Kindergarten According to John

Another Sunday of Advent, another lesson from John the Baptist. John dominates the scene in Advent, and it’s not always with things we want to hear. The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called “Gaudete” Sunday, or Joy Sunday. This is why we light the pink candle on this day, as it is the color for joy. (If I owned a pink stole, I could wear it, but since I’d only use it twice a year that isn’t something I bought.)

Our readings from Zephaniah and Philippians reflect this joy. But then John joins us on this joyful occasion. And…it might seem like the joy stops. But the reading ends by saying, “with many other exhortations, he shared the good news.” Although John might seem wild, demanding, and intimidating to us, Luke tells us his message is good news. How is this good news? And for whom?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Have you heard of the book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten? It was written by Robert Fulghum about thirty years ago. It contains a wide-ranging list of things that Fulghum learned in kindergarten that might just be great ideas for adults, too. An incomplete list:

Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush. Take a nap every afternoon. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together. Live a balanced life—learn some and snack some and draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play and work everyday some.

Of course, kindergarten doesn’t teach us all we need to know, but it sure does teach us a lot. And when I listened to John the Baptist in our reading this morning, I honestly heard more the stuff of kindergarten than the stuff of apocalypse. It’s easy to miss because it’s in the middle of John calling the people who’ve come to be baptized a brood of vipers and the threat that they might be thrown into the unquenchable fire if they’re not careful.

John is this wild man out in the desert and he’s scary and rough around the edges. But the people are listening. According to Luke, the crowds are streaming out into the wilderness to get yelled at by John. They’re not just willing, but eager to hear this fiery message. They want to live differently than they have been. They know that the way things are isn’t working so well for them. And so, they ask him: “What should we do?”

You might expect John to have a wild answer to match his personality. After all, this is a man dressed in camel’s hair and fueled by locusts. What do you think such a person might say? Give everything away! Quit your jobs, leave your families, and go live in the desert! Start a revolution!

But John’s answer is even more radical than all of that. What should we do? Share. Be fair. Don’t cheat. Don’t be a bully. It’s so simple, it’s easy to skip by it to get to the dramatic winnowing fork.

The crowds, eager for answers are told, “if you have more than enough, share with someone who needs it.” The tax-collectors, people hated for collaborating with Rome are told to be honest in their dealings. Not to quit their jobs, not to stop collecting taxes, but to do so fairly. The soldiers, members of an occupying, oppressive force, are told not to misuse their power. Not to take advantage of their positions.

And here’s what’s so radical about John’s message: faithfulness doesn’t always have to be dramatic. It doesn’t have to be heroic. John’s message of repentance, of re-examining our lives, doesn’t ask us to abandon our lives. But it does ask us to find ways to be faithful wherever we are, and whatever we do.

We’re having a baptism this morning. Fiamma is going to be brought up front and we are going to welcome her, knowing that God has loved her her whole life and that now she will be marked with Christ’s cross and sealed in the Spirit. We are going to celebrate with her the gift of baptism that we too share—the gift of forgiveness and grace and identity rooted in being God’s beloved child.

But first, we’re going to have an opportunity to do what John called the people to do. To repent. All of us, not just Fiamma’s parents or sponsors, but we will all be asked to renounce sin and evil and called to turn towards God in Christ. In her baptism, Fiamma will be joining us in our mission to proclaim Christ through word and deed, to care for others and the world God made, and to work for justice and peace.

In baptism, God sets us free from our self-centered ways to live in love and faithfulness. Our old selves are drowned in these waters, and God raises us up as a new creation. That is a promise that we need to return to again and again. Today we hear once again that we are the Lord’s. Our past mistakes, where we’ve done wrong, the things we regret do not need to hold us back, because in Christ we receive forgiveness. We receive new beginnings. And we receive the call to live as faithful disciples.

And so we join the crowds gathered around John asking, “What should I do?” What does faithfulness look like in my life, in light of this promise of God’s grace? Because this is a promise that we are all invited into. Wherever we may be and whatever we may be doing.

In business? Conduct it fairly and with the community in mind. At home with children? Raise them to love God by loving their neighbors. Teaching? Do so with patience and hope. Looking for work or retired? Don’t underestimate the good you can do others even without a job. Studying at school? Learn everything you can and put it to work to make this world a better place. Caring for those with special needs? Remember that of such is the kingdom of heaven (and give yourself a break when it’s hard to remember). Driving a public transit bus? Do it safely and well. The list goes on and on.

Faith doesn’t have to be heroic. That mission we share at the end of the baptismal service, to share God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world? It doesn’t have to be dramatic. Sometimes the most faithful and life-giving actions happen right in the midst of our daily lives. Treating others with respect. Sharing what we have. Taking pride in what we are called to do, knowing that even the most ordinary tasks are an opportunity to serve God. We find God, and we find opportunities to be faithful in the ordinary stuff of life.

And, in all things rejoicing. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” says Paul in Philippians, “and again I say rejoice.” I love that verse, but it so often gets removed from its context. Paul is writing this while he is in prison. And he’s writing to a community that is suffering persecution. And yet he says to rejoice always. He’s not talking about any kind of fake happiness or forced cheer.

He’s talking about the knowledge that in all things we do, there is the opportunity to love and serve God. We need not fear: God has claimed us as God’s own and nothing—including our own actions—will ever take that away. So what should we do? Rejoice. Give thanks to God and together bear God’s creative and redeeming love to all the world, in all you do. Amen.

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Cleaning Up

I have a sermon this week! I saved this five different ways to make sure I didn’t lose it, and it worked! (Of course, the week I take all those precautions, nothing went wrong at all.) This is my sermon from the Second Sunday of Advent, December 9th. Every year on the Second Sunday of Advent, we encounter John the Baptist, announcing the coming of the Lord. John was announcing the very first time that adult Jesus arrived on the scene, and called people to a baptism of repentance. This year, I focused on what those preparations look like for us, 2,000 years later. We aren’t expecting Jesus to come in the flesh, but we do watch for and anticipate the ways that God is active in our lives. Enjoy!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

How do you prepare for visitors at your house? Do you clean? Maybe cook a special food, or mix up a welcoming drink? Growing up, I honestly hated when we’d have people over, because my parents would insist that the whole house had to be extra clean. Including my bedroom, which no-one ever even went in. I didn’t understand why my room should be picked up and dusted and vacuumed, when the guests were never even going to get to the second floor of the house.

But my mother would go over everything with a fine-tooth comb. Literally. She would even comb out the fringe on the rug, so that it wasn’t tangled and laid smoothly. Growing up, I thought it was really stupid, when it was all going to be ruined the second the guests came in the door, anyway.

