Monday, March 27, 2017

To See or Not to See -- Fourth Sunday in Lent

John 9:1-41
March 26, 2017

            When I was first living in Richmond, Virginia back in the late 1980’s, I received a catalog in the mail from a store I’d never heard of. The catalog was colorful and well done. The furniture and goods it was selling looked cool and relatively inexpensive, and along with the name of the store there was a Swedish flag displayed! Being of Swedish descent, this intrigued me. It turned out there was a physical store next to another magical place called Potomac Mills Outlet Mall. If you have not already figured it out, the store was IKEA. The catalog came on a Saturday, and the next Monday I took the catalog to work with me. I asked the other folks in my office about it, and I was told that Potomac Mills was a huge outlet mall in Northern Virginia. IKEA was located right next to it. Finding Potomac Mills and IKEA was no problem at all. Just get on I-95 and drive north for almost two hours. I would reach the outlet mall before I reached Washington, DC.
            I had nothing planned for the next Saturday, so I hopped in my car, drove north on I-95, took the exit that boldly declared Potomac Mills Outlet Mall, and there, in Swedish blue and yellow glory, stood IKEA. I had never seen anything like IKEA. Here was this huge, amazing store, filled not just with furniture but so many, many, many things. And it was Swedish! It even had a café. When I was ready for lunch, I ordered Swedish meatballs. It felt like Christmas at my parents’ house.
            That was my introduction to IKEA. I was so excited at finding it, and I wanted to introduce my parents to this delightful place as well. The next time they drove from Nashville to visit me, I showed them the catalog and suggested that we drive up there. We got in my car, and once again I headed north on I-95. We took the Potomac Mills exit and there was IKEA. My parents were as impressed and excited about this store as I was. It was in the late fall, and they were able to get some Christmas shopping out of the way which made them happy. They even found that year’s Christmas gifts for my dad’s office staff – something they put a lot of thought and time into every year. I don’t remember if I bought anything on that particular trip. It was just fun to walk around the store with them. As I had on my first visit, we ordered Swedish meatballs at the café. While we were eating, my dad asked me how I managed to find this place. I told them the story about getting the catalog, asking the people at my office, getting directions, driving my car north on I-95, and discovering a Swedish home goods haven.
            On the way back to Richmond, Dad asked me the same question,
How did you find this place?”
            I repeated the story a second time. Then a little while later, he asked me a third time. “How did you find this place?” I told him: catalog, colleagues, car, I-95, IKEA. He didn’t seem to believe me. I finally asked him,
“Dad, what part of this story do you not understand?”
            Perhaps my parents did not believe me when I told them about IKEA, or think that it was as cool as I described. But I took them there, so it was obvious that the store was real and not just a figment of my imagination. They liked it as much as did, so I was not exaggerating its coolness. I showed them the catalog. We drove in my car. They noted the exit number. Everything I told them was true. It wasn’t true just because I said so, but because it was demonstrably true. But my dad just couldn’t seem to grasp that I had found this store.
            My dad generally believed the things I told him, so I was surprised and confused that he seemed to have such a hard time believing what I was telling him them. Although he never explained his astonishment, I don’t think it was a matter of disbelief. I think I surprised him. Maybe he didn’t expect me to just hop in my car and drive somewhere new all by myself. Maybe he was still amazed that I had just packed up and left my life in Nashville to move to Richmond. Maybe it was not IKEA which surprised him, maybe it was me. Perhaps I did not seem to be the person I used to be.
The man born blind was not the person he used to be either. He was born blind, no sight, no vision at all. But one encounter with Jesus and he was no longer blind. He could see! Today we understand that blindness is not a consequence of sin. But as we read in our story, sin and sinfulness were considered the root causes of someone being born blind. So when Jesus and the disciples came upon this man born blind, the disciples responded to his condition with the question, “Who sinned?” Was this man the sinner? Was it his sinfulness that was the cause of his blindness, or was it the sinfulness of his parents? It must be one or the other. Blindness was the result of sinfulness. So, who sinned?
            Although Jesus’ response sounds straightforward, it bears repeating that every story in John’s gospel is couched in metaphor and has layers of meaning. It stands to reason, then, that Jesus’ response to the disciples is the same.
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
            Does this mean that Jesus was saying God afflicted the man with blindness so that someday when he was an adult, he could be used as an object lesson for other people? I don’t think so. I think a deeper, more accurate understanding is that the man’s blindness was just that, a sad but random happening. But Jesus knew that through this man God’s glory could and would be revealed. When Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman at the well, he spoke to her not just of water she could carry in her buckets, but of living water that would revive her soul. Jesus told Nicodemus that it was his birth, his forming and shaping, in and by the Spirit that would give him salvation and new life.  So too, this blind man would see. He would see not just the physical world around him, but he would see and recognize the revelation of God’s glory. 
            As one commentator noted, Jesus’ actions take on a baptismal quality. He spit on the ground, made mud, and spread the mud on the man’s eyes. He told the man to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. When the mud was washed away, he returned able to see, both the world around him and God’s glory. 
