People Will Talk. There Will Be Stories. (Sermon for May 20, 2018)

Last week, I talked to you a little bit about Matthias.

After Jesus was betrayed, arrested, and crucified, after he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, the apostles were down one person. Judas, who had set the events of Holy Week into motion through his betrayal, wasn’t with them any more. And the remaining apostles decided to fill his seat with someone new.

So the community of believers nominated two people. And the apostles prayed and cast lots. And the dice landed a certain way. God said, “Matthias”. And suddenly this man was a leader of the early church. Whether he was ready or not.

And, while we don’t hear anything else about Matthias in the Bible, you may have noticed that there are stories and legends about him. Some say he went to minister in Cappadocia, some in what is now the Republic of Georgia, some in Ethiopia. Some say he died in Sebastopolis, some in Jerusalem. Some say he was stoned, some he was beheaded, some he died peacefully at home.

We don’t know the truth about Matthias. But we do know that people talked. There are stories.

And if that happened to Matthias…

Something similar is happening in today’s reading. Today is Pentecost. And every Pentecost, we hear this story.

The community of believers is all together when there is a rush of wind and tongues of fire appear. And the Holy Spirit enters the believers and they begin speaking in other languages. A crowd forms around them, and everyone in that crowd hears what the believers are saying — stories about God’s deeds of power — in their own language. Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Cappadocians, Pontusians, Asians, Phrygians, Pamphylians, Egyptians, Libyans, Romans… everyone hears the believers speak in their own tongue.

And some people in the crowd are amazed. “How is it,” they ask, “that we are hearing them speak and understanding them, each in our language? What does this mean?”

And a few of them say, “Eh, those people are drunk.”

And that’s weird. Think about that for a moment. Someone in that crowd hears the believers speaking and thinks, “Wait, those believers are Galileans, I am Phrygian, we don’t speak the same language, but I am understanding every word they say… they must be drunk.”

But I imagine that started spreading through the crowd. And while some of the people were amazed, others were saying, “Look at those people, they’re drunk. It’s nine in the morning and they’re filled with wine. What is wrong with them?” And a few of the people who heard that believed it. And they turned to others and said the same thing. And suddenly people were talking. There were stories.

And, I imagine, a few of the believers heard those stories. And they thought to themselves, “These people think we’re drunk! Maybe I should just be quiet. Maybe this strange spirit will leave me alone and I can be quiet and they won’t think I’m drunk and I don’t want them to think that.”

But then Peter stands up. Peter, who never quite got Jesus’ parables. Peter, who denied that he even knew Jesus during the crucifixion. Peter, who has sometimes been ill-prepared for his call and for life in general. That Peter. Peter stands up and says, “We are not drunk. It’s nine in the morning.”

And then he says this:

“In the last days it will be,” God declares, “that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”

And suddenly we know why people were saying that the believers were drunk. Power does not like prophecy. Power does not like visions. Power does not like dreams. Because prophecy is almost never on the side of the powerful.

You can ask Dr. King, who was one of the most reviled men in America when he was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. You can ask the kids from Stoneman Douglas High School, who have been called crisis actors and pawns. You can ask the folks who have protested police shootings of Black people, who are called thugs and dragged through the mud. You can ask countless, countless others.

And you can ask Jesus, who was betrayed and arrested and crucified.

Power hears prophets and says, “they must be drunk… they are naive… they don’t know how the world works… they are demanding the impossible… they are dangerous… … …crucify them.”

Power does not like prophecy; because prophecy is almost never on the side of the powerful.

And that can be scary. Because when the spirit shows up, it shows up. As a rush of wind or tongues of fire, or a tug at our hearts. Whether we’re ready or not. And it we listen to it, people will talk. There will be stories.

If we put up a rainbow flag, people will talk.

If we put out a Black Lives Matter sign, people will talk.

If we march for our lives, people will talk.

