“Into what then were you baptized?” asked Paul

Many thanks to Facebook friends and acquaintances, Tom Eggebeen and Chris Duckworth whose posts this past week jumpstarted my ruminations for the sermon given on Jan. 11, 2015.

New Testament Reading                                                                                              Acts 19:1-7

1While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. 2He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” 4Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied — 7altogether there were about twelve of them.

Gospel Reading                                                                                                               Mark 1:4-11

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”


I’ve been thinking this week about what it means to be a Christian; what it means to be baptized and claim to be a disciple of Christ. I’m struck by how many Christians seem to think they have a free pass look down upon the poor, to neglect those who have served this country, to take food away from hungry children, or to deprive medical care to any but their own.

This is a self-centered Christianity. This is a faith that doesn’t look beyond one’s own relationship with God. This is a faith that has a person say, “I’m saved. But you aren’t.” Or, “I’m saved and the only way you can be saved is to believe as I do.”

And, sadly, it seems to be very popular –

A friend of mine, Tom, pointed out a line in an obituary that struck him as odd this week. It said, “Because of Bill’s faith in God and trust in Jesus Christ as his savior, he is rejoicing with the saints gone before him today.”

I’m sure all our sympathies go out to this man’s friend and family.

But here’s the thing: this brief “testimony” phrase is a classic example of “conversionist” theology. Those of you who are familiar with Billy Graham may recognize this as a version of his gospel, the “personal decision – personal savior” world of Christianity, with its focus on “me.” This is the altar call of Christianity, something we Presbyterians aren’t used to. Come forward and make YOUR exclusive commitment to Jesus Christ. The altar call is singular – focused on one person, at one time, in one place.

As Tom said, “In truth, ‘Bill’s faith and trust in Jesus’ didn’t effect any of this … quite the contrary: It’s God who effects this, sometimes with us (even our cooperation is of the Spirit), and mostly in spite of us.” Bill’s faith was the work of God’s grace.

Now I acknowledge that all faith is personal… and a work of God’s grace. Some of us come to faith in a gradual crescendo – from the time we’re children going to Sunday School and then Confirmation, and then a lifetime of questions. Some of us come to it in a lightning bolt moment, as if we’ve been hit in the chest with the realization that God is with us. Some of us might come to it with a catch in the throat and hot tears behind our eye, knowing we’re completely unworthy and yet knowing that we are loved.

And we are all different in what we believe and how we’re able to talk about it. But there are commonalities. We celebrate the same sacraments. We recite the foundational elements of faith in creeds and statements of faith. And if we are true to the teachings of Christ, we explore our faith in community. We are not in this just for ourselves, are we? If all we want is to be saved, then I’d posit that is an empty faith.

But if we claim the baptism of Christ, then we proclaim that we are not alone. We are one with Christ. We are the body of Christ, on this earth to work towards the example Jesus set for us. We are to care for the poor, the wounded, the sick, the hungry, the young. We are to care for each other, figuring out each day what it means to love ourselves and everyone else, too.

John stands at the bank of the Jordan River, inviting folks to repent, to name their sins and reclaim their humanity, to turn away from those sins to something better, something that is to come. And as they enter the water, their sins are washed away. Each one enters, leaving behind the detritus of his or her life, giving all that over to God.

And along comes Jesus. He, too, steps into the river now polluted with the sins of all those who accepted John’s call to repentance before him. He enters that water, that repository of our sin, our pride, and our doubt; in that one act he declares his solidarity with us and with all those who were and are to come.

Our book of order tells us: Sacraments are signs of the real presence and power of Christ in the Church, symbols of God’s action. Through the Sacraments, God seals us in redemption, renews our identity as the people of God, and marks us for service. (Directory for Worship, W-1.3033)

The body of Christ is all of us, and baptism is the bond of our unity in Christ. As we are united with Christ through faith, baptism unites the people of God with each other and with the church of every time and place. Barriers of race, gender, status, and age are to be transcended. Barriers of nationality, history, and practice are to be overcome. As Paul told the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Just as there is no “I” in team, there is no “me” in Christian. It isn’t about me, at least not in an ego-driven way. It is about how I treat others. It is about how we treat each other – it’s about being humble before God, recognizing that in the enormity of God’s good creation we are not as significant, or as important, as we might like to think we are.

In fact, God’s love and redeeming grace are available to all people. God offers it freely and baptism is a gift from God, emanating from that grace. When we respond to that invitation to grace, we accept our identity as a children of God. Yes, baptism calls us to repentance, but it also offers us the opportunity to be faithful and become a disciple. Baptism identifies us as a church and it commissions us to ministry, to service in the world.

Baptism bookends Jesus’ ministry – beginning with his own baptism by John, to his final charge to his disciples in Matthew – “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

We are not alone in this crazy thing called faith. Salvation is not an independent decision or act – it isn’t up to us and nothing we can do will guarantee or deny it. Salvation comes by the grace of God through our faith in Jesus Christ. And as undeserving as we think we are, every time we confess our sins, every time we turn back to God, every time we remember our baptism, every time we eat the bread and drink the cup, we affirm our connection to each other, to God, and Christ as children of God.