Now, though, I get it. When we’re having people over, apart from a few very close friends, we do our best to make the house look its best. We dust in corners and crevices that don’t normally get attention. We even use the fancy attachments on the vacuum.

But it’s not just a matter of straightening up, it’s fixing things that hadn’t bothered us before. A loose towel rack, a burned-out lightbulb, the creaky door that were deemed not a big deal before, need to be fixed for guests. Suddenly the countertops are too messy, the uneven chair inadequate, the silverware too tarnished. Preparing for guests demands self-examination as much as it involves a “to-do” list. Things that we’d thought were fine no longer seem so in light of guests coming over.

When John the Baptist announces in our reading this morning, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he’s not talking about just doing some surface cleaning. John’s announcement of the coming kingdom of God demands preparation of a different kind. “Make every path straight,” he says, “every valley will be filled, every mountain made low, the rough ways made smooth.”

This is preparation that demands we look, not just at outward appearances, but truly examine ourselves and our world and see what needs to be changed, what needs to be fixed, as God’s kingdom draws closer. It is very similar to Malachi’s message, where he says that God’s coming will be like enduring refiner’s fire, and fullers’ soap. It means being changed.

John’s promise, Malachi’s promise, they are good news. We are going to be reformed, reshaped, made anew in God’s image. But these promises might also make us apprehensive. Actually, they should make us apprehensive, if we truly listen to them. Because, while the end result is good, the cleaning process might not be the most pleasant. Because it means change. It asks us to put the way things are, the way we are, under a microscope and consider what needs to be scrubbed away.

What in your life holds you back from fully being the person God created? What in our world doesn’t fully reflect the ways of God’s kingdom? When I look at my own life, there are things that I would love to have scrubbed away, and maybe it’s the same for you. Selfish thinking, pessimism, being overly critical of myself and others. But there are also things I know should change that are comfortable habits for me: perfectionism, self-righteousness, competitiveness. I’m not so eager to have all the things that hold me back scrubbed off. Because losing some of them means making myself very vulnerable.

It’s the same when we look around at our world. It’s easy to name the things that we know don’t reflect God’s ways: division, hatred, racism, hoarding of goods and resources. But for those things to be gone, it means passing through the refiner’s fire: a beautiful outcome on the other side, but not an easy or comfortable journey.

Because it requires of us change. It means that the landscape won’t look the same when we’re through. Mountains will be made low and valleys will be lifted up. That’s good news if you’re currently stuck in the valley, but for those on the mountains it sounds awfully like bad news.

But God’s kingdom isn’t going to wait for us to feel good about its arrival. And that is good news. God’s promise is sure—we will be reformed in God’s image, and it will be good. No matter how we feel about it now. No matter what we may be afraid of now. When we are refined and purified as God promises, it will be good.

John calls us to self-examination and repentance, because God’s kingdom is approaching. Jesus is approaching, and we are called to prepare the way. But it’s not up to us to make every path straight, and every mountain low. At the risk of overextending the metaphor, God is like the houseguest who comes and starts to clean and straighten up.

Have you ever had a guest like that? The one that straightens up all the magazines on the coffee table or rubs invisible smudges off your glasses? That’s God, but in the best way possible. God doesn’t wait for us to get everything in order, to get everything clean and tidy and fixed.

God bursts through our doors whether we’re ready for guests or not, and God gets to work. Your life isn’t perfect? Neither is mine. But thank goodness God isn’t waiting for that! God draws near to us, even when we’re not ready. Even in our messiest moments and ugliest situations. Because God is the guest who desires nothing so much as to help.

We haven’t solved the problems of this world yet? We haven’t healed hatred, and reconciled with one another? We haven’t made sure that all people have what they need to survive? God’s not going to wait for us to be ready. God is breaking through into this world anyway, in people and places that we might not expect—like a wild man in the wilderness. Through people on the margins. God is filling valleys and leveling mountains one shovel at a time, whether we’re ready or not.

Prepare the way of the Lord. Take a look at what needs to be cleaned. At what rough places need to be made smooth. And get ready for a houseguest who’s ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Because God is drawing near and God is at work to reform and refine us and our world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

God’s Calendar

To all those who read my sermons on this blog, I must apologize, for I have lost not one, but two sermons to the computer gods this past week. I had written two different sermons for last Sunday, as I was preaching at St. Paul’s in the morning, and at our joint Advent worship at Zion Baptist in the evening. But that morning, my computer (several computers, actually) refused to open my morning sermon, telling me it was a “corrupted file.” Even the college student I asked for help told me there was no hope.

Thankfully, the computer was willing to open the sermon for Zion Baptist, so I simply used that one for both occasions. But on Monday morning, when it came time to put it up on the blog—another corrupted file. Which left me without a blog entry for this week! Which meant a great opportunity to return to a more topical blog post, instead of just my sermon for the week.

I’m going to try to be more regular about non-sermon posting. It’s a great creative outlet for me—I love to write, and it’s always fun to write when you don’t necessarily have to (like for sermons and newsletter articles). If you have a topic you’d like hear about, let me know! Now, on to the topic for today, the liturgical year:

At St. Paul’s, we recently tried a new service for Reign of Christ Sunday. Sometimes called Christ the King Sunday, this is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, before we begin again on the First Sunday of Advent. So this year, we had a service of readings and hymns that walked us through the church year, starting in Advent and moving through each season until we reached Ordinary Time in the summer. Because of the time constraints of our service, we weren’t able to hit all of my favorite festivals, like Reformation and All Saints’, but we did cover a lot.

Often people have questions about the church year: who created it? Is it in the Bible? Isn’t it just co-opting pagan festivals? Isn’t it Catholic? The short answers are: lots of people, sort of, sort of, and yes in the “little c” sense!

The cycle of the church year is shaped by the life of Jesus, so in a lot of ways it is biblical. It marks Jesus’ birth, ministry, trial, death, and resurrection, and teaching. It has also grown over thousands of years and has been influenced by things like the natural seasons (at least for the Northern hemisphere), the festivals of pre-Christian traditions, and the holy days of the Jewish calendar. It is used by the Roman Catholic Church, but also by Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and so many more. It is something that can tie us together across denominational lines.

To me the church year is like inhaling and exhaling. It is a rhythm so deep that we often don’t notice it’s happening. We begin in darkness and hope-filled longing in Advent, then rejoicing as one, then two and three and four, and suddenly a multitude of lights fills our existence. We begin Lent in winter barrenness, watching for signs of life that overflow at Easter. Through the long summers’ green seasons, we too grow and learn about being Jesus’ disciples.

