The Feast

Inspired by Matthew 22:1-14

I warned you these tough parables were coming! Whew! This one’s a doozy isn’t it? Did Jesus wake up on the wrong side of the bed that day? Was he fighting a cold or something? Did he need to up his fiber intake? I don’t know but I’m sure many of you listened to this and thought, “Well that doesn’t sound like the Jesus I know!” Well it is! I didn’t make that up! It’s right out of Matthew’s Gospel! And though I joke about Jesus just being in a bad mood that day, I do think there is some truth to that as well. Let me explain.

Like last week, we skipped a chapter between Sunday readings. Last week we read from chapter 20 and today we read from chapter 22. And since scripture should never be read out of context, we have to ask what was in chapter 21! That chapter starts with Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey. Which means that, even though we are in the middle of Lent, the rest of our readings in Matthew between now and Easter will all occur during Jesus’ last week on earth, they’ll all occur during the events of Holy Week.

So, for Jesus, his end is now in sight—tensions are tight, stress levels are high, emotions are running deep. And where does Jesus go as he’s riding on his donkey like royalty into Jerusalem with the crowds shouting “Praise God!” and waving palm branches in the air? He rides straight to the temple! And what does he do there? He throws out the money changers! He knocks over their tables and money and animals that they were selling! He throws a tantrum! And before he leaves he ends with some name-calling by calling them a bunch of crooks! Talk about waking up on the wrong side of bed!

But the chapter doesn’t end there, nor does his bad mood. Early Monday morning Jesus wakes up hungry, wants some breakfast, so he goes out to pick some figs off a tree only the tree didn’t have any. What does he do? He curses it! No, he doesn’t curse at it. He places a curse on it so that it’ll never bear fruit again! The disciples were probably like, “Oh, so it’s gonna be one of those kinds of days is it? Ok! Everybody stay out of Jesus way then shall we?”

Then Jesus returns to the temple and the chief priests and elders start in on him by questioning his authority. His disciples were probably thinking, well this is going to end well, not in the mood that he’s been in! So Jesus answers their question with a question and they can’t answer his question so he says, “Well, then I’m not going to answer yours!” I mean, the sass coming out of Jesus that day is off the charts!

Then Jesus starts telling them parables that I’m sure no one was asking for but no one was going to dare say anything. He tells a parable about a disobedient son, then he tells one about violent murderous farmers! I kid you not, you can’t make this stuff up! Then we finally get to the parable that we have before us today, the parable of the wedding party. So, if you were one of those thinking, that doesn’t sound like the Jesus I know, now you know, there was good reason for that.

So, to recap, a few things to keep in mind as we delve into these Holy Week readings between now and Easter: one, Jesus was in a bad mood and he was justified for being in one; two, his justification comes from the fact that this is the last week of his life. Think of Holy Week as Jesus’ last week on death row; and three, as such, tensions, emotions, stress, are at an all-time high for Jesus. But maybe even more important than all of those things, this week’s reading has one more thing to keep in mind.

And it’s who Jesus is talking to. He’s not on a mountainside talking to his thousands of followers, he’s in the temple, and he’s talking to the Jewish leadership. The Jewish leadership that will, in just a few short days, be handing him over to be executed. That’s who Jesus is talking to in this hard-hitting, cutthroat parable. Knowing who he was talking to is not insignificant! Jesus was human, and we humans talk to different people in different ways, right? We all do it, and so did Jesus. And to be frank, in the spirit of Jesus’ mood, to assume that every word out of Jesus’ mouth is directed at us, is a bit on the self-centered side.

However, by no means am I saying we should dismiss this parable. There’s a lot of good stuff to be harvested from it. But I’m going to give you what is probably a different way for you to look at it than you have in the past. One of our hang-ups with this parable is that it paints God in a very different light than we are used to. In this story, the ruler is vengeful, violent, and easily insulted. But, who said the ruler in this story is God? Matthew didn’t say that! Jesus didn’t say that! That’s an assumption that readers of this story have made but I’m not convinced that this is the wisest interpretation. And the big red flag here is the fact that the ruler doesn’t behave like the God we have come to know. So, here’s an alternative for those of you who struggle with this parable like I do. What if, God is in this story, but not as the ruler?

