Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 28, 2016
Isaiah 55:6-13, Luke 13:1-9
They needed a hero. The bad guys were out of control. They were oppressing the people. They were stealing from the small and weak. There was mayhem in the streets. The people needed a hero and so they called on….and I will let you finish the sentence. They called on Luke Skywalker. They called on Rambo. They called on Batman, Spiderman, and Superman. They called on Indiana Jones and John McClaine from the Die Hard series. They called on Dirty Harry, Harry Potter and 007. And today they are calling on an anti-hero named Deadpool whose movie is only for adults yet is breaking box-office records. We call on heroes who will blow things up; who will blow up death stars one and two and then a death planet. We call on heroes who will blow up cars, buildings and ultimately the bad guysand will leave havoc in their wake in order to make our world safe again. We call on heroes who will bend and break the rules to protect us. We call on heroes who are not afraid of violence. They needed a hero. We need heroes.
They needed a hero. The bad guys were out of control. They were oppressing the people. They were stealing money given to God in order to fund civic improvements. And so they called on…Jesus. This morning’s story I would argue is one in which the people have had enough of their Roman overlords and are looking for a hero. The tale they tell of Jesus is one of brutality and death. The Roman ruler Pontius Pilot had decided that Jerusalem needed a new water source, an aqueduct. Rather than taxing his supporters he decided that he would steal the money from the Jewish Temple; money give to support the operation of Judaism’s most sacred site. The Jews protested. They stood up to Pilot. In response Pilot let loose his goons, dressed like Jews, who killed dozens of the protestors. For the Jews coming to Jesus this was the final straw. Something had to be done. They needed a hero and Jesus was it. He was the charismatic leader of thousands. He had powers to heal and to drive out the demonic. He was their man. It was his time. The only question was, would Jesus step up, lead them and be the hero? Was Jesus the one with the heroic heart? The answer was no and yes.
The no side of the answer is the easy one. Rather than lead a popular uprising against Rome Jesus jumps all over those who had come to recruit him. He tells them that they needed to repent. Now to make sure that we are all on board with what repent means, the simplest way to describe it would be that we are to turn from doing what is wrong and turn to doing what is right. In this case it meant for the people to turn from a way of violent resistance to Rome; the desire to look for a super-hero who would lead them to freedom and victory, to another way of living as God’s people. The line about how the people in Jerusalem were not more sinful than those around Jesus was his way of saying that those around him could expect the same outcome as those in Jerusalem. Just because they followed Jesus did not make them immune to the violence which would come from Rome. And if they didn’t listen to Jesus, and instead went forward with their plans of rebellion they too would be crushed. In other words this was not just no, I’m not interested but no, this is not at all the way they ought to be acting.
So what about the yes? The yes comes in everything that Jesus had been preaching and teaching throughout his ministry. The yes is that Jesus asked them to abandon their search for a traditional action hero and instead take on a heroic heart like his own; the heart of a hero who believed that love was more powerful than hate; who believed that forgiveness was more powerful than revenge; who believed that serving others was more powerful than destroying others. This was the heroic heart of Jesus. You may be wondering why I call this a heroic heart. The reason I say this is because God’s desire for the world is that it be a place in which people live in loving relationships; in which all persons are affirmed in their identity as children of God; in which there is forgiveness, compassion and mercy rather than violence and revenge. This is the kind of world Jesus came to create; this is that kingdom of God Isaiah referred to when he wrote, “You will go out in joy and return in peace.” Jesus was the hero who would make this possible. He was the one who would stand up to the violence, hatred and animosity of the world, in order to demonstrate what this new creation could look like.
Turning and taking on a hero’s heart like Jesus’ is never easy. It’s never easy for two reasons. First it is never easy because the world has always been in love with power and the violence that is often used to seize it and maintain it. You can see this in the ancient world…the Romans loved victory parades where those they defeated and captured could be humiliated and enslaved. You can see it today. This past week one of the local sports broadcasters was talking about an upcoming “retired players” hockey contest. The sportscaster was excited that the players might drop the gloves and get into a fight. When they didn’t the broadcaster was disappointed. (My thought was these are retired guys playing for fun…why should we want them to hurt each other?)
