Revelation on Revelation

Did you know that Martin Luther thought it might be a good idea to take the Book of Revelation out of the Bible? It wasn’t because he thought it wasn’t important. Quite the contrary; Luther loved Revelation and even wrote a commentary on it. But, he thought it was very difficult to understand. It should have come out, in his opinion, to prevent misunderstandings. He’s right that it is very difficult to understand, and the average reader probably doesn’t get everything that’s going on. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t. Instead of not reading it, we ought to engage, to ask questions, and to learn more. Because beneath all the dragons and fiery lakes, there is a wonderful message: God is at work in the world, seeking to bring all things to a good end.

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

Any Game of Thrones fans here? Okay, if you haven’t seen the final two episodes, this is your spoiler warning. It’s not a massive spoiler or anything, don’t worry. There was just an unusual scene in the second to last episode, at the end of a huge battle that caught my attention. One of the main characters, Arya Stark is left battered and bruised, standing in the middle of all of this death and destruction, and out of nowhere, a white horse appears. The episode ends with her riding the white horse out of the city.

It was a really odd moment in the episode and left a lot of people wondering, what does the horse mean? Is it a symbol for something? As I read the speculation the next morning, I laughed a little at all the guesses, because yes, it was a symbol. It was a reference to the Bible. “So I looked, and behold, a pale horse. And the name of him who sat on it was Death.” Revelation, chapter six, verse eight.

Revelation is one of the most difficult, even weird, books of the Bible. It has this ferocious mix of creatures, battles, and symbols. Horsemen, dragons, beasts from the sea, beasts from the earth, lakes of burning sulfur, mouths with swords in them, and much, much more. Yet despite—or perhaps because of—its bizarre contents, the book of Revelation inspires art and music and literature like no other. It’s found in Dante, William Blake, T.S. Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Ray Bradbury, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and more. It’s inspired Handel’s Messiah and Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic. Whenever we sing our canticle of praise, “This is the Feast,” we’re singing from the book of Revelation.

Even if we don’t always recognize it, Revelation is all around us. Timothy Luke Johnson, a scholar of the New Testament has said that, “few writings have been so obsessively read with such generally disastrous results as the Book of Revelation…its history of interpretation is largely a story of tragic misinterpretation.” Revelation tends to be either taken hyper-literally by those awaiting the end of times or dismissed and ignored as a slightly-embarrassing product of a different time and a different way of seeing the world.

But, if we don’t understand it or don’t like it, why does its influence remain so pervasive? I think, in part, because the world can be a scary place. Not always, but often enough to fuel plenty of anxiety and apocalyptic imagination. Revelation was written in the late first century, a scary time for Christians. It’s in the form of a letter from John, a Christian exile on the island of Patmos, to seven churches in what we now call Turkey. It was then part of the Roman Empire. It was a time of persecution. Christians were being forced to publicly worship the emperor. Refusal meant imprisonment, torture, or even death. In understandable fear, many Christians simply went along, offering worship to the emperor in order to avoid such a fate.

In the midst of these problems, the letter of Revelation was sent, not to foretell the end of time, but to unveil the truth about the challenges the churches faced and about God’s presence with them. That’s what the word apocalypse actually means: unveiling. Revelation uses fantastical imagery to recast the current situation, and to give hope in the midst of it. John wanted to help these churches endure and encourage them to resist complacency and accommodation to the empire.

Revelation captures our current imagination so well, because we, too, live in a scary time. We’re in the midst of unprecedented climate change, the results of which cause political and economic instability. There’s a refugee crisis, not just at our border, but across the world as people seek asylum from war and danger. Our country remains at war, with soldiers deployed in multiple places. And amid it all our divisions seem only to be growing wider. We live in a scary time. You know all these problems. I could list more, but I don’t need to recite them—you are already well acquainted with them.

Revelation is such a powerful text, not because of all the wild visions and images, but because of the truth underpinning them: it acknowledges the hardship and suffering of daily existence. It acknowledges that being a person of faith is not easy—there are always challenges that would draw us away from faith and to the ways of the world. It acknowledges that living in the middle of traumatic times can begin to feel hopeless and impossible.

But it also does so much more than that. Revelation also invokes the deepest longings of the human heart for healing, wholeness, and renewal. In our passage from John 14, Jesus tells the disciples that he will not always be with them. But, he will return with the Father, and he says, “we will come to those who love me and make our home with them.”

And what a home it will be! Revelation offers us the vision of the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven. There’s no need for a temple at all because God’s presence permeates everything. The gates are always open, they are never shut. The gifts of creation are abundantly available to all—all the nations of the earth. Kindness, justice, truth, grace, love, and righteousness—on earth!

The ultimate vision in Revelation is not a select few escaping the trials of earth and going to be with God. It is God coming to us, to renew the entire creation. We speak of this hope every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Each time we say this prayer, we are praying that God will make a home with us. Or, as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message Bible, we pray that “God will move right into the neighborhood!”

God intends to reclaim, restore, and redeem the life of all creation to its divine intention. The new, beautiful city of God is not just about pie in the sky when we die. This vision is about that wonderfully delicious pie that we all crave on earth now. A life that basks in God’s presence now. A life that keeps God’s commandment to love one another and mirrors God’s justice today and every day! It’s about God moving into the neighborhood.

Revelation assures us that good overcomes evil, love overcomes hate, hope overcomes despair, and life overcomes death—all here and now, as well as in eternity. In the midst of our anxiety, fear, and hopelessness, our dreams of a future life with God break into the present. As we pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth, let us pray that God will move into our neighborhood, into our homes, into our hearts. To restore and redeem, to renew and cultivate. To bring to life that glorious vision of the city of God. A place of peace and justice and righteousness for all the peoples of the earth. Amen.

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A Place for Everyone

Every year in the seven weeks of Easter our first reading comes from the book of Acts. This year especially, I’ve felt drawn to these stories of the early church. Their struggles are many of our own struggles: what does it mean to be church? how do we define our community? how do we interpret the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus? who gets the final say in disagreements? Being part of a church in the 21st century doesn’t feel all that different from what we read of the church in the 1st century.

Today’s struggle is around inclusion. Who is welcome and what do they have to do to become part of the community? You can read the lesson for the day in Acts 11. The entire story of Peter and Cornelius begins in Acts 10.

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

At the 2015 National Youth Gathering in Detroit, Pastor Emily Scott told the story of her first day of middle school. Her family had moved over the summer, so she went to her first day of middle school not knowing anyone. She recalled the moment that she stood in the middle of the cafeteria, holding her tray, and having nowhere to sit.

She didn’t know anyone, but she did understand the middle school cafeteria. There were the popular girls, the jocks, the band kids, the goths, and everyone in between. Everyone knew the rules and sat at the right table. It seemed there was nowhere for her. She told us what happened next with pain and regret even twenty years later. She threw out her lunch, went to the bathroom, and cried.