            Upon his return, the neighbors and others who knew him before took notice. “Wait a minute, isn’t this the guy who was blind?  Isn’t this the one we knew as a beggar; the one who’s been blind since birth?” 
            Some of the people believed that it really was him. But others said, “No that’s not that guy. It looks like him, but it’s not him.”
            Yet the man kept insisting that he was the one who was blind but could now see. He said, “I am the man.” A commentary noted that this man is the only other person to use the phrase, “I am” except Jesus. I am the man. So the neighbors asked him, “How did this happen? How did you receive your sight?”
            He told them exactly what Jesus did. He spat on the ground, made mud, spread the mud on my eyes, told me to go wash. I did and now I see.
            But it was suspicious. No one is born blind then given sight. The man was brought before the Pharisees, the religious authorities. An investigation ensued. The Pharisees, like the neighbors, asked the man how he received his sight. He repeated the story: Jesus, mud, wash, sight. Yet rather than rejoice in this miraculous healing, the Pharisees became more concerned about the timing. This happened on the Sabbath. Obviously, Jesus was not “from God” because he willingly broke the Law. No one who was truly from God would do that. But the man stuck to his story. He told the Pharisees exactly what he told the other people. He was blind, but Jesus gave him sight. He was blind, but now he could see.
            John tells us that the Pharisees are divided in their response. Jesus broke the Law, so he must be a sinner. Yet how could a sinner perform such signs? This man born blind could see. The Pharisees then questioned the man about Jesus. What does he say about him? After all, he’s the one who was given sight by Jesus. All the man will say about Jesus’ identity is that he is a prophet.
            The Jews – John is speaking of the Jewish religious authorities, not Jews in general – decided that it wasn’t possible that this man was actually born blind. So they tracked down his parents. They questioned them. “Is this your son and was he born blind?”
            The parents were afraid.  They were afraid of being forced out of the synagogue, out of the community and its fellowship. It was already known that anyone who gave credence to Jesus would suffer those consequences. So out of fear, they handed over their own son.
“We know that this is our son. We know that he was born blind. But we don’t know how he’s seeing now and we don’t know who made him see. Look, don’t bother us anymore. He’s of age. Ask him.”
            One more time the religious authorities called the man in for questioning. This repeated interrogation would be funny if it were not so annoying and so sad.
“Give glory to God,” they told him, “we know that this man is a sinner.”
This wasn’t an invitation to praise God for what Jesus had done. It was not a true call to give glory to God. It was a warning. This Jesus, this sinner must be denied, and any authority he might have, undermined. But the man refused to back down.   
            “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 
            To me this is the crux of the passage. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see. The man would not let them take that away from him. He would not let his experience of moving from blindness to sight be hijacked to accommodate the power driven agendas of others. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.
            The Pharisees could not accept this. They reviled the man. They accused him of being a disciple of Jesus, a sinner, while they, the good and righteous people, were disciples of Moses. 
            The man didn’t take their bait. He even took them to task for their lack of understanding. 
            “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to the one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
            That was the final straw. They responded,
“You were born entirely in sin, and are you trying to teach us?”
The Pharisees made good on their threats. They drove him out of the synagogue and out of the fellowship of the worshipping community. Jesus returned to the scene. We don’t know where he was during this lengthy interrogation, but when he heard that the man was driven out of the synagogue, Jesus went looking for the man who could see. Jesus asked the man one question,
“Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
The man born blind wanted to know the identity of the Son of Man, so that he may worship him. Jesus answered,
“You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” With that, the man believed.  
            The man born blind could see. He could see Jesus standing before him. But he could also see the truth of Jesus and his identity. The man who could now see also could see. To see in John’s gospel is to have faith, to believe. He recognized and believed that Jesus was the Son of Man. He could see with his eyes. He could see with his heart. He could see with faith. To see or not to see; to borrow from the Bard, that is the question. Jesus gave this man a miracle, and he gave him a call. You can see the world around you, but do you now see who I am? Do you see me, really see me?  I came into the world to be the Light of the World. You were blind, but now you see. Yet those who see, or think they see, are blind.
The Pharisees did not trust what their eyes, their minds or their hearts told them. How often am I like them? How often do I not trust what my eyes, my mind and my heart tells me because the truth of what I am seeing may be a truth I don’ like? How often do I make the choice not to see – not to see Jesus in the others around me, not to see the grace and mercy that covers me, not to see the Light because the darkness is easier to bear? How often do I choose not to see?
In this season of Lent and always, we are reminded that we are called to see – to see God’s glory in his Son, to see God’s abundant grace and love, and to see that we are called to share that love, to witness to it, to testify to the hurt and brokenness in the world with our own stories, our own experiences of God’s grace and love. To repeat the good news, over and over again. Look, look! I was blind, but now I see!
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

