Rev. Dr. John Judson
June 26, 2016
Psalm 72:1-7, Luke 9:51-62
He knew it was coming. He knew that Gordie was going to get even. A couple of weeks ago when Gordie Howe died there were all sorts of interviews and tributes given about him. One evening on the news the sportscaster was visiting with a famous hockey player, whose name I do not recall at this moment…shows that I did not grow up around here…and they were reminiscing about Howe and the fact that if someone ever did something to him on the ice, Howe always got even. This player said that it had happened to him. One game he had accidently high-sticked Howe. The instant it happened, the player said he knew that he was in trouble. The rest of the game the player waited for Howe to get even. But it didn’t come. Then the next time they played, nothing. And the next and the next. Some people might think, the player said, that this meant that Howe had forgotten about…oh no...it was just a matter of time. Then in the very next game, out of nowhere, there was Howe and he clobbered the player. In real life, the player concluded, Howe was the nicest guy you would ever want to meet, but on the ice, he always got even.
Getting even…it was what human beings do. In fact, let me ask how many of you have ever wanted to get even with someone; someone who said something mean to you? Bullied you? Hurt you? Took something from you? What is interesting about this is that most of us don’t even have to think about it. Wanting to get even appears to be built into our DNA. It seems to be one of the most ancient emotional responses there is. People have been getting even since the dawn of time. You attack me, I attack you. You insult me, I insult you. Why? My take on it is this, that when someone hurts us, insults us, takes something from us, it is as if they are taking a part of us; that we feel less than we were before. We don’t feel whole anymore. Our very being has been diminished. We are ashamed and hurt. The only way we know how to get back that part of us then is to get even, because in getting even it is like we are taking back from the other person what they took from us. We are restoring ourselves to our full selves. So getting even on or off of the ice is what we do.
That sense of getting even is at the heart of our story this morning. Jesus and his disciples are walking from the northern part of the Jewish homeland, where Galilee is, to the southern part of the Jewish homeland where Jerusalem is. The only issue is that right between the two areas, right in the middle, is the territory of the Samaritans, who were enemies of the Jews. Normally Jews would not walk through this territory. They would go all the way around it, adding an entire day to their journey. Jesus and his disciples decided that they would cross it. My guess is that they did so because Jesus had, earlier in this ministry had good relationships with the Samaritans…one of the few Jews to do so. But this time something was different. The Samaritans saw that he was headed to Jerusalem and suddenly Jesus became the enemy again. For this reason, they refused Jesus a place to stay. Jesus’ disciples, believing that the Samaritans had insulted Jesus and themselves and so they had to get even. They decided the best way to get even was the nuclear option. They wanted to reign down fire from heaven, destroy the Samaritans and thus get even.
What is fascinating about the story is Jesus’ response. He doesn’t do what we might expect him to do; to say to the disciples, “Hey haven’t you been paying attention. Remember, love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Wake up and smell the coffee guys.” No, he doesn’t do that. Instead he rebukes them. For most of us this morning that word rebuke doesn’t mean much. In fact, it’s a word we seldom if ever use. Yet in the stories of Jesus, it is the most powerful criticism that Jesus ever uses. And he uses it only when he is stopping someone or something from destroying what God is trying to do in the world, and that is giving life to all. Jesus rebukes demons who are destroying people’s lives. He rebukes storms that are about to kill. He rebukes Peter when Peter tells Jesus not to go to the cross. In other words, Jesus rebukes someone or something that is life denying and not life giving. Thus the disciples desire to get even is not simply out of alignment with what Jesus and God are about, it is literally destroying the life that God wants to give. It is destroying because it is taking part of another and leaving them less than they were.
All of this is not good news for those of us whose first inclination when we are hurt, is to want to get even. So the question this morning is how do we move away from getting even?
