A Cosmic Christmas

[This message was given at Community of the Savior, Rochester NY, on the second Sunday os Christmas, 1/3/21, based on John 1:1-18.]

It hadn’t happened in about 800 years and, just in time for Christmas, it was happening at the end of 2020, that year of much disappointment and suffering. Jupiter and Saturn, the two largest planets in our solar system would nearly be touching from our earthly perspective. Some wondered if this planetary conjunction would be something like the star that led the Magi to Bethlehem. I wanted to see it. So six nights in a row I looked:

  • December 21, early evening, looking to the low southwest sky: nothing but clouds.
  • December 22, early evening, looking to the low southwest sky: nothing but clouds.
  • December 23, early evening, looking to the low southwest sky: nothing but clouds.
  • December 24, early evening, looking to the low southwest sky: nothing but clouds.
  • December 25, early evening, looking to the low southwest sky: nothing but clouds.
  • December 26, early evening, looking to the low southwest sky: nothing but clouds.

That completed what I read would be the six nights for viewing. I don’t think I’ll live another 800 years to see this when it might happen again. Then, on December 27, the first Sunday of Christmas, I was seated with family around the dining table eating leftovers. I had a view of the low southwest sky. Before it was fully dark, I saw a light in the sky. Was it an airplane? No. Could it be the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter? Yes. My skywatcher app confirmed it.

Let the Magi begin their long journey, just as John recorded it. Oops. John didn’t report it. Only Matthew did. And Bethlehem? John didn’t report it either. In John’s breathtaking opening, there is no manger, no Bethlehem, no shepherds, no angelic chorus, no star, no magi. But surely John would tell us about Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. No. No. No. If John were our only gospel account, there would be no Christmas pageants, at least we know them.

If we designed a Christmas pageant from John, we would need to go to a planetarium with a large telescope. His account is cosmic. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.He was in the beginning with God.All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” If Mark is the beat reporter getting the story done by the deadline, and if Matthew is the biblical student showing us how Jesus fulfilled all righteousness and is Messiah, and if Luke is the physician who cares about babies, women, and all the underappreciated, then John is the poet, the artist, even the astronomer. Like Edwin Hubble and the telescope named for him, John sees beyond what most see. The icon traditionally given to John’s Gospel is the eagle, the most majestic of all birds, with ability to soar high and see what is happening on terra firma with great accuracy.

Make no mistake: John tells the story of the coming of Jesus, just in a way no one else does. The poet is at work: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” I can never read that without thinking of how Eugene Peterson rendered it in “The Message.” “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” Yes!

John loves playing with words, like any poet. This poet’s parchment is panoramic. This artist’s canvas is cosmic. In 2020 the coronavirus enlarged our vocabulary. Some words and phrases skyrocketed. “You’re on mute” was said 1,000 percent more in 2020 compared with 2019. Zoom is no longer just a word for moving quickly; it is how most of us go to work. And “pandemic” was named word of the year by dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster. Those words already existed, but in 2020, they took on new meanings. So it is in the New Testament. Old words take on new meaning. Rare words become common, but with uncommon power. Everyday words take on eternal significance. In John 1:1-18, three such words emerge and cluster in glorious ways.

The first word is word, which in the Greek is logos. That is not just a unit of speech or so many letters representing something, but a concept with cosmic connotations. In the first sentence of John, it occurs three times. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  Nowhere in the New Testament is there a cluster of the word logos like this one. Logos speaks of the cosmic creative activity of God in Christ. It crackles with consequence.

The second word is light. It occurs seven times in this passage. “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. . . . He himself (John the Baptizer) was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” Nowhere in the New Testament is there a cluster of the word light like this one. Our 2020 was a year of unusual darkness in our world. I needn’t rehearse the statistics. And it looks like the first quarter of 2021 will be no better and probably worse. In the midst of darkness, the light is shining. And it will shine. Nothing can extinguish the light of Jesus the Messiah. Nothing.

The third word is grace. It occurs four times in the climax of this narrative of the incarnation. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. . . .  From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” 

Nowhere in the New Testament is there a cluster of the word grace like this one. The apostle Paul develops the doctrine of grace like no one else, but it isn’t original to him. Grace dawned on our weary world in an unprecedented way in the coming of Jesus, enfleshing God’s grace.

In the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, our world has been visited in a way as never before: he is the creative power of the God of the cosmos; he is the light shining in our darkness; he comes to us in grace upon grace, that we may experience God’s favor, God’s salvation.

A friend challenged me several years ago to choose a word to use as a focus point in my annual journals, which are a form of reflective prayer. The word I have chosen for 2021 is mystery. I am aware that there is much I don’t fully understand and cannot adequately explain (and much of my work for the seminary and the church calls on me to understand and explain!). I realize increasingly that I live in the mystery of God’s creative genius, in the mystery of Jesus, the light of the world (the word for world is cosmos), and in the mystery of God’s grace in my life through Jesus. I will revel in the mysteries of God. But there is no mystery about how to respond to Jesus’ coming. In two days, we will be concluding the liturgical season of Christmas. That brings to mind the poem of Howard Thurman, that I visit this time each year.

When the song of the angels is still

  When the star in the sky us gone

    When the kings and princes are home

      When the shepherds are back with their sheep

Then the work of Christmas begins

  To find the lost

    To heal the broken

      To feed the hungry

        To release the prisoners

          To bring peace among peoples

            To rebuild the nations

To make music in the heart.

This second Sunday of Christmas, this 10th day of Christmas, Merry Christmas, planet earth! Merry Christmas, Community of the Savior. Happy birthday, star child. The Word is made flesh, the light is shining in the darkness, Jesus is bringing us grace upon grace.

Is This Old Folks’ Sunday?

[This message was delivered on the First Sunday of Christmas, 12/27/20, at Perinton Presbyterian Church, based on Luke 2:22-40. It can also be viewed at the church’s channel on FaceBook.]

Just three words. They are perhaps the most dreaded words we read on a Christmas morning. They can ruin a child’s joy and make for a long day for parents. The three words: Some assembly required. I like the instructions Ikea, the Swedish furniture maker, uses: they have no words, but really good pictures showing just which screw goes in what piece of wood. Some assembly is required and they make it so I even can I do it.

Parenthood is not such a simple matter. Some assembly is required. We humans see ourselves at the pinnacle of the created order, as Genesis 1 affirms. Yet our offspring seem to be the most helpless of all. A baby giraffe is standing in about 30 minutes. Not the human baby. A puppy can be house-trained in four months or so. Not the human baby. Not the human baby. Most birds begin flying at two weeks. Not the human baby. There is some parental assembly required for every human baby.