I Confess

Minister's Corner, Shawnee News Star
March 25, 2017

Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, 
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart and mind and strength.
We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
In your mercy forgive what we have been, help us amend what we are,
 and direct what we shall be, so that we may delight in your will
and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name.
Book of Common Worship, ©1993, Westminster/John Knox Press

            Whenever I get to teach a confirmation class – a group of young people who are working towards “confirming” the vows made at their baptisms and joining the church in full, active membership – I work with them to understand what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be a Presbyterian.

As I am sure it is for most denominations, central to our Presbyterian expression of faith is our worship. Our worship is our response to God – to God’s love, mercy, grace, justice, righteousness, etc. Worship is our human expression of love and gratitude in response to the divine expression of life, creation, and sacrificial love. As Presbyterians we do many other things – we participate in mission, in outreach, in service – but worship is central. Worship is fundamental. If Presbyterianism is a wheel, then worship is its hub. The spokes are all the other things we do; they flow from that hub and return to that hub. In other words, worship is it.

Our worship, our response to God, also has a center point, and that point is hearing God’s Word and Proclaiming God’s Word. Everything before builds to the Word, and everything after is response to God’s Word. Right about now you’re probably thinking, “Great, Amy, but get to the point!” Here’s my point: one critical aspect of our preparing ourselves to hear God’s Word, and for me as pastor to proclaim it, is confession. In our worship we pray a corporate prayer of confession.

Why confess? Most of us probably get the idea of personal confession. During a time of confession, we consider and reflect on the ways we have personally sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But in my denomination we put an emphasis on corporate confession – praying together a larger confession of sin and falling away. The prayer of confession does not always state something that I have done in particular. Yet, I still pray it, because I know that in a bigger sense I am connected to all of God’s children, both directly and indirectly. My actions or lack thereof affect others. Perhaps I don’t exploit children in unsafe labor conditions, but what about the clothes I buy and wear? Where are they made? Who makes them? If I buy a shirt that was made by poor children in a poor country, forced to work in terrible conditions because they have no other choice, is that loving my neighbor?

My answer is “no.” I also realize that saying that does not mean that my consumerism will be perfect. No matter how much I try to avoid it, I will probably purchase something else made at the expense of someone else. Praying the prayer of confession does not give me a free pass when it comes to sin. But it reminds me that I am called to be in relationship with God and with other people. Our weekly, corporate prayer of confession compels me to look at my life and my living in a different way, through a different lens. I may love the neighbor right next door, but other people in other places are also my neighbors. How have I loved them?

So I pray. I confess. I continually seek God’s mercy and grace, and I continually seek God’s help in amending who I have been and directing who I shall be. I do this, not just in own private time of prayer and confession, but alongside sisters and brothers in Christ in my congregation and around the world.

Forgive me, God. Help me be more fully the person you created me to be, so that I may truly and completely love your children, and more truly and completely walk in your holy and wonderful ways. Amen and amen.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Broken Hearts -- Ecumenical Lenten Service

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
March 9, 2017

            I am the mother of two teenagers. I’ll be accepting your condolences after worship. Actually, I’m fortunate and extremely blessed to have two great kids. But because they are teenagers, they are doing what teenagers do – namely dating and experiencing the rush of first loves. But we who lived a few years longer then they have know that with love comes the potential for heartbreak.
            When my kids were little, they would come to me with some sort of owie and all it really took for me to fix it was a kiss. But one of the hardest lessons I am learning as a parent is that there are some owies I cannot fix. While I thought that being a mom when they were little and needed me 24/7 was hard, being a mom and having to step back and let them make mistakes and get hurt and have life happen to them, has been infinitely more difficult and painful. Nothing hurts more than seeing your child hurt. And broken hearts hurt.
            Broken hearts hurt, and I reckon most of us would do anything we could to avoid them. It seems strange, then, that the prophet Joel declares that God wants the people of God to rend their hearts.
            “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.”
            Rend your hearts and not your clothing. A sign of penitence was to tear one’s clothes, and put on sackcloth and ashes. But God does not want that. God wants them – and us – to rend our hearts. This is not a new message or one that is unique to Joel. We hear this repeatedly from the prophets. Rend your hearts and not your clothing.
            What does rend mean exactly? Rend means to break, to tear, to rip. When Jesus breathed his last, the curtain of the temple was rendered into two. It was torn, ripped. To rend something not only means to break that object, there is the implication of violence. Clothes are not just taken off and neatly folded. They are ripped. They are torn.
            But God does not want torn clothing. God wants torn hearts, broken hearts. Why would God want such a thing? One of the ways I understand God is seeing God as my heavenly parent. We pray to our heavenly Father. I know as a parent that the last thing I want is for my children to hurt. When their hearts are broken, my heart is broken. Their broken hearts make me long for the days when I could just kiss away any hurts, any owies they might have. Surely, God our Father, our parent, must hurt when we hurt. God loves us so much, God willing to take on our flesh and blood so that we could find our way back to him.
            Yet Joel and the other prophets tell us that God wants our hearts to be rendered, to be broken. Return to God, mourning, weeping and with broken hearts. It seems to me that if you really want to love someone, I mean really love someone, you have to be willing to have your heart broken wide open. That’s what love does. It makes you vulnerable – not weak – vulnerable. The great risk of loving is that you might get your heart rendered in two. But whoever said that loving God, following God, living a life faithful to God, was without risk?
            Whatever our denomination, and I know that there are many denominations represented here today, we share one faith, and that faith is a risky one. Being faithful implies risk, because being faithful calls us to love. We are called to love God. We are called to love each other. This isn’t some safe, easy, cautious kind of love either. Loving God and loving other people is risky. This love is not a fleeting emotion; this is love with its work boots on. Maybe in order to be truly faithful, to truly love God and others, we have to let our hearts be broken. We have to rend our hearts wide open. We have to be vulnerable and willing to give all that we have and are for the sake of God and God’s children.
            This isn’t a feel good sermon, is it? How could it be when we are talking about broken hearts? Broken hearts hurt. It would seem that God wants our hearts to break, because when they are broken, rendered, completely open, then God can fill them and us with God’s abundance, with God’s light and joy and hope and love. So let us rend our hearts. Let’s break them wide open and turn again and again to God, trusting that God’s love, grace and mercy will fill our hearts with God’s love and make them, and us, whole.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Amen.” 

