Sunday, March 26, 2017

Myth Busting

Scripture Reading:    1 Samuel 16:1-13 (NRSV)  

16 The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 2 Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3 Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” 4 Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” 5 He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 8 Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9 Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11 Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12 He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

This has to be one of the most difficult days of Samuel’s very long life.  It is clear that Saul, the king, has been disobedient.  God has told him to go find the next king, one of the son’s of Jesse from Bethlehem.  And Samuel is afraid, because if Saul hears about it, he’ll have Samuel killed.  He might even do the deed himself!  He is not exactly emotionally stable, you know.

You might wonder how on earth an emotionally unstable man like Saul happened to be chosen king of Israel.  After all, they selected him from among all the men of Israel by using lots, which they believed was the best way to make sure that the choice they made was God’s will.    And it was God’s will that they choose Saul, but in this case, God’s will wasn’t exactly running in line with what the people of Israel thought.  You see, they had come to Samuel saying, “Hey, you’re old.  Your sons are useless.  We need someone to lead us.  Give us a king.”  This upset both Samuel and God, both of whom saw this as Israel rejecting their leadership.  God said, “OK.  First tell them what it will mean to have a king, then let them choose one for themselves.”   So Samuel told them how kings behaved - about taxes and taking their daughters as servants and their sons as soldiers, and about all the excesses kings were prone to and the abuses that kings had been known to perpetrate on their people.  And they said, “We don’t care.  We want to have a king like everybody else.”  God said, “Go for it.”  Then God, who knows everything, including who is best suited to being king, selected Saul to be anointed as king, the people cast lots to determine which man of Israel was to be their king, and surprise!  Saul was the winner.   

Sidebar:  Casting lots wasn’t exactly the same as throwing dice or choosing the short straw.  There was quite a bit of religious ceremony involved, as they firmly believed that God’s hand was the one making the lots fall in order for God’s will to be made known.  Indeed, God’s will was made known in this case, although God’s  choice wasn’t what the people had hoped for when they asked for a king.

Saul thought that being the king meant he was in charge.  And he was certainly very good at being in charge of the armies, defeating everyone he came up against.  But he was disobedient to God. He made rash vows which bound even people who had no chance to know about the vow (which nearly got his son Jonathan killed), he wouldn’t listen to Samuel, he even set up an altar and performed sacrifices to the Lord in Samuel’s absence, as if he was a priest or a prophet.  And God finally said, ‘“Enough is enough.  I have chosen another king to take over Israel from Saul.”  So we arrive at today’s story.  And the myth of David, the shepherd boy.  

Samuel has looked over all of Jesse’s sons, or so he thought.  There was one more, he was told, the youngest, but he was out in the fields keeping the sheep.  And from that one line comes the image of David as the innocent young shepherd, much beloved of the people who illustrate children’s books.  (May we see the next slide, please?)   We love the image of this young boy going up against the wisdom of all the warriors and the leaders of the armies and even the king himself to face the giant Goliath, armed with nothing but a slingshot.  That is so awesome, right?  God took this young man, a child really, and performed a miracle so that Israel would win the victory!  

Or not.   Consider this.  The flocks that Jesse’s youngest son watched represented a large portion of his family’s wealth.  He would be out in the fields with them for weeks, maybe even months, at a time.  He would help ewes deliver their lambs, he would chase down any of the silly things that wandered off and got lost (and for those of you who don’t know, sheep are not the brightest animals on God’s green earth!).  And he protected them from dangers, from lions and tigers and bears, oh my.  OK, not tigers.  But hear what the Bible has to say about the David who was eventually presented to Samuel.  “Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.”    A few verses later, when Saul asks someone to find him a skilled musician to help combat the evil spirits tormenting him, 18 One of the young men answered, “I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the Lord is with him.”     An accomplished musician, a skilled warrior, proficient in the use of the sling, a man of valor.  Not a child.  Not an adorable shepherd boy.  A man - a man who had God’s favor from that day forward.  

I know, I hate killing beloved myths.   I love myths and legends.  You should have seen me when I first learned that the legend of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox was an advertising gimmick!  I was devastated.  I was a bit disappointed when these truths about David were pointed out to me, too.  But, we all have to grow up sometime, I suppose.  And the fact of the matter is, this young warrior did go up against Goliath, and did defeat him in what was maybe not quite a fair fight because he was armed with and proficient in the use of one of the deadliest long distance weapons  of the time, and Goliath was expecting hand to hand combat.  (I know, another myth bites the dust.  Sorry.  Not sorry.)

