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Showing Up

Preached September 29, 2013

Texts:  John 15:9-17 & Colossians 3:12-17

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We continue through the Disciple’s Path series this week, talking about what it looks like to follow Jesus, particularly in the United Methodist tradition.  We support this congregation with our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.

Last week, we talked about prayer (and hopefully, not just talked about it, but actually prayed!).  This week, we look at the second of the membership vows:  to support this congregation with our presence.

So basically, our question this morning is, “Why are you here?”  What made you get out of bed this morning when you could have slept in?  What made you steer your car here to the church rather than to brunch or to the golf course or to the mall?

I imagine our answers area as varied as we are.  Some of us had to be here!  Some of us wanted to be with friends.  Others enjoy the music, or the beauty, or the food.  For some of us, it’s just what you do – our week wouldn’t feel right if we didn’t start it at church.  Some of us are here looking for answers, or for peace.  And the list could go on.

I have another question this morning, though.  What happens when the reason we came no longer rings true?  What happens when Alastair is away and the choir is small, or when hurt feelings creep in between us and our friends, or when we hear more questions than answers in the sermon?  Why bother with church then?

That is a question that has been asked frequently in recent years, especially by younger Americans.  One 24-year-old woman named Sarah recently wrote about why she, in her words, “lacks enthusiasm for church.”  Among her reasons were these:

  • Because the people who teach me and who ask me hard questions and who I want to live like and learn from are outside of my church.
  • Because I met, or perceived – rightly or wrongly – more hypocrites in the church than I sensed anywhere else. [1]

She also refers to music that feels “simplistic or whiny” and preaching that “didn’t so much make me think as fed me other people’s thoughts.”

And you know what?  She’s got some good points (she makes 22 of them, in total!).  So why bother with church, anyway?

We find one answer, I think, in Jesus words to his disciples in John 15.  The chapter begins with the image of a vine:  “I am the vine, and you are the branches…abide in me, and you will bear fruit…apart from me, you can do nothing.”  We hear in this passage (and rightfully so) the need to remain connected to God.  We hear our soul’s deep need for relationship, for a spiritual life.

To this point, our young author Sarah would agree.  We do have a longing for God – a “God-shaped” hole in us, as the saying goes.  But does abiding in God require us to be in church?  Sarah doesn’t think so.  She writes:

The awareness that my deepest moments of worship will come this afternoon, on a training run in breezy sunshine with my iPod and audio Bible, nags me.

She is right.  We can experience God elsewhere.   So once again – why bother with church?

My answer would be because, frankly, we don’t have much choice in the matter.  If we are abiding in Jesus – if we’re a branch along the vine – then we are side-by-side with other branches whether we like it or not.  God may meet us anywhere, anytime, in any way – certainly.  But when God begins to work in our heart and we begin to walk with God, we’ll find ourselves drawn into relationship with others who are walking with God, whether we like it or not.

We may wish it was otherwise.  We may not have anything in common with these people!  We may not like their style of music or their political persuasions.  We may think they are shallow or hypocrites.  But you know what?  We are still connected to the same vine.

As author Eugene Peterson puts it, “The church is God’s thing, not yours!”  Peterson writes:

You say that you have almost nothing in common with these people.  But isn’t that just the point?  You have nothing in common with them; but God does.  This just happens to be the way that God goes about making a kingdom, pulling all sorts and conditions of people together and then patiently, mercifully, and graciously making something of them.  What he obviously does not do is pre-select people who have an aptitude for getting along well and enjoying the same things.  Of course you don’t have much in common with them.  The church is God’s thing, not yours.[2]

That’s pretty much what Jesus tells his disciples in John 15:16:

You didn’t choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you could go and produce fruit and so that your fruit could last.

And why did Jesus choose them – and us?  Because he loves us – and because he wants us to love each other.  To take care of one another.  To watch out for one another.

Jesus knew that abiding in God – staying deeply connected, keeping that relationship with God strong – was not easy.  He knew there were all kinds of things that we might turn to in our efforts to fill that God-sized hole in our hearts – things like busyness, or food or drink, or one unhealthy relationship after another.  Jesus knew there were plenty of distractions, reasons we might loose our grip on faith – grief too deep to carry, pain we can’t make sense of, just plain apathy.

Jesus knew that any leaf along the vine would occasionally need the canopy of protection that other leaves offered.  He knew that abiding in God would require some encouragement and support from other people from time to time.

And so he gave the command:  Love each other as I have loved you (John 15:13).  In his last days with his disciples, knowing he will be leaving them soon, he tells them, “Take care of each other.  Stick together, you’ll need each other.  Love one another.”