The God We Know -- Second Sunday in Lent

John 3:1-17
March 12, 2017

            I must admit something that may shock you. I am a pastor. That’s not what I’m admitting, but it must be said in relationship to what I am about to admit. I am a pastor, but I am terrible at remembering chapters and verses of scripture. I remember the stories. I remember the themes. I know the difference between the proverbs and the psalms. I can generally tell you in what book a story is found or in what epistle a particular theme or idea can be located. But I am lousy at remembering specific verses. My parents, however, can spout Bible verses with ease; my dad especially. One of the things they had to do as children was memorize verses. They had Bible drills. They would be called upon to find a book, chapter and verse in the Bible as quickly as possible. They also had to memorize and recite verse after verse after verse. When it came to memorization, my parents and their generation knew specific scriptures much better than my generation does. At least my parents know it better than I do. This rote memorization of scripture was out of favor when I was in seminary. What good is memorization if there is no interpretation or understanding along with it? But I think there is probably a both/and to be found here. I’ve often thought that I should take up memorization of verses as a discipline, but it can’t be just about memorizing. There has to be some interpretation and digging into the verse as well.
            Now that I’ve confessed that I am not a prize student when it comes to memorizing verses, there is one verse that I know so well I could say it forwards and backwards. I can say it in King James:
            “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”
            And I can say it in New Revised Standard:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
My guess is that just about everyone here – if not every single person – can recite this verse as easily and readily as I do. Even if you didn’t participate in Bible drills like my parents did, just attending church on a regular basis means that you’ve probably heard this verse more than once. Actually, I suspect that you wouldn’t have to attend church at all to at least have an inkling about this verse from John’s gospel, because this is one verse of the Bible that we see everywhere. It is displayed at sporting events. You see it on bumper stickers and billboards. John 3:16 is everywhere. But we only read 3: 16. I was an adult before I realized that verse 16 was part of the larger story of Nicodemus and Jesus’ words about being born from above. There’s a lot more going on here than one verse, even this most beloved of verses, can encapsulate.
I love this verse. I love this story. But I’ve grown to dread its appearance in the lectionary readings. Because dealing with this story means I have to deal with the idea of being born again. I do not relish addressing this particular concept; at least not American Christianity’s understanding of being born again. I say it that way because I’m learning that American Christianity has its own peculiar flavor in contrast to Christianity in other parts of the world.
I am into my fourth year of co-leading the ecumenical Bible study at the YMCA. It is an ecumenical study in the sense that we who sit around the table represent different denominations. But it is not so ecumenical in that just about everyone around the table interprets scripture through a more literal, evangelical lens. And then there’s me.
I do not see or interpret scripture through that particular lens. So when this story is brought to the table for study, or when the idea of being born again comes up, I struggle with how to be in community with people who see it so differently from the way I do. I would say that every person who attends the study regularly would call themselves born again. They all have a moment, a date, a time and place, when they can say that they accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and were saved. That is the moment when they were born again.
I don’t have a moment like that. I have some profound moments when I entered into a deeper relationship, more profound relationship with God; moments when my understanding of God’s working in my life was enlarged. I was raised a Southern Baptist. I was baptized as a believer. I went forward in an altar call. But even that was not a moment where I consider myself saved. No, I do not have that kind of born again moment. Because of this, I suspect that my friends at that table, who love me and value me, also wonder if I really am saved or not. So I dread that conversation. I don’t just dread it, I get my back up about it. I become Amy DeNiro Pacino.
“Are you talking to me? Are you looking at me? Do you think I’m not saved cause I’m not born again? Do you think my kids are not saved because I baptized them as babies? Do you think I’m not a real Christian cause I don’t interpret Scripture literally? Are you talking to me?”
One of the problems I have with the idea of being born again is that it puts the world into two distinct camps – those who are and those who are not. But is that what Jesus was saying? Is that what John was implying in the way he told this story? The story we have before us goes all the way to verse 17. God loved the world so much that God sent his Son into it to save it. In fact, God didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved. God loved and loves the world. God loved and loves everyone in the world. The world and its inhabitants – all of them – matter to God. The world was to be saved, not just the ones who claim a moment as their moment of salvation.
Here’s a second problem I have with our modern concept of being born again. Saying that you are born again seems to say that you do the saving. I accept Jesus Christ as my Savior, therefore I am saved. I make the choice. I make it happen. No, God makes it happen. God does the saving. So back to verse 17. God sent his Son into the world so that the world might not be condemned, but be saved. That isn’t just referencing individuals. Jesus was speaking about the whole world. The. Whole. World.
The Greek word for world is kosmos. As Dr. David Lose pointed out in his piece on this chapter, throughout his gospel John used the word kosmos to refer to “an entity that hates God.” The world hates God, so the world will hate anyone who comes in God’s name. God didn’t just love the world, God so loved the God-hating world. God so loved the world that rejected God, despised God, hated God.
This world might hate God, but God does not hate it in return. God loves it. God loves us. And God doesn’t just love us from a distance, God loves us up close and personal. God loves us intimately. God loves us so much that the way God sent his Son was through the very messy, very human process of being born. That’s how much God loves us and God loves this world. Even though the world might hate God in return, God loves the world. That is the God we know; the God who loves God’s creation, the God who loves us.
We can’t talk about verses 16 and 17 without also talking about the verses that were left off in today’s reading; verses 18 though 21. God loved the world. God sent his Son into the world to save it, not condemn it. But, if someone rejects the Son, if someone rejects belief in the Son, than that person is condemned. Does that mean that God banishes the person to hell? Or does it mean that the person banishes God from his or her life, from his or her heart? Rejecting God is about rejecting the light. The light came into the world, but those who reject God choose darkness over light.
The God we know is the God of love. This isn’t some easy, peazy, happy-go-lucky love. God’s love demands something of us. It demands us. God’s love demands our response of service and sacrifice. God’s love means that we matter. God’s love is for us whether we say we are born again or not. God is about love not condemnation. Our God is about grace and mercy. Our God is about judgment, but judgment that goes hand-in-hand with righteousness. Our God is about love, love for the world, love for us – all of us. It is not about born again versus not born again. It is not about us versus them. It is about all of us being loved by God, who wants us to live in the light of his Son. All of us. That is the God we know.

Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

False Promises -- First Sunday in Lent

"Popular" was sung during the sermon by my talented daughter, Phoebe Perkins. 
It was a planned interruption, and quite dramatic.
 Sadly, that drama does not fully translate to the page.
 Suffice it to say, you had to be there.

Matthew 4:1-11
March 5, 2017

            One of the challenges of preaching on this particular Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent, is that every year the gospel passage focuses on Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. It makes sense that it does, but the challenge lies in trying to find some new insight that I have not preached before. What new word can I offer you? What new message can I find that speaks to us today?
            I know that this not a new thought, but when it comes the story of Jesus’ temptation – regardless of what gospel I’m preaching from – I like to take a moment and think about what it is that tempts me. Is it money? Does power and influence sound a siren song for me? Or am I really tempted by the desire for the “good life;” you know a big, nice house, a big, nice car, etc? All those things are tempting to me, but is there something else that has the ability to lead me astray, to lead me away from what God is calling me to do?
“Popular! You’re gonna be popular!
I’ll teach you the proper poise when you talk to boys
Little ways to flirt and flounce, ooh!
I’ll show you what shoes to wear, how to fix your hair,
Everything that really counts to be popular!
I’ll help you be popular! You’ll hang with the right cohorts
You’ll be good at sports, know the slang you’ve got to know
So let’s start ‘cause you’ve got an awfully long way to go;
Don’t be offended by my frank analysis, think of it as personality dialysis.
Now that I’ve chosen to become a pal, a sister and adviser
There’s nobody wiser, not when it comes to popular –
I know about popular! And with an assist from me to be who’ll you’ll be
Instead of dreary who you were – well are!
There’s nothing that can stop you from becoming popular – lar
La la, la la
We’re gonna make you pop-u-lar!
When I see depressing creatures, with unprepossessing features
I remind them on their own behalf to think of
Celebrated heads of state or specially great communicators
Did they have brains or knowledge?
Don’t make me laugh! They were popular! Please –
It’s all about popular! It’s not about aptitude; it’s the way you’re viewed
So it’s very shrewd to be very, very popular like me!
And though you protest your disinterest,
I know clandestinely
You’re gonna grin and bear it, your new found popularity – Ah!
La la, la la
You’ll be popular!
Just not quite as popular as me!”[i]

