Rev. Dr. John Judson
May 14, 2017
Isaiah 42:5-9; Acts 16:11-15
They were excited. It was their first trip to Europe and they wanted it to be a success. They had done well in Asia but it was time to expand the ministry. So, off to Europe they went; Paul, Silas and their posse. Their first stop was Philippi. They knew that this would not be an easy city in which to work. First, they were not from “around here” and were Jewish outsiders. Second, it was not going to be easy because it was a city designed and built for retired Roman soldiers; the same kind of Roman soldiers who had crucified Jesus. Finally, it was filled with Romans, for whom the whole concept of resurrection was a non-starter. It was not going to be easy, but all they had to do was to find the local synagogue or a place where Jews gathered, tell them about Jesus and they would have the beachhead they needed to create a church and make converts. Unfortunately for them, what they quickly discovered was that there was no synagogue and no male Jews meeting at a place of prayer; which meant that there weren’t even ten Jewish men in the entire city. We can only imagine what they must have been thinking when they realized they had no ready-made friends in Philippi. It was over, before it had even begun. But then, in that discouraging moment, God did what God always does, God sent the right woman, to the right place, at the right time.
Evidently the only people down by the river, and Paul and his posse had gone to the river because Jews needed water for ritual bathing before worship, was a woman and her family. The woman was Lydia and Lydia was a God-fearer. What this means is that she worshipped the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob even though she was not Jewish. In other words, she was open to hearing about what this amazing God had done in and through Jesus of Nazareth. She was open to hearing about his death and resurrection. She was open to knowing more about what it meant to follow him. Granted, even with all of that having been said, she did not appear to be a likely convert. After all she was wealthy and well connected. She was a small business owner with a boutique business selling purple fabric to the elites of the city and the empire. Surely Paul, as a good Jewish Christian, he would not spend time with her. Yet he does. And not only does Lydia come to believe in Jesus, she and her household are baptized and she convinces the Apostle Paul and his friends to come and stay at her home. Lydia was the right woman, in the right place, at the right time.
This concept of the God putting the right woman, in the right place, at the right time should not surprise us. This is, in some ways, the entire story of the New Testament. First there is Mary. God desired that God’s only son be born fully human. What this meant was that God needed a woman who was willing to risk everything; her family, her friends and her reputation to be the messiah’s mother. Mary agreed. She was the right woman, in the right place, at the right time, who stuck by Jesus from birth, to death and beyond. Then, during Jesus’ ministry, he was financially supported by women. Women, such as Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna who had been touched by his love and power, became not only his disciples, but they were the financial backers of his ministry. Without them the disciples would have had to have begged for alms to keep going. Instead God provided the right women, in the right place, at the right time. This trend continued at the end of Jesus’ ministry. When he was arrested, tried and crucified, it was the women who were there at the cross. It was the women who attested to his death. And then it was the women who come to the tomb. The men were afraid, hiding out, but the women went to anoint his body. On hearing the news of his resurrection, they rushed to tell the disciples, who didn’t believe them. It was women who were the first witnesses to his resurrection; the first Apostles to tell others about it; the first to believe. This trend continued for Paul. If we read his letters carefully we will discover that there were women deacons, church leaders and Apostles. God put the right women, in the right place, at the right time.
I suppose it would be easy to assume that this work of God ended with the closing of the New Testament, but that it not how God works. I say that because when things needed to be done, God calls upon women to do them. In the late 1800s, the Northern Presbyterian Church was not engaged in either local or global missions. It was, if you will, a foreign concept. Yet there were women who believed that there were needs both locally and globally. Thus in 1875, Sarah Foster Hanna, “a missionary enthusiast” became the first woman to speak at a General Assembly. She recommended that Women’s Missionary Societies be formed. Within a year seventy societies were created. Within ten years the women were raising enough funds for national organizers and fifty-six women missionaries. In 1912, women in the Southern Presbyterian church, joined them…which is remarkable because the two denominations would not come together until 1983. It was the women who paved the way. God put the right women, in the right place, at the right time.