As adults, we like to think that we’ve moved past the middle school cafeteria mindset, but the questions of who is in and who is out, of who is included, valued, and welcomed versus who is marginalized, merely tolerated, or outright denied a place—these questions don’t go away once you leave middle school behind.

Who is in, and who is out? Where do the lines fall? So much time is spent defining who belongs and who doesn’t. From geographical to economic to political to religious to racial to sexual to generational lines, in some ways our world is built on defining who is in and who is out. Some of it, we do subconsciously, we don’t even realize that we’re excluding others or taking part in a system that is excluding. Other times, though, we’re happy for the lines that are drawn. Because those lines help us feel comfortable and safe. Or they make us feel more special and important, because we get to be part of the “in-crowd.”

Churches are certainly no exception to this. We create lines, we create divisions about who is in and who is out. Who is a member and who isn’t. Who is welcome and who isn’t. And often the big dividing line is who is welcome to the table. Do you have to be a certain age? Do you have to be a member of the church? Do you have to believe exactly what we believe? Do you have to live a certain way? Why the table—why is this where we have so much trouble coming together? Because eating together, because sharing a meal with someone is a powerful act. Table fellowship means breaking down lines and boundaries in often scary ways.

In our first reading from the book of Acts, Peter has done just that. The reading today was his recounting of what happened when he stepped across that boundary line and ate with Cornelius the Roman centurion. Peter had been staying in Joppa when he received a vision while praying. A sheet, coming down from heaven, containing all kinds of animals: mammals, reptiles, birds. And then a voice saying, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.” Well, Peter refuses.

And not just because this is pretty weird. But because as faithful Jewish man, he wouldn’t eat most of these animals. It’s prohibited in the law, and taking the law seriously is one of the ways that Peter shows his love and devotion to God. But the voice comes back again and says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happens three times. Three times Peter refuses these animals, not because he’s being stubborn or difficult, but because he truly believes it would be dishonoring God to eat these unclean animals.

And that is when Peter is called to Cornelius’ house. A Roman centurion. About as unclean as unclean can get. Not just from a foreign country but part of an occupying, military force. Different nationality, different homeland, different political loyalty, different religion. But as Peter is preaching to him and his household, the Holy Spirit falls upon them just as it had on Peter and the others. And as Peter says, “If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus, who was I that I could hinder God?” So Cornelius and his entire household are baptized, (just as Anastasia will be baptized in a few minutes), they are welcomed into the church, the family of God, and Peter stays in their house for several days.

And it’s that second part, that Peter stayed with them, that he ate with them, that has the believers in Jerusalem most concerned. Not so much that he baptized them, but that he ate with them. He ate with people who were not part of their group. Who didn’t follow their ways and rules. If it sounds familiar, it’s because Jesus often got in trouble for the same thing. “This fellow welcomes tax collectors and sinners, and eats with them!” Eating together is dangerous, because all sorts of lines get blurred and broken.

Whenever we draw lines to keep other people out, or to keep ourselves in, it’s likely we’re going to find God on the other side of those lines. Jesus crossed the boundaries of religion, of gender, of respectability to eat with tax collectors, to eat with Samaritans, to eat with the outcasts, and to eat with the Pharisees who were criticizing him for doing so. And he invited his followers to do the same.

This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. Jesus says this on the night of the Last Supper. When he knows he has precious little time left to make sure the disciples get it. He doesn’t talk to them about what they should believe or how they should worship or any kind of doctrine. He tells them to love one another. They’ll know you are my followers, not by who you exclude or by what boundaries you draw—but they’ll know you are my followers because of love. Because of who is included. Because of who is valued and cherished.

It can be scary to break down boundaries. You can get accused, like Peter was, of losing sight of who you are, of betraying your group. It’s scary to break down boundaries, because, where do we end up drawing the line? There has to be some line, right? This could get out of hand very quickly.

And it might be scary, but the truth is grace is already out of hand. Grace got out of hand and out of control the moment when the God of the universe crossed every boundary imaginable and became a human being. Grace got out of hand when God hung on a cross and with outstretched hands looked out at those who had hung him there and declared, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Grace has always been out of hand. God’s love has always been out of hand. But perhaps the most important thing is, it’s out of our hands. We don’t get to keep God’s Spirit from showing up in places that we don’t understand, in places that we can’t control her. We don’t get to decide who God loves, we don’t get to decide who God will work through. And that includes us. Because we have the chance, the opportunity, the imperative—to take the love that God has given us and see that it is shared.

Pastor Emily Scott, that middle school girl crying in the bathroom? She became a mission developer, which means she starts new churches. She founded St. Lydia’s Church in Brooklyn, a church whose worship is centered around cooking and eating together. And everyone has a place at the table. So it is in God’s kingdom. May it be so in our lives. Amen.

Not Today, Satan!

The title of this blog will make sense after you read the sermon, I promise. Bonus points to everyone who got my RuPaul/Game of Thrones reference yesterday. This sermon focuses on Tabitha, a little known biblical woman from Acts 9. The title of the blog comes from my ruminations on baptism, where we publicly reject sin, death, and the devil. In ancient church rites, the person being baptized would literally spit in the face of death.

We reject the lies and the empty promises that these things offer, instead clinging to God’s promises which are true. We do this publicly at baptisms, but every day is a chance to say, “Not today, Satan!” A chance to reject the lies that sin tells us: we’re not good enough, we don’t deserve love, everybody’s judging me, etc. Some days we’ll do a better job of rejecting these lies than others. But every day God’s promises are new and reach out to us in love.

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

“She became ill and died.” Five simple words. And yet so, so much than that. So much sadness, so much grief and pain. So many lost hopes. So many tears shed in those five simple words. “She became ill and died.” Do those five words span days, weeks, or months? Time spent with friends and family, saying goodbye? Or did it happen suddenly? Was there no time? We just don’t know, because all we have are five words. “She became ill and died.”

What do we even know about Tabitha? She’s certainly not one of the better known characters in the Bible, so there’s no shame if you’ve never even heard of her before this morning. And we don’t actually know much about her. But we do know her name. Two of them actually. Which is rare information for us to know about women in the Bible, who are often referred to by their role or relationship to men, not their own names. But not Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. Her two names probably mean that she interacted with both the Jewish and Greek cultures regularly.

We know that she is probably a widow. In her day, widows didn’t have a lot of social capital. Few women did, but a widow was seen as a burden, not a valued part of the culture. And yet, the book of Acts doesn’t actually tell us Tabitha is a widow, we have to infer that. Instead, the book of Acts tells us that Tabitha is a disciple. She is a disciple.

This is the only time—the ONLY time, ONCE—in the whole New Testament, that the feminine form of the word disciple is used. Only once, and it’s about Tabitha. The culture might label her as someone unimportant, someone easily overlooked, but the Bible says that she is a disciple. A follower of the way.

We know that Tabitha was devoted to good works and acts of charity. She made clothes and gave them to other people, perhaps people who wouldn’t have been able to afford them. And we know that Tabitha was loved. All of the widows wept at her death, clinging to the things that she had made them.