            Okay, so maybe being popular does tempt me. It isn’t so much that I want lots of friends and to be everybody’s favorite – well, not everybody’s favorite. It’s that I want people to like me. I want people to appreciate me. I want to keep people happy. I do not want to make people mad. That is true in everyday life, and that is true in the pulpit as well. Popularity offers me the false promise that I won’t get under people’s kin. Yet, as I have said in other sermons, there is often a fine line between preaching the gospel and upsetting or offending people. The gospel is, more often than we care to admit, an offense to our sensibilities and our understanding of the world. So, if you’re going to preach the gospel, the chances are good that you’ll set someone’s teeth on edge.
            Don’t worry, I’m not about to launch into a fiery, prophetic sermon. There will be no yelling, ala John the Baptizer, about “you brood of vipers.” Not this week, anyway. Rather, I’m trying to get at the heart of temptation; what tempts me, what tempts you, what tempted Jesus.
            Dr. Karoline Lewis, professor at Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul, wrote that temptation is not just about something we give up. It is not about avoidance. I’m tempted by chocolate, so I’m just going to send the desert cart away. No, we have to face what tempts us. We have to look at it, confront it, take stock of it. Temptation is not just a one time occurrence. We are tempted over and over again. We may overcome it today, but that does not meant that the temptation won’ show up again – most likely in a new guise – tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day after that.
            If being popular is tempting for me, then I have to confront it. Why is popularity so tempting, especially as a pastor? Maybe I’m afraid that if I get too prophetic, too honest, I’ll lose my job. Maybe I’m afraid of doing more damage to the congregation. After all, we are a small, but mighty, gathering. But if I do not say what people want to heart, will we get even smaller? Maybe I want to be popular as a counter to the fact that I am afraid that I cannot do what God has called me to do. Perhaps I am afraid that I cannot live up to God’s expectations and your expectations and my own expectations. So giving into the temptation of popularity is a way to avoid, deny and run away from my own fear and self-doubt. Giving into my desire for popularity not only keeps me from dealing with myself, it takes me away from God. It pulls me out of relationship with God. Giving into temptation allows me to keep God at a distance. After all, if God and I are distant, God’s call and expectations might not matter so much.
            It seems to me that this might be why Jesus was tempted as well. Was he tempted just to be our role model? Was he tempted just to prove that he was the Son of God, the perfect human? Or was he tempted so that he could clearly see what might pull him off the path God set before him, so that he could recognize the false promises offered by temptation versus the true, eternal promises of God? Was he tempted so that he could understand how easily and how quickly God’s call could be subverted by those false promises?
            If Jesus was as tempted as we are in our everyday life, then surely the temptations the devil threw at him were as real for him as they are for us. Jesus was hungry. He was vulnerable. He was tired. He had been in that wilderness for forty days and forty nights. How easy it would have been for him to give in, to give sway, to all that the tempter offered. How easy it would have been for Jesus to believe those false promises? Yet, perhaps what Jesus understood better than most of us every do is that temptation is that which takes us away from God. Temptation and giving into that temptation takes us out of relationship with God. Jesus knew that what the tempter offered him were false promises. It seems to me that one lesson we may need to learn from this passage is not just that Jesus was better able at his most vulnerable moment to withstand temptation than we are at our strongest; but that Jesus understood the fundamental truth of temptation. Temptation is a false promise. Being popular won’t keep me out of trouble in the parish or in the pulpit – it might even land me in more trouble. Jesus knew that even if he had take up the offer to turn stones into bread, he would not have been able to feed all the world’s hungry people. Jesus knew that the temptations offered by the devil were false promises. And he knew that those false promises would show up again and again, constantly threatening to pull him away from God. Our temptations are false promises, and they threaten to do the same to us as well.
            But the good news is that no matter how many temptations cross our paths, no matter how tempted we are to give into their false promises and leave relationship with God, God does not leave relationship with us. The false promises of temptation can never overcome God’s promise of abundant life and love. Our God is the God of true promises and those promises are kept. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

[i] “Popular” from the musical, Wicked; words and music by Stephen Schwartz ©2003.

Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
March 1, 2017 

            The first church I served as a solo pastor was in Albany, New York. There were three Presbyterian churches in close proximity, so we had a ministerial relationship with one another. That meant we combined our resources for events and activities such as Vacation Bible School, Bible studies and special worship services like Ash Wednesday. The first year I served there, it was our church’s turn to host the Ash Wednesday service. Elaine, the pastor at one of the other churches and my good friend, was in charge of actually bringing the ashes for the service.
            As I was getting ready, putting on my robe, making sure I had all my ducks in a row, I saw Elaine pull up outside the church. But she didn’t get out of her car right away. When she did climb out of it, I saw her stoop down and realized she was looking for something. Whatever it was, she couldn’t seem to find it. I went outside to see if I could help her. When she saw me walk up, she cried out,
            “I can’t find the ashes! I had them when I got in the car. I know I did! But now I can’t find them.”
            She was close to tears, so I helped her look. We looked on the floorboard, under the seats, and on the pavement around the outside of the car. No ashes. This was long before the days of cell phones with flashlights built into them. It was dark, and the package of ashes was dark. They were nowhere to be found. I don’t know if this falls under Murphy’s Law or not, but I’ve learned that whenever you are trying to find some lost item, the more panicked you are, the less likely you are to find what you are looking for. We went inside and tried to figure out what to do. It was almost time for the service to begin, and we had no ashes. We couldn’t just draw invisible crosses on people’s foreheads. We had to have something.
I had an idea, and I checked it out with Elaine. Neither one of us were thrilled about doing what we were about to do, but we agreed we had no other choices. While Elaine robed and tried to compose herself, I ran upstairs to the church office. No one else was up there, and as quickly as I could, I pulled out the toner cartridge from the copy machine and shook out as much toner as I could into the dish that I used for ashes. That’s right, that Ash Wednesday we marked the foreheads of our parishioners, not with the ashes from the palms used on Palm Sunday, but with toner from the church copier.
I don’t remember anymore if we actually confessed what we had done to the folks who attended the service. It seemed awkward to tell them afterward, “Oh by the way, you’re wearing toner on your forehead.”
I can’t say that I’m proud that we did that, but one thing you learn in ministry – and in life – is that sometimes you just have to do what you have to do. The post script to this story is that as soon as the service was over, Elaine went back out to her car and found the packet of ashes almost immediately. They had dropped down between her seat and the console where neither one of us could see them.
I guess you could say that although the ashes were not actually ashes, they got the job done. They were a necessary substitution in a rather desperate moment. We were still able to engage in the ritual that was expected in that service, in spite of the ashes not be ashes. But it seems to me that this service, this day, is about more than just the ritual of having a cross outlined on our foreheads. It is about more than mere ritual of any kind – wearing ashes, fasting, giving up something or any of the other rituals or practices that go along with Ash Wednesday.
The ashes that will be imposed on our foreheads in a few minutes – and yes, these are ashes, not toner – are symbolic of our mortality. We come from dust. We will return to dust. As the saying goes, “no one gets out of life alive.” So as we move into this season of Lent, we are called to remember our mortality. We are called to remember that death is the great equalizer, and that our one sure hope is in Christ our Lord. If this is what we are called to remember, does it really matter what is actually traced onto our foreheads?
Maybe not, but how often do we substitute something artificial for something real? It seems to me that the overarching theme of Ash Wednesday is not only repentance, but authenticity. The prophet Isaiah tells the people that they do what they are required to do: they fast, they pour ashes on their heads, they wear sackcloth, they humble themselves but God does not seem to notice their right actions.
Isaiah denounces their piety as self-righteousness. They may perform right actions, but they are not living rightly. They fast, but they exploit the workers. They fast, but they ignore others who are in bondage. They fast, but they close their eyes to the hungry, the poor and the homeless. They do not seek justice. They do not live righteously. Their religious rituals are a poor substitute for the true worship God demands from them.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus warned the disciples about trumpeting their piety for others to hear and see. Their acts of righteousness should be done secretly. When they give to the needy, they were not to let their left hand know what their right hand was doing. They were not to be like the hypocrites who stand in front of the synagogue praying loudly for everyone to hear. When they fasted there were not to look miserable and pathetic so that everyone would know that they were going without. It was not that they should not pray or fast, it was that they were to remember why they were doing it in the first place. And they were doing these things, these rituals and practices, so as to draw nearer to God, and nearer to others.
Like toner instead of palm ash, their rituals were not a substitute for the real thing. They were to worship with their whole selves, with their whole hearts. Isn’t that the message God gave them again and again – through prophets and priests? God wanted their hearts. God wanted them. God wanted the people to truly be the people God created them to be. Their fasting and rituals were fine, but they were not substitutes for giving God what God truly wanted – their hearts, their authentic, true selves.
Why do we impose ashes? Why do we fast? Why do we give something up? Is it because we are expected to do it; because we think we should, or is it because we want to strip away the pretenses we wrap ourselves in and draw nearer to God? Lent is not just a time for somber reflection on our sins and on the ways we have fallen short of God’s glory. Lent is also a season to draw nearer to God by being more truly the people God created us to be. There are no substitutes for us. There are no substitutes for our hearts. There are no substitutes for the relationship God wants to have with us, and wants us to have with others. There are no substitutes for justice, for righteousness, for loving God and loving God’s children with our whole hearts and with our whole selves. There are no substitutes. God, who loves us completely, calls us to love the same. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The World Below -- Transfiguration Sunday