The same has been true for First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham. In 1906, God called women in this church to begin raising money to support missions. They initiated the rummage sale. In the beginning the financial results were not spectacular, but they were significant. And in a time when women were not allowed in leadership in any way in the denomination, they took charge and expanded the mission of the church. When one pastor would not allow them to hold their rummage sales at the church, they found empty store fronts, as far away as Highland Park, from which they would operate. And as Diane Bert reminded them, they were noted in the papers, for fitting men’s suits. Over the years this tradition of raising money for missions has continued. And this past week, we celebrated this great tradition with the last of the sales…as we know all good things must come to an end. But along the way the Presbyterian Women, and their male assistants (guys you know who you are) have raised more than $2.2 million for missions.
Though the official Presbyterian Women’s’ Organization will cease to be at the end of this month, the role of women in this church will certainly not. We can see this in that God put the right women, Kathy Nyberg and Stephanie Kummer, in the right place at the right time to create our Alcott ministry. We can see this in that God put the right woman, Rev. Kate Thoresen, in the right place at the right time to create the Faith Community Coalition on Foster Care Ministry. We can see this in that God put the right women, Cindy Merten and the Rev. Joanne Blair, in the right place at the right time to create one of the nation’s best Inclusion programs. We can see this in that God put the right woman in the right place when Elizabeth Gumbis started the Shop and Drop program to feed Alcott families on weekends. This list could go on and on, with our female pastors, elders, deacons, mission leaders, singers, ushers, teachers, prayers, listeners, givers and everything else that is needed to accomplish the work of God’s Kingdom here on earth.
I want to ask, how many of you had the right woman, in the right place, at the right time make an impact in your life as a mother, a teacher, a mentor or a friend? Good, so here is my challenge to you this morning. I challenge you to make it a point to thank that woman, or women during this week. And if that woman is no longer with us, to give thanks to God for placing that woman in your life. Let us pray….
Rev. Dr. John Judson
May 7, 2017
Micah 6:6-8; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34
She hit me. That is the only way to describe what happened. She hit me. Cindy and I were in San Antonio, the final Christmas break before I graduated from seminary. We decided to attend First Presbyterian Church there and hear one of my classmates preach. We arrived early only to discover two things. First he was preaching in the chapel, which was not much larger than our own. Second, he was a very popular preacher and the place was packed. Cindy and I scanned the pews and realized that the only one left open was the very last pew. Feeling relieved that we had found a place to sit, we began to slip in. It was then that I got hit. Actually, it was more like a “thwack”. I turned to see who had hit me and it was the usher. She glared at me, and hitting me once again with her stack of bulletins said, “That’s my seat. That’s my pew and you can’t sit there.” A bit stunned, I tried to explain why we were there, but again, “thwack”, “It’s my pew.” I must say, that as I read this week’s story, it occurred to me that that usher would have fit right in at the church in Corinth.
She would fit right in because the church at Corinth was one hot mess. It was a hot mess because people argued over whose baptism was the best. It was a hot mess because they argued over whose spiritual gifts were the best…many thought that speaking in tongues topped them all. They argued over the place of Jews within the community. And on top of all those arguments they were selfish. This selfishness is at the center of our text this morning. To understand this, let me set the scene. In the early church, people met in homes. They had no church buildings. When they met in homes, people would bring their own picnic lunches and bottles of wine. Unfortunately, what was happening was that some of the Christians who were arriving early were those with means and they would chow down on their lunches and get drunk on their wine. So when the late comers, who were probably the servants and slaves arrived, there was not only nothing left to eat or drink, but when they asked for food or drink that others brought, we might imagine that they got “thwacked” and were told, “Hey, hands off, that is mine.”
It would be easy for us to pass off these actions as people being rude and deciding that they need to go back to kindergarten and learn some manners. But for Paul, these actions are not about rudeness. They are about God’s people not walking their worship. Let me explain. Worship within the Jewish tradition, while containing certain rites and rituals such as sacrifices and the reading of the law, is at its core about how people live. It is about people walking the road of right relationships and right living that God laid out for them in the Torah. We hear this clearly in the words of the prophet Micah. ““With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” In other words, worship is what we do and how we live. This means that worship is not contained within this building but is a lived experience every day of our lives and in every place where we live, learn and work.
This is why the Apostle Paul reminds them of the content of the Lord’s Supper. He doesn’t do so because they are using the wrong words, or because their liturgy is incorrect, but because their lives are not walking the worship that is at the heart of the supper. He reminds them that Jesus allowed his body to be broken for them. He reminds them that Jesus allowed his blood to be shed for them. He reminds them that this sacrificial action is supposed to be the road that they are walking. He reminds them that every time they eat and drink at the table they are pledging themselves to walk the walk of love, compassion sacrifice and sharing. And he warns them that when they fail to walk their worship, they will find themselves living lives that lead not to the strength that God offers, but to lives that lead to the weakness that the world offers. Therefore, they are to carefully examine their lives before coming to the table. They are to ask themselves if they are indeed walking their worship; if their lives are examples of Christ’s compassion and sacrifice.