The second reason it is not easy is that this penchant for violence is baked into us. I can personally attest to this. My former church had a gym and I would go a couple of days a week and play pick-up basketball. One evening I was running down court on a fast break, received a pass and went in for a lay-up. A member of the other team decide he would duck and cut my legs out from under me. If you have never had this happen it is kind of an amazing feeling to be flying through the air knowing you have no way to land. As I hit the floor on my back and then skidded into a wall, I probably should have taken a moment to be grateful that I was not injured. But no, I was up on my feet and in the face of the other player. There was not thinking, there was only reacting…and please picture it that I was about 50 and the other player in his 20’s. Fortunately for me, cooler heads prevailed and we were separated. But that is what Jesus wants us to turn from. He wants us to repent of that instantaneous desire for violence, and turn instead to a different kind of hero heart.
Having that kind of hero heart is not easy, but it is worthwhile, because we become those who make for a better world. We become those who stop the cycle of violence and hate. We become those who bring peace and joy. My challenge to all of us here this morning is to ask ourselves, “How are we cultivating a hero’s heart like Jesus’ had? How are we allowing love to be our aim?”
Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 21, 2016
Genesis 15:1-12, Luke 13:31-35
She should have given up. She should have quit. By all accounts she had lived a faithful, Christ-like life. She had served her church. She spent hours in prayer. She helped her neighbors. But then she had a heart attack. It took her by surprise and she lost her job. Losing her job meant she lost her house. In some ways she was fortunate that she had a loving finance who invited her to live with him while she recovered. As she got better they planned their wedding. Then her fiancé had a heart attack and died. The shock was overwhelming, but at least she still had a place to live, that was until his children decided that the house was theirs and not hers and put her out on the street. She had no money. She had no place to go. She only hat the clothes on her back. As I listened to her story as she told it to me at the Welcome Inn, a low-barrier day shelter all I could think of was here was a women who had been completely faithful to God and this is what she got. She should have given up on God. She should have quit.
Abraham should have given up. He should have quit. By all rights Abraham should have told God that this covenant thing was over and done with. God had called Abraham several chapters earlier and Abraham had responded. He left the most prosperous part of the known world, the Fertile Crescent, in order to journey to a land that would be named later. He had left because God had promised to bless him with land, children and prosperity. Yet none of that was forth coming. So far he had endured famine, war and threats upon his life. By the time we reach chapter 15 Abraham has nothing except the makings of a great adventure story. So he complains to God and once more God reassures him…saying just wait. But all Abraham got was darkness. He should have given up on God. He should have quit.
Jesus should have given up. Jesus should have quit. He had come into the world, he had taken up his ministry, in order that the Kingdom of God would be inaugurated. And this Kingdom of God was an amazing and wonderful thing. This Kingdom of God was something that all Jews were looking for. The Kingdom of God would be that time and place when God would begin to rule and reign; when God’s justice and righteousness would become the defining characteristic of the world. Jesus demonstrated this by healing, feeding and forgiving. Yet the result was that Herod was out to get him.
Herod wanted to arrest and execute Jesus just as he had done to John the Baptist. In fact, Jesus seemed to understand that his fate would be no different from the prophets who had come before him. He would die for bringing the good. He should have given up on this. He should have quit.
What is fascinating in all three of these stories is that they did not quit. In the face of what would appear to be God’s failure…the woman’s loss of everything in her life, Abraham’s lack of reward and Jesus facing death…they did not give up. They did not quit. They continued to be faithful day in and day out. The woman was a tower of Christian strength. She would take aside young men who were down on their luck, pray for them, encourage them and tell them to trust in God. Abraham continued to believe even when for years there were no children, land or blessings. Jesus continued on to the cross, even when he prayed that perhaps it would pass him by. How could they do this? How could they, seeing the truth around them, not give up? How could they not quit. They did not give up or quit because they had steadfast hearts. I realize that the term, steadfast, might seem a bit antiquated, or out of fashion. Yet it describes their inner commitment and dedication to God in the face of overwhelming adversity. It explains their willingness to continue to follow and believe even when they acknowledge that the outcome of their lives is not sunshine and light.