There is something lean and neat about Mark’s Gospel. Jesus appears as a fully-grown person. He walks, talks, is an accomplished carpenter, and is potty trained when we meet him. His parents are hardly needed. We never meet Joseph in Mark. We read of Mary by name just once. That’s it.

Luke takes another tack, for which we are most grateful. Perhaps it was because Luke was a physician. Doctors back then were generalists. They cared for people at every stage of life and knew that babies were vulnerable. It was not assumed that all babies would make it to adulthood. Before we meet Jesus, we are introduced to Joseph and Mary, especially Mary. When we meet Jesus, he is a baby. Unable to walk, talk, feed himself, or—how shall I say it?—toilet himself. Whoever wrote the lyrics to “Away in a Manger,” gave us a great gift; I love that carol. Except for that one line that is pure heresy: “But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Of course, he cried. Babies cry. I don’t think the straw in that manger was fine-tooth combed, all soft and snuggly.

Joseph and Mary are intent on doing the right thing, this intrepid young couple. Did anyone think to give Mary a copy of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting?” Thrust into circumstances unexpected and nearly unimaginable, they keep doing the right thing. In today’s passage in Luke 2, five times the law of the Lord is mentioned. Joseph and Mary do what is required of them by the law at every step in this perilous journey that will cover hundreds of miles, without a car, a bus, a train, or an airplane. The tradition carries them in their uncertainty. The faith passed down from generation to generation lights their rocky path. Tradition has such power. Tradition!

Jaroslav Pelikan, a 20th century theologian, said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.” I’m also with that other theologian, Teyve the milkman in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Tradition carries us and helps us know who we are. I need tradition. Tradition!

There is a generation today in our land that is hesitant to embrace our Christian faith. This younger generation often finds the Church cold, harsh, and rigid. Traditionalism can become like that. The Church often seems more concerned with judgment than justice. More concerned with ritual than right living. More concerned with grading other people than graciously welcoming other people. More concerned with self-preservation than with self-giving. More concerned with its own monuments than with mercy. I believe that when the Church starts living more like Jesus, with grace and mercy, people now estranged from the Church will start coming back. And they will welcome tradition that isn’t cold, harsh, and rigid, but is warm, loving, and filled with grace and mercy. People want healthy tradition, not rigid traditionalism.

The adult Jesus honored tradition, except when it was cold, harsh, and rigid. Jesus always keeps the law of the Lord, but he always puts human need above ritual. He perfectly kept and keeps the two great commandments: to love God supremely and to love neighbor as one loves oneself. The religious leaders of that time had the hardest time with Jesus and gave him the hardest time, because he honored tradition without being cold, harsh, and rigid to human need. He put people above old precepts. He was not a traditionalist.

Joseph and Mary do everything required of them by the law of the Lord. They honor the tradition. In the temple two old people are waiting, seemingly stuck in Advent for who knows how long. Who said Christmas is for children? With their failing eyesight, they are sensitive to every movement around them. With their failing hearing, they hear things that most people miss. A young couple with a baby enter the temple. He is dressed like a carpenter. She is very young, a teenager. They aren’t regulars at the temple. They look like Galileans. They look tired, as if they have traveled far. But they are not downcast; they seem happy and proud with this little baby. They make an offering, as is done when bringing a baby in dedication. The Hebrew scriptures call for the offering of a lamb and a pigeon, but they bring two doves. There is a provision in the law for financial hardship, for the poor: two doves, such common birds. They are poor. And they are blessed.

Simeon steps out first. But not sprightly, at his advanced age. Perhaps he has had a knee replaced or two. He is shaky as he goes right to the baby, and, surprise, takes the baby into his arms. Mary is wondering, will he drop the baby? Joseph, be ready to catch our baby. Then the old man blesses the baby: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” But he isn’t finished. He is compelled to say something to this young mother: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” In his little book about Biblical people, “Peculiar Treasures,” Frederick Buechner says this about old Simeon at that moment: “He would rather have bitten off his tongue than have said it, but in that holy place, he felt he had no choice. Then he handed her back the baby. . . .” It is now for Mary and Joseph to keep on keeping the law of the Lord, their tradition, with this helpless little miracle baby entrusted to them.

A Nigerian woman who is a physician at a major American teaching hospital heard an outstanding lecture. She sought out the lecturer to thank him. He asked her name. She gave her Americanized name. He asked, “What’s your African name?” She gave it, several syllables long. “What does your name mean?” he asked. She said, “It means ‘Child who takes away the anger.’” He asked why that name was given her. She explained. Her parents, from different tribes, had been forbidden by their parents to marry. They were in love and married anyway. For several years, neither set of parents accepted them. Then her mother became pregnant and had a baby girl. I quote, “When my grandparents held me in their arms for the first time, the walls of hostility came down. I became the child that takes away the anger. That’s the name my mother and father gave me. And it pleased my grandparents.”

God sends a baby to bring the people together: Jew and Gentile, insider and outsider, women and men, old and young. Here is the temple this day, four people, two very old and two very young, are brought together by a baby. A baby named Jesus. A baby who takes away all that is wrong and brings people together. Yes, Christmas is for children. And for really old people. And everyone in between. The one who came among us as a baby holds all of us together.

Comfort and Hope

[This message was delivered at the Blue Comfort and Hope worship service at Perinton Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday afternoon of Advent, Dec. 13, 2020. The texts: Psalm 42 and 2 Corinthians 1:3-7.]

There is one kind of praying that too often is ignored. We need to know the prayer of lament. It is a biblical form of prayer; it belongs in our prayer vocabulary. Early in the pandemic, Time magazine asked a number of people from different areas of life to write brief thoughts on dealing with this plague. Among those selected was New Testament scholar and Church of England leader N. T. Wright. He named several ways of dealing with our trouble. First, he noted that there are the rationalists, even Christian rationalists, that want an explanation for everything. Second, he noted that there are romantics, even Christian romantics, that breathe a sigh of relief and see everything with rose-colored glasses. Finally, he concluded: But perhaps what we need more than either [of those] is to recover the biblical tradition of lament. Lament is what happens when people ask, ‘Why?’ and don’t get an answer.” 

When I read that there was an immediate click, a connection, in my spirit. Of the 150 psalms in the Bible’s prayer book, about forty are psalms of lament, about 30 of which are individual psalms of lament and the rest are communal. One book of the Bible is named Lamentations. It’s five long chapters of lament. One cannot read anywhere in the Bible for very long without finding lament.