You and I are to ask ourselves the same things. We are to ask ourselves if we are walking our worship; if we are living our lives of service, compassion, sharing and sacrifice. So, that is my challenge to all of us on this communion Sunday, to examine our walk as we wait for the elements to be passed. To ask ourselves this question, am I walking my worship in such a way that I reflect the sacrificial life shown to me at this table?
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.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
March 26, 2017
Matthew 6:22-7:5; Genesis 1:1-5
He had something that he wanted me to see. Keith was one of my best friends, and after high school we had gone separate ways. I had headed west to San Antonio for college and he had headed east, in the piney woods of east Texas for college. Now for those of you non-Texans, which I assume is most of you, the piney woods are dense forests like those in the UP. You can drive for miles and miles seeing nothing but trees and deer. Sometime during my freshman year I drove over to pay him a visit and as darkness fell, he invited me for a ride in order to show me this surprise. We were headed down some narrow two lane highway, the trees whipping by, barely able to see anything on a moonless night. The Keith said, “Watch this.” He flipped a switch and it was daylight ahead of us. I wondered if the light was so bright it would knock the trees over. He glanced at me, smiled and said, “Aircraft landing lights.” “Are they…” I began. He replied instantly, “No they are not legal. But aren’t they great.”
I think about Keith and his lights every time I hear Jesus say that we are to be the light of the world; that we are to be those who shine the light of God’s love and justice into every dark place in the world. That where there is hate, we are to shine love. Where there is pain, we are to shine care. Where there is bullying, we are to shine protection. Where there are lies, we are to shine the truth. Where there is loneliness, we are to shine community. We are to be the light of God in a hurting world. Yet the question always arises, how are we to do that? How are we, ordinary people, supposed to be the light of God in the world? The answer is by increasing our SLQ; by increasing our Spiritual Light Quotient. Or if you prefer, our Spiritual Lumens Quotient. Our SLQ measures the amount of God’s light we have available to share. For you see we cannot shine God’s light into the world if we have not taken in the light. We cannot share what we do not have. This is what Jesus means when he speaks of our being full of light; that we can only be filled if our eyes, are open to seeing the light God offers.
The issue then becomes how do we do this? How do we open our eyes in order to receive the light? How do we increase our SLQ? Fortunately, Jesus offers us the answers in these pithy teachings we read this morning. So here goes.
First, we are to serve God. Often when we hear this statement, that we must serve God, what comes to mind is going out and doing things for others. We remember Jesus story about when we serve one of the least around us, then we are serving him, and by extension God. While that is spot-on, it is not what Jesus has in mind in this passage. Listen again to what he says. “No one can serve two masters.” The issue is who sets the agenda for our lives. Who gives us our marching orders? Who is the one who will direct how we live? This is what a master does. And what Jesus wants us to see is that we are to give this place of honor in our lives over to God. In others words, we are to look to God…and nothing and no one else, to set the direction and boundaries of our lives. What happens when we do this is that we look to God. We look toward God, and we begin to take in the light of God’s love and mercy. We begin to take in the light of God’s compassion and care. We begin to increase our SLQ. We become light bearers to the world capable of shining light into the dark places around us.
Second, we are to trust God. Jesus begins talking about trust by reminding us to not worry. “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your…” and he tells us all the things we are not supposed to worry about. What I have found however is that when someone tells me not to worry, I spend as much time worrying about not worrying than I do worrying about what I was not supposed worry about…if you get my drift. So, I want to turn this around and get to the heart of it, which is that we are supposed to trust God. After all, God is the one who feeds the birds and clothes the grass…and loves us. Thus, we are to be people who, even in the most difficult of circumstances, trust that God is present, walking beside us, and caring for us. And as we begin to trust, our SLQ increases. It increases because to trust, we must be open. Because to trust we must be open to what God can and is doing in our lives. Because to trust is to receive from God what we cannot give to ourselves. It is having our arms wide open, palms up, waiting for God to shower light upon us. When we trust God, we become light bearers into the world capable of shining light into the dark places around us.
