Worship ~ 5 February

Audio Recording

Matthew 7:1-14, 24-29

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.  Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” while the log is in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. 

Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.  Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.  

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?  Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! 

In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.  

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.  For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. 

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.  And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.  The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”  

Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  For withthe judgment you make, you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you receive.” 

In Confirmation class last week we began looking at the Lutheran understanding of Law and Gospel – how the very same teaching or law can both convict and comfort. Today’s readings offer good examples of that dynamic. The judgement with which you judge will be the criteria used in judging you. The measure of generosity, kindness, arrogance, anger you give out will be what comes back to you. 

Is this good news, comforting news? Or is it time for a fearless moral inventory and change?  

Judging others is inherent to our nature. It’s wired into our survival mechanism – needing to know in an instant if we should fight or flee. 

But that instinct has been exploited. Within the public political arena, judging others (dismissively, of course) is part of the game and spectacle. Judging others and how closely they align with our ideals or standards or ways is how we form friend groups and congregations. But the judgment that forms inclusion, by definition, is a move to alienate others (Law and gospel). And judgment is more often about separating sheep from goats. It might be based on racial differences, skin tone, clothing styles, body shape, sexual identification, educational level, occupations, income, visible manifestations of ideologies, gender, piercings and tattoos, what we feel is appropriate dress or behavior … the list is endless, really. The result is the assumption that for various and obvious reasons, we are better than them.

We all take part in some amount of instant judging. We can’t help it. It is a natural, seemingly innocent thing to do. Sometimes we are conscious of it, maybe enjoying the diversity of lifestyles or cultural expression evident at a big event or trip to the cities for those of us from small villages. We might call it ‘people watching.’ But I suspect we aren’t looking for the good, the kind, the Christ in them. I suspect it is the differences that catch our eye, and differences are always targets for judgment. We form an idea of an individual’s worth or a backstory based on a glance. If we were honest with our inner selves, we’d call it ‘people belittling’, not people watching. It’s not neutral. Sometimes judgments ride under the radar of awareness, but we feel them or react to them. Fear, wariness, revulsion, attraction, coveting, compassion based on what we see – while knowing nothing about the individual or group. 

Our treatment of others summarizes the human dynamics of the first law of thermodynamics: The Law of Conservation of Energy that states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but is transferred, changed from one form to another.    Behaviors, attitudes, prejudices, treatment of others don’t dissipate into a void. They land on another person, are absorbed, felt, engaged, recycled, transferred from person to person. This contributes to the systemic nature of racism, misogyny, and bigotry. The measure you give is the measure you receive… do unto others as you would have them do unto you… What goes around, comes around.

Our interactions are marked by this mutuality, this inability to disconnect; and they can contribute to the way of empire or they can contribute to the way of the kingdom of God. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself” goes back a very long way in human history and in relationship to God – and it hasn’t gotten any easier. In fact, it feels like it is getting worse. Judgment is quicker and more malevolent, forgiveness and compassionate curiosity hardly in the picture.

The center of this long section of Jesus’ teaching is where we find the Lord’s prayer in which we ask God for what we need to be a people who live into the ethics and ethos of God’s will and way. It asks for simple and not so simple things: daily bread, forgiveness of our debts and trespasses, a plea not to be tested or tempted, but to be delivered from the evil that lures us. We ask that God’s kingdom, God’s reign, break in to our present time, for it to be enacted, behaved here, among us.

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.(Yes! Even for you. And even for them – those despicable, untrustworthy, abusive, ignorant, judgmental ‘others’.)  Indeed, for everyone who asks, receives; and everyone who searches finds; and for everyone who knocks, the door shall be opened.’ 

     God will welcome you. God will welcome those whom you have judged. God will welcome those who have judged you!  This isthe hospitality of the kingdom of God. Everyone who searches, who seeks, who knocks at the door shall be admitted. Not because we have judged them worthy. But because God has claimed a presence, proclaimed a promise, in their lives, too, as in your life.

For is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, would instead give them a stone?  Or if the child asks for fish, would you substitute a snake?  Of course not. 

  If you then, who are … human, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask!   

    God’s ways are not our ways, God’s thoughts, judging, forgiveness, loving, mercy, joy… are not our ways.

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine,” Jesus said, “and acts on them will be like a wise one who builds their house on rock.” Where God’s will is done, where God’s ways are practiced, where the teachings of Jesus are enacted, there the kingdom of heaven draws near. The Lord’s prayer is talking about behaving more than believing the kingdom of God. And when we behave it, we begin to see it.

‘Forgive us our trespasses, Merciful God – our slanders, our arrogance, entitlement, hubris — as we forgive those who in like fashion judge us,   and grant that we may do unto those others as we would have them do unto us. Lead us not into the temptation of loving ourselves without equal regard of our neighbor, but deliver us from such evil…   Judge us, good Lord, with a lover’s compassion. For we are all … the creatures, the habitats, our neighbors, ourselves, those disenfranchised, despised … we are all all yours.

