Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
September 18, 2022
1 Samuel 3:1-20; John 1:29-39
It seems a little bit risky to ask the Pastor who went to Moo-ewe to talk about the Lamb of God. I went to MSU (Michigan State University) and often our rivals would call us Moo-Ewe because we are a land grant school. We do have cows and sheep on campus. Well, the jokes on them because it makes very cute logos especially when my fencing team made cows and sheep fencing on our t-shirts. We were happy to call ourselves moo-ewe.
It's interesting though that that was not my first encounter where sheep were an important journey piece for me. In high school I was in a Great Works class. We had to study a director for our final project and my best friend and I chose to study Tim Burton - the best excuse to just hang out at each other's houses and watch the movies. When we started watching them back-to-back we noticed something in every single movie. We started noticing the sound of sheep. We thought it was strange that every single movie, no matter if they seem like they belonged there or not, had sheep in the background.
During our project, Tim Burton came out with a new movie called Big Fish. It was only being released in select areas. The closest to Milford, Michigan where we lived was Sterling Heights. We went against our parents' permission and drove out to Sterling Heights to see this movie. We saw the movie and in that movie again was the sound of sheep. We looked at each other and thought, well, I guess that's how our senior project is gonna have to go. We're gonna have to talk about sheep.
We made a beautiful presentation about how the sheep, representing innocence, and how the world brings in its darkness around this sheep. We got all A's and our professor thought it was brilliant. Then we went to college together and the director's cut of that movie came out. In that DVD Tim Burton said the reason he uses sheep so often is because… he loves the sound of sheep. All of our preparation, all of our thoughts, all of our theories were completely wrong. They were completely made up; they were our own invention. That experience has made me very skeptical anytime I hear someone say this is what this symbol means or this is what the Bible says. If we get to a point where we only have one or two definitions of something I look around to see if I can find something new.
Similar to what we heard from Samuel’s story, Eli had been in control of the interpretation, so Samuel goes to him to see what he needs every time he hears the voice. He doesn't realize that God is asking him to look at things in a new way. So today I want us to look at the Lamb of God, but I want us to be open about how we think about this.
When I looked at all the commentaries, I found one of two definitions of what the Lamb of God meant. One of them is a protector (took a shield out of my bag to show the congregation). Biblical scholars believe that the Lamb of God is in reference to the blood of the Lamb of the Passover. The way that lamb protected the community from the Angel of Death from those evils of the world is also the way Jesus protects us. John is referencing this protector of the people of the community of the flock.
The other definition that is very common (holds up a scrub daddy sponge) is Jesus being the one who absorbs the sin, who takes away the sin of the world. This definition referencing the lamb that was given as a sacrifice every morning and evening that would be given for the sins of the community. That lamb and that sacrifice would absorb the sins of the communities as they begin their day and unload the burden of the shadow of sin. These are the popular ways to see the symbol of the Lamb of God.
But because I went to moo-ewe I know lots of people who know lots of things about lambs. So I gave them a call and I asked what their favorite thing was about sheep. Here is what I learned about sheep and possibly things we should work into our understanding of the lamb of God.
Sheep are actually very good at mazes (holds up a prayer labyrinth). They can learn a maze individually or as a group. They also remember it for long periods of time. They remember the way and they can find their way through fairly complicated mazes. Maybe the Lamb of God is in reference to the way that flocks and sheep understand the way and remember and teach the way to each other.
Another interesting fact (holds up an old church picture directory): There are probably some faces in here that you recognize, maybe some that you don't, similarly sheep are able to recognize and remember the faces of other sheep and humans. We think they can hold about 50 individual faces and remember them for two years. They have a very good recognition of who is part of their flock, who has been part of their flock and maybe gone away and come back. Maybe the Lamb of God is talking about recognizing your flock and knowing who is around you and remembering.