Obeying that command is not always easy.  Sometimes it is difficult because we disagree – sharply, deeply.  Sometimes it is difficult because we don’t feel loved ourselves – so how and why should we love others?!  Sometimes, it is just downright inconvenient to set aside our agendas in order to care for the needs of another person.

The author of Colossians knew that caring for one another wasn’t easy – why do you think he wrote, “Bear with one another, and forgive one another whatever grievances you may have against one another.”

And yet, we are called to care.  We are called to love.  And we are called by God to do so as one branch of many along the common vine of Jesus, as part of a community of Jesus followers.

And that means showing up, because while we can do a lot of things from a distance, there are some things that only happen when we are together.  We can’t feel a hug through the computer.  We can’t taste a virtual bread and cup.  We won’t notice that the woman who sits at the other end of our pew was missing for three weeks in a row and might need a phone call.

It also means being willing to move beyond the relative anonymity of Sunday morning worship.  In a crowd of 100, it is possible to slip in and slip out without really connecting with anyone else.  But supporting the church with our presence means actually sharing life together – going beyond the small talk, to really be present with another person.  Abiding together means putting roots down together.

Those kind of relationships rarely happen in Sunday worship.  They require smaller groups – like Sunday School, Covenant Groups, even choir and committees when the members provide support for one another and join in service to others.

Sharing life together means knowing people well enough that we can ask the kind of hard questions that Sarah wrote about.  It means sharing the deep moments of life, and looking past the superficial to know each other’s hearts.  It doesn’t happen overnight, or even in a few days together at a retreat or event (though those are good ways to get started!)  This kind of loving one another happens in the day-in-and-day-out sharing of life that requires us to show up again and again and again, whether we feel like it or not.

There are plenty of reasons for any of us, young or old, to “lack enthusiasm for church” on any given Sunday – or Wednesday, or Saturday, or whenever it is that we gather to share life and learn to love.  We are called to show up anyway – to abide in the vine that connects us to Jesus, but also to one another.

When we do show up, sometimes it feels like we are just going through the motions.  But sometimes, the words of the hymns give voice to our hearts’ longing, or the congregation speaks our faith when we cannot.  Sometimes hearing someone else’s struggles and triumphs helps us in the midst of our own.

But we don’t show up because it helps us.  That part is gift, grace.  We show up because we are connected to the vine, and the vine winds through this real, broken, powerful community of people trying to follow Jesus together.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing… You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last…[So] Love each other as I have loved you.


[2] Eugene Peterson, The Wisdom of Each Other, 26.

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Preached April 28, 2013

Text:  Ephesians 2:11-22

The Story, Ch. 29 & 30 (we’re doubling up this week to stay on schedule!)

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The Story continues this week with more from the book of Acts, centered now on Paul, and on his writings in the New Testament letters.  In many ways, the most important part of the Story for us, because it is the part that we live within – these are the stories of the beginnings of the church – it is our identity that is being shaped and formed in these chapters.

Two central themes emerge, both of which are highlighted by Paul in the second chapter of Ephesians:

  1. The way that Jesus reunites, or reconciles, us with God
  2. The way that we are to be united as God’s people, Christ’s body

United as God’s people.  We say that.  We sing about it.  But it isn’t always easy to live.

Perhaps you have heard the tongue-in-cheek story about the man who found a woman standing in the middle of a bridge, about to jump.  He ran up to her, begging her not to jump.

“God loves you!” he said.

She stepped back a step and turned to look at him.  He asked carefully:  “Are you a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, or what?”

“I’m a Christian,” she replied.  “Me too!” the man said with a smile.

Protestant or Catholic?  “Protestant.”  “Me too!”

What denomination?  Baptist.  Me too!

Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?  Northern Baptist.  ME TOO!

Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?  Northern Conservative Baptist.  Really?  ME TOO!

Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist or Northern Conservative Reformed Baptist?  Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist.  Well that’s amazing – me too!

Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Eastern Region?  She answered, “Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region.”

At which he shouted:  “Die, heretic!” and he pushed her over the rail.

We laugh, because isn’t it ridiculous?  But it’s true too, isn’t it?

Several years ago, I was leading a Disciple Bible Study, and had a retired United Methodist Clergy named Gerry person in the class.  We got along well the first week of class, and the second.  We learned that we were neighbors in the city, colleagues in ministry, and attended the same congregation on Sunday mornings.  And then in the third week, a side conversation after class led him to ask where I went to seminary.  And I didn’t see him for the next three weeks.  In time I learned why – he leaned far left, theologically and politically, and he was suspicious of my right-leaning seminary education.  He eventually came back, but we both felt wary of the other.  Trust was hard.