Paul had a thorn in the flesh. We are not sure what it was, but it bothered and perhaps hindered him. He wanted it removed. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9) He couldn’t have been happy about that response, but he accepted it.

When Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus to the Temple an old man named Simeon took the baby and blessed it and then said: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against,so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” Then he looked right at Mary and said, “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35) Three decades later, Mary would feel the piercing force of that sword.

Even Jesus felt it, as he prayed in a garden, shortly before that sword would fall on him: “I am deeply grieved, even to death. . . he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”  (Matthew 26:38-39) Even Jesus wanted a plan B.

Psalm 42 is one of those psalms of lament. Biblical laments tend to follow a simple pattern: acknowledge God, complain to God, hope in God, with the complaint section being the longest. Psalm 42 begins in a pleasant way: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”

Then come the complaints. Listen to some of the cries of lament:

  • My tears have been my food day and night,
    while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
  • My soul is downcast within me. . .
  • . . . all your waves and breakers have swept over me.
  • Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?

The final act of hope is tinged with the reality of the one praying: “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”

Our troubles do not have the last word. God does. Jesus, our Emmanuel—God with us—does. The Holy Spirit does. God hears our cries and our laments.

In our New Testament reading, brief as it is, there are nine occurrences of the word comfort or forms of it. Our English word comfort comes from two words in the Latin meaning fortify with or strengthen together. “Com” means with, as in communion and community. “Fort” is directly from fortify, to strengthen. To comfort is to fortify another, to strengthen and encourage another. But there is a word behind that word. In the original language of the New Testament this word translated comfort is one of the names for the Holy Spirit. That word literally means “called to come alongside.” God’s Spirit comes alongside us. In our losses and troubles, we are never alone. The Holy Spirit is walking with us, comforting us.

In “The Message,” this phrase of 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 catches the meaning: God comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.” 

This Blue Advent worship is a service of comfort and hope for all: for those of us recently bereaved by the death of a loved one; for those of us that have lost jobs; for those of us facing health challenges, whether physical, mental, or emotional; for all of us who know our own brokenness and are willing to be honest with God, the God of all comfort and hope. God’s word invites us to be honest, whether in lament or in praise. Indeed, lament is a form of praise when it is directed to God. If we have not experienced these kinds of losses, we have relatives and friends that have. We are not alone. Jesus has come to be our Emmanuel, God with us. We put our hope in God, and we praise our Savior and our God, the God of all comfort.

Did Someone Forget Christmas?

[This message was delivered for the second Sunday of Advent, 12/6/20, where I am now serving as a parish associate. The texts: Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8. The video of the worship service can be found on Facebook, under Perinton Presbyterian Church.]

There is no straight path from Henrietta to Perinton, let alone a highway. In the three weeks I have been on your staff, I have experimented with various routes, looking for the quickest and the most interesting. There is no straight path. One takes me through four towns, with Pittsford and Bushnell’s Basin in the middle of Henrietta and Perinton. One takes me on some highways, touching parts of Brighton, but that is the longest. And one takes me through the village of Pittsford. I tend to move quickly and I like getting things done, so I want to know the quickest route. Advent is not the easiest season for me. But it has become a favorite of mine. In a society that starts a headlong rush to Christmas as soon as Halloween’s candy is consumed, with a slight break for Thanksgiving, Advent slows me down. It invites me to read ancient prophecies, encounter curious people, ponder great mysteries, and find a Savior who was not exactly what we were looking for. And sometimes not even close.

Of all the characters we meet this season, none is more quirky and strange than John the Baptist. I have this annual appointment with John the Baptist, which comes on the second Sunday of Advent every year, just like clockwork. This Sunday confronts me with John and his message.

The beginning of Mark’s gospel strikes me as no way to begin a gospel, a story of good news.

Did someone forget Christmas? It seems Mark did. This is generally considered the first written of the four gospel accounts we have. Thank God Matthew and Luke followed, because if we only had Mark, we would have no Christmas pageants. Not only would there be no room in the inn, there would be no inn. And no journey to Bethlehem. No shepherds. No grand angelic announcements. No Mary pondering mysteries and no Joseph wondering what to do in the most troubling circumstance. No magi traveling from afar with lavish, if impractical, gifts. We would have no crèches, no living nativities. Bedford Falls would be Potterville every day. Is Mark the Grinch who forgot Christmas?

Does Mark, then, begin with Jesus? No. Instead we get John the Baptist, this eccentric preacher thundering in the wilderness. I have been a preacher for most of my adult life. John both encourages me and intimidates me.

  • He encourages me for his bold forthrightness and his radical nonconformity, not caring what anyone thinks of him.
  • And he intimidates me for his bold forthrightness and his radical nonconformity, not caring what anyone thinks of him.

Pastors want people to like them. John seems not to care about such matters. I can’t picture a church calling John to be their pastor, unless that church were somewhere out in the wilderness, where there is no competition.

Take his manner of dress. Some churches expect preachers to wear robes or albs. Some expect preachers to wear their Sunday best: modest dresses or tasteful pantsuits for women and coat and tie for men—all color coordinated. Some churches these days prefer shirts untucked and torn jeans. But no one is expecting what John wears: “John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist.” To be sure, I am wearing a belt today. And to meet all expectations, I am wearing a dress shirt and a well-chosen tie from my Advent collection, with a coat that looks like camel’s hair. And jeans, though they don’t have holes and faded patches. And I am wearing a robe given me by Brunswick Church at a milestone for me. And a stole that a friend made for me to wear in Advent, which I love to wear.

And what a diet John has: “he ate locusts and wild honey.” Since I gained about five pounds over Thanksgiving weekend, mainly from four varieties of homemade pies topped with generous portions of hand whipped cream, I am dieting now. Sort of. I have stopped eating pie all day long. If I used the Baptist’s diet, I expect I would need a lot of wild honey, maybe a ratio of 10 parts honey to one part locust, which is probably as bad as eating pie three times a day.

How John dresses and eats fits his setting: the wilderness. This wilderness is to the east of Jerusalem, that city that is the center of Israel’s cultural and religious life. I have been to this wilderness. It is desolate. Most of us are not naturally drawn to the wilderness. Life there is stark; the dominant color is sunbaked tan. And God uses the wilderness. Isn’t it interesting how God uses unexpected places? Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum: these are backwater towns, whose names we would hardly know, save that God used them. And then there is the wilderness. Jesus never lives in Jerusalem. He visits there a few times. On his big visit, he is crucified.