I also learned this week that after humans mastered agriculture they domesticated sheep. One of the very first things we did for our communal survival depended on sheep (hold up wool socks). I'm very thankful that we domesticated sheep especially here in Michigan where it gets cold. Sheep are very important to the development of human culture. Once we had agriculture we could raise flocks of sheep whose wool allowed us to live in different climates. We were able to be more comfortable. We were able to help our children survive in colder areas. Sheep are important to who we are as humans. I think it is fair to say that it is similar to the Lamb of God too.
I also learned that sheep can recognize the voices of their young (holds up a Tibetan singing bowl). Tibetan singing bowls come in lots of different pitches. I went to a retreat and was told that this is the pitch that sings to my soul. In a monastery each monk plays the bowl with their soul’s pitch for meditation. Sheep can recognize the lambs that are connected to their soul, and for who they are responsible to raise and care for. If they recognize the cries of their young, maybe the Lamb of God has something to do with recognizing our cries.
This next one, I promise, is clean (holds up a workout sweatband). We think of sheep as being docile, innocent, passive creatures, but that is not entirely accurate. In every flock, there is a young ram who always takes it upon himself to fight the battles. If there is even so much of an inkling of a threat he will run to that side of the flock and be ready to be in battle. He will head butt whatever comes into the flock. Often this is the smallest ram who gets the need to fight all the time. The reason why I brought this is because shepherds often have to tie fabric around the horns to keep them from hurting each other. They also use it as a handle to pull them out of the fight if they have chosen the wrong battle. Maybe this Lamb of God is like this young ram, the one that joins us in our battles, that joins us in our fights, that is always there by our side.
Another friend told me that sheep actually have the ability to know when plants (holds up a medicine pill bottle), that have no nutritional value to them, will solve and cure diseases. They will pass that knowledge on to their young as well. Sheep have medicine and they know how to heal the flock. Definitely something in there related to the Lamb of God.
Maybe my favorite is that sheep are great leaders and respect leaders (holds up a toy bullhorn). They trust each other totally. When a sheep sees a threat and it is confirmed to be heading their way the sheep on the other side of the flock will hear that and they'll begin moving so that there is space for the flock to move away from the threat. My niece in vet school told me this fun fact and I asked how do you become a leader in a flock of sheep, what's the protocol. She said there isn't really a protocol because everyone is expected to be on the lookout for threats. Especially if you're standing on the outskirts of the flock you're supposed to be aware. Everyone holds the responsibility of noticing when there are threats to the flock. Everyone works together when there is something that needs to be adjusted amongst them and to protect everyone. All are called to be leaders in their flock.
I looked at all these different things thinking what do I want to show to the congregation on Sunday. What do I want to say about this Lamb of God? I realized it's good for us, every once in a while, to just unpack these symbols. Unpack what we've known, what we might learn about sheep that is new, what people have said the Lamb of God is, and look at all of this and see what the Lamb of God can mean to us today.
In Samuel there is this word that we translate as “here I am” but it can also mean “behold.” God calls out to Samuel, “Behold, I need you to behold who I am.” This is how God signals that there is an adjustment to be made from Eli's traditional interpretation and understanding to how Samuel is to understand and lead. John the Baptist says the same thing, “Behold the Lamb of God.” When we behold something in its entirety each one of us will see something valuable and it won't necessarily be what the other person sees. Something different will speak to each one of us and will affect how we operate in the world.
Are we Fighters… are we protectors… are we guides? The way the Lamb of God resonates with us influences our behavior and choices and the way we live a Christ-like life. I decided not to pair down the options of what the Lamb of God can mean so that we can all behold, maybe add to our understanding even. And so, Behold, the Lamb of God.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 11, 2022
Genesis 1:1-5; John 1:1-19
There are two kinds of people in the world, those who like continuity and those who like discontinuity. To determine which kind of person you are, we are going to talk about what you did on your summer vacation. Do any of you remember having to write a story the first day of school about what you did on your summer vacation? Well, we are at it again. I will begin with two questions. First, how many of you on your summer vacations, whether this year, or most years, do you go to the same place or places over, and over again? You go to the cottage up north, or a particular place in Florida, or simply visit the same sites. Let me see your hands. Now for the second question. How many of you on your summer vacations regularly go to new places? You try to visit new national parks, new cities, perhaps even new countries. You feel as if you have been there and done that, so it is time for a new adventure. If so, raise your hand. If you raised your hand on the first question, you are someone who likes continuity where things stay the same. If you raised your hand on the second question, it means you like discontinuity. It may be that many of you have some of each within you. And let me be clear, neither of these types is better or worse than the other. They simply are.
