Paul, Power, and Privilege

Inspired by Acts 13:1-3; 14:8-18

'You are wise and fearless and fair, Lady Galadriel,' said Frodo. 'I will give you the One Ring, if you ask for it. It is too great a matter for me.' 

Galadriel laughed with a sudden clear laugh. 'Wise the Lady Galadriel may be,' she said, 'yet here she has met her match in courtesy. Gently are you revenged for my testing of your heart at our first meeting. You begin to see with a keen eye. I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired to ask what you offer. For many long years I had pondered what I might do, should the Great Ring come into my hands, and behold! it was brought within my grasp. The evil that was devised long ago works on in many ways, whether Sauron himself stands or falls. Would not that have been a noble deed to set to the credit of his Ring, if I had taken it by force or fear from my guest?

'And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!'

She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illuminated her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.

'I pass the test,' she said. 'I will diminish, and go into the West and remain Galadriel.'

That of course was a passage from the book The Fellowship of the Ring. For those of who are not familiar with the 1954 classic by J. R. R. Tolkien, in this passage, Frodo, who had been carrying a magical ring of great power, so powerful that it could change the course of history, and not for the better, attempted to give the ring to Galadriel, a wise leader whom he trusted. He was on his way to destroy the ring because it was evil and it had already been proven throughout history that no one could bear it and remain good. Its evil was just too great. But it was also a burden to carry and so Frodo hoped that he had found someone who he could pass it on to. Her reaction was not what he expected.

Instead of taking the ring of power, something that she had secretly wished for, she refused. She knew that it would overpower her, that, even though she was a good person, she would not end up using it for good purposes. So, she gave up that power, she gave up a future of ruling over the world as queen, she gave up the opportunity to be elevated in status. She didn’t trust herself with it. So, in spite of his good intentions, she corrects Frodo and walks away from the opportunity. Or as she put it, she passed the test, and would remain who she was, would remain Galadriel.

One of my favorite scenes in all of the Lord of the Rings books! And it’s a similar scene to our Bible story that we have before us today from the book of Acts. Well, minus the magical ring, and elf, and hobbit. For those of you who weren’t here last week, our readings each week between now and Pentecost will all be from the books of Acts and Romans and they will all be readings and lessons from the beginnings of the church as they were trying to figure out who they were called to be without Jesus physically by their side anymore. Last week we got a story from the work of Peter and Cornelius and today we have a story from the work of Paul and Barnabas. They are in Lystra and Paul performs a miracle in the healing of a man who could not walk and now could. However, I’m not sure that’s the real miracle in this story.

The real miracle here is the reactions of Paul and Barnabas to the crowd's desire to identify them as gods and worship them with sacrifices. Imagine the self-control this must have taken, the resistance to the temptation of so much power! I mean, they could have been set for life! But they refused. Instead, they correct them, they tell them that they are plain ol’ human beings like everyone else. And we have to ask ourselves why. Why would they give up this golden opportunity to live out a life of leisure as gods? I think most people’s answer to that question would be humbleness but I think that’s too easy of an answer. I think it’s more than that. I also think humbleness is overrated but that’s mostly because I think there’s more false humility floating around than genuine humbleness but that’s for another sermon.

I don’t think this is about humbleness, I think this is about justice. Hear me out. Why would someone like Paul, someone who has had a taste of power, not only was he a Pharisee which was basically the religious elite, which not only came with it the authority over decision making but also authority over people’s souls. So, not only was he a Pharisee, he was also a Roman citizen, something that was extremely hard to come by. It wasn’t like here in the states where just being born here made you a citizen. No, you had to have connections, or wealth, or heritage, or all of the above to achieve the status of Roman citizenship. So, Paul, had all these things, power from every angle of society, and then he gets offered even more power from the people of Lystra, god-like power and he turns it down. Why would he do that?

Here’s my guess, and it’s an educated guess based on Paul’s writings as a whole, I think he had seen how power was used in his world, how the elite of society, those born with privilege, those born a few steps above the rest of society, those born with a leg up, and he realized it wasn’t working. Paul, like Jesus before him, took a look around at his world and realized that power was not being used the way that it should be. There were too many poor, orphans, widows, the sick, and marginalized, that were not being taken care of.

And maybe even more than that, Paul realized that humans, just don’t have it in them to use power the way it should be, and so, chose a life of powerlessness—is that a word?, Microsoft did not correct it so I'm guessing I’m not making it up—they chose a life of powerlessness in order to do the work that God was asking of them. Oddly enough, a whole different kind of power was invoked through this powerlessness, the power to change the world by identifying with the powerless, and using that new different kind of power, to give a leg up to those who weren’t born with it.