Maybe you don’t care so much as we did about the doctrinal minutia that theologians like to debate.  But turn the argument to a politics or social issues, and most of us are quick to draw lines in the sand.  We quickly decide who is in and who is out, who belongs and who doesn’t.  We use the language of “us” and “them.”  We put one another in categories, and then assume those categories define us: liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, heterosexual and homosexual, rich and poor, black and white, immigrants and citizens.  It is even creeping into our conversations about the future of our church family:  Moon vs. Coroapolis, us and them.

It is nothing new, this dividing and categorizing.  In the earliest church, the lines were drawn between Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised.  They separated themselves out based on what foods they ate, what holidays they celebrated, and what clothes they wore.

In fact, the human tendency to divide goes back even further.  It goes all the way back to the beginning of the story, or almost the beginning.  It goes back to sin – sin is what separates us from God, and from one another.  Sin leads us to draw lines in the sand, point fingers at others, and distinguish between “us” and “them” – all so that we have someone – other than ourselves – to blame.

And then Jesus enters into the story, and he steps across all those human barriers that we erect.  He eats with sinners.  He invites women into men’s conversations.  He touches unclean people and talks with the mentally ill.

And then we fast forward to the early church, and we find the first Christians trying to figure out what in the world it means to follow Jesus in crossing barriers and tearing down walls.  What does it mean to be one in Christ?  What does it mean to say that “you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” and “Christ Jesus is our peace, who has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between us…” (Eph 2:13-14)

What does it mean that Jesus Christ “might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace”? (Eph 2:15)

I think we sometimes assume that it means we manage to put aside differences long enough to sit side-by-side in the pews for an hour on Sunday morning.  That’s a start, but it isn’t really peace.  Peace in Christ also doesn’t mean that we badger one another into agreement because, come on, this is the new and exciting thing, won’t you just get on board already.  Nor does it mean that call a cease-fire in political debates when we walk through the doors of the church.

The kind of peace and unity that Paul speaks of in Ephesians means, I think, that we learn to acknowledge and recognize differences among us without hostility.  We learn to respect one another even when we disagree.  We learn to listen to one another – really listen, not just to form a retort but to hear the heart of another.  We learn to look beyond our snap judgments and first impressions to really get to know one another.

Jim Walker – if you were here two weeks ago, you will remember his dramatic presentation of the Gospel – he argues that rather than seeking out common ground with other Christians, the church ought to be the place “where we experience uncommonality.”  Christians, he says, “aren’t called to find common ground with others; we’re called to love even those with whom we share no common ground at all.” (in Dirty Word by Jim Walker)

It is that kind of unity – unity that honors difference and listens respectfully to disagreement and seeks to grow together – that attracts the attention of others and witnesses to God’s love.  It’s that kind of unity – that is much more about the way we treat one another than it is about the beliefs we hold – that speaks of God’s Spirit at work within us.  It’s that kind of unity that the familiar song speaks of:  “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

So how do we reach that kind of peace and unity, in a world that teaches us to divide and separate?  How is it that we join together as one family of God?

The short answer is, we don’t.  We can’t, really.  Sin will continue to creep in between us; pride will keep insist we are right and they are wrong; fear will keep us from true honesty.

We can’t, but God can.  And has, and will.  “Jesus came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.  So then we are no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens…and members of the household of God.”  It is through Jesus that we are “joined together,” “built together spiritually” so that we may “grow into a dwelling place for God.”  (Eph 2:17-22)

Our job is to seek God together, and allow God to work among us.  Our job is to be in prayer together, and then listen carefully and humbly to one another as we discern together what we are called to do.  Our job is to trust God together, and then take a step forward – even if it isn’t the step we, personally, expected to take

Last week, Jessica Regotti shared her piece of the vision for the future of our church – a place where children and families were welcomed and nurtured.

My own vision – rooted in Paul’s story in Acts and his teaching from Ephesians 2 – is that we would be a community that shows the peace of Christ in everything we do.   We can practice through the conversations we are having about our future as a congregation – not insisting that we agree on everything, but treating one another respectfully in our disagreement.  Not going-along-to-get-along, but having the courage to raise questions and challenge ideas and engage in honest conversation.

But it goes beyond those conversations.  I hope and pray that we will become the kind of congregation that can engage important social issues and wrestle with hard questions of faith while still trusting and loving one another.  Perhaps more than anything else, I think that kind of honest, open conversation – done respectfully, with genuine humility and care for one another – will attract others to us – and through us, to God.  I think we could have no stronger witness in a divided world than to allow God to “break down the dividing walls between us” so that we might be at peace with one another.

I trust that God can do it, because I have seen glimpses of it.  Remember the clergy colleague who left Bible Study because he distrusted my theological background? In time, over cups of coffee, long conversations and shared ministry around the city of Chicago, we found common threads that united us – and he became one of my greatest mentors, though we remained miles apart theologically.  We learned to trust one another, to argue respectfully, and to continue to love.