May it be so. Amen.

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Come and See

I am indebted to the ideas and commentaries of David Lose and Brian Stoffgren for helping me to process and move through John 1:29-42 on this second Sunday of Epiphany.

Gospel reading:

29The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

35The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.

38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?”

They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?”

39He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Our text today is all about experience… how we perceive things, how they make us feel. It’s also about telling our story – specifically our story of our experience of God.

When have you known a place where God needs to be present?

When have you been aware that God been active in your life?

Our passage today is all about experiencing the impact God has in our lives, the impact that Christ has, and the openness of others to listen to accounts of those events and explore for themselves.

We begin with a story told by John the Baptist about his encounter with God through Jesus, through the baptism of one who is greater than he is. John is humbled by this encounter and encourages his disciples to meet this Jesus.

Two of his disciples take him at his word and follow this Jesus – who turns and looks at them and into them. He wants to know what they’re looking for; they respond with another question, Teacher, where are you staying.

Come and see, Jesus responds. Come with me and experience it. Not just see with your eyes but take it all in – come and see – see if it becomes a part of you. And they do.

One of John’s former disciples is named Andrew and after that evening, he becomes a disciple of Jesus.

Later, he goes and grabs his brother – a guy by the name of Simon Peter and tells him, we’ve found the Messiah. You’ve got to come with me and see! See for yourself!

How many of you talk about your faith? How many of you talk about how important Christ is in your lives? Do you know people who do?

I have to confess that I’m a bit evangelism-averse because evangelism has gotten a bad wrap. We’ve come to equate it with awkward interactions with others who have particular agendas. Some are coercive; some are threatening. You’ll hear things like:

Are you saved!?
Have you accepted Jesus into your life?
Do you know where you’re going after you die?
Are you born again?

This has made evangelism something of a dirty word – and we find it difficult to do – because we don’t want to be, well, those people. We don’t want to be pushy, or coerce others, or be threatening. So we keep our faith to ourselves. We hide our experiences, our lights under bushels of our own making – we hide ourselves away and wonder why our churches don’t grow.

So what are we to do?

Frankly, my relationship with God and Jesus Christ is very personal – I don’t talk about it easily. But when trust and openness exist, I’m happy to tell you about times when I felt God was at work in my life, when I felt Jesus close to me. I’ll tell you what I believe about God’s love and goodness and how that amazes me and makes me feel alternately completely unworthy and joyfully giddy.

Trust and openness…

Come and see…

See and share…

Have you noticed that in the gospel of John, there is no baptism of Jesus? Unlike Mark, Matthew, and Luke, we aren’t told how John baptized Jesus, we aren’t shown how the dove descended and the voice from the heavens split the air.

In the gospel of John, we aren’t witnesses to the baptism at all. We listen to John the Baptist tell us of the experience he had. He talks about how he came to realize who Jesus was, the role that Jesus is to play.

We don’t hear about what happened after John’s two disciples agreed to come and see what Jesus had to show them. We realize that it had such an impact on Andrew that he went to find his brother because his experience with Jesus was so powerful.

John the Baptist shared his story. Andrew shared his story. In fact, Andrew does this 3 times in the gospel of John. He brings his brother, a young boy with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish, and he brings “some Greeks” to meet Jesus. And, Andrew is probably the last disciple we think of when we’re asked to name them. Yet Andrew has this thing figured out – how to share his story so others want to join the experience.

Trust and openness…

Come and see…

See and share…

This is what real evangelism is. Sharing what God has done for us and inviting others to come and see for themselves.

But…How do we begin to share ours stories?

Perhaps there are three simple steps, suggested by David Lose.

First, begin to notice. Notice where you have seen or felt the presence of god in the world or in your life. It can be difficult at first but it will become easier. Maybe it’s easier to start with places we notice where God needs to be – places where there is tragedy, distress, or hurt. And over time, we’ll get better at noticing where God is – in first responders, in relief workers, in that neighbor that always has a casserole ready or is will to provide a ride. Or a friend that is always willing to listen. Soon, you’ll begin to notice God not only at work in your life but in the larger world.

Second, begin to share. This is what we struggle with the most, I think. So let’s begin with an easy one. Why do you like this church? Why do you like to come here? Take a moment… If you’re sitting near someone, tell them – go on…

If you’re not sitting near someone, on the way out today tell someone.

Third, and this one will seem to be the hardest of all, invite someone to join you here. They can come with you or meet you.

We’re not hesitant to tell others about a great restaurant we’ve found; a good barber or hairdresser, a wonderful doctor. We aren’t hesitant to invite people book club or out to a concert or play. So why are we hesitant to invite them here? If you enjoy being here, if you want to come here, be willing to share it! If you like it, surely someone you know will, too.