So, we can apply this in so many different ways in our world but before we can do that we must first identify the different ways that we have been privileged, the different ways that we have been born with a leg up. So, I’ll start with myself because that’s the best place to start when talking about privilege. I was born male, in a male-dominated society. I was born able-bodied in an able-body dominated society. I was born straight in a straight-dominated society. This next one might sound silly to 90% of us but I was born right-handed in a right-hand dominated society.

And from a world perspective, I was born in the United States of America, one of the most affluent countries in the world, affording me opportunities that people in many other countries can only dream about. I was born with the ability to procreate, and the recognition of that gift is important on days like Mother’s Day, and causes me to be careful with my words when so many others are hurting on this day. All these privileges were just given to me at birth, I did not earn any of them.

So, it’s not a question of do we have privileges, it’s a question of what do we do with the privileges we’ve been gifted. And just so we’re clear, privilege does not equate to an easy life. Nobody is out there saying that. If you hear the word privilege and think, “Well, I’ve had to struggle all my life, he’s not talking about me” then we are talking about two very different things. I’d be happy to point you to some great resources if you’d like to learn more. So, it’s not a question of, has society elevated us in different ways, it’s how has society elevated us, and, more importantly, how will we react to that? Will we take that ring of power, like Lady Galadriel was tempted to? Will we allow our society to elevate us? Will we take that power and use it for our own gain the way that Paul and Barnabas were tempted to?

Or, will we be like Lady Galadriel and remain who we are, who we were made to be, who we were baptized to be, children of God for the sake of the world—children of God who use their God-given gifts, as well as our society-given privileges, to lift up others who have not been so blessed or privileged? Will we follow Paul and Barnabas’ lead, Jesus’ lead, and identify with people less privileged than us, in order to lift them up, rather than use them as stepping stones?

Lady Galadriel goes on to become a great leader in the face of many obstacles and enemies, often sacrificing her own power on behalf of the safety and betterment of others. Not because she had to but out of love for others. Paul and Barnabas, said no to the god-like status that was offered to them. Not because they had to, but because it was at odds with what God had called them to do. So, as we are thankful for the blessings and privileges that we have been gifted in this life, and let us also use them to lift up others around us, as we live out our baptisms, for the sake of the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Spelling Out God's Love

Inspired by Acts 10:1-17, 34

So, last week we finished reading through the Gospel of Matthew which we started back in Advent. I hope it was as meaningful for you as it was for me. So, with Jesus having been crucified, risen and ascended to heaven, his followers are now left behind to try and figure out this new faith they have been given. With their minds completely blown by the events of Holy Week and Easter, not only do they have to get their own bearings but on top of that, they have the responsibility of keeping this Jesus movement alive and moving forward. No easy task, especially because they are mourning. “Mourning?” you ask? “Why would they be mourning? Jesus has risen from the dead!” Well, yes, but we have to remember, that was never the plan! Well, at least not in their minds. None of this went according to their plans!

Not the Last Supper, the foot washing, not Jesus’ arrest or beating, and especially not the crucifixion! And Jesus may have been risen from the dead but where is he now, gone again! What were they to do? They couldn’t do the things that Jesus did! How were they going to keep this thing going? So, there they were, mourning what could have been but no longer will be. They had such big plans, and God did not come through on those plans. Have you ever been there? It’s not fun, is it? When you make such good plans, the best plans, all thought out, organized, budgeted, you got all your ducks in a row, and then bam! God says, “Ummmm, no, we’re not gonna do that. We were never gonna do that. We’re gonna do this instead.” Like my daughter Grace always says, “What the heck?”

Now, here’s where it really gets weird, sometimes, like the resurrection, what we do instead of what we had planned, is amazing! When doesn’t God come through with a better plan than we had? God’s plan is always better than ours! But, that doesn’t mean that our plan was bad. And we put so much of ourselves into it, so much time and effort and love into that plan, all for God to just take us down a different path, and without ever asking us first, right? For a nationwide example of this, take a look at church denominations that have decided to be open and affirming of the LGBTQ community.

We thought, with all the best intentions, that we would be so welcoming and loving to everyone that people would just be streaming into our churches. Only to find out, that by the time most denominations decided to do this, the LGBTQ community had already been so hurt by us, us, many people didn’t want anything to do with us. To put this into perspective, the Unitarian Universalist Association was the first major religious group to welcome the LGBTQ community and that was in 1970. Our denomination, took nearly forty more years to get there in 2009. Earning back people’s trust and respect again, is going to take some time. And that was not part of the plan, but here we are.