Third, we are to confess to God. In the final part of our reading this morning we hear Jesus telling people that they are not to judge others. While this may not appear to have anything to do with raising our SLQ, it actually does. For when we judge others we act as if we are God. We believe that we know what people think, why they do what they do, what are their motivations and that we have all the light we need to “fix” them. In essence we don’t need God and so we pull a shade down across our spiritual eyes so that no light gets in, whether it is light from God or it is the light reflected in the other person. For what we need to remember is that one source of the light of God is other people. For every person has within them the light of God. It may be a dimly burning wick, or a spotlight, but it is there. So, when we judge, we blind ourselves to all the light that might make us capable of shining God’s light into the world. This is where confession comes in. When we confess our pride, our arrogance or our fear, whatever it is inside that causes us to judge, we remove, as Jesus says, the log from our eyes. Isn’t that a great image; a log in our eye. For when there is a log we can neither receive nor send light. But once we confess and remove the log we once again increase our SLQ and become light bearers to the world.
We live in a world that is desperately in need of the light of God in Christ. We need the light in our schools. We need the light in our places of work. We need the light in our communities. We need the light in our families. The challenge then is for us to increase our SLQ. It is to serve, trust and confess to God in such a way that the very light of God will come streaming into our lives, in order that we might shine it out again like aircraft landing lights…making a difference in this God’s good creation. My challenge to you then is this, when you awaken each morning, sit on the edge of your bed, spread your hands apart and say to God, “Fill me with light, that I might be light to the world.”
Rev. Amy Morgan
March 19, 2017
Matthew 6:1-6, 19-21
It’s like Christmas in July. It’s like eating a Thanksgiving dinner on a Tuesday. It’s like shopping for a bathing suit in February.
We’re reading that scripture about money, and it’s nowhere near stewardship season.
If it isn’t bad enough that the church takes three whole weeks each fall to focus on how much we should give and why, now we have to hear about it in the middle of Lent, too?
We hate talking about money in the church. It’s embarrassing. The church is here to help and comfort and support its members, so we hate to ask for anything in return. Especially money. Even in stewardship season, we emphasize that giving your time and your energy is just as important as giving your money. If you can’t give much, that’s okay. Do the best you can. We’ll be fine.
The ironic thing is, you know who LOVED to talk about money? Jesus. That’s right. He healed people and loved people and taught people God’s way. And he still managed to squeeze in 288 recorded references to the almighty dollar. Or denarii.
So why did Jesus talk about money so often? A lot of people think it’s because he hated rich people, or he was a socialist, or a communist. I could make the argument for any of those possibilities.
But there are other possibilities as well. For instance, Jesus might have been a venture capitalist.
I asked one of our Confirmation students a few weeks ago, who happens to be a strong supporter of free-market capitalism, for scriptural evidence that Jesus was a capitalist. And, clever guy that he is, he immediate responded: the feeding of the 5,000. Small investment compounds and trickles down and everyone gets what they need.
I’m still thinking about that one…but it made me reconsider the way we approach money in the church.
In essence, we do everything wrong. We ask you all, members of the church, to give money. But unless we’re involved in a building campaign, we don’t make anything with it. We don’t recognize outstanding donors. We can’t show you growing profit margins or increased market share. We don’t even do a great job of talking about your return on investment.
But we’re a church, you might say. It’s not like a business. It’s different.
Okay, but I’m not sure Jesus saw it that way. He told this parable about someone sowing seeds, and when the seed hit the good soil, it produced a hundredfold. One to one hundred is a pretty good return on investment. Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. This tiny thing that becomes something huge that houses flocks of birds. In numerous teachings and parables, Jesus talks about this small thing becoming great, like a startup company in somebody’s garage turning into Apple. Small investment. Huge return. Essentially, said Jesus, that’s what the kingdom of heaven is like.
The problem is, the church is terrible at communicating this to the benefit of the body of Christ.
There’s a great TED Talk by a guy named Dan Pollatta. He’s the founder of the AIDS Ride and Breast Cancer 3-day events and the president of Advertising for Humanity. He wants to change the way we think about giving to non-profits. He knows we’re doing everything wrong. He says there’s a double-standard when it comes to the non-profit sector vs. the rest of the economic world.