What I want to offer you this morning then are two practices that I believe can help us all as we try to move away from getting even and move into a more Christ-like frame of mind. The first is based on a simple Christian mantra, or saying that we can offer up every morning. And it is this, “No one can hurt me because I am a child of God.” What I mean by this is that who we are, what we are, our value as human beings, is based not on what our families, friends, enemies or society has given to us, but on the fact that we are children of God; beloved of God. Thus no one can take anything from us. No one can take our honor. No one can take our dignity. No one can take anything from us that will diminish us because all we have that matters is from God and God will never remove it from us. Thus no one can hurt us and so we never need to get even.
The second is a positive practice…and that is that we are to love all persons regardless of who they are or what they do to us. It has often been said that the best offense is a good defense, right? Well I would turn that around. The best defense is a good offense…and our offense as Christians is that we are to be constantly loving those around us. I realize that this sounds like nothing more than what I am supposed to say…just love, love, love. Yet the reality of our choosing to love, meaning to look beyond the surface of the person who may be offending or bullying us, is to see that they do so because this is what God does for us. God loves us, God pours God’s love into us so that we can find life, joy and peace.
Thus if we are coworkers with God, then our task is to give life as well.
My challenge for you for this week is this, to ask how am I resisting getting even and instead being life giving with those around me.
Rev. Amy Morgan
June 19, 2016
Psalm 42, Luke 8:26-39
Maybe it started out small. He said the wrong thing, dressed the wrong way, acted a little different. And he was teased, then ridiculed, maybe even bullied a little.
But eventually his behavior, his dress, his manner fell so far outside the norm that he was declared to be possessed by demons.
Now, I love it when I get to preach on the demon stories. It immediately conjures up images of The Exorcist and people start to worry that this will end with pea soup.
But demons are so much more interesting than Hollywood makes them out to be. Especially the demons in this story. First-century cosmology attributed a wide range of maladies to demon possession, from what we would today diagnose as epilepsy or mental illness, to run-of-the-mill bad luck or ill temper. The power that demons held was supernatural. All that couldn’t be explained or controlled could be blamed on demons. Demons embodied the corporate fears of the community.
And so, in today’s story we encounter a man with demons, a man who is demonized by the fears of his community.
But what is entirely unique about this demonization is the scale. Now remember, is Jesus’ day, a legion was a very specific military term, a unit of the army made up of as many as six thousand men. This is not a general term for more than a few. This man is possessed by thousands of demons, thousands of fears. We don’t see this anywhere else in scripture.
This isn’t epilepsy or mental illness or a behavioral or medical disorder. This man has been demonized. His community has taken all they can’t explain or control, all they can’t fix or cure, and they have focused it on this one person. When he comes too close to town, they lock him in chains. When he breaks loose, those demons of fear run him out of town and he lives among the dead.
But when Jesus steps onto their shoreline, things are about to change.
Because the demons of fear immediately recognize Jesus for what he is: the one with the authority to command the wind and the waves, the one with the power to destroy the forces of sin and death, the one with a love great enough to cast out fear. And that is just what he does. He casts out the demons of fear this man has carried for so long.
The demons of fear enter a herd of swine, and the terrorized pigs drown themselves in the lake.
And just like that, Jesus robs the Gerasene community of their demoniac. When the one who was savage and unsafe is suddenly clothed and in his right mind, when he suddenly looks and acts just like everybody else, the people of the community are filled with fear. Their demons have been released from the one they had demonized, and they have returned to their rightful owners. The scripture tells us twice that the people are afraid, and they tell Jesus to get out of town.
We are all possessed by demons of fear right now. Every last one of us. It doesn’t matter if our fears are reasonable or unreasonable. We are fearful.
And we are faced with a choice. We can be like the man who was demonized, throwing ourselves at Jesus’ feet in our naked vulnerability. Or we can be like the Geresenes, casting our fears onto someone else, finding someone else to demonize.
For most of our country’s history, we’ve chosen the latter. We’ve demonized the English, the South (or the North, depending on which side of the Mason/Dixon line you’re from), the Irish, the Jews, the Germans, the Japanese, the blacks, the Hispanics, the homosexuals, the transgender, the Muslims. The demons of fear just keep moving from place to place to place.