Advent in particular has always captured my imagination. It is filled with ritual: lighting the candles, singing the ancient song of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Hearing John the Baptist call upon us to prepare the way of the Lord. Longing for God’s presence to be made more real in my life and in the life of the world.

We often speak of our longing as longing for light. This makes sense in the brief, sometimes dim, winter daylight in the Northern hemisphere. Romans celebrated the Feast of the Unconquered Sun during this season, and the Celts the winter solstice bonfires. The Jewish people light he menorah during this time to celebrate the continuing light of their faith. And Christians light the four Advent candles, increasing in radiance over the dark weeks. To long for light is to long for illumination, for our true selves to be made visible. To long for light is to long for transformation, to be renewed in the refiner’s fire.

Over the centuries, Christians have celebrated three Advents: the past coming of Christ born in Bethlehem, the present coming of Christ in the sacramental meal, and the future coming of Christ at the completion of all things. As a child, I longed for the baby Jesus and for my own delight in Christmas morning. As we grow, we long for different things: God’s presence in the here and now, God’s light to illumine all creation and to lead our hearts in justice and peace.

We never enter the church’s year of grace as the same person we were twelve months ago. It is always new, and yet it is always the same. Breathe in, breath out. Let the year flow around you. Let its patterns center you as your life moves and flows. And know God rules over all our days.

Give us faith to be steadfast…

Sometimes the assigned lessons for the day don’t seem readily connected to current events. And sometimes they do. This week happens to be one of the latter. We have readings from Daniel and Mark of apocalypse. Often we think of apocalypse as horror movie stuff. But actually, apocalypses were often written by and for people living through horror movie stuff. The apocalypse (or literally, revelation), was an attempt to reveal where God was still acting in spite of the trauma and grief all around them. So, may God give us faith to be steadfast…

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world.” That is the plea from the Prayer of the Day. Give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world. The prayers of the day are meant to, for lack of a better word, summarize the main themes of our readings for the day. Their main purpose of course is prayer, us thanking and asking God for guidance, for help, for faith and reassurance. But the prayer of the day especially also helps us to center ourselves for worship, gives us hints about what is to come in our lessons.

“Give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world.” Our readings today deal with tumultuous times and events. Especially Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple. It’s Holy Week in our story, and Jesus and his disciples have just exited the Temple, right after last week’s reading where they watched the scribes at their prayers, and the widow giving her offering.

And as they’re leaving the Temple, this unnamed disciple just can’t help sharing his awe and wonder at how impressive it all is. “What large stones and what large buildings!” he exclaims! I always get a little bit of a laugh out of this disciple, who sounds like such a country bumpkin. Also, hasn’t he been paying attention? Jesus has just been pointing out the ways that this impressive structure has been utterly failing to live up to its ideals and intentions. And here he is, distracted by its grandeur and size.

Jesus offers a swift rebuke: Don’t be distracted by things that have the mere appearance of greatness. But not only don’t be distracted, but be prepared, because the things that seem great, that seem eternal and unchangeable, they won’t always be that way. This temple will fall.

And the community that is first hearing Mark’s Gospel knows that only too well. By the time Mark written story is being spread around, the Temple has fallen. There has been a failed insurrection. Thousands upon thousands of Jewish rebels have been crucified by the Romans. And the Temple has been burned to its foundation stones. There is war, and there is great unrest. In the midst of all of this, hearing Jesus say, “Do not be alarmed at these things” must have seemed crazy.

“Give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world.” Those first-century hearers of this word are not the only ones living in tumultuous times. We can claim our fair share of that ourselves. Things that once seemed to be stable no longer feel that way. Sometimes it feels like the world is tearing apart at the seams. The wildfires in California are just the most recent, devastating example. Jesus’ words saying that these buildings, which we built to be long-lasting and secure will all be thrown down have an eerie and troubling ring. And on top of societal upheaval and unrest, we have our personal tumults. Events in our lives that turn everything upside down, that make it seem as if nothing will be right again.

And in the midst of all this, Jesus says: “Don’t be alarmed.” Don’t be alarmed, he says to his disciples on the precipice of cataclysmic change. Don’t be alarmed, he says to those first hearers of the gospel, living through war and destruction. Don’t be alarmed, he says to us, feeling adrift in the midst of large scale natural disasters, in the midst of hatred and violence feeling more present and threatening than ever. Don’t be alarmed in the midst of dealing with personal tragedy and grief.

Do not be alarmed. Put your trust, not in buildings that will crumble, not in humanmade structures that will fail, but put your trust in God. “Give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world.” Is a Christian to sit peaceful and calm while the whole world falls apart around them? By no means!

Jesus’ words are not meant to keep us from caring about the tumults we face, nor are they meant to prevent us from acting in response to them. They are a reminder that our hope is in something greater than this world’s struggles and tumults. That we live in joy and confidence, trusting the promise that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will also raise us, and will continuously bring new life out of death and destruction.

Do not be alarmed does not mean “do nothing.” As to how to live in the midst of tumult and uncertainty, we can turn to our reading from Hebrews. We’ve been reading from Hebrews for several weeks, and we’ve finally reached the crux of the argument. The “therefore.” Because we believe these things about God and about Jesus, “therefore.” Because we trust that God is always with us, because we believe that God is more powerful than hatred, than evil, than even death itself, therefore…

“Therefore,” Hebrews says, “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” Provoke is usually a word we use to describe bad things. If we’ve done something we’re not proud of, we might say that we were provoked. But here, we’re asked to provoke one another to love. To provoke one another to care. To provoke one another to good deeds.

In the face of uncertainty, sometimes we don’t know how best to help. Sometimes we can feel powerless to actually accomplish anything, or feel like what we might offer is too small or too insignificant to make a difference.

But it’s not. Small things done with great love are not small things at all. Our stewardship theme this year is “Faith in Action.” When we put our faith in action, sometimes in small acts of love and kindness and generosity, we not only make a difference with that one act, but we provoke love and good deeds in others.

What do we do as Christians in the face of unrest and tumult? We don’t seek to ignore or escape, but rather we seek to provoke. Provoke this world and each other in the best way possible: to love and good deeds. Provoke one another to care for each other. Provoke one another to comfort each other in times of trial. Provoke one another to be passionate in seeking the best for our neighbors. Provoke one another to confront hatred and bigotry. Provoke one another care for God’s creation. Provoke one another to love like Jesus.

Almighty God, give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world, trusting that your kingdom comes and your will is done, and always provoking each other to love and good deeds. Amen.