Have you ever had the honor of meeting Tabitha? I have. Only this time, she wasn’t also called Dorcas, she was also called Betty Johnson. She was a widow, a member of my church growing up. She was a quiet woman who served on the altar guild. Her husband had been a pastor before he died. I didn’t know her well, or even interact with her much. But when I was ready to go to seminary, she told me she had something she wanted to give me.

It was a black clergy shirt, made by hand, just for me. My mom had snuck a shirt out of my closet to her, so she could get the right measurements. Clergy shirts are finicky things. There’s a row of buttons, but they have to be hidden by another piece of fabric down the front. There’s a collar, but it has to be open in the front, and closed the rest of the way around. And it has to be just the right size to hold a strip of white plastic in place. It must have taken her hours. And all for someone that she barely knew.

That was the first time I met Tabitha, but it certainly wasn’t the last. A woman of faith, perhaps overlooked and disregarded. Perhaps seen as too old, or too poor, or too…whatever you might say…to be important or useful. A woman who used what she had, her gifts, her ministry, her love, to do what she could for the good of others. And she was called a disciple.

The world gives us so many names…some of them we even give ourselves. Tabitha might have been called widow. A burden. Elderly. We all get called names that we haven’t asked for but if we hear them enough times, we might even start to believe them. Failure. Faker. Screw-up. Addict. Divorced. Sinner. Worthless. What names does the world try to give to you?

Maybe, even, they seem like good names at first: powerful, rich, important, pretty, accomplished. Do-gooder, like Tabitha. But these names have a way of defining us. Of making us feel like we are only worthy if…that we only matter when…we manage to beat the addiction, when we manage to get our act together, when we’re married, when we’re religious, when we’re good.

But when we read this story of Tabitha, of Dorcas, of this beloved widow, the very first thing we hear is this: there was a disciple. She is not to be known by any of the names that the world might give to her, but by the name that God gives: disciple.

No matter what the world might call us—rich, poor, deserving, undeserving, sinner, saint, hopeless, hopeful—God calls us by a more important name. Beloved. Child. Ryan Clifford is going to be baptized (at the second service/in just a few minutes), and we will hear the name that God has given him: child of God. No matter what other names or titles he might get throughout his life, this one will always be the most important: beloved child of God.

In the baptismal service, we start with something that seems kind of weird and antiquated. We start by renouncing the devil and all his works and all his empty promises. To put it in other words, we renounce those forces, whether they come from outside us or from inside that try to call us by other names.

When we renounce the devil, we are saying “no” to every name that the world might give us. We are saying “no” to the things that make us question our worth and our value. We defiantly stare evil, and sin, and death in the face and boldly say: not today. In baptism we declare loud and clear: I am a beloved child of God—Ryan is a beloved child of God—and we renounce anything or anyone who says otherwise.

We’re all going to be given a lot of names in our life. Some of them we’ll surely like and cherish. And some of them we probably won’t. We are lucky to know Tabitha’s name and story. And we’re lucky to know the Tabitha’s in our lives. But even if we didn’t know her name, we would know this: she was a disciple. She was a beloved child of God. And so are you. Amen.

Breakfast with Jesus

Greetings to you all! It has been some time since I’ve added a blog post. I’ve been away for a few weeks and need to get back in my Monday morning routine. This sermon is focused on two of the readings from yesterday, Acts and John. Let me know in the comments: where have you seen God lately?

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

Behind every great superhero is a great origin story. An explanation of how they got their special powers and came to this calling of fighting crime and evil. Maybe it was just a freak accident, like Spiderman getting bit by a radioactive spider. Maybe, like Superman, the origin of their powers is explained by the fact that they’re just not from here in the first place—he’s from a different planet and comes with special powers. Or maybe, like Batman, there’s a defining moment, in his case losing both of his parents, that changes the trajectory of their life.

Whatever the story, every great origin story explains just how our hero became so extraordinary. And in our first reading today from Acts, the Bible shows that it has some pretty good origin stories of its own. We read the origin story of Paul, who, when we begin seems anything but a hero. In fact, you could say he’s been the villain of the book of Acts thus far.

You see, Paul was a devout man. A Pharisee, he later says about himself. He was a religious leader. And he tried, with all his might, to protect his religion from people he saw to be dangerous heretics. As the early church was spreading in Jerusalem, as the apostles were telling others about Jesus and baptizing and teaching in his name, their biggest opponent was Paul of Tarsus.

He was there when the first Christian martyr, the deacon Stephen, was killed. He has been rooting out Christians ever since. And now, it seems that the church is spreading even outside of Jerusalem. Christians are beginning to appear in the north, past Samaria, in Damascus. And so that is where Paul heads.

And that is when we see the origin of the Apostle Paul. The road to Damascus is where Paul becomes who he will be: the apostle to the gentiles, a man after whom we name churches and universities, cities and hospitals. A great light from heaven flashes around him on the road. As he cowers in fear, he hears the voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you?” he asks. “Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Go enter the city, and you will be told what to do.” And he is left blind.

This story is usually called the Conversion of Paul, but as we read on, we see that there are actually two conversions happening here. For the Lord also appears to Ananias, a disciple living in Damascus. Ananias is told to go to Paul, to lay hands on him to heal his blindness. His first response? That is not something I think I will be doing. Don’t you know who Paul is, Lord? Because he’s a persecutor of the church. But God says that Paul is the one chosen to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. It’s not up to Ananias to decide who God is going to use. And so, Ananias too is converted. Converted from fear to trust. From hatred to reconciliation.

Ananias goes to Paul, and Paul is restored to sight. And he is baptized and becomes one of the greatest apostles of the Church. Because two people were willing to let their hearts be changed. Scales fall from both of their eyes. Sometimes I think that great, miraculous call stories like these can be hard for us to read. Not because they aren’t awe-inspiring, faith inspiring. But precisely because they are those things.

After all, how many of us have had such an other-worldly experience? Perhaps you have, and I by no means want to diminish that. It’s just that most of us don’t get to have such incredible origin stories. And it can be easy to begin to think that it’s because we don’t have enough faith, or because God doesn’t have an important job for us.

Perhaps God hasn’t appeared to you in lightning-flashed visions. But that doesn’t for a second mean that God doesn’t show up in your life. After all, how did God appear to the disciples in the gospel reading? Not in majesty and awe, not in fearful voices from clouds, but as an unfamiliar man on the beach, sharing a meal.

God shows up in unexpected ways in our lives, sometimes so unexpected that we don’t even recognize it. We need to pay attention, like the Beloved Disciple, to how Jesus is showing up. He is the first one to realize that this is God standing on the beach, and he announces to the others, “It is the Lord!”

Sometimes, we’ll need someone else in our lives to point out to us: It is the Lord! When we don’t see God at work in our lives, we’ll need someone else to tell us: look, I see God here. And the scales will fall from our eyes as we see what they see. And other times, we will get to be that sight and that voice for others. We will get to announce joyfully that we see God—in that place, in that situation, in that other person. But we have to pay attention, because where we wind up seeing God might not be where we expect.