Worship ~ 22 January

Audio Recording

I don’t like the gospel of Matthew. I’ve said that before – maybe a lot? I apologize for the repetition. I find this gospel very challenging and unsettling.  This section of antithesis (You have heard it said, but I tell you…) goes on for several more topics. We’ll hear more of them next week. Near the end, Jesus says: ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” 23Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers….   the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’

I don’t know what to do with many of the things Matthew’s Jesus says. They break sharply with the image of Jesus I carry as compassionate healer, empathetic see-er of the human condition, as the encompassing, inclusive embrace of a loving creator God. I know Jesus was edgy, but in Matthew, he is often harsh, judgmental, snarky, impossibly rigid. 

So then, I ask myself if my comforting belief is grounded in scripture, or if I’ve done the Disney thing. And, as you also probably know, there’s no conclusive answer to that. It’s true, of course, that we all favor images and sections of scripture that fit most closely with our world view, our cultural ethos, our need. And that we do that no matter what the Good Book actually says. 

And maybe — I may be well on my way to heresy at this point — maybe, it doesn’t matter. Maybe, all of the fuss is irrelevant because every image, every trajectory of faith, every attempt at knowing the nature of the divine being, is in some ways true and in some ways a false image, an idol of our mind’s making. I mean, I think that’s true. I read hours of commentaries and seminary text books every week and these experts all say something a bit different and sometimes contradictory to the last one I read. So I back up and just think…. which is what you usually get on Sunday morning, for good or ill. Mostly, I hope I cause you to think, too. We’re in this together.

But, back to the matter at hand and the beatitudes.

I’d like to do a sermon series on religious artwork, showing images created throughout the centuries on the topic of scripture. We have a preview today in the bulletin insert. I spend (perhaps waste) quite a bit of time each Saturday night finding an appropriate or pleasing image for the bulletin cover. As a result, I have seen what many artists have emphasized or brought to life for every sermon topic that we’ve covered for the past many years. 

Look at your bulletin cover. It’s beautiful, colorful……. and very American 21st century. The words are there, but Jesus is in a cloud of color, the cliff is barely accessible, and the only people are obviously physically fit. That’s not to say they aren’t mourning; they may indeed be meek, merciful, pure of heart, and peacemakers, but this image, as beautiful as it is, doesn’t ring true to scripture.

 “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 24So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. 25And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

And when Jesus saw this crowd, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down and his disciples came to him, he began to teach them, saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed those who mourn, blessed the meek, blessed those who hunger for a righteousness they can never attain, blessed the merciful, blessed the pure, blessed the peacemakers, blessed the persecuted. He’s looking at the crowd of people he’s just healed. 

Butterflies and children scrambling up a cliff are, I hope blessed, but not quite what Jesus is saying. The painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder (top right on the insert) is similarly lovely. It’s too small for you to see properly, but Jesus is in the center of the people in a pale yellow, knee length tunic. No hat, long hair looking kind of a mess, actually. A white aura encircles the crowd near him. Everyone else is dressed in 16th century Flemish finery. I’d like to learn more about the various groupings, but without knowing more, what I see is that the artist brought Jesus into his own context, his own people and time. High class people. 

Whether it is proper theologically or not, this is what we do, what we need to do to have Jesus speak to us. And so it is with each of the paintings I’ve selected. They speak from a specific context, they bring Jesus into the midst of their community. The Van Gogh was paired with the poem and it felt right even though it’s not intended to be about the sermon on the mount. You might want to take the insert home and look the images up on your computer to study them, and no doubt you’ll find dozens of others. I do with words what artists do with paint and brushes. With one big difference. I can quickly change images and focus and emphasis week by week, trying things on to see how they fit – artists are committed to an interpretation, a visual description of who/how they see Christ working in the world – they are putting it all out there. 

And actually, this is exactly what Matthew did. He brought the stories and traditions he knew of Jesus into the needs and issues of his community – without giving a thought to us! The author of Matthew – probably in Antioch, Syria, probably around the year 85 CE,  probably of the sect of Christian Jews, was trying to help his community find a path forward after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. As a Jew, he believed in Hebrew scripture absolutely. But he believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of Torah, and that set him at odds with the Pharisees. Matthew spends the first seven chapters presenting Jesus as the fulfillment of scripture and righteousness – which Jesus says – “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.” That’s why we’re hearing so much law in this gospel when we expect to hear grace. Matthew’s community members were observant Jews contemplating this completely new thing, interpreting Jesus in light of scripture. The opening chapters of Matthew are a retelling of the themes from Exodus. Like Joseph of long ago, Jesus’ Joseph interpreted dreams and escaped with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. Like the Israelites, Jesus was led out of Egypt, crossed through the water, was claimed by God, and was tested in the wilderness – for 40 days, not 40 years.  Unlike Israel, Jesus proved his faithfulness to God. Now, on a mountain, like Moses, he proves his adherence to the Law reinterpreting the commandments, exceeding their righteousness. Matthew is carefully building the structure of the story so that his people may take this image bridge to the astounding news that Jesus is the long awaited Messiah.