I saw glimpses of the same kind of unity in the Wednesday night Bible studies last fall, when people from different theological and political positions engaged in deep, honest conversation…

My prayer, that God would continue the work of “reconciling us to himself through the cross, and putting to death hostility” between us, so that we might be “built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”

 

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Preached March 31, 2013 ~ Easter Sunday

Text:  Luke 24:1-12

The Story, Ch. 27

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“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the angels said.

Where else would they look?  They saw his lifeless body laid in the tomb.  Where else would they expect him to be?

But the men in dazzling white ask anyway:  “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen.”

He has risen.

I tried, this week, to tell the Easter story to my three-year-old.  She understood the beginning of the story – how people could be so angry that they would hurt, and kill.  “Did they hit Jesus?” she asked.  “Did they push him and make him fall down?”

It made me weep, how instinctively she understood the cruelty toward another person, how quickly she grasped the horror of the story.

And she understood the sadness, too.  Tears streamed down her face as she curled herself up in a tight little ball in her bed, as if she was trying to protect herself from the sorrow of it all.  “What about Jesus’ mommy?  She will miss him!” she said, with fierceness in her voice.  I hadn’t mentioned Mary in the telling at all.  But she knew, somehow, that a mother’s heart would break when Jesus died.

My mother’s heart ached at my little girl’s despair.  I want her to know the stories of our faith, of course.  But does her tender heart have to feel it so deeply?  I want to protect her from the grief.

So I tried to gloss over it – to push on to the rest of the story.  “But then God…” I say.  She still cries quietly, her back to me.  “But then God raises Jesus from the dead!  Jesus is risen!”

That’s when she craned her neck around to look at me.  “Risen?” she asked in confusion.  “What it mean, God ‘risen’ Jesus?”

And my mind goes blank.  Toddler verb tenses aside, how does one explain to a three year old what happened on that first Easter morning, when Jesus rose from the dead?

For that matter – how do any of us understand what it means when the angels proclaim, “He is not here, he is risen!”

To my little girl, I said the only thing I could think of to say:  Jesus was alive again.  God brought Jesus back to life after he died.

My little one said nothing to indicate she understood.  I actually thought she might have fallen asleep there beside me, still curled up tight in a ball facing away from me.  But I couldn’t bear for her to think that the story ended there, so I rubbed her back and kept talking.

“You know how Jesus’ mommy was sad?” I asked her.  Well she didn’t have to be sad anymore, because Jesus was with her again.  Jesus’ friends were excited because he was with them, too.  And the bad guys who hurt Jesus didn’t win; God was bigger than any of them.  God wouldn’t let them hurt Jesus anymore now!

Anything I could think of to let her know that the story didn’t end with Jesus’ mommy crying at the tomb.

The next morning at breakfast she asked me to tell her the story about “the grown up Jesus” again.  With some reluctance, I did.  And this time, when we got to the tomb, Gracie leaned forward in anticipation and prompted me:  “But then God…”

And when I said, “But then, God raised Jesus from the dead,” she began to jump up and down, clapping her hands and calling out:  And Jesus’ mommy was happy again!  And God beat the bad guys!  And Jesus’ friends were excited!

Ah, she got it, after all!  Relief flooded over me.  She did know the rest of the story!

When the women arrived at the tomb, looking for Jesus’ body, the angels asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here; he is risen!  Remember how he told you…”

The angels speak, and the women respond, at first, just like my Gracie.  They can’t take in the rest of the story; it is too much, too far from where they are emotionally and mentally.  They turn away, faces to the ground, backs to the angels.  They just don’t understand.  They are too caught up in the horror, the grief, the sorrow of the day.

The angels don’t seem to notice the women’s terror – or maybe like me, they are just so desperate for the women to hear the rest of the story that they must keep talking:

Remember!  Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.  Remember!

Remember, dear women, what Jesus told you would happen.  Remember that death isn’t the end of the story!

The women had much to remember.  These were the women who had been with Jesus in Galilee (23:55).  The ones who had journeyed with Jesus and supported Jesus in his ministry (8:2-3).  The ones who were present at the cross (23:49) and the tomb (23:55).  They remembered the way Jesus welcomed them among his disciples, against the traditions of the day.  They remembered the way Jesus healed them and brought them wholeness and health again.  They remembered the times they laughed together, and cried together.  They remembered.

And in remembering, they were empowered to tell the story themselves.  The despair melted away, and joy bubbled up in its place.  They ran – laughing, I imagine, bubbling over with delight like a little girl clapping her hands and jumping up and down in excitement.  They knew the end of the story, and it made all the difference!

The disciples who heard their story, though, didn’t know the end of the story.  Not yet.  They were still – figuratively if not literally – curled up in a ball like my little girl, or lying with faces to the ground like the women had been.  They weren’t ready to hear the rest of the story.