I bring up these two types of people because what I have found is that there are similar types when it comes to thinking about God. There are those who are continuity types. What I mean by this is that their memory verse might be Hebrews 13:8, that “God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” This verse brings great comfort to continuity folks because it reminds us that we know that there is something solid beneath our feet. That in the ever-shifting sands of history, the crises of the moment, the anxiety about the future, there is one who never changes. That God’s love will always be present in and around us. In other words, there is continuity to life, the universe, and everything. On the other hand, those who like discontinuity might find their memory verse in Isaiah 43:19, “Behold, I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?” In this verse we can see that even though God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, God is always bringing forth something new. Just as we may be able to enjoy new vistas on our vacations, with God we can enjoy new vistas in life. In other words there is discontinuity to life, which for some is exciting and hopeful.
The question then comes to us, as to which of these does Jesus represent? Does he represent continuity or discontinuity? The answer is that he represents both because he is the Word. For the last two-thousand years Christians have struggled with this image of the Word; that Jesus is the Word and the Word made flesh. Many scholars and others have tried to find the meaning of The Word in Greek philosophy. I say this because the Greek word for The Word, is logos. And within Greek philosophy the Logos was more than simply a word for word. The logos had come to represent an eternal reason that always existed before, behind, and within the universe. In some ways it made the universe tick. The trouble with this explanation for the Word, is that Jesus and his followers were not Greek philosophers. They were good Jews. They were Jews who were reared on the TANAKH, the Jewish scriptures. And so, when they heard the word, logos, their minds would have instinctively returned to Genesis 1, where God spoke, and creation arose; where God spoke and brought order out of chaos. In addition, the Gospel of John intentionally references Genesis 1 with its language of “in the beginning.” So, when John refers to Jesus as the Word, “the Word who was with God, the Word who was God,” what we are to hear is the creative actions of God at work in and through Jesus, which means that in Jesus we find both continuity and discontinuity. Let me explain.
With the Word there is continuity. God is the one who is the same yesterday, today and forever. When God and the Word brought creation into existence, they did so by bringing order out of chaos. What this means is that this is a creation that operates by a set of rules and principles. We know gravity works. We know that there is a cycle to life. We know that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Granted, we might not like the reaction sometimes, but we know how things work. In the same way we know who God is. God is not only the one who creates and brings order, but we know that God loves. We know that God’s creative work is not simply an exercise in physics and chemistry, but is a work of love because God not only creates plants and animals; but that God creates human beings, breathes into them the breath of life, and then lives in communion with them. God communicates with them. God cares for them. This never changes. This is the continuity of God. This same continuity is expressed in Jesus as the Word. Jesus was not only co-creator, but Jesus is the one who communicates, in the flesh, the message of God’s love for human beings. Jesus is the one who shows God’s care for all persons by forgiving, healing, and teaching. In a sense, everything that Jesus offers as the word is in full alignment with God’s covenant faithfulness with Humanity. In the Word there is continuity.
