Monday, November 25, 2013

November 24 Sermon: What Jesus Does: Forgives Us

Luke 23:33-43
33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.34Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Today marks Christ the King Sunday, also known as the Reign of Christ Sunday, and it is the last Sunday in the Christian year. Before I get into today’s scripture I thought I’d let you know just a little bit about what that means, in case you aren’t familiar. The Christian year includes several seasons you’ve probably heard about before: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Pentecost, Lent, Easter, and Ordinary Time, which is not about being ordinary as in regular so much as it is ordinary in terms of ordering, because we go through these seasons like we do summer and winter and spring, and the scripture passages associated with each of these days help to order our lives.
The Christian year is the same length as the calendar year, but it does not begin on January 1. In fact, it begins next Sunday, which I think is appropriate as it is the first Sunday in Advent, the season in which we anticipate the birth of Jesus on Christmas morning. You know, our daughter Emmaline is nearing her first birthday here in about a month, and I think it is appropriate that the church year begins with the expectation of a child, because I will say that there are days in which I have trouble remembering anything before Emmaline came along. There’s sweetness in that kind of expectation. There’s hope.
But this Sunday is the last Sunday in the Christian year, and it is the day on which we celebrate Jesus as the lord of our lives, as our king, as our ultimate authority, and while that can be difficult to swallow some days, I think its ultimately a good thing, because I can’t think of anything more boring than a world in which I was allowed to be the ultimate authority, a life in which the things to which I paid ultimate tribute shifted depending on my mood.
Now, Christ the King is a newer holiday, less than a hundred years old. It was instituted by our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters in response to growing secularism and nationalism. People were forgetting that Jesus was the ultimate authority, and they were placing that mantle upon whatever popular thing came their way, usually involving the government as the great hope of humanity. Now, it seems we’re dealing with the second verse, same as the first. And yet it is the case that if Christ is truly Lord of my life, then nothing else can be. If Jesus is king, if Jesus is the most important thing, my bank account is not. If Jesus is king, my schedule is not. And if Jesus is king, the President of the United States is not.
I always have a little laugh this time of year anticipating the preaching of this sermon, because you can sort of tell who in the congregation are Republicans and who are Democrats by how earnestly a person nods when the preacher says, “if Jesus is king, the President of the United States is not.” It doesn’t matter which party is in power; the folks who constitute the opposition always seem to nod. And it’s kind of funny, but it is telling of the state of things when we are so energized by the notion that a politician we don’t like—whatever the party—is not the ultimate authority. I think we ought to remember that Jesus is king even when we’re perfectly happy with the President, you know, for that first fifteen to eighteen minutes after he or she takes office.
And in many ways, this is precisely the point, because the revolutionary thing about Christ being king is that nobody else is, nobody else has the power that Christ has, nobody else has the ultimate authority, not a President, not a governor, nobody. Now, I am not saying we shouldn’t respect those who have political power. Don’t quit paying your taxes, don’t quit voting, don’t quit pushing for the kind of legislation for which you think Jesus would advocate. I love politics. I was a political science major in college. I spent part of last week devouring a five hundred page account of the most recent Presidential campaign. I eat this stuff up, and I know that the government loves to remind us that they are in control. But they can say what they want, for I know who the king is.
It’s only natural, of course, for the governments under which we find ourselves to exert authority, which is why I wouldn’t suggest scribbling anything about Christ being king on your income tax returns. But for as relevant as this issue is today, it was only more urgent in Jesus’s day, when the idea of Jesus being king was quite literally a life and death issue. After all, there is no more powerful weapon in the authorities’ arsenal than the ability to kill. The only time it is legal to kill is when the government says is legal, and the Romans who were occupying Israel in Jesus’s day wielded this power like a club. The scripture lesson this morning is a perfect example of the use of this kind of power, because Jesus was guilty only of worrying the authorities, guilty only of challenging their authority and making their tenuous grasp on power a little less absolute.