A little later in Mark 1, right after Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan, listen to what Mark reports: “And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness,and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted] by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.” (Mark 1:11-13.) “Congratulations on your baptism, Jesus. We are sending you on an all-expenses paid 40-day trip to the wilderness, where you will fast and be sorely tempted.” It is as if we were to say to little Sophie today right after her baptism, “Sophie, now we are sending you into the wilderness. We’ll pick you up in 40 days. Have a good time in the wilderness with the wild animals and angels.”

This has been a wilderness year for us, for the world, in so many ways. A global pandemic rages claiming over a quarter million lives in our country and approaching two million globally. The long journey toward racial justice has had some wilderness times in 2020. Our ability to be a democracy of civility and mutual respect is being tested. It has been a wilderness year and it’s not over. When we are in the wilderness, we need not like it, but we must not resent it. God is at work in the wilderness. In the wilderness, God does amazing things. Isaiah had another wilderness vision: “Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. . . . And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way.” (From Isaiah 35:6-8)

It is in the wilderness that we find John pointing everyone to Jesus. John is not for keeping Christ in Christmas; he is for getting Christ out of Christmas into people’s lives; in villages, cities, and yes, the wilderness. Probably all of us began following Jesus because there were people like John the Baptist sent by God, pointing us to Jesus. For me, that started with my mother. From my babyhood, she was pointing me to Jesus. She died four years ago at age 101, still faithfully following Jesus and pointing people to him. I hope she is listening in this morning; why shouldn’t there be live-streaming in heaven? And there has been a stream of other John the Baptist types who kept pointing me to Jesus. Not one of them dressed or ate like John, but they did John the Baptist ministry. Who have been some John the Baptist types in your journey? Perhaps you can name three right now. Here is our assignment: For those Johns in our lives that have died, let’s give thanks to God for them. For those that are still alive, let’s thank them. God uses people to bring us to Jesus and to bring Jesus to us.

In this wilderness time, in just three weeks among you, I see our deacons doing John the Baptist ministry. I see them making straight paths for people in need. I see them preparing the way of the Lord. I see them pointing people to Jesus. I am blessed to work with them. I am honored to be part of this team and this congregation, and to serve with these deacons.

But there is no straight way from Henrietta to Perinton. If we took Isaiah’s and John’s call to make straight paths from Henrietta to Perinton literally, we’d have to destroy a lot of nice homes and build a new highway. For this Advent season, I have chosen to drive from Henrietta to Perinton and back on the route that takes me through Pittsford, largely for one reason. There is a short road, Mitchell Road, that connects routes 96 and 31. Mitchell Road is two lanes, except where it crosses the Erie Canal it is one lane wide. There are no stop signs or traffic lights to control the traffic. That one lane for two-way traffic slows me down and makes me attentive to other people, whose time is just as valuable as mine. Drivers must be attentive and ready to yield to others and wait. Like Advent living: attentive and ready to yield to others. John calls me to be attentive, to prepare my heart for Jesus, to prepare the way for the Lord.

God Rest You

A Carol for a blue Advent/Christmas service

[Written for a “Blues Comfort and Hope” worship gathering for Perinton Presbyterian Church, on the Third Sunday of Advent, Dec. 13, 2020, at 3:00pm. This worship gathering is especially for those bereaved, whether from the death of a loved one or other circumstances of loss or disappointment. It will happen in the sanctuary, unless Covid prevents that, and live streamed.]

1. God rest you, weary travelers,
   Let nothing you dismay.
Remember Christ our Savior
   Was born on Christmas Day,
To save us all from Satan’s pow’r
   When we were gone astray.
Oh, tidings of comfort and hope,
   Comfort and hope,
Oh, tidings of comfort and hope.

2. The losses we experience

Weigh heavy on the soul.

But Jesus dwells among us

   To heal and make us whole.

He comes to mend the broken heart,

   The trembling hand to hold.

Oh, tidings of comfort and hope,
   Comfort and hope,
Oh, tidings of comfort and hope.

3. God rest you Jesus worshipers,

   The babe now reigns on high.

He promised to return again,

   The hour now draws nigh.

With comfort and with hope from God,

   We sing his lullaby.

Oh, tidings of comfort and hope,
   Comfort and hope,
Oh, tidings of comfort and hope.

4. God rest you, Jesus followers,

   When life is midnight blue.

The darkness yields to bright daybreak,

   Graced with the morning dew.

And Jesus will not rest until

   He makes the broken new.

Oh, tidings of comfort and hope,
   Comfort and hope,
Oh, tidings of comfort and hope.

Tune: Traditional English carol.   Lyrics: Harry J. Heintz (first stanza re-worked from original)

Hoarding or Investing?

[This sermon, based on Matthew 25:14-30, was delivered on Nov. 15, 2020, at the Presbyterian Church in Brockport NY. I suggest that you read the passage in “The Message,” which handles it really well.]

My mother always hid cash around her home. In her later years, after my father had died, when I would visit her (I lived in another state), she would take me on a little tour, showing me where cash was hidden: some under her mattress, some in a dresser drawer, some in her china closet, some under the carpet in her closet. I would sometimes say, “Mom, put this cash in the bank where it can earn you some interest and be safer.” She would say, “I have money in the bank, but I want this money here just in case the bank fails, or if there is an emergency.” She was fourteen when the great depression hit in 1929 and banks by the hundreds failed. I couldn’t win this argument, so I followed her and made mental notes about where she hid her cash.

I don’t want to put my mother as the third servant in this parable, because she was a generous person and a wise investor. Her investment in me was enormous. This parable isn’t speaking to her financial practices. It is speaking to us about the ways we live, perhaps in surprising ways.

Up front I need to make clear that this parable is not about day trading stocks or gambling foolishly. This parable is not about capitalism or current American politics. It is about stewardship, but not in a narrow way. Since I preach in many churches, rarely in the same one two weeks in a row, I follow the lectionary, a calendar of scripture readings for every Sunday of the year. This parable is the gospel passage for today, not picked by me or you. Because this is the third Sunday of November, one might think that there were a pastor and a member of a church finance team on the lectionary committee. They thought, we need a good stewardship passage for this mid-November Sunday, one that will call people to make big pledges to the church budget for the new year. You are having your annual pledge Sunday in three weeks, so listen carefully. But my sermon today is not about making pledges for a church budget. It is about something far more comprehensive, a way of living.