If we point out that residents in Flint, Michigan, are still being asked to drink bottled water…

If we tell people that the work requirements being added to Medicaid are set up to affect Black residents and exempt white residents…

If we wonder aloud why so many Palestinians were injured or killed while the United States opened a new embassy in Jerusalem…

If we say that it’s wrong to say, about anyone, “they’re not human; they’re animals”…

If we talk about yet another school shooting, one that brings the bodycount for students higher than the one for members of the military this year…

If we are wild and dangerous and full of grace, people will talk. There will be stories.

And, as an aside, I do know the examples I just gave. I’m sure a few of you will be talking about me later.

And that can be scary. After all, we are people. We all want other people to like us. We don’t want to hear someone say — about us — “they must be drunk… they are naive… they don’t know how the world works… they are demanding the impossible… they are dangerous… … …crucify them.”

But…

In today’s reading from Romans, Paul is writing to a church that he has never visited. He know that the church in Rome is struggling and suffering. And, oh, you should hear the things they were saying about the Christians in Rome. Oh, you should see the things they were doing to the Christians in Rome. And Paul reminds them that the suffering they are going through now is for a purpose.

You see, the whole of creation is groaning. It is in labor. And what is being made, what is being born, is amazing. It is nothing less than the kingdom of God. And while we can’t quite see it yet, all things are coming together for the good. And this suffering will be diminished to nothing by the glory of what is to come.

And if you want the challenge of being the church… if you want the challenge of following Christ… if you want the challenge of being filled with the Spirit… there it is.

If we are the church — if we are daring in our welcome; if we are wild, dangerous, and full of grace — then people will talk and there will be stories. And some people will say, “Who are these people? What does this mean?” And some people will say, “Eh, those people are drunk.”

And a few of us might say, “These people think we’re drunk! Maybe we should just be quiet. Maybe this spirit will leave us alone and we can be quiet and they won’t think we’re drunk and I don’t want them to think that.”

And maybe even I will say that. I’ll admit it. I want people to like me.

But that spirit is here whether we’re ready or not. When we don’t know how to speak, that spirit is speaking on our behalf. When we don’t know how to pray, that spirit is interceding with sighs too deep for words. When we don’t know what to say, that spirit speaks to us so that we may speak.

When we don’t know how to be, that spirit lifts us up and carries us.

That spirit — that very spirit that comes as a rush of wind and tongues of fire, that very spirit that brings prophecies and visions and dreams — stands with us.

And, yes, being a spirit-filled people is scary. It might even be a little dangerous. People will talk. There will be stories.

But that spirit — that spirit that makes some people ask, “Who are these people? What does this mean?”; that spirit that makes some people say, “Eh, those people are drunk.” — is the Holy Spirit that is giving birth to a new world of justice and mercy and love that we can barely imagine.

And that is the spirit that will see us through to the other side. And that is good news.

Grace Sees Us Through (Sermon for May 13, 2018)

A week or two ago, I had a stress dream.

I was running late for Sunday worship. I couldn’t find any clean dress pants, so I threw on some jeans and a t-shirt and got in the car. And, in the dark, I started my drive to church. Now, in my dream, the road to church was long and winding and went through a cemetery and a small town.

And as I was driving through that small town, I saw a gas station. I looked at my gas gauge and — even though I was already late — I knew that I needed to stop for gas. And then, I looked at my clock… and I had forgotten about daylight savings time and it was already ten o’clock!

I was so, so late. And I was trying to think of how to walk into the end of the service in a way that wasn’t, y’know, completely embarrassing.

And then I woke up.

And I know dreams are never about what they’re about. But I think that this one was a manifestation of a really basic fear. A fear that most of us have. The fear that I don’t know what I’m doing, that I’m ill-prepared both for this call and for life in general, and that — at some point — I am going to mess up badly and be reliant entirely on the grace of God and this community to see me through.

Y’know… adulthood. And adolescence. And a fair amount of childhood. Being a person, really.

And, after that dream, I was happy to see this passage from Acts appear in the lectionary.

This story — this little bit of early church polity — takes place early in Acts. The background is simple: Jesus was arrested and crucified and buried. After three days, he rose. And, about forty days later, he ascended into heaven.

And this was set in motion by Judas, who betrayed Jesus. And it’s not surprising that, after that betrayal, he isn’t part of the community anymore.