The criminals on either side of Jesus, of course, were being executed for, you know, actual crimes. At least as far as the convention of the day went, they were getting what they deserved. But Jesus had done nothing wrong.
But killing Jesus wasn’t enough for the authorities. They wanted to make him seem like a fool, like a joke. So they inscribed the words “King of the Jews” on a piece of wood and hung it above this dying man, so as to remind everybody that the man who claimed to be the messiah didn’t even have enough authority to save his own life, so as to remind everybody that they were in control, for there is no greater weapon in the arsenal of the powerful than putting someone to death.
It’s enough to just make you want to cry out of utter helplessness. (. . .) I am reminded of this feeling whenever I hear that the appeals of a death row inmate have been exhausted, that feeling of helplessness, that feeling that there is nothing left to do but die. I can only imagine what the disciples must have felt as the scene unfolded, as they watched from a distance.
I don’t know about you, but if I’d been up there, if I had been innocent, I’d fight with everything I had to save my own life. Jesus didn’t deserve death. He didn’t deserve a slap on the wrist. And as he waited for death, how awful it must have been to have heard that taunt, the one that added insult to injury, as the authorities said with a sneer, “if he is the messiah of God, the chosen one, let him save himself.”
If I’d been up there, I’d have fought with everything I had. But Jesus doesn’t fight. Faced with death, faced with the most powerful tool that the so-called authorities had in their tool belt, Jesus speaks a sentence that is at once ridiculous under the circumstances and yet, somehow, more powerful than a death sentence: “Father, forgive, them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
“Forgive them.” “Forgive them!” The one who has come to redeem the world, the authority above all other authorities, the one we worship every Sunday does not react with a display of raw power, but with forgiveness.
I mean, I hope you don’t think this too blasphemous to say, but it almost looks weak. This guy says he’s the messiah, and even as he is killed, he speaks words of forgiveness. It runs up against every convention of masculinity we have in modern society. Father forgive them. Today, you will be with me in paradise, for not even death is strong enough to stand up to the love of Jesus Christ. Even the most powerful weapon is no match.
But if we are talking about weakness, it is through that weakness that Jesus shows strength, for what he offers is stronger than death, because even the cross cannot keep Jesus from using precious breath to offer forgiveness to those who are killing him.
The power of the cross is that as he hangs on it, Jesus does not use traditional power at all, and in the final analysis, he rips the traditional understanding of power to absolute shreds, just shreds it, in the name of forgiveness. This is the one we worship, the one we claim has absolute authority over our lives, above government, above everybody. And it is an ultimate authority whose fundamental nature is love and forgiveness, for I know who the king is.
I don’t know about you, but when I see the utter cruelty that humanity sometimes manages to display, when I see children hurt or whole swaths of people wiped out, when I think about how awful we can be to one another, I don’t think I could survive without that ultimate authority of love. I think I’d starve to death if I were only fed on a diet of earthly authority, of threat, of status quo at all costs. I think I’d just wither away and die if that’s all I had to live for.
But the promise of Christ the King is that even when we’re talking about the Nuclear Option in the United States senate, even when Presidential debates become more about zingers than about policy, even when it seems like nobody in power cares about the folks who sent them there, my ultimate authority is love, is forgiveness, for I know who the king is.
I’m almost done, but believe me when I say that there are days when forgiveness is something I hold on to white-knuckled, for it means that not only am I called to something much higher than scoring cheap political points, much higher than wielding death as a weapon, it means that God loves and forgives me, too, no matter what I have done, and I’ve not been immune from the lurid pleasure that comes from being cruel to others. What’s more, neither have you. Nobody, but nobody, is immune from moments of being cruel, but just as Christ the King calls us to a better way, so too does Jesus love us and forgive us, such that even if we’ve done something so awful as to be executed by the state, even that can’t keep us from paradise, for the one who stands at the gate does not brandish death like a weapon, but forgiveness like a gift.
You can’t vote for that kind of leader, and you won’t find him in a palace. But oh, how wonderful it is to be a citizen of the kingdom of God. How wonderful to be forgiven. How wonderful to be loved.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