It is Holy Week in Matthew 25. Jesus has entered Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey. Passover is at hand and for Jesus so is suffering and death. There is excitement and anticipation in the air. Chapters 21 through 25 of Matthew are filled with parables. They include some of the most difficult parables. This one seems not that difficult to understand, but difficult to do.

A wealthy man leaves on a journey. He calls three of his servants and entrusts to them large sums of money. The first two use what is entrusted to them. They invest it. They work with it. When the master returns, he asks how they have done with their trusts. Each has a good report. Each took some risks and enlarged their trusts. He gives the same response to each one:

“Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

But not the third one. He does the opposite of the first two. He hides the trust. He digs a hole in the ground and buries the trust. Jesus puts the spotlight on the third one, who offers an excuse: “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed;so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” His excuse reveals so much. His understanding of his master is distorted and his response is fearful timidity. He confesses that he sees his master as harsh and unfair. That leads to his damning three-word confession: “I was afraid. . . .” He is blaming the master more than himself.

Those three words jump out at me: “I was afraid. . . .” Afraid of what? Fear has two sides to it, a healthy side and an unhealthy side. Fear can mean holy awe and reverent respect. That is healthy. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” says Proverbs 9:10. God is worthy of this kind of fear, this holy awe. Fire is also worthy of our awe and respect. COVID-19 is worthy of our awe and that should shape our behavior: to wear masks, keep proper distances, wash our hands repeatedly, and avoid large indoor gatherings—these are acts of loving our neighbors. Healthy fear is a really good thing. But the unhealthy side of fear is that is can cripple and paralyze us. We can let fear dominate our lives in negative ways.

It is a sign of spiritual maturity to know the difference between healthy and unhealthy fear. The first two servants took healthy risks with their trusts. Their risks could have failed, but I don’t think the master would have judged them. I think the master would have commended them for trying. The master is pleased that they have sought to invest their trusts rather than hide and hoard them.

The third servant cowered in unhealthy fear and took no risk at all. Think of medical workers, especially nurses and doctors, during this pandemic. They know the risks of COVID-19 better than any others. And yet, they go to their hospitals and clinics five, six, sometimes seven days a week because they are entrusted with healing ministries. Some of them have spouses and children at home and self-quarantine to protect their families. They know the healthy fear of this virus and they take calculated risks to save lives.

Being a pastor of one church for 38 years, I am well acquainted with taking healthy risks. We faced numerous challenges and didn’t flinch. We prayed and sought to discern God’s will and choose to move forward in faith, even risky faith. One incident stays with me still. It was 1987. The congregation had been growing and needed more space to serve our children, youth, and start a day care ministry. We hired an architect to give us some options. He was a good listener and visionary thinker. We met with him one evening to see his plans. He showed us plan A and plan B. Both were good, but neither jumped out at our team as being exactly right. We told him what we really liked in each. So we asked him to produce another plan. Meanwhile, I had a dream one night that was vivid. I am a sound sleeper and don’t often remember dreams very well. But this one I remembered. The two plans he had brought us had all right-angle walls, everything perpendicular. In my dream, I saw one wall at an angle. I told no one. Two weeks after the first showing of drawings, we met with him again. He explained that he took the best of plans A and B and added some new touches. Then he unveiled the new plan, plan AB. I didn’t say anything, but watched the team as they looked at it. It had one dramatic wall at an angle with beautiful windows looking at our historic cemetery and a stand of mature trees. The team unanimously showed excitement about the new plan. A year later it was completed. Eight years later it was paid off. To this day it is serving a congregation. Was there risk involved? Yes. We made a move of risky faith and God honored it.

To fear God, that is to live in holy awe of the Lord, means we need not live in fear of anyone else. People of faith in the living Lord don’t live in unhealthy fear. They are willing to make investments that they believe honor God. What risks are ahead for you? I can’t answer. But I know that faithful living means that what God entrusts to us is not to be hoarded. Not to be buried. Not to be hidden. There was a study of 50 people 90 years old and older. They were asked, “If you had your life to live over, what would you do differently?” Two answers dominated:

  1. “I would reflect more.”
  2. “I would risk more.”

This parable calls us to reflect more and to risk more. What are we doing with what God has entrusted to us? If we get this parable right, we won’t have to worry about pledge cards and meeting budgets. If we get this parable right, we will live in faith that invests in God’s purposes, that invests in the advancement of the kingdom of God, that invests in people. If we get this parable right, we will hear those words from Jesus, our master: “Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

Always Present Living

[This sermon was preached for  Pleasant Valley NY Presbyterian Church on 11/1/2020,               All Saints Day. The biblical texts are Micah 6:6-8 and Matthew 5:1-12.]

It is so attractive. Who wouldn’t want to sign up? Believe in Jesus and get anything you want whenever you want. Follow Jesus and get rich. Trust Jesus and you’ll never have a bad hair day, never experience failure, never know heartbreak. There are TV preachers who attract millions of followers with this stuff. There are shelves full of books about being a success in one’s business, love life, sports—whatever—by claiming a Bible verse here and there.

They are not quoting the Beatitudes, as we have come to know Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:1-12.  

They might want to quote John 10:10, where Jesus says, The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” As I read the Bible, and especially the life and teachings of Jesus, the abundant life isn’t what a lot of people think it is or want it to be. Jesus talks of our taking up our crosses and following him—and he laid down his life for others. He speaks of denying ourselves and opening ourselves to God. He says that his followers will know hardship. Nowhere does he say it more clearly than in John 16:33, “In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties. But take heart! I’ve conquered the world.” (quoted in “The Message”)

In the beatitudes we find that abundant life expressed in qualities, not quantities:

  1. Being poor in spirit //  and experiencing the kingdom of God
  2. Mourning // and being comforted
  3. Being meek // and inheriting the earth
  4. Hungering and thirsting for God // and being filled
  5. Being merciful // and receiving mercy
  6. Being pure in heart // and seeing God
  7. Making peace // and being called children of God
  8. Being persecuted // and experiencing the kingdom of God

I have the honor of teaching preaching at Northeastern Seminary in Rochester NY. I teach my students about the dangers of preaching more than one sermon at a time, but rather preaching one sermon with clear focus at a time. How shall I do that with these eight qualities of the abundant life of following Jesus? I will make some brief observations about the eight, then do my best to preach one sermon with clarity, so that you will remember the main thrust 30 minutes after this service is over. Of these eight qualities of the God honoring life, some involve being and some involve doing, and some both. Following Jesus always involves being and doing, with our doing growing out of our being.