Jesus may or may not have said the words we read quoted in Matthew. It was written 50 years after his death. But that doesn’t matter – in that Matthew is incarnating, fleshing out the various stories and documents he had available to him about Jesus in order to move the hearts and minds of his community to believe that scripture was being fulfilled in their lifetime. 

It’s an extraordinary leap. It is an extraordinary, inspired gift that the apostle Paul and Matthew and the other gospel writers were given to be able to see God in Jesus and make the connections that made sense within their own setting. It is even more incredible that throughout history and across completely divergent cultures, as shown in the few art works in the bulletin, that we are able to recognize and assimilate the gospel story finding ourselves and our times reflected there. 

The reality of people’s lives that Jesus saw that day moved him. And he saw that whatever the world might say of them, whatever they might say of themselves — poor in spirit, meek, hungry, mourning, merciful — they were, at the same time, children of God whose grace drew near and named them blessed. That, too, is something we may appropriate from these old writings for ourselves and our time. Blessed are you.

Worship ~ 15 January

Audio Recording

Matthew 3:16-4:17

16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

1Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by ha’satan. 2He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, ‘Since you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ 4But he answered, ‘It is written,
“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” 

5Then ha’satan took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, ‘Since you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you”,
and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’ 

7Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’

8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ 10Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’ 

11Then the tempter left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. 

12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 
15 ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 
16  the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light 
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’ 

17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

The word of God…thanks be to God.

Jesus had just been anointed by God in baptism when he was led by the same Spirit to be tempted in the wilderness. Such an interesting turn of events. Very much like with Job, God allows Satan to test. And, after declining the tempter’s offers, and being waited upon by angels, Jesus hears that John the Baptist has been arrested. 

He withdraws to Galilee. Withdraws stealthily, quickly. This is the same Greek word used when Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt because of Herod, and again later from Judea to Galilee because of Archelaus, Herod’s son. The word will be used again when Jesus flees to the wilderness after John is beheaded in chapter 14. In each instance, flight is necessitated because of the threat of imperial violence.

John has been imprisoned by Herod Antipas for criticizing his immoral life. The historian, Josephus, who I keep referencing, suggests that John also challenged Herod’s oppressive economic practices that dealt death to those living on the margins and he reports that John’s popularity kept growing. The empire did everything in its power to eliminate people like John and used them as examples to intimidate potential threats. Jesus would have known that John’s imprisonment was a warning that something similar was coming his way.

Given the threat of arrest, it would have been reasonable for Jesus to flee to safety and avoid confronting the empire entirely. But that, too, was a temptation Jesus rejected. He has proven his loyalty and allegiance to God’s kingdom, come what may.

Matthew quotes from Isaiah 9 in introducing a messianic king who will lead people from darkness to light. Writing in the context of Assyrian occupation, Isaiah assures people that the messiah will shatter the yoke that was burdening them. He would reign on David’s throne and ensure justice and righteousness.

The Roman Empire had been subjecting people to darkness and death for generations. It made darkness and death commonplace, normalizing a peace brokered by violence and threat.  In Matthew’s choice of this prophecy, Jesus will lead people from darkness to light and destroy the power of death that Rome had come to embody. He will expose the oppressive ethos of the empire and show that darkness and death do not need to rule, are not the accepted tools of peace. This is no small task, of course. The devil tried to entice him. The empire tried to threaten him. But nothing will deter him. Jesus withdraws into Galilee but, withdraws in stealth to reappear on his own terms. At so many points of the gospel, Jesus could have taken an easier path, become a less visible target. But he’s not in favor of hiding lights under bushels. His was meant to shine for the sake of others.

How do we respond to the various guises of imperial violence or to deeds done in shadows in our realm? Do we become complicit, retreating to safety? Do we make peace with the powers that be, accepting them as business as usual? Or are there ways to confront them, to prosper the kingdom of heaven?  I mean, there are, of course there are… how are you doing?

The confirmation class girls and I are talking about the 10 commandments and how slippery they actually are. Martin Luther’s explanations widen the context. It’s not simply a matter that you should not murder, but “we are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger, nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.” We are not to steal, but instead “we are to fear and love God, so that we neither take our neighbors’ money or property, nor acquire them by using shoddy merchandise or crooked deals, but instead help them to improve and protect their property and income.”  It’s painful to realize how easily we slip into complacency, how impossible it seems to extract ourselves from communal sin, from doing unintended harm, when even willful wrong can seem justified by societal norms and celebrities. It’s hard to keep the lines clear, the path on target. Small allowances or infractions seem innocent enough, but they compound. A white lie becomes a colorful lie, a small misdeed takes on large unintended consequences.  The Sunday evening zoom study is exploring how incipient racism and prejudice and oppression are in our ‘good, well-meaning’ lives. Our language choices, our lack of experience with other races or cultures, the ease of forming monocultures, and our comfort with the way things are for us, all land us in racist patterns and policies, quite possibly, without even realizing it.