Non-profits, he says, are held to a different, constrained standard when it comes to employee compensation, advertising and marketing, risk-taking for revenue development, time expectations for return on investment, and market investment. In short, anything we label “overhead” is demonized in the non-profit sector, but in for-profit the motto is “you gotta spend money to make money.” Pollatta says we “confuse morality with fugality,” denying non-profits the opportunity to grow to the scale needed to solve huge social problems not addressed by the for-profit economy.
What Pollatta is proposing is not some Robin Hood economics of taxing the rich to help the poor. It’s not socialism or communism. In fact, it doesn’t involve government at all. His solution is much more radical and much more challenging. He believes we have to change people’s hearts and minds, change the way we think and feel about what charities do in our society.
He thinks that the way to really change the world, to help people, to solve big social problems, is to give non-profits the same advantages as the for-profit economy.
But in the church we are shackled by scriptures like this one from the gospel of Matthew. Don’t advertise your piety. Give in secret. Pray in secret. Don’t invest in worldly things like your church facilities or staff or advertising or any other kind of overhead. Focus on heavenly treasure. You can’t love God and money, so just don’t talk about money at all. At least not at church.
It's like the church is this place where your bad choices are brought to light and your good deeds are kept in the dark. It sets up this double-standard where you are permitted to share your excitement about investing in Google or Coca-Cola, but you can’t share your excitement about investing in the ministry of the church. So then you don’t get that positive connection and feedback, which can lead to you not being quite as excited to give to the church.
And because the church wants to support you in your spiritual walk, we don’t advertise what you give, either. Again, this leads to a situation where you get your name in print for being a top shareholder or startup investor in the for-profit world, and even in other non-profits. But in the church, your investment is a secret so your father in heaven can reward you.
Now, maybe some of us have experienced that reward. Our family has a strong commitment to giving to the church, and it’s a meaningful part of our spiritual life. We’ve seen God working powerfully in our lives because of how we give.
But I will also admit that most days, I find it more rewarding to drive my new car or go on a family vacation than to give to the church in secret and store up treasure in heaven. Sorry, but it’s true. I’m hard-pressed to feel more rewarded by God almighty than by the almighty dollar.
So what do we do with this text, and others like it, that seem to impede investment in the mission of the church?
Let’s start by looking at the problem Jesus is addressing in this teaching. Jesus is calling out the hypocrites, which comes from the Greek word for “actor.” These are people who are acting like they’re following God’s will, but they’re only pretending. They strut the public stage, seeking praise and accolades for their generosity, but it’s all a show. They don’t really care. These charity shows were common in the Roman Empire and were a mainstay of Greek society. Being a benefactor was a matter of social status. You wouldn’t think about giving anonymously or not being publicly rewarded for your generosity.
Now, the church today may have many struggles, but hypocritical giving is not one of them. I don’t know any pastors who are complaining, “You know, I’m really tired of these people advertising to the world how much they give to the church. If our members would just quite announcing on Facebook that they are going to church to put their offering in the plate, that would be great. If I see one more Instagram photo of someone writing a massive check to our ministry, I’m gonna scream.” I mean, this is just not our problem.
But it was a problem for Jesus in the first century. You see, around the first century, the Jewish teachers and leaders were busy interpreting the Torah, or law, in ways that encouraged people to be faithful in their everyday lives. Part of that interpretation included what came to be known as Tzedakah. Now Tzedakah can be loosely interpreted to mean “charity,” but it comes from the same Hebrew root as righteousness, justice, or fairness. In Judaism, giving to the poor is not viewed as a generous, magnanimous act; it is simply an act of justice and righteousness, the performance of a duty, giving the poor their due.
So it would stand in opposition to that understanding of charity to give in a way that celebrated the giver, that brought praise or benefit to the donor. In fact, the Jewish rabbis eventually developed a merit system for giving, ranking different attitudes of giving from least meritorious to most commendable. Giving begrudgingly was the bottom rank, of course, just above not giving at all. Higher up the list is giving when you don’t know the recipient's identity, but the recipient knows your identity. But higher than that is giving when neither party knows the other's identity. That whole “Don’t let the right hand know what the left hand is doing.”
But the highest form of Tzedakah, the most meritorious form of charity…is giving to enable self-reliance. Giving so that there is no one in need. Giving that addresses the systems of oppression and injustice that put some people at the mercy of others.