It will take time – time to notice, time to be comfortable sharing, time to be comfortable inviting others.

Jesus bides his time, too. We don’t know much about his early life or his young adulthood. But when he was ready? When he was ready to talk and to teach? He welcomed, he invited, he shared his story and his experiences. And so did Andrew, and John the Baptist.

Live your experience. Be mindful, noticing the breath of God, the movement of the spirit.

Trust and openness!

Come and see!

See and Share!

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Faithfully Dishonest?

This lesson follows the very well-known parable of the prodigal son. I think we will be well served if we keep that story in mind as we hear and consider this one. Where are the similarities and where are the differences. I think they will help us to understand what’s happening here, at least in part.

Gospel Lesson                                                                               Luke 16:1-13

1Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

10“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Can we be any more confused? Jesus’ parables are supposed to make us think. They are supposed to help us consider the way God’s initiative turns our world upside down and inside out. Luke’s gospel repeatedly shows us this world:

  • The proud are “scattered” (which translates the same word for “squandered”). *
  • The powerful are brought down and the lowly lifted. *
  • The hungry are filled and the rich are sent away. *
  • Those in need of hospitality find it is often provided by those who are considered religious outsiders or lower down on social hierarchies like the Good Samaritan, or tax collectors, or Cornelius. *

So what is happening here?

We have a wealthy man whose business manager has been less than honest in his handling of his boss’ money – a fact which the wealthy man hears about from other employees. When he confronts the manager, he fires him.

And here’s where it gets weird. The manager, before he leaves the office, calls a few of the clients who still owe his boss money. When they meet with him, he has them adjust their accounts downwards – You owe him $1,000? Make it $500. Do it quickly!

You owe him $5,000? Mark it down 20% – you only owe him $4,000.

And the manager packs up his office, knowing that if he needs a reference or a good word, the clients will step up and help him out.

Well, the clients can’t believe their good fortune. The manager saved them so much money they’re giddy with joy and have to talk about it.

And talk about it they do… of course, word gets back to the rich man. Rather than fly off the handle and bring his former manager up on charges, he smiles a wry smile, nods his head, and honors the changes to his clients’ statements.

Now let’s consider this in light of the Prodigal son. How can these two stories possibly related even though this story follows that one? Yet if we look closely, we find that there are elements in common.

  • Both the younger son and the business manager betray one who trusts them. ‡
  • Both are described as “squandering” the wealth that had been entrusted to them. ‡
  • Neither offers any excuses for their misdeeds. ‡
  • Both receive unbelievable, almost inappropriate, mercy. ‡
  • Neither story is actually resolved. ‡

And that would be that – the grace of forgiveness manifest in the rich man’s actions. But Jesus doesn’t let it end there. He follows the story with seemingly contradictory summations that appear to have little to do with the rich man’s forgiveness.

  • The children of the light need to act more shrewdly. †
  • Christians should make friends by “dishonest wealth.” †
  • If you’re not faithful with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with the true riches? †
  • You cannot serve two masters. †

If we understand that the children of the light are the disciples of Jesus, then we need to understand what Christ means by the word “shrewd”. I wonder how much confusion might have been avoided if the translators of this passage had used words like prudent, or wise, or clever – other meanings for the Greek word used here.*

And what if Jesus had explained what he meant by dishonest wealth. The Common English Bible suggests that the phrase might also mean “worldly wealth”. Worldly wealth – the money that is used to exploit the inequities in our economy and social systems. How many people have lost their homes due to unwieldy mortgages or loans? How many people are trapped in low paying jobs or jobs with few benefits because owners and CEOs are wringing the last penny they can from the profit margins?

And if that’s the case, how do we use worldly wealth in a prudent, wise, or clever way so that we will be trusted with the riches of the age to come?

How can we be faithful with dishonest wealth? With worldly wealth? How are we to treat the wealth that we manage, the wealth that we have?

Perhaps we think this passage doesn’t apply to us because we aren’t wealthy. But I suggest that anything you possess qualifies as wealth. We may not be rich. We may not shop on Michigan Ave. We may not have a 3,000 square foot house or sports cars in the driveway. But we do have material goods and we do have some money. What matters is what you do with what you have – no matter how much or how little there is.

And here, I think, might be one of the keys to this passage.

What do we do with what we have?

It’s hard to talk about money, isn’t it. You’ve just come through some very lean years. Through your own hard work and a couple of key partners, you’ve managed to turn around your budget and your bank accounts.