What if God is the feast at the wedding party? And everything that is going on around that feast is all the chaos that we humans bring—the fighting that we do, the killing that we do, the carelessness, the apathy, the exclusiveness, that we bring around the feast. Think about it, God is there for us to feast with and to feast on, whenever we want. No one makes themselves more accessible than God does right? What gets in the way is all the foolish chaos that we bring around God, that not only gets in our way, but worse than that, gets in the way of others on their way to the feast that we know as God. It’s bad enough when we get in our own way, but even worse when our actions or inaction, get in other people’s way of experiencing the lavish feast, the amazing party, the celebration, that is God.

And we get in people’s way all the time, don’t we? And we do that in both overt and subtle ways. By the way we behave sometimes, the things we say without thinking, the opportunities to be kind that we allow to pass without acting on them. Some churches do this in very direct ways like making it clear that certain groups of people are not fully welcome in their churches. But I think the real threat, is in the more subtle ways that we get in people’s way of the feast.

Maybe it’s in the assumptions that we make about people based on their appearance and the questions that we ask them based on those assumptions. Maybe it’s in our inability to recognize that people from different cultures behave differently but we assume they’re being inappropriate when they really aren’t. I see that across generations as well. One generation will see the behavior or language of another generation and deem it as inappropriate or even insulting but it’s really not, not for their generation anyway. But the judgment that ensues creates barriers as well as an unwelcome atmosphere.

I won’t get into specifics of the different ways that we do this, I’ll let you come up with your own examples. The bottom line here is, God is a feast available to anyone who wants it, those that we would deem as good and those who we would judge as bad. Our job is not to differentiate between the two. Our job is to get out of the way, or better yet, clear the way, clear the way for all to get to the feast, to the party, to the celebration, that is our God. Amen.


Waiting with...

Inspired by Matthew 20:1-16

This is by far one of my favorite parables of Jesus’. I love it because it is so counter-cultural, it’s so against the grain, and it just chaps people’s hides! And if you think about it, it’s also a very anti-American, anti-capitalism, anti-Social Darwinism story. You won’t find any “survival of the fittest” kind of thinking coming from Jesus. Ideas like, “work hard enough and you can achieve anything” or “the world is your oyster,” you won’t hear those from Jesus. No, instead you get this parable of the vineyard workers.

Which, depending on your perspective, could be an amazing story! But for many of us, dare I say, for most of us, it’s easy to walk away from this story a bit confused, at best, if not altogether angry. Most of us are raised with a very particular idea of fairness, and this story that Jesus tells flies in the face of that principle that we hold so dear.

That’s the direction that I usually go with in this text but I was caught off guard when I saw something a little different in the story this time. So let’s first talk about waiting for a minute. Waiting sounds more like an Advent theme but I think it’s just as applicable to Lent too, especially because Lent is about twice as long as Advent, plus, you normally don’t give anything up for Advent. Although, that might be an interesting idea for us to do sometime. When we think of waiting, we often think of it negatively but there are positive types of waiting as well as negative ones.

Some positive examples might be: waiting for the birth of a child; waiting in line for a concert, waiting for Christmas morning, and though any kind of waiting has challenges, these are usually thought of in a positive light. And then there are not so pleasant types of waiting: waiting to get pregnant, after years of trying; waiting for the results of a biopsy; waiting to be granted citizenship before you’re deported; waiting in line at the unemployment or welfare office; or waiting for a loved one to take their last breath.