It would be easy for me to simply say at this point…OK all of you ought to have steadfast hearts as well…and leave it at that. But the reality of creating that kind of inner commitment and dedication of our hearts to God is not easy. It is not easy because we are finite human beings. We are finite human beings who suffer pain, loss and heartache. We are finite human beings who fear the unknown. We are finite human beings who cannot see the future. And so creating a steadfast heart is never easy, but it is possible. It is possible if we connect ourselves to God and exercise our faith.
Creating steadfast hearts comes about by connecting with God. It is a relational endeavor. We learn to trust God not simply by thinking about God but by being present with and involved with God. In some ways this mirrors any other relationship. We learn to trust others not by thinking about them, but by being with them. We build trust by living with them day in and day out and discovering whether or not they can be trusted; whether or not we can invest our hearts in them. Sometimes, we discover that we cannot. Other times we discover that we can. In terms of being in relationship with God this takes prayer, worship and attentiveness. It takes being in conversation with God and discovering that God is present in and around us. It takes orienting our hearts toward God in worship and experiencing God’s presence here in this place. It takes attentiveness as we look into our past and see those times and places where God undergirded us. The deeper our relationship with God becomes the more our hearts are made steadfast.
Creating steadfast hearts comes from exercising our faith. Just as we improve our hearts by exercising on a regular basis, so too do we improve our steadfast heart in the same way. What I mean by exercising our hearts is that we act upon our faith and trust in God. We step out of our ordinary routine and take some risks for God. Maybe we decide to give more of our financial resources to the work of God in the world…and discover that we still have plenty left. Maybe we give more of our time in the service of others…and discover that we still have enough time for ourselves. Maybe we work at forgiving someone who has hurt us…and discover that in so doing we are transformed. Our hearts become more steadfast through offering them opportunities in which we discover that God is present and God can be trusted.
Some of you might ask me, how do I know that this will work? I know because it worked for the woman at the Welcome Inn, and Abraham and Jesus. As we come to know their stories we see that all three spent incredible amounts of time connecting with God in prayer and exercising their faith, even in the face of great obstacles. I also know this because I have witnessed it first hand in many of your lives and in the lives of those you have loved. I have watched people face seemingly impossible choices and keep the faith. I have seen people make choices that would cause others to give up and yet they did so with peace. I have seen steadfast hearts holding fast to God and discovering the joy of so doing.
My challenge to you this morning then is this, to ask yourselves, how am I developing my own steadfast heart through connecting with God by exercising my faith?
Rev. Amy Morgan
February 14, 2016
Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Luke 4:1-13
There’s this great book called “F in Exams: The Very Best Totally Wrong Test Answers.” The front cover shows the image you see there in your bulletin. A triangle with the length of two sides given and the third side labeled with an x. The test question says, “find x.” One might be expected to go about solving the mathematical equation using the Pythagorean theorem, but the student on this test has circled the x and written, “here it is!”
Totally wrong answer, but also totally true.
This is the kind of test answer Jesus is dealing with in his encounter with the devil in the wilderness.
Now, this word, “devil” in Greek means “slanderer,” someone who takes the truth and twists it, who misuses the truth for nefarious purposes. So from the outset, we know Jesus is being tested by one who will substitute easy truth for hard truth, someone who will circle the x and say “here it is” instead of completing the math equation. We are witnessing a battle between two kinds of truth as Jesus is tested in the wilderness.
The first question on this test is: how does the Son of God satisfy hunger? In his baptism, Jesus is named as the Son of God, and here in the wilderness, he must claim that identity. He shows us what it means to be the Son of God not just in word but in action. Does the Son of God do the hard work to get at the real truth, or does he just circle the x say, “here it is”?