This is also the place that Peter found himself, in our reading from Acts. Between now and the next five Sundays, concluding on Pentecost, all of our readings will be coming from the book of Acts and Paul’s letter to the Romans. And they will be stories and lessons from the earliest days of this new religion when they were trying to figure out who they were, especially in the midst of so much loss, the loss of their fearless leader, Jesus, who was now up in the clouds, gone again. So, in our reading for today, we follow two different stories that eventually merge at the end. The first story is about a guy by the name of Cornelius, and the first thing we are told about him is that he is a Roman military commander, a centurion, which seems like a minor detail but oh boy there’s a lot packed in that statement.

As a first century reader of this story it would have told you that he was not Jewish, not Christian, and that he worked for the enemy, the very government that crucified Jesus. So, right off the bat, the guy’s got three strikes against him. And then our author shares something that should stop readers in their tracks, a real curveball. The author shares that, “Cornelius and his whole household were pious, Gentile God-worshippers. He gave generously to those in need among the Jewish people and prayed to God constantly.” Now the term God-worshiper didn’t just mean any god, or even Roman gods, it specifically meant the Jewish God. So, as the reader, now you don’t know what to make of this guy. Is it enough to suspend your previous judgement against him? Maybe, maybe not. Let’s keep moving forward.

Then, an angel, straight from God, visits him. That’s when readers know that it’s safe to let their guard down around this would-be enemy. So the angel tells him to go find a guy by the name of Peter. Doesn’t tell him why, but I guess when an angel tells you to do something you don’t ask questions, so that’s what he does. Meanwhile, just before they arrive, Peter was on a rooftop having visions of his own. As he’s praying, he has this same vision three times, a vision of a large white sheet with animals of all kinds on it, but specifically animals that were forbidden for Jews to eat. So there may have been pigs on it, rabbits, maybe there were some lobsters and crabs crawling around too, all foods that Jews are not allowed to eat.

So, Peter sees this sheet, with all these animals on it, animals that he has been forbidden to eat, animals that have been labeled as unclean, and then God throws him a curveball as well and invites him to get up and eat what he sees, eat the animals that had been forbidden, labeled as unclean! Well, as you can imagine, Peter is utterly disgusted by the thought! He says, “Absolutely not!” Now, let me just pause there a second and point something out that I find fascinating.

Cornelius, the Gentile, Roman paycheck-cashing, never met Jesus God-worshiper, was told to do something by an angel and he does it no questions asked. Peter, St. Peter, who lived and traveled with Jesus for three years, was among his closest followers, is told to do something, not by an angel, but directly by God, and what does Peter say? “Absolutely not!” He doesn’t even ask any questions, flat out says no!

To be fair to Peter, in any of your travels, have you ever encountered a food that the locals thought was not only normal but delicious that you couldn’t bring yourself to even try? Some cultures eat scorpions, some eat large spiders, some eat pigs feet, cow tongue, for me, it was in Pennsylvania and the food was scrapple. Who knows what scrapple is? If you don’t look it up, I can’t describe it to you right now otherwise I’ll start gagging. My kids though, who are Pennsylvanians, grew up eating scrapple with their pappy. Me, nope, I’m good never trying the stuff. And that’s coming from a Mexican, we eat some weird stuff let me tell ya! Anyway, that’s the kind of reaction that Peter had to God’s idea of food, but with the added religious guilt on top of his disgust.

So, Peter is utterly flummoxed by God, can’t understand why God would ask him to do such a thing. So much so, he may have even been questioning whom the voice really belonged to. God ends by saying, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” In other words, you don’t get to decide what is clean and unclean Peter. I imagine Peter getting up from his prayer thinking, what was all that about, wondering if he’ll ever figure this one out. Then there’s a knock on the door, he opens it and there’s his answer, literally staring back at him. He’s then told of this Cornelius, this Roman, Gentile, convert who just happens to also be a military commander. I wouldn’t be surprised if Peter, upon hearing the title centurion, immediately had PTSD flashbacks of Jesus’ arrest, trial, beating, crucifixion, and guarded burial.

However, he’s also told that God sent for Peter to come to Cornelius, in a vision no less, not unlike the vision that Peter just had. As Peter connects the dots between his vision and these uninvited guests in his mind, and in his heart, his reaction is priceless. Peter says, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another.” Every time I read this story I think, “Really Peter? What have you been doing these last few years!” Isn’t it fascinating that one could literally walk with Jesus and still have lessons to learn about how to treat other people. And I suppose it’s why I love Peter so. He’s us, in a nutshell. We walk with Jesus, or I should say, we recognize that Jesus walks with us, and yet, and yet, we have so much to learn about how to treat other people.