With the Word, there is discontinuity. There is discontinuity because the Word is the new thing that is springing forth from God. The overarching story of the Bible is that God created everything and called it “good”, meaning that it was created to work as God desired. And part of this good creation was that human beings were designed to love God, love neighbor, and care for creation. Unfortunately, human beings decided that they did not need to do any of these three things. The world quickly turned from one of love and trust, to one of violence, anger, and domination. This was not the “good” world that God intended. What then was God to do? What was the God of order and love, to do with a world of disorder and hate. The answer was to fix it. And so, this book (the Bible) is God’s love story of how God is fixing creation. What that means then is that God must do the new thing. God must bring about new ways of solving this creation crisis. God then brings forth prophets, priests, kings, Temples, arks, the Law, and the covenants. Each of these was something new, intended to bring about something old. Finally in the fullness of time, God sent the Word, the logos, to be with us. And the logos continued God’s recreative work by making us into new people within new communities, to live in new/old ways. In the Word there is discontinuity.
What does this mean for us? It means two things. First, the combination of continuity and discontinuity means that we can count on Jesus to be the solid ground on which we walk. We can count on the continuity of God’s love, grace, and forgiveness, to see us through all that we face in life. In the face of the crisis that the world and our nation are confronting, we can have sure and certain confidence that God in and through the word, are the same yesterday, today, and forever. Jesus Christ can be counted on in the best and worst moments of our lives. Second, this combination of continuity and discontinuity, tells us that we are not stuck where we are. It tells us that our loves are not finished and complete. That the Word, Jesus, can and will continue to work in us and through us to change us and to change our world. That the Word, Jesus, is not finished with this world even in the darkest of times. It means there are always new positive possibilities in front of us.
The challenge for us this week is this, to ask ourselves, “How am I allowing the continuity of the Word to give me confidence to live in this moment, and at the same time allowing the discontinuity of the Word to continue to change me into the person God has designed me to be?”
Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 4, 2022
Genesis 22:1-8; Luke 14:25-33
It was a great project with which to begin my post-Peace Corps career. I was fortunate enough to get a job as a draftsman on what was going to be the first refinery built in more than 20 years. Chevron had decided that the time was right to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars required to design and build such a facility. My task was to create drawings required to link the large storage tanks together and to the refinery. During the process I was promoted from draftsman to checker to check the work of several draftsmen and designers. The pay was excellent, and we were working 50-hour weeks which meant overtime. One day, about noon I got a note from the project manager that I was to report to his office. My first thought was that I was going to get a raise. Instead, I got a pink slip and a check for two weeks wages. The project manager explained that the price of oil had dipped to the point that when Chevron did a cost analysis, they decided that it was not worth continuing the project. So, it was not just me who was being laid off, it was everyone on the project…hundreds of us. Chevron counted the cost and decided to bag it. I offer this story because counting the cost is at the heart of both our stories this morning. They challenge us to ask some tough questions about the cost of being a Jesus follower.
The first story is one of the most difficult stories of the Old Testament, and perhaps of the entire scripture. Abraham and Sarah had been promised by God that they would have a child through whom the promises of God for land, seed, and blessing would flow. Though they tried and tried, the couple entered their later years without any success at producing an heir. Along the way though God had been faithful to them, protecting and providing for them. Abraham had even had a child, Ismael, with Hagar, the former servant of his wife. Both Abraham and Sarah consoled themselves that Ishmael would be their heir. But that was not God’s plan. In their old age, beyond the age of bearing children, God provided a child to them. God gave them Isaac. It was a miraculous event. But then after Ishmael and Hagar had been sent away, God came to Abraham and asked him to sacrifice his son, his only son whom he loved, Isaac. People have wondered why Abraham would have agreed to such a request…and agree without complaining. I would argue that Abraham counted the cost of not obeying and perhaps losing the favor of this God who had protected him for decades. And so, Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son as a measure of devotion to this God who watched over him.
