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.


Paying it Downward

Inspired by Matthew 25:31-46

Picture it, the year is nineteen hundred and ninety-one. I’m a senior in high school, I’m having the time of my life, I’ve got my whole future ahead of me, everything’s coming up roses…and then my girlfriend dumps me. I’m devastated, just beside myself. I went from having to wear shades because my future was so bright, to wearing mourning clothes in a flat second! She was my first serious relationship and in the words of the Princess Bride, I thought, “I will never love again.” Teenage love, so dramatic, right? Thankfully, that didn’t turn out to be the case.

However, on that day it sure felt like it! Believe it or not, the pain of that break up is not what left a lasting impression on me. Later that day I was at home and a close family member noticed I had been crying and asked what was wrong. After I explained, the response was a shrug of the shoulders and, “There’ll be other girls”, as they walked away. Not only did that seem like the coldest thing someone could have possibly said, I felt humiliated, nullified, and altogether judged for how I was feeling.

And oddly enough, I remember thinking, if I ever have a child, that goes through a breakup, I will not make them feel this way, I will make sure I affirm what they are going through, because it will be very real for them, even if it’s not for me. Have you ever had an experience like that? Have you ever been treated a certain way and thought, I am never going to make someone feel the way I am feeling right now! I have a feeling we all could share a story like that. I call them pay it downward moments.

You’ve heard of pay it forward, right? When, instead of paying someone back for something nice they did for you, you pass that gift on to someone else? Well, pay it downward is when you take something bad someone has done or said to you and you just bury it down in the ground and let it die with you. You don’t pay it back to the person who hurt you, you don’t spread to someone else, you just lay it down, to die. Period.

Now, just to keep us grounded, we could also, I’m sure, share stories of us doing the exact opposite, right? Those times when we are wronged and so we wrong someone else, and we somehow justify it because of that past wrong that was done to us. Psychologists sometimes call this transference. Another phrase that describes it, that you may have heard is, “hurt people hurt people.” Instead of paying a wrong downward, and just letting it die a quick death, we sometimes have a tendency to transfer those feelings onto someone else and end up hurting them. Sometimes we do that to the ones we love the most but that’s for another sermon.

A lite version of this is when you hear someone say something like, “Well, back in my day I had to walk five miles to school, uphill both ways, why do kids need a ride these days!” I joke, but it’s the same concept. That person feels they were wronged at some time in their life and so, instead of paying it downward, they choose to perpetuate the wrong, even a minor wrong like transportation to school.

Ok, so why all this talk about paying it downward, and past wrongs, and judgment? Well, Jesus has been talking a lot about judgment lately. As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, Jesus has been in a bad mood lately. Well, in our Bible story readings anyway, I think Jesus has gotten over it by now. But we have been reading stories from the last week of Jesus life for a few weeks now and these have been some tough passages.

Two weeks ago Jesus told a story about a ruler who was throwing people into the farthest darkness. Last week Jesus told a story about a door shutting on bridesmaids that just wanted to join the wedding party. And today we have Jesus telling a story about everlasting fire, fallen angels, eternal punishment, and judgment! Either Jesus needs to refill his prescription of chill pills or, our author Matthew is expecting us to connect some dots here and draw our own conclusions. So let’s see if we can do that.

Jesus tells this story about the promised one, coming with all these angels, ready to cast judgment on the world, there’s a bit about sheep and goats but that’s not really important to the story. The bottom line here is the judgment that ensues, and that judgment is based on how we’ve treated Jesus in this life—how we have cared for Jesus or, wronged Jesus. The point that Jesus was trying to drive home was that whatever we do to people in this life, we are simultaneously doing to Jesus, good or bad, right or wrong. And that also means that, and this is a bit of a side note, that Jesus’ return, the return that he spoke about at the beginning of our reading, has already started. Because we meet Jesus in every single need that this world throws at us. But back to our story, where were we, ah yes, Jesus is coming to judge us.

Now, before I share with you how I imagine this judgment taking place, let me be clear, I take it very seriously, though maybe for different reasons than most people. I take it seriously when Jesus says when you didn’t do it for the least of these, you didn’t do it to me. That causes me to think twice when I want to pay someone back for the wrong they’ve done me, or when someone needs my help and all I want to do is go home and watch the game, or when I’m short with a loved one because I’ve had a bad day that they know nothing about. And the thought of reviewing all that with Jesus, not a happy thought let me tell you. And so, we can use that to motivate us to be the best baptized children of God that we can possibly be.