Giving that effectively addresses those huge social problems our society faces is the highest form of charity, of righteousness, justice, fairness. This kind of giving has no room for hypocrisy. You have to actually believe in a cause. You have to research effective strategies and best practices. You have to dream big and plan for growth. You can’t fake this. You have to be a serious investor if you want to see major returns.
I think Jesus expected to see major returns on investment. Something small turn into something great. And he knew it would take money to do that. When he said to a rich man, “sell everything and follow me,” it wasn’t because he hated wealth. It was like your stockbroker telling you, “put everything you have into this new Jesus IPO.” He had wealthy followers who supported his ministry on earth and helped fund the early church. They took their earthly treasure and turned it into heavenly treasure. They put their money where their heart was. They invested in what they believed in.
And I know that is true for many of you. You give generously, sacrificially, and privately. There is no hypocrisy in your giving. You care deeply about this church and its ministry, and you want to see it grow and thrive. You want to dream big, audacious dreams.
That is why we have enough pledges to balance our budget this year. That’s why many of you increased your pledges to support church staff and programs. You love this church. This is where your heart is.
We are one of those rare unicorn churches. We are a growing, thriving suburban mainline church. We are uniquely situated in the American religious landscape.
And we are ready to grow. We are ready to expand our scale.
But it’s going to take some investment. A grain of wheat. A mustard seed maybe. But a little more to produce something even greater.
It’s going to take investment in those things we think churches shouldn’t spend money on. Staff. Marketing. Fundraising. Infrastructure. Innovation. We may have to wait a few years for the return on investment, just like you would for any for-profit company.
And you won’t get your name on a wall. No trumpets to announce your offering.
But that isn’t what you all are looking for. Because you’re not hypocrites. This is where your heart is. You’re making that private investment.
Since this isn’t stewardship season, I’m not going to ask you to pledge. I’m not authorized to ask you to increase your pledge for the year. And I’m not even going to ask you to give over-and-above your pledge to a particular cause. I know that’s a shock given the theme of this sermon.
What I’m going to ask you to do is dream. If this church had all the money in the world, what would we do? How much money would it take to accomplish the biggest dream you can dream for this church and the community it serves?
Let’s not operate out of a sense of scarcity, but out of a sense of abundance. If the heart we have for this place can grow with the size of our dreams, I’m certain the treasure needed to support those dreams will follow. Because this is where our heart is.
Glory be to God, Amen.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
March 12, 2017
Ecclesiastes 5:18-20; Matthew 5:17-20
He was “that guy.” He was that guy that no one really wanted to play with. Let me explain. One of the best things that my former congregation ever did was to build a gym. They needed a larger fellowship hall and so rather than simply extending the old one, they built a gym. And the gym was the most widely used part of our facility. It was used by basketball leagues, scouts and any number of other groups. One of the groups that used it was a twice a week men’s pickup basketball league…of which I was part for almost fifteen years. It was one of those leagues where men and women, by the way, of all ability levels could come and play. You kept your own score and you called your own fouls, with the understanding that you only called a foul when it was pretty egregious. But then there was that guy; that guy who we dreaded playing with because he called everything that even remotely looked not only like a foul, but traveling, double dribbling and anything else one could think of. It made games long and torturous. No one liked playing with that guy…which is why I wonder why anyone would want to hang out with Jesus…because he seemed to be that guy.
I say that Jesus is that guy because of what he said in this morning’s passage. ““Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore, anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is legalism at its best, or perhaps at its worst. And Jesus doesn’t stop there. Oh no, he says things like, Moses said you shall not murder, but I say if you get angry you are a murderer. Or, Moses said you shall not commit adultery, but I say if you look at someone with lust in your heart, you have committed adultery as well. Jesus certainly seems to be that guy, who plays above and beyond the letter of the law.
And it didn’t stop with Jesus. The church took up the mantle of being that guy. The church focused on keeping people in line through an application of extreme legalism of all forms. You don’t believe our particular theology…foul, you are out. You don’t agree with how we run the church…foul, you are out. You smoke, drank or danced…foul you are out. The church spent almost two thousand years defining and refining the rules and regulations that insured that everyone toed the legalistic line. One of my favorite stories of this church is that back in the 1800’s they kicked a church member out because they caught him harvesting his wheat on a Sunday…for the second time. They had warned him the first time, but he didn’t listen, so he was gone. The church it would seem was just following Jesus call to be more righteous than the Pharisees. But what if this is not what Jesus actually meant? What if Jesus was not calling for a return to legalism. What if he was the guy who simply wanted to encourage us to focus on playing the game and not on enforcing the rules?