The second story is centered around Jesus asking his followers to count the cost of the journey they were about to undertake. The picture that Luke paints is that of a parade, a parade of people happily following Jesus down the road, listening to every word he said, swapping stories of miracles, mystical experiences, and exorcisms. They were probably also sharing their hopes and dreams of what would happen when they reached Jerusalem. Some thought Jesus would become the great teacher and prophet predicted by Moses. Others thought he might become the high priest, casting aside the corrupt political appointees who held the position. Other might have believed that he would be a new king, or conquering hero. There were probably as many dreams as there were people in the crowd. The one thing few if any of them were probably thinking was about the cost of following; the cost which Jesus knew was ahead. And so Jesus stops the parade for a “come to Jesus” moment. In this moment he tells them that following him will cost them. It may cost them their friends and families. And let me be clear, the word hate here does not mean, hate as in anger and disdain toward someone, it means to love less. What Jesus is saying is that to follow him we must love our families less than we love him; that Jesus is the primary object of our devotion. Which, in the first century, was a radical concept…much as it is today. In the same way Jesus says that his followers must be willing to say good-bye to all they own if they are to follow him. This is what counting the cost meant for Jesus. But what does it mean for us?
Unlike believers in many places in the world today, who regularly risk their freedom and lives by following Jesus, most of us go through our lives rarely having to count the cost. Certainly, there are moments in which we are confronted with ethical dilemmas when choosing the way of Jesus might prove costly. Yet again, for most of us, these moments are few and far between. Perhaps then we ought to ask ourselves again, what does it mean to count the cost? I would offer you two possibilities.
The first possibility is that we make Jesus the primary object of our devotion. As human beings we have objects of devotion, meaning those things that shape our character, our decisions, our spending, our time, and our love. They are where we focus our lives. For some it is a career. For others it may be family, a school, a volunteer position, or another person. Think about the primary object of our devotion as magnetic north and the needle of our lives always points us to that person, place, or thing. What I believe Jesus asks of us is to chose him as magnetic north. And he asks us to do so not because he has a big ego, but because he is life; because in following him we find life in all the fullness God desires for human beings; a life now and a life forever. And this orientation to Jesus as the primary object of our devotion can be costly because society calls us to follow what they deem to be a priority, and they punish those who do not.
The second possibility, which is an extension of the first possibility, is that because Jesus is the primary object of our devotion that we live in imitation of him, meaning we love radically, we forgive unconditionally, and we serve sacrificially. In other words, we allow Jesus to shape how we interact with the world around us. And this too is dangerous and is part of counting the cost because it means we are to focus on others rather than self. It may mean giving up something that we want to something that others need. I cannot tell you what this looks like in your life because I don’t know your circumstances. Yet I believe that these two possibilities offer us a way forward in counting the cost of being a Jesus follower.
My challenge to you then on this morning is this, to ask yourselves, how am I counting the cost of following Jesus by making Jesus the primary object of my devotion and then allowing him to show me how to love radically and forgive unconditionally?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
August 28, 2022
Psalm 112; Luke 14:1-14
It was not my finest hour, or so it appeared on the photo. There I was in a friend’s basement, standing on a step ladder, another friend holding my belt to steady me, while I was stretching my arm toward the ceiling, with my hand gripping a broom. It looked as if I was leading people into battle. What I was actually doing was holding one end of a disconnected PVC heater air intake pipe so that the plumber could try to extract whatever was inside the pipe clogging it up. The larger setting for this interesting pose was that Cindy and I had gone up north with friends, to visit other friends, over the Labor Day weekend. While we were there, the weather turned cold, and our hosts attempted to turn on the heater, to no avail. They called a plumber who diagnosed the problem as a clog in the air intake to the heater unit, which would prevent the heater from turning on. So, the plumber disconnected the intake in the basement, which I was supporting, while he went outside and, using compressed air, attempted to dislodge the clog. It took several tries, but finally, like a shot out of a canon, a squirrel’s nest came shooting out above my head. Only then would the heater turn on.