November 17 Sermon: What Jesus Does: Makes Us New

Isaiah 65:17-25

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. 18But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. 19I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. 20No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. 21They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 22They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. 23They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well. 24Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. 25The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.


There was a show on MTV when I was growing up that I think is still on the air called the Real World. Do you know about it? MTV would get a bunch of people to live together with the cameras rolling all the time. With the way tv works nowadays, it doesn’t seem so revolutionary, but for a while at least, MTV, for all its faults, was offering a slice of real life to anybody who would watch. While we were afraid to talk about difficult issues like sexism and homophobia and abortion and addiction, the Real World put those issues right in front of our faces, so we couldn’t miss them. And each episode started the same way.
This is the true story... of seven strangers... picked to live in a together and have their lives taped... to find out what happens... when people stop being polite... and start getting real...The Real World: North Decatur.
So North Decatur, let’s get real for a minute. I’ve been your pastor since June 20, which means I’ve been here for something like five months. And whenever you get a new pastor, but especially when you get somebody a little, well, different—and I think that’s a fair characterization of who I am—folks can start to get a little nervous, a little uncomfortable. I mean, who is this guy? In our system, in the United Methodist system, you don’t even get to hire me, you’re told who you are going to get, and that can add to the tension, because I’m figuring out who you are, and you’re figuring out who I am. It’s a little like an arranged marriage, don’t you think? That is to say that there’s love there—but it is love that was chosen for us, rather than love we chose ourselves.
And as somebody who is thankful he got to have a say in just who it is I ended up marrying, let me tell you that I know it can be hard when there’s a change in pastor. The apple cart gets upset a bit. Some toes can get stepped on as we once again get used to figuring out how to walk together. I hope you are as happy as I am in all of this, but I don’t care who you are, in this kind of arrangement, things can be a little dicey sometimes. I dare say it has the potential to be more dramatic than seven strangers, picked to live in a house.
I just want you to know that this kind of peril is nothing new, and it’s not unique to the church. Change. Is. Hard. No matter the circumstance, change is hard.
You know, the writer Anne Lamott is quoted as saying “There are three things I cannot change. The past, the truth, and you.”
That quote reminds me of the old story. A little girl noticed that every time her mother cooked a roast she chopped a piece off the end of the roast before putting it in the oven.  Intrigued, she asked her mother why she did this.
“Well to be honest, I do it because that’s the way my mother always does it” came the reply. “I’m sure she must have some good reason for it.”
At the next family gathering, the child decided to satisfy her curiosity. “Grandma, why do you always chop the end off the roast before cooking it?”
“Well to be honest, I do it because that’s the way my mother always does it” came the reply. “I’m sure she must have some good reason for it.”
A week or so later the little girl was visiting her 90 year old great grandmother. She explained that mummy and grandma always chop the end off the roast before cooking it, but couldn’t remember why. Did she know?
“Ha!” said Great-grandma. “Imagine the two of them doing that! Why, I only cut the piece off because my pan was too small!”
Change is hard, whatever the reason, even when it is necessary, even when the things we are changing are things we do just because we’ve always done them. But this is not a sermon about how hard it is to change.
Let me back up and say that, you may be surprised that in a sermon series about Jesus, we’re retreating back to the Old Testament. After all, Isaiah himself says, “the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind,” and when we’re talking about Jesus, I mean, I just don’t know of anything more “former” than the Old Testament. Jesus says throughout the Bible that he came to fulfill the law, that he came doing a new thing, so it may seem a little unusual to hear a sermon from Isaiah when we are talking about Jesus this month.
There’s a temptation in life, I think, and especially in the life of faith, to discard the old and focus only on the new, because, for one thing, there is so much pain in the old. If I start asking you to think too long about what it was like to grow up, or about some of your most vivid memories of your past, it won’t be too long before you feel the lump in your throat that comes from remembering deep pain, or from being reminded that a loved one is gone, or some such unpleasantness. So we hold on to the newest fad, hitch our wagon to the first horse that comes our way that looks capable of taking us from our problems into some perfect future. Forget the old, we say. Let’s look forward.
But this is not a sermon about embracing the new at the expense of the old, for when the prophet Isaiah says that the former things will not come to mind, he doesn’t throw out all the old—he just moves past the pain, the heartache that has come before, the frustration that in spite of hard work, in spite of generous hearts and good intentions, things still didn’t seem to work. That’s not what God discards; that’s what God redeems! Newness doesn’t mean the decimation of the old, but the celebration of it! I mean, Isaiah’s whole premise is that when God does something new, you’ll hear the surprised giggle of a hundred-year-old person more often than not, because God’s newness doesn’t supplant the old, but it redeems the old. The stories we tell in church, after all, are old, old stories. The story we tell at Easter every year is not a new one. We tell it in new ways, and perhaps it means new things for us, but it is not a new story. So, no, this is not a sermon about “out with the old and in with the new.” There’s nothing Christian about that.
This is not a sermon about any of these things. I will tell you what it IS about. What it is, like any good sermon, is a sermon about God, for while it is true that I can’t change the past, the truth, or you, the good news is that God doesn’t expect me to. That’s God’s job, which is a good thing, because it is one of God’s primary attributes that when you stand in the presence of God, you are made new. This is what God does all the time. I hope you haven’t been misinformed about what we are doing here, because Christianity is not about all of us coming together and deciding to be nice to each other and giving a little money here and there. It is not, as the pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber sometimes calls us mainline religious folks, an Elk’s Club with the Eucharist, a Neighborhood Association with Communion thrown in. Following Jesus is not about any of these things. Following Jesus is about being made new, about standing in the shadow of the God so powerful even death couldn’t keep him down, and recognizing that to be a disciple of Jesus is to be willing to accept the transformation that comes from the grace of God. There’s nothing you can do to earn it, and you certainly can’t do it on your own. You just have to receive it, which seems awfully easy, and would be, were it not for the little problem of my own pride. And yet receiving is all we have to do.
God is making all things new, but God isn’t encouraging us to get stuck with a passing fad. Making things new is actually the opposite of grabbing hold of a fad, if you ask me, because the process of making things new is different from the process of making new things. Do you understand the difference? I, for one, am thankful for this subtle distinction, for it means that God is not done with me yet. God isn’t going to slough me off, cast me aside for a newer, better model. God is making me new, taking what already is and finding ways to use what already is in the service of God. I have a role to play. I can’t pretend that somebody else will come along and be better. God is making ME new, so I’d better jump on board and get right with God, because there are incredible things coming.
And it is wonderful, but it can be hard to see sometimes. Even with this promise of a new heaven and new earth, even as we sit in the shadow of the empty cross, it can seem hard. But this is not a cheap sermon, and we do not worship a cheap God. So take heart. Put down some roots. Don’t despair when the seeds don’t sprout right away. They’re putting down a network of roots, deep and wide and strong enough to support years of growth. And if you keep tilling the soil of your faith, of our faith together, one day, you’ll walk into the field and notice a sprout, and then another, and it won’t be long before you’re standing in a field that just last season seemed cracked and barren and beyond redemption, confronted with acres and acres of green.