David Lose reminds us that there is a strong cultural taboo regarding talking about money with others – actually NOT talking about money with others. Yet most people struggle with questions about money: how much is enough, how much is too much, how much do we need or keep and how much should we give away. How do we raise children and grandchildren who are both wise and generous. I don’t think this parable gives clear guidance to any of these questions, but it does present characters who also struggle with money, characters with mixed motives. Yet the rich man and the manager change over time in relationship to their circumstances. Characters, perhaps, not unlike ourselves.  †

And maybe that’s what Jesus’ goal was. Not to give us a moral or life lesson, but to leave us with questions about how we manage the gifts God has given us. Perhaps it is a cautionary tale about being good stewards and what that means. Perhaps it reminds us that using what we have to benefit others is not only honorable but holy. And certainly Jesus wanted us to consider how money can become an end in itself, a destructive and selfish end. For if we become servants to money, to wealth, to material goods, rather than to each other, we lose the light of faith. We lose compassion. We lose what makes us human. We lose our ability to care for one another.

Caring for one another – through the righteous use of what we have – if we can bring ourselves to do that, if we can be happy with what we have rather than always wanting more, then I think the Rich Man in this parable will smile at us as well, will forgive us our mistakes, and trust us with his will, his riches, his love.

May it be so. Amen.

* Lois Malcolm. Commentary on Luke 16:1-13 at WorkingPreacher.org.

† David Lose in “Money, Relationships, and Jesus’ Most Confusing Parable” at WorkingPreacher.org.

‡ Facebook post on Kimberly Knight’s wall by Jon Altman, Sept. 18, 2013 at 9:04 p.m.

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Who Are Our Guests?

Sermon for September 1, 2013 – Luke 14:1, 7-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Seats are a funny thing. We all have our favorite chairs. Our place at the dinner table. Our spot in a meeting. And in church. Yes, I do know where I’ll find you on a Sunday morning. And where we sit says a lot about us.

There is a show on now called “The Big Bang Theory” and one of its characters, Dr. Sheldon Cooper has his spot on the sofa in their living room. No one else sits there. Ever. Or there are consequences. One of the characters, Penny, was banned from Sheldon’s apartment because she dared to sit … in his spot.

We are creatures bound by habit and circumstance. We are also creatures that know our place within the scheme of things.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus has been invited to a banquet at the home of a Pharisee. He enters the triclinium, the dining room, and watches as the guests begin to take their seats. He smiles a half smile, amused at the posturing and positioning. It’s hard for us today to fully understand the culture of Jesus’ time – it was an honor / shame culture. One’s status and position was everything

And so Jesus tells the assembled Pharisees a parable about a wedding banquet.

One thing we do understand is wedding protocol and etiquette. Weddings are festive and happy; there are seats of honor, which we can understand. The wedding party, for example, sits on either side of the bride and groom – best man and best woman, the groomsmen and bridesmaids.

The parent’s tables are usually front and center and relatives also rank highly. Then come friends and co-workers or associates.

None of us would ever sit where we weren’t assigned. We pick up our table assignment as we come into the banquet hall and dutifully take our seats at that table.

In Jesus’ time, there was still a pecking order but it was dependent on one’s standing and position in the community. Did one have a position of power and privilege? Well, then – one sat in a very nice spot.

Jesus’ parable warns them about making assumptions about who sits where. For indeed, the host or hostess could come to you and say, “I’m sorry, but that seat is for …” How embarrassing would it be to be asked to move? And so Jesus’ advice is to take the lowest ranking seat – because one may be encouraged to move “up” to higher honor. Rather than the shame of being asked to move.

Jesus continues in his seemingly inscrutable way, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Which to me sounds a lot like the last shall be first and the first shall be last, from Matthew 20.

Then Jesus turns to his host and says “Y’know… you shouldn’t invite people because of what they can do for you, but rather invite those you can help.” He turns the social contract on its head… For who would ever do that?

And yet, I don’t think he’s talking so much about actual banquets or entertaining in our homes as he is talking about being aware of how we treat people who are not in a position to benefit us. Emerson Powery, who is a professor of Biblical Studies says that “Jesus is not only concerned about what happens at meals. His teaching is about the way we treat others, especially those among us who unable to “pay us back.” In a modern democratic society in which public political rhetoric emphasizes that all are (created) equal, it is easy to miss the emphasis of Jesus’ teaching in his own status-oriented, honor-shame and hierarchical space.” And yet, we really shouldn’t miss the point of Jesus’ teaching, should we. We fall so far short of the ideal that says we are all equal, don’t we. We continue to struggle with equality, with poverty, with hunger, with education, with privileging status over substance. It really is about finding a way to welcome all people to the table.

When we make it difficult for people to register, to vote, we diminish the rights of all citizens.

When we will not pay a living minimum wage or pay women comparably to men, we diminish the self-esteem and empowerment of all people.

When we continue to buy into stereotypes and allow discrimination based on a person’s skin color, social status, gender, or sexual orientation we diminish the power of all individuals.

When we privilege men’s bodies over women’s; when we regulate women’s health and not men’s, when we perpetuate a victim shaming culture of violence, we diminish the worth of all women instead of lifting women up as equal partners.

When we make health care only available to those who can pay, we diminish the potential of those who can’t, as well as ensuring that our own costs only increase.