But we can make a different choice. We can choose trust instead of fear.
A child who is frightened of monsters under the bed can sleep because he trusts his parents to protect him. People who live in neighborhoods where they know and trust their neighbors are not afraid to let their children roam freely. Citizens who trust their government are not afraid of their elected leaders, and they can work together for the well-being of all people.
The man who trusted Jesus was freed from the demons of fear that plagued him. He met Jesus as soon as he stepped off the boat, fell at his feet, naked and vulnerable, while the rest of the community looked on with suspicion. When the rest of the community became infected with fear, they compounded their ailment by sending Jesus away, filled with mistrust.
Mind you, we’re not expecting Jesus to be the great fixer, making our world safer, more prosperous, more peaceful. We are trusting the hope of Jesus Christ to cast out the despair we are all feeling. We are trusting the love of Jesus Christ to cast out the hate that we see building. We are trusting Jesus to cast out the demon of fear that separates us from God and neighbor.
The only cure for fear is trust. Trust in God and in the goodness of God’s image reflected in humanity. Trust in God’s promises for a world made new.
This isn’t a blind trust, not at all, quite the opposite. We have every reason to trust. We trust in a God who rescued the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. We trust in a God who gave us a plan for living in peace and righteousness. We trust in a God who sent prophets to lead us in that plan. We trust in a God who chose to become one of us, to know the pain of being human, the grief of losing a loved one to death, the ugliness of the demon of fear, the horror of execution. We trust in a God with the power to command the wind and the waves and to cast out fear. We trust in a God with the power to destroy sin and death forever.
That isn’t blind trust. We have every reason to trust.
When events like the one this week occur, and it sickens me that we can even say that, that we even have other tragedies to compare this to, but each time this happens, we wonder where God is in all of this. Skepticism about God’s goodness and God’s power run high. And the church has done a poor job of responding to that skepticism. We’ve struggled to know what our role is in the face of devastation or what message we have to share. And that is truly tragic.
Because we have a message of hope, a word of comfort, and a commitment to justice that is unique and powerful and vital.
We, as the church, are the body of Christ. We are Jesus on the shoreline. And falling at our feet are all those who are being demonized right now. And watching from a distance are all those who distrust the church.
We are called to follow Christ, to step out of the boat, and cast out fear.
And not everyone is going to like it when we do that.
Because when Jesus steps out of the boat, we might build a relationship with our Muslim neighbors, and we won’t be able to fear them and blame them for all of the horrific acts of violence carried out in the name of their peaceful religion.
When Jesus steps out of the boat, we might have to empathize with the depth and breadth of discrimination and hatred experienced by the LGBT community, and we won’t be able to fear that who they are in any way undermines anyone’s moral or religious values.
When Jesus steps out of the boat, we might develop compassion for the plight of people seeking work or refuge in our country, and we won’t be able to fear that they will take all our jobs and blame them for the state of our economy.
When Jesus steps out of the boat, we might have to look at our whole culture’s addiction to violence instead of pinning all our fears on the NRA and the gun-rights lobby or on gun-control advocates.
When Jesus steps out of the boat, we might not be able to blame Trump or Clinton or any other politician for our collective greed, bigotry, and dishonesty. We might just all have to own that’s who we are.
We are humans. And we are possessed by fear. And the only way we know how to deal with that demon is to cast it onto somebody else.
And so when Jesus steps onto our shoreline, when the church steps out of the boat, people more likely than not will ask him, ask us, to leave. Because once fear is cast out, once the demoniac is dressed and in his right mind, once the enemy looks and acts just like everybody else, we have to deal with the only thing we rightly have to fear: ourselves.