This story reminded me of the synagogue shooting about a week ago. A young man by the name of John Earnest walked into a California synagogue and opened fire while they worshipped, hitting men, women, children, and the elderly alike, all out of a hatred toward our Jewish siblings. And like so many other shooters before him, he was one of ours. Was he Lutheran? No, he was Presbyterian, but what does that matter?

Jesus walked with him just as Jesus walks with us. And yet, he had so much to learn about how to treat other people. Why do I share this with you? Just to make you feel guilty? No, I share this with you because I think we need constant reminding, while Jesus walks with us, that our actions, or inactions, have very real consequences. The pastor and fellow church members of that 19 year old shooter are having to ask themselves some questions that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

Is there something we could have done? How did our teachings get misinterpreted so badly? Were there warning signs we missed. Is this our fault? If you ever wonder why I often, specifically talk about certain groups of people, people of color, the LGBTQ community, women, Muslims, or whoever I may be talking about, this is one reason why? Because I don’t want there to be any question in anyone’s mind who I am talking about. This is why it’s not enough to say God loves everyone, or all are welcome.

We don’t live in a world where that’s enough. We have to spell it out for anyone who will hear us, that God loves people of color, God loves women, God loves our Muslim siblings, God loves our Jewish siblings, God loves our Buddhist siblings, God loves our lesbian siblings, God loves our gay siblings, God loves our bisexual siblings, God loves our transgendered siblings, God loves our queer siblings.

My friends, my family, we can’t leave God’s love up for interpretation. We just can’t. People are dying because Christians have done that for far too long. We have come so far and yet we have so much more to learn. And yes, that may sound daunting at times but it’s also exciting, think of it as an adventure! Think of it as an adventure that will literally save lives. And know going in that it will not go as planned. And there will be moments of mourning over our amazing plans that God ignores because God has a better plan.

But also know going in that God knows what God is doing. So, as Jesus walks with us, as we learn how wide God’s love really is, as we continue to learn how we should treat others, how we should talk about others around people, as we are careful with our words we use, our attitudes about others, know that God knows we are learning, and will never leave our side while we are learning, even after the next time we fail at this. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Welcome to the New You - An Easter Sunday Sermon

Inspired by Matthew 28:1-15

Since last Sunday, at each of our Holy Week services, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Vigil of Easter last night, welcome has been the name of the game. All week we have been exploring how God welcomes us, through Jesus, as seen through the events of Holy Week. We started with Welcome to the Red Carpet last Sunday, Welcome to the Table on Maundy Thursday, Welcome to the Dark on Good Friday, and Welcome to the Light, last night.

And today, Welcome to the New You. It’s been quite a ride this past week, I for one am very thankful to be here with you today, because that means we made it through Holy Week alive and intact! Not unlike someone else I know but we’ll get to Jesus in a second. As I mentioned last week, the reason that the concept of welcome has been on my mind is because it’s been something that Bethlehem has been exploring for quite some time now. And in January, that work culminated in the adoption of a new welcome statement, which you can find on the back of your bulletin, and I would like to read out loud now.

As followers of Jesus who aspire to create a safe community that communicates God’s unconditional love for the world, we welcome all.

All abilities
All ages
All ethnicities
All gender identities
All life circumstances
All sexual orientations

No matter who you are, where you’re from, what you’ve experienced, how you believe, how you doubt, who you love, no matter what, you will be welcomed here and the message of God’s unconditional love is for you.

So with a welcome statement that beautiful, it’s no wonder that welcome is on my mind. But this week has been all about the many ways that God welcomes us, and less about how we welcome others, because God is the originator of welcome, God invented it! And so today I’m wondering, how does God welcome us on Easter Sunday? And what are we being welcomed to? And before we get into that, we have to ask a more basic question: what is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus all about?

An even more common question you hear a lot this time of year is, what did Jesus have to die? But today we ask, why did Jesus have to rise? I mean, couldn’t the story have ended on Good Friday, with Jesus’ death? That was a pretty powerful day, right? And I bet that his death would have still founded a new religion, Christianity, even without the resurrection.

Not to mention the fact that it would be a simpler more believable story! I mean, for two thousand years we have had to defend this fantastical belief that some guy was dead and buried for three days and then came back to life! It’s a hard sell! So, why was it so important? Why did Jesus have to rise? For that answer, we have to go to the beginning. No not Genesis, but the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. Here at Bethlehem we have been reading through the Gospel of Matthew since just before Christmas.