When we don’t give education the importance or financial support it deserves, we wind up with children who can’t think critically or pursue their dreams or become fruitful and productive leaders. We wind up with teachers who don’t have the supplies they need, and schools with classes too big for individual attention.

Do we recognize our own power and privilege? And what thought have we given to how we can use those to benefit or help others without asking for something back? How are privilege and hospitality related?

Where in our lives do we see people being hospitable? Are they extending that gift only to those who can somehow reciprocate? Are they ignoring or omitting particular groups of people? What do we do to include these groups? How do we make them our focus?

David Lose asks us to focus on nurturing. On how we can nurture a different kind of community, a community founded not upon status but grace and not upon what we can do for each other but on what God has already done for us.

As a nation, we reflected on the events of 50 years ago as the March on Washington was celebrated. We have come a long way. But there is still much to do to ensure we provide our own nation with respect, freedom, and knowledge for all – if we truly believe that we are created equal.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”

We do need to change our souls and our lives. We need to listen to the lessons of Jesus and to the love of God. We need to find that piece of inequality that we feel strongly about and do something to lessen its impact, to change its effect on others. Sometimes we do that as a church, sometimes as a community, sometimes as a family. But it begins with us, with the individual. Find your passion and you’ll find your advocacy.

Jesus advocated for the poor, the marginalized, the sick; those people the Pharisee would never have invited for dinner. When we allow God and the Spirit to partner with us, the lessons of Jesus can become a working reality in our lives.

May we each find our way to serving those who cannot repay us. Amen.

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A Very Human Prayer

From the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, July 28, 2013.

Luke 11:1-13

 He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

5And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

9“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

How should we pray? How often? When? For what?

Jesus’ followers ask him and he gives them an answer that most of us know by heart today.

This passage from Luke contains a version of the Lord’s Prayer that is not as familiar to us. It seems short and a bit abrupt. But it really captures the same elements we find in the better known version in Matthew. And there is even a third version found in an early teaching guide for the apostles called the “Didache”, or The Teachings.

We give praise to God: Father, hallowed by your name.

We ask for God’s kingdom to be with us, here and now.

We petition for our daily needs.

We ask for forgiveness as we struggle to forgive others.

And we ask that we not be brought to the time of trial – that we not be tempted.

We are so used to saying it, it has become rote. When was the last time you paid attention to the words, to the phrases, to the meaning or intent behind those phrases?

This is a prayer that has ancient roots. Roots that go back to the Psalmists and the Prophets. It is a prayer that is steeped in the desire of God that we should be stewards of all creation – we are stewards of God’s household. John Dominic Crossan* says that it “is a prayer from the heart of Judaism on the lips of Christianity for the conscience of the world.” It is both prophetic and poetic. It is both a call for restorative justice and a hymn of hope.

From the ancients’ perspective, we must think in terms of a household – from the household of God which is all of creation, down through each level of the cosmos, to world, to nation, to state, to county, to town or village, to our own households and our extended family. The idea is a household that is well-run, that is fairly, equitably, and justly administered. It’s about making sure everyone has enough; everyone has enough to meet their needs – not too much, nor too little.

If our household is to be run in a just manner, with enough for everyone, we must be concerned for those whom God lifts up as deserving special consideration:

The poor and needy – the most illustrative of our time and place.

Widows and orphans – those without family support, care, and guidance.

Resident aliens – newly arrived immigrants, new citizens, those who should be considered guests among us.

In Luke, Jesus prays a lot. His is a life of prayer. He is persistent in it. Jesus wants his followers to understand that in their prayer and through their prayer, they are participants in God’s commitment to inaugurate God’s reign, to bring God’s kingdom to the here and now. And he wants them to be persistent in their prayer, as well.

The prayer he teaches us is one that is personal, but personal within community. Whenever you pray it, you are not alone; you pray it with all who say “Our Father…” Our God, Our householder; Our Word…

Our Father, who art in heaven

We pray a prayer which makes holy, sanctifies, and hallows God’s name because God is righteous and just. We ask for God to guide and provide for us. It is a prayer which requires mutuality and reciprocity. We give and God gives; we receive as God receives.

Hallowed by thy name

We yearn for a more complete realization of God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven, for God’s kingdom to burst into our reality. We want heaven on earth – yet most of us need encouragement in engaging God’s word in our lives.

Thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven

We petition God for the sustenance we need daily, not just food and water but also the bread which gives us spiritual life.

Give us this day our daily bread

We ask for forgiveness for our sins, but even more importantly, we recognize that we, too, must forgive others who are indebted to us. Forgiving is a never ending process for us and one we find difficult, but for God, it is definitive and continues through past, present, and future.

And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors

Many of us struggle with the next phrase. Why would a good god lead us into temptation or lead us into the time of trial? Surely God wouldn’t tempt us only to have to save us? Our modern ears find this confusing at best, troubling at worst. When you hear the word “temptation”, what comes to mind? What would pull you away from the path set before you? Think about it for a second.