We have to look at our own darkness, our own inhumanity, our own greed and apathy. All those demons that take up residence in each one of us. John Calvin was clear that humanity, at its core, is totally depraved. Not one person or group or institution or ideology. All of us sin and fall short of the glory of God, all of us participate in systems of injustice, all of us have to take responsibility for our own sin and the sin of our society. We don’t get to pin it on someone or something else. Demonization does not cure fear. These are our demons.
And if we can own that, then there is hope. Because Jesus is on our shores today. Jesus is ready to cast out fear. Jesus is ready to remake this world, to put us in our right minds, to clothe us in love and justice and peace. If only we will trust. Trust him. Trust one another.
And as the church, our challenge is to step out of the boat and use the power given to us as the body of Christ in the world. The power to cast out the demons of fear, the power to speak the truth in love, the power to bring hope in a darkened world. Lying at our feat are the demonized from all sides of the political spectrum. We are Everybody’s Church. And we will not allow any group to be demonized.
And we will send those who have been freed from fear to go and proclaim all that God has done for them. It is not enough to come here each week, to feel refreshed, renewed, re-affirmed. We can’t hop in the boat with Jesus and stay there. We are sent back to all those who are still demonized by fear to share our trust, our hope, our peace.
Let us go out and cast out the demons of fear. Go and be hope. Be light. Be comfort and peace. Return to your homes, and declare how much God has done for you.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
June 12, 2016
Psalm 5:1-6, Luke 7:36-49
Inappropriate behavior. Those are the only two words that seem to fit this entire story. From beginning to end everyone in here is completely inappropriate. But to make my point let’s take a quick inventory of all of the inappropriate behavior. First there is the woman who comes to Jesus. Jesus is at supper with the local religious elite. They are probably having some deep theological discussions when this unnamed woman wanders in, stands behind Jesus and begins to weep. Then she bends down, opens a jar of costly ointment and anoints his feet. Not satisfied with that she sheds her tears onto his feet and then dries them with her hair. This is about as inappropriate as one can be. First she enters the male dominion of the dinner. Then she touches Jesus (a really big no-no) and finally lets down her hair to wipe his feet. While this might not seem a big deal to us, the only women in the Roman world who let their hair down were, how shall I put this, women whose reputations and business were not socially acceptable. She was totally inappropriate. But she is not the only one.
The second person to be inappropriate is Jesus. Yes, that’s right, Jesus is inappropriate. And he is inappropriate in two unbelievable ways. The first way Jesus is inappropriate is that he lets this woman do what she does. Jesus could have stopped her. He could have and should have castigated her and sent her packing. That would have been the appropriate response. It would have been so because everyone in First Century Judaism understood the rules which governed male-female relationships in public. First there was no physical contact. There were no public displays of affection even between husband and wife. There were certainly no public displays of physical contact between non-related individuals. Second Jesus was a rabbi. Rabbis especially were to not only have no contact with women, they were not even to speak with them, or acknowledge their presence. Finally, Jesus knew what kind of woman this was. She was, as Luke puts it, a sinner; a woman with a reputation. Jesus’ willingness to allow her to touch him was socially and religiously inappropriate behavior.
Second, Jesus is inappropriate when he forgives her. So often I think we focus on the woman’s inappropriate behavior and fail to notice that the Pharisees get as upset about Jesus act of forgiving as they do about what the woman is up to. The Pharisees, and as a reminder, were a religious political party that tried to live holy lives guided by the 613 commandments, or mitzvot of the Law of Moses. As such, they believed that only God could forgive. And when God forgave, it was through the rites and rituals of the Temple in Jerusalem; meaning that forgiveness was to be found not in the words of some wandering rabbi. Forgiveness was not and could not be offered by just anyone. If this woman wanted forgiveness there were means by which it could be achieved. She could gather up the requisite sacrifices and head to Jerusalem and find the forgiveness of God there. We can sense this when those around the table asked, “Who is this that forgives sins?” The fact then that Jesus tells her that she is forgiven is the most inappropriate action that takes place at this table.