And I love the method that Jesus uses here to teach this to us in this story. Jesus basically gives us the ghost of Christmas future scene from Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol! It’s like the ghost gave us all a vision of a possible future! What I love about this is that since we are in the now, and not in the future, it’s still in story form, it’s a parable, not reality. So, like Ebenezer Scrooge, we can wake up and either go about our business as usual, or we can do all we can with the time we have left, to make a lasting positive impact on our world the way God expects us to.

And though Jesus seems to be speaking of the end of the world here, time really has no meaning for Jesus. And it’s the present that’s important for Jesus anyway. In this story, I hear Jesus saying, don’t worry so much about the future, I need you to focus on the present. So, when I say I take this story seriously, I mean it. Jesus was not joking here.

Now, let’s figure this judgment stuff out. I mentioned earlier that Matthew was hoping we’d connect some dots here. Those dots lead us to Holy Week. This is Jesus last teaching before he’s handed over and arrested. The next verses after this passage are literally about the plot to have him killed while Jesus and his followers are on their way to share their last supper together. And here’s the key, Jesus then endures all that he had just taught them about in this last story.

Jesus was hungry and thirsty, but instead, he was beaten and given vinegar to drink. Jesus was a stranger to them and yet was “welcomed” with shouts of “Crucify him!” Jesus left clothed only to be stripped naked and humiliated. Jesus was not visited but instead was abandoned and denied by his closest followers. This is the one, the one who endured all of this wrong against him, all of this judgment against him, this is the one who will now come again to judge us.

Now, how do you think that judgment is going to go down? For two thousand years, the church has led you to believe that Jesus is going to come back in the same bad mood that he left in, and that Jesus is going to be looking for blood and vengeance. And my friends, that narrative really needs to die. Here’s where the rubber meets the road, if we, weak human beings that we are, we self-centered egotistical souls that we are, if we know how to pay it downward, if we know how to break the cycle of judgement, to break the cycle of abuse, to break the cycle of exclusion, to break the cycle of vengeance, if you and I know how to let judgment die with us rather than perpetuating it, how much more do you think Jesus will know how to do that when Jesus returns to judge us?

Knowing all that we know about Jesus, do we really think Jesus will come and pay us back for our wrongs, do we think Jesus will pay it forward and take his anger out on someone else? Or, knowing all that we know about Jesus, is it possible that Jesus will have the power, the might, the love, to pay it downward, and lay all those bad behaviors, all our wrongs, all our shortcomings, down, to die, for good, forever? I’ll let you answer that. Amen.


The Realistic & Optimistic Bridesmaids

Inspired by Matthew 25:1-13

So we have yet another parable using wedding imagery. Last week we read the parable of the wedding feast and today we have the parable of the ten bridesmaids, which the movie Bridesmaids is loosely based on. I’m kidding! Anyone who has seen that movie knows that couldn’t be further from the truth! Seriously though, if all this wedding imagery being used to speak about God seems strange, it’s really not. These aren’t the only two times in the Bible that wedding or romantic imagery is used. In fact, weddings, marriage, and romantic love are all frequently used throughout the entire Bible to help describe our relationship with God. Now, that might sound kind of creepy at first but that’s simply because our culture has a tendency to sexualize everything we possibly can.

However, sex aside, there is a lot that marriage or romantic love can teach us about who God is and how God relates to us. Themes like commitment, faithfulness, love, dedication, sacrifice, patience, forgiveness, all important for any marriage, are in fact also important, crucial aspects of our relationship with God. So it’s no wonder that stories like Ruth or Esther or the book Song of Songs, or the way Paul described the church as the bride of Christ, all use romantic love to teach us something of God.

It’s quite beautiful really, the way that biblical authors weren’t afraid to go down that road to explore who God is to us. Doing so describes a relationship that is strong, well-rounded, and intimate. We will do this parable justice if we keep these things in mind while we try to interpret it; especially because, like last week, this parable is a tough one.

So, let’s dive in. Jesus tells a story about ten bridesmaids who went out to meet the groom, and right away we’re already scratching our heads. Why would bridesmaids be doing that in the first place? That’s not how weddings work! This is one of those cases when you have a Bible story that is closely tied to a cultural practice that is either different than ours or no longer even exists. In that culture, what we think of as a wedding ceremony was actually done at the engagement.

That’s when they would exchange vows, dowries were paid, that’s when the marriage was ceremonially formalized. Then, at a later date, when it was time for the bride to move in with her new husband, they would form a procession all the way to the groom’s house to have, you guessed it, a wedding party! That’s the part of the wedding that this story takes place in.