So it makes sense that we would have to return to the beginning to make sense of the end. So, we have to go all the way back to  a character by the name of John the Baptist. He was that weird guy who wore camel hair overalls and ate off the land, which meant locusts and wild honey. He’d fit right in here in California! Anyway, his central message as he was preaching and gaining thousands of followers was simple, “change your hearts and lives!” Simple as that, “change your hearts and lives.”

Now, this message also made him a few enemies among the religious and political elite. So much so, that he was eventually executed for it. But before that happened, Jesus comes along and takes over his ministry. John already had thousands of followers, which allowed Jesus to hit the ground running. John was kind of like Jesus’ own Kickstarter account. So Jesus takes over, and, if you were Jesus you’d think he would have changed the message a bit, right? I mean, it got John killed.

But what does Jesus do, he starts preaching the same exact message, “Change your hearts and lives.” That was Jesus’ central message as well, and even more than his central message but the end goal of faith. This might gain me some heretical points but I really don’t think that Jesus intended us to have faith and go to church just so we could get to heaven. That’d be pretty self-centered wouldn’t it? And that doesn’t sound like Jesus at all.

Ok, stay with me, we’re almost there! So, how does that connect with the end of the Gospel where Jesus rises from the dead, you ask? Great question, I’m so glad you asked! If the end goal of this whole faith business, is to change our hearts and lives, what better way to demonstrate that, than rising from the dead! Does change get any bigger than that? Does change get any more dramatic than that? It’s no wonder that symbols like a caterpillar emerging as a butterfly, or eggs hatching baby chickens, have become synonymous with Easter. They are symbols of change, symbols of new life, symbols of transformation, symbols of that old central message of John the Baptist and Jesus, to change your hearts and lives.

And why is that so important for our faith? Because the world has lot of needs and the only way they are going to be met is if we, together, change our hearts and lives, change from our default positions of self-centeredness, always looking out for number one, which is really at the heart of most of this world’s problems, and instead, live out lives in such a manner that changes this world for the better. But I thought Jesus loved us just the way we are, pastor! Why would Jesus want us to change if Jesus already loves us? Well, that’s like starting a job at an entry level position and five years later when your boss asks you why your still in the same position, “Don’t you want to advance?” and you say, “Well this is what you hired me to do!” Well that’s true, but it wasn’t meant to be forever!

My friends, God does indeed love you, just the way you are, faults and all, imperfections and all. But God did not intend you to stay there. God welcomes you to be the best version of yourself that you can possibly be. God welcomes you to the new you. Every morning you wake up. And not so God will love you more. God could not love you more than God already does—but so that we, together, you and I, can change the world for the better—so that we can change the hearts and lives of the world, after our own have been changed. That same central message, exemplified by Christ at the empty tomb, and lived out by you and I, not for our sakes, but for the sake of the world, always for the sake of the world. That’s our calling. That’s Easter. Thanks be to God. Amen.

THE THREE DAYS - Sermons from Holy Week

Maundy Thursday

Welcome to the Table

Inspired by Matthew 26:17-30 

Welcome to the table my friends. Tonight we continue the theme of God’s welcome that we started on Palm Sunday and will end on Easter Sunday. This week we will get to see how God welcomes us in a variety of ways through Christ and the events of Holy Week and Easter. On this Maundy Thursday God welcomes us to the table. Now this might not seem like a big deal, we might think to ourselves, well of course we are welcome to the table, everyone is right? But if you’ve ever experienced what it’s like to not feel welcome somewhere, you know this is indeed a big deal.

Maybe you haven’t felt welcome at an in-laws house. Maybe you’ve walked into a room where no one looks like you. Maybe it’s the way someone talks, or behaves, or who they love, or are attracted to, maybe it’s the clothes someone wears, the language they use. There are so many reasons why someone might not be welcomed somewhere. So yes, this story that Matthew shares with us of Christ’s last supper with his closest followers is profoundly important.

This artwork of Da Vinci’s is probably the most recognizable image of the last supper or maybe of any artwork ever. It has always fascinated me. It quickly draws you in causes you to wonder what was going on in each of the characters minds and actions. He was able to capture so much in this one static image. But it’s the characters themselves that I’d like to focus in on, the twelve apostles. Some details about this motley crew that Jesus had put together really drive home just how welcome Jesus’ table really was, and is.

Let’s start with our author, Matthew. He was a tax collector. And just in case that fact doesn’t hit home, he was a Jewish tax collector. That means that he was collecting taxes from his own people that were being dominated by the Roman Empire, for the Roman Empire! I mean, to compare him to the IRS doesn’t even come close to the despicable nature of his existence to them! Not to mention the fact that most tax collectors in his day did so unjustly, taking an extra cut for themselves along the way. But let’s move on.