I don’t think temptation means what we think it means – at least not what we think it means today.

What was Jesus tempted with during his 40 days and 40 nights in the desert? How might the history of Roman oppression have colored the phrasing Jesus chose for this prayer?

Let me suggest that this is more about asking God for protection; about asking God to guard us from things that test or threaten our faith – especially through the threat of persecution. This is about asking God to strengthen us in peaceful resistance to those things which are unjust and violent. Would God want God’s kingdom brought to earth through violence or coercion? Our choice, and the one we want God to support us in, is the choice between nonviolent justice or violent injustice. Violence and retribution are the evils from which we want to be delivered.

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil

How do we pray? I daresay most of us think we’re not very good at it. With due credit to my former associate pastor, Tom Brown, we’ve taught our confirmation classes that prayer consists of PARTS, P.A.R.T.S – a device that helps us remember to Praise, to Ask, to Repent, to Thank, and to Share. Getting all those in can be really hard when sometimes all you want to say is “Thank you, God” or “Lord, help me” – both of which are acceptable.

Douglas Hall† reminds us that this uncertainty about prayer – the questions we have about the who, what, where, when and why of prayer – is exactly why the prayer Jesus taught us is refreshing and why it has remained a strong part of our faith tradition even as we’ve grown and changed over the years. We don’t have to remember anything that we aren’t already; we don’t have to try to be somebody else. It’s a very human prayer; a prayer that is for us for we are always in need.

May we pray it with intention, with attention to the meaning of its words and the comfort it can provide. When you can’t pray anything else, it will be enough.

– Amen.

*John Dominic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of The Lord’s Prayer. Harper One, 2010.

†Douglas Hall’s Theological Essay on Luke 11:1-13 in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors. Westminster John Knox Press.

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Martha & Mary: Distraction to Focus

This meditation is on the Gospel passage for July 21, 2013. (Lectionary folks: Year C, the 9th Sunday after Pentecost.

Luke 10:38-42

38 While Jesus and his disciples were traveling, Jesus entered a village where a woman named Martha welcomed him as a guest. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his message. 40By contrast, Martha was preoccupied with getting everything ready for their meal. So Martha came to him and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.”

41The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. 42One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.”

Such a short passage and yet it’s quite involved There are so many roles at play in this short passage: family, servant, hostess, disciple, guest, and Lord.

Mary and Martha are sisters. Martha takes great pride in her ability to be hospitable in the best tradition and there’s no reason to think that Mary is not her equal or her best partner in caring for their home and taking care of those who enter. They are very good a keeping a neat and clean home, welcoming guests, preparing wonderful meals to share. They take care of their own and serve their guests as best they can.

In fact, the word for servant in Greek is the same word from which we derive “deacon” (διάκονος) – one who cares for and serves others. Jesus, of course, refers to himself as a servant in other passages.

Well, along comes Jesus. He’s well known in the area and while Luke draws no connection between his story of Jesus, Mary, and Martha, and the story in John’s gospel with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, I think we can make the connection though Luke and John do not. Jesus is not only a friend of the family, he is a welcome guest in their home.

Now Jesus didn’t usually travel alone. He was accompanied by his disciples, and this instance is no exception. I’m sure Martha was concerned about feeding several guests, not just Jesus.

Jesus came in as their guest and began teaching. Mary was so enthralled that she dropped to the floor, sitting at his feet, drinking in all he had to say. She forgot her role as hostess and servant; the preparing and serving of their meal slipped her mind. She put on one of the mantles of discipleship. But discipleship can and is often manifested in the many small tasks we perform every day.

So Martha, very intent on having everything just so, becomes a bit frustrated with her sister. But instead of saying something to Mary, asking her to remember her role, she approaches Jesus – her guest. “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.” Great way to put him on the spot, isn’t it? In the world of hospitality, that just isn’t done, is it? You don’t make your guest responsible for your family’s behavior.

Jesus turns to Martha. He smiles gently and says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. 42 One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.”

Listen again to what he said. “You are worried. You’re distracted by many things.” And he continues, “One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part.”

His lesson is in those few words somewhere. He is not setting the sisters against each other. He really is not lifting one sister up over the other. He is giving Martha a gentle reminder of where her focus should be.

She has allowed her hospitality to become anxious and troubled; her worry has caused her to lose focus of the reason for her hospitality, Jesus.

Matthew Skinner* says that when Jesus praises Mary for having chosen the better part, he is referring to her singular focus on Jesus himself. “There should be only one thing.” He is not referring to one single form of devotion, but having one object of devotion. To be genuine, he says, acts of discipleship – or service – whether contemplative, active, or anything else, needs to maintain such a focus. He gently reminds Martha that she has become distracted from her goal of service to her Lord and guest. She was preoccupied with other matters and lost sight of her object of devotion – Jesus.

