Encouragement Along the Way: Worship
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
April 28, 2019
Psalm 100; Luke 2:41-52
It was the same thing every week. On Sunday morning, my family would be up early. There would be breakfast and then my mom and dad would load my brothers and me into the station wagon and we would head for church. There we would set up the chairs in the temporary sanctuary and take our places. During the next hour we would sit in worship where every week we said the Apostle’s Creed, the same prayer of confession, the Lord’s Prayer, sang Holy, Holy, Holy…or so it seemed…and then waited for the lights to come down except where the pastor stood as he expounded on something that I could not understand. My brothers and I contented ourselves with drawing tanks, planes and battles on our bulletins, with our parents insuring that we were silent. In other words, it was boring. As soon as I turned sixteen and could get a job working on Sundays, I was out of there, planning never to return. Which I suppose might be the definition of irony considering what I do every Sunday. What happened? What happened was that in my early twenties when I was a newbie Christian, needing encouragement, I wandered into a church worship service and found the encouragement I needed to continue trying to discover what it meant to walk in the way of Jesus. In that moment worship went from boring to encouraging.
Before we move forward I want us to have a working definition of worship. The definition I will give you is my definition based on my understanding the scripture and worship’s place in it. Worship then, is the intentional encounter of God and God’s people for the purpose of encouraging God’s people to walk in the way of God and Jesus. Let me say that again, worship is the intentional encounter of God and God’s people for the purpose of encouraging God’s people to walk in the way of God and Jesus. I realize that this makes worship appear to be all about us. But it isn’t because it is about God encountering us and us encountering God. It is about us intentionally coming into the presence of the living God in order that God might encourage us in the mission that God has given us…to live in the way of God and Jesus…to bless the entire world. We can see this in Psalm 100 where the people “come into God’s presence with singing” and “thanksgiving” because they know that God’s “steadfast love endures forever” as does God’s “faithfulness to all generations.” They are intentionally coming into the presence of the living God to be encouraged by God’s love and faithfulness.
To understand more fully how worship encourages us I would like us to see it as a recipe for encouragement that has three ingredients. The first ingredient is people. Let me ask, how many of you here this morning have ever tried to lose weight, exercise or deal with an addiction on your own? How many of you were successful doing it all by yourselves? Yep, me neither. This is why organizations like AA or Weight Watchers have meetings. They have meetings because there is power in people. There is power in knowing that we are not alone in our struggles. There is power in the support that others give us. I would argue that this is one reason that worship in the scriptures is almost always communal worship. Worship is seldom if ever personal worship. It is communal because God understands that encouragement comes not only directly from God, but from those with whom we travel on the way. Look around you this morning. We are all here to encounter God. We are all here to be encouraged. We are here together. Here is encouragement…in people.
The second ingredient is place. A while back I was out in the hallway during the week when a woman and two children came out of the sanctuary. The woman told me that one of the boys wanted to show his friend “God’s house.” Now, we know that God isn’t contained by walls or only exists in one space. God can be worshipped anywhere. Yet God’s people have always been led to create sacred spaces. Whether it was a stone altar, or a tent of meeting in the wilderness, or a Temple in Jerusalem, God’s people have found that having a space dedicated to encountering God helps us to be focused and open to being encouraged by God. We can see this in the only story we have about Jesus boyhood. He and his family have traveled to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover. When the family leaves, Jesus stays behind, in what he describes as his Father’s house. Jesus understands the power of that sacred space; that in it he can be in God’s presence in a way that might be difficult in any other place. This is why this sanctuary matters. It matters because when we come here we can block out so much of the hustle and bustle of life and prepare ourselves to encounter God and to be encouraged. My hope is that this sacred place can be for us “God’s house” where God’s encouragement can be found.