Many of the others were fishermen. Now you might think, “What’s pastor got against fishermen?” Well, nothing, but they were so ordinary! We are talking about a group of people that were going to assist in the founding of the largest religion the world has ever seen! And Jesus goes to fishermen to find his leadership for that effort? They had no formal education, they probably couldn’t even read or write, and it’s not like you had to be a good public speaker in order to be a fisherman! It really does sound like I have something against fishermen but really I’m just trying to point out the juxtaposition, no the absurdity of calling these guys to do the job that Jesus expected them to do. And yet, there they were, sitting at the table, maybe the most important table the world has ever seen.

And how can we forget Judas, the betrayer, the greedy, the backstabber, also sitting at the table. You could say that Judas didn’t betray him until after the last supper but they had lived and traveled with the guy for three years now, and there were plenty of clues along the way, they all knew the kind of character that lied within him. And speaking of character, Peter denied him three times while Jesus was on trial, and like Judas, Jesus knew the content of his character well beforehand. And what about Thomas, the doubter! Do we really think that everyone was surprised then he didn’t believe that Jesus was raised from the dead? Probably not, I’m sure there were a fair share of eye rolls in the room.

All this that I’m sharing with you this evening is to simply say that Jesus’ table was a welcome table. Jesus welcomes you no matter what you have done or what you will do, Jesus welcomes you no matter your education level or your occupation, Jesus welcomes you no matter what your skills are, Jesus welcomes you no matter how you treat or mistreat him in this world, Jesus welcomes you no matter how well you treat or mistreat God’s people in this world. Just look at who was at that first table my friends, no matter what, you are welcome to the table. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Good Friday

Welcome to the Dark

Inspired by Matthew 26:31-27:61

Welcome to the dark my friends. As a kid, like many kids I suppose, I was afraid of the dark. I also loved horror films, which is a bad combination. Though they kept me from sleeping, it didn’t stop me from watching classics like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or Chucky. I don’t know if these movies are what necessarily made me afraid of the dark but I was. I remember my dad tucking me into bed at night and as he would leave my room he would try to shut my door. 
We lived in a small house so our living room was in easy ear shot of my bedroom so he didn’t want to bother me with his old westerns that he would watch late at night. But a shut door meant darkness and that just wouldn’t do. So just before the door would latch I’d yell, “Don’t shut it all the way!” He’d say, “Ok, how’s this?” Barely a crack of light was showing. “More!” I’d say. And we’d continue this back and forth until it was open enough, which was never enough for me, but we’d both eventually give up. 
Unless, my closet door was open! Now, that was a whole different ball game. You see, in my closet, way up on the top shelf, was a bank, like a piggy bank, but it wasn’t a piggy, it was an ape, smiling while he held a banana. Now, in the daylight it may have been cute, but in the dark, it was the most menacing thing you’d ever seen. So, many a night, I would have to yell for my dad to come back into my room. I wasn’t getting out of bed! Are you kidding me? Who knows what would have gotten me if I had! 
So my dad would come back, ask me what’s wrong, even though I’m sure he already knew, and I’d ask him to turn the ape around so it was facing the wall and not me. Now, you’d think I’d just ask him to close the closet door right? But in my mind, that was lunacy because then I wouldn’t be able to see what was going on in my closet! Like I said, I was afraid of the dark.
However, as I have gotten older, I have recognized that not all darkness is bad. There are many dark things in our world that are actually quite good. The darkest night sky of a new moon, especially when you are away from any light pollution. The exhilarating darkness in the best hiding place during a game of hide and seek. Dark rain clouds during a drought. The many shades of darkness of people’s skin. All these and more are many examples of good darkness, even beautiful darkness. Maybe darkness isn’t good or bad, maybe it’s just a thing, just a part of our existence, and we make of it what we will. I would love to hear what your own relationship has been with the dark. And so, this week I have been thinking of Jesus’ relationship with the dark and I have come to the conclusion that Jesus welcomes us there too.
No matter the kind of darkness that we are experiencing, even there, Jesus somehow finds a way to make us feel welcome, in the dark. Many times we describe troubling events as times of darkness, so let’s just go with that for a minute. Whether it’s mourning the death of a loved one, or the struggles of parenthood, or addiction, or work stress, or whatever it may be, when we open the door and enter into those places of darkness, I truly believe that the first thing our spirit sees is Jesus, already there. With a look that simply says, “I’ve been waiting for you” and maybe a squeeze of your hand or a full-on bear hug that says, “This place is gonna be rough” because Jesus has already started to experience it with you.
Or maybe it’s another kind of darkness, the darkness of much needed solitude after a stressful time in your life, when quiet dimness is what you really need. Or maybe it’s a hiding place, the best hiding place, when you just need to escape, even if it’s just in your mind. No matter the kind of darkness that you enter into throughout your life, know that Christ is already there, waiting for you, preparing a comfortable place for you, to welcome you in the dark—to sit with you, wait with you, experience all that you experience there—because that’s how much God loves you. And also because, God knows that darkness, isn’t the whole story. But that story is for tomorrow night. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Vigil of Easter