But that’s not the point of today’s story.  The point of today’s story is that Samuel listened to God, went to Bethlehem even though he was fearful that Saul would find out and have him killed.  Samuel listened to God and passed over the first, strong and attractive, son of Jesse, and the second and all of the seven who were presented to him, because no matter how suitable they may have seemed, God knew which one was the right one, and it wasn’t one of them.  And although David was every bit as attractive as his brothers and as strong and as brave, he was the youngest.  The youngest son was rarely ever the one receiving the greatest blessing.  Samuel listened to God even though left to his own human devices (and prejudices) would have chosen the oldest, or the best looking, or the strongest appearing, or the most articulate.   Later, David would be disobedient.  He would commit terrible sins.  He would even be denied permission to build a Temple for God.  But he never lost God’s favor.  He was always “a man after God’s own heart.”  

We have no idea who God is going to choose to do God’s work in the world.  God has made a lot of strange choices.  Rahab, a prostitute, helped God’s people defeat Jericho.  Ruth, a Moabite, became an ancestor of David.   Martin Luther King, Jr., who really only wanted to be the pastor of his church, a church which, by the way, had fired his predecessor for excessive activism, became the leader of the Civil Rights movement.  An Albanian nun who expected to teach all her life, heard God’s call to work with the poor and sick in India, and is now known as Saint Teresa.   So many of God’s choices seem strange to us.  But every choice God makes is the right choice.  Even if the outcome isn’t exactly what was expected, as was the case with Saul, God’s choice is always the right one.  God’s direction is always the right direction.  And we should always listen.

On Wednesday I received a card in the mail with $40 cash inside.  I contacted my friend, who said she was told to send it to me, and that it was supposed to let my light shine.  So I took it with me to the MDA Lockup the very next day and the light of that gift will benefit some child with Muscular Dystrophy.  

When you hear God speaking to you, when that still small voice whispers in the back of your head, or when you are hit upside the head with a God-by-4 (which happens to me much more often than the still, small, voice) - listen!   Even if it seems like a strange direction, listen.   Even if the idea of doing what God says is frightening, as it was to Samuel, listen.  Because the Good News from today’s passage is this - God chooses whom God will, and even if we feel unworthy, even if we think we aren’t good enough, even if we are afraid to step out, even if we think we aren’t the right kind of person to do whatever it is that the voice tells us to do, God’s choices to be his hands and feet and voice in the world are always the right choices. There is no right or wrong kind of person.   God selects us, just as we are, to do whatever best suits the gifts and talents that we have been given, to serve God’s people in the world.    Go out, then, without fear, for God is with you.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Soul Deep Hunger and Thirst

Scripture Reading: John 4:5-42  (NRSV)   

5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)[a] 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you[b] say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he,[c] the one who is speaking to you.”

27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah,[d] can he?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to him.

31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36 The reaper is already receiving[e] wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

********************************************************************************************I've preached on this particular passage several times.  It does come around in the lectionary once every 3 years, after all.  Most of those sermons I have preached in the past have focused on the woman as a woman, as an outsider, as someone Jesus, as an observant and law obedient Jew, would never have talked to in public.  A sinful woman, perhaps.  Certainly one rejected by most of the other women in her community - although possibly not the men, although they, too, would have probably shunned her in public.  Just sayin'.   I have focused on Jesus' radical inclusion of everyone, even a Samaritan, even a woman whom he believed was busily committing adultery with one of the village men.  Drinking from her cup, and offering in return water that was different from any she had ever tried.  I have talked about how the message of God's forgiveness sometimes comes best from someone who has been forgiven.  I've even sometimes focused the work of Church World Service, which includes helping villages suffering from a lack of water build wells right in their central square, so that the women don't have to walk miles and miles for clean water - and about the lack of drinkable water even here in the US - on the Navajo reservation, for example, and now in Flint, Michigan.   I've taken this passage in all those directions, but the one I haven't touched on is that soul deep hunger and thirst that clearly this woman was experiencing.  