The third ingredient is pattern. What I mean by that is that there is a pattern that offers us encouragement in and through worship. One of my vivid childhood memories is of coming home from school and seeing my mother bent over our dining table, with cloth spread out on it. On the cloth was pinned a pattern. I once asked her why she used patterns and her reply was because she wanted to be sure that the dress turned out exactly as it should. This is the same for the pattern of worship God offers us. If we follow it we find ourselves where we desire to be, encouraged in our desire to follow in the way of Jesus. This pattern has five pieces. First God calls us into encounter and we respond. What I mean by this is that we come to this sacred place to be with these people because God calls us, invites us to be here. This encourages us because we know that God wants us to be here regardless of who we are or what we have done or left undone. Second, God claims us as God’s own and we acknowledge that claim. This morning we were fortunate enough to have two baptisms in which we heard God claiming and parents responding. This is encouraging because it means not only that there are no “orphans” in this world, but that God will never abandon us because we are God’s children. Third, God forgives, and we confess. I know that that sounds backwards, but it isn’t. God’s forgiveness is always waiting for us ahead of our confession. Just as the Father in the story of the Prodigal Son runs to embrace his lost and found son, before his son can confess/ God does the same for us. This encourages us because it means even when we fall short, we can begin again with God’s help. Fourth we are fed. We are fed with the Word and with the table. This is encouraging because we have been given the strength we need to go back into the world to follow in the way of Jesus. Finally, we are sent back out to try again. This is encouraging because it means God believes in our ability to live in the way of Jesus.
Last Sunday we talked about the fact the in the resurrection of Jesus we have been given the power and freedom to follow in the way of Jesus. We also acknowledged that to do so we need encouragement along the way. Today we have made our first stop of the way of encouragement, worship. My hope is that you will see worship not as some boring repetition of weekly rituals, but as an intentional opportunity to encounter the living God to find encouragement for the week ahead. And that is my challenge to you for this week, that when you return next week, you open yourselves to being encountered by the Living God, so that you will be more encouraged when you leave, than when you arrived.
The Vocabulary of Faith: Resurrection
Dr. John Judson
Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019
Exodus 14:21-27; Romans 6: 1-11
I was discouraged. I was discouraged because all I ever did was die regardless of how many times I tried. What was I trying and where was I dying? I was trying and dying on Super Mario Brothers. I don’t remember the exact year that we bought our son his first Nintendo, but he took to it like a duck to water. It was as if the controller was an extension of his brain. He would then say, “Dad, its your turn.” And dutifully I would take the controller in hand and almost immediately die. I knew what I was supposed to do and how I was supposed to do it…jump here, slide there, but it was no use. Granted with my son’s help I did make it past level one, but in the end, no amount of instruction was going to help me be good at Super Mario Brothers, or any of his other games for that matter. It was incredibly discouraging to try so hard and to always come up short.
In some ways this is the way I feel about my life of faith, my following in the way of Jesus. I know what I am supposed to do. I know that I am supposed to love God with all of my heart soul, mind and strength and my neighbor as myself. I know that I am supposed to forgive as I have been forgiven, that I am to love and pray for my enemies, that I am supposed to share all I have with the poor, that I am supposed to be continually humble and self-effacing rather than proud, that I am to give to all who ask, that I am to pray without ceasing, that I am to work for justice in this world, that I am to honor the sabbath (which is often hard for ministers since it is the only day we work) and the list goes on. Each day I get in the game of following the way of Jesus, but then something happens. I drive into the parking lot at Kroger’s, I read a story about people who hate and harm others, I am tempted by something new on eBay and suddenly all that knowledge and practice seems for naught. It is very discouraging to die one more time. Any of you ever feel that way? That you try so hard to follow Jesus and then something happens and it’s as if it just flies out the window and you feel discouraged? If you do, know that this is nothing new, because it was where the Roman church found itself as Paul wrote to it.