So when the women – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary and the others – told them that the tomb was empty, the didn’t understand.  They called it an “idle tale” – foolishness!  Insanity!  Ridiculous.

Only…what if it were true?  What if…?  Peter was the one who couldn’t quite shake the question out of his mind.

So he ran to see for himself if the story the women told was true.  Ran to find an empty tomb, grave clothes lying in a heap.  And he left “amazed.”

There is nothing here that says he believed or understood.  Only that he was amazed.  The dictionary defines amazed as “filled with the emotional impact of overwhelming surprise or shock.”  That was Peter.  Overwhelmed with shock.  Surprised, astonished.  Amazed – but not yet understanding or rejoicing.  That would take awhile longer.

The time would come, though.  As the days went by, Peter would begin to wrap his mind around the truth.  He would remember what Jesus had said when they gathered around the table.  And as he remembered, he would come to know the risen Jesus – alive!  He would hear Jesus speak forgiveness and love to him.  He would find his own voice again – ready to tell the story to others, as we hear in Acts.

And so it begins again – the cycle of hearing the good news, wondering at its meaning, coming to understand and then sharing the story with others.

During World War II, the phrase “on a wing and a prayer” was used to describe damaged warplanes limping back to base with a wing blown off – arriving safely, somehow, “on a wing and a prayer.”

It might be said that resurrection faith lives “on a word and a prayer.”  The evidence of the resurrection – for the women, for Peter – was nothing.  Emptiness.

We might prefer a Lazarus-style resurrection; Jesus walking out of that tomb, still wrapped in his grave clothes.  But instead, we get a pile of linen cloths and an empty tomb.  There was nothing there, in Luke’s account, to prove that Jesus was risen.

Nothing, that is, but a word.  A word from men in dazzling white, for the women.  A word from the women, for Peter.  And later – a word from Peter to Cornelius and others.  Faith in Jesus continues to spread, on a word and a prayer, right down to us today.

We’re here today – every single one of us – because we’ve heard word from someone of the power of God to bring new life through Jesus Christ.  We may not quite believe it.  We may, quite frankly, think it all an idle tale.  But like Peter, we’re here to see for ourselves, just in case it might be true.

And the good news of Easter is that the promise of resurrection doesn’t depend on how we receive it or how much we believe it or whether we can make some logical sense of it.  God doesn’t wait for us to believe to raise Jesus from the dead.  Jesus is risen – whether we understand it or not.

And us?  We’re invited on a journey of faith to see for ourselves what new life is all about.  And chances are, we’ll find that God shows up right in the places we thought were most dead – the dying relationship, the dead-end job, the long-buried hopes and dreams – God meets us there, and brings new life.  Thanks be to God – Christ is risen!

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Preached March 24, 2013 – Palm Sunday

Text:  Luke 19 & 22

The Story, Ch. 26

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A Reflection on Luke 19:28-40

This Palm & Passion Sunday is so full – full of stories (more Scripture assigned for today than any other week of the year – more than three full chapters, if we read it all!)  Those stories are full of characters (the crowds, the priests, the disciples, Judas, Peter, Pilate, Herod, the thief, the slave girl, the centurion – I could go on, but you get the idea).  And with all those characters, the stories are full to overflowing with conflict and emotion.

Reading Luke’s account this year, though, I was struck most of all at how full of words these stories are.  So many people say so many things this week!  And not only words, but words full of innuendo, double-meanings, and hidden significance.

Take, for example, the simple question from the bewildered owner of a donkey colt:  “Why are you untying the colt?”  A reasonable – and even restrained – question from someone who just discovered two men running off with their donkey.  But in its simplicity, the question does several things.  First, it draws attention to the act of “untying,” which echoes back to Genesis 49, when Jacob describes a “tethered donkey” that belongs to a royal ruler from the tribe of Judah.  The reference to untying the colt, then, directs the reader to think of Jesus in royal terms as a Davidic Messiah – the promised king of Israel.

The question also establishes Jesus’ authority as prophet.  Jesus told his disciples that the owner would ask this question – and so they did, word for word, just as Jesus said they would.  It is Luke’s not-so-subtle way of telling his readers that Jesus was not only king, but also “prophet” – and prophets, in the Biblical tradition, speak for God.  So, in other words, “hey, readers, when this guy speaks, you should listen!”

The disciples, at least on one level, get the hint.  Their answer – “The Lord needs it” – is a seemingly simple answer that in fact overflows with reverence.  In addressing Jesus as “Lord” the disciples are recognizing an authority other than the ruling officials.  The claim of Jesus’ lordship supersedes the rights of ownership, and also challenges the lordship of Roman rulers.  It is a statement of personal allegiance by the disciples, and also laden with political overtones.