As I’ve often said, every time I read any passage of Scripture I see something different than I have seen before.   It happens to most of us, I think.  It depends a lot on where we are in our lives at the moment we are reading.   Sometimes we see something that helps us through whatever we are going through in our lives.  Sometimes we recognize something after we have come out on the other side.   

For example, look at the woman in the picture on the screen.  Some of you may have been seeing this picture on Facebook with a caption about health insurance, but that’s not where this image originated.   This image of a woman and her children is used as an illustration in the Hunger and Gender section on Wikipedia.   Look at her.  You can almost feel the hunger and thirst she is feeling.  Hers isn’t the “I missed lunch today cause I was busy doing stuff” kind of hunger that most of us have experienced, or the “I’m hungry because I have made a commitment to eat less and get more healthy,” kind of hunger that comes with a new diet plan.  No.  Hers is that soul deep hunger for, yes, food, but also for hope.  Hers is the kind of hunger that can’t be satisfied with a hot meal at a church, although, trust me, that is greatly appreciated.  Hers is the kind of hunger that can only be relieved by knowing that there is something more out there, something better, some hope that the future won’t just bring more of the same.   Hers is the kind of hunger that wants to have hope that at least her children will know something better, even if her life will never change.  That kind of hunger isn’t just about food.  The thirst that drives her isn’t just about water.  

I recognize that feeling in her because I have felt it.  I have often said that the day when I woke up feeling empty inside and knowing it is the day I made the decision to change my life, stop using drugs, and find a new way to live.  Just getting clean helped me feel better, hopeful that my life really could be different.  Discovering that the God I had been taught about in the church I grew up in wasn’t at all the sort of God that these new people in my life believed in also helped.  As time passed, my emptiness started to fill up with faith.  When I found the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and began attending worship, learning more about this loving, caring, forgiving God, I could feel my soul filling more and more.  It has been a process.  There have been times when I felt completely filled, and other times when I still felt like I was lacking something.  There have even been times when I felt that pain, that emptiness again - after my brother died, for example - but because I knew that God was with me I was able to get through.  It was a terrible time for me.  I could barely function, but I had to.  Thankfully, I had faith, a teensy itsy bit of faith, small as a mustard seed, that I would get through that, that the pain would lessen over time, that no matter what, I was going to be ok, and that we would be reunited eventually.   

When I recognized myself in that woman’s picture the very week that the Samaritan woman at the well came around in the lectionary, I knew that her soul deep hunger and thirst was, for this year at least, the part I needed to address.

Maybe you haven’t ever felt this hopelessness, this depression, this despair.  But I suspect most of us have, even if just for a short time.  But if you haven’t, consider that Samaritan woman.  Alone.  Rejected by her neighbors.  Separated by history and conflict from the religion of her ancestors . . .  because the Samaritans were what was left of the ten tribes of Israel that broke away when Solomon’s son Rehoboam took the throne.  They couldn’t go to the Temple in Jerusalem, so they built their own. . .  and she was unlikely to be welcomed there, anyway, even in the court of the women.  And suddenly here is this man, this Jewish man, who speaks to her when no Jew ever spoke to a Samaritan, no decent man spoke to a strange woman in public (and vice versa). He spoke to her of water, living water, and she didn’t understand.  Until suddenly she did.  And that hole in her soul began to fill.  That soul deep hunger and thirst became satisfied.  Her healing had begun.  So she went to tell everyone, and brought them all back to him, to the one who had brought her salvation, healing, and changed her life.

When I was in seminary learning all kinds of theological goodies, I listened to all of the professors and read all of the books and thought most of the discussion around who God is and what God wants from us were word games, right up there with the arguments over the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin.  None of it sounded like it was something to do, only something to believe and talk about.  My advisor was not pleased to hear this.  But then I took a course on Liberation Theology from the Rev. Dr. Carmelo Alvarez and for the first time encountered a kind of theology that has us out doing what Jesus said to do, working together to change the world the way Jesus was trying to change his world.  And I knew I had found the thing I needed to fill up my soul the rest of the way.  It was what was missing.  It was the “how to heal the world” part of Christianity that I had been yearning for.   Coming to understand that salvation is healing, that Christianity is an active faith, not a passive one, was my Samaritan woman at the well moment.   Suddenly, it all made sense to me.  And I knew I was in the right place.