We’ve all had to experience the pleasant and not so pleasant kinds of waiting. There’s always something we have to wait for isn’t there? The waiting story that first came to my mind to share with you, was waiting to become a pastor. As many of you know I felt the call to become a pastor in my senior year of high school but it didn’t become a reality until I was 38 years old! It was a long wait that was filled with failed attempts at school, figuring out how we would pay for it, figuring out how we would support a family at the same time, battling thoughts like, “If it’s taking this long then maybe it wasn’t meant to be.” From that first sense of call in high school, twenty years of waiting. How did I get through it? More on that in a minute. Let’s turn to our story now and I’ll explain why I’m talking about waiting.

Matthew shares this parable of vineyard workers with us in chapter twenty of his gospel. Last week we read from chapter eighteen, so that means we skipped chapter nineteen, but not because it’s less important, far from. As I’ve mentioned before, our biblical authors shared these stories in a very particular sequence hoping that you’d connect the dots between them all. So, what was in chapter nineteen? That chapter is mostly about sacrifice, but I’m not talking about the cross. Jesus was talking about giving up things on behalf of others, giving up things for the betterment of those around us. That’s the kind of sacrifice that Jesus was talking about in that chapter. So with that in mind, Matthew then shares this parable of the vineyard workers.

The landowner hires workers at different times of the day, some at sunrise, the typical start of a workday in that culture, sun up to sun down, and others as late as five o’clock, with only an hour left in the workday. Then Jesus lays on them one of his typical plot twists, by stating that the landowner paid all of those that were hired to work the vineyard, no matter the time, the same amount. They all got a full day’s wage. Naturally, the ones that got hired at sunrise were furious, even though when they got hired, the amount seemed fine, but then when they compared it to what the last hired workers received, then all of a sudden it was unfair. Jesus then ends the parable with the landowner basically saying, “As the landowner, I can do whatever I want with my money. Take your pay and get outta here!”

An interesting exercise when interpreting a parable is putting yourself in the shoes of the different characters, at different points in their story. What must it have been like to be the landowner while hiring the workers, and what must it have been like to be paying the workers at the end of the story? What must it have been like to be the manager of all these workers and watching this all unfold? What must it have been like to get hired first and know that you were going to get a full day’s wage?

But the shoes I want you to put on for the purposes of this sermon, are the ones who were hired last, but not them at the end of the story when they were getting paid, them at the beginning of the story, when they were waiting, waiting all day not knowing if any work was going to come their way. Just waiting, while they watched others get what they had dreamed about the night before.

When asked by the landowner why they were not working, they answered, “Because nobody has hired us.” They weren’t unemployed because they were lazy, or because they didn’t want to work, or because they were content living off of others generosity. They were unemployed simply because they had not been given an opportunity to work. Meanwhile, they had been waiting all day. So imagine, getting there with everyone else just before dawn with high hopes of getting work. If they could get a full day’s work that could feed their family for a while, or help pay rent, or buy clothes. They stood with everyone else, watching the sunrise, and with that sunrise were all their hopes and dreams for an honest day’s work and pay.

A landowner shows up and hires a bunch of them, but not you. So you wait. Nine o’clock rolls around and another landowner shows up, hires a bunch of workers, but not you. So you wait. It’s still early, it’s ok. At noon the same thing happens. Your shoulders begin to droop. At three o’clock the same thing happens. You hang your head in despair. It’s time to give up. It’s time to go home but you hesitate because now you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to go home and explain your empty pockets, let alone where dinner is going to come from—and so you wait some more.

Those are the shoes that I’d like you to try on today—the shoes of one waiting, waiting for grace to come your way, on the verge of giving up. Why? Because there are a lot of people waiting in this world, waiting for grace to come their way even though the chances of that happening are slim to none. Maybe you’ve been there. What is your story of waiting? What got you through it? I’ll tell you what got me through mine, even though it wasn’t life threatening, it was still quite a challenge.