All of that, wrapped up in a simple question and answer:  “Why are you untying the colt?”  “The Lord needs it.”  Words full of suggestion and significance.

Then, there are the words of the crowd when Jesus rides into Jerusalem:

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

They begin by quoting Psalm 118, which is a psalm of royal entry, a song rejoicing in the coming of a victorious king into the city.  Verses 25-27 read:  “O Lord, save us!  (“Hosanna”)  Grant us success.  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord…With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the…altar.”

Against the backdrop of the Psalms, their words and the accompanying palm branches and festive procession all proclaim Jesus as victorious ruler.

But the quote also points readers back to Jesus’ words earlier in Luke, when Jesus sets his sites on Jerusalem and laments the violence he finds there.  In Luke 13, Jesus foreshadows the violence that will destroy him even as the people proclaim, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  Jesus knows that the shouts are hollow; he recognizes that the people are more loyal to their own visions of “king” than to the kind of reign he brings.

Then there is the familiar line that follows:  “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”  This echoes the familiar chorus of the angels in the nativity story:  “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth…”  There is one key difference, though.  In Luke 2, the angels proclaim to any who would listen that the birth of Jesus brought God’s peace and salvation to the earth.  Here in Luke 19, the people call out, “peace in heaven,” as if to admit that Jesus – who brings God’s peace – is not fully welcome on earth after all.

Whatever their deepest meaning, the words that the crowds call out draw attention from the religious leaders.  Perhaps they are angered by the attention given to Jesus.  Perhaps they are frightened that too much celebration will attract unwanted attention from the Roman authorities.  Whatever the case, they demand:  “Jesus, tell your disciples to stop!”

Jesus responds with poignant and powerful words:  “If they keep silent, the stones will cry out.”

Jesus’ words remind us again of the significance of these stories.  All of creation is caught up in this salvation story, groaning for liberation from decay and destruction (to borrow from Romans 8).  The story that is about to unfold is much more than a story of a political battle.  It is more than an interesting piece of human history.  The events to come in this Holy Week have cosmic significance!

And so today, on Palm Sunday, we begin the annual rehearsal of these events – rehearsing in a way that goes beyond just recalling them, to actually entering into their reality ourselves.  We remember where we belong in this story, and where God is, and how our life stories are caught up in this grander story of God’s work in human history.

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A Reflection on Luke 22:31-34, 47-71

As Passion Sunday, we also begin down the road of Jesus’ suffering and death.  Today, we walk that road with Peter.

It is fitting, in a passage so full of significant words, to focus on Peter.  Peter is one who is seldom speechless.  He has an answer for everything!  Remember the time when Jesus walked across stormy waters to calm his frightened disciples?  It was Peter who yelled out, “Lord, if it is you, tell me to get out of this boat and come to you on the water!”  It was Peter who demands, “Explain these parables to us!” and Peter who asks, “How many times must I forgive my brother when he sins against me?”

It is Peter, you may remember from last week, who has the courage to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?” with the words:  “You are the anointed one of God!”  And then at the transfiguration, when Jesus is suddenly glowing before them, Peter cries out, “Lord, let me build a shelter here for you, to remember this moment!”

Words are one thing that Peter is rarely without.

It is no surprise, then, that Peter cannot keep his mouth shut when Jesus around for a final farewell meal.  On that night, Jesus kneels to wash the disciples’ feet, and Peter blurts out:  “You will not wash me!”  And then, when Jesus warns Peter of the trials that are to come, Peter insists, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”

They say that most of us listen to others for the purpose of forming a reply rather than for the purpose of understanding.  Surely that is true of Peter here.  He seems to have missed Jesus’ prayer entirely – or noted it only in order to resist its implications.  But the prayer is significant – we should not skip over it as quickly as Peter does.

Jesus prays for the disciples (plural) who will be sifted as wheat.  He knows they will be shaken by the events to come – he knows how much of their faith, their trust, their hope will be sloughed away as the days unfold.  And he prays specifically for Peter, “that [he] may not fail”…and that when he does, he will turn back to strengthen others.  Simon Peter, this rock upon whom God will build his church, will crumble into dust under pressure.  But Jesus prays that he will turn back, and even be strong enough to lead the others.

It is Jesus prayer here that carries us through the somber story that follows.  We cannot trust Peter’s strength, certainly.  But we do not have to, for Jesus’ faithfulness in prayer will uphold Peter when he fails, and call him to repent – turn back – so that all is not lost.

But Peter nearly misses the reminder of God’s faithfulness.  He hears only enough to form his reply:  “I am ready to go with you…!”

Jesus answers:  “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.”

“I am ready…!” Peter said.  Ah, famous last words.  Peter, who is never at a loss for words, cannot bring himself to speak the truth when the time of testing comes.