You’re not done when the seeds sprout, of course. Somebody’s got to tend to the plants. But you don’t have to do it alone is all I’m saying. And the God who makes all things new thinks, with a little help, you’re up for it, and isn’t that something. Isn’t that something?

Monday, November 11, 2013

November 10 Sermon: What Jesus Does: Gives Us Life

Luke 20:27-38

27Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32Finally the woman also died. 33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” 34Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

(This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.)
This week marks the first Sunday in a three week series called What Jesus Does. We talk a lot about Who Jesus Is, and I don’t want to downplay the importance of that conversation, but sometimes I think we have that conversation at the expense of talking about what Jesus does, because talking about what Jesus does brings Jesus out of the hypothetical into the material, pulls him from history into our present lives, stands him right in front of the altar so that you can’t miss him. When it’s a theoretical conversation about who he is, he can get stuck there. But when you talk about what he does, well, there are implications for each of us, for all of us together.

I have a clergy friend who’s been in ministry a lot longer than I have, and he says that all new United Methodist ministers should be required to wear a clergy collar for three years before they graduate to a shirt and tie or skirt suit. That kind of public witness, he says, teaches a person about the implications of faith, because you can’t leave Jesus in the theoretical sphere when you’re wearing a collar and the barista says, “Here’s your soy latte, Father.”

So, the idea goes, if you are constantly reminded that following Jesus has implications for your life, for who you are when you are in the shower, or behind the wheel, or checking out at the grocery store—or, you know, the liquor store--even when we wish Jesus weren’t looking, you start behaving differently. A hypothetical Jesus is not nearly as powerful as the real one who gets in the middle of our business.

And in this morning’s scripture lesson, we have the perfect example of Jesus being so audacious as to get in the middle of our business, for there is nothing more human as a marital dispute.