It is too tempting to make peace with the empire in order to advance our economic and political interests, personally and communally. There is inevitably a cost for confronting the status quo – for stepping out of line with over-consumption, racism, violence, finger-pointing, and placidly looking the other way. But the cost of not confronting it is more telling. A church that joins hands with the empire, or remains silent in the face of it, is a contradiction in terms. “Repent”, Jesus said. “For the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And it still is.

The kingdom of heaven is a state of affairs that will become a reality when people change their ways and work towards making it possible. We are asked to repent not so much to receive benefits from the kingdom but to advance it for the benefit of others. We are invited to become agents of transformation.

There are various ideas about why Matthew uses the phrase ‘kingdom of heaven’ rather than ‘kingdom of God’, but one effect is that it shifts the focus, if only a little bit, to the people who work to bring the kingdom to life. So, the question isn’t “what will God do to solve this problem in his kingdom?” but “how will people respond?” We are invited to discern what social or economic or political structures need to be created or ended to enable a just and dignified life for all members of society; to see all creation as precious in God’s sight and within the coming realm.

The next sentence in the gospel as chapter four continues describes Jesus calling his first disciples. They leave their families, livelihoods – apparently inspired by the mission and the man, and make a radical commitment to the message and teaching and healing they witness. The Roman empire relied on threat, coercion and enticements to recruit people into its military. The new kingdom, on the other hand, inspires participation.  Far from being the deterrent they no doubt expected, the imprisonment of John strengthened the crowds’ resolve, and the new message of Jesus inspired people from all over the region to follow him.

The warning from the gospel is that religion, too, can become an empire suppressing the freedom and joy of relationship with God beneath rituals, laws, fear and positions of privilege. The scribes and pharisees represent that in Matthew.

The good news is that the light of Christ somehow caught hold, ignited, inspired and was passed on from John to Jesus to the disciples and eventually to Matthew’s community. And it has been passed on to us. As the Church, we are invited to participate in the transformative work of the new kingdom. But we also have the task of inspiring others to join the movement. We won’t do it with coercion or threats or fear – those are not the tools of the kingdom of forgiveness and transformation. 

The question is whether and how we are able to inspire people to join the work of transforming communities. How are we succeeding? Where are we failing? What is the next step for you? For us?

Adapted from  Raj Nadella – Working Preacher commentary for 26 January 2020

Worship~ 8 January

Audio Recording

Matthew 3:1-17

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” 4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on Jesus. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Why did Jesus choose baptism?

This question takes up most of the commentaries and podcasts that cover chapter 3. Their answers vary quite a bit depending on the perspective that’s taken.  Within the gospel’s story, Jesus tells John it’s part of God’s plan. It is to ‘fulfill all righteousness’.  However, none of the commentators could explain what that means. There wasn’t an ancient category of behavior that fulfilled all righteousness. There is no scriptural mandate for the Messiah to be baptized.  And, within the story and within Christian sensibilities, Jesus had nothing of which to repent. He is the model of righteousness – the fulfillment of it in his person.

Nevertheless, Jesus seems to be saying, “Ya know, I’ve got a feeling about this… Let’s just do it.”    And then the heavens open. 

I’ve read that the kind of baptism John was enacting was unique. There were rituals of bathing for purity and spiritual cleansing – rituals for forgiveness of deeds and misdeeds, but not this once-and-for-all forgiveness of SIN. The typical rites were something one would expect to repeat as needed. John was expecting a change: a truly altered mode of living, an existential reordering as the result or consequence of his baptism. It was a prophet’s call: “The time is at hand. Change! And here’s what to do. Come down into the water, come into the river that our people crossed from wilderness into the promised land, the river that healed Namaan, the Jordan River that creates our fertile valley. Come wash and be reborn, refreshed, redone.”

Those commentators who are speaking about the gospel from outside of the story, say Matthew was connecting Old Testament expectations with New Testament promises: John, styled as a Hebrew prophet, humbles himself and submits to Jesus as the Messiah, while Jesus recognizes the authority of John to fulfill God’s word. They each highlight the work of the other. The baptism is plying those strands together.

They also say it was written this way to encourage the followers and disciples of John – who seem to be many – to join the Jesus movement which was forming at the time this gospel was written – some 50 years after Jesus’ death, 53 years after the baptism event. Unlike in Luke and Mark, Matthew gives John and Jesus the same words; “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And in Matthew they both call their opponents a brood of vipers. In fact, John the Baptist’s movement was in some sense a competitor of early Christianity, offering Jews an alternative way. Christianity did emerge out of the John’s ministry, and some of Jesus’ first followers had been his.  Matthew and the other evangelists wanted to make clear the connection they saw between these two distinct calls: John’s call for repentance at the nearness of the kingdom and the call of Jesus as the Messiah within that kingdom.

After all these years of preaching and studying, I’m still surprised at how political, or strategic, or tactical, or agenda-driven the gospels were/are. They are not novels, they are not histories, they are not memoirs, they are not innocent or neutral. The gospels are highly crafted, polemic, documents of persuasion. They are meant to convince their hearers and readers of an alternate reality, a hidden realm just as real and urgent as Empire. They are meant to change lives. And John is the perfect opening act for the story they will tell.