But the eleven remaining apostles think that there should be twelve of them. There’s a seat empty. So they start the process of filling the position. The whole community of believers — about 120 people at that point — nominate two men: Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias.

We don’t know much about either of these guys. We know that they were with the community from the time of Jesus’ baptism by John until he ascended into heaven. And that’s a weird thing to say, since none of the apostles were at Jesus’ baptism. Jesus didn’t start picking his disciples until after he had been baptized and spent forty days in the wilderness. But the point is clear, Joseph and Matthias had been with the community for a long time.

Beyond that, we know nothing. We don’t know if they were educated. We don’t know what their professions were. We don’t know what their families were like. We don’t know what their qualifications were.

But the apostles prayed. And they cast lots. And Matthias became one of the twelve. He became one of the leaders of the early church. All because the dice landed a certain away. All because God said, “Matthias.”

And nowhere in this story — nowhere in this example of how the early church chose leaders — does Matthias get a say in this. He doesn’t volunteer. He doesn’t campaign. He doesn’t give a speech to accept the nomination. No balloons come falling down. The dice land a certain way. God says, “Matthias.” And that’s it. God chooses Matthias, whether he’s ready or not.

And beyond that, we know nothing. We never hear about Matthias again. He doesn’t show up in the New Testament again. And even the legends and traditions are hard to reconcile. Sometimes, he goes to Cappadocia. Sometimes to what is now the Republic of Georgia. Sometimes to Ethiopia.

Sometimes he dies in Sebastopolis. Sometimes in Jerusalem. Sometimes he is stoned. Sometimes he’s beheaded. Sometimes he dies of old age.

We simply don’t know what he did… or where he went… or whether he was a good apostle. All we know is that the dice landed a certain way and that God said, “Matthias”. All we know is that Matthias was chosen.

And, from the rest of the Bible, we know what kinds of people God usually chooses. They’re not the most qualified. They’re not the best of the best. They’re not earth’s mightiest heroes.

What they are, often, are people who are ill-prepared both for their call and for life in general, who are entirely reliant on the grace of God and their community to see them through. They are, often, people more-or-less like us.

And while I’m not sure that casting lots is the best way to fill leadership positions, there’s something important happening here. There’s something that I think we can all understand.

Sometimes it goes like this. Something needs to be done. The community pushes a couple of people forward. Maybe they’re even people who maybe, possibly, could do the thing that needs to be done. And God says, “that one.” And, suddenly, we’re standing in front of the congregation… chosen. Whether we’re ready or not.

And sometimes that thing that needs to be done is vacuuming the church, or getting communion ready, or providing special music, or leading a prayer, or reading scripture, or leading the time with young worshippers, or giving a sermon, or leading a meeting, or chairing a committee, or anything else.

And the fact is that the community doesn’t always push us towards the thing we think we’re good at. And God doesn’t always call us to the place that we’re ready to go. We just get chosen. Whether we’re ready or not.

And if that sounds scary… it is. And if it sounds amazing… it is.

And I know that because I’m standing in front of you this morning. And, if I can be a little vulnerable for a moment, sometimes I am scared. And sometimes I am amazed. And sometimes I am both of those things at once.

And while it might not sound like the greatest invitation ever, you can be, too.

This is one of the beautiful things about the church. In the church – in this community of people who strive to love each other as Jesus loved us – we don’t have to be afraid. We can rely on the grace of God and this community to see us through.

We can try new things… and grace will see us through.

We can heed God’s call… and grace will see us through.

We can be ill-prepared for for God’s call and life in general… and grace will see us through.

We can mess up badly…and grace will see us through.

And because grace will see us through, we don’t have to know exactly where we’re going. You see, just like we don’t know where Matthias went, there is no way he could have known where he was going.

He couldn’t know if he was going to Cappadocia, or what is now the Republic of Georgia, or Ethiopia. He couldn’t know if he would die in Sebastopolis or Jerusalem. He couldn’t know if he would be stoned or die peacefully at home. He couldn’t know what life would be like.

All he could know is that the dice had landed a certain way and that God had said, “Matthias.” All he could know is that he was chosen. And all he could do is rely on grace to see him through.