Inappropriate behavior. A story filled with inappropriate behavior…or is it? On the surface that is all that this story is about, yet somehow Jesus manages to take all of this inappropriate behavior and make it appropriate. The woman’s behavior, Jesus explains to his dinner guests, is completely expected because she is showing the deep gratitude she has for being forgiven. Evidently this woman and Jesus had met some time previously and in an act of compassion for her Jesus had forgiven her. Overwhelmed by that gift, by that love, her love for Jesus drives her to show her gratitude. This is the heart of Jesus’ short story about the cancellation of the debt. Her forgiveness was great and so then was her response. Jesus’ inappropriate action of allowing her to carry out her work of thanksgiving is allowed by Jesus because it is an act of hospitality, something that Jesus’ Pharisee host Simon, had failed to offer (which by the way is one more inappropriate aspect of this story). Why, Jesus asks should he stop this woman from doing what Simon ought to have done. Finally, the act of forgiveness for Jesus has never been tied only to life and work of the Temple. Drawing on the great prophetic tradition Jesus understands that forgiveness comes through a changed life that reflects the love and grace of God; something which this woman has demonstrated with her actions…thus forgiveness is warranted. In a sense Jesus offers us a vision of inappropriately appropriate behavior.
Being inappropriately appropriate is what the church and all of us in her are called upon to be. I say that because it is what allows us to truly offer the love and grace of God to the world. Let me explain. As human beings, we build walls between what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior. We do so in all sorts of ways; in terms of social interactions, manners and cultural taboos. What we fail to realize is that many of those walls are merely social constructs that have no basis other than the traditions of our elders. The problem with those walls is that they divide people. They separate people one from another, allowing certain people in and walling others out. Those who are inside receive all of the benefits society has to offer. Those on the outside are left out and their lives are diminished.
It would be nice to think that the church was different. But it wasn’t. In fact, the church has been one of the primary places where the walls separating appropriate and inappropriate exist. There are inconsequential walls; how we are to dress for church, whether or not we are to applaud, or whether we sing from hymnals or screens. These are the obvious walls. But there are also the not so obvious walls; those walls that essentially declare certain people to be inappropriate to be within the community of faith. Those walls have excluded people of color (just look at the slave balconies in older Southern churches), people within the LGBT community and persons with disabilities. While the church would say that God loves everyone, we would make it clear that certain people’s presence was simply inappropriate. And so it is only by being inappropriately appropriate that we can break down the walls that keep some people out and thereby invite everyone in to know the great love that God has for them in Jesus Christ.
This past week I began my eighth year with you. And one of the things I value the most about being your pastor is your willingness to be inappropriately appropriate. Once upon a time it was inappropriate for women to be in leadership in this church, whether as elders or ministers. Then the church decided to be inappropriately appropriate and change that. Once upon a time children were not welcome in worship, except to sing as a choir. Then the church decided to be inappropriately appropriate and make children an integral part of worship. Once upon a time, persons with disabilities were not fully welcomed into the church. But then the church decided to be inappropriately appropriate and created Celebration station, then an inclusion program and then call the first pastor in our denomination dedicated to the inclusion of persons with disabilities. Once upon a time, members of the LGBT community were essentially excluded from our community. But then the church decided to be inappropriately appropriate, and tear down the wall of separation and welcome all persons regardless of sexual orientation into the membership and leadership within the church. What this means is that we are a church that is constantly asking ourselves, how do we bring down the walls that keep people from knowing the full love and grace of God in Jesus Christ? How do we follow the example of Jesus in that evening meal when he broke down the walls to invite in an unnamed woman into the love and grace of God?
The challenge for us then is to not assume that we have broken down all of the inappropriately/appropriate walls that keep people away from God’s love. It is to continue asking ourselves what barriers still need to be broken…and then break them. So this week, my challenge to you is this, to ask yourselves, how am I being inappropriately appropriate in helping all people know that they are loved and cherished by God.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
June 5, 2016
Exodus 22:21-27, Luke 7:11-17
“I don’t know what to do.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know how to help all of the people around the world who are in need. I’m not rich. I have bills I have to pay. And the needs of people all over the world are so great that what I could give will not make a dent at all.”