Another somewhat pedantic motivation for why Jesus was baptized, is that it had to begin somewhere. As Jeff read last week, the small child Jesus was moved from place to place, guided by the dreams of Joseph in order to keep him safe, and the little family settled finally in Nazareth, in Galilee. Little Jesus…

  ….  And …  a transition is needed.     “In those days, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near..”       .… and then one day Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized. And after that he went into the wilderness, led by the Spirit of God to be tempted, and when he heard that John had been arrested he went back to Galilee and moved to Capernaum, and from that time on Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

It had to begin somewhere!  The evangelists needed some jumping in point.  And now we’re caught up and we learned a few things along the way.

It is interesting though, that all four gospels – even John who is the outlier – and Peter’s speech in Acts 10 – all preface Jesus’ ministry with an account of John. For some reason, they saw it necessary to begin the good news of Jesus with this prophet. The Jewish historian Josephus, after praising John’s piety and religious leadership, notes that Herod did away with him out of fear that political upheaval might result from John’s ministry. Josephus says similar things, but less actually, about Jesus.

So, the Baptizer and the baptism were essential – not simply convenient story-telling devices – essential, even if we don’t quite see it.

But then, the question shifts a bit. Why do we choose baptism? What does it mean for us?

It’s too big a question, of course, and the answers/responses could take too long. What it is, is one point we can touch on. And what it is not is another one. We’ll start there, with what it is not.

Baptism is not magic. It does not produce an indelible sign on our foreheads to be seen by the angels and archangels and cherubim and seraphim on the last day when the stars are called home — well, maybe it does that (who’s to know), but it’s not a magic marker to separate sheep from goats. I grew up believing that you had to be baptized to go to heaven. But that’s not in the Bible. I’ve checked.

The gospel of Mark, in one of the extra, non-original endings, comes the closest to a transactional relationship between baptism and salvation, saying, “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved.”  I looked up the 84 citations of the word in my Greek New Testament concordance, and nowhere does it say baptism is for salvation – or even why we are to baptize or be baptized into Christ, except for the forgiveness of sin. Paul talks about the parallel to Christ’s dying and rising – if we are baptized into Christ we will also rise with Christ.  The main difference between John and Jesus’ baptisms seems to be in connection with the Holy Spirit. It’s not as noticeable as it was in Jesus’ baptism, but, especially in Acts, the Spirit of God is attracted to the water and hovers near. 

So, baptism isn’t a golden ticket. It’s not an insurance policy. And it’s not transactional.

Also, it has meant different things in different periods of history within the Christian tradition, and still does between denominations. Practices and beliefs change – and so, is one denomination correct and the others false? Or is the practice or wording or belief from one period of history correct over against another? Or, do we trust finally that baptism is God’s sign to us, God’s gift to us as a reminder of the preciousness of life and water and forgiveness and the holy, uniting Spirit for community gathered in Christ?  Can we receive it simply as gift and not try to manage the outcome?

I said it’s not magic, but it is part of the mystery of God’s incarnational love. Baptism is an elemental, sacred sign of inclusion, of welcome into a community of faith, a means of grace uniting the church of all times and places, a naming and claiming into the people of God. Church traditions, policies and doctrines have more to say about it, claim more for it and from it, have added more layers, but this is good for today.

The thing that I am clear about in my head and heart, is that we are not God, and that we are not in charge of salvation, and that we don’t really know what salvation even is. So baptism – or any other requirement that we might set up to fulfill all righteousness – is a human construct, and one that may or may not be a good idea, but is not proof of a prerequisite, or in any other way known to be what God wants of us. We truly don’t know what God wants of us, although I’m drawn to Micah’s “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” – and so we live out of whatever love and generosity of spirit and fullness of soul we can bring to the world and to our relationships. Baptism won’t automatically make you a better person. John’s cry for change, for repentance, still holds. But baptism does connect us to one another, to the faithfulness of the community, to the prayers and thoughts and love of those who gather weekly to celebrate and sorrow and praise God together. And there is healing in that. There is forgiveness in that, there is transformation in that, there is sacred love, divine love, evident in the depth and breadth of companionship we feel as Christians who gather together. And over time, that can change your life.

Worship ~ 4 December

Audio Recording

3:8   Haman (the bad guy) said to (the Persian) King Aha-súerus, “There is a certain people scattered and separated among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not appropriate for the king to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those who have charge of the king’s business, so that they may put it into the king’s treasuries.” So the king took his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman and said to him, “The money is given to you, and the people as well, to do with them as it seems good to you.”

4:1 When Mordecai learned all that had been done, he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry;  he went up to the entrance of the king’s gate, for no one might enter the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth.  In every province, wherever the king’s command and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting and weeping and lamenting, and most of them lay in sackcloth and ashes. 