Clogs…they are the things we hope to avoid but always seem to encounter. We have clogs in our drains; we have clogs in our arteries. We have clogs on expressways, especially when we are in a hurry. And we have clogs in our relationship with God that stop us from being the agents of blessing that Jesus calls upon us to be. What am I talking about? What I want you to do is to imagine with me a large series of PVC pipes. On one end is the Triune God, who is pouring out love and grace into the pipe. On the other end of each of those pipes is us. God then is pouring out the love of Christ into us. The pipe, however, does not terminate with us. It moves out from us and into the world. The intent of the transmission line is that the love of Christ that is poured into us is to flow through us as blessing to neighbors and strangers. We can see how this works in the Psalm we read this morning. The Psalm tells us that those who fear the Lord (which by the way does not mean being afraid of God, but simply means showing reverence to God by doing as God asks, such as keeping God’s commandments to love God and neighbor) are blessed and fearless, thus the inflow. And then there is the outflow which is that they are generous and lend; that they are gracious, merciful, righteous that they distribute freely and give to the poor. In other words, when the transmission line of God’s love is open, people are blessed.
Unfortunately, those transmission lines often get blocked. They can be blocked by all sorts of things. They can be blocked by fear. They can be blocked by the aftermath of tragic events. They can be blocked by depression and mental illness. But most often they are blocked by a condition shared by almost all human beings, and that is pride. When I say pride, I don’t mean simply being proud of our accomplishments; being proud of something for which we have worked hard and have put our God given gifts to work. The pride I am referring to is the kind of pride that on the one hand says, “I am sufficient to myself, and I don’t need God’s love and grace. I can handle this all by myself.” This is what I call the “Tower of Babel Effect” when the people of earth decided they would conquer heaven because they were smarter than God and deserved to rule in God’s stead. This kind of pride blocks the inflow of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ. A second type of pride blocks the outflow of God’s blessings to the world. This happens when pride says to us, “You are worthy of being loved by God and receiving all God’s love and grace. You have earned it. But, beware, those other people out there; those people whose lives are not going as well as yours. They don’t deserve what has come to you. So, you have no need to share it. You have no need to pass on what has come to you.” Pride then becomes the squirrel’s nest in the transmission line of God’s love for the world. The queston then presents itself, “how do we unclog the transmission line?” The answer is humility.
In its simplest form, humility is not thinking less about oneself, but thinking about oneself less. In other words, humility is a turning away from self at the center of the universe and allowing oneself to both receive from God and give to others. If we want to see how this works, all we need do is turn to our lessons from Luke where Jesus helps us discover how humility works and the benefits it offers.
We begin with humility seeing the other as worthy of our attention and effort. Jesus is having dinner with a group of religious leaders when he notices a man with excessive bodily swelling, or edema. I need us to think more deeply about this for a minute. Jesus is the focus of everyone else’s attention. They have come because he is the great teacher, healer, and exorcist. Jesus could have hogged the limelight. He could have made everything about himself. But instead, he focuses on the one person in crowd who was in need. In the process of healing the man Jesus does not ask for praise or adulation. He doesn’t want people telling him how great he is. All he desires is that a person is healed and that his audience understands why healing and wholeness matters. This is humility, a focus on the other and not on self. This focus on the other keeps the transmission line open and leads to the next step in humility.
The second step in humility is acting humble. It is a willingness to take the lowest rather than the highest place. Some people have described being humble as being like water because water always seeks the lowest place. Whether it is water in streams or heading into our basements, water always moves downward. This is the concept behind Jesus’ parable of choosing the lower place at a communal meal, rather than the highest place. Jesus says we should choose the lower seat because if we chose the best seat, the host might ask us to vacate that seat for someone worthier than ourselves. Thus, Jesus reminds us that we are to choose the way of the servant. We are to choose to act humbly. This choosing the way of the servant opens the transmission line because one is willing to admit that the other is just as, if not more, important than we are; that others deserve recognition in the same way we believe we do. By taking the lower place then, we pave the way for Jesus’ final teaching about humility.
The final teaching of Jesus on humility is about the outflow of God’s love and grace to others. The example Jesus offers concerns who we ought to invite over for dinner. The people we are to invite to dinner anrenot those who can repay us. In other words, our actions of welcome and sharing are not to be about us, about what we can get in the end. These actions of love are not to be transactional. They are to be freely offered acts of grace as surely as God’s giving of love and grace are freely given. They are offered because God loves the world and thus, we are to love the world and everyone in it as well. This is a reminder that humility is to bring about the outflow of God’s love and grace for the world.