Resurrection Right Now

All Saints’ has to be one of my favorite days in the church calendar. I’ve heard it described as “a little Easter in the middle of fall.” It is like a little Easter–but without all the extra tiredness that accompanies Holy Week. It is a chance to celebrate the resurrection and what that means in our lives and in the lives of those who have died. Often, we talk of God’s promises for “after we die.” But those promises ought to affect our lives right now, too.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Many of you know, from conversations in Bible Study and other places, that I’m not a huge fan of the King James Version of the Bible. It was written back in the seventeenth century, and, well, it sounds like it. I appreciate its beauty and its poetry, but sometimes I feel like that very beauty often obscures what the words are trying to get across.

But with this week’s gospel from John, I have to say the King James gets it right. When Jesus tells them to take away the stone from Lazarus’ tomb, instead of his sister Martha replying “already there is a stench,” in the King James, she simply blurts out, “But Lord, he stinketh!”

He stinketh! Truer words were never spoken. Death really stinks. It literally stinks, as bodies decompose. Martha would know this better than most, as she and her sister Mary were probably the ones who prepared Lazarus’ body for burial. They washed him, they wrapped him in his burial shroud. They knew what state his body was in. These are tasks we no longer do ourselves, leaving them to professionals.

But no matter how far we distance ourselves from the literal stench of death, we cannot escape the reality that death still stinks. Even if we don’t have to smell the body, death stinks. Losing ones that we love is painful and heartrending. Even if it’s what we call a “good death,” someone who lived a long life and died peacefully. It still stinks because they’re still gone. And when the death seems to just be wrong—sudden, unexpected, gone much too soon—well, then it really stinketh.

All Saints’ Day, a day when we remember all of the faithful departed, and especially remember those we loved who have died this past year, this a day to acknowledge the reality that death stinks. That death hurts. That in death we lose something very dear to us.

It’s okay for us to weep with Jesus. It’s okay for us to wish that it had been prevented, like Mary and Martha. It’s okay for us to feel blame, to feel anger, to feel resentment. It’s okay to grieve. There’s so many emotions in this story of the raising of Lazarus. Because grief brings out our most honest, most visceral feelings. And that is a part of what All Saints’ Day is about.

But All Saints’ is also about something more than grief. It is about more than just the reality of death. It is about the promise that right there in the midst of death, God is at work bringing new life. We mourn those who are lost to us, but we also celebrate that in God we have the final victory. That death does not get the last word.

All Saints’ Day is a day to be honest about the reality of death, but it is also a day to be honest about the reality of God’s promises. And those promises come right in the midst of the reality and pain of death. In these beautiful passages that we heard from Isaiah and Revelation, where they say that God will destroy the shroud that is cast over the people, that God will swallow up death forever, that tears will be wiped away, that death will be no more, that mourning and crying and pain will be no more, and that God will live in our very midst.

Both of these passages, with beautiful words of hope and reassurance and comfort, both of them were written in the middle of death and grief and tragedy. Isaiah was speaking to a people who had just been conquered, whose holy temple had been destroyed, whose loved ones were scattered to the winds or lying dead in the ground. And yet he speaks words of hope of the day when all peoples and nations shall come together.

The church that Revelation was written to was being persecuted by the Roman Empire. Everyday more of their companions were being killed for being Christian. It was not safe to be a member of the church. But John still writes of a day when all creation, all peoples, will be renewed, will be restored. John writes of God entering into this world of persecution, and brokenness, and pain to bring new life.

Our world is full of death. Some of it, we experience on a personal level, those people whose lives have touched ours, that we now no longer have. But death hangs over us all, as we live in a world that seems guided more by hate and by fear than by love. Every day people seek to use fear and hate to divide us, to demonize other human beings, and to justify inconceivable acts. We do not have to look far or hard to find the stench of death.

But Jesus interrupts death with a word of life. He says to Lazarus, “Come out.” Come out of the tomb, and he says to the community to release him from the very shroud of death. Isaiah and Revelation they interrupt the death and destruction all around them to say that there is something more than this. That God is stronger than even this.

God’s promise of resurrection does not mean that we can deny the reality of death. But it does grant us the power to defy it. To defy death’s ability to overshadow and distort our lives. To defy death’s threat there is nothing else, no other way of being. Death does not get the last word. And we do not have to wait to live as resurrected people. God’s promises of life, of comfort, of all creation being renewed, they are for the here and now.

Isaiah and Revelation and even Jesus offer us visions of what will be. But they are visions that we cling to as God’s promise for us, right now, not someday. Right now God calls us from our tombs of darkness and fear to be renewed people. In Christ we see the God who is victor over death, and we are able to live as though the eternal were right now. Because in life and in death, we belong to God. We live as resurrected people right now. We live as people who hold to God’s promises of life, right now. We live as gift to a world that desperately needs to hear that death doesn’t get the last word, that death does not win.

I will leave you on this All Saints’ Sunday with a poem by theologian Jan Richardson:

So may we know
the hope
that is not just
for someday
but for this day–
here, now,
in this moment
that opens to us:

hope not made
of wishes
but of substance,
hope made of sinew
and muscle
and bone,

hope that has breath
and a beating heart,
hope that will not
keep quiet
and be polite,
hope that knows
how to holler
when it is called for,

hope that knows
how to sing
when there seems
little cause,
hope that raises us
from the dead–

not someday
but this day,
every day,
again and
again and
again.

 

 

Always Reforming

This Sunday, October 28 was Reformation Sunday, a day when Lutherans and other Protestant denominations commemorate the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Notice that I said commemorate and not celebrate. A schism is never something to celebrate, even if you believe (as I do) that it was ultimately necessary. But in commemorating this day, we do celebrate reformation in the past, present, and future. So what do you see that needs reforming in you, or our church? How is God working to do it?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I wonder if he was scared as he approached the church doors. Did he have any idea what was going to happen when he left his treatise on the door of that building? Could he have known that his life was going to be in danger? That the entire continent of Europe would eventually be engulfed in chaos and war because of this one act?

But still, whatever his doubts, conscience convicted him and to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses. Ninety-five claims, ninety-five statements, about God, about the church, about human nature, about sin and forgiveness. He put them there in the hopes of starting a discussion, in the hopes of amending things in the church he thought needed to be corrected. He put them there in the hopes of reform.

And so begins the Protestant Reformation, with this dramatic act of defiance and courage. Five-hundred (and one) years later, at the end of every October, we look back on this act as the beginning of Lutheranism, when Luther broke from the Roman church and changed Christianity, and the world, forever. It’s a great moment, made to be reenacted and dramatized.