After 40 days of fasting, upon which we base our 40 days of Lent, Jesus is surely hungry. Truly hungry. The temptation to turn stones into bread is not a test to see if Jesus can determine wants from needs. The 40 days of fasting are over. Jesus has shown that he can prioritize God over anything else, including his bodily needs and desires. And what Jesus has learned in this hard work of fasting is that one can be rich in things but poor in spirit. He has learned that he can meet his own needs and desires and never be satisfied, or he can live in reliance on God and be truly satiated.
Now, what the devil is asking, that Jesus feed himself when he is truly in need of nourishment, is not a bad thing. We might choose to fast during Lent not because Jesus refused to turn stones into bread but so we can learn what he learned in the 40 days before this temptation episode. Jesus knows that the body needs food, but the Son of God does not satisfy hunger by relying on his own power and capabilities.
Jesus knows that food brings people together. Twice in the gospel of Luke, large, hungry crowds surround Jesus and, through the miracle of community, a small amount of food, a meager sacrifice, feeds thousands. Jesus uses food to bring his disciples together in an act of remembrance that will nourish the church and all of Christ’s followers forever.
So how does the Son of God satisfy hunger? Not by turning stones into bread. By turning ordinary people into a community of compassion. By turning bread and wine into spiritual nourishment.
The next question on Jesus’ test is: how does the Son of God rule the world? I’m hopeful we can all agree that a world ruled by the love and justice of God is preferable to one ruled by a slanderous devil. (I have no comment on which of the current presidential candidates best fits that description.)
But here again, Jesus shows us that the Son of God does not pass the test by taking the easy way. God’s love and justice are not brought to life through an idolatrous power grab. The gospel of Luke is chock-full of illustrations of the kingdom of God. It belongs to the poor and to children; it is accompanied by healing; it is like a mustard seed that grows into a tree to shelter the birds of the air, like yeast that leavens the bread; it will include all of those who have been excluded.
“Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, "The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There it is!' For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you."
You have to do the hard work to experience the kingdom of God, to discover it in our midst. You can’t just circle the x and say, “here it is!”
The final question on Jesus’ test is: how does the Son of God trust God? This is the “double-dog-dare you” test, and at this point it seems almost comical. What does Jesus need to prove? What could possibly entice him to throw himself off the top of the temple to see if God will catch him?
Well, let’s think about this for a minute. Whose idea was it to test Jesus in the first place? The text says that he was “led by the Spirit into the wilderness.” The devil may be a liar, but this is God putting Jesus to the test. After 40 days of fasting, after turning away from the temptations of self-reliance and idolatrous power, now Jesus is being asked to resist turning the tables on God, putting God in the hot seat, putting God to the test.
This test, while ridiculous, is the most important and most difficult of all. Because God will not ask Jesus to do something as simple or as pointless as jumping off the temple. Oh no. God will send Jesus to the cross. Jesus must trust God to do more than save him from dying. He must trust that God can bring life out of death. And throwing himself senselessly from the temple roof will not accomplish that. Only giving himself up to die on a cross for the love of the world will do that. Only love can bring life out of death. And Jesus trusts in that love with all his heart.
These tests are not designed to see if Jesus will choose the “right” answer. Because these tests are designed to test Jesus’ heart, not his head. Jesus will feed the hungry, but he will give them more than bread. He will give them the ability to be his hands and feet in the world. Jesus will rule the world, but only by inaugurating the reign of God’s righteousness and peace. Jesus will trust God without testing God, going to the cross with full confidence in God’s power and God’s plan.
God is not interested in testing our knowledge of God – who God is or what God wants or how God works. Those answers will not help us form our identity or clarify our mission. To do that, our hearts must be tested. And the test of the heart goes beyond right answers, and it certainly requires more than easy answers. To pass the test of the heart, you cannot circle the x and say, “Here it is.”