Welcome to the Light

Welcome to the light, my friends. God continues to astonish us in the way that Jesus welcomes us, no matter our circumstances, no matter our faults, no matter what. And on this night, Jesus welcomes us into the light. But that can mean lots of different things to different people! If you’re on your death bed and someone says welcome to the light, well, let’s just say I hope you got all your affairs in order! And, not all light is good, is it? Like last night, Jesus has a knack for blurring the lines as we discovered that not all darkness is bad. We have the same kind of relationship with anything referred to as “light.” Our default position is to think that all light is good but Jesus had other ideas. So, let’s explore that for a minute. When might light not be such a good thing?
How about in an interrogation room? In movies and TV, they always portray those rooms with having a big white light above the person being interrogated. The idea being that whatever you are hiding will be found out. Or, sticking with that line of thinking, how about when one of your misdeeds gets brought out into the light, maybe someone calls you out on it, either publicly or privately? Or, how about police lights in a person’s rearview mirror, especially when that person is a person of color? Or, how about a beautiful sunny day beating down on a homeless person’s unprotected skin. Light, isn’t always everything it’s cracked up to be. Nor was it for Jesus’ enemies.
For three years Jesus had been shedding some serious light on societal and religious wrongs that had haunted God’s world since the days of the flood. But as that story goes, God promised to set God’s weapon of war and destruction, the bow, in the clouds, never to be used again. What’s a god to do? With hands tied behind the back like that. God couldn’t just start over again, though I’m sure God feels like it some days. But no, instead God appears as part of God’s own creation, in the glorious light of Jesus. A light that revealed where God was active in the world, as well as where God was most needed, also known as, those places where we have really messed things up. 
It’s an old story really. God has been in the business of shining a light on societal and religious wrongs, or human shortcomings, for quite some time. Tonight we heard just a few of the biblical stories when God had done just that. In the flood, God shone a light on humanity’s corruption, but in the end comes to accept us the way we were made, faults and all. In the crossing for the Red Sea, God shone a light on the mistreatment of God’s people by the Egyptian nation, saving them from Pharaoh’s army. 
In the story of the healing of Naaman, God shone a light on our inability to see and accept help from the unlikeliest of places. And in the story of Esther, we see God shine a light on a political power that was about to commit genocide. All these stories, and so many more from scripture, involve God shining a light so that we can see clearly what is going on around us, places where God is needed the most.
And God welcomes us into that work of the light of Christ. Though Christ’s work on the cross and in the empty tomb was final, the work is also ongoing. God never tires of shedding light on new ministry opportunities all around us. God never tires of shedding light on the needs in this world. God never tires of shedding a light on our path so we can see clearly the path which God is guiding us down. God welcomes us into this light of Christ. And as long as we are ok with that light being directed at us at times, the work we can get accomplished in Christ’s light is tremendous and life-producing for the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Welcome to the Red Carpet

Inspired by Matthew 21:1-17

Welcome to Holy Week my friends. This is the week of the church year that our Journey with Christ to the cross and the empty tomb intensifies. We have been reading stories from this last week of Jesus’ life for about a month now, but things are going to get really real, really fast for Jesus after today’s celebration of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. As a quick reminder or in case anyone doesn’t know the significance of this day, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey on this day and though that sounds pretty ordinary to our eyes, it was a bold statement in Jesus’ day. You see, riding into a city on a donkey was what royalty did in a parade on the way to their coronation.

And if you think Jesus wouldn’t be that bold think again, Matthew paints this as a well thought out and planned event by Jesus himself. He knew what he was doing. Why he did it is a whole other question. Was he just being snarky? Was this just another example of the bad mood he was in? Or was it something deeper? Was he intentionally trying to get the ball rolling on his inevitable execution, sort of a let’s just get this over with kind of thing? I mean, the charge hanging over his head while he hung on the cross was the claim that he was the king of the Jews, it was the smoking gun they were looking for. It’s really hard to say why Jesus chose to ride into Jerusalem that way, but he did, and that has left us with lots to ponder.