Three of these strike me as more active, as something we are called to do. The first is about hungering and thirsting for righteousness. I confess that I don’t do that enough. It has been too long since I fasted a meal or more as an act of seeking God more than food. I need this reminder to let go of some good things in order to seek better things.

The second one is being merciful. Being merciful is seeing someone in need and doing something about it. Presbyterian deacons excel at this. Jesus was once asked about how to be in God’s favor for eternity. Jesus tells a story of beggar left for dead at the side of a road. Two religious types walked by and wouldn’t touch the man for fear of becoming ritually unclean. A third, a Samaritan, stopped and helped. Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

The third active one is making peace. I am troubled that there is too much war in our world and nations spend too much money preparing for war. I’m not naïve; I know that have a strong national defense can prevent war. But maybe it is enough already when a nuclear war between any two nations could wipe out the human race in a matter of a few days. But I think Jesus is getting more local and practical: peacemaking starts right where we live. In this contentious election season, there is need for peacemakers.

The other five beatitudes are not so much things we do as much as things we experience. None of these eight beatitudes are achievements or merit badges. These are life experiences to which we respond. These call us to be present to life as it is unfolding and responsive to God in the midst of life every day. The prophet Micah gives us a wonderful summary of this kind of living: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 5:8)

One of these qualities one is particularly apt for today, November 1, All Saints Day: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” We have just come through a devastating week in our journey with Covid-19. Nearly a thousand a day have died and an average of over 70,000 a day have tested positive in just the last week. We are dealing with death. Death is a reality every day in our world. Pastors know that well. One of the perks of being a long-term pastor was that I learned firsthand that death is real and has no age requirements. I cannot deny the reality of death and I don’t want to. My faith speaks to the great issues of life, including death. Our response to the reality of death: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” We follow Jesus, who wept at the death of a good friend, in mourning for our losses and those of others. And this Sunday is calls us to remember and give thanks for the saints that have gone before us. In your congregation we remember, what saints have died in the past year? Name them and give thanks for them.

I keep a journal every year, in which I jot down thoughts three or four times a week. At the back, I keep records: where I have preached, books I have read, movies I have watched, and a list of transitions, my word for friends and others that have died. In my journal this year, among many names, are these:

  • Kathleen Buckley, a college pastor I was close to some years ago before we moved to different places. We last talked just over a year ago. I should have called her more.
  • Freda Gardner, who was a moderator of the General Assembly of our denomination, and a friend.
  • George Floyd, who was killed on a street in Minneapolis, and whose death awakened millions of Americans to the violence visited on Black men in our country.
  • John Lewis, one of the great heroes of the civil rights movement in our country. I heard him speak in Rochester two years ago.
  • Jim Zuckermandel, a friend of mine. He was one of the best athletes I have ever known, with a generous heart and sweet spirit. He died a year younger than I am of a devastating form of Parkinson’s disease. When a friend who is younger than you dies, it is always sobering.

I give thanks for these and so many others that have influenced my journey of faith.

Jesus calls us to be present in life, cultivating the qualities of blessing. Being a baseball fan and a native of Los Angeles, I watched the recent World Series with great interest. It was needed break from national politics. I especially enjoy watching Mookie Betts play baseball. He excels at every aspect of baseball and usually with a smile. His manager, Dave Roberts, was asked about what it’s like to coach Mookie. He said, “Mookie is always present.” That grabbed me. I want to live always present. The way Jesus describes always present living in the beatitudes.

What is the one sermon I want us to hear and take home today? That we are called by Jesus to be saints by living his way, being present in all of life with him, present in every circumstance, present for everyone around us, present with Jesus.

Life is a precious gift. Let’s be fully present, following Jesus who is always fully present with us. “God has shown us what is good. And what does the Lord require of us? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.” Blessed are those that are present with Jesus in all of life’s moments and experiences.

Voluntary Restraint

Some of my readers will be pleased to read this and some perhaps not so much. I am placing myself under voluntary restraint on Facebook. On my blog, sailingtowardwisdom.blog, I will continue to publish sermons I have preached and articles I have written, but never of partisan political nature, though some may deal with political matters.

Why? When I was a pastor at Brunswick Church, I wasn’t on Facebook, following wise counsel. I pastored a congregation with wonderful diversity, including wide political diversity. I didn’t want any of my political convictions and leanings to shape the congregation in a partisan way—I certainly didn’t want the congregation to be just like me. Every Sunday that I led the pastoral prayer, I mentioned those in governance, usually mentioning the president by name. The Bible leads me to do that. In my preaching I touched on politics, but never in a partisan way. I think the Gospel has a political edge to it. It speaks to how governing should work. The Gospel and politics share some concerns: how people treat other people, how law and mercy are balanced, how life is honored, how the needy receive care, etc.

When I retired, I went on Facebook. Along the way, I used the newfound freedom of my retirement to post some political statements and thoughts, usually written by me, but sometimes taken from others that I respect or whose thoughts I found worth pondering. I sifted those carefully, seeking to be fair and gracious, while speaking from my convictions. I expect that I failed that self-imposed test at times, for which I ask for forgiveness from those that I caused unnecessary offense. I did not post anywhere near half of what I was tempted to post, writing a good number of articles that never went public. Writing helps me to think through matters, so I always am writing and that will continue.

As of this day, I am entering a discipline of voluntary restraint, largely because in a short time I will join a church staff as a quarter time pastor. That means that, as in years past, I will be serving a congregation of healthy diversity—and I want it to be so. I don’t want to cause any unnecessary offense by my political views. I want to be faithful to the Good News (gospel) of Jesus, my Lord. In my preaching and teaching I will continue to touch on matters political, as I understand and am compelled by the scriptures, but never from a partisan perspective.

I am writing this just a few days before the 2020 election. It is a time of heightened rhetoric and tension. I will vote consistent with my convictions, but I don’t want to add to the political tensions in our nation. To the contrary, I want to be a person of grace and understanding, not putting aside or denying my convictions, but holding and expressing them in ways that are respectful of those holding different convictions. After all, I could be wrong. There is a quote I need to re-read from time to time: “I beseech ye in the bowels of Christ, think that ye may be mistaken.” (From Oliver Cromwell to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland on 3 August 1650, and later quoted by American Judge Learned Hand.) This is not always easy for me, but this is my goal. Whatever the outcome of the elections on Tuesday, I will pray for those that win and those that lose. I am an American patriot. I care about my country. I want it to be the best country it can be, which means I cannot overlook its errors. I have no illusions about its many flaws, historically and currently. And I hold to its highest ideals.