Someone said to me this week, “It’s too easy to be a Christian.” And perhaps he is right. But Lent is a time to remember that it is not, in fact, easy to be a Christian. For it means we must follow Christ through that wilderness preparation. We must allow our hearts to be tested. We must do the work that leads to the true answer, not the easy answer.
It is so tempting to just circle the x. Especially when we feel somewhat capable, righteous, and secure.
After the Israelites had wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, they came to the edge of the Promised Land, a land where they imagined they would be prosperous and joyful. After being fed manna in the wilderness by God, they would be able to produce their own food, turn stones into bread. After receiving the law of God and learning to live by it through their journey out of slavery, they felt equipped and possibly entitled to rule the land they were about to enter. After being rescued from the powerful hand of Pharaoh, they felt somewhat invincible.
It is with these attitudes and experiences in mind that Moses instructs the people to give the first fruits of the land to God and to remember that “a wandering Aramean was my ancestor.”
This practice of sharing the bounty reminds them that the people of God are always fed by God, whether it is manna from heaven or crops from their own toil. They remember that they do not live by bread alone, but by breaking bread together in community and in remembrance.
The ancestor who was a wandering Aramean reminds them that God is the one who has made them a great people and who will rule the land they are about to enter. God will not rule with the oppression of Pharaoh but with justice and peace. Both the law of Moses and the repeated narrative of exodus from Egypt illustrate the kind of society the Israelites are to establish. A society that cares for the sojourner and the foreigner. A society that looks after the poor, the orphan, and the widow.
The Israelites trust in God’s past faithfulness enough to give up the first fruit of the land. Not the leftovers. Not the surplus. Not a percentage. The first fruit. Without knowing how much more the land will produce. Without data about how much they will need. Without certainty that devastation won’t befall the rest of the crop. The Israelites trust God with their survival. They trust in the one who has brought them up out of slavery and sustained them through their desert wanderings.
Jesus’ 40 days of fasting helped him understand what it means to the Son of God. And the Israelites’ 40 years in the desert helped them understand what it means to be the people of God. Both of these experiences were preparation, study, for the test that came next. Not a test of knowledge, but a test of the heart, a test to see if they really understood their identity and their mission.
Meaninglessness is one of the greatest psychological struggles of our society. We are people without identity and without a mission or purpose. We consider ourselves to be fairly capable, moral, and prosperous. We can feed ourselves and our families. We can make good decisions in leading our families, our church, our companies. We can protect ourselves with security systems and seatbelts, screening processes and military spending.
But what we can’t do is give ourselves an identity and a mission. We can circle the x and say, “here it is,” but we never really take the time to find the definition, the meaning, of x. When the world is coming at you at 140 characters and thousands of images a day, who has the time for the hard work, the time-consuming work, the slow work, of becoming a community of compassion, of paying attention to acts of remembrance, of living in the kingdom of God, of trusting God to bring life out of death? These are not easy tests. Not for us.
Not when you have a devil, a slanderer, who says, “you can make something out of nothing, you can provide for yourself, you don’t need God or others.” A slanderer who will say, “worship power and wealth and fame instead of God.” A slanderer who will say, “if God doesn’t give you what you want when you want it, if God can’t be tested like gravity or photons, then what’s the point?” A slanderer who tempts us to just circle the x and move on to the next text, tweet, photo, or newsfeed.
The gift of this season of Lent is that we are given the opportunity to remember who we are and why we are here. We have the chance to go, in the strength of God’s Spirit, into that wilderness of testing, hearing the slander, the false truths, for what they really are. In our 40 days of preparation, we are invited to slow down, serve others, break bread together, see the kingdom of God in the poor and in children, in those who have been excluded, not here and there but everywhere. We are invited to trust God with our first fruits, our best time of day, the height of our energy and passion, trusting that none of it will be wasted or depleted but will, in fact, lead to new life.
This Lent, we are invited to find x. May we seek out the real answer, and not the easy one.