In a meal shared amongst friends on the beach. In small moments of ordinary life. Today is first communion: we celebrate with four of our young people, Annabelle, Lily, Adam, and Grady, as they receive the bread and wine of communion for the first time. We come to a simple meal of the basic, everyday foods of life, and we encounter in the bread and wine the Risen Lord Jesus, just as the disciples encountered him on the beach.

The book we use for First Communion, called A Place for You, shares the ways that we are invited to take God’s presence into us, and to share God with others. Forgive others. Share our things with others. Share food and clothes and money with those who need them. Be kind to people who are different. Bring joy to people who are sad or lonely. These all come with the important caveat that Jesus and your church family will forgive you when you fail.

The Christian writer and blogger Rachel Held Evans died tragically yesterday at age thirty-seven. She struggled in her life to make sense of her faith and her doubts. She wrote of experiences traveling and speaking to many different faith communities: They reminded me that Christianity isn’t meant to simply be believed; it’s meant to be lived, shared, eaten, spoken, and enacted in the presence of other people. They reminded me that, try as I may, I can’t be a Christian on my own. I need a community. I need the church.

These things aren’t flashy. They won’t make the front page or become super hero stories. But even as we read the stories of the heroes of our faith, we remember that our faith is found in simple things. Bread and wine shared together. A meal amongst friends. Sharing God’s love in the ordinary stuff of life. Let’s all of us practice looking for God in surprising and ordinary places. Because if we pay attention, we just might get to have breakfast with Jesus. Amen.

I wonder…

We don’t always give ourselves the freedom to ask questions about the Bible. We think that we should already know the answers and don’t want to look stupid. Or we think that we’re not supposed to have questions about the Bible in the first place. For a sermon on the Prodigal Son, I decided to offer more questions than answers. What do you wonder about this parable?

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

There is a Montessori-based Christian Education program called “Godly Play” that tells the stories of scripture and liturgical actions using simple wooden or felt props. A key component of this program is “wondering” language. Rather than focusing on correct or incorrect answers to questions, the leader invites the gathered group to wonder together about the story – what it might mean, where you might see yourself, and what it might tell us about what God is like.

In Godly Play, the parables are very special things. Listen to how this lesson intro talks about parables, whose materials are stored in boxes: “Look! It is the color gold. Something inside must be precious like gold. Perhaps there is a parable inside. Parables are even more valuable than gold, so maybe there is one inside.

The box is also closed. There is a lid. Maybe there is a parable inside. Sometimes, even if we are ready, we can’t enter a parable. Parables are like that. Sometimes they stay closed. The box looks like a present. Parables were given to us long ago as presents. Even if you don’t know what a parable is, the parable is yours already. You don’t have to take them, or buy them, or get them in any way. They already belong to you. You need to be ready to find out if there is a parable inside. It is easy to break parables. What is hard to do is go inside the parable.”

Parables are fixtures of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels. There are 42 parables in all, found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Some are repeated, and some show up only once. These stories that Jesus tells use everyday, accessible images and themes to help further illustrate a point. Sometimes, parables seem only to muddy the waters as we try to figure out what Jesus wants us to understand and take away.

I like how the Godly Play lesson says that it’s easy to break parables. One way we break parables is by forcing the characters to represent things they weren’t meant to represent, or by stretching a metaphor further than it was meant to go. Sometimes we assume we already know what the parable is trying to tell us, or we think that there is only one meaning to be found. Though it is uncomfortable, or may leave us feeling unsatisfied, it can be a useful practice to explore our wondering, knowing there is no final say or correct answer.

I spent a lot of this past week wondering about this parable Jesus tells. Will you enter this parable with me, and wonder with me? A man has two sons. The younger son decides that he is ready to leave home and asks for his portion of the inheritance. When his father gives it to him, he goes off and loses all the money in dissolute living. Eventually, things get so bad that he winds up sharing a sty with pigs and eating the pigs’ food to survive.

He realizes that even his father’s servants eat better than this, and he decides to go home. But before he can get all the way there, his father comes running to him, cuts off his apology and treats him like royalty. Before he can even say anything, his father is embracing him. There’s no questions, no demands, just joy. “There’s going to be a party,” the father declares, “because my son was lost and now is found. He was dead but is now alive!”

It seems the story is almost over, but we’ve forgotten about a character. The older brother comes back from his work to find everyone celebrating without him. No one has bothered even to tell him what’s going on. When he hears all this party is for his younger brother, he refuses to go inside. Why should his brother receive a celebration for doing terrible things, when he, who has never done anything wrong, has never been granted a party?

The father comes out and implores his child to come in, to join the celebration. And there the parable ends. We don’t know what happens next. I wonder. I wonder why the younger son wanted to leave home in the first place. Was he unhappy, bored, restless? I wonder if the younger son really meant his apology, or if it was just a way to get back in his father’s good graces?

I wonder about the father. I wonder why he gave up half his land to the younger son. He didn’t have to. I wonder if he stood watching the road every day since his son left. It says he saw him while he was still far off. Had he waited there, watching, hoping, that today might be the day his son would return?

I wonder about the older son. Did he realize that by hoarding and withholding, he too had squandered what he had? Did he ever join the party? Did he ever reconcile with his brother, or with his father? Or did his resentment continue to fester?

I wonder how we are like these characters. I wonder how God is like them. I wonder what this story can teach us about ourselves and about God. I wonder how you are like the younger brother. Have you ever felt tired of the way things are, wanted something new, needed to prove yourself? Have you ever felt like you’ve ruined a chance you’ve been given? Have you ever felt like there’s no way you could make things right again?

I wonder how you are like the older brother. Have you ever felt overlooked, taken-for-granted? Have you ever tried hard to prove your worth, only to get no recognition? Have you ever felt resentful of others, who seem to get all the attention even though they did little to deserve it?

But mostly, I wonder about the father. I wonder if we shouldn’t give this parable a new name. We know it so well as the prodigal son. But what if we called it the Parable of the Waiting Father? The Parable of the Forgiving Father? The Parable of the Father and His Lost Sons?

Because both sons are lost. Neither truly understands his father’s love. They both think that love is something to be earned, either by proper contrition or by working hard. They both think that there is a limited supply to go around. And at the end of the story, it’s the older brother that the father is waiting for. Waiting for him to come home, to come inside, to join the celebration.

I wonder, how God is like this father. Throwing love and forgiveness around with abandon. Watching, pacing, hoping for the return of the lost one. Not keeping scores. Not building resentments. Overflowing with joy. Desiring reconciliation. Throwing a royal celebration when one he loves returns.

