Rev. Amy Morgan
April 23, 2017
Psalm 133; Acts 8:26-39
Some of you may not know that in my pre-ministry years I pursued an illustrious acting career. This career consisted mostly of waiting tables in restaurants near theatres, occasionally waiting on actual illustrious actors. But over the course of this career, I became, I think, pretty good at waiting tables. Not just memorizing orders and timely service. I picked up on how to anticipate a guest’s needs, how to help them understand the menu and make connections between dishes and wines. I studied the best waiters in the restaurants where I worked, because they could give their guests a dining experience that would be transformational.
I like to think that my acting/waitressing career was preparing me in some way for ministry. And I feel I am affirmed in this belief by scripture.
Now, you may think that waiters do not feature in our sacred texts. But you’d be wrong.
Near the beginning of the book of Acts, the apostles are trying to figure out what this new Jesus community is supposed to look like – you know, writing the manual of operations and a mission statement and whatnot. At this time, the church consisted of both Greek and Hebrew believers. And the Greeks came to the apostles with the complaint that the Greek widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food to those in need.
So the disciples get together to talk about this problem, and their response is: “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables!” Gotta love their humility.
And thus, the office of deacon is established to wait on the tables of those in need in the fledgling Christian community.
Now, shortly after this new deacon ministry is set up, the head deacon, Stephen, is seized by the Jewish Sanhedrin and stoned to death. This sets in motion a great persecution of Jesus’ followers, and they scatter to the surrounding regions outside of Jerusalem.
A deacon named Philip goes to Samaria, which is a notoriously tough crowd. This waiter for Jesus is given the table filled with people who only want to complain and want to have everything their way. They order things that aren’t on the menu and want you to bring condiments that are so rarely used they’re expired.
But Philip begins preaching the word of God to the Samaritans anyway. He heals people and performs miracles and talks about the kingdom of God and message of Jesus Christ. And he does such a great job that everyone in town, including his toughest customer, Simon the magician, all come to believe and are baptized.
Once all the hard work is done, the apostles Peter and John step in, like the restaurant’s chef and manager, to ensure everything was done satisfactorily and to receive all the compliments. Meanwhile, Philip gets called to head down a wilderness road.
Now, a wilderness is biblical code word for transformation. Major turning points throughout God’s salvation history have involved the wilderness. Think: the Israelites wandering in the wilderness; John appearing in the wilderness and reciting Isaiah’s prophesy to prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness; Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. We know when we hear the word wilderness that something transformational is going to happen.
But for Philip, it is a bit like showing up for your shift with no assigned section. Philip might be sent to the big party in the back or the pub tables in the bar. He might get robbed of his tips by stingy customers or have to walk miles to get to get back and forth to the kitchen. Who knows what lies ahead on a wilderness road?
But Philip continues to give his best service. As the chariot of a wealthy court official, a eunuch of Ethiopia, enters the scene, the Spirit says to Philip, “table one: all yours.” And off he goes.
As the customer reads what is on offer, Philip leans in, asking if he can help clarify anything. With a bit of an attitude, the court official admits his need for help in understanding what he is reading. Philip offers explanations and makes connections. And in the fashion of the very best waiters, the court official has a transformational experience and desires to be baptized.
Now, comparing Philip’s evangelism to waiting tables may not be the classical interpretation of this text. The Sunday school flannelgrams of my youth taught a method of evangelism that sounded a lot more like a car salesman than a waiter. I apologize in advance to all the people in this room who sell cars as I am about to employ all of the worst stereotypes of car salesmen. I will say right now that I’m sure no one in this church fits that stereotype, but I’m going to ask you to go along with the image for the sake of the larger point I’m making.
Okay, that said, in car salesman evangelism, we’re to be on the lookout for the people wandering around the lot, not really sure what they’re looking for, adrift in a sea of spiritual, moral, and secular options. We’re to slickly draw them over to the shiny red convertible that is Jesus Christ. We’re to offer them a test drive through the Old Testament and into the Gospels. And then we seal the deal with baptism, preferably in a river if you have one handy.