When Esther’s maids and her eunuchs came and told her, the queen was deeply distressed; she sent garments to clothe Mordecai, so that he might take off his sackcloth; but he would not accept them.  Then Esther called for one of the king’s servants, who had been appointed to attend her, and ordered him to go to Mordecai to learn what was happening and why.  

[The servant] went out to Mordecai in the open square of the city in front of the king’s gate,  and Mordecai told him all that had happened to him, and the exact sum of money that Haman had promised to pay into the king’s treasuries for the destruction of the Jews.  Mordecai also gave him a copy of the written decree issued in Susa for their destruction, that he might show it to Esther, explain it to her, and charge her to go to the king to make supplication to him and entreat him for her people. 

[The servant] went and told Esther what Mordecai had said. She gave him a message for Mordecai, saying, “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law—all alike are to be put to death. Only if the king holds out the golden scepter to someone, may that person live. I myself have not been called to come in to the king for thirty days.” 

When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, he told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” 

Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.” 

Mordecai then went away and did everything as Esther had ordered him.

For such a time as this. Esther’s gift was called out.

How about you? First step is to ask about your gift or gifts. The next question is what are you doing about it? These are kind of intimidating questions, but maybe not. Maybe they are the questions we should be asking ourselves and one another.

How are you equipped to expand, explain, extend, explore the kingdom of God in this place, in this time? What might be your particular skills for developing or growing God’s gift for the sake of others, for the world in need? Gifts are not to be kept under a bushel (we are told), or in the closet. They aren’t to be denied or denigrated or dismissed (even though we often do that). And gifts aren’t for your benefit. They are for God to use within you. You have been issued a gift, a wonderful, bewildering bit of the image of God, so that God can use it, so God may use you in the salvation story that began with creation and has no end, resting, as it does, in eternity.

Discerning gifts is your soul work – quieting yourself from the busy-ness of duties, responsibilities, expectations, distractions –  and asking what it is that gives you joy. What do you have passion to do? What gives you energy and a sense of power?

I believe our gifts come from a creating God and are essentially creative by nature, if that helps you locate one within you. Courage, justice, teaching, building, cleaning, writing, helping, leadership – these are as creative as music or design.

Church work too often calls out the first list –  the duties, responsibilities and expectations – right? Baking cookies, attending meetings, sharing your resources and finances, signing up to serve in one way or another, baking more cookies. The Cookie Sale is Saturday. The list can sound kind of joyless, unless you like to bake artful, delicately, delicious cookies for the Cookie Sale.

If you’re still feeling a bit dismissive of the notion that you have a unique and precious gift, others might be able to offer suggestions – things they’ve observed about you, things they feel. And that can be helpful to get you started. But in the end it is yours to discover, yours to own up to. It has to feel sound and true to your inner self. 

Some people know right away what they are good at, what they’re called to do from deep within.  They may have been practicing it for years, and are learning to trust it. But maybe your gift is shy, reticent, and you need to allow yourself to be vulnerable. To let that deep inner spark make contact with the world. To let God expect something of you. You might feel that it’s nothing really, not as good as some other person’s, not worthy of being God-given, better kept quiet and private until you’re sure.

Esther is the story of a young woman, a Jewish woman, chosen for the king’s harem because of her beauty. So, was her gift her beauty? or her Jewishness? Her beauty was what placed her in proximity to the king and likely what kept her alive when she entered his presence unbidden. Her Jewishness is what gave her passion to speak against the unjust genocide of a minority population. So both were gifts and both called her to take the risk of her lifetime. 

Esther was orphaned in Susa sometime at the end of the Babylonian exile. Most Jews went back to Judah when King Cyrus conquered the Babylonians and allowed prisoners to return to their various homelands. But many stayed. They had settled into life in their foreign communities, perhaps married a local lad, or been taken as apprentice in a trade. We don’t know much of Esther’s back story, except that she was an orphan, rescued and raised by her old cousin, Mordecai, until taken from his home and thrust into the political and sexual intrigue of the Persian royal court.

In her various roles, as orphan, foster child, and consort to the king, Esther plays a dangerous game in deciding if and when to reveal her Jewish identity.  As the plot twists and turns, we realize that her willingness to disclose or deny it, effects not only her own life and safety, but that of the noble and brave Mordecai, and eventually, the lives of Jews throughout the kingdom. No pressure! And so the gift that emerges, that Mordecai helps draw out finally, is courage to act and speak on behalf of others who have no voice.

If this story seems like it should be on PBS or the big screen rather than in the Bible, you’re thinking along the same lines as about half the early Jewish and Christian scholars whose task it was to put together the biblical canon. There was a great deal of controversy – and movement of this book in and out of the box of keepers.

For one thing, God is never mentioned – not once in the whole book. That’s unique for a biblical story. No one prays overtly. No one quotes scripture. No one goes to the temple – because, of course, there isn’t one. No one goes to synagogues because the story takes place in Persia.  The only sort of religious ties the story has are references to sackcloth, ashes and a fast –  traditional signs of mourning – and Mordecai’s assurance that even if Esther failed, help would come to the Jews from some other quarter – implying that God has a plan for this people. 