Parables are even more valuable than gold, if we’re able to go inside them. I wonder, if we might continue to walk around in this one awhile. To see where it takes us. To see how it challenges us. To see if we might find ourselves in it. To see how we might be guided by it. I wonder if we might see hope and possibilities where we thought all was lost. I wonder if we might be able to let go of resentment and score-keeping. I wonder if we might join the celebration. I wonder.

On Difficult Questions

Why do bad things happen to good people? Why is there so much pain and hurt in the world? These and other questions underlie our gospel reading for this past Sunday, from Luke 13.

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

“Why do you ask that question?” Dr. Wengert would say. Anytime anyone asked a question in one of his classes, my professor—without fail—would respond by asking why the student was asking in the first place. We got so used to it, that by the middle of the semester, we would preface any and all questions with: “I’m asking this question because…”

Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered so much for another subject—history or math, maybe—but in this class, Lutheran Confessions, we were learning theology. And Dr. Wengert proved to us that it did matter why we were asking. If you want to know whether Lutherans recognize baptisms performed in other denominations just because you’re curious, you’re given a different answer than if you’re asking the same question because your cousin just told you your baptism doesn’t count. It makes a difference why the question is being asked.

And we have quite the question in our gospel reading today: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” If Jesus didn’t say it, someone else surely would have. Some folks have come to Jesus with headline news of horror and tragedy.  Pontius Pilate has slaughtered a group of Galilean Jews and mingled their blood with the blood of the sacrificial lambs. Meanwhile, the tower of Siloam has collapsed, crushing and killing eighteen people. Underlying these brutal accounts is a question as old as the human race: why?  Why did these terrible things happen?  Why is there so much pain in the world?  Why does a good God allow human suffering?

It’s a question that still plagues us. Why? Why were forty-nine Muslims killed while they were praying? Why were eleven Jews killed while they were praying? Why were nine Christians killed at Bible study? Why do bridges and buildings collapse? Why did the storm kill one person and the person standing next to them survived? Why does one person get cancer, and another doesn’t? Why do children get cancer? We can point to some explanations: to racism, to lack of attention to structures, to how genes mutate. But that doesn’t answer the question of why this person, and not another. Why that flight and not another?

From the beginning of time these questions have plagued us, and still we have no satisfying answers. But that hasn’t stopped us from asking the questions. When unexplainably bad things happen, everything in us still longs to make sense of the senseless.

Luke’s Gospel makes it clear that the people who bring this terrible news to Jesus already have an answer in mind. They are hoping that Jesus will verify their assumption that people suffer because they’re sinful. That people get what they deserve. That bad things happen to bad people. Because if that’s not true, it means that there is no sense, there is no order, about why one person dies in a tragedy and another doesn’t, about why one person recovers from an illness and another doesn’t. It means that we don’t necessarily get what we deserve. That bad things just happen, seemingly randomly. And that thought is terrifying.

But Jesus refuses to say that suffering is a punishment for sin. In fact, he seems to say that asking about the cause of suffering is asking the wrong question. Or asking for the wrong reasons anyway. “No,” he says, “they did not die because they were sinful; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Really? Repent? What does repentance have to do with the inexplicability of disasters, whether natural or human-made? But for Jesus the question isn’t why is there suffering, why are there evil events in the world, but how should we live our lives in light of it?

Are we going to repent—which here really means are we going to see the world in a new way, and let that new vision, new way of seeing, impact our actions—or are we going to turn a blind eye to the pain and hurt and suffering and continue with business as usual? Are we going to let these events affect us, drive us to compassion and care and change; or are we going to say that it’s someone else’s problem, that they deserved it?

And Jesus, as he so often does, refuses to give a simplistic answer to a deep and complex question. He doesn’t try to solve deep troubles with quick fixes. Instead, he tells a story. There was a fig tree that wasn’t producing fruit. Hadn’t been, actually, for three years. The man who owned it told his gardener to cut it down. Why should I waste resources on this tree that won’t produce any fruit?

But the gardener speaks up and asks for one more year. Just one more year. He wants to do what he can for the tree, care for it, tend to it, give it nourishment and assistance, and see if maybe, just maybe, it might bear fruit. I like to imagine that this is actually the third year this conversation is taking place. That each year, the gardener begs a reprieve. That next year, if the tree is still struggling, the gardener will say it only needs more attention and more care.

When suffering happens, we’re left with a lot of questions. We’re left wanting answers that we may never get. But whenever Jesus encounters a suffering person, you never see him asking questions. He never asks what they’ve done. He never blames. Instead he gardens. He provides care and love. And when he comes upon someone the rest of us have thrown out, he insists upon that one’s fruitfulness.

When reading any parable, it’s natural to ask the question—what part do I play? What part do we play? Perhaps sometimes we’re the owner, demanding that others meet our standards, and getting frustrated when they do not. Sometimes, we might be the gardener, speaking up for those who need extra help and love. Attending to those who need our care. But often, I think that we are the fig tree, and God is our gardener. Because God sees the ones that are struggling not as something to be cast aside, but as something that needs more care and attention. As those that need to be lovingly tended. Not ignored, not thrown out.

When we are suffering, God sees. When we are struggling to produce good fruits, God pays attention. When we look around and question “why?” God hears our cries and responds with more care and more love.

There are no easy answers to difficult questions. And there shouldn’t be, because easy answers don’t really respect how difficult the questions are. Jesus doesn’t offer us easy answers. But Jesus does offer us a God who gets down in the dirt and the manure, not seeking a quick fix, but seeking to cultivate. To tend and to grow and to help us in our struggle with difficult things. May we too become gardeners. Cultivators of what God has given us. May God grow in us love and empathy and compassion for others. Amen.

A Mother Hen

Below is my sermon from March 17, 2019, the Second Sunday in Lent. This reading from Luke has always been a favorite of mine. I love the feminine imagery for God. Here’s one mosaic interpretation of this text, with my sermon following: Related image

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

The summer that I was eleven, my family took a road trip to what seemed like every national park in South Dakota, Wyoming, and Colorado. And after two weeks crammed into the minivan and motel rooms, my parents wisely realized we could all use something to shake us up.

And that is how the Tancredi family, not a particularly adventuresome group by any standards, ended up on a beginner level whitewater rafting trip in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. You had the choice of sitting in the middle of the raft, where you would just experience the ride, or you could straddle the side of the raft, have an oar and really get into it.

My mom chose to sit in the middle, but my dad, brother, and I all went for the side. Now, I’ve never been very gifted in the height arena, and at eleven, I was somewhere around four foot ten. I didn’t have a very good grip on this raft. I’m pretty sure my oar didn’t even reach the water. But I was bound and determined to at least do as well as my brother.

We approached the first rapid, which was called “Little Kahuna.” It was the practice rapid, meant to get our feet wet. Well, more than my feet got wet. I went flying out of the raft and into the Snake River. I followed directions and was back in the raft in no time.

As we came up to Big Kahuna, I told myself that on this rapid, I would redeem myself. I was not going to fall out. But as we entered the rapid, I felt myself falling. Only I was falling into the raft, not out of it. My mom had reached forward, grabbed the back of my life vest, and pulled me backwards into the safety of the raft.