I am not leaving Facebook, because I appreciate the way it allows friendships to continue and grow, and for the many and varied perspectives that are expressed there about most everything. Granted, I skip some posts after two or three words because I find them offensive or inane. But I find many posts worthy of my time and thinking.

This development in my life, mentioned above, was not something I was seeking, but I am absolutely thrilled about it and have a deep sense of calling as I move into it. I didn’t know retirement was going to be so enjoyable! Some friends wonder if I am working too much in retirement. I appreciate their concern, but I respond that all I am doing in retirement is of great meaning to me (and I hope to others) and fits this season of my life really well. If that changes, I will make adjustments. I am grateful to God for the measure of good health and energy that I am experiencing, beyond anything I deserve. That may change at any time—any pastor knows that, as we minister with people at every stage of life and in every circumstance; we know well that life is filled with unfairness. And we know that life is filled with wonder. I take on this discipline of voluntary restraint as a good development for me in this time of my life. If you find that I fail to honor this, it was probably done in a weak moment. Be gentle with me.

Heads or Tails?

[This message, based on Matthew 22:15-22, was delivered at John Calvin Presbyterian Church, Henrietta, NY, on October 18, 2020.]

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.  Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?  Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.  Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”  They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

“Death and Taxes.” The phrase has taken on a life of its own. Ben Franklin wrote it after the Constitution was ratified in 1789. “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” By mentioning taxes, and thereby politics, this morning, I may be hastening my own death. But this passage assigned me by the lectionary leads me to address politics in the form of taxes.

There could hardly have been a more fitting month than this one for this passage dealing with Jesus’ teaching about taxes, hence politics, and about our loyalties.

  • A presidential election is just over two weeks away, and millions of Americans have already voted early.
  • A global pandemic has been especially hard on our country, with over 8,000,000 cases of inflection and over 220,000 deaths due to it. Millions of people are suddenly unemployed or underemployed. Thousands of small businesses, and some large ones, across our nation have been forced to close down because of this pandemic.
  • A nominee for associate justice for the Supreme Court has been in hearings with the Senate judicial committee all last week. When her nomination comes before the Senate, it is sure to be a contentious time with a close party-line vote.
  • It is reported that our president has paid no federal income taxes in most of the last

15 years and just $750 in his first year in office.

Is that enough? Are you tired of it all? I am planning to vote early. I will be in line Saturday morning when early voting begins. I will feel some relief when I cast my ballot, but not much.

We often hear churchgoers say, “We don’t want the preacher talking about politics.” I agree and I don’t agree. I think the better thing to say is, “We don’t want the preacher talking about partisan politics and telling us which candidate to vote for.” I agree with that. Yet I want preachers to talk about politics, but not in a partisan way. Politics is a good word that has been too much abused these days. It comes from the Greek word for city: polis. From polis we get metropolis, Minneapolis, and police. And politics. The word means the governing of the city, or town, or state, or nation. All of social life is political. It has to do with how people relate to each other in society. In a sense, marriage is political, parenting is political, school is political. Life is political. Jesus fields a political question from some Pharisees and Herodians.

This conversation takes place during Holy Week, as Jesus is in Jerusalem for Passover and for his passion at week’s end. The Pharisees have regularly been looking to entrap him. Jesus threatens them, for they hold religious power and don’t want to give it up. In the New Testament, the most dangerous occupation is not fishing or tax-collecting: the most dangerous occupation is religious leadership. And the religious leaders are frightened by this young rabbi Jesus, for he won’t fit into their religious categories, their neat boxes, their lists with checkmarks, their circles defining who is in God’s favor and who is outside God’s favor. Now it is worse: they team up with Herodians, effectively a political party. Now we have an alliance of religious leaders and political leaders and that can be toxic, then as well as now. It will be a coalition of religious and political leaders that will sentence Jesus to crucifixion. For good reason did our founders call for a separation of church and state. Our nation is a secular nation, with no state sanctioned or favored religion, but freedom for people to believe and worship as they will.

They start with a classic butter up, then set the snare. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” The mousetrap is baited with gooey peanut butter. If Jesus says that taxes are good, he sides with Rome, the capital of an empire that holds people under its heel. If Jesus says that taxes are bad, he is a protester, an insurrectionist, even a criminal against the Roman governmental system—no better than one of those football players kneeling for the national anthem. Knowing exactly what they are doing, he asks for a coin. One is brought to him. He holds it up. “Whose image is on it?” They all know the answer: “The emperor’s.”

I picture a moment of silence. A pregnant silence. What will he say? If this is a movie, the music stops and the camera slowly scans the questioners, then stops with full frame on the face of Jesus. The tension is palpable. What will he say? Will he take the bait? Will the trap snap on him? Unlike so many politicians today, he doesn’t evade the question. He answers, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 

They are amazed, but not in a positive way. They are stunned and silenced. They walk away dejected. The trap misfires. But they don’t forget what he says, even if they will not understand. Do we understand? Jesus acknowledges that paying taxes is good. Even if the receivers of the taxes are not. Taxes serve a good purpose. Romans 13:7 says, “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” We should not resent paying taxes. If we like paved roads, and well-placed traffic lights, the snow on our roads plowed, and good schools for all children, then we like taxes. If we like having law enforcement, emergency services, clean water, fire departments with the best equipment, and working sewer systems to make life healthy for all, then we like taxes. Paying taxes, when they are fair and honest, is good. I find it troubling that 91 of the largest 500 corporations in our country paid no taxes last year. I find it troubling that the super-wealthy often pay no taxes or small taxes, while middle class and poor people pay a higher percentage of their income, because tax codes are unfair and those that can afford clever lawyers can beat the system.

Jesus endorses paying taxes as does the rest of the Bible, but he has something more to say. If our money bears the image of our political leaders, whose image do we bear? You know the answer. We find it in the first chapter of the Bible. We are created in the image of God. “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Every human being, even the ones that disagree with my political convictions, bears the image of God.

When I cast my early ballot next weekend, it will not be with any illusions that my candidate will be able to solve all of our problems. While I believe in the institution of human government, I know that human government is flawed because all humans are flawed. Democrats are flawed and Republicans are flawed, and independents are flawed. My assumption this morning is that some of us are Republicans, some of us Democrats, and some of us independents. Good. I don’t want us all to be exactly the same. Whatever our political leanings, let’s be generous in spirit with one another, for we are all image bearers of God.