The church at Rome was not a church that Paul had established but it found itself completely discouraged. They were so discouraged in fact that they had given up trying to follow in the way of Jesus and had returned to following in the un-way of Jesus. When I say the un-way of Jesus I am referring to a style of life that is the exact opposite of the way of Jesus, meaning a way of life defined by power, prejudice, hate and selfishness. In his letter, Paul calls this sin, but I like the un-way of Jesus better because we often limit sin to mean those things we don’t like, whereas for Paul it entails a way of living. Why were the Roman Christians so discouraged? I believe they were because living the way of Jesus made them outcasts in the Empire. They were outcasts because the way of Jesus was exactly the opposite of the way of Rome. Christians were viewed as odd and even un-Roman. People lost employment, friends and family members because of their faith. To follow the way of Jesus was incredibly discouraging. Which is why Paul, in his letter to them, tells them that they should not be discouraged, but encouraged, because in the death and resurrection of Jesus, they had given the power and freedom they needed to follow in the way of Jesus.
I realize that this may sound a bit odd, that the resurrection of Jesus gave them the power and freedom to follow in the way of Jesus. I say this because most of the time when we think about resurrection we think about life after death. Resurrection is what we talk about at a memorial service or a graveside remembrance. It is that assurance that our lives here are not all there is to life. And that is certainly true. Paul puts it this way in verse nine, “We know that Christ being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.” And by extension over us. But, for Paul that is not all there is to resurrection. Resurrection is about the here and now. Resurrection is about what happens to us in this life. As Paul puts it, the death and resurrection of Jesus break the power, not only of death, but of sin, or as I have called it, the un-way of Jesus. What Paul means by this is that all those things that lead us away from the way of Jesus, no longer have control over us. What has control over our lives is the power of Jesus offered to us each day. And for that reason, we are not to be discouraged, but encouraged because even if we wander off, we have the power to try again.
Paul offers two images of the origins of this power and freedom to follow in the way of Jesus. The first is the image of our dying to our old selves that were trapped in the un-way of Jesus and being raised to be new persons who have the power to follow the way of Jesus. In verse four he writes, “Therefore we have been buried with him in baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in the newness life.” Notice first, that Paul links resurrection with life in the here and now, not in the eternal. Second, Paul says that something happens in our baptisms. That in baptism we are no longer children or adults of the un-way of Jesus, but that we have become people empowered to follow the way of Jesus. Let me ask, how many of you know who Peter Parker is? Right he is Spiderman. Consider his story. He is an ordinary kid until he is bitten by a radioactive spider. Then he is imbued with super powers and is capable of great good. This is the image Paul offers. We are no longer ordinary kids, but people capable of doing great good by living into the way of Jesus.
The second image has to do with being freed from slavery. In verse six he writes, “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.” The image here is of the Exodus. Remember the story. The people were trapped on one side of the sea with the Egyptians in pursuit. God opens the waters and the people walk through them to the other side where they became free people, capable of living in the way of God in the promised Land. In other words, just as the people of Israel moved from being slaves in Egypt, to being free people in the Promised Land, so too we have moved from being slaves to the un-way of Jesus, to being free people capable of living in the way of Jesus. This means that the un-way of Jesus no longer holds us captive. We have the freedom to do what is right and good in God’s eyes.
I wish I could say this morning that because of the resurrection and the power and freedom it offers us, that we will be able to live perfectly in the Jesus’ way. I can’t because we won’t. Like me trying to master Super Mario Brothers, we will give it our best and sooner or later, we will find ourselves once again in the un-way of Jesus. We won’t slide, duck or jump in the right place…and it will seem as if we are back to square one. Yet, the good news is that not only will we never move back to square one but that we have infinite lives; infinite opportunities to try again and again to live in the way of Jesus. We have them because we are new people who have been given the power and the freedom to follow Jesus. What we will need then is continuing encouragement along the way. We will need opportunities to find the encouragement to keep moving forward. If you are looking for that kind of continuing encouragement, I have some good news for you. Over the next six weeks we will be showing you where you can find encouragement along the way. I would challenge you then to make a commitment to be here for the next six weeks during Eastertide as we explore those places where encouragement awaits in order for us to live fully into the Jesus’ way, blessing the world and blessing ourselves.