I was so mad, and embarrassed. She had ruined my shot at redemption. Afterwards, we bought those pictures that the company takes of you, you know the ones. We never bought pictures like that, but these were just too good. There were a series of four photos, showing the approach, the rapid itself, and the aftermath.

So, you can still see to this day, on my parents’ living room wall, my mom go from fear to determination to relief as she keeps me safe. You can see me go from determination to shock to anger, as I realize what happened.  She did what she had to in order to keep me safe, and I couldn’t believe she thought I needed her help and protection in the first place.

God is like a mother hen, who wants nothing more than to gather her chicks in. To bring them close and safe in the shelter of her wings, to keep them from all harm. And her chicks aren’t so sure they need the help.

Jesus compares himself to that hen, and laments that his chicks aren’t interested in what he has to offer. He offers love and safety and protection, and they return apathy and rejection and hate. There’s so much to unpack in just five verses from Luke, but what really stood out to me was Jesus’ feelings.

Of course, we think of God as loving, as caring. But the anguish, the pain that Jesus feels aren’t usually the first emotions I associate with God. But of course, I don’t usually associate God with barnyard animals, either, and yet here we are.

Jesus is resolute and determined in this short piece of Luke. He’s warned by some Pharisees that Herod wants to kill him, and he should get out of town. The Pharisees are often portrayed as one-dimensional figures, as Jesus’ adversaries, but here we see them trying to help Jesus.

Jesus is determined, though. He knows that he is going to die, but he refuses to let this compromise his work, telling them that he is casting out demons and performing cures, and then he must go to Jerusalem.

Jesus knows that he is going to die, and yet his lament is not for himself. His lament, his pain and his anguish, are for those who would be glad at his death. All of his emotion is poured out for those who cannot accept the good news that he brings. For those who refuse the shelter of his wings. That’s what Jesus is most upset about. Not that he will die. But that he cannot enfold all the people in his loving care, because they will not let him.

It’s always tempting, when reading the stories of the Bible, to see those who oppose Jesus, or those who reject him and refuse him, to see them as the other people. It’s dangerous to do that, because not only might we miss the point but it can also lead to dangerous ways of thinking about our Jewish brothers and sisters.

When we read these stories and Jesus faces rejection or opposition, we ought to ask ourselves, “Is that me? How am I like that?” What are the ways that we refuse God’s offer of care, of mercy, of love? And why do we resist being gathered under God’s wings?

Maybe, like I resisted my mother’s protection through the rapids, we think that we don’t need it. That to admit we need help, we need love, we need forgiveness, is to admit to weakness. We don’t want to be chicks and rely on someone else.

Maybe it’s the gathering in. That’s certainly part of why Jesus was resisted long ago. He longed to gather all people together in his arms. He ate with sinners and tax collectors, he praised Samaritans. To be gathered together under the mother hen’s wings is to be gathered in close with our fellow chicks. There’s a lot of potential discomforts here, to be gathered in with those that we don’t like. That we disagree with. That we just plain old don’t want to spend time with. It’s enough to make most chicks wary. And we have seen this week the devastating effects of our refusal to be gathered together, in the terrorist attack on Muslims in New Zealand.

And maybe we don’t want to be gathered in because we just simply don’t like to think of God as a hen in the first place. Seriously, have you seen chickens? They can’t fly, they’re not too fast. This is how God is going to take care of us? But have you ever seen a mother hen gather her chicks when a predator approaches? I have, just once.

That bird swelled up with fear and courage. She stood her ground, prepared to face her death if she had to, her children tucked securely into her soft, vulnerable body. “How I have desired to gather my children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings!”

Jesus’ mission will not be stopped, just as that mother hen will do everything in power for her chicks. Jesus will not be stopped by Herod’s threats. Jesus will not be stopped by rejection and condemnation. Because the work of God is more powerful than any resistance on our part. Despite our fears or anxieties, despite our claims of self-sufficiency, our wary eye cast towards our fellow humans, the work of God is stronger than all these things.

Because the work of God is love. God covers us in the love of a mother hen, drawing us all in together. God’s deepest desire is to love us. We can fight it, we can think we’re ready to brave that rapid on our own. But that does not stop the protective Mother from reaching out and pulling us always into the heart of love, that there we may face whatever comes with God, and with our fellow chicks. Amen.

If

There are some passages you end up preaching on a lot. One of them is the temptation of Jesus. It comes up every year for the First Sunday in Lent. (It’s from a different gospel every year, but it’s pretty much the same story.) So, you try to find different ways to hear the text with new ears. This year, what really stood out to me was the first part of the devil’s temptation: “If you are the Son of God.” So much of what the tempter tries to accomplish is based on trying to get us to question our sense of self and value. (Also, a note on the devil: in this story, the devil seems to be a physical being. When I use the word devil, or tempter, that’s not really what I’m imagining. Even without believing in a physical devil, I very much believe that we are often tempted, internally or externally, to forsake God’s ways and choose our own ways.)

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

“If.” Such a small word, but capable of so much meaning. “If.” It’s one of those tiny words that can completely change a sentence, a conversation, a thought. The word if can turn a statement into a question, a certainty into a doubt, a conviction into a hope.

“If you are the Son of God,” begins the devil. The tempter doesn’t start right with offers or temptations for Jesus. No, the tempter is much smarter than that. He starts instead with that pesky word “if.” “If you are the Son of God:” turn these rocks into bread, seize power for yourself, prove your own worth. “If you are the Son of God.” The devil starts his assault on Jesus by sowing seeds of doubt, or at least by trying to do so. He calls into question Jesus’ very identity.

That same uncertainty can spring unbidden into our lives as well, as that tiny word if turns statements into questions. If you’ve done enough…If you’ve saved enough…If you’ve studied, or tried, or worked enough…If you’re enough…

If. Two letters that can take us from a place of security to a place of uncertainty. Two letters that can question our purpose, our value, our very identity. It’s constant. So constant that we might not always notice it anymore. Advertising, social media, the news, politicians: we’re constantly being told what we might be, what we might have, if only. They want to tell us that we only have value if. If we have certain things. If we live in the right house or drive the right car. If we eat the right things and exercise the right way. If we get good enough grades and go to the right school. If we come from the right countries or support the right policies.

And once those seeds of doubt are there—that is when the tempter strikes. That’s when the devil tries to get Jesus to forsake God and to give up on his mission. And that’s when we are most tempted, too. To measure our personal value by the things we have or the things we achieve. To judge others based on those same barometers. To think that the size of our house or paycheck, or the grade on the transcript is what defines us. To base our sense of worth on our money, or worldly success, or power over others. And to make decisions driven by those insecurities.

These temptations of Jesus—to turn stones into bread, to accept glory and power from what the devil has to offer, and to test God—they are all tied to this basic test of identity. Does he know who he is? And does he accept, believe, and trust who he is? Or does he feel the need to prove it by grasping at power?