President Shirley Mullen of Houghton College wrote a letter last week calling for a courageous middle. There was an incident on campus that was dividing the student body. President Mullen named the matter, an act of good leadership, and then called for being people of a courageous middle, bridging people together rather than erecting walls of separation. That is a good description of how the church should be a time of political division and too much partisanship. Whether Democrats, Republicans, or independents, we can be people of the courageous middle.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was prophetic when he wrote these words a generation ago, during a time of civil unrest in our land: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”

The next time a tax bill comes, let’s smile that we are able to pay taxes and pay our fair share.  But let us never forget that we bear the image of God. Our first allegiance is not to any political party or any nation; our first allegiance is to God our creator.

I Don’t Like This Parable

[I gave this at Community of the Savior in Rochester NY on October 4, 2020. The parable mentioned in the title is in Matthew 21:33-46, accompanied in the message by Philippians 3:4b-14. This can also be found in video form on the Community of the Savior YouTube or Facebook channel.]

I don’t like this parable. Do you have a favorite parable of Jesus? I bet it isn’t this one. Perhaps it is the Good Samaritan. I love that one. Or the waiting father with the runaway younger son—the Prodigal. I love that one. Or that pithy one about finding the pearl of great price. I love that one. But not this one. It’s like watching a Martin Scorsese movie: we know that whatever the story line, some unnecessary violent bloodshed is likely coming. It comes quickly in this parable.

A landowner has a big crop of grapes ready for picking. He has tenants working for him. He sends in three servants to do this hard work. The tenants seize them, beating one, stoning another, and killing the third one. The landowner sends in another group. The same thing happens. The landowner sends in his son, thinking surely his son will be treated better. His son is also killed. Jesus is telling this in Jerusalem as Passover is approaching: it is holy week. The city is filled with religious leaders and pious people. Jesus asks the religious leaders, “What will the landowner do those merciless tenants?” The answer is obvious: “Kill those wretched tenants.” Then Jesus deftly quotes from Psalm 118: “Haven’t you read in the Bible: ‘The stone which the craftsmen rejected was selected as the cornerstone?’” It’s a gotcha moment.

In “The Message,” Eugene Peterson identifies the targeted hearers this way:

“God’s kingdom will be taken back from you and handed over to a people who will live out a kingdom life.When the religious leaders heard this story, they knew it was aimed at them.” 

In “The Cotton Patch” version of Matthew (a fresh take on the Gospel by Clarence Jordan, setting it in 20th century rural Georgia), the parable ends this way:

“The God Movement will be taken out of your hands and turned over to people who will be productive. . . . The ministers and church people listened to his Comparison, and were aware that it was aimed at them.”

What would you see as the most dangerous occupation in the New Testament? I have my choice and I think I’m right. It is an occupation with which I am well acquainted. Does that give you a clue? Yes, I think the most dangerous occupation, the one most to be avoided, is religious leader. The New Testament sees being a religious leader as dangerous. Ouch! Jesus had the hardest time with the religious leaders, or perhaps more accurately, the religious leaders had the hardest time with Jesus, who wouldn’t fit into their neat religious categories.

Saul of Tarsus was a religious leader. His credentials were impeccable. His sash was filled with merit badges. His pedigree was impressive—he was best in show. He lists seven items: circumcised on the right day, an Israeli citizen, born in the elite tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew to the core, a Pharisee keeping the whole law, so zealous for his religion that he persecuted followers of Jesus, and flawless in attaining righteousness through keeping the law. His bottom line? If anyone could earn God’s favor, it was he. Yahweh had to be thrilled to have Saul on his team.

And then—boom! —everything changes. The risen Jesus reveals himself to Saul, and old Saul’s transformation is so radical, so thorough, that his name has to change too. Old law-keeping goody, goody Saul becomes captured-by-the-grace-of-Jesus Paul. He is saved, redeemed, and transformed—not by meticulous law-keeping, which he had worked so hard to do, but by the amazing grace of Jesus that found him, which he could never earn or merit.

This new-found freedom means that Paul enters a journey of letting go of what he once held so tightly and pressing on toward living in this incredible grace found in Jesus. Paul will take all that he once valued: all his merit badges, all his Sunday school perfect attendance pins, all his Bible memorization certificates, all that he once used to prove to himself and others that God was pleased with him, and trash them. “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. . . .” “The Message” lets Paul’s words be more earthy: “The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash. . . . All the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him.”

That word translated “rubbish” in the NRSV is more accurately the “dog dung” of “The Message.” I don’t like to use Greek words in preaching, but here I make an exception. The word is “skubala” and it literally means—what you probably are thinking it means. Refuse, dung, dog dodo, excrement. Sometimes we experience or observe things that hurt or bother us deeply, so much so that we are prone to use more colorful language than we usually use. Earthly, salty language. Here is such a word found right in the New Testament: “skubala.” I think that gives us permission to use it, but, please, only at appropriate times and ways. Did Jesus ever use salty language? Yes. Read Matthew 23: “hypocrites, blind guides, white-washed tombs.” Again, I find “The Message” effective at getting Jesus’ colorful language:

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, . . . six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.” The whole of Matthew 23 is Jesus speaking to the religious leaders of the day. The bishops and presbyters. The clergy. The right reverend doctors, with their flowing garments, stiff necks, and cold hearts.

A New Testament scholar, F. F. Bruce, wrote a magisterial book on Paul’s life journey. He entitled it: “Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free.” My story is not as dramatic as Paul’s, but it is similar. I was raised in this faith, knowing about Jesus from my mother’s knee. And never have I strayed far from it. I worked hard at pleasing God and was somewhat successful in the eyes of others. I was a good kid, faithful in Sunday school and worship. I memorized enough Bible verses to go to summer camp free. I have been a religious leader for most of my adult life. And that is dangerous. Religious leaders can be enemies of God’s grace, territorial tenants like those in that terrible parable. I have increasing sympathy with people that find Jesus more attractive but the Church less unattractive, as it too often communicates judgmentalism and harsh legalism, as it looks down at the kind of people Jesus loves to be with. As religion is popularly understood, I don’t want to be religious. Because I love the Lord, I love his Church, even though I am often offended and embarrassed by church leaders and religious people. I want my love for Jesus to grow, and I want the Church to work at being more like him. I want to be more like Jesus, who is ever reaching out to the unlovely, touching the untouchables, caring for the most needy. I have so far to go.

With Paul, I want to leave behind and forget anything that leads me to think I have earned God’s favor—all that skubala—and exchange all that religious stuff with the grace of God in Christ that has found me and set my heart free.

“Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, let us press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”