And we can walk forward – even when it’s scary – and know that God’s grace and the grace of this congregation will see us through. Even when we can’t find clean dress pants so we have to wear jeans and a t-shirt, and we have to stop for gas, and we missed the change to daylight savings time, and we are very late.

And we can rely on the God’s grace and the grace of the holy spirit even when it’s worse than that.

Hallelujah!

An Ever-Widening Circle (Sermon for May 6, 2018)

Previously, at First Congregational United Church of Christ.

A couple of weeks ago, when we were having our annual celebration of extravagant welcome, I preached on the beginning of the story of Peter and Cornelius. To recap, since it’s important:

Peter was an apostle of Jesus Christ. And he knew that the church was a community of Jewish people who followed the Jewish messiah who would restore the homeland of the Jewish people, who were the chosen people of the Jewish God.

But God had told a man — a gentile — named Cornelius to send men to Peter. And he did.

And to prepare Peter, God sent him a vision of unclean foods and told him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” And Peter knew that this vision and this statement wasn’t about food… it was about people.

So, when the men who Cornelius sent to Peter showed up, Peter went with them (even though they were gentiles) and went to Cornelius’ household (even though they were gentiles) and preached the good news to them (even though they were gentiles).

And now we’re here. But, like any other time when there’s a good ‘previously on…’, we’ll get to that later.

In today’s reading from John, Jesus is giving his disciples a commandment. With a catch.

“Love one another,” he tells them, “as I have loved you.”

Now, Jesus isn’t saying this as a king to his people… or as a messiah to his nation… or as a master to his servants… or as a teacher to his students… or even as a pastor to his congregation. He’s saying it as a man to his friends. He has shared everything with them. But now he’s getting ready to leave them and it’s hard and all he wants is for them to love each other as he has loved them.

Now, we are in the season of Easter. Today is the sixth Sunday of Easter and we have heard the full story. We know that Jesus will be betrayed and arrested and crucified and buried. And we know that Jesus will rise. But this passage in John takes place before that. Jesus knows what is coming. And he knows that the disciples will rejoice in the resurrection. But he also knows that before they rejoice in the resurrection, they will mourn in the betrayal and arrest and crucifixion and burial. And he is preparing them.

What should they do when he’s gone?

“Love one another,” he tells them, “as I have loved you.”

And that’s a good commandment. But, as I said, there’s a catch.

“No one has greater love than this,” he continues, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

You see, God loved the world like this. God sent his only begotten son into the world, as flesh and blood. And that son suffered and died. And that son came into the world so that we might live through him.

And Jesus loved us like this. He was that son. He laid down his life. He came into the world so that we might live through him.

And all he wants us to do is love one another like that. So… easy, right?

Now, I think we established early in my tenure here that I am a nerd. And we all know that my day off is Friday. Which is a perfect combination because a lot of new movies — like, for example, Avengers: Infinity War — open on Thursday nights. And so, at noon a couple of Fridays ago, I was sitting in an IMAX theater with my 3D glasses and popcorn-for-lunch. And I was watching the greatest superhero team-up of all time fight some super-villains over the fate of the universe.

And… I like to imagine myself among those heroes. It’s a bit of escapism. Maybe Chris Marlin-Warfield, mild-mannered out-of-shape pastor, could put on a silly costume and fight intergalactic evil.

I think all of use have those fantasies. At least a little bit. We imagine ourselves as heroes. We imagine that we would run into the burning building, or towards the gunfire, or right at the intergalactic evil. We imagine that we would win the day for justice and righteousness. Even if it meant sacrificing ourselves.

And that’s easy to imagine. It’s harder to do. And that’s okay. I’m not going to ask you to run into a burning building or towards the gunfire. Because I don’t think that Jesus is saying something as simple as, “be the hero who dies saving everyone else.”

But I am going to ask you to run right at the intergalactic evil. Because I think Jesus is asking us to do something much harder than being the hero who dies saving everyone else. I think he is asking us to be the the heroes who live for each other.