Jesus doesn’t give in to these temptations, because Jesus knows better than to accept the devil’s “if.” Knows better than to take this questioning of his identity for granted. Because he has heard the truth from a much more powerful voice.

We always read this story of the temptation of Jesus on the first Sunday in Lent, which makes a lot of sense. Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness; we spend forty days in Lent. Jesus contends with the devil and temptation; we are called to contend with our own temptations and failings. It makes sense. But, it also means that we might forget that the temptation of Jesus comes directly after the baptism of Jesus. It’s the very next thing that happens.

And at his baptism, as Jesus is coming up out of the water, the heavens open and the Spirit of God descends like a dove, and we hear this voice: You are my Son, my Beloved, with you I am well pleased. When Jesus goes into the desert, he goes with the waters of his baptism still dripping from his clothes. He goes with the name Beloved still ringing in his ears. He enters this confrontation with evil with the sure knowledge of who he is: the beloved son of God.

With every offer the devil makes, Jesus instead chooses God’s power and God’s purpose. He knows he is the Son of God. He doesn’t have to prove it to the devil or anyone else. It is in God that we find our true identity. And there is no if here.

We too receive from God an identity that is stronger than all the ifs and questions that life will throw at us. In our baptisms, we are told: You are a child a God. There’s no uncertainty, no doubts. Not if, but you are. You are a marvelous creation. You are loved by God. You are a child of God and you are a blessing.

It’s not dependent on any “if’s”. It doesn’t matter if you have a lot or a little. You are loved. It doesn’t matter if you earn a lot or a little. You are loved. It doesn’t matter if you have five degrees or none. You are loved. It doesn’t matter if you’re old or young, weak or strong. You are loved. There are no ifs with God. You aren’t defined by what you do or what you make or how popular you are. You are defined by whose you are. You are defined as a child of God.

Lest I seem naïve, I know that we are not Jesus. While he resists every temptation offered to him, you and I will not be so successful. I often give in to the temptation to define my own existence. To give in to those ifs and think that I need to prove my worth. To judge myself and my value by things I have or accomplish, and to judge society in a similar way.

But here in this place, at this font and at this table, we are reminded that we are loved and valued—not for what we do, but simply for who we are: beloved children of God. And we can say to each other: You are beloved. You are valued. You matter. No ifs. We can remind each other that there are no ifs, because you are God’s beloved child. And we take that reminder with us, as Jesus took his into the desert. We take God’s love with us when we leave this place. We take the name Beloved with us.

As we begin once more this season of Lent, let us begin as Jesus did during his forty days. Knowing how much God loves us, and how precious we are. Not if. But are. Amen.

 

Shiny Happy People

It’s Transfiguration once again! As I say in the sermon below, I’m never sure what to make of Transfiguration. Pretty much the same text comes up each year–with just slight differences between Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s accounts. But this year, when we read from Luke, we have the option to continue reading once Jesus leaves the mountain. And that’s where the Transfiguration starts to make sense for me. It’s not about some other-worldly place, it’s about real life. The transfigured Jesus is the same Jesus who leaves the mountain and who meets us in our everyday lives.

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

Transfiguration is kind of a weird day. It’s always celebrated the final Sunday after Epiphany, the first Sunday before Lent begins. In one sense it’s the culmination of the season after Epiphany, we’re we’ve been experiencing who Jesus is, getting glimpses of the divine in water changed to wine, in sermons preached, and miraculous healings. Then suddenly, we don’t just get a glimpse, but we get Jesus’ divinity revealed in this blinding display on the mountain. I say it’s weird because I just can’t imagine it.

Transfiguration seems like a day that is just tailor made for shiny, happy people. In his transfiguration, it says that Jesus’ whole appearance changes. He becomes bright. And Moses, after speaking with God face to face, is shiny. He’s so shiny and sparkly, reflecting the glory of God, that the people can’t look at him. He needs to veil his face because he has become so amazingly changed.

Jesus on the mountaintop must be even more bright, because he’s not just reflecting God’s glory, he is it. It is shining forth from him, revealing what has been there all along, but now without hiding it. I can’t really imagine it, but it must have been like staring right into the sun. Blinding in its brightness.

And often, I find Transfiguration difficult, because I want to experience that. I want to see God in all God’s glory. I want to shine from experiencing that brightness. I want to be one of the shiny, happy people. Isn’t that what we all want? At least in some form or another? We want to be happy, to be carefree, to bask in God’s power and glory, to shine so brightly that others around us can’t help but stop and stare. Can’t help but be in awe of us, and our shiny happy lives. I want to experience that, but I don’t always feel like I do.

Sometimes I don’t feel shiny or happy. Sometimes I feel beaten down and frustrated at just how broken the world is. At the seemingly endless hate, prejudice, and pain that is experienced. Just this past week, our brothers and sisters in the Methodist church voted not to allow LGBT persons to get married or be pastors in their churches. Lest we think we have the moral high ground, the Lutherans only changed our position on this ten years ago, and there is still so much work to be done before we have true inclusion. That’s just one example from the news this week that makes me feel less than shiny and happy. As you know, there are countless others.

But sometimes we want that shiny happy life so badly, that we pretend we have it even when it isn’t true. We put on the masks of shiny happy people. We act the part—either because it’s what we want others to see, or because we think it’s the right thing to do. We think that it’s somehow unfaithful to not always be shiny or happy. We think that if we let down that façade, if we admit to feelings of frustration and loneliness and pain, it means we don’t have enough hope or trust in God.

Transfiguration is so shiny and happy it can make us want to shore up those façades, just in case we aren’t feeling that shiny ourselves. Transfiguration is that way until, of course, Jesus comes down the mountain. Our shiny, happy Jesus comes down the mountain and meets the suffering world once again.

I always wonder what the Transfiguration must have been like for those left at the base of the mountain. Did Jesus’ light cast even a single beam down to those who waited in the dark? Did the crowd glimpse that ominous cloud that descended over Peter, James, and John? Did they hear even a rumble—distant like thunder—when God spoke to the disciples about listening to Jesus? We don’t know. We’ll never know.

We do know that Jesus took three disciples—and only three—up the mountain to experience glory of God. And the remaining nine spent the night in anxious futility, trying in vain to do their Master’s good work. Presented with suffering and need and being unable to do anything to make it stop.

But the Transfiguration doesn’t stop on the mountain. The Transfiguration isn’t just about shining, dazzling light. Transfiguration continues down in the valleys of real suffering and pain. Because we don’t just get to see Jesus for who he really is when everything is sunny and bright. We get to see Jesus for who he really is in the deepest moments of desperation.

“Look at my son,” this desperate father cries. “Look at him.” His only child is seized by a spirit, he shakes and foams at the mouth, he yells out. Today, we might recognize this condition as epilepsy. All this father knew is that his only child was suffering. He held his whole world in his arms, and implored Jesus to look and see. And Jesus does.

