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