This is what most people picture today as evangelism. And I have to admit, I’ve never been much good at this kind of evangelism. I know, it’s a strange thing for a pastor to say, but I’ve always felt like it would be the MOST EMBARASSING thing in the world to insert myself into someone else’s reality and worldview in this pushy way. I am a terrible salesman.
But I was a good waiter. So I take heart in reading Philip’s evangelism through that lens.
This form of evangelism agrees with my palette much more than the car salesman approach. It is something that can happen any ordinary day, any ordinary time, as regular as eating a meal. Whereas, with the car salesman, we have to be looking to make a major change, a huge investment.
Waiters begin with the needs of the other, discovering who they are and what they like. Car salesmen have a particular vehicle that they need to move off the lot by convincing the customer that they need it.
Waiters help people understand the whole of the salvation story, the context and nuance. And it helps them connect the words on the page to the world around them. Car salesmen provide a carefully scripted set of information intended to have the highest rate of success in making the sale.
Successful car salesmen need to make you feel like you have a problem that needs to be fixed, a deficiency that needs to be rectified. Whereas when we come to dine at a restaurant, it isn’t because we can’t cook at home or grab a Hot N Ready pizza. There’s not necessarily a problem in our lives that needs fixing. We are looking for an experience. Maybe even, with the best of waiters, we can have a transformational experience, an experience that enriches our lives and perhaps even changes them. Maybe only in some small way. But again, the wonderful thing about restaurant waiter evangelism is that it can happen over and over again. You can turn a one-time visitor into a regular customer. Car salesman evangelism, on the other hand, is a one-shot deal. Once that car drives off the lot, who knows when or if you’ll ever see that person again. There’s no guarantee the product you’ve sold them will change their life for the better, or in any way at all. The best you can hope for is that they’ll come back around for regular maintenance.
We are on a wilderness road, not just as a church, not just First Presbyterian Church, but the universal church, or at the very least, the church in Europe and North America. We are on a wilderness road, a transformational space. We are once again at a turning point in the salvation story. God is about to do a new thing, and we are called to be a part of it. But it requires leaving the easy comforts of the familiar, setting aside the safety of strategies that have proven successful in the past, and moving down a dangerous and unfamiliar road.
And on that road, I guarantee we will find people like the Ethiopian official, people who are at the center of culture but on the outskirts of the religious “in” group. People who are curious about God, who want to know who Jesus really is, who are being moved by the Holy Spirit to seek meaning and purpose in their lives.
I am confident we will encounter those people because I know we already have. I imagine most of us know at least one person who is spiritually curious but institutionally skeptical Someone who used to go to church but found it wasn’t answering the questions they were asking? Someone who explores spirituality but thinks negatively about religion?
Table one: all yours.
I’m going to challenge us all to show up and wait some tables. Serve those people who are puzzled by our menu of offerings – our scriptures and worship practices, our beliefs and institutional organization. Discern their needs and hear their longings. Help them understand and make connections. Provide them with a transformational experience, within our walls and outside of them.
It is not the most glorious of professions, waiting tables. Nor is it the most lucrative. But it is our calling, and one we can’t ignore.
Let us pray:
God of grace, We thank you for the gift of new life in Jesus Christ, For this good news that we get to share. Help us to wait upon those who are seeking the nourishment your love and truth provide. Help us to serve them with patience and grace, that they, and we, might be transformed, again and again, day after day, meal after meal, until we reach that final heavenly banquet. Amen.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017
Genesis 2:4-17; John 20:1-18
Cindy and I were going to show them how to do it. We were going to show everyone else how it was done. We were going to be the best dancers at Dancing with the Pa-stars. Now most of you have probably never heard of Dancing with the Pastors, and that’s because it was a onetime event to raise money for Habitat for Humanity. Every year in San Antonio, the city-wide cluster of Presbyterian churches would hold some sort of event to raise funds for the house, and this year it was a dance-off between ministers and their spouses. And I knew that Cindy and I had it in the bag because we had a secret weapon. One of my church members was a retired professor of dance at Trinity University and the person who had taught me how to dance. So, I got in touch with Shirley, the retired professor, and she was thrilled to help us. We chose a waltz and got started. How shall I put this…hmmm…the one phrase I almost got tired of hearing was, “John, that’s not right, let’s do it one more time…from the beginning” My frame wasn’t right. My timing was off. I didn’t have my head quite right. By the end I think Shirley wondered if she had ever taught me anything. The good news was that Cindy pulled us through…but if I had been a contestant on the real Dancing with the Stars, I might have been the first contestant sent home.