The Vocabulary of Faith: Joy
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
April 14, 2019
Psalm 30; John 16:20-24
Our vocabulary word of faith today is Joy. Palm Sunday is a great time to talk about what Christians mean when they use the word joy because this is the day Jesus finally lets his disciples and followers express the joy that he has inspired in them. They have been told to remain silent after seeing Jesus perform miraculous healings and after he cast out evil spirits. They have been told to not tell anyone about Jesus’ teachings about inclusion and equity and justice. That must have been incredibly frustrating! Imagine having such good news and not being able to tell anyone!
Palm Sunday is the day Jesus does not hold them back. The time for silence has passed; the authorities know what Jesus is up to. Finally, the people are free to express their joy! After keeping it bottled up it must have been a powerful expression. John’s gospel gives us an exceptional example of what Christian joy is all about. John’s retelling places the joyous Palm Sunday parade as a direct reaction to Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life. The people have experienced a great loss and their pain has been turned to joy through the resurrection of a friend. But the miracle is also the cause of Jesus’ death. Once authorities hear about what Jesus did for Lazarus they turn against him and plot his demise. Joy and pain are close companions in John’s gospel.
Joy is in short supply in Jesus’ world, largely because the Pharisees and Roman authorities deal out joy like a drug. Their power depends on their control and careful dispersion of joy. The Pharisees and the Roman authorities are the ones who keep sorrow and trouble at bay. They keep out invaders and create order in society. They make sacrifices and keep God’s favor on the people. They create a barrier to keep sorrow and pain away so that the people have more joy. When these powers hear that Jesus is offering another access point to joy they become afraid and plot to get rid of the challenge of their joy monopoly.
After the joyous parade of palms in the streets Jesus reteaches the basics of God’s joy. He wants them to remember how God’s joy works because they will need to hold on to it for the painful days ahead. Jesus talks about grains needing to die and fall to the earth before they can grow and become what it was made to be – a giant, strong stalk of grain. Jesus teaches about the light shining in the darkness and how darkness is needed to see the light. He invites his betrayers to eat with him, welcoming the cause of his pain to sit next to him. He teaches repeatedly about existing in pain and struggle until we get to the passage I read today. You will weep, you will mourn, you will have pain, but your pain will turn to joy.
Jesus compares this process of pain turning to joy to a woman giving birth. There is pain, but when the child is born healthy, the woman no longer remembers the pain. It has turned to joy. Do you hear what Jesus is saying? The very thing causing the pain – the child – is what causes the joy. There is no substitution happening. The thing causing the pain is not taken away and a joyous thing put in its place. The child causes the pain and the child causes the joy. The pain is transformed into joy. Joy is not a substitute for pain; joy is the transformed state of pain.
When scripture talks about joy, there is always pain in the verses preceding it. Joy does not exist in scripture without pain. But the world takes the verses about joy and cuts out the parts about pain. The transformation is lost and we are left with substitutive joy. A concept that leads us to believe that joy and pain cannot exist together, that they are opposites. Substitutive joy is problematic. If every time we break something it is replaced with a shiny new thing, we become spoiled. And when we finally face a loss that cannot be replaced, we become desperate to find joy again. Substitutive joy tells us we must get rid of the pain to receive joy. We must cover our pain, dump our pain, before joy can take over our lives. If we think joy is a substitute for pain, then after a great loss we can try to cover our pain with other things. Material goods, other people, experiences, drugs. If we still feel pain, we keep trying to cover it up with joyful things.
The opioid epidemic is a result of substitutive joy. Pain is covered by the rush of a high, a rush that needs to get bigger and bigger to bring the same level of joy one had yesterday. In 2007 500 people in Michigan died of opioid overdoses; ten years later, in 2017, the number of deaths was 2,033. There is pain in our community and the only way the world has taught us to deal with it is substitutive, to cover it up.