Except, in all our remembrances, and prideful celebration of this event, we can so embellish this moment that we lose sight of what actually happened. Some historians think the whole thing is an embellishment, that Luther never nailed his theses to the church door at all. That he simply put them in the mail to his bishop. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but it would certainly take a lot of the drama out of the event.

One thing is certain, though. Luther wasn’t trying to start a new church. Eventually that is what happened, but that wasn’t his first goal. He wanted to reform, to change, to adapt the church that he knew and loved. It had made some errors, he thought, and through his ninety-five theses, he sought to make changes, not start over. To reform, not reinvent.

As we mark Reformation Sunday today, our focus shouldn’t be on celebrating Luther or Lutherans, but instead on the task that Luther boldly and courageously took up. On reformation. Our commemoration of this day should be more than merely praising our history. It should be earnest prayer that God would continue to reform Christ’s church. To continue to reform us.

Re-form. It’s a frightening word. Because if God re-forms the church, reshapes it, recreates it, it will not be what it was before. If God re-forms us, we will not be what we were before. And that can be a scary thought. Jesus is promising change, promising re-formation in our Gospel reading today.

He says that believing in him, and therefore knowing the truth, will set you free. The response is almost comical: “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone!” How quickly have the people forgotten their time in Egypt. Their time in Babylon.

But oh, how quickly we do it, too. “We are Americans and have never been slaves to anyone!” Well, at least some of us haven’t. “We are descendants of Luther, and have no need to be reformed, no need to be made free! We did that 500 years ago!”

But if we can just see the truth, we will see how much we are in need of freedom and release. That we need to be made free from our selfishness. We need to be made free from our prejudices. We need to be made free from our fears. We need to be made free from our self-doubt, from our self-criticisms. We need to be made free from the ways that we constantly judge others and ourselves. From the ways that we seek to justify ourselves and our actions.

The church, too, is in need of freedom. Freedom from an inward focus. Freedom from tradition for tradition’s sake. Freedom from worry and anxiety about the future.

Re-formation is a scary business. If the Son sets us free, as Jesus promises, and if the same Christ makes us into God’s way of righteousness, as Paul promises, and if God re-writes our hearts as Jeremiah promises, who then will we be? Are we ready to be something new and different?

The freedom that Jesus promises is not just freedom from things, but also freedom for. It is not just freedom from the things that will hold us back, but freedom for a new way of being. Freedom from self-doubt and judgment means freedom for relationships with God and others based on love and mutuality. Freedom from prejudice means freedom for community and care. Freedom from selfishness means freedom for others. Freedom from worry and anxiety means freedom for building the kingdom of God. It means freedom to experiment, freedom to try new things, freedom to fail.

To bring it back to Martin Luther on this Reformation day, and the central focus of the Reformation found in our Romans reading. “A person is justified by faith, apart from works of the law.” What does that mean? It means that it’s not up to us. There’s nothing we can do, or not do, to earn God’s love. We can’t earn it, because we already have it. And when we are freed from worrying about ourselves, we are free to spend our time and energy in care of neighbor.

What do you need to be freed from? What is holding you back, what is not letting you be your whole self, what is keeping you being everything God intended? And the second question: what do you need to be freed for? Who might you be if God re-creates your heart? How might you use your gifts and talents and blessings to serve God’s people and creation?

On this Reformation Sunday, let us be mindful, not only of our past, but also of our future. Let us remember with thanksgiving the ways that God has reformed and recreated the church in the past, and let us pray earnestly that God might re-form us today. That we might be a living church, renewed and recreated to do God’s work in this world. That we might be renewed people, loved by God and freed by God to share that love with all we meet. Amen.

 

The Eye of the Needle

The story of the rich man and Jesus is pretty well known as far as Bible passages go. It’s in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Matthew calls the man young, and Luke calls him a ruler; so sometimes he is referred to as the rich young ruler). As I say in the sermon below, it’s not a story we love to hear. But Jesus’ speaks an important word about the way our relationship with wealth can get in the way of our relationships with our neighbors. Let me know what you think. (And if you’ve ever moved, how much did it weigh?)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

When Tim and I moved last year, I got an uncomfortable look at just how much stuff I own. It was just a cross-town move, so we paid for everything based on how long it took, not how much it weighed. But when the truck pulled up, I couldn’t believe how big it was! No way that we needed that big of truck for our stuff. It wouldn’t even be halfway full.

I’m sure you can see where this is going. The truck was way more than halfway full. I asked one of the movers what he thought it all weighed. “Not that much,” was his reply. “Probably a ton and half.” Not that much. Just 3,000 pounds of stuff. And that didn’t even include the bedroom and dining room sets we’d bought and had delivered straight to the parsonage. We were probably looking at owning over two tons of stuff.

“Sell all that you have,” says Jesus, “and give the money to the poor. Then come, follow me.” And the man went away shocked and grieving, for he had many possessions. I am sure, without a doubt in my mind, that I have more than he did. I am sure that you have more possessions than that man did, too.

We don’t like this parable much, do we? It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. That’s not exactly what we wanted to hear. We’re not the only ones. Over the years, people have tried to soften the blow of Jesus’ words.

What does it mean to be rich anyway? Unless you’re Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates, there’s always someone richer than you. So maybe Jesus isn’t really talking about you and me. But, in the grand scheme of the world, everyone in this room is rich. Some more than others of course, but we cannot avoid the fact that when Jesus says “someone who is rich,” he’s not talking about other people, he’s talking about us. We are all this rich man.

Others have tried to say that Jesus’ command to “sell all your possessions” was just a command to this particular person, and he didn’t mean for everyone to do it. That might have some truth in it. After all, this man is clearly looking to go above and beyond normal understandings of righteousness. But that doesn’t change the second half of our story, where Jesus talks about rich people having such a difficult time getting into the kingdom of God.

And then there’s the most famous explanation of all: Jesus didn’t mean an actual needle! You see, there’s a very narrow gate in Jerusalem called the Eye of the Needle, and a camel could fit through, but first you have to take everything off the camel. So we must unburden ourselves before God. That’s a neat little explanation, except for the fact that there isn’t any such gate. There never was. It was invented by someone who was uncomfortable with this story, to make it easier on us.

But when we get down to it, this story should make us uncomfortable. It made the disciples uncomfortable. It says they were perplexed and astounded. After all, everyone knows that being rich, that having a lot of stuff means you have many blessings, right? It’s a sign of what a good person you are. But Jesus seems to be saying something very different. That having many possessions is not necessarily a blessing, but instead something that can hinder our relationship with God.