I have often wondered if God felt a little like Shirley; that all God wanted was for people to listen, take some instruction and follow God’s choreography in the dance of creation; the dance of life. I realize that that might sound a bit odd, the dance of life, but I call it a dance because God is a God who invites us into a joy-filled and abundant life; a life that makes us want to dance and sing and celebrate. God is not a god of rigid rules and regulations, but of life fully embraced and we can see this in the creation story. God has made this amazing garden filled with all kinds of delights. It had plenty to sustain human beings. It is a place with only a single rule, let God do the choreography, and otherwise enjoy, live, love. That’s all. Sure, the first man had to be the gardener, but nothing more. Care for creation. Enjoy creation. Yet, if we had finished this morning’s Old testament story, we would find that human beings didn’t want God to direct their dance. Instead they found a dance critic who told them that God could not get them to the top of the leader board, but that they could if they just did the dance they desired. The first humans listened to him and the results were not pretty; fear, shame, anger, blame, guilt.
We might assume that God would have turned to the heavenly judges and said something like, “Sure, those folks were just human beings, the beta version. I’ll get started on human beings 2.0.” But God doesn’t. Even though God expels them from the garden, God tells them, let’s do it one more time. Let’s try the dance one more time. Unfortunately, as the story continues, humanities’ willingness to dance the dance of life does not go so well. There is murder, violence and war. So again and again God finds new partners to train hoping that they can learn the dance of love, joy and hope, each time saying let’s try this one more time. God finds Abraham and Sarah and says, come dance with me and together we will show the world the dance of blessing. It works for a while but ultimately the children of Abraham end up as slaves in Egypt. God finds Moses and says come dance with me and we will show my people the dance of freedom. The people are set free but in the wilderness decide that they would rather listen to their Egyptian dance instructors. God finds Joshua and says come dance with me and together we will show the people the dance of having a place to call home. But when the people get to their new home, they decide the like the way the Canaanites dance and go with their choreography. God finds judges, prophets, and kings and says let’s dance and show the people the dance of justice and compassion, yet few if any listen and learn. The results are war, violence, greed, excessive pride and a creation that looks nothing like the amazing garden that God had created in which God desired humanity to live. Let’s do it one more time God, keeps saying …
Ultimately, God decided to go with the adage, that if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. So, God became one of us. In the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God became one of us, a human being. Rather than calling choreographers, Jesus showed us, in person, what the dance looked like. He led us in the dance of love, forgiveness, community, compassion and grace. He taught, he prayed, he healed, he led, he invited people to dance this amazing dance of God’s creation. And they did, by the thousands…until they didn’t. Then the world decided God’s dance in Jesus was not for them. So, they arrested him, tried him, crucified him and buried him. This is where our story picks up. We find Mary coming to the tomb. She comes wondering if the dance of creation is done, afraid that there will never be one more time. Even after she encounters angelic beings in the tomb who tell her that Jesus is not there and that she needs to look elsewhere for him, she is still confused. So she comes back into the garden, where the tomb is located, and encounters someone she thinks is the gardener and asks him about Jesus.