Jesus is arrested; the crowds who cheered for him as he entered Jerusalem are now jeering at him; and when a no-name slave girl asks Peter, “Weren’t you with him?” Peter can only hiss through tight lips, “Woman, I don’t know him.”  He has turned his back on his Lord.

And then – as if that is not enough – the next question comes:  “Aren’t you one of them – one of his disciples?”  Peter answers with a growl:  “I am not.”  His fear, his sin, has now separated him not only from Jesus but also from his fellow disciples.  Sin always separates – separates us from God, but also from one another.

And then, of course, the third question comes:  “You had to be with him.  Aren’t you a Galilean?”  And Peter yells in anger:  “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!”  Galilee was where Peter first met Jesus, when he dropped his fishing nets and set off on this whole journey of discipleship in the first place.  And here he is denying even his own identity – sin has separated him from Jesus and the other disciples, and now even from his own sense of self.

Then that rooster crows, and Jesus locks eyes with Peter from across the courtyard.  And the only words Peter can think of are the ones pounding in his ears:  “Before the rooster crows today…”

“If they keep silent, the stones will cry out.”

A rooster is not quite the same as a stone.  But it has the same effect:  it points to Peter’s failure to lift up the name of the Lord.  Peter has kept silent, but God’s creatures will not.  The cock’s crow reminds us again that if God’s people will not speak the truth, all of creation will.  Either way, God’s truth will be heard.

The story moves on, as Peter slumps outside weeping, and Jesus is asked:  “Are you the Son of God?”  Some days ago, it was Peter answering this question.  Now Jesus answers it for himself:  “You are right in saying that I am.”  It is from Jesus’ own lips that the truth comes.

We enter Holy Week well aware, like Peter, of the times that words failed us – that our sin got in the way of our relationship with God – our relationship with other people – even our own health and wholeness.

We also enter Holy Week knowing, as Peter did, that God does not fail.  That if we will not speak, God can raise up stones to cry out.  That if we fail to stand up for the truth, yet Jesus will be steadfast.

We enter Holy Week with a lot of hollow words ringing in our ears – but with God’s grace before us, calling us back to faithfulness.

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Preached January 27, 2013

Text:  Daniel 6:6-27

The Story, Ch. 18

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Daniel in the lions’ den.  There are few stories in the Bible more familiar than this one!

This is one of the stories that we learn growing up in Sunday School, but I would guess that very few of us know its place within the larger story of the Old Testament.  That’s one of the reasons we are reading The Story together – to revisit these familiar stories and place them in context within the larger story of God’s relationship to human beings throughout history.

So where does Daniel fall in this larger story?  Both Israel and Judah – the divided kingdom – are now under foreign rule.  God’s judgment has been carried out against his people; the promised land has been ripped from their hands and the Temple torn down.  The people have, for the most part, settled into the “new normal” of life in exile.  They lived as the diaspora, the scattered ones.

The Jews (who were, incidentally, first called Jews here because they were people who came from Judea) during Daniel’s lifetime lived in a time of constant upheaval.  The Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian empires all battled for control of the region, and power changed hands frequently.  But for the Jews – and most of the other residents of the land – life was probably pretty uneventful.  They lived out their days planting crops, tending the fields, raising their children and making their homes.  They were not free, but neither were they particularly oppressed.  Mostly, they were probably ignored.

Mostly, that is, except for a few especially competent young men like Daniel.  Daniel – and his famous friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego – were chosen by the king to be trained for service in the royal palace.  They spend three years reading the literature of the Empire, studying its art, learning its language and its customs.  Through their training, they are systematically assimilated into the dominant culture of the land.  They are likely more learned in its ways than most native people – like naturalized citizens who have studied long and hard to gain their citizenship.

Daniel himself is a particularly quick study, and like his ancestor Joseph, he advances quickly up through the ranks.  When Darius the Mede becomes king, Daniel is promoted to be second-in-command, running the whole kingdom.

His rise to power was too quick to go unnoticed, though.  His colleagues became angry and turned on him, tricking the King into issuing a decree:  whoever prays to anyone except the king, for 30 days, shall be thrown into a den of lions.

The officials are taunting Daniel, and they know it.  They are like the boys gathered around the school yard triple-dog-daring Flick to stick his tongue to the pole in A Christmas Story.  They go after his honor, with stakes so high that there is no possible way he could ignore them.

And like Flick, Daniel is now stuck.  He is above reproach in his service to the king; he can’t be blamed for negligence or corruption.  But there is one thing Daniel absolutely will not do:  cease his daily prayer to the Living God.