What got me through it were those around me, supporting me, encouraging me, lifting me, crying with me, never giving up on me or my dream, waiting with me. People like my wife, my children, my pastors, my fellow church members, my friends. In all those twenty years of waiting, no one ever told me I was a fool for waiting, no one ever told me it was time to give up, instead, they kept the dream alive in me even when I could not, some even went so far as to financially support us, my wife sacrificed to be our sole provider so I could attend school full-time.

So my question for you this week is, how are we called to wait with those who are waiting? What is our role in their waiting? But, first of all, who is in this state of waiting in our world? Who are those that are waiting for grace to show up? Certainly the hungry and poor of our world are in this state of waiting. Those who are mourning the death of a loved one and wondering, “How long O God?”

I also can’t help but think of our Muslim siblings throughout the world right now after the mass shooting at two mosques in New Zealand, who continue to wait for a world where they are welcome. Can we even put our feet in their shoes for a second? Can we even imagine being targeted and killed around the world just for being Lutheran? Also on my mind are our LGBTQ siblings in the United Methodist Church, which recently dug it’s heals in to not allow LGBTQ people to become pastors, or for LGBTQ people to be married in their denomination. They continue to wait for grace.

I’m sure you can think of others who you know are waiting for grace to arrive. Could that grace be you in some way, in some form? And if so, what might that look like? How can you wait with those who are waiting? The answer to that might be as simple as answering, “How have people waited with you when you were waiting?” How can we support those who are waiting for grace to come into their lives, how can we encourage them, how can we help them feel safe in the state that they are currently in?

And to be clear, I’m not necessarily talking about solving their problems, there will be other opportunities for us to talk about that. Rather, how can we be present in their waiting? We are the recipients of a God who walks with us through thick and thin, no matter where we go or how we got there. Shouldn’t we then be a people who walk with others, through thick or thin, no matter where they go or how they got there or how different they are from us?

And if the answer is yes, might that require a sacrifice of some kind on our part? It may be a simple sacrifice like a sacrifice of our time or maybe even of our money. But it may be a more complex sacrifice—like a sacrifice of our emotions, our feelings, a sacrifice of our heart. Or, it may be a sacrifice of a certain way of thinking or believing. For instance, it may require you to sacrifice what you believe about Muslims in order to answer the call to wait with them in their suffering.

Or, you may have to sacrifice what you’ve always believed about certain Bible passages in order to wait and walk with your LGBTQ siblings. Or how about our feelings about drug addicts, or mental health patients, or, I’ll let you fill in the blank. More often than not, to answer the call to walk and wait with those who are waiting for grace, requires a sacrifice of some kind on our part, and spoiler alert, it’s probably not going to seem fair! Thankfully, God isn’t fair with us. Instead, God has sacrificed all that God is, in order to walk with us, as we wait. Amen.


Listen From Your Heart

Inspired by Matthew 18:15-35

As I mentioned at our Ash Wednesday service, Lent is all about asking ourselves, “How are we doing as representatives of Christ, as ambassadors of Christ, as symbols of Christ here on earth?” Which is why these parables that we will be reading during Lent are so hard-hitting, so rough around the edges, even brutal at times. Jesus took his work seriously, and expects us to as well.

And that’s what Lent is all about, Jesus reminding us what being a disciple, what being a follower of his, is supposed to look like, and then asking us to judge ourselves on how we match up to Jesus’ expectations. That sounds like a blast doesn’t it?! That’s why Lent is so serious, that’s where the silence comes from, the fasting, the giving up of chocolate or beer, the giving up saying the word that shall not be mentioned, those are all outward signs and reminders of the serious work that is going on within all of us during this season.

Today, we are challenged with the work of reconciliation. How do we reconcile with one another when we have wronged each other? How do we make things right again? That’s what Jesus is urging us to consider with this reading from Matthew. He goes on to share a parable about the consequences of not forgiving, which sounds a bit harsh but I think it’s supposed to because, again, Jesus ain’t playing here, he takes this very seriously! Because he knows better than anyone, how badly this world needs reconciliation. However, I’m more interested at the beginning of our reading than how it ends—because if we can figure that out, we don’t have to worry about the consequences of not forgiving! So, that’s what I’d like to potentially help you with today.