“So why don’t you just choose one thing and give to that?”
“But how can I choose? If I choose one, then the others will go without.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“I just don’t know.”
The person you have just met has just been afflicted with one of the western world’s great diseases, compassion paralysis. Compassion paralysis is a disease that occurs when limited resources come into conflict with unlimited need, causing people to not do anything because they either cannot decide who to help or they believe that what they can give will not really make a difference. The question this morning then is, is there a cure?
The answer is yes there is a cure, and the cure is to look to the compassion of Jesus. I realize that many of you will say, “But John, Jesus was all about compassion. It was his middle name. It was in his job description. He would never have been afflicted with compassion paralysis.” My response would be that if we look at the time in which Jesus was living, if anyone ought to have had compassion paralysis it was Jesus. This is so because Jesus lived in a time when infant mortality was extraordinarily high, the average life span was probably no more than 40 years, diseases were rampant, simple cuts could lead to infections that were incurable thus making life for ordinary Greeks and Jews short and tenuous. You might reply, well sure, but Jesus had the ability to heal. That is right but even so had Jesus healed people twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, he would not have made a significant difference in the overall outlook of life. It would have been easy for Jesus to have just given up and retired to Nazareth.
Yet as we see in our story this morning, he didn’t. Our story begins as Jesus and his followers are about to enter a small town called Nain. As they approach, they see a funeral procession. In the procession and mourners, a funeral bier and a weeping woman. Jesus senses that the woman is a widow, meaning there is no husband with her. There are also no other son’s supporting her. Jesus realizes that this woman, without her son, will be left impoverished and alone, reduced to begging without a place to go. As Luke tells us Jesus had compassion for her. He moves to the dead body, commands the young man to rise, and as the man is resuscitated he gives him back to his mother, thereby giving life to two people; physical life to the child and a life with a future to the mother. By this act Jesus demonstrates the heart of the compassion of God. He demonstrated Biblical compassion…the compassion that is the cure for our compassion paralysis.
I say this because Biblical compassion, Jesus-like compassion is, simply put, the desire to give life when and how we can. Let me say this again, Biblical compassion, Jesus-like compassion is, simply put, the desire to give life when and how we can. When I say give life, again, I don’t mean raising people from the dead. Life in scripture refers not merely to physical life but to lives well and fully lived; lived with enough to eat, a place to sleep and an opportunity to live to the fullest of one’s abilities. Giving life in scripture means to offer resources and opportunities to enhance the lives of others even if it is in a marginal manner. Compassion begins when we desire to do any of these things for another. Let me ask then, how many of you want to help give life to another? How many of you as a follower of Jesus believe yourselves called to offer life? Great, then your compassion is at work.
The second part to curing compassion paralysis is to actually offer life when and how we can. All of us know that the needs of the world are greater than any one person can address. Bill and Melinda Gates with their amazing foundation know they cannot solve all of the world’s problems, and so have chosen to focus narrowly on a couple of significant issues, including Malaria prevention. Former president Jimmy Carter, through the Carter Foundation, decided to focus on getting rid of Guinea worm disease. Even Jesus never raised every dead person that he saw, or healed ever sick person around him. The task of compassion then is to choose to do what we can, when we can, and how we can. It may be to assist with SOS. It may be to buy a Church World Service blanket. It may be to help at Alcott once a week, or with shop and drop, or with meals, or perhaps to give a small gift to the International Children’s Network or similar organizations. It may be to offer a kind word, a smile or a hand up to someone in need. Remember, compassion does not require solving all the problems of the world, or even a single problem, but giving life where and how we can.
The cure to compassion paralysis is right in front of us. It is in front of us in the compassion of Jesus, who showed compassion when and how he could. And that is my challenge to you for this week, that as you come to the communion table to ask yourselves, how am I allowing my compassion to give life even as I have been given life?