When we see someone who is hungry, to give them something to eat. When we see a stranger, to welcome them. When we see someone who is in prison, to sit with them. If only for a moment, to lay down our own lives, and help someone else carry the burdens of their own.

Because God loved the world like this. He came into the world as this man Jesus. He walked alongside us. He carried our burdens. He laughed with us and cried with us and healed us. He was with us. And he still is. And he always will be.

And there is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life — to lay aside one’s divinity and power and majesty — for one’s friends.

And that brings me back around to Peter and Cornelius.

You see, it is, in its own weird way, easy to lay down our lives for our friends. Our friends are exactly the kinds of people we would want to lay down our lives for. That’s why they’re our friends, right?

A long time ago, I was unemployed for a while and my friends helped me out. And when our friends have been down on their luck, Mariah and I have helped them out. It’s what friends do.

But God keeps expanding the circle of friendship.

When Peter delivers the good news to Cornelius and his household, God pours the holy spirit out on them. And the Jewish Christians who have come along with Peter were amazed. They couldn’t believe it. They knew that the church was a community of Jewish people who followed the Jewish messiah who would restore the homeland of the Jewish people, who were the chosen people of the Jewish God. And here was God pouring the holy spirit out on these gentiles.

God is widening the circle… and Peter sees it.

“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people,” he says, “who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

And they are baptized.

And… when Jesus is talking to his disciples — when he gives them that commandment — he tells them a deep truth. They didn’t choose him. He chose them.

And Cornelius did not choose God. And Peter did not choose Cornelius. God chose Cornelius and his household and poured out the holy spirit. God showed Peter that the circle of the chosen people was bigger than Peter thought. And I will insist that God has made that circle infinitely big. I will insist that God has chosen everyone. I will insist that the world is awash in the holy spirit.

And so when Jesus says, “love one another as I have loved you,” he is saying, “love everyone as I have loved you.”

And Jesus loved us like this. God laid aside her divinity and her power and her majesty for a world that she loved and that was broken. And God came into the world as one of us and walked alongside us and carried our burdens and laughter with us and cried with us and healed us. God was with us in the person of Jesus the Christ. And God is still with us. And God always will be with us.

And there is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Christ’s love is an ever-widening circle. And Christ calls us — Christ commands us — to let our love be an ever-widening circle. To love our friends. To welcome new people as our friends. To open ourselves up to new friendships. And to love those friends as Christ has loved us.

Or, to put that another way, Christ calls us — Christ commands us — to be the church. Hallelujah. Amen.

Loved People Love People (Sermon for April 29, 2018)

After college, I spent a couple of years working as a cook in a chef owned and operated restaurant in Galesburg, Illinois. And while it wasn’t going to win any Michelin stars, it was a good restaurant and one of the more upscale ones in Galesburg.

And it was a traditional kitchen… meaning that there was a lot of yelling and swearing and name calling and threatening. That’s part of kitchen culture. Paul Bocuse yelled. Auguste Escoffier swore. Marie-Antoine Carême probably called people names. Eugenie Brazier probably threatened people.

Chefs throughout history and throughout the world have done all of those things. My chef wasn’t nearly bad as chefs at other restaurants. But the people who taught him yelled and swore at him. And he yelled and swore at me. And, when it came time for me to oversee someone else in that kitchen… I yelled and swore at him.

Tony isn’t going to hear this or read this. But, dude… sorry. I mean, hurry up, but still… sorry.

Hurt people hurt people. It’s true in these middle-sized things like workplaces. We have entire cultures based around hurt people hurting people.

It’s true in the little things, too. I’ve woken up on the wrong side of the bed or started my day with a problem and I’ve taken that out on my wife or my coworkers or my dog or some random person on the road. They might have never even noticed, but it’s happened. Hurt people hurt people.

And, of course, it’s true in the big things. We all know that children who are abused are more likely to grow up to abuse others. We all know that the children of people who abuse alcohol or other drugs are more likely to grow up to abuse those things themselves. History is not destiny; any child can grow up to be healthy and whole. But the scars of the past have effects in the present, and abuse tends to create a generational cycle. Hurt people hurt people.