Jesus starts out by sharing this often used lesson about what to do when someone sins against you. It’s very simple really, Jesus gives us a three-step process, go to them directly, and if that doesn’t work bring a neutral party along to mediate, and if that doesn’t work, report them to the church and then you can basically wash your hands of them because you had done all you could do to reconcile with them.

Now, I thought this was going to be an easy sermon to write because this is a passage that I refer to constantly in my work as a pastor. But wouldn’t you know, every time I think a sermon is going to be easy, God says, “Mmmmmmm, not so fast mister!” Here I was thinking I was going to be able to talk about how terrible we are at following these simple three steps to reconciliation that Jesus has laid out for us! Only to have something else catch my eye that hadn’t before and so I was very intrigued by that.

And what caught my eye is a word that appears four times in just the first three verses of this passage: listen! It seems, for Jesus, the ability to reconcile with one another, is dependent on our ability to listen to one another. Now, we have a tendency when we read these simple steps to reconciliation, to automatically put ourselves in the shoes of the one who is wronged. I’d actually like us to do the opposite today.

I want you to put yourselves in the shoes of the one who has wronged someone else, the one who has sinned, as Jesus put it. And so, as the perpetrators of said sin, whatever it may be, your job is simple, you only have one step, and that one step is to listen. Jesus starts by saying, “If someone sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won them over.” It’s when we don’t listen that things begin to get hairy.

But what do we mean by “listen.” Surely listening is more than hearing right? I don’t think I need to explain the difference between hearing and listening. But I also think it’s more than just giving someone your undivided attention. How do we listen is what we need to figure out. Or more specifically, what do we listen with? I’m proposing that the kind of listening that Jesus is talking about here is not just listening with your ears but listening with your heart.

And that’s not easy to do which is why we have not only so many communication problems but also so many reconciliation problems as well. And why is it so difficult to listen with our hearts? Because we know that’s where Jesus resides. And if we start listening from that place, well, we all know how Jesus is! When we feel attacked we’d just as soon not get Jesus involved right, because he’s gonna bring up things like compassion and forgiveness and empathy and all that garbage! No, when we go into defensive mode, we dig our heels in deep don’t we!

So, what do we do? What do we do when someone comes to us and says that we’ve hurt them, especially when we don’t think we have or we were just unaware? Well, step one is, and this is according to Jesus not me, step one is shut up. Why? Because Jesus knows you can’t listen and talk at the same time! You can’t listen and defend yourself at the same time. You can’t listen and make your case at the same time. No, your job is simply to listen. Because when someone tells you that you have hurt them, there is nothing you can say anyway that can erase that feeling from the past. It has already happened. The only question for you now is, what to do about it. And Jesus’ answer, is to listen. As hard as that may be, as choking as your pride is to swallow, Jesus says, listen, and listen from your heart.

So what does listening from your heart look like? Here’s a few things to keep in mind as you practice this divine art:

Listening costs you very little but the rewards are extraordinary. That alone may be all you need to remember in order to shut up and listen. But maybe not, so I’ll continue.
Practice listening from their frame of reference. Put yourself in their shoes and listen from their perspective. A helpful question here is, “If they did this to me, how would I respond?”

Listening to what is not being said is just as important to what is being said. Listen to what is behind their words. And this may mean recognizing that this may not be the first time you’ve hurt them, it’s just the first time they’ve mentioned it. So before you accuse them of overreacting, keep that one in mind. But that won’t be a problem because you can’t accuse and listen at the same time can you?

Listen to their feelings and not just their words. Often times we listen as if we’re robots that are consuming factual information that will then be stored for future processing. But the reality is they are communicating feelings as well, that are just as important as the facts they are sharing, maybe even more so.