It is not so much wealth or possessions themselves that are dangerous, but what these things do to us and just how much we value them and seek them out that is dangerous. We idolize wealth and there is always the temptation to value it above all else. We see it as the solution to all of our problems. It makes us feel secure, and safe, and protected. We turn wealth and possessions into an idol.

Martin Luther, writing in the sixteenth century saw this problem, too: “There are some who think that they have God and everything they need when they have money and property; they trust in them and boast in them so stubbornly and securely that they care for no one else. They, too, have a god—that is money and property—on which they set their whole heart. This is the most common idol on earth.”

Something becomes an idol for us when we would rather depend upon it than upon God. When we put our trust in it, instead of trusting in God. The most common idol on earth in the sixteenth century remains the most common idol on earth today. We depend upon our wealth and our possessions instead of depending upon God and instead of depending on each other.

Oh, it might not be so obvious as it was with this rich man, but we do it all the same. It is so easy to think that things will make us happy. A new gadget or device, better clothes, a nicer car. And we certainly look to the number in the retirement fund to decide if we feel safe and secure.

It is as infectious as any disease. This man who runs up to Jesus kneels before him and beseeches him, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He kneels before him. It’s a small detail, but an important one. Every other person in the story who has knelt before Jesus is seeking healing, healing for themselves or for a loved one, or seeking to be free of their demons. This man is in need of healing, too, whether he realizes it or not.

Jesus’ pronouncement that he must sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor is less a command than it is a cure. When we are able to freely give away the thing that is controlling us, we take away its power. When we give away our money, when we lead generous lives, we chip away at the hold that money has on us. In giving up the very thing that we have come to depend on, we place our trust in God and place our wealth in care of neighbor.

I said earlier that we all are this rich man who has many possessions. It is true that we like him often fall prey to this idolatry of wealth. But we are like him in another way, too. It says that Jesus, looking at him, loved him. He loved him. Before he has any chance to give away his things or not, before he has done much more than ask a question, Jesus loves him. In that, too, we are all this rich man. Because when Jesus looks upon us, in need of healing in our souls, in need of release from our own selfish desires, Jesus loves us, too.

This all started with a question. The man runs to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Perhaps he has the question wrong. After all, what does anyone do to inherit anything? Inheritances are things that are given. They come, not because of any action on our part, but because of our belonging to a family. They can only be received, not earned.

“Children,” says Jesus, “how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God.” Children. For that is what we are to God, named and claimed as such in our baptisms. Children. Heirs to God’s kingdom. Inheritors of eternal life. Not because we have done anything. But because God loves us. Sell what you own and give the money to the poor. It is a blessing, not just a command. Because God loves you, and God doesn’t want you to be captive to money or things. But instead be captive to God in love. Find your hope and your security and your safety in God, who is our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

 

Relationships

The Gospel text for yesterday, Mark 10:2-16, deals with some difficult topics. Namely, divorce. It’s a difficult reading for us, because Jesus seems to leave very little wiggle room in talking about divorce. But taking a step back and asking some questions can help. What was divorce like when Jesus lived? And, what is the context for this conversation. The first I answer in my sermon. As for the second, well, we’ve been reading straight through Mark lately. So the context for this conversation is Jesus’ discussions with the disciples about caring for the “little ones”–the vulnerable members of society. That should certainly color how we read Jesus’ comments on divorce.

This is a difficult passage. If you’d like to talk, know that my door is always open.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Have you ever asked someone a question, and then they talked for a while in response and maybe said some nice or interesting things, but then eventually you realized that they never answered your question in the first place? Maybe they talked about things that were sort of related, but never actually came to the point?

I wonder if that’s how the Pharisees feel in this Gospel reading. They test Jesus with a question. They’re trying to get him to trip up. They ask if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. And Jesus returns the question to them, and Jesus talks for a while, but he never actually answers the question himself. He reframes it. The Pharisees want to talk about the legality of divorce. Jesus wants to talk about God’s intentions for human relationships. And though these two things are intimately linked together, they’re not the same.

This is an emotionally charged text for us. We need to admit that upfront. You would be hard pressed to find an individual who has not been personally impacted by divorce, either their own, or a family member’s or friend’s. And passages like these in the Bible have been used to add shame to an already immensely difficult situation. Because of that, we’re tempted to rush over these passages, not wanting to bring up the hurt and embarrassment. But, that makes it even more important to take a hard look at this and to try to see what it really says.

I’d like to first look at what this text does have to say about divorce, but then, and more importantly, at what this passage says about relationships. It’s important to know that divorce in Jesus’ time wasn’t exactly like divorce in our time. Marriage wasn’t the same—marriages were usually arranged, and often arranged for economic reasons, rather than romantic ones.

And the Pharisees’ question, “can a man divorce his wife?” is telling, because only men could initiate divorces. If a woman was in an unhappy marriage; if her husband was committing adultery or hurting her, she had no recourse. But if a man was displeased with his wife, he could write her a certificate of dismissal and send her away. The woman and any children they had were left to the mercy of her male relatives. It was an incredibly vulnerable position to be in. Women were seen as expendable, something that could be dismissed and discarded.

And Jesus sees this for what it is and says that it is not good. It is not the way that things are meant to be. People are not meant to be expendable. Jesus speaks honestly about the trauma that divorce causes. It is an example of creation torn asunder from God’s intention for it. It causes immeasurable pain to the people involved. But none of that has to do with whether it’s legal or not. When you get right down to it, Jesus isn’t nearly as concerned with the legal grounds for divorce as he is concerned with our relationships with one another. With how we treat one another. In this time and place, divorce was being used to treat people poorly. It was not at all being used to care for the little ones, to care for the vulnerable. Instead, it was exploiting them.

Jesus turns the conversation to creation, to the purpose for relationships in the first place. In our reading from Genesis we heard that God realized, “it is not good for the man to be alone.” We were created from the very beginning as relational beings. We need each other. While we might like to assert that independence is a virtue, that we can do this on our own, God tells us it’s the opposite.

We are created to be in relationship with one another. Marriage is one of the many ways that we use relationship to build community. These readings are very marriage-centric, but it isn’t the only way that we support and uphold each other. And these words that Jesus speaks about marriage are also important for us to hear concerning other relationships, too.