Matthew 17:1-9
February 26, 2017

            All good things must come to an end. When I was a kid, I hated hearing those words because they usually meant that the fun was about to end. I remember hearing them when we had spent the evening at someone else’s home, at a dinner party or just a party-party. While the adults would talk, we kids would play games. If it was nice outside, we would play out in the yard. If the weather was different, you could find us playing games in another room away from the grown-ups. It always seemed that we had reached the pinnacle of whatever game we were playing, and then we would hear, “Well folks, all good things must come to an end.”
One of the adults would have looked at the clock, and realized that it was getting late. It was a school night or a church night. Folks had to go work the next day. The kids needed to get to bed. The morning was going to be here quicker than we realized, and none of us would be ready for it if we didn’t wrap up the fun and fellowship and go home. The transition from a relaxed evening to the real world was in process. The signal was given. The message was clear. It was time to leave. It was time to say goodbye. All good things must come to an end.
But why? I don’t say that petulantly. I am just asking the question. Why must all good things come to an end?  Now, I do know that life is not made up of just happy moments. I know that happiness is fleeting, and that putting too much of an emphasis on happiness can be actually be detrimental to our emotional, physical and spiritual selves. The cynic in me says that anyone who wants the good times and the good things to go on and on and on is living in a fantasy land. That kind of life is reserved strictly for fairy tales. It’s not real. The real world is what it is. And we all must dwell in it.
Maybe that is what Peter wanted to do up on that mountaintop. Maybe Peter recognized Jesus’ transfiguration as a good thing, as a lovely moment and he, like an early Energizer Bunny, just wanted it to keep going and going and going. That has been a predominant interpretation of Peter’s actions when he was faced with Jesus’ transfiguration; his glorious shining up on that high hill. Peter saw his dazzling rabbi and wanted it to last. Along with this traditional interpretation comes the traditional head shake and tsk tsking at Peter’s impetuousness, rashness and his misunderstanding of who Jesus truly was and what Jesus was truly there to do. I’ve certainly interpreted this story this way, and I’ve done my share of head shaking and finger wagging at Peter. I relate to Peter. I identify with Peter, so it is easy for me to say, “Oh Peter. I understand what you wanted to have happen; but sweetie, you just did not get it.”
Yet I wonder if Peter got it a little bit more than we give him credit for. I’m not saying that he fully understood Jesus’ identity or the fullness of his ministry, teaching and work. It’s clear that Peter, along with the other disciples, did not get that. I don’t think that Peter clearly comprehended what he was seeing either. I do identify with Peter, and I know that I would not have understood the events on that mountaintop. I can’t even claim that I fully understand it now, from the perspective of someone who knows the “rest of the story.”
But I do not believe that Peter was entirely clueless. As I have pointed out in just about every Transfiguration sermon I’ve ever preached, this passage begins with the words, “Six days later.” Six days before this moment on top of the mountain, Jesus asked Peter and the other disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responded with a profession of faith. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus responded by telling Peter that he was correct. He was blessed. But Jesus didn’t stop there. He also went on to tell them that being the Messiah, the Son of the living God meant that he would suffer and die and rise again. Peter, being Peter, pulled Jesus to the side and told him to stop saying things like that. He was scaring the others. Jesus rebuked him. “Get behind me, Satan.”
Whatever Peter did or didn’t get, I cannot imagine that the memory of what happened six days earlier had left him by the time they reached the top of the mountain. And even if Peter did not fully understand what it meant to be Messiah or that God would choose to come into the world and suffer, he did live in a time when empires ruled the world. He lived in a time when opposition to the powers that be had dire consequences. He lived in a time when being willing to speak truth to that power, and stick your neck out for what you believed in, often meant that you had your head handed back to you on a silver platter.
Maybe Peter believed Jesus when he said that he would suffer and die. Maybe Peter understood that if Jesus didn’t stop or at least curtail what he was doing and saying, that he could wind up really suffering and really dying. Peter did not grasp the full reality of Jesus – as human and as divine. But surely he had the ability to imagine the trouble Jesus might land in, so perhaps wanting to build those booths or tabernacles was not just a way of staying in that glorious moment, it was also a way to keep Jesus safe.
There on that mountain, Jesus was safe. Peter and James and John were safe. There on that mountain, they were somewhat out of the range of the empire. There was no one for Jesus to anger or offend with the truth that he spoke. If they stayed on that mountain, if they refused to descend to the world below, then the consequences of Jesus’ words and actions could not catch up with him. Maybe Peter just wanted to keep his beloved rabbi safe.
However as one commentator put it, “We cannot keep God safe.”
Six days earlier, Peter could not listen to Jesus’ words about suffering and dying. Six days later, this was still true. Peter jumped in with a plan, but he was interrupted. He was interrupted by God’s voice from the heavens.
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
Listen to him!
Peter could not keep Jesus safe. He could not keep him up on that mountain. The world below waited for them. But here is a detail of Matthew’s telling of this story that I have not paid much attention to before; at the sound of God’s voice the disciples fell to the ground in fear. But Jesus came to them and touched them. He laid his hands upon them and told them, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
Jesus touched them. Jesus was not any different after the transfiguration than he was before. Whatever happened in that moment of shining glory was not so much about Jesus changing into something he was not, as it was about revealing the fullness of who he already was. He may not have been shining anymore, but all of that glory was still there. It was still him. All of that glory was in his touch. Jesus touched them and said, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
David Lose wrote that the message to “fear not” is the gospel. It is the gospel. It is the message that is repeated over and over again. Do not be afraid. Jesus refused to stay safe. He refused to stay on that mountain where no harm would come to him. He refused to avoid his necessary descent into the world below, and he would not let the disciples avoid it either. But I cannot help but believe that in his touch was some of the glory that had been shining out him only moments before. I cannot help but believe that in that touch, the disciples received renewed courage to face the world below. In that moment Jesus touched them and spoke the good news of the gospel.
“Do not be afraid.”
We are part of the Church, part of Christ’s body in the world. There are no mountaintops where we can stay safe, secluded and shut off from the pain and brokenness of the world below. We are called to be in that world, as surely as Jesus intentionally went back down that mountain and walked the path to the cross. And Jesus’ words to the disciples are the words we are given as well. “Get up, and do not be afraid.”
Hear this good news. Hear this gospel. “Get up, and do not be afraid.”
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.