Learning how to listen to yourself better will help you listen to others better. If you’re not in touch with your own feelings, with your own needs, with your own hurts, how could you possibly be able to listen to someone else’s?

Here’s the last one but I think it may be the most important. The best listeners don’t need to be right—which also makes this the toughest one! Because who doesn’t like to be right?! I love to be right! Ask my family! But to be a good listener, not only is it not necessary to be right, it actually hurts the process. And so, good listening requires that we suspend judgment, and just listen.

Now! With Jesus’ urging to listen, he then tells that parable of the unforgiving servant, who we should probably start calling, the un-listening servant. And he tells that parable to basically say, don’t be like this guy! And in order to do that, you’re going to have to be a listening servant. According to Jesus, if you want reconciliation, you’re gonna have to brush up on your listening skills, and learn how to listen with your heart. Thankfully, we have a God who always listens to us, without condemnation, without pride getting in the way, without the need to be right. For God always listens from the heart. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Living, Breathing, Symbols of Christ: An Ash Wednesday Sermon

Inspired by Matthew 18:1-9

As most of you know, I don’t wear my clergy collar every day. I usually only wear it on a day when there is a worship service scheduled. So I don’t drive with it on very much. And that has me a little worried. I think I’m a pretty patient driver, at least compared to those I see on the road around me. I just think there are plenty of other things to get stressed over than driving. I do lose my temper every once in a while but I have never done that while wearing my clergy collar…yet. That’s what has me worried.

I drive in it so rarely, that I just know, one of these days, I’m going to lose my temper, and forget that I’m in my collar! I mean, it’s bound to happen! And why does that worry me so? Well, because my collar symbolizes something very special to me, it is an office that I am honored to hold, and I also want to represent the church, both Christianity as a whole, as well as Bethlehem, in the best way possible. So, flipping somebody off, or yelling some colorful language, might not be the best way to do that. Not that your pastor would ever do such a thing!

Symbols of all kinds, have been important for the world’s religions for ages. For that matter, symbols have been important to the world’s first civilizations since humans began using languages! From paintings in caves and hieroglyphics, to emojis and stop signs, symbols can communicate so much with so little. And they have so many uses! They can guide you, warn you, make you laugh, make you cry, keep you from danger, or point you to safety.

Here’s one example from our nation’s history. Due to the rapid population growth in the United States during the 19th century, in turn due to the Industrial Revolution, poverty soared to unprecedented levels. And with that, the number of migrant workers soared as well. By the time of the Great Depression, it is estimated that four million adults had to leave home to find food, shelter, and work. And while doing so, safety was of the utmost importance, especially for teens and women.

These migrant workers began to be called hobos around the turn of the last century, as seen here in this depiction of a California hobo by Albert S. Evans. I can’t even imagine the struggles they must have endured. And so they began to look out for each other, to keep each other safe, and to help each other out in finding food, shelter, work and other needs. One of the ways they did this was by using symbols. They would put symbols on houses and buildings to communicate with other hobos.

For instance: three slanted lines meant that this house was not a safe place; two interlocking circles meant that this homeowner will call the police on you; a house with an x on it meant that this house has been taken advantage of by another hobo and is no longer trusting of hobos; two shovels signified work was available, and my favorite was the cross. A cross signified that food was available if you were willing to listen to a sermon!

In our baptisms, we became symbols. And I don’t just mean the sign of the cross that was placed on our foreheads. I mean that we became, living, breathing symbols of Christ. And this season of Lent, looks us dead in the eye and asks, how are you doing with that? How are we doing as symbols of Christ? When people see us, what do they see? What do they experience? Like those hobo symbols, are we symbols of safety, nourishment, and shelter? What kinds of symbols are we to a world with so many needs? In our story that I read tonight, the disciples ask, “Who is the greatest in the reign of heaven?” And though Jesus’ answer is a bit long, and a bit morbid, he’s basically saying, that is the wrong question!