What she is about to discover is that she is in no ordinary garden and that this is no ordinary gardener. As John tells the story, she has found herself in “the garden” with “the gardener”, the new Adam, Jesus. She discovers that this moment is about more than the resurrection of her friend, it is God saying, “OK, one more time…from the beginning.” This is not like all the other one more times. This is a radical new beginning for humanity and for all of creation. This is the gift of Jesus’ resurrection.
This is one more time from the beginning because the power of sin has been broken, meaning that all human beings can now learn the dance of creation; the dance of life. The power of sin that causes us to let others and not God to choreograph our lives has been broken. The power of sin that causes us to stop dancing and start judging has been broken. The power of sin that causes us to stop dancing and to be angry, fearful and resentful has been broken. The power of sin that causes us to stop dancing and hoard rather than share has been broken. In the resurrection, we become people capable of once again enjoying the fullness of God’s creation; enjoying the grace filled dance of love, hope and joy.
This is one more time from the beginning because the power of death has been broken, meaning we get to dance the dance of life forever. What this means for us is that we no longer must fear death. We no longer must live in its shadow. We can dance the dance of God’s creation with joy and abandon because God is leading us in this life and the next. We can dance the dance of life with confidence because we know that the dance goes on.
On this Easter morning, then, I have one challenge for us all, and that is to ask ourselves this question, “How well am I dancing? How well am I allowing God to choreograph my life in such a way that my dance is Jesus’ dance of love, grace and joy?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017
Zechariah 9:9-10, Luke 19:28-48
It was planned with military precision. Everything was arranged down to the smallest detail. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was not some spontaneous movement. It was all planned. Jesus had chosen the time, when the king would be coming in Jerusalem. Jesus had chosen the place, the opposite side of the city. Jesus had chosen the means, a donkey on which no one else had ever ridden. In fact, he had probably arranged for the donkey ahead of time…remember he spent a great deal of time in Bethany. He had his disciples prepped with what to say and do. And so, when Jesus began his spontaneously-well planned journey toward Jerusalem, it was clear to everyone the claim that he was making. Here comes the Prince of Peace, the true king, the one who would not simply restore Israel but the one who would bring peace to all the nations. He would restore the world the way God had desired it to be. He would destroy the war machinery that had oppressed the Jewish people and the Mediterranean world. It was Jesus’ moment. It was Jesus’ time. Everyone, including the Pharisees knew what it meant. But all this planning and preparation begs a single question; why bother?
Why bother? Why should Jesus bother with all of this when Jerusalem was doomed. Jerusalem was a political pot getting ready to boil over. It was going to boil over because of Roman oppression, because of Jewish nationalism, because of a priesthood that most people considered illegitimate. It was going to boil over into a revolution and Jesus knew it. This is why, on his way into the city, he stops, weeps, and says. “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace. But now they are hidden from your eyes…your enemies will crush you to the ground.” Jesus knows the times and pronounces the doom that is coming. So why bother?
Why bother? Why bother going to the Temple, driving out those who work there, and reminding them of the real purpose of the Temple? The Temple had long ago ceased to be seen in its proper context. For some it had become a place to make a living, cheating the people. To others it had become a symbol of power to be fought over in order to carry the prestige of the priesthood. To others it had become a symbol of national pride, the focus of the coming revolution. To others it was a robber’s den, where people who cheated and oppressed the poor, stealing what was not theirs, could come and by going through the rituals pretend that they were safe. Why bother reminding them that it was to be a house of prayer for all the nations; that it was to be a beacon of God’s presence and love to the world. Why bother when it was already lost?
Why bother? Why bother going in at all when he knew that his enemies were waiting for him. Jesus could ride all the donkeys, receive all the adulation, listen to all the proclamations of his kingship, yet he was, at least on the political and power stage a bit player. He had limited political connections. He had limited religious connections. And his actions alienated almost all of them. His comments regularly irritated someone. Sure, he was popular with the people now, but popularity did not save John the Baptist. It did not save multitudes of other Galileans and Jesus knew it would not save him. He understood what his fate would be. He understood what was waiting him on the other side of his parade. He had been warning his followers of his fate. So why bother when a cross was in his future? Why bother sacrificing his life, when everything else seemed lost and peace seemed even further away? Why bother?