Flick lost some taste buds as a result of standing up for his honor, but Daniel – he lost much more when he stood up for his God.  Or at least, he would have, had his God not come to his rescue.  You know the story:  the Living God whom he worshipped closed the mouths of the lions and kept Daniel safe until King Darius rolled the stone away the next morning.

I don’t generally preach the traditional three-point sermon, but I think Daniel’s story is a story of three things:  promise, priorities, and practice.  (And, I even used alliteration!)

As children, we hear this story primarily as a promise that God will protect us.  As adults, we need to hear that promise – but we also know enough to know that some lions still eat their prey.  Not everyone who stands up against injustice – even in the name of the Living God – will be miraculously saved.  So how do we hear this promise without it sounding hollow and false?

We hear it, I think, by remembering the character of God.  God’s most basic identity in Scripture is God-With-Us.  Immanuel.  Not a god who lifts us out of every difficult circumstance, but a God who hears our cries and bears our burdens in the midst of the difficulties.  Not a god who avoids the dark valleys, but a God who walks with us through them.

The promise of Daniel is not that we will be spared the lions’ den – but that our God bears us through the lions.  God does not abandon us even in the most hopeless of circumstances.

That is the truth that Daniel knew, and that King Darius learned.  “Daniel,” the king calls after a sleepless night.  “Daniel, has your God been able to deliver you from the lions?” (6:19-20).

“Was God able?” the king asks, and Daniel answers with a witness to God’s character:  “My God sent his angels and shut the lions’ mouths so that they would not hurt me” (6:22).

And the king responds with a hymn of praise to God –

The God of Daniel…is the living God,

enduring forever.

His kingdom shall never be destroyed,

and his dominion has no end.

He delivers and rescues,

he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth;

for he has saved Daniel

from the power of the lions. (6:26-27)

This is a conversion story – not only has Daniel experienced the power and protection of God, but the King comes to know God’s true character through Daniel’s witness.  The trials Daniel endured – while not caused by God – were used by God to draw people into relationship.  The king came to know God as the God who keeps promises.

So Daniel’s story is a story of promise.  It is also a story of priorities.

Daniel finds himself living at odds with the priorities of his world – and he suffers the consequences.  But he doesn’t do so just to make a point.  In A Christmas Story, Flick stuck his tongue to a frozen flagpole to defend his own honor and pride.  Daniel chooses his battles more carefully.  He willingly submits himself to the king; he voluntarily adopts a diet of vegetables and water; he doesn’t even put up a fight when his religious freedom is denied by the king’s new edict.  Daniel does nothing to defend his own honor or pride.

But when it comes to his relationship with God – that Daniel would not compromise.  He places obedience to God above his own comfort (turning down that prime cut of beef he’s offered earlier in the story).  He places it above his responsibilities at work.  He even places obedience to God above his loyalty to his friends (again, see that vegetable episode – when he volunteers his friends for a vegetarian diet against their will).

Daniel’s priorities were clear:  he worshipped God first, and served the king second.

Those priorities were only maintained through the third p:  a faithful practice of prayer.  Prayer was a daily habit for Daniel that sustained him even under the threat of death.

I doubt that any of us will ever face a literal lions’ den.  But we all have moments when the values and priorities of the culture around us clash with the values and priorities of God.  Our faithfulness to God in those moments depends, just as much as Daniel’s did, on the day-in-and-day-out habits of faith that we have established in our lives.

Daniel did not pray as an act of defiance against the king.  His prayer wasn’t some public statement against the injustice of a law that took away religious freedom.  Daniel prayed because it was his habit to pray; because he prayed three times every day, turning to God in the good times and the bad times and the boring in-between times, building the practice that would sustain him when threatened with his very life.

We often ask ourselves, when we hear stories of great sacrifice for God, whether our faith is strong enough that we would stand up for what is right too.  We wonder if we would have the courage to stand up for God when the consequences are so great.

I think the better question, though, is whether our faith is strong enough to sustain us in through the normal, everyday days when habits are formed and strengthened.  Do we love God enough to schedule time spent in prayer, in conversation with God, into our days?  Do we love God enough to nurture habits of prayer and praise in the midst of everyday life?

Daniel’s story is a story of promise – believing that God walks with us through the hard times; and a story of priorities – placing faithfulness to God above our own rights and responsibilities.  But I think it is mostly a story of practice – a reminder that the habits we form and the practices we make time for every day of our lives are the ones that will sustain us in the most difficult moments.

Daniel’s witness didn’t come from fighting for his own religious liberty or defying the law of the land; it didn’t come from confronting the king when the king was clearly in the wrong.  Daniel’s witness came from quietly continuing his habit of prayer even at the threat of his life.  And Daniel was able to continue that habit in the face of such a dire threat precisely because he had built the habit through many normal days, when no one noticed but him.

Will we have faith and courage enough do the same?

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