So now they are waiting for the groom to show up so they can get their party on, and the story focuses on these ten bridesmaids. They have their lamps all ready and wait patiently for the groom to arrive. Unfortunately, the groom is late. And this is a problem for five of the bridesmaids because they didn’t bring any extra oil for their lamps like the others did. And so they are called fools, and the others are called wise. And to make a long story short, the foolish bridesmaids end up missing the celebration. I know, I skipped some of the more challenging parts of this parable but remember what I’ve told you about parables, you can’t over-analyze them, you can’t get lost in the details, and there isn’t always a nice one to one ratio between each part of the parable and real life. It’s a story, and should be treated as such.

I’d like to focus on how these bridesmaids are judged, because I’m not really convinced that they are wise and foolish. I think to call those five wise is a bit of an overstatement. I mean, so what, they brought some extra oil, that doesn’t exactly earn them a wisdom award! And for the other five, foolish just seems a bit harsh, if not altogether inaccurate. I wouldn’t call them wise and foolish, I’d call them the realistic and optimistic bridesmaids.

Let’s start with the realistic ones. They knew that they had no idea how long the wait would be. There was no way of knowing that the oil in the lamps was going to be enough. The groom being late was a possibility and being the realists that they were, they brought some extra oil just in case. They were simply being practical realists. They had faith that the groom would indeed show up, they just didn’t know when.

Now the other five were the optimists. They weren’t foolish. They weren’t careless. They weren’t disrespectful. They left their house with faith that not only would the groom show up, but he’d be on time, and all would be well! They went with the hope and confidence that everything would work out as planned. Unfortunately, they were wrong this time. Does that make them fools? I don’t think so. Will they make the same mistake again? That will tell us whether they are fools are not. But we don’t know that.

I’m more interested with how each group left their house that day. One group left with a healthy practical realistic attitude toward life. And the other group left their house with a beautiful innocent optimistic attitude toward life. To ask, who was right and who was wrong after reading this parable, I think that’s just the wrong question to be asking.

So here’s a different question, “Which one are you?” And try to ignore how this story ends! I know, easier said than done, right? Because the story as told certainly pits one group against the other. Before you admit which one you are, hear this first—both are needed. We need people who are practical realists who always make sure we are prepared for any scenario. But we also need the optimistic, leap of faith people who aren’t afraid to push us toward an experience that can only be had with enough confidence and hope. So, now, which one are you? You don’t have to answer that out loud, you know who you are, we all know who you are! The challenge is, can we appreciate and value who we all are?

So, not that this is going to be a surprise to most of you, but I’m a practical realist bridesmaid. I like to be as prepared as possible for any contingency. I love numbers and statistics to help me in my planning. I am usually the one in the group to warn of the possible doom inherent in any given plan. As such, we practical realist bridesmaids are often thought of as Debbie Downers, sticks in the mud, Eeyores, and we’re often mistaken for pessimists. That’s like the worst insult you could give a practical realist bridesmaid! To be clear, before I get too defensive, a pessimistic bridesmaid wouldn’t even have been there because she would have turned down the offer to be a bridesmaid because she’d be sure that the groom wouldn't show up anyway! But I digress.

To be fair, we practical realist bridesmaids throw just as much shade, just as much judgment, at our counterparts. We look at them on the other side of the yellow brick road, see, I’m doing it already, we look at them and we secretly, or not so secretly, call them Pollyannas, or Dreamworld citizens, or when we’re really fired up, impractical idealists! I apologize for my language. I don’t know what got into me. Joking aside, if I’m honest, and willing to be a bit vulnerable, there is so much about the optimistic bridesmaids that I’m envious of. And, when I am at my best, I recognize how much I need them in my life…no matter how annoying they may be. Now see, I couldn’t just leave it there. Bad bridesmaid! Bad bridesmaid!

No matter which type you are, we are at our best as a community, when we value each other’s differences—so much so, that we realize that we need each other’s differences, that they actually make us better, stronger, healthier human beings. If there was anything foolish about these ten bridesmaids, it was that they didn’t have each other as a regular part of their lives. If they had, they’d certainly rub off on each other, learn from each other, be better because of each other.

And in this case, those five would have probably left the house with extra oil because of the time they had spent with the other five. It’s so easy these days to get trapped into the kind of thinking that tells us that our differences are what divide us. When the truth is, our differences can unite us, strengthen us, and make us the best bridesmaids we can be. God needs all of you, we need all of you, no matter who or what you are. Thanks be to God. Amen.