The real question is, how well are you symbolizing Christ and Christ’s teachings? Are you symbolizing things that make it easy for people to see Jesus? Or are you symbolizing things that make difficult or impossible to see Jesus? This Lent will be all about answering the question, “How are we doing as symbols of Christ?” Thankfully, no matter how bad we fail at that job, we’ll never get fired! Even though you will be able to wash off that ashen cross from your foreheads after you leave here, God’s symbol of unconditional love upon you cannot be. It is for you, and it is forever, to be shared with others by you, as the living, breathing, symbols of Christ that you are. Welcome to Lent. Amen.

Dying to Rise, Rising to Die

Inspired by Matthew 16:21-17:8

Today marks the end of the Epiphany season, which started as soon as the twelve days of Christmas were over on January 6th. On that day we celebrated the visit of the Magi to Jesus and his parents. That visit was significant for many reasons and one of those was the fact that these magi were Gentiles, and so the church has remembered that day as the revealing of Jesus to the whole world, not just for followers of Abraham, our Jewish siblings, but for everyone; which is why it’s called epiphany!

And since January 6th, we have read story after story of how that revealing unfolded, with Jesus teaching and preaching and healing and feeding. And today, it’s only fitting that we come to the climactic end of this revealing with the story of the Transfiguration, the reveal to end all reveals! Well, until we get to the cross anyway.

And speaking of the cross, it’s no accident that we celebrate the Transfiguration on the same Sunday every year, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, when we begin our journey to the cross once again. Matthew points to this connection between the cross and the Transfiguration in our reading for today when he shares Jesus words just before they once again go up a mountain. This is the first of three times that Jesus predicts his own death in this Gospel.

Peter scolds Jesus for even saying such a thing and they have that now memorable exchange when Jesus tells Peter to get behind him and calls him Satan! Peter may have been wrong but it’s hard to blame him for reacting the way he did. For some time now he has been witness to all of Jesus’ amazing work so far. He has seen firsthand the change that Jesus has made in people’s lives. And now Jesus is willing to throw that all away and succumb to death, at the hands of some corrupt religious leaders no less?

It was unthinkable to Peter but that wasn’t the most surprising thing that came out of Jesus' mouth that day! He then goes on to say, that all who want to follow him, must say no to themselves and take up their own crosses! Come again Jesus? I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that. It sounded like you said that we have to die too! Ha! But that couldn’t have been what you said right? Jesus just stares back with his compassionate eyes that say it all—because that’s exactly what he said. Seems a bit counter-productive doesn’t it? Starting a movement only to ask your followers to die! What kind of love is that Jesus? Well, it’s a love for the world but more on that in a minute. Hold that thought.

Jesus then says something not so much surprising as it is weird, weird enough to get misinterpreted quite often. He says, some of you standing here won’t die before I come in my kingdom. Now, many people have interpreted that to mean when Jesus returns at the second coming. But he says some standing there will actually get to see it! So what gives? Well, like I said last week, these Biblical authors put these stories in a particular order for a reason. And what story comes immediately after Jesus says that? The Transfiguration! Jesus brings a few of his closest followers up a mountain, just Peter, James, and John again. They are like his inner circle, the core of his core followers. Jesus takes them up there and is transformed into almost pure light. Jesus is revealed to them in all his glory, and Moses and Elijah appear with him.

And what does Peter want to do? He wants to build shrines for them, one for each, Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. And I have a theory as to why he wants to do that. He’s trying to avoid death, and I don’t mean his own necessarily. Stay with me here. Remember, just before this, Jesus predicted his own death, and Peter wasn’t having it! Then Jesus told them that they’d have to die too. And I’m sure Peter was just as thrilled about that idea too! Then they find themselves at the top of a mountain with Jesus standing there with Moses and Elijah, shining like a star! And Peter, who wants to put all that death talk as far from him as possible, sees this opportunity and thinks, let’s just stay right here. Jesus has done a lot of great work already, surely that was enough. Let’s just stay right here and forget about all that death stuff.