Jesus bothers because this was his mission and he was the only one who could do it. Peace was his purpose. Like all the prophets who had come before him, he had come to remind the people that God’s plan for creation was not one of violence, domination and death. God’s plan for creation was for a renewed and continually renewing creation in which people found shalom. In which they found a sense of peace in which everyone had the opportunity for meaningful work, meaningful relationships, meaningful worship and a meaningful life. This was at the heart of the Torah. This was at the heart of Jesus’ message. This was at the heart of Jesus’ miracles. This was the at the heart of the coming Kingdom of God. This is why Jesus bothered, because only he could bring shalom. Only through his death and hoped for resurrection could this peace, this shalom, become a reality and not merely a possibility. This is why he bothered.
Why bother? Why should we bother working for peace in a world that seems to be filled with things that do not make for peace? When creating shalom seems so far beyond our abilities? Why bother?
I would like to answer that question with some numbers. Sixty-five million - that is a conservative count of the number of refugees in around the world. Men, women and children who have been driven from their homes and have at best a tenuous hold on life. They have no peace. Forty-eight million - this is the number of people in the United States who are food insecure each day. Thirteen million of them are children. They have no peace. Ten million - this is the number of women and men who are victims of domestic abuse in our country every year. They have no peace. Thirty-three thousand - seven million. This is the number of people in the justice system in our nation; two million in prison and five million on either probation or parole. They have no peace. Fourteen thousand this is the number of children in Foster Care here in Michigan. Their futures are at risk as they are bounced from home to home and are kicked out of the system at the age of eighteen. They have no peace. Ten thousand - this is the number of hate crimes in this country each year’ crimes against Jews, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, Muslims, and yes, even against Anglos. These victims have no peace. These numbers and many others are why we bother. We bother because these numbers represent people God loves and for whom God desires peace.
So what can you do? What can we do? How can we be agents of peace? This morning I want to offer you one way…though there are many. I want to offer you one concrete way to help make peace in this hurting world…and it is as simple as writing a check and putting it in one of these One Great Hour of Sharing envelopes, or going on line to our site and giving to the One Great Hour of Sharing offering. I say this is a way of building peace because the offering will assist refugees. It will help to house and feed Syrian refugees fleeing their brutal civil war. It will assist ex-offenders to reenter society and become productive citizens rather than returning to jail. It will help to stop the school to prison pipeline in several neighborhoods by providing mentoring and educational support. It will provide irrigation systems for rural farmers in South American so they can feed their families and their nations. These are but a few of the ways in which your gift will offer hope to the hopeless. Where it will offer shalom to those who have none. Where you can, as a follower of the Prince of Peace, join with thousands of others to offer the peace that passes all understanding.
My challenge for you is this then, to take an envelope, go home and find your envelope and then prayerfully consider what you will give to help make peace a reality in the lives of thousands of people here and around the world.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
April 2, 2017
Genesis 12:1-9; Matthew 7:13-29
They couldn’t handle and so they left. It was so different that they couldn’t stay. Reed College was not for them. Many of you know that our daughter Katie went to Reed College, in Portland Oregon. Many of you also know that Reed, while giving grades in order for students to be admitted to graduate school, encourages its students to never look at them. And if a student asks, “What can I do to get a certain letter grade”, the professor will essentially answer them, “That is not the point of being at Reed. Reed is a place to learn and not a place to earn particular grades.” For some students that is just wonderful. For two types of students however, it is deadly. The first type of student for whom it is deadly are those who need the grades. They need the benchmarks. They need to strive for that prize of the “A”. So, after a semester of wandering in the grade wilderness, many of them leave. The other group for whom it is deadly are those who believe not worrying about grades means they do not have to worry about working. This group emerges very quickly at Reed, and they are asked very kindly not to come back. I offer you a look at these two types of students, not because I am pitching Reed, but because I don’t think either of them would do very well at Jesus University.