Substitutive joy tells us that joy and pain cannot exist together. If you want to feel joy you must find a way to get rid of the pain. If covering the pain up does not work then try unloading the pain on others. Substitutive joy convinces us if we can just make the other person feel our pain it will transfer from us to them and we are free to let joy take the place of the pain. Hate, abuse, and violence all stem from people trying to unload their pain onto someone else. 2018 had the highest reported incidents of hate crimes in the United States ever. There is pain in our nation and substitutive joy is how we deal with our pain.
Spend one day working in retail or a service job and you will see the pain that people cover or unload every day. In college I worked in a hardware store and by far my favorite assignment was the paint department. I would come in early if I heard we got new paint chip samples because I wanted to be the one to put them out. They always had the most ridiculous names and I dreamed of having the job of naming the colors. (Go through paint samples!)
I also liked mixing the paint. When a customer needed something mixed, the message would go out over the PA system and I would run to the paint counter. The way paint is mixed is by taking a can of base and mixing in concentrated colors according to a formula in the computer system. The regular concentrated pigments were red, blue and yellow but we also had black and some other secondary colors for specific brands.
One day a woman was buying a beautiful sunflower yellow for her child’s room. I went to the computer typed in “brilliant sunflower” and the formula popped up on the screen. There were only two pigments called for but those colors made me second guess the system. There was yellow, of course, but also a fair amount of black. The system had never been wrong before so I went along and followed the formula, carefully measured out the pigment and hoped for the best as it clambered around in the mixer. When I opened the can to check the color, it was brilliant sunflower yellow. I was genuinely shocked that it wasn’t grey with the amount of black put in. Don’t tell my boss but after the customer left I tried a sample can with just the yellow pigment. The color that came out was yellow, but not the brilliant yellow that child was about to have on her walls. The yellow without the black was weaker, fainter. I doubt it would have looked much different from a yellowing old white wall. The black is what made the color have depth and presence.
When scripture and Jesus talk about joy the understanding is that pain and joy exist in the same can. Pain is an essential ingredient of joy. And if we can avoid covering and dumping our pain to allow it to mix and process and develop, God transforms it into joy. Joy without pain is not rooted in reality. There is no contrast in painless joy to really make the joy stand out as special. Joy is stronger when it is allowed to develop alongside our pain. In God’s care pain is never the final state. When we look at our pain we see black but God sees the start of brilliant, yellow joy. Jesus says this kind of joy will never be taken away from us because it is not just a covered top coat that can be chipped away; it is an enduring color and pain is only a few shades away from joy.
To us it is obvious why this is the message Jesus leaves the disciples. We know the week ahead will be filled with every painful emotion one can think of. What Jesus does not want to happen is for the disciples to cover up or unload their pain. He wants them to remember substitutive joy does not work. It is shallow and fleeting. He wants them experience God’s joy. That will mean sitting with the pain and with God but knowing that that pain will transform into their greatest joy. He allows them to express joy today on Palm Sunday. On Thursday he leaves them a meal to remember their joy when he is gone, so that when they get to Friday and the cross they have the tools to make it to Sunday. We as a community will walk that same path this week. Celebrating today, remembering Thursday, sitting in the pain of Friday … then, when we are here again in a week, Easter will shine so much brighter because we have experienced the whole journey, the whole depth of holy emotion together.
This is the week to give your pain a chance to see the light. Uncover, hold on to it, treasure it even. Pain is not our enemy. In God’s hands it is the beginning form of joy.
