until we love everyone as our neighbor.

God promises that this will happen to us. It starts with reading scripture, until the words will be written on our hearts. But then comes the miracle as God softens our hearts and the words will fall into their depths. On that day God’s promise will be fulfilled in us, “The days are surely coming when we will no longer need to teach each other, because they will all know me, from the least to the greatest, and I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins.”

[1] Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Sermon: Snake Bites

Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21

There are several types of sermons that a pastor can preach: encouragement, education, challenge to action, condemnation of sin, and so on. But all of my sermons do have one thing in common, they start from a scripture passage or two, and I let them set the tone. So in other words, sometimes the bible passage seems encouraging and lends itself to a sermon that is encouraging. Sometimes the scripture passage challenges us and it leads to a sermon that is challenging. When I read the first of today’s scripture passages though, I was not initially encouraged or challenged. In fact, if anything, I was left with lots of questions. This may not be a passage you are familiar with. The setting is that the Israelites have followed Moses out of Egypt. They have crossed the Red Sea, they have been fed with Manna, they have made a golden calf and had God get angry with them about it, they have been given the 10 commandments, and through it all they have bellyached and griped, groused and whined.

Today’s passage is no different. Listen to Numbers 21:4-9

They marched from Mount Hor on the Reed Sea road around the land of Edom. The people became impatient on the road. The people spoke against God and Moses: “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill us in the desert, where there is no food or water. And we detest this miserable bread!” So the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people and they bit the people. Many of the Israelites died.

The people went to Moses and said, “We’ve sinned, for we spoke against the Lord and you. Pray to the Lord so that he will send the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous snake and place it on a pole. Whoever is bitten can look at it and live.” Moses made a bronze snake and placed it on a pole. If a snake bit someone, that person could look at the bronze snake and live.

As I said, my first reaction to the passage was not encouragement nor challenge, but questions. Perhaps as you listened, you may have had some questions too. If not, I will share mine with you! You see, we have this passage where the people of God have escaped slavery and are now marching through the wilderness complaining with great gusto. So God sends poisonous snakes to bite them.

Now, as a human being I get that. Complaints are annoying. Although I can’t say that there has ever been a time when I was frustrated enough with someone that I wished for a poisonous snake to bite them, I might wish for a non-poisonous snake to bite them. But this is God. God is supposed to be above that kind of petty emotional response. And yet God sends poisonous snakes.

I was watching a show on Dangerous Animals on TV this week, and it was talking about the bite of the Fer-de-lance in Central America. Its bite is seldom fatal anymore because of anti-venom, but people who are bit still experience severe pain, oozing wounds, swelling, internal bleeding, gangrene, amputation, and usually post traumatic stress. When fatal it is due to internal bleeding and kidney failure. This is no fun way to die. So what kind of God does this? This does not sound much like the loving Father that Christ talks about.

And then, the very same God who ordered them not to build idols, who in fact nearly killed all of the Israelites for making a golden calf, now orders them to make a bronze serpent on a pole so that everyone who looks at it will be cured from the poison. So bull idols are wrong, but snake idols are okay? Doesn’t this all strike you as a bit odd?

So as I read the passage, I had many questions. What do we do with passages like this? What do they tell us about faith in our time, faith in our life? Should we be worried that God is going to send a poisonous snake to bite us if we complain too much? Should we build a golden snake idol in each church for people to look at and be healed?

Probably not. In the end this passage reminds us that there is a complicated relationship between sin and suffering, between blame and shame, and between God’s love and redemption.[1]

We live in a world were love is real and pain is real, where cancer is real, and healing is real, where war and abuse and brutality are real, and where compassion and friendship and peace are real. And God is working within that complicated web to bring about our healing, wholeness and redemption.

So sometimes it is hard to tell whether God is punishing us or the world around us is just unfair; sometimes it is hard to tell when God is rewarding us, or we are just lucky. And the biblical writers struggle with that too. They try to interpret events of their lives from God’s perspective. So when a rash of snakebites happens, they wonder if their complaining caused it. Just like you might wonder when you are diagnosed with heart failure if a sin in your life led to God’s punishment. That is part of being human trying to make connections between what is happening in our life and our faith. We ask, is it my fault? And if so, what did I do?

Most of the time though, when bad things happen to us, although we might have a little responsibility (like we forgot to check for poisonous snakes before we reached into that woodpile), it is probably not true that God is punishing us. For example, the flooding recently in Buchanan and Niles. God wasn’t punishing us. There was no particular sin that the people who had houses closer to the river had done that others had not. Rather, bad things happen, that is part of what it means to live in an imperfect world, a world that is still in need of God’s redemption.

So in general, while the answer to the question of “does God cause us to get snakebites because we have done something bad” forces us to think seriously about our responsibility – that isn’t the answer to the problem. The real answer always comes later, when God reaches out with ultimate healing and restoration. God does not leave the people in the predicament of suffering but offers them a way out. You see, while we may question what we have done to find ourselves suffering, God is busy saying to us, “Stop worrying about that, and come to me for healing and protection.”

So in this passage, although people are being bit by snakes, God gives them a way out. God wants them to know that God is the answer to their problems. In other words, when we worry about what we have done to deserve this, when we wonder if we are being punished we are caught up asking questions when we should instead be looking to the answer – God.

Now, I admit, this is a weird passage, but Jesus actually talks about this passage at one point in his ministry. In fact, he talks about it right before he utters one of his most famous of teachings. This is from  John 3:14-17

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

What do you think of that? So Jesus says, that he is like the snake idol, being lifted up before the world so that they can find healing and restoration when the snakes of the world bite them. If they feel like they are being punished, or they are suffering, rather than looking at the cause, rather than trying to figure out what they did or didn’t do to deserve this – they should look to him and they will find eternal life.

God didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn the world, not to punish the world, not to send them all to hell, but that the world might be saved through him. He is there to offer a way of healing for our hearts, minds and souls.

The one who suffered is ultimately the answer to our suffering. The one who died is ultimately the answer to our death. He shows us that innocent people do suffer, innocent people do die, and yet there is also a way to overcome that. By looking to God through Jesus Christ, by opening ourselves to the healing of God, we are saved. Snakes may bite, their poison may actually kill us; but they cannot destroy our soul. And we know that through our trust in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, it is well with our souls. He has made sure of that for us. We need not worry!

So today’s passage started out as one that was full of questions, and yes, it is even a little disturbing, because it deals with people striving to make sense of suffering (when life is a little disturbing).

What we learn through Jesus’ teaching, is that God cares about our suffering, and in fact, God cares so much that God does something about it. In Moses’ day, it was a golden snake, but then later, it was the gift of God’s son who came to show the depths of God’s love, who is willing to reach into our world and bring us help and hope. In other words, the passage ends up being one of encouragement! Who would have guessed that from where we started! I surely didn’t. But God did!

[1] Seasons of the Spirit, 2018