What is God’s vision for our relationships? For our marriages, for our friendships, for our familial bonds? Respect, mutuality, compassion, companionship. God says that God is going to make the man a helper as his partner. Did you know that that word helper, here used for the woman, is most often used to describe God in the Bible? We hear it in one of the most quoted verses of the Psalms: “I look to the hills, from where is my help to come? My help is from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”

To say that the woman is the man’s helper should not imply that the woman is less than the man, although it is often read that way. We are all meant to be helpers for one another. To act in the way of God to one another. To act with love, to act with support, to act with accountability. The way that God intended our relationships, people are not expendable, but valued, respected, encouraged, and loved.

When those things aren’t there, especially when mutual respect is gone, the relationship is no longer what God wants for us. And in married relationships that sometimes means that divorce is the right thing. When the relationship is already torn asunder by selfishness, deception, violence, or disrespect, divorce can be the best thing for everyone involved. It can be a step towards reclaiming self-worth and dignity and respect. And yet we know that even when it is the right decision, it is still a painful decision. It still hurts the people involved.

And so, it grieves the heart of God. Not because some legal standard has been broken, but because of the damage done to God’s beloved children. For Jesus, divorce is not the personal failing of isolated individuals, but rather one example of creation torn asunder from God’s intention for it. And it is certainly not the only way that we as human beings hurt each other and hurt God’s creation.

When we treat each other as things to be used or exploited for our own ends, we tear asunder God’s purposes. When we value certain people or certain abilities over others, we tear asunder God’s purposes. When we look at another’s face and do not see the face of God reflected in them, we tear asunder God’s purposes.

We don’t always live up to our purposes as God’s people. None of us do. And because God cares so deeply for us, and for our well-being, God is grieved. We are not yet the people that God created us to be. But in God’s grace, in our baptisms, we are recreated as children of God. Children. Those to whom Jesus says the kingdom of God belongs. Vulnerable ones. Ones who depend on others. Ones who need others.

Our human promises fail sometimes. But God’s promises never fail. God promises us that we are God’s children. God promises us new starts and new beginnings when we have failed. God promises to be with us in the midst of relationships that are not what they should be, relationships that it might be best to leave.

And God dreams of a day when we all live the way that God intended. In support, in love, in respect for one another. Valuing each other. We’re not there yet. But by the grace of God we can continue trying. And we can trust on that one relationship that will never fail. Our relationship with God, who values, loves, supports, and cares for each of us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Stumbling into Grace

What do we do with texts where Jesus is saying some frankly disturbing things? Like, “cut off your hand/tear our your eye or you will burn in hell” kind of disturbing? As I talk about in my sermon below, I don’t take these texts literally. And I think they probably made more immediate sense to Jesus’ first-century audience than they do today. But, we’re not well served by ignoring such statements just because we think they’re metaphor or hyperbole. Because if we don’t engage these difficult texts, the only people talking about them will be those who do take them literally and who use them to do harm to others. So, as always…let me know what you think in the comments.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off…and if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell.” The Gospel of the Lord.

A few years ago on the TV show Grey’s Anatomy, a patient arrived in the emergency room because his roommate had found him trying to saw off his own foot. He was convinced that his foot was causing him to stumble, leading him in sinful ways, and he took this verse from Jesus 100 percent literally and tried to cut it off.

They got the one doctor who knew anything about the Bible to talk to him, and she tried to explain that she didn’t think Jesus meant for this man to hurt himself. It was one of the thousands of times in watching Grey’s Anatomy that I’ve thought, “This hospital needs a chaplain!” That man, in addition to needing medical care and psychiatric care, would have benefited from some spiritual care.

The doctor was right, though. These extreme, graphic words of Jesus aren’t meant to be taken literally. They’re hyperbole, a way of super-exaggeration to make a point. Jesus does not want us to hurt ourselves. But just because these words of Jesus aren’t meant to be taken literally, that does not mean they aren’t meant to be taken seriously. Jesus knew that this would raise some eyebrows. He knew that this was over-the-top speech. He did it because he wanted to get the disciples’ attention. What he was saying was important!

And the context of these hyperbolic statements matter, too. It comes right on the heels of our reading from last week. Jesus is holding a child and teaching the disciples about welcoming vulnerable people. John, seemingly interrupting him, tells Jesus about how he and the other disciples tried to stop someone who was healing others in Jesus’ name because “he wasn’t one of us.”

Jesus’ response leaves no room for misinterpretation: do not put up roadblocks to other peoples’ faith. Do not cause a little one to stumble in the faith. And just to show how seriously he intends this: it would be better for you to cut off your hand, or cut off your foot, or cut out your eye, than to do such a thing. Better to be maimed than to cause another to stumble.

Jesus wants our full attention here. He wants us to take seriously the effect that our actions have on other people. There are worse things than losing a body part, he says. It would be worse to be cut off from God. It would be worse to be responsible for someone else losing their faith. Our actions have consequences in other people’s lives for far longer than we might realize. If you have ever been hurt by another person, it can take years and decades to recover from the trauma. A little trip, a little stumble, can lead to a big fall. And Jesus is calling on his disciples and on us to take those consequences seriously.

So what are the stumbling blocks that we put in others’ paths? Sometimes in our own path, too. Jealousy, competition, a selfish desire for control. The readings this morning are full of it. In Numbers, when Moses and the people are fed up with one another, God decides that Moses will share the spirit of leadership with seventy others. They gather in the tent of meeting and the Holy Spirit comes upon them and they prophesy.

Except for Eldad and Medad. They missed the meeting for some reason. But no matter, because the Spirit found them where they were, and they too prophesied. But Joshua, Moses’ assistant and eventual successor, sees this and runs and tells Moses: stop them! They weren’t with us in the tent, they shouldn’t be prophesying! He can’t handle the idea that God was at work in ways that he didn’t understand. In ways that he wasn’t a part of.

It’s the same with the disciples. John says to Jesus, “We tried to stop someone from casting out demons in your name because he did not follow us.” We tried to stop someone who was relieving pain and suffering, who was giving new life and new opportunities, because he was not one of us.

Moses and Jesus have the same response to these roadblocks being put up. Don’t try to stop people from the good they are doing, just because they aren’t part of your group. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets!” Moses says.

In a world that is more polarized than ever, along every dimension, can we imagine that God is at work in and through someone who bears the name of Christ but who disagrees with us? Can we accept a cup of cold water from someone who does not follow in our way of thinking? Who is not part of “our” group?

Can we take a step back with Jesus and take seriously the way that our actions have long lasting effects on other people? Even if they’re people we disagree with? Even if they’re people we’re never going to meet? What if, instead of trying to stop others, trying to hinder others, we were able to say this:

“Lord, we saw some people who were casting out demons, or working for justice, or advocating for the homeless, or caring for veterans, and more all in your name. They do not follow us. In fact, we really disagree with them. But we did not stop them.” What if, instead of seeing other people who we don’t agree with, we were able to see the God who is at work in them, despite our differences? Perhaps it could be a starting point to have real dialogue, where we listen to one another. Where we take seriously the ways our actions can hurt one another.