I think it’s possible that this story of two sisters suggests an ongoing request from Jesus to focus on him, to give him our full attention – just as we would give our closest friend. Jesus calls us to focus on him whenever we gather in his name. Today for example! He wants us to move from our own place of being “worried and distracted by many things” to one where we are in touch with that one thing we need – that good part which will not be taken away. When we reach that place, we will connect with the source that brings both peace and energy to all that we do.

This story is a gentle reminder that however we choose to live into our discipleship and our service to each other, our focus must and should remain on our Lord, Jesus Christ.


* Matthew Skinner’s exegetical essay on Luke 10:38-42 in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors. Westminster John Knox Press.

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Courage – Speaking Truth to Power

This is my sermon on the Gospel passage for July 15, 2012, Mark 6:14-29. (From Common English Bible). It is a dramatic passage and one that cries out for an emotional delivery.

Herod the king heard about these things, because the name of Jesus had become well-known. Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and this is why miraculous powers are at work through him.” Others were saying, “He is Elijah.” Still others were saying, “He is a prophet like one of the ancient prophets.” But when Herod heard these rumors, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised to life.”

He said this because Herod himself had arranged to have John arrested and put in prison because of Herodias, the wife of Herod’s brother Philip. Herod had married her, but John told Herod, “It’s against the law for you to marry your brother’s wife!” So Herodias had it in for John. She wanted to kill him, but she couldn’t. This was because Herod respected John. He regarded him as a righteous and holy person, so he protected him. John’s words greatly confused Herod, yet he enjoyed listening to him.

Finally, the time was right. It was on one of Herod’s birthdays, when he had prepared a feast for his high-ranking officials and military officers and Galilee’s leading residents. Herod’s daughter Herodias came in and danced, thrilling Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the young woman, “Ask me whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” Then he swore to her, “Whatever you ask I will give to you, even as much as half of my kingdom.”

She left the banquet hall and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?”

“John the Baptist’s head,” Herodias replied.

Hurrying back to the ruler, she made her request: “I want you to give me John the Baptist’s head on a plate, right this minute.” Although the king was upset, because of his solemn pledge and his guests, he didn’t want to refuse her. So he ordered a guard to bring John’s head. The guard went to the prison, cut off John’s head, brought his head on a plate, and gave it to the young woman, and she gave it to her mother. When John’s disciples heard what had happened, they came and took his dead body and laid it in a tomb.

Danger and arrest. Courtly intrigue and manipulation. Vanity and murder most foul. Why are these in the bible? Especially within the gospel of Mark; within the good news of Jesus Christ.

To be truthful, all these things are rather common place in the Old Testament. There’s some rousing and rowdy tales of prophets and monarchs, of war and peace, of capture and exile.

But it strikes us as being out of place within a story about our savior’s life. And yet…his life was cut short because of intrigue and manipulation; because of vanity. There was danger for him. And arrest. And finally death.

Do you begin to see? John the Baptist’s death points us to Jesus’ own death. In 15 short verses, it foreshadows and anticipates the fate of Jesus.

But why did John have to die? He and Jesus were cousins. They had similar ministries. Jesus came into his own ministry only after John baptized him.

If we listen to Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century, we learn that John had quite a following. Enough people followed his teachings to present a problem to the Roman control of the region and to the Herodian Tetrarchy. Other peoples’ repentance and reflection is a bad thing when the rulers want to control them.

If we listen to Herod, we hear a man who is concerned that John has been raised from the dead and now works within the person of Jesus. Others in his court think Jesus may be the risen Elijah or another prophet. But Herod is convinced; it is John that has returned. This would not have been unusual with in first century Jewish belief. This isn’t resurrection as we tend to think of it. It’s much more functional and purposeful – to have one’s character put to work in another.

It does sound as though Herod has a guilty conscience and we find out that he was the one who ordered John’s death.

Let me take a moment, though, to clear up a question of identity. This Herod is not King Herod the Great. This Herod is one of his sons, Herod Antipas. Herod the Great died around the time that Jesus was a small boy. And at his death, his region was divided between his four sons. Herod Antipas was lucky enough to get the Galilee.

So, going back to the history books, we learn that this Herod, the son, is almost as big a scoundrel as his father. He divorces his wife, a princess from an adjoining region, because he has had an affair with his brother’s wife, Herodias. The two of them marry and this is when John the Baptist enters the story.

John is bold enough to tell Herod he’s done a bad thing. It isn’t lawful for him to marry his brother’s wife. It’s the law. It’s in Leviticus, chapter 20!

And this is John’s fatal mistake. Herodias is no wall flower. She is a strong-willed, determined, and vindictive woman. For his impudence and meddling, Herodias wants John dead. But her husband? Well, Herod kind of likes the guy. He likes to listen to him teach and preach. Herod actually respected the guy though John could confuse him easily; Herod found him righteous, holy even. But with a harridan for a wife, what’s a king to do to keep peace in the palace but imprison the poor guy.