A while back my friend Danny Bradfield, pastor of Bixby Knolls Christian Church in Long Beach, wrote this.   “SALVATION. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. The way Jesus used it, it means finding wholeness. "To save someone" meant to rescue them from oppression, from poverty, from being cast aside or thrown out by society. But that's hard work, so Jesus's followers soon decided that salvation simply meant believing in Jesus. After all, it's a lot easier to walk around saying "believe, believe" than it is to actually help those who suffer from all the classism, racism, sexism, and other sins of society.

The Greek word SOZO is often translated as "saved" (salvation) in English but it really means being made whole/well, starting now (in this life)...The Greek word that is translated as "believe" actually means "be passionately committed to." The Greek phrase for "eternal life" would be better translated as "the life of the ages," referring to a life of wholeness now as well as in the future. Jesus LIVED so that ALL may experience this life of wholeness, but those who did not like his message killed him because of it. But God showed his approval of all Jesus stood for by raising him back to life, to show that the way of life will prevail.” 

The Samaritan woman went back to her village and told everyone what Jesus had said.  Of course they all ran back to hear this for themselves.  And they kept him there for two days, to feed their soul deep hunger and assuage their thirst.  The villagers heard the word from her and that was good but then they heard it from Jesus.  That was like the difference between drinking a cup of water someone brought you and drinking directly from the spring.  Have you ever done that?  We had a spring house when I was young.  The water came through pipes into our house and it was good.  But there was just something about going into the spring house and reaching down with my hand to scoop up that cold, fresh water straight into my mouth.  I imagine it would have been like that.   And then, at the end of two days,  “They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”  

This is truly the Savior of the world.  The Word that he brings is the living water, the eternal food, that heals our souls and enables us to go out to heal the world.  It is that Word which feeds our soul deep hunger and thirst each time we gather for worship, each time we come together at the table, each time we share the Word of our Lord with another.   My sisters and brothers, when we go from this place today, let us go forth ready to share that water and that food, that healing love of God, through our every word and action, with each other and with the world. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Take off your shoes!

Scripture Reading: Matthew 17:1-9 Common English Bible (CEB)

17 Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. 2 He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.

3 Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. 4 Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good that we’re here. If you want, I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

5 While he was still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them. A voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” 6 Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe.

7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell anybody about the vision until the Human One is raised from the dead.”


Sometimes people ask me where on earth I got the idea for a sermon title, or for the direction my message wanders off into.  And I totally understand why they might wonder.  Sometimes I actually know the answer.  Other times it’s more like, I dunno.  I read something somewhere?  Maybe a Facebook post?  Or one of my daily meditations?  But this season, this Lenten Season in the year of our Lord 2017, I have taken my titles and inspirations and scripture readings directly from the Lenten Devotional book you are all reading every single day.  So when you come here on Sunday mornings for the next several Sundays you will hear an expansion on what you just read that morning.  

So, this morning Lynette Johnson wrote about Peter’s response to Elijah and Moses joining Jesus on the mountaintop, noting that this is “one of those stories that highlights Peter’s shortcomings.”  Given that most stories featuring Peter highlight his shortcomings, this is not at all surprising.  She says, “You just want to shake him…!”  Yup.  That’s what I want to do alright.  Most of the time.  I mean, really Peter?  You think that’s  a good idea?

So, in this story Peter, James and John go with Jesus to the mountain top where he is transformed, and the two great prophets Moses and Elijah appear there to speak with him.  Peter says, let us build you huts - or in the translation we used today, shrines - one for each of you.  And you can tell he’s thinking, “Oh Lordy.  Moses and Elijah are standing there with my rabbi!  What can I do?  I can’t just stand here.  I have to do something.  These guys need to have special recognition. I know!  Let’s build something!”  

OK, enough laughing at Peter now.  I mean, which of us would have responded better, I wonder?  I mean, it’s not like we daydream about going with our favorite preacher up to the top of the mountains and Jesus suddenly shows up to talk to her, and we plan out how we will behave, right?   Of course, I’m not totally sure how he knew it was Moses and Elijah - it’s not like they had portraits of them in every synagogue or anything . . . Anyway, the fact that he didn’t immediately fall to his knees in humble adoration kind of makes sense.  Plus, Jews wouldn’t automatically fall to their knees, as they stand up to pray anyway.  But Peter was a do something kind of guy.  When faced with an unknown situation, he looked for something constructive to do.   We understand that perfectly.  Someone dies and we start cooking, or planning how to help the family.  A celebration is coming up?  We start making lists of who is bringing the cookies, and who will open the building.   We hear that a family has lost their home in a fire?  We look for ways to replace what they have lost.   If Jesus, Moses and Elijah should appear here, in this place, I imagine that we would immediately start running to bring out the best chairs for them to sit on and telling the deacons to make sure they are served first, and asking if there is a particular hymn they would like to hear . . .The idea of simply taking off our shoes, of standing quietly with bare feet, in the presence of the holy just doesn’t occur to us.  