And then, God interrupts him! Did you notice that? Just starts talking right over Peter! God says, this is my son! Whom I dearly love! Listen to him! In other words, you’re missing the whole point here Peter! Whoooosh! Went right over his head! Can you just put your religion away for a second Peter and listen for goodness sakes! But again, you can’t blame Peter! It’d gone right over our heads too. There’s no way we would have really understood everything that was going on, especially in the moment.

Thankfully, we have our Gospel writers who had some time to think about all of these things and kind of nudge us toward connecting those dots. So let’s do that now. Matthew was trying to get us to see this connection between death and the Transfiguration, and also to take that next step and apply it to our own spiritual journeys with Christ. So what might that look like?

If there was one thing that we should be known for in the world, other than love, because of course, love right? But other than love, we should be known as those death and resurrection people, those people that are always dying to rise, and rising to die, those people that aren’t afraid to let things die so that new things can rise, those people that are always willing to let their own needs die before the needs of others, those people who rarely say no when an opportunity to serve comes there way no matter how difficult, those people who are always being transformed into something new, those people who never cease to allow God to transfigure them into the body of Christ that they were born to be, those people that look death in the eye and say do your worst, because by our side is the sun, shining brighter than the darkest of deaths, and above our heads is a voice, speaking tender words that are louder than the loudest of deaths!

And what kind of death are we talking about here? Not physical. Every other kind of death but not physical. Let me give you a couple examples. In the past few years, you’ve had to make some difficult decisions here at Bethlehem. At one point, many years ago, you were worshipping over 300 each week. And like many churches across the nation, that number is considerably smaller. And because of that, we have had to realize that we just can’t do all the things that you used to be able to do. And so, we’ve had to allow ourselves to be transformed, transfigured, changed, and that means allowing death to have its way with us—taking the form of saying goodbye to worship services, staff positions, programs, etc. But let’s not confuse death with failure. What Jesus is talking about here is being open to death so that new life can come. That’s not failure my friends. That’s called faith.

Here’s another example, our new welcome statement. In order for that to happen, you have had to allow death to come to old ways of thinking, to old ways of interpreting scripture, to old ways of seeing human beings, etc. in order for something new to be born. And that has been in the works here at Bethlehem for many years, long before me, long before you hired your first gay staff person, long before 2009 when our denomination began allowing homosexuals to become clergy, who knows how long God has been working on Bethlehem towards our beautiful new welcome statement, point is, if you were able to chart that out it would look like a graveyard.

Because every time you got closer to becoming a bold welcoming community something had to die. And in each and every one of our deaths, we are changed, we are transformed, we are transfigured into something new, into something that shines like the sun for a hurting world that is seeking new life. Unfortunately, not everyone who endures those deaths gets to see the fruit of new life that comes from them. Think of all the people from your past who are no longer with us, some have died, some have moved, some have left. And so, for them, all they got to experience was the death part of this process. The moral of that story is, just hold tight. Death is only half the story.

Is it easy? Gosh no! Does it hurt sometimes! Nobody knows that better than a congregation that has gone through a church split like you have. Transfiguration can sting. Change can be painful. I like to call them growing pains. Even when we are having to be changed because of things like decreased attendance or a decreasing budget, I still call those growing pains because we don’t know what is on the other side of those deaths but our faith tells us, this story of the Transfiguration tells us, that death never, ever, gets the last word.

I think Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James, and John to give them comfort. Amid all that death talk at the bottom of the mountain, Jesus knew that they needed hope, that they needed to see a future that they couldn’t even imagine at the bottom of that mountain, that there was something at work here beyond their wildest imaginations. And so, Jesus is transfigured for us too, to give us hope as we are called to death, to transformation, to change, to new life. Thanks be to God. Amen.