Focusing on others, taking the lower place, and sharing with those in need build humility and contribute to ensuring that the flow of God’s love and the blessings that flow from that love are made real in the world. My challenge to you then on this day is this, to ask yourselves, how am I practicing humility that I might receive from God and give to the world, the blessings that God desires I bestow?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
August 14, 2022
Jeremiah 23:23-32; Luke 12:49-56
He never seemed to get any mail, when all the rest of us seemed to get something. One of the best parts of my week as a Peace Corps Volunteer was heading to the office in Manila to pick up my mail. On a regular basis there would be a letter from Cindy or my mother. It was a pick-me-up after a long week. But there was one of our Manila area volunteers with whom we socialized that never got any mail. Finally at a gathering at the house where we lived, I asked him about it. What unfolded was an interesting story about family dynamics. He came from a well-to-do family that owned a very successful and profitable business. The expectations were that when he finished college, he would join the family company and carry on his place in the line of succession. Somewhere along the way, however, he decided that he wanted to make a difference in the world not associated with the family business. This desire is what led him to apply for the Peace Corps. When his parents found out, they made it clear that if he joined the Peace Corps, which they considered a waste of time, they would cut him off from the family. And so, my friend had a choice to make: give up on the Peace Corps and stay connected with his family, or join the Peace Corps and be cut off. He chose the latter, and his family pretended as if never existed.
Choices. We make them every day. In fact, we probably make dozens of individual choices, almost all of which are inconsequential. We choose when to get up and when to go to bed. We choose what to wear, which shirt or blouse, which pair of pants or skirt. We chose what we will have for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We choose how fast to drive and whether to run that yellow light that always seems to come our way. We choose to exercise or not. We choose what to read or watch on one of our seemingly endless streaming services. Few, if any, of these choices are of any lasting consequence. They are simply part of our daily routines. But sometimes in our lives there come moments when we make choices that will have lasting consequences. These can be as varied as the friends we keep, the partners we choose, or the jobs we take and leave. Yet, even beyond these choices, there are those moments when we must choose whether to do what we know God would have us do, or what our friends, family, or society think we ought to do. These are the most difficult choices, because they can sever relationships, families, and perhaps even our careers. These are the kinds of choices that are at the center of both our passages this morning.
Jeremiah lived in a society much like every society that has ever existed. It was a society in which there were the wealthy and powerful and the poor and marginalized. In between these two groups were those who benefited from this socio-economic structure and so were happy to go along to get along. And this group included most of the professional prophets of the day who were employed by the crown. They were more than happy to tell the wealthy and powerful that all was well. The only trouble with this kind of arrangement was that, at least as Jeremiah was concerned, it violated God’s Torah. God’s law was designed to bring equity to God’s people. But in Judah, the wealthy and powerful were crushing the poor by buying and selling them, failing to pay their wages, and pretending that there was no societal responsibility to care for widows, orphans, and strangers as the Law of Moses required. Jeremiah then had a choice to make. He could choose to speak out, driven by God’s calling upon his life, or could join the other prophets in going along to get along. As we can see from our reading, Jeremiah chose the latter. He was relentless in his demands that people live up to God’s commandments. In the end, all this got him slapped by another prophet in the presence of the King, twice placed in prison, having to listen to calls for his death, and being thrown into a pit while waiting to be executed.