So here is the ridiculous scenario. A man and a woman marry. They have no children. The man dies. The law says that the woman is to now marry the man’s brother, which she does, but he dies, too, and so she marries the next brother, who also dies, all the way down the line of seven brothers, and she checks them off one at a time until finally, she does, too. I think if I were the seventh brother, and the first six brothers had died, I would have said, no thanks, this does not seem to end well so I’ll go be a monk or something, but being a follower of the law, he follows the tradition.

Now, say the Saducees who are trying to disprove the resurrection, what do you do with that, Jesus? If there is but one bride for these seven brothers, and there’s life after death, who’s married to the woman? What is left for the other six?

It’s a trap, of course. The Saducees don’t care what the answer is—they are simply trying to look cool, simply trying to stand up for their philosophy, which does not include eternal life. So they as Jesus a silly question.

We do this too, you know, in all areas of our lives, but especially when it comes to religion. And people who are particularly hostile to religion LOVE these kinds of questions, because they are less concerned about what Jesus does than who Jesus is, and they love asking questions with no answer. You know, questions like, “Can God make a rock so big that he can’t move it?” or “What is the purpose of a cockroach?” or “Why would a loving God create a world in which Arnold Schwarzenegger is allowed to have a viable acting career, let alone be in charge of the most populous state in the union?”

Or, you know, why did God allow this death, or that illness?

The questions, in the final analysis, are not always so silly, and they are not only asked by those who are hostile to religion. We earnestly ask them, too, and so at the heart of the Saducees’ question is one much less ridiculous than the iteration that finally escapes their mouths.

What they say is: which man is the woman married to?

What they mean is: this resurrection you speak of. What is it? What does it mean? How does it work?

Do these questions ring true for you? They do for me. I may not be concerned about what the resurrection means for a woman who ticks through seven husbands, but I am awfully concerned with what the resurrection means for me, for my life, for my loved ones and my relationship to them. Every time somebody I love has the occasion to die, which happens to everyone at one time or another, every time, these questions come flooding back, and I know I am not alone in this. If you want to make a lot of money, all you have to do is write a book detailing exactly what Heaven is like, and every person who passes through the supermarket checkout aisle will spend $7.99 on the answer.

I guess this is ok, but it seems that we focus so much on what will be that we miss what is, which is the point of Jesus getting in our business anyway. Do you see what the Saducees have done? They have taken a question which is supposedly about our everyday lives, about bringing Jesus into the details our mundane lives,  and they have tried to find a way out by turning this into a question about only life after death, only about Heaven, so that what you do on earth is less important and we can all rest easier knowing that Jesus is more interested in my eternal life once I die than he is in my life now, which is good because it is a lot of pressure to have Jesus looking over your shoulder all the time.

Now, I’ve thought a lot about what it means to live as a Christian, to behave in such a way that what you say you believe shines forth in your actions. But it was not in seminary that I started thinking about this. It was in a political science class, my senior year of college.

You may not be surprised to learn that I was a political science major, not a religion major, and I am sorry to say that political science has helped me more in the church than it probably ought to’have. And for my senior project, we had to do a big data-based, large-scale project, starting with a focus group to help us fine-tune our research.

Here is the question we decided to explore: how does your religion affect your understanding of the world?

Now, I think that’s an important question, because as a professional religious person, I think it is important that your religion ought to at least somehow affect your understanding of the world, of the ways in which we make our way through life. Otherwise, what is the point?

Suffice it to say, it was something of a disappointing project. By the time we’d crunched all the numbers, done all our surveys, finished our interviews and regression tables, it turned out that the answer to the question of “How does your religion affect your understanding of the world” was, for many people, “not much.”

But the thing that struck me the most in that project is something I’ve been chewing on for ten years now. As part of our focus group, we invited Mr. Johnny, an older man who made some nominal income on campus by living in the student apartments and responding to calls for repairs, telling students to turn their music down late at night, that sort of thing. I didn’t know him well, but I did know a little bit of his story. His wife had died about ten years prior, and as she’d been the breadwinner in the family, he was left without a lot of money. Somehow, he landed at the college, and so he was an easy recruit for the focus group.

The day of the focus group, we went around the table and did introductions, and we had several high powered executives around the table, and the campus chaplain, and other learned folks, who were all clearly used to introducing themselves, as they spouted off their stations in life and awards and accomplishments, until we got to Mr. Johnny.