I mean, we don’t even always think of taking off our shoes as being a recognition of the sacred.  Yes, Moses was directed to take off his shoes in the presence of the burning bush, as God was present in the bush and in the ground around the bush.  And somehow that makes sense to us, but the idea that we should take off our shoes in the presence of the Holy doesn’t.   Leah and I have a conversation almost every Sunday about shoes.  She takes hers off the minute she gets here on Sunday mornings, and always tells me she’ll put them back on before worship begins. I always tell her I don’t care, and I’m pretty sure God doesn’t either.  (That goes for you, too, Jordan.  When I find a pair of shoes in the church office, I know that Jordan is around here someplace.)  But in this place and time, keeping our shoes on in the presence of the Holy makes sense. Probably because we kind of believe that God is present every where and all the time.  Taking off our shoes in the presence of new carpet, on the other hand . . .  

My mother’s friend Eleanor was one of those ladies whose living room was totally off limits.  It wasn’t a matter of taking off your shoes when you went in.  You simply didn’t go in!  Not if you were a kid, anyway.  Kids were only allowed in the downstairs TV room and maybe the kitchen, but never in the Sacred Living Room, where everything was covered in plastic.  I imagine some adults were allowed into the Sacred Living Room, like for Bridge Club, maybe.  And maybe she even took the plastic off when the Bridge Club came over.  I’m not sure.   But Eleanor’s Living Room was a little bit like the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem.  Only the priests were allowed in there, and only one at a time, and only at certain prescribed times, and only if they were wearing the right clothing, because that room was the place where God’s feet touched the earth.  Normal folks could be in the courtyards, although women and non-Jews were only allowed in the very outer areas.   

I have long made it a practice to meet with a Spiritual Director once each month.  She’s sort of a companion on the journey. She works with me on seeing where God is acting in my life, helping me seek discernment in situations where I am unsure where God is leading me.  Sometimes she introduces me to new prayer practices or spiritual disciplines.   My current Spiritual Director recently had new carpet installed in the room where we meet, and as a result we take off our shoes before entering the room.  Last month - as I was wearing boots and she knows that my back is not always cooperative - she mentioned that she didn’t want to make the new carpet an idol, so if taking off my shoes would be a hardship we could wear our shoes into the room instead.  On the other hand, my former Spiritual Director invited everyone to remove their shoes upon entering the space where she met with directees, as we would be welcoming Jesus into our conversation, thus making our meeting space a sacred space.   There is a fundamental difference between these two ways of thinking.  I will not say that one is right and one is wrong.  They are simply different, and different is ok.

The thing about taking off our shoes, though, is that it makes us vulnerable.  Exposing our feet to whatever might be on the ground, or to the cold, or other people’s view is a bit scary.  I mean, our feet aren’t necessarily our most attractive feature.  They aren’t usually something we go around showing off.  We might show off a new pedicure, maybe.  But not our ordinary, every day, raggedy toenailed, un-pampered feet.  When Maundy Thursday rolls around, and Pastor Ochoa and I get out the basins and the water pitchers and the towels, and wait to see which of you all will come forward to let us wash your feet, as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, which of you will?  Which of you will allow yourself to be vulnerable, to be touched in so intimate a manner, by another person?  

Maybe Peter was feeling so vulnerable already in the presence of Elijah and Moses that he couldn’t even think of becoming more so.  Maybe he wasn’t so much excited as fearful.  And in his fear, he responded in the only way a man of action knows to respond - he looked for some familiar thing he could do.  