The unspoken, hiddenness of God is what I love about this story and for which I am very grateful to the canon keepers for its inclusion. Because this feels realistic, closer to what our lives and stories are like. God is unknown, unseen, yet to be revealed, but hoped for, trusted in… much like Habakkuk’s story. Mordecai’s actions express the belief that God isn’t through with the Jewish people – even those outside Israel. And God continues to rely on outsiders to the covenant to get things moving, indicating to me, the inclusive nature of the kingdom.

This is one thing I really like about the narrative lectionary that I hope you have come to appreciate, too. We get to read novellas that don’t mention God and that have a woman as the story’s heroine. That’s a remarkable thing in the long tradition of the church, and is why not many people know Esther’s story. But it’s right here, edifying or not, between Nehemiah and Job… and we are given this day to think a few collective thoughts about what it means and why it’s there.

How many of you could see your life written up as drama? I bet everyone of you has done something, lived through something, experienced something that would make a good story – or a children’s book. Or a cartoon! I’ve heard some of them. If you let your imagination run for a few moments I bet you can picture a time, fill in a little of the scenery, capture a bit of the action or dialog or emotion of the event. 

And I bet there’s a time when each one of you has made a difference in someone’s life. And I bet there’s a time when you’ve been inspired or dumbfounded by someone’s generosity or helpfulness or kindness toward you. I bet each of you has suffered, has doubted, has dreaded. And I hope that each of you can at least picture what it would take for resolution of the conflict, for turning things to rights, for a happy ending.

Now, how many of you can imagine your life written up as gospel – good news of God’s activity living through, shining through, breaking through your life to others, for the sake of others?

Doubtful? Nah.

Look again at Esther. And if you’re still not getting it, go home and watch It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart, because that movie takes its premise from this biblical book. 

Ordinary lives, little things that happen, unseen connections and consequences, contingencies – some bit of drama, or fear, or danger; some major doubts about identity and worth and personal value; God-given gifts drawn out of hiding; and a decision to stand for something, defend someone, to set out on a course of action whose ending you cannot see from your doorway…this is the plot of many a good story… and of most of our lives. 

Unlike the novella form or the movie, though, we don’t get to see the ending of our particular story, or know whose lives we have touched and turned. We don’t get to see the web our interconnected stories have woven, but chances are – just like Esther and George Bailey, we have been set here, positioned in such a way, for just such a moment, just such a time as this. 

I think it’s too bad on the one hand, but probably a very good thing on the other, that God remains invisible in our lives and in our workings. I don’t think any of us really want angels showing up unannounced or words placed upon us in prophetic impulse. Most of us prefer our unenlightened, yet inspired lives. It’s easier to live that way. 

But that hiddenness of God does not mean God is absent or uninterested. It just means God somehow trusts our nature enough to know that we’re going to screw up, and also that we are the very best medium for reaching those other screw-ups who need to be loved. 

Esther loved Mordecai and her people enough to take a huge risk. As we move closer to Christmas and the incarnation of God in earthly life – that story, that risk, that love becomes God’s story. If our lives reflect a portion of that plot line, if we, too, are able to risk loving and caring and confiding and challenging, then the drama of our lives becomes good news for a waiting world.

Worship ~ 13 November

Audio Recording

Micah

The prophet Micah lived during the last quarter of the eighth century before Christ, during the reigns of kings Ahaz and Hezekiah of the southern kingdom of Judah.    Micah was called to offer social, political and religious critique of the southern kingdom in particular, but of all the people of God. Assyria has come calling, battering down the gates, and, as he did with Nathan, God charged Micah with the task of holding up the mirror. There is still time. But not much. Judgment is seen as the first step of repentance and renewal and return.

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   3For lo, the Lord is coming out of his place, and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth. 4Then the mountains will melt under him and the valleys will burst open, like wax near the fire, like waters poured down a steep place. 5All this is for the transgression of Jacob and for the sins of the house of Israel.

Now you are walled around with a wall; siege is laid against us; with a rod they strike the ruler of Israel upon the cheek. 2But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. 3Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. 4And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; 5and he shall be the one of peace. 

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Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. 2Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. 3“O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! 4For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 5O my people, remember now … that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

6“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”    

8He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

The prophet Micah begins his oracle with a memorable, visual metaphor of God rushing over the earth like gushing hot wax, melting mountains, splitting open valleys, and pressing down the idolatrous “high places.” Micah is a poet, using images to communicate God’s words of judgment. He lives in a village outside of Jerusalem, a location that gives him insight into how the policies and behaviors of their own leaders oppress the peasants and poor rather than defending or helping them. In Micah’s eyes the fatal sin of the nation is moral corruption. 

He rails against the political and religious leaders of his day because they have abandoned their divinely ordained responsibility to exercise justice throughout the land. The common good was being usurped by personal self-interest in the law courts, by large landowners and merchants. The rich are full of violence, the rulers speak lies; the leaders pervert justice and cause much suffering. They are a people who walk haughtily. God will not let this stand in the nation chosen to show forth God’s way. The armies of Assyria will address their arrogance and complacency if the people do not choose change themselves.