This theme of difficult choices carries over into the passage in Luke. Jesus begins by telling his listeners that he has come to call people to make the difficult choices to align their lives with God’s will. This is the statement about casting fire on earth. This fire was not an all-consuming fire, but a refining fire. It was the fire that refined metals, separating the good metal from the dross. Or in our case, separating people’s poor choices from their Godly choices, so that the Godly choices were all that was left. Jesus then continues by speaking about his own choice; the choice to go to the cross. His death is the baptism with which he must be baptized. He, like Jeremiah, felt compelled by God to make the difficult choice. The visual image in Jesus’ words is that he is going down into the waters of the mikvah, or ritual baths of purification surrounding the Temple in Jerusalem. But unlike pilgrims coming to the Temple, he is not sure if he will come out of the water because he is going to his death on the cross. It is a choice to trust that God would raise him. We know this choice of the cross is a difficult one because in the garden prior to his arrest, Jesus prays that God will take this “baptism” from him. Yet, in the end, Jesus chooses the difficult way.
Jesus then follows the comments about his own choice and by telling his disciples what can happen if they make Godly choices rather than choosing to go along to get along. The result is division. Households will be divided; fathers will be divided from their sons; mothers will be divided from their daughters; mother-in-laws will be divided from their daughters-in-law. While we may not be overly moved by these images of division since they are a regular part of life in the 21st century, they were appalling to Jesus’ listeners because the family was the most important, and most sacred set of relationships in the first century. Families depended on one another. Families were bound by sacred duties and obligations. The thought that there would be division was frightening and scandalous. Jesus then tells them that they must see that the time for choosing was upon them, and they must either choose the way of Jesus and Torah, or the way of going along to get along.
One would think then that once people chose the way of Jesus that there would be no more divisions. Unfortunately, that has not been so. In fact, it has been the opposite. I say this because throughout the history of the church divisions have always been with us. We can see this most clearly in the great divisions of the church. Divisions began in the early 300s when the church divided over the nature of Jesus. This continued around the year 1000 with The Great Schism, where Roman and Orthodox churches split. Next came the Reformation, where Luther and Calvin led churches out of the Roman Church. In our own nation splits occurred in the 1850s and 1860s over slavery. I would argue this morning that we are once again in a time of division. The division now is over the full inclusion of all people in the life and work of the church. What happened and is happening is that churches and members divided, or self-selected, by choosing one side or the other of the inclusion debate and then migrated to different churches or denominations that suited their beliefs. This has occurred in virtually all mainline denominations. We at First Church, intentionally chose the way of radical welcome and inclusion of all persons because we believe this is the way of Jesus. We chose to be Everybody’s Church because we believe that Jesus’ love is radical and all inclusive, welcoming all persons into the community. And because of this, two things happened. First, many of you chose to become part of our community because you believe that God’s love in Jesus is radically inclusive. Second, some people have left us because they didn’t agree with this vision. And this has made us sad because we believe that the church can be a wider community in which people can disagree and still be faithful.
It seems then that Jesus was right, that we would reach this place of division even within the church. Yet this morning I hope we will remember two things. First, that it takes all churches to make the one church of Jesus Christ. In other words, even when we are divided from other churches, we are still the one church. I often say to my friends who take their churches out of our denomination, that even though they think they are not part of us, they still are because we are all one church. And even when we disagree about dozens of things, we are still the one church of Jesus Christ. The second thing I hope we remember is that even though we divide ourselves, we still come together; we come together in mission. The image that I will always remember about this is in San Antonio when our church was engaged in a Habitat for Humanity build. In San Antonio, Habitat would build entire subdivisions. And if someone looked at the churches that were building houses, they would have seen Presbyterian houses, and Methodists houses, and Pentecostal houses, and Missouri Synod Lutheran houses, and Assemblies of God houses. In other words, churches that could disagree about almost everything, can and do come together as the body of Christ to serve those in need.
Choices. Sooner or later most of us will have to make a choice that will divide us; divide us from a job, from family, from friends, or perhaps even from our culture. These choices are not easy. They are incredibly sad. Yet this is what Christ is calling us to do. Christ is calling us to make choices that honor him and honor the God who has given us life. The challenge that I want to offer to us this morning is this, to ask ourselves, are we ready to make those choices that allow me to be faithful to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?
Rev. Dr. John Judson