Jesus says to cut off whatever is causing you to sin. You could cut off your hand, or your foot, but your sin would remain. Those are just metaphors. But what if we could cut off what is really causing our sin? Cut off our pride, our prejudices, cut off our fear of change, cut off our need for control. Go in with a surgeon’s scalpel and excise the things that keep us from accepting even a cup of cold water from someone we disagree with? I’m too much of a realist—and too much of a Lutheran—to think that we could ever cut it all out. We are human, and to be human is to have to struggle with our faults and with our selfishness.

But even if we can’t ever get all those stumbling blocks out of us, I know this: God will not be limited by them. God will not be limited by our prejudices, God will not be limited by our fears, God will not be limited by our pride and jealousy. Because the Spirit is at work in people that we think aren’t qualified. The Spirit is at work in people we turn away from. The Spirit is at work in people that don’t look or think or talk or vote like us. And the Spirit is at work in you and me, too.

We don’t have to try to control God’s Holy Spirit, to control grace. No matter how hard we try, we won’t be able to. Grace doesn’t need to be controlled, and neither does God’s Spirit. Because the more they are shared, the more they abound. In places we don’t expect.  In people we don’t expect. In moments we don’t expect. We can try to put a stumbling block in front of grace, but it will not be held down. We can try to contain God’s Spirit to those we think deserve it, but it will not be held back. God’s grace is for all, and God’s Spirit is for all people. And that is the Gospel of the Lord. Amen.

Any Questions?

When we don’t talk about the important things–the things we need to talk about–we end up fighting about silly things. This is true of the disciples and it remains true today. (See the Gospel for yesterday, Mark 9:30-37.) So…do you have any questions?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“Any questions?” the teaching assistant of my astronomy lab asked, after she’d explained our first lab. I had so many questions. I’d taken this class my first semester in college to fulfill my physical science requirement. Science, and physics in particular, had never been my strong suit, so I thought astronomy might be a good fit. It was intro level, and I already knew most of my constellations, so this would be perfect. Turns out it was much more about physics than constellations.

But as I looked around the lab in confusion, everyone else was just getting to work. No one had any questions. So I never raised my hand. I pretended that I knew what was going on and let my lab partner carry me through the practical portions of class.

Have you ever been there? Being desperately confused and unsure of what’s happening, but you feel like you can’t ask questions? We’re always told that there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but still we don’t like to ask sometimes. We don’t like to reveal our ignorance, our lack of understanding. We assume that we’re the only ones who don’t get it, when that might not be true. Maybe others are just as scared as we are to ask.

It’s even harder when our questions are about things we think we should already know. Or things we think we shouldn’t have questions about in the first place. Often religion falls into this category. We think it’s somehow unfaithful to ask questions. That doing so reveals our doubts or lack of belief.

Maybe that’s why the disciples didn’t ask Jesus their questions. Jesus has just said for the second time that he would be handed over to the authorities, and be killed, and be resurrected. The scripture tells us that the disciples “did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

Maybe they thought they should understand. After all, this is the second time he’s told them. Maybe they were afraid of looking stupid. Maybe they didn’t want to be thought unfaithful. Maybe, they were afraid of what the answers might be.

I wonder what would have happened had they asked their questions. What might they have been? How do you know that this is going to happen, Jesus? Why do you have to die? Who is going to hand you over? What is going to happen to us?

But instead of talking about these important things, big questions, they start debating who is the greatest. I’d love to be a fly on the wall for that conversation. What criteria were they using to measure great discipleship? From Jesus’ response, we get the sense that they weren’t the right ones.

But it’s important for us to notice that this conversation about greatness, this posturing and debate, it only comes about because the disciples ignore their real questions. They refuse to ask Jesus what they really need to. And they’re left to their silly debate.

When we are not willing to engage what’s really important, we end up engaging in petty squabbles instead. The author of James would call it setting our minds on human things, instead of divine things. “Such wisdom does not come from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish,” he writes, going on to say “for where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.”

The disciples are living this out. Because they are too scared or too embarrassed to focus on what matters, they instead focus on their own envy and ambitions. How often do we do the same? How often would we be silent and embarrassed if Jesus asked us what we we’ve been talking about?

Have we been talking about how our company treats its employees, or are we instead focused on profit margins and bonuses? Have we been talking about how school board decisions affect the most vulnerable students, or are we instead focused on test scores? Have we been talking about how the church can be a safe space for the most vulnerable, can be a leading voice in working for justice, or are we instead focused on attendance and giving numbers?

The important conversations are often the hard conversations to have. Maybe that’s why we sometimes avoid them. These conversations—about what we value, what we stand for, what we’re willing to sacrifice—they ruffle feathers. But we can’t avoid them. To avoid these difficult questions and conversations leaves us like the disciples, missing the point and arguing about trivia.

Lest we turn these conversations into just one more competition, trying to prove who is right and who is wrong, Jesus has a word of caution: start with serving. Start with putting yourself last. As James says, “be peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” Listen to one another, seek understanding.

Jesus brings it concretely home to the disciples: if you want to be the greatest, the first, the most important, you have to make yourself last and a servant of all. Jesus is redefining greatness for us. He takes a little child in his arms and announces: whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

We are welcoming a child today, when Hope Iverson will be baptized. We welcome Hope as a valued and beloved member of our community, even though she’s not old enough to walk or talk. We value her because God values her. We love her because God loves her. What Jesus has to say about welcoming children is even more radical than we think. Children in his time were not as precious and coveted as Hope is to her parents. Children in Jesus’ time were expendable, seen as burdens on society. Greatness is welcoming, loving, caring for those most vulnerable. Those most unable to repay the favor. Greatness is seeing Jesus in them and serving Jesus in them. What the disciples were arguing about doesn’t really matter, because to be the first, you must put yourself last.

Any questions? Let’s do our best not to avoid the real questions. They can be scary, there’s no doubt about that. But in asking them, we find ourselves in conversation with Jesus, on the road together. God does not abandon us to our questions and doubts, instead they are welcomed as signs of what they are: faith seeking understanding.

Let us be a place where all are welcomed; let us be open to the most vulnerable, those who are not considered great by any worldly standard. Let us be a place where our whole self is welcomed too: our questions and doubts, our worries and our fears. They are welcome here. In asking them, we will always find the God who became the last and the least by our side. Amen.