He said, “I’m Johnny,” and we moved on.

And we had a lively discussion. People pontificated and prattled on about this issue and that, although I couldn’t tell you exactly what we talked about. What I do remember was that at the end of the focus group, one of our project members looked at Mr. Johnny and said, “Mr. Johnny, you haven’t said much today. How does your religion affect your understanding of the world?”

And Mr. Johnny said something that I thought was really disappointing: “I’m just trying to do right so that I can go to Heaven.”

That was it. “I’m just trying to do right so that I can go to Heaven.” I remember being disappointed, because I believed—and I still believe!—that religion is about way more than going to Heaven. I was convinced—still am!—that the life of faith is about living, not dying, and that if God is the God of the living like we heard in this morning’s scripture lesson, we ought to worry less about going to Heaven and more about offering others a piece of Heaven on earth, and so it was a disappointing answer, a shallow answer, I thought, evidence of a shallow faith.

But as I was leaving the room, that answer reached up from the table and grabbed hold of me and hasn’t let go since, and I have to tell you that ten years later I’ve arrived somewhere completely different.

I am somewhat ashamed to say that it took me a long time to realize that what Mr. Johnny was saying was not that he was only interested in heaven, although he’d lost his wife and that was certainly on his mind. The business of accepting eternal life is not about accepting it the moment you cross the precipice of death, but about accepting it now, for the life that comes from Jesus does not begin with death, but with acceptance that I am not in charge. The world does not revolve around me. The business of worshipping God does not just happen on Sunday morning. It happens every time I acknowledge that my ultimate allegiance belongs to God rather than my own political beliefs or my own desires. Every time I acknowledge my allegiance to God, that is an act of worship.

Here, I was being critical of Johnny for doing right so that he could get to Heaven, just sitting around waiting for his eternal life to begin, when it had already begun! You cannot separate the business of Heaven from the business of living, for the eternal life that Jesus promises is not merely about dying, although that’s just as inevitable as taxes and trash on TV. It is not just about death, because when you choose to follow Jesus, Indeed you cannot die anymore, because you are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. For God is God of the living, for to God all of us are alive.

God is the God of the living! And, Luke says, to God all of us are alive! This is great news, but I would suggest to you that we ought to be following Jesus in such a way that God isn’t the only one who thinks so.

Monday, November 4, 2013

November 3 Sermon: Remembering God's Future

Gospel Lesson: Matthew 28:18-20

18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.


Today is All Saints Sunday, the day in which we remember those we have loved and lost, especially over the course of the last year, and it is a funny day, isn’t it? Because the way that we tend to process grief is that we go through it, and then we do everything we can to move past it and never think of it again, for grief is so powerful and can be so miserable. We act as if we can grieve and then truly move on, when, of course, it is the case that to live is to grieve. You never move past grief. You just learn to live with it, you get used to it until it is, if not a welcome houseguest, then at least a relative who lives in the basement who doesn’t give you too much trouble.

But even that kind of arrangement is too much for us, so we pretend like the grief process is that you grieve and then you move on, and I suppose that’s all well and good until the church has the nerve to bring it all back one Sunday a year, has the nerve to call the names of those we have lost, has the nerve to bring it all back, all over again, the feeling of loss, of disbelief, of having no idea how to continue breathing, let alone how to keep walking, with such loss.

I don’t know who you are remembering today, but I am remembering my grandfather, who died ten years ago, but who I still think about most days. I showed you last week the quilt that my grandmother made me out of his old work shirts, colorful and striped, and that was pretty much how he lived his life, a colorful storyteller who began his life dirt poor. He lived hard, but he loved his family and ended his life with so many people who loved him, we could barely fit everybody in the pews for the service. He’s been gone a long time now, but that grief doesn’t go away. It just becomes less blinding.

Moving through grief is hard, and so in some ways, it seems unfair for the church to bring up the fact that we’ve lost so many saints over the last years, and that we’re going to continue to lose them until it is each of us who is being mourned, and we see with our own beings that though death is the worst thing, the great promise of the Resurrection is that it is not the last thing, for as the apostle Paul says, now we see through a glass, darkly, but soon we will see face to face. Now, I know only in part; then, I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

This is the promise of God, that, as the theologian Frederick Buechner says, what’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.