In the moments on the mountain, Peter, James, and John get to see Jesus for who he is. But Jesus is also revealed here in the valley. Jesus is revealed as a God who sees. As a God who cares enough to look at us. To see us. To see our needs. To see our suffering and pain, even if we try to hide it. To see our hopes and dreams and fears.

Jesus is revealed as a God who changes us. He casts out the demon and heals the boy. He gives the disciples a mission and a purpose. Jesus tells us that God has hopes and dreams for this world and Jesus puts those hopes and dreams in motion. He lifts up the lowly, he embraces the outcast, he feeds the hungry crowds.

Jesus is revealed as a God who is not afraid of suffering, but instead enters into it with us. A God who comes down off the mountain to meet us where we are, even if that place is scary and full of pain. Jesus never leaves us in that place alone. Because Jesus is revealed as God of transfiguration. A God of transformation. A God of resurrection.

And we are desperately in need of it. Our world is desperately in need of it. When we encounter God, we are changed. We are made different. Sometimes that encounter happens on the mountaintop where things are shiny and happy. There’s nothing wrong with that. But sometimes that encounter happens in the valley, where our lives are scary and unsure. And there’s nothing wrong with that, either.

Wherever it happens, when we encounter God, we are changed. We might not glow like Moses, but we too reflect the glory of God. It might make some people uncomfortable. Sometimes people aren’t comfortable encountering God’s expansive, boundary-crossing love. Sometimes people aren’t comfortable with how God changes us. With who God pushes us to be, or with whom God sends us to embrace.

It might make us want to hide that light, to dim God’s love reflected in our lives. Let’s not do that. Let’s let that light shine. Because God is with us in every situation. God is with us on the mountaintops and in the valleys of our lives. Let’s bring that shiny, brilliant love of God to all that we do, letting it shine forth in our lives and into the world. Amen.

Script-Flipping

Love your enemies. This has to be one of the more difficult of Jesus’ commands. It’s part of the continuation of last week’s Sermon on the Plain. This is what living in the kingdom of God looks like. This is the kind of ethic that God wants for us. It’s hard to do. We have a good example in Joseph forgiving his brothers, but it’s a hard example to live up to. Thankfully, even when we fail, God continues to live by this radical ideal of forgiveness and love.

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

“Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you. If someone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other cheek for them to hit, too. If someone takes your coat from you, give them your shirt as well. Give to everyone who asks you for something, and if someone takes something that’s yours, don’t ask for it back.”

I’ve had conversations with folks before who really struggle with this passage, and others like it in the Bible, where Jesus seems to be asking quite a lot of us. People almost always admire the ethic Jesus presents, but then the rubber hits the road. “This won’t work in the real world,” I hear. If you act like this, you’ll get taken advantage of, pushed around, walked over. It sounds nice, but to try to actually do it…well it just doesn’t work.

I feel that way, too sometimes. It seems futile to receive hatred and return love. To receive judgment and return compassion. To receive violence and return peace. If you wonder about the practicality of these commands, you’re certainly not the first. It was the command to love your enemies that made the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche believe that the Christian ethic is designed for the weak and cowardly, and not for the strong and courageous. Jesus, to him, was simply an impractical idealist. A Utopian dreamer. Not meant for the real world.

And you know what, Nietzsche was right. Not that Christianity is for the weak and cowardly—I very much think the opposite is true. But he was right that these commands of Jesus are not practical. They’re just not. It’s not practical to live this way. Giving your stuff away. Loving people who hate you. Blessing people who curse you. It’s not at all practical. But it is powerful.

On an episode of the Invisibilia podcast, which looks at the unseeable things that help define human behavior, they told the true story of a dinner party gone awry. Eight friends had gathered for a celebration in one of their homes. The night was going well, they were enjoying the good food and wine, when suddenly, the home was broken into.

A man, armed with a gun, was standing in their dining room. He demanded that they give him money, or he would start shooting. Most of them were too scared to move or speak. But one of them took a chance. He offered the man a glass of wine. And you know what? The would-be burglar took him up on the invitation. He put down his gun and joined them.

Psychologists have started to study what they call “non-complimentary behavior.” And they’re realizing that Jesus was on to something. The church has known that for a while, but it’s nice to have the science to back it up. We’re conditioned as humans to give what we get, so to speak. If someone approaches us in a hostile manner, our defenses go up and we tend to be hostile back. If someone comes up to us with a cheerful smile on their face, we relax and return the warmth and goodwill. The complimentary response to an attempted armed robbery is aggression. The non-complimentary response is an invitation to a seat at the table.

A non-complimentary response flips the script. It changes everything. It’s what Joseph does to his brothers in the reading from Genesis. We come into this Joseph story in the middle, really almost at the end, so it’s kind of confusing. Many years before, Joseph, the youngest and favorite of twelve brothers, was attacked and sold into slavery by his older brothers, who resented his position as their father’s favorite. He ended up in Egypt, and although he got off to a rocky start, he rose to power and became Pharaoh’s second in command. It was his foresight, and visions from God, that prepared Egypt to survive this seven-year famine.

Joseph’s family wasn’t so lucky. His brothers were sent to Egypt by their father in search of food or fertile land. They don’t recognize the little brother they horribly mistreated years ago. And that’s where our reading starts. That’s why they’re dismayed to hear that this is their brother Joseph. They assume that they’ll be thrown in prison, killed, or at the very least sent away empty handed.

But then Joseph flips the script. He forgives them. He breaks free from the chains of the past that he could have let determine the future. He breaks with the oppression, fear, violence and murder of the past. In declaring his forgiveness, Joseph creates a new present and a new future.

Nietzsche said that Christianity is not for the courageous. He couldn’t have been more wrong. The root of the word courage is cor—the Latin word for heart. Brené Brown, in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, writes: “In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant ‘to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ Over time, this definition has changed, and today, courage is more synonymous with being heroic…we’ve lost touch with the idea that speaking honestly and openly about who we are, about what we’re feeling, and about our experiences (good and bad) is the definition of courage. Heroics are often about putting our life on the line. Ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line. And that’s pretty extraordinary.”

Flipping the script is courageous. It means being vulnerable. It means taking all of the hate and violence and condemnation in the world and returning instead love, and peace, and compassion. That’s not a cowardly thing to do, it’s incredibly brave. And when we do it—when we flip the script—we’re part of God’s kingdom breaking into this world. God’s promised future of mercy and love breaks into our present through our practices when we do these things and when we experience them from others. We get to participate in making God’s future our now.

And we get to be part of God’s future because of the greatest script-flipper of all: God. God has flipped our scripts so many times over. God takes in our doubts and gives us faith instead. God takes in our resentment and anger and returns compassion. God takes in our apathy and gives us zeal. God takes in our pasts, with all of our mistakes and regrets, and God gives us a future marked by forgiveness and love. We get to be part of God’s future, we get to be part of the in-breaking of this kingdom, because God refuses to give complimentary responses. Thank God for that. Amen.