Before we move forward I want to explain what I mean by “the game.” I am talking about the game of life, not the board game, but life itself. The game of life is, according the scriptures, to be lived in such a way that all human beings find love, joy, peace, fulfillment, abundance and blessing. It is supposed to be the kind of life Jesus described in the Beatitudes when Jesus spoke of those who are blessed, who are cared for and loved by God. What this means is that the game has two components. The first we can see in our text from Ecclesiastes. “That it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot (5:19). Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God.” This is the component of enjoying the good things that life gives to us. The second part is our participation in insuring that all people have those same blessings. Do we have enough to eat? Then others ought to as well. Do we have a place to live? Then others ought to as well. In essence the game of life is a team sport, where we work together to insure all people can enjoy the life that God and God’s creation make possible. With that in mind let’s return to Jesus.
I want to argue that this, meaning playing the game, is what Jesus was focused on. I say this because he tells the people, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” I realize that this sounds like Jesus is doing the opposite; that he is focused on the rules and not the game. It may do so because we often associate “righteousness” with rigorous rule following. But that is not what righteousness is all about. Righteousness is a positive descriptor. It is focused on doing what is right rather than focusing on what is wrong. So to say that our righteousness has to be greater than that of the Pharisees is saying our lives need to be lived in a more self-consciously positive, loving way, rather than a negative, rule keeping way. Because when one is focused on the rules, when one is “that guy” then the game never really gets going. You are stuck at the free throw line, rather than being on the court, or in this case the Kingdom of Heaven, being actively engaged in being the blessed and blessing people of God.
So what then about the rules? What then about Jesus’ statements about being angry is the same as murder and lusting is the same as adultery? Two things. First, Jesus understands that rules are necessary. Without rules all one has is chaos. Can you imagine trying to play any game without rules? Basketball would soon look like rugby and bridge would soon look like go-fish. Second the rules are God’s rules intended to promote the playing of the game. They are given for the benefit of the people because they focus on helping people live the game more fully. Care for the poor, the stranger, the refugee. Treat the property of others as you want your property treated. Be honest in business dealings. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. These are rules that set the tone for the game, including not being angry, not lusting and the like because those actions get in the way of both being blessed and of blessing others. In essence, Jesus wants us to know the rules, but only for the purpose of being a people of blessing.
Jesus is not “that guy.” Instead he is the one who calls each of us off of the bench and into the game; the game of doing what is right by God and for neighbor and creation. This morning, I want to offer you a different kind of challenge, and that is to participate in our Lenten projects that are game changers, if you will, for people we will never meet. The first is to give a donation to the One Great Hour of Sharing offering…all of which goes to change people’s lives. The second, is called Sole-Hope. All you must do is to find your old jeans or other denim and bring them to the church as we to begin the process of helping people make shoes which will ward off life debilitating diseases. They are both simple acts, yet they are righteous acts; acts that bless others in the name of Christ. They are acts which get us in the game; the game of life helping to insure that all people get to experience the fullness God has to offer.
The Rev. Joanne Blair
March 5, 2017
This week, we begin the third quarter in our study of Brian McLaren’s book, “We Make the Road by Walking.” For those of you following the book, you know that during the season of Lent this year, we will be concentrating on what is known as “The Sermon on the Mount” in the book of Matthew.
Since this is the first Sunday, I think it is appropriate to “set the stage” for the next few weeks by reviewing what has happened prior to today’s reading. The point of this, in Matthew, is to link Jesus to the Old Testament prophecy and already accept his authority.
Thus far, we have been assured that the genealogy of Jesus is from the line of David, and that Jesus was brought up in Nazareth. Jesus has been baptized, the Spirit of God is upon him, and a voice from heaven has claimed him as, “my Son, the Beloved.”
He has gone into the wilderness and been tempted by the devil, started his ministry in Galilee, called his first disciples, and been curing people with diseases and demoniacs.
Listen now for God speaking as we read Matthew 5:1-16.
In her book, “Gospel Medicine”, Barbara Brown Taylor reflects on the joys of childhood when she would stand on her head. “Trees grew down, not up,” she writes, “and the sky was a blue lawn that went on forever. For as long as I could keep my balance I could tap dance on it, while birds and clouds flew under my feet. My swing set was no longer and ‘A’ but a ‘V’ and my house seemed in danger of falling off the yard- just shooting off into space like a rocket- leaving a sidewalk lined with pansies that led to nowhere. I liked standing on my head because it made me see old things in a new way.”