What we have before us in the Sermon on the Mount that we have been walking through over the past five weeks, is Jesus University. This is Matthew’s one great teaching moment when Jesus gathers students, gives them a very good ethical-religious education and then sends them into the world. But just as those two types of students did not do well at Reed, I don’t think they would do well at Jesus University either. And here is why.
The first type of student doesn’t do well because Jesus gives no metrics but has high expectations. This type of student doesn’t mind working hard and striving to learn, but they need those benchmarks. They need to know is they are passing or failing, if they will be expelled or graduated. So, while Jesus sets a very high bar for following him, he doesn’t give them metrics by which to measure themselves. We can see this in the morning’s story. Jesus tells them that the gate is narrow, that they must bear good fruit, that they should do the will of Jesus’ father in heaven, that they must act appropriately on Jesus’ words and build a house that will not falter. We can add to this all the other teachings about being light and salt…all of which set a high bar for ethical-religious living, but Jesus, unlike the Pharisees never spells out exactly what this looks like. And so many people drop out, discouraged by the lack of even an obvious pass-fail grading system.
The second type of student doesn’t do so well because Jesus has high expectations and one must work to meet them. This group of students do not think they should work at all. These are what my seminary friends refer to as “flaming Lutherans.” When I got to seminary I heard people talking about “flaming Lutherans.” At first I just smiled when they said it, not wanting to let on that I had no idea what they were talking about. But finally I gave in and asked. “Flaming Lutherans,” it was explained to me, are people who walk around saying “Grace, grace, grace, everything is grace.” Meaning that because grace had come, which was Luther’s position, then we didn’t have to worry about works. I have to say, I am a great fan of grace, but Jesus in his closing words certainly appears to tell us that we as students at Jesus University are supposed to do things. Listen again. The Road is hard that leads to life…meaning we are to be walking the road. We are to bear good fruit, meaning we are to do those things that make the world better. Not everyone who says, Lord, Lord will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of God. And at the end, we are not only to hear Jesus’ words but we are to act on them. This certainly sounds like if we want to graduate from Jesus’ University then we need to get busy and do the things that Jesus calls us to do.
What then are we supposed to do? Over the centuries the church has come up with two basic responses. The first is to create their own pass-fail grading system. Like the Pharisees they determined what made for an “A” and what made for an “F”. The second basic response was to go with Luther and say it is all grace so all you have to do is accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior and you graduate to heaven. Any other work is optional. Unfortunately, in my opinion, both of these ignore the plain meaning of Jesus’ words, and the motto of Jesus University which is in Latin, “Solum Fac Id” or loosely translated into English, “Just Do It.”
The Jesus University motto of Just Do It holds in tension the two poles of Christian faith – grace and works. It reminds us that being a follower of Jesus Christ is just that, a follower. As we have been discovering as we read We Make the Road by Walking, we are to be on the road, learning, growing, serving, loving, and being changed by God. Being a follower is never, and never has been, simply about believing certain things. It has been about becoming a particular kind of person who lives in a particular kind of way and does particular kinds of things that reflect the love and grace of God in Jesus. What this means is that if we want to find our way into God’s kingdom we will do so by following and working. The motto also reminds us however, that we don’t have to do it perfectly. We don’t have to love perfectly, because we can’t. We don’t have to serve perfectly, because we can’t. We don’t have to forgive perfectly, because, well you get my point. The motto is a reminder that we live in the shadow of grace; a grace that receives and accepts us when we are less than perfect, reminding us that it is God’s love that offers us our diplomas and not our perfect actions.
The challenge for us is to just do it; to strive the best we can each day to follow Jesus down the narrow way of love, trusting that as we do it, we do it in the grace of God that accepts us as we are but pushes us to be better. So, my friends, this week my challenge to you is this, at the end of the day as you prepare for bed, ask yourself this question, “How did I do today?” and then use that answer to prepare you for the next.