The Vocabulary of Faith: Hate
Dr. John Judson
April 7, 2019
Leviticus 19:13-18 ; Matthew 5:38-49
Where do I begin to talk about hate? Maybe I should begin with the mosque massacre in New Zealand, or perhaps the Tree of Life Synagogue horror in Pittsburgh. Or perhaps I ought to talk about the Muslim woman in Ann Arbor who was threatened with being set ablaze if she did not remove her hijab, or the Muslim woman in Minnesota who was beaten when she would not remove hers. I could start with the mother of a two-year-old who died from the flu and the hundreds of hate filled entries on her Facebook account from antivaxxers, or perhaps the parents of the children who died in school shootings and the continuing hate filled assault on them claiming that it was all a lie and they never had children to begin with. But then there was Matthew Shepherd killed for being gay. Or, I could list all the times black Americans have been the target of hate filled rage for entering their own apartments, speaking on the phone in hotel where they were registered guests, cleaning up their own front yards or swimming in a neighborhood pool, where they were members. Oh, and one last one, the 4.2 million anti-Semitic tweets in 2018.
Hate, it is all around us. But it is not new. Long before this moment there was hate in Selma, Boston, Tulsa and Detroit. There was the Klan, slavery and segregation. There were the Texas Rangers who were above the law when it came to killing people of Mexican descent. There was Wounded Knee and the hatred of early colonists toward native peoples. But to fully understand hate, I think we need to stop and consider what we mean by the word. Biblically it means feelings of animosity toward another, or hostile words or deeds directed toward the innocent. What this means is that hate is a spectrum disorder. It begins on one end of the feelings spectrum that lead to jokes which demean persons because of their race, gender or language. It moves from there to hate speech, then to discrimination, then to threats of violence, then to actual acts of violence and then to genocide, again against others who are considered to unworthy of acceptance. It is a spectrum disorder, but it is also a disease that destroys both the hated and the hater. It is an act of mutually assured destruction. Hate leaves no one unscathed.
This is the kind of hate that Jesus witnessed around him in Galilee. The Romans hated the Galileans because they were always struggling for political independence. The Galileans hated the Romans because they were an oppressive, occupying power. The Galileans hated the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem because they considered those authorities to be corrupt and illegitimate. The authorities in Jerusalem hated the Galileans because they didn’t consider them real Jews. Then the Pharisees hated the Sadducees, and they all hated the Samaritans and the tax collectors. Hate was consuming Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem. And not long after Jesus’ death it would destroy the nation. And so it was in that air, thick with hatred that Jesus spoke words which would have shocked his audience. Rather than hating, they were to love. I believe that Jesus spoke these words because he believed that hatred was destroying Israel’s ability to live out its vocation as the one’s who were to bless all the nations. Only loving the world like God loved the world would make blessing the world possible. Only loving the world would lead to its transformation into the renewed creation. Hate would merely destroy.
Jesus then, in this passage addresses both those who are hated and those who hate. And he tells them that their escape will be through rehumanizing the other. First, he addresses how those being hated are to respond to the hate; and that is by creatively rehumanizing themselves in the eyes of the haters. Jesus does this in his three commands to turn the other cheek, to give up all of one’s clothes and to go the extra mile. These are not humility building exercises. They are rehumanizing exercises. In each of these actions, the one hating is forced to acknowledge the full humanity of the other because the actions, striking a second time, taking all of someone’s clothes and of allowing the person to go the extra mile were socially unacceptable. Thus, they are acts of defiance against the hate, which force the hater to acknowledge the humanity of the hated as someone deserving to be treated according to the law. Second, Jesus addresses those of his followers who hate. Rather than hate they are to rehumanize the ones they hate. They are to do so by praying and not hating. By loving and not taking revenge. I don’t know if you have ever tried this or not, but it is very hard to hate someone you are lifting to God. Through prayer, one is forced to see the other as a child of God, even if they are not the most likeable people. Jesus’ followers were to love and not hate, hoping that their enemies would become their friends.
We have been given a mission from God and that is to bless the world. We cannot do this if hate is part of our lives either as individuals or as a community. My challenge for all of us then, and especially in the intense atmosphere in which we are currently living, is to love and not hate and to pray for those with whom we are at odds, that God might use them to bless the world as well. So here is the question I would like you to ask for this week, how am I praying for those with whom I disagree and not merely for those whom I like?