Here’s the thing about Peter’s shortcomings that is really, really important for us to remember.  Peter was the one whom Jesus appointed to be the foundation upon which the church would be built.  Peter, with all his faults and shortcomings and even his outright denial of Jesus on Good Friday, Peter was the one whom Jesus appointed to be the foundation on which the church would be built.  If Peter was the foundation, the cornerstone, the strong point on which all else would rest, what does that say about us?  It says that Jesus knew, God knew, that we would make mistakes.  He knew that we would get it completely wrong sometimes.  But he believed in us.  He had faith in us.  Talk about a mustard seed!  Only this time the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak.  Jesus had faith that he could put the responsibility for teaching the world about him and his message, about God and God’s loving forgiveness, about how to live as God’s beloved and loving children, all of that, into our hands, and have it come out right in the end.

My sisters and brothers, the Good News here is we don’t have to have all the answers.  We don’t have to always get it right.  Jesus had faith in Peter, with all his faults and shortcomings, to lead the entire world into reconciliation with God and with each other, and Jesus has faith in us that we will continue to do that very thing.  And if Jesus can have faith in us to do the right thing, even if it takes a bunch of tries, surely we can have faith that through Jesus, we will be transformed into the people God intends for us to be.    When we go from this place today, let us go without fear, knowing that God is with us, and that God trusts us to carry the Good News of his loving care, his forgiveness, and his steadfast love for all, out into the world.  

Sunday, March 5, 2017

It Can All Be Yours

Matthew 4:1-11 (NRSV)

4 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If 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.’”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

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

‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.


When I looked at the slide show yesterday and got to this one, I thought to myself, “Who is that guy?”  It occurred to me after a minute that it’s Bob Barker from The Price is Right, and that this picture is exactly what I asked for.  I just never realized how much he looked like a preacher before!  People have been going on that show to win great prizes since 1956!  Bob Barker was the host from 1972 until 2007.  And he was sort of a preacher . . . every episode ended with him talking about how important it is to spay and neuter your pets.   But the reason I wanted a picture of him is because he would say things like, “It can all be yours!  If the Price is Right.”  And people would come on the show to demonstrate how well they knew the prices of common and unusual products, and even, sometimes, the price of A New Car!!!  Of course, even on the Price is Right, the prizes aren’t entirely free.  You have to pay income tax on the full list price of whatever you win.  Everything in life comes with a price, also known as, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”  

Jesus went away into the wilderness, to fast and to pray and prepare himself for the ministry that lay ahead.  He went away by himself to be closer to God, to avoid all the day to day worries and temptations so he could concentrate.  You know the sort of things I mean - the phone call that comes just as you are about to start your personal Bible Study, or the invitation to go do something with a friend instead of your daily workout, or the smell of Kentucky fried chicken in the air when you are looking at the spinach salad you brought from home . . . all those little daily things that interfere with doing what we know we are supposed to be doing.  Jesus went away into the wilderness to avoid all that, and what happens?  Satan shows up.   

According to Matthew, God’s Spirit led him into the desert to be tempted by Satan . . . and maybe that is so, because Satan did have a job to do, after all.  Throughout the scriptures, Satan fills his role as the one who is sent by God to test those most loyal.  He did a serious number of Job, you will remember, but Job remained faithful.  So now it’s Jesus’ turn. Here’s a man hungry and tired and dirty, who has just spent forty days and nights off on his own, camping rough and fasting, and Satan shows up to tempt him to use his powers for his own personal comfort.    “Are you really ready for this Jesus?”  “Yup, Satan.  I’m about as ready as I will ever be.”   

I don’t know about you, but when I read this I sort of puff up a bit thinking, “See, there Satan?  You can’t tempt Jesus!  He’s Jesus!  Perfect in every way, sinless, and un-temptable!”   But I am not sure that’s right.  After all, if Jesus was un-temptable, why would God set this up?  And Matthew makes it pretty clear that God set it up, just like Job’s temptation was a set up.  We have to remember that Jesus was fully human, which means not only that he got hungry and dirty and tired like the rest of us, but that he was also prone to temptation, like the rest of us.  The whole point of Jesus being human is so that we would understand that what he did was do-able for all of us.  The whole point of Jesus being human is so that we would know he grieved when Lazarus died, just as we grieve.  So that we would know he felt the pain of the lash and the nails, and of death, just as we do.  So that we would know that he had to push aside temptation . . . that his saying “No” to the temptation to turn rocks into bread and let angels rescue him and take ownership of the world was real.  Not the “No” of someone who was never tempted to say “Yes,” but the “No” of someone who had to think about if, even if just for a second.  The whole point of Jesus being human is so that we would not sit around saying, “Well, yeah, but that was Jesus!   I’m not at all like Jesus!  He’s God!  I can’t do what he did!”