To God be all glory forever and ever. Amen.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 7, 2016
Exodus 34:29-35, Luke 9:28- 43
I don’t know if you have noticed or not but there are seemingly about 200 people running for president. And they appear willing to do anything to win. They will lie about their opponents. They will stretch the truth in order to make themselves look good. They will cherry pick statistics in order to prove their points. They will ignore facts of any and every kind. They will simply make things up. (Oh and by the way I am not speaking about your candidate, only all of the others). And in the end they will blow like a reed in the wind in order to bend in the direction they think will get them into the White House. My question is though, why do they want it? Why do they want to be president? Oh, sure it looks like a great job. You get to ride around in motorcades, fly on Air Force One, give press conferences and supposedly be the most powerful man on the face of the earth. But in reality it is a somewhat thankless job. People criticize you, demean you, question your every decision, and the popularity fades. And in the end you age. Have you ever taken a look at a picture of a president when he comes into office and then when he leaves? The office ages you. Why would anyone want it?
We could ask the same thing of being the messiah. Who would want the job? Oh sure it looks like a great job. You have millions of twitter followers and a billion Facebook friends. You have crowds follow you everywhere and disciples who, at least for a moment, say that they will give their lives for you. And you get to hold summit conferences with the greats of the faith; with Moses the lawgiver; with Elijah the greatest of the prophets. And you get to have God affirm your calling. But in the end you know where it is going to lead…or at least Jesus knew where it was going to lead. It was going to lead him to being deserted. It was going to lead him to arrest. It was going to lead him to trial, and then to being flogged and then to the cross. It would lead him to being totally alone as if God had even left the building. My God, my God why have you forsaken me? Then it would lead to a slow, painful, humiliating death. Who would want this kind of a job? Why would Jesus do this? The answer to this question, interestingly enough can be found not at the top of the mountain, but at the bottom.
One of the interesting things about the first three Gospels, Matthew, Luke and John is that they share a core set of stories, yet the stories are seldom told in the same way and in the same order. Each writer carefully crafts stories to make his own particular point and places them in different locations in the overall take they are telling. That is except these two stories. The tale from the mountain top is always followed by the story of the boy who is demon possessed; a boy in fact who is in such a difficult way that not even the disciples can save him. He was lost. He was forever a prisoner of pain and suffering. And into this situation comes Jesus who, even in exasperation, sets the boy free. Jesus drives out the demon, which is why Jesus wanted the job. He wanted the job of messiah because he knew he was the only one who would be able, not only to set this boy free, but to set humanity free; to lead humanity on a new exodus from fear, captivity, pain and death into a new reality. I use the word exodus because Luke uses it. He uses it in verse 31, where in English we read the word “departure”, the Greek says exodus. Jesus at new life. This is why he wanted the job.
I realize that both of these stories, Jesus on the mountain and the healing of a demon possessed child, seem a bit Lucas film-like, meaning something we would see on the big screen but not in real life. Yet the reality of our lives is that there are those things that possess us; control us. We are possessed by guilt; by a guilt from which we do not believe we can be forgiven. We are possessed by our own anger; by our inability to forgive and thus give ourselves freedom. We are possessed by our fear of not being successful enough, saving enough or living up to the expectations of others. We are possessed by other fears. We become fearful of the future for ourselves, for our children, for our grandchildren. We worry about them, and about ourselves. We worry about the world and become fearful of what the news brings us. And as long as we are possessed by this things they will rob us of the joy and peace that God wants us to have; the joy and peace for which we were designed.
Therefore we are in need of an exodus moment. We are in need of freedom. And it is for that reason that Jesus Christ came into the world, to not only set that boy free, but to set us free; to allow us to experience the fullness of hope, joy, love and peace that can be ours. The challenge then that I lay before you this morning is this, to ask yourselves, how am I allowing Jesus to set me free? To lead me on a new exodus? To allow his joy and peace to become mine? And as you ask, remember, freedom and joy can be yours as surely as it was for that boy.