And what I’m pondering today is the concept of welcome. In fact, we will be pondering this all week. The sermon titles for the whole week are: Welcome to the Red Carpet, which is today’s; Welcome to the Table, for Maundy Thursday; Welcome to the Dark, for Good Friday; Welcome to the Light, for the Vigil of Easter; and Welcome to the New You, for Easter Sunday.

Full disclosure: I haven’t finished writing those sermons yet. So, the Holy Spirit might have a whole different plan in mind, so if you show up to our Holy Week services and this is not what I talk about, by all means, take it up with the Holy Spirit, she is the one in charge here! I think the reason that welcome is on my mind right now is because it’s been on a lot of our minds for quite some time. So much so in fact that we adopted a welcome statement that we are now learning how to live into. Maybe we can think of this as the Year of Welcome for Bethlehem.

However, for this week, rather than focusing solely on how we welcome or don’t welcome, I’d like to focus on God’s welcome, through Christ, as demonstrated during the events of Holy Week and Easter, beginning with today, Palm Sunday. So, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, in all his royalness, and the crowds greet him, welcome him, by laying their clothes on the ground in front of him, along with palm branches. So basically, they rolled out the red carpet for him. And here’s the surprising thing about this, he doesn’t correct them when they do that. Knowing Jesus the way we do, you’d expect him to take his usual ultra-humble road and say, “No, no, I’m but a humble servant, not royalty. Put away all this fanfare.” But he doesn’t say that! Remember, he’s the one that ordered that donkey in the first place.

Now, here’s what I find significant about all that. This is at the end of Jesus’ life, his last week on Earth, and depending on your beliefs about Jesus, it’s probably safe to assume that he knew this was his last week on Earth. And as such, he has had the gift of time to live into his role as the Messiah, the Christ, the chosen one, his majesty. And so, in this royal ride into Jerusalem, he owns all of that, boldly, right in the face of any Roman royalty and leadership there. Was it a risky move? Yes. They were fuming at the sight of him! And it’s what ultimately got him killed. So it begs the question again, why did he do it? Why risk his life that way? Was it really just to show up his enemies, the ones whom he knew were plotting to kill him? Was he really just trying to speed things along? Is that what was behind his red carpet entrance? And what’s so welcoming about that anyway?

So, let’s switch gears here for a minute. I took a class at CalLu last year for continuing education. It was a weeklong class and each day we had a different professor teach us on a different topic. And like most classes, it was made up of a variety of different personalities among us students. But this class proved to be a challenging one for the professors who taught it as well as for some of us students. To make a long story short, the class had more than its fair share of students that kept taking us down tangents, or who just monopolized the class’s time.

Teacher after teacher failed at keeping us on track. Then, we had a teacher who was somehow able to do just that. It was like watching a master at work in his craft as he kept us on the right path and gently but assertively kept those monopolizers at bay. Ironically, he was teaching leadership skills that day. And honestly, watching him lead in action was probably more useful than anything he said. Those of us who had been frustrated up to that point were all of a sudden relieved, at peace, and more focused than we had been all week.

Have you ever had an experience like that? Whether you are a leader or a follower, we all know the benefits of having a strong leader in your midst, of having someone who was just in charge that you trusted and felt safe with. My dad has played that kind of role in my life. When he was around you just knew everything was going to be ok, you knew he was in charge, and more important than that, you had confidence that he “knew” what he was doing. Now, in hindsight, especially after having been a parent for 22 years now, I can say with confidence that he did not always know what he was doing! But that’s beside the point, isn’t it? The real magic was in the confidence and trust and comfort that he was able to conjure within me when I was around him, especially when I had no idea what I was doing.

Jesus will welcome us in a variety of different ways as we will see this week, but on this day, Palm Sunday, Jesus welcomes us with Jesus’ royalty. Not to flaunt it in our faces, or to lord it over us, but to say, “I’ve got this. I know what I’m doing. I’m in control here.” How comforting is that? Jesus is like that ultimate parent who you always feel safe with, or that ultimate teacher who always is in control of the class. Jesus fills the role of one in charge whom you couldn’t have more confidence in! And that trust, and confidence, and comfort, welcomes us into Christ’s presence with an assuredness that we can have with no one else.

Jesus is royalty of a kind that you can trust, completely. And you know why else this was so important for Jesus to express? Because in the coming days, it will not look like he’s in control and it will not look like he knows what he’s doing. Jesus knew that he needed to be many different things to different people at different times in their life. And on this day, Jesus showed us that he can be that trustworthy servant-king when we need him to be. Thanks be to God. Amen.