It’s tempting, though, isn’t it?   To decide that we can’t follow in Jesus’ footsteps because we aren’t Jesus?  We aren’t perfect.  We aren’t the son of God.  We don’t embody God’s Word, as Jesus did.  We can’t do miracles, or cast out demons, or make the blind see or the lame walk, or feed the 5,000, or raise someone from death.  We’re just human.  It is so tempting to think that we are just human and that Jesus wasn’t and so, of course, we can’t do what he did.  But the thing is, Jesus was human.   Jesus was like us, and we can be like him.  And the temptation to believe that we can’t be might be the most terrible of all the temptations we face.

A side note:  For those of you who remember comedian Flip Wilson’s character “Geraldine” - the devil can’t make you do it.   For those who don’t remember, Geraldine (who was Flip Wilson in drag) would tell all these stories about things she and her boyfriend Killer got up to, and would always excuse her behavior by saying, “The devil made me do it!”  That is just plain not true.  The devil can’t make anyone do anything, but can only present us with temptation.  Some are small temptations - like cookies.  Some are larger - like Grand Theft Auto.  But the devil can’t force us to behave badly, and God won’t force us to be good.  We have free will.  We get to choose in every situation what we will do.  Sometimes the choices we are faced with aren’t great, but we always have a choice.   

Just like Jesus did.  More than once in his ministry, he had a choice.  He could have given in to Satan’s suggestion that he turn stones into bread.  He had been fasting for 40 days, so minimal food and drink for over a month!   And the idea of bread, right now, must have been tempting.  But he said no, that God’s word was more satisfying than bread.  Satan’s other offers may have held more or less attraction, but I think the food thing after 40 days of not much food would be hard to resist.  Of course, that’s just me.  I always find food hard to resist, and that’s without fasting.  Maybe being king of the world would have been more tempting to Jesus.  I dunno.  But I do know that later on, right near the end, Jesus asked God if he could let the cup pass from him.  He could have chosen, even at that late date, to walk away from the hard road ahead.  He could have given into the temptation to prolong his life.  But he chose to go forward to the cross.  

Jesus was human, just like we are.  There is nothing he did that we cannot do.    We maybe can’t do it to the extent that he did, but listen.  How many people do we feed at Christian Cafe?  How many people do we feed at the SMART center?  Maybe not 5,000 all at once, but still, a lot of hungry folks are fed.  How many hearts do we heal every time we make it really clear that at this church, “All means All.”?  How many demons of pain and fear and unworthiness do we drive out when we hug someone who has never felt truly accepted before?  Maybe we can’t say, “Get up, take up your mat and walk.” But we can say, “Your sins are forgiven” and know that we have spoken the truth.  That’s what Jesus did.  And that’s what got Jesus in trouble.   

Jesus mostly did human things, not great marvels. If he had done great marvels, I suspect it would have been harder for the Temple to act against him.  I mean, if someone could make armies of angels appear at his back, would you stand against him?  No.  Jesus didn’t do those huge things that Satan suggested.   Jesus mostly did small, every day things. Human things.  Do-able things.  He healed hearts and souls.  He inspired others to share their food.  He laid his hands on people who weren’t used to being touched.  He encouraged people to help one another.  He welcomed those who felt unwelcome.  He turned away from those who would have him hold himself apart, who would treat him like a celebrity instead of “just” a teacher.  He reminded everyone of God’s desire for all of us to be reconciled with God and with one another.  

Our theme for the season of Lent is “With faith the size of a mustard seed.”  The way to avoid the great temptation to think that you cannot possibly follow in Jesus’ footsteps is to have just that much faith - faith the size of a mustard seed.  The Good News is that a tiny speck of faith is all it takes to step out and do the things that Jesus would have you do, the things that Jesus did.  Feed the hungry.  Heal the sin sick soul.  Comfort the lonely, the tired, the rejected.  Remind people that they are forgiven.  Assure people that they are loved.  Love the unloveable.  Stand against oppression - against bullying and hateful talk.  Act in all ways like a child of God, with faith that in Him all things are possible.  Go out from this place today, and be like Jesus.