And it’s a nice reminder, especially on days like today. But in some ways, I’ll be honest, it can seem little comfort to those of us left to pick up the pieces, left to call the lawyers and the bank, to continue doing the business of being the church by fulfilling that great commission, those final words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

The great cloud of witnesses is a nice concept, but it doesn’t always seem to do me a lot of good here on earth, here in the church, having lost so many and so much. You can get covered up by that kind of grief, just go unseen for days.

And yet. And yet, even in the midst of being reminded of that grief, even in the midst of discerning next steps for the church and for our own lives, Jesus reminds us that though it may seem so for a season, we are never alone. We are not expected to do the work of ministry alone. For the Gospel of Matthew does not simply end with this great commission, but, finally, with this vitally important reminder, which in many ways, is the Gospel in miniature, for as Jesus’s very last words, they are an incredible gift:

Yes, baptize others in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you, but also remember! Remember I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Remember! Even in midst of what can seem like the absence of Christ here on earth, remember! For remembering is the most powerful weapon there is against debilitating grief. Not forgetting, but remembering, remembering that God is with us always, even to the end of the age.

This is what we do, every Sunday, as a church. We come together to remember—not just as an intellectual exercise, but as an embodied hope. Remembering is not just about calling to mind. It is about allowing memory to float beyond boundaries of time and place into the present moment, and so when we light the candle and ring the bell later in the service, we are not simply going through the motions of reading a list. We are not simply recalling, but rather re-calling, calling those memories and those saints forward into the present, as we celebrate those who have passed, but who are not gone, for they undergird us still, they fill this place with their spirit, and they call us forward when all we want to do is go back.

Remember! Remember, they say. Remember all that God has done for you. Remember your baptism and be thankful. Remember who you are. And, though it is difficult, remember that you came from dust, and to dust you shall return.

But most of all, most of all, remember that I am with you, to the end of the age.

It can be a revolutionary thing, to remember, especially in a world that puts so much emphasis on doing new at the expense of anything old, and yet, here we are, two thousand years after Jesus walked the earth, talking about these important things, bringing them forward into the present. Remember! Remember those who have gone before! Remember what Jesus has done for you! Remember that when you take Communion, when you partake of the body of Christ, you are nourished to go and BE the body, to be the church, because without you, the body is not as strong, the church is not as strong. And without the church, well, how easy it is for the world to forget to remember.

How easy it is to forget, and in fact, it’s a common thing these days to hear people who consider themselves awfully modern say things like, “Oh, who needs the church? Who needs that kind of outdated, out-of-synch, backward-looking, bureaucratic institution?” And there’s some legitimate criticism there, because when we only look back, rather than glancing over our shoulder occasionally, we run the risk of running head-on into the median.

But you know why I think we need the church? Do you know why I can hold my chin up even when I hear so many people say, oh who needs the church? It is the business of remembering that keeps me here, for remembering is not backward-looking at all if it is truly remembering, truly calling forward all those saints to undergird the work that we are doing now, the work that God is calling us to now, the business of being the church, not just now, but the business of bringing the church into God’s future.

I’m almost done, but let me remind you that in just a moment, those of us who have brought pledge cards with us will bring them up to the altar. If you would prefer, the ushers will be walking up and down the aisle to collect cards and can bring them forward for you.

And I want you to know that before we decided to have All Saint’s Sunday be the day on which we asked you to turn in your pledge for next year, I had to get through a little bit of my own baggage, because you don’t want to ruin the spirit of the thing by talking about money. This is a day to celebrate those who have come before us, not a day that should be dirtied by talking about something as pedestrian and vulgar as money.

But it was you, it was members of the finance committee at this church who convinced me that this day is the right day for establishing the baseline for that which God will do in the future, for I had to be reminded that remembering the past is not about getting stuck there, but about standing on the shoulders of those children of God who have come before us. Remembering not about getting stuck in the past. It is about now, about who we are now, about what we are called to do and who we are called to be in God’s future.

So let’s remember God’s future. And let’s not be bound by the past, but spurred on by it, for it is among the greatest promises I know that even when we are called to do the seemingly impossible, when we are called to do great things like making disciples of ALL nations, we are supported by the God who, in his very last words to us, promises nothing less than to be with us always, even to the end of the age. And thanks be to God. Amen.