So Herod throws John in jail but he protects him from his wife’s anger. And that would have been that except for Herod’s own pride.

In due time, a feast is prepared for Herod’s birthday. The birthday boy invites all his buddies in the court, all the generals of his army, and all the elite citizens of Galilee. It’s a veritable who’s who of men in the region. Of course, there’s a party for the women, too – they’re just across the hall in another room!

For the entertainment, Herod’s daughter is asked to perform. Now here’s where Hollywood and the bible take slightly different paths. Hollywood would have you believe that Herod’s daughter is Salome, she who dances with the seven veils.

She’s beautiful.




In Mark’s gospel, she is named Herodias, after her mother. And in the Greek, she is called a “korasio”, a young girl, a maiden. Not a woman. And this makes what happens a bit squirrely to our ears.

I’d like to think her father asked her to come in and show his buddies what she’d learned in dance class. But sadly, she wouldn’t have been taught ballet. Close to an age where she could be married off, she would have known dances that would have caused Herod’s guests to, shall we say, sit up and take notice.

Our modern sensibilities are shocked by this – this poor young girl asked to strut her stuff for strange men. We would be appalled. And yet, there are modern parallels. Cheerleaders for pro sports. Toddlers and Tiaras. I’m sure you can think of others.

Young Herodias is applauded and her father is so grateful for her performance that he offers her whatever she wants – even half his kingdom if she wants it. The young girl is still naïve enough that she doesn’t know how to answer and runs to her mother. “What should I ask for? What?”

And her mother sees the opportunity she’s been looking for, a way to get even.

“Ask Daddy for John the Baptist’s head, dear.”

The perfect go-between, the young girl returns to the banquet room and even raises the ante a bit.

“Daddy, bring me John the Baptist’s head.” She adds “I want it on a plate and I want it right now.”

I can almost see her stomp her foot. A spoiled little girl learning her lessons well.

Well, what is Herod to do? In front of all his buddies, in front of all the movers and shakers of his corner of the world, he’s promised his daughter whatever she asks. He can’t take it back, can he? He’d lose face in front of all those men. He’d be shamed. Herod is devastated. He can no longer protect John. A guard is sent to the prison. And what seems like moments later, he returns bearing John’s head on a plate and presents it to Herod’s daughter. She, in turn, runs across the hall to present it to her mother.

This is a story of rejection. It’s a rejection so much worse than what Jesus experienced in Nazareth that it leaves us breathless in the scope of John’s suffering.

And I’d like to focus on John now for a moment. As Mark describes him, he’s a bit of a free spirit. Ascetic in the extreme, he’s clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. In Mark’s gospel, John was arrested some time after Jesus baptism but before Jesus returned from his time in the wilderness. He was a truth-teller and didn’t like the ruling powers or leaders of the temple or the synagogues. They were so wrapped up in ritual and their own importance that he called them nasty names and predicted dire fates for them in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

John is a truth-teller and he didn’t care about the consequences. His faith, his belief, his strength all came from God. And so he wasn’t afraid to tell Herod how wrong he was.

John kind of reminds me of the small hero of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. Though young, that child is the only one who told the emperor the truth. Deceived and flattered by scam artists, opportunists, yes-men, and those who feared him, the emperor was caught with his pants down, as it were, in public. The boy told him the truth without fear and without guile. “You’ve got no clothes on!”

This is the gift of John, and of Jesus. Both of them had the facility to speak truth to power, whatever the consequences.

It takes courage to do that.

Courage to stand your ground.

Courage to speak out.

I told a friend earlier this week that true courage isn’t necessarily being brave – it’s doing what you need to do even though it might scare the hell out of you. That’s also strength!

I’m amazed at the strength people have, especially when they are standing up to power.

I’m amazed at the courage of Anita Hill who spoke out about sexual harassment.

I’m thankful for the courage of Margaret Sanger who spoke out for the right of women to reproductive health care, for the foresight of Susan B. Anthony who worked for the right of women to vote, for Jane Adams who pioneered social work, speaking out for the poor and disadvantaged.

I’m humbled by Archbishop Romero of El Salvador who was martyred because he spoke out about government corruption and oppression.

I’m grateful for the courage of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont who continually uses his own standing and power to speak truth to others in power.

I’m glad for the work of Michael Adee and the Rev. Janie Spahr, for Lisa Larges and the Rev. Tara McCabe who fight for the equality of all people and for the right of all people to marry.

And, I’m grateful for Martin Luther King, Jr. who fought for the civil rights of oppressed people.

These men and women are prophets in their own time. Some see far into the future, and others see in the here and now.

Who are your prophets?

Who are your truth-tellers?

Who do you know, that like John, speak truth to power? With strength and without fear.

I hope and pray that each of us may have and use that opportunity to speak our minds and our hearts, strengthened and emboldened by our faith in God, reassured by the grace of Jesus Christ, and inspired by the Holy Spirit.

May it be so.

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