Many parts of the Bible are considered to be “upside down”, as we hear of the “first being last”, etc. And this is certainly true in the Beatitudes. Jesus constantly reversed the general value system of the day… and, alas, the general value system of still today.
As Jesus went up the mountain, he sat down (as one did when they were going to teach), and his disciples sat around him. Jesus was speaking to his disciples and those others who would choose to follow him. As Jesus articulates God’s blessings, he is outlining the call to discipleship in relation to the character they should already have.
He also describes the costs in their lives, as well as in God’s future.
Beatitudes are not new to Jesus, or Matthew, or the New Testament. They are found throughout the Old Testament in the Wisdom and Prophetic writings. The Greek word used for blessed in today’s scripture is “mak-ar-ee-os”, which means: blessed, by extension fortunate, well-off, happy. “Mak-ar-ee-os” is not asking for something. It confirms that which already exists.
The Beatitudes are certainly not practical advice for successful living! Rather, they are prophetic declarations made on the conviction of the coming-and-already-present kingdom of God. They are are not direct calls to action… rather, they are promises. And they are true, based on the authority of the one who speaks.
But how can we remain passive, when we have been blessed in such a way as this? We have been entrusted with a mission to the world.
At this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has called only the first four of his disciples. As he is teaching them, he is teaching all who choose to follow him. And so, he is teaching us. We are expected to locate ourselves among the potential disciples, eavesdropping as Jesus declares: “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.”
Thus, as followers of Jesus, “We” are the salt of the earth and “We” are the light of the world.
We know that salt was a prized preservative before there was refrigeration. It was also used in ancient sacrifice… and, of course, still today it enhances the flavor of many foods.
Needless to say, salt was considered a small thing of great value. To be called the “salt of the earth” by Jesus is something special.
And, anyone lost in the dark appreciates the direction given by the smallest flicker of a candle. But we are not just to be guided by the light, we are to guide others. The light of God is within us, and we are to live in ways that testify to the glory of God. To be called the “light of the world” by Jesus is, again, something special.
But “something special” is not an award; not a recognition to brag about… not that which makes us better than someone else.
Rather, it is a call to mission. God has entrusted us to live God’s message as disciples of Jesus Christ. To humbly love and serve with thanks and praise to God.
Salt and light… such common, ordinary things which have the power to change everything with which they come in contact.
There are people who make the headlines for their service and dedication to God, and well they should. We could certainly stand to hear more of these stories! But there are also so many people who quietly just “live it.” In the past month I have been so touched by the number of situations I have encountered with people in this very congregation who “just live it… just do it.”
How uplifting it is to have to limit myself to just three examples!
I was concerned about someone who lives alone and has been struggling lately, worried that she was falling through the cracks… only to learn that someone from this church has taken it upon herself to repeatedly reach out to her, make sure her needs are being met, and know that she is not alone.
Someone else has taken it upon himself to consistently call some of our members who are not able to get out, who may be struggling with various issues, and who feel that their world and circle of friends is shrinking. This has been going on for months and months.
Last week, one of our guests from SOS ended up here at the church (after SOS was over and gone), and one of our members (who already had to have been exhausted!) stayed with her… and her four children for the entire day. They camped out in the youth room for the day and he supposedly “worked” while caring for, supervising, and supporting them for the day.
These are just three examples.
No one asked any of these people to do what they are doing. They are just letting their light shine brightly. These people are salt and light. They are blessed. And they are a blessing.
Like basic salt and every day light, we are called to be useful, life-giving elements in this world. And we are called to give glory to God in the process.
Every thought we have, and every thing we do should be in praise and thanks to God.
Some of us are “luckier” than others in the ways of the world. We may have more money, or better health, and we often confuse this with blessings from God.
As understood in the Bible, happiness is the condition of being spiritually blessed. It is an inner assurance and confidence of God’s love, grace, and eternal care.
Each of us has the greatest blessing of all… the love and faithfulness of God. And that blessing is ours regardless of any trials we may be facing.
In the coming week I invite you to celebrate that blessing each and every day.
Start each day with the affirmation: “I am blessed.”
And then ask yourself, “How will I be a blessing to someone else today?”