And one of the ways that hurt people hurt people is by convincing people that hurting someone is the same as loving them. We get a distorted view of love. We start to think that love is the same as lust… or fame… or power. We trade love for the illusion of love.

Today’s reading is from the First Epistle of John. Now, there are a lot of Johns. There the John who wrote a gospel. There’s the John who wrote Revelation. And there’s the John who wrote these three letters that are in our Bibles. And this is one of those letters.

And this John, in this letter, is writing for a reason. You see, there was a group of people in his community who were docetists. That’s the fancy theological word for the idea that Jesus’ body was an illusion. According to the docetists, Jesus didn’t really suffer; he didn’t really die. And they believed that they were saved. And they believed that they were loved.

And John wants his readers to know that these people are wrong. That they had traded Christ for the illusion of Christ. That they had traded love for the illusion of love.

John wants his readers to know that God loved the world like this. God sent her only begotten son in the world as flesh and blood. And that son suffered and died and rose and ascended and will come again. And that son came into the world so that we might live through him.

John wants us to know that this is God’s love; that God is this love. And everything depends on that. Because anything else is an illusion.

So, on the one hand, we have the love of the docetists. It looks like love. We might even be tricked into thinking that it is love. But it is an illusion. It is play-acting. It is a fantasy.

And, on the other hand, we have the love that John wants us to know: God’s eternal and extravagant love. The love that compels God to create the world. The love that compels God to redeem the world. The love that compels God to come into the world, as one of us, and preach a message of love even to the point of suffering and death.

Hurt people hurt people. Sometimes, hurt people distort our view of love. Sometimes, hurt people trade love for the illusion of love.

But… maybe…

John has this strange turn of phrase. “Since God has loved us so much,” he writes.

Since God has loved us so much…

Since God has sent her only begotten son as flesh and blood into this world that she created, and that son lived and loved and suffered and died and rose and ascended and will come again…

Since God has sent his son into this world so that we might live through him…

“Since God has loved us so much,” John writes, “we also ought to love one another.”

Think about that sentence. We might believe that we should love each other because it’s the right thing to do. We might believe that we should love each other because whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in them, and we all want to be closer to God. We might believe that we should love each other because of some abstract principle.

But… maybe…

Hurt people hurt people. And all of us — everyone in this sanctuary, everyone in the world — is a hurt person. Some of us are a little hurt. Some of us are a lot hurt. But every single one of us is hurt.

And all of us — everyone in this sanctuary, everyone in the world — hurts other people. Some of us hurt other people a little. Some of us hurt other people a lot. But every single one of us hurts other people.

And if we want to understand sin just a little, we can look at that cycle of hurt people hurting people. Of everyone being hurt and everyone hurting someone else.

And that’s why the good news is so important. That’s why it matters that Jesus isn’t just a story. That’s why it matters that the gospels aren’t just ancient works of fiction. That’s why it matters that Jesus’ life and suffering and death and resurrection aren’t just illusions. That’s why it matters that God’s love is real.

Hurt people hurt people. But… maybe… loved people can love people.

God loves us in this way. God creates and sustain and redeems a whole world. God comes into that world as one of us. God is born and lives and loves and suffers and dies and rises and will come again. God walks alongside us and shoulders our burdens. God laughs with us. God cries with us. God heals us. God is with us.

God loves us. God loves you. God loves me. God loves the butterfly in the garden and the wasp in her nest. God loves the tulip rising out of the flowerbed and the thistle in the field. God loves us. Really loves us. Really, really loves us.

And that opens up a world of possibility.

Hurt people hurt people. And we are hurt people. And because we are hurt people, we hurt people. But… because God loves us, we are also loved people. And because we are loved people, we can love each other. And not just each other, but everyone. We can love our friends and our enemies. We can love the butterfly in the garden and the wasp in her nest. We can can love the tulip in the flower bed and the thistle in the field. We can love.

Let me repeat that, because it’s that important: because we are loved people, we can love each other. And not just each other, but everyone. We can love our friends and our enemies. We can love the butterfly in the garden and the wasp in her nest. We can can love the tulip in the flower bed and the thistle in the field. We can love.

And I cannot think of any news better than that.

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