In spite of the gloom of his predictions, Micah insists that his message is for the good of his people. He preaches a vision of redemption beyond judgment and destruction. God will forgive the remnant of his inheritance and cast their sins into the depths of the sea. The day will arise when each shall sit under his own vine, under her own fig tree and no one shall make them afraid. Even in divine anger, there is compassion.

Indeed, we hear God’s longing for a return to faithfulness. “Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. 2Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,

“O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!” 

This is the Solemn rebuke of our Good Friday liturgy. “What more could I have done for you? Answer me!”

Micah’s response pivots away from sacrificial worship and ritual toward a new orientation for daily life, reminding them – and us – what God requires. 

Just three things: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.

That job description hasn’t changed in the 2800 years since Micah spoke it.

Do justice: we are not simply to appreciate the concept of justice, or to expect justice done for us, or agree that justice should be an inalienable right, but, actually, we are required to do justice, to make it happen. We are to actively pursue making ours a just society. Actively be just in our interpersonal relationships, in our advocacy, in our dealings with one another. Fair, honest, open-minded, persistent, proactive.

Love kindness: the Hebrew word is hesed; it’s a deep word of covenant fidelity—the kind of unflagging loyalty that God shows Israel, or the deep, sacrificial love spouses bear for one another. Being kind is an important value, and kindness seems in short supply these days. But Micah pushes our understanding of being kind beyond ‘nice’ and into the realm of lasting, meaningful relationships. In the same way that the Hebrew word shalom encompasses wholeness and healing, not just absence of conflict, so hesed calls up a deep relational goodness that doesn’t stop with being kind.  

Walk humbly with your God: 

I attended a synod Bible study on Thursday preparing us to preach on Matthew. This isn’t the same word, but I think it carries the same meaning as when Matthew has Jesus say, “Come to me all you are weary and carrying heavy burdens, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” In the ancient world that meaning of humble is used of kings or persons of power, who lower themselves to serve instead of claiming the rights of their status. It isn’t said of one who is already at a lowered status, but of one who comes to walk alongside. Though humans were given dominion in creation, it is a role of service and protection, a humble status of rule for the sake of, not lording over or exploiting others.

It’s interesting to hear this description both of humility and of what God expects of us after all the political ads we’ve been bullied by in the past month. This is what we want from our leaders, isn’t it?  Honesty, justice, humility, service, an awareness that we are in the room, that it is governance of, by, and for the people. Not election for the sake and status of the elected. Not election based on fear of the others.

Micah is calling out the leaders. His prophecies aren’t aimed at the peasants and working poor, but at those who have options, those who are positioned to effect change.  His counterpart, the prophet Amos, describes the kind of corruption that seems to be another perennial: 

“Hear this, you that trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may again sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.…” (Amos 8:4-6).

Amos criticizes the CEO’s of his day who diligently keep the sabbath but cannot wait to cheat the poor on the other six days of the week. Both prophets emphasize that living in right relationship with God is not simply a matter of worship. Right relationship with God is an ongoing, seven-day-a-week orientation to life, one that prioritizes the well-being of the other, doing justice, loving with generosity and fidelity, and an attitude of humility.

The proof is in the pudding, not the rhetoric.

I’m mostly annoyed by politics and the election drama. The bigger issue, to my mind, is the climate summit and ecological justice that political parties aren’t willing to prioritize because they won’t win votes if they’re honest with the cost of change. And because their vision is short-sighted. We need Micah or Amos or Nathan – although as Jesus pointed out, they stoned the prophets back then, too. We are microscopically small players individually. But collectively, we need to change in major ways, we have to start behaving differently in our daily lives and expectations. It’s easy to agree with this, but how will we practice it, how will we, collectively, implement it?

We have experienced notable opportunities for change in the last three years. Racial disparity and arrogance in the valuation of human life in our country and genocide in others; a novel virus that has shown a spotlight on medical, social, and economic systemic injustice worldwide; and the invasion of Ukraine that – among other things – turned off the energy pipeline to Europe and grain market to hungry people on several continents. What have we learned from these disasters that are also opportunities for real change?

We’ve learned how quickly things go back to the status quo. How badly we don’t want to see progressive change if it means we have to change. How startlingly quickly the earth can heal itself if we give it a chance. How unlikely it is that commerce and stock markets and the national security of constant, unsustainable growth will give it a chance.

When Israel failed, they believed it was their behavior that caused God’s judgment.

When we fail, we look for someone else to blame.

 I would say that most of us don’t believe that God uses acts of nature and enemy armies and viruses to smite and force change. But reading the Old Testament prophets causes me seriously to wonder. If God has power in all things, and change is truly necessary for the survival of the earth as we know it, then… is it so backwards to see judgment and redemption mixed together? I don’t know. We have learned that we are all vulnerable and all connected. Maybe that’s a starting place.

What will it take for us to change? For us to sit up and take notice? For those of us with privilege to walk humbly, live humbly, with justice and liberty and kindness for all?