What Did You Expect?

Matthew 21:1-11

Palm (3 of 21)1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately. ” 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowdspread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

What Did You Expect?

Hosanna, we cry.

Soon we’ll cry different words.

We are a fickle humanity, Lord

Not knowing what we do or say.

We need your help.

Guide us in this parade of life.

Amen.

When we were chatting about this text with other pastors here in the area this past Tuesday, the facilitator asked us to imagine when the last time was when our expectations for something weren’t met.

Lots of things flashed through my head: Y2K, hundreds of books I’ve started but not finished, and the many times I’ve eaten gas station burritos (expectations are always way too high there).

And then more seriously my thoughts turned to myself. To the Church. To Christians.

We received another example of Christian’s behaving badly this week, as Indiana passed state legislation under the misnomer “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” I expect different out of us Christians; I really do.

Yes, Illinois has a similar law, but we also have legislation to protect minorities from discrimination. Indiana does not have the same protections. That’s my main concern. If we worship the one who looked out for those who could be marginalized, we have to be on the look out.

And before you imagine this to be a liberal or conservative issue, I want you to take a step back to see this legislation not from where you fall on the political spectrum, but through the lens of Christ and Christ’s message and example. Because, you see, this law has the word “religious” in it. And you and I are in a church on Sunday morning, which makes us in some sort of way implicated in this law as “religious.” It gives you the freedom, as a religious person, to not serve someone if it would betray your religious convictions.

I mean, this is the thing: Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors. Jesus hung out with prostitutes and publicans. Tell me who Jesus wouldn’t serve.

In a few days we’re going to hear a story about how Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, and I want to do a little Bible lesson for you here. Because the disciples of Jesus were a crazy crew from all sorts of places. And one of them, you might know, was Matthew. And what is Matthew remembered for being? Right, a tax collector.

But there is another disciple named Simon…no, not Simon Peter, but the other Simon (I guess imaginative names were in short supply in ancient Palestine). Simon the Zealot, is what he’s known by. Anyone know who the Zealots were in ancient Palestine? They were anti-government radicals. They were anti-tax folks. They were “let’s overthrow this whole shebang and let anarchy rule!” people. They were the group that your 14 year old rebellious teen joined.

So when Jesus kneels…as he will in just a few days…he will wash Matthew the tax collector’s feet, and then he will wash Simon the Zealot’s feet. I imagine them in my mind to sit next to one another.

Jesus will serve these people who probably wouldn’t even serve each other. Jesus will cleanse both of them, despite their occupation (after all, tax collectors were known for skimming off of the top) and despite their political radicalization (zealots lose themselves in their zeal).

And to top it all off, you know who else Jesus will wash? Judas. Ju-das. That disciple who will betray him over to the authorities. He’ll cleanse his feet, too. And who else? Peter. Peter who doesn’t get it, and who will just a few hours later deny Jesus in the courtyard. Even he, too, is served.

So tell me, brothers and sisters, how is it a restoration of our religious freedom, as Christians, to get legal permission not to serve?! Where is that found in these scriptures? ‘Cause I can’t find it and I think I’ve studied it more than most.

But what did we expect? After hearing this story today, what did we expect?

Because, you see, this Palm Sunday we join the crowd of people pledging our lives to Christ, shouting “Hosanna!” which literally means “Save us!” expecting God in Jesus Christ to do it. And both Matthew and Simon the Zealot and Simon Peter and Judas all shouted it. And they each had a different idea of what it would mean for them, and I imagine they each to a person were really disappointed with Jesus. Lots of unmet expectations here.

And we know this because many of this same crowd, including those ones who will be washed by Jesus, will shout “Crucify him!” or shout nothing at all 24 hours later.

What I mean is this: we tend to follow Jesus, we tend to yoke ourselves to God (to use last week’s sermon) when we like where we’re going. When it’s like a big parade and party. But the minute it means that we might have to serve those we’d rather not, associate with those we’d rather not, the minute it means that we might have to die to our own prejudices, our own limited idea of justice and fairness, our own egos…

Well, we’d rather have God die then follow God there.

Truly Jesus is right when he calls out from the cross, “Father, forgive them! They know not what they do…” We prove it time and again.

People of God, Holy Week is the week where we hear what God has in store for people who prove time and time again they don’t know what they’re doing. This week we hear just what kind of judgment God has in store for us who too often fail to serve, fail to speak out, who so easily shout Hosanna on Tuesday but then shout Crucify on Wednesday:

And this is the judgment-

You will be washed and fed and invited to wash and feed.

You will be blessed by Christ even as he hangs from the cross and Christ will ask God for forgiveness not vengeance.

You will be lost in the darkness for a little while…sometimes life is like that.

And then you will be invited to emerge from your tomb, often-times a tomb we’ve hewn ourselves out of our crazy attempts to restore ourselves on our own by our own ideas and standards.

And then you will feast again as a guest of the God who will not let you go, for Jesus’ sake.

Spoiler alert: that’s what’s going to happen.

But what did you expect from a God who ate with sinners and tax collectors? Wave your palms today, they will be silenced soon. But in that silence you’ll hear God whisper your name, invite you to rise.

And if we can expect anything from God, we can expect that this will not be the last time God will whisper our names, invite us to rise. God will do it tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, and then after that last day, when you’ve breathed your last. Yes; even then.

So follow all this Holy Week. Hear this story. It’s worth the journey. It’s not what you expect.

Choose…But Choose Wisely

Matthew 25:31-46

Mmmm...so many choices!

Mmmm…so many choices!

31When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Choose…But Choose Wisely

We stand before you Christ

As both sheep and goats…

And we’re not proud of that,

But today we are honest.

Choose us even so.

Amen.

There was an article last week in The Atlantic by Olga Khazan on the topic of choice.  You have choice; I have choice.  We like choices…or so we think.  Studies show that the abundance of choices in our lives actually makes us more miserable than more free.

We’re trapped by choice.  Or, more rightly, we’re trapped between choices, paralyzed by the vast array of…well, most anything…at our disposal.

Choice overload.

I remember talking to a friend of mine who is a director for ELCA churches in South America, now in Buenos Aires.  But he and his family began their work in La Paz, Bolivia…quite different from Buenos Aires.  And I remember the first time they came back to the states after having lived in Bolivia for two years, and he talked to me about how he went shopping at a big box store and stood in front of the mustard section of the aisle and froze.

Just froze.

His brain couldn’t comprehend the amount of choice there.  “Culture shock” we call it.

I agree, of course, but for a different reason.  My palate is finely tuned toward the mustard seed, and I do not wonder which one to buy, I wonder which one to buy today because I want, and will, try them all…

It’s interesting, of course, because Christ and the Christian church has been saying something similar for two thousand years.  Freedom, true freedom, does not come from the ability to choose between this or that.

As Martin Luther says it, a Christian is absolutely free, subject to no one.  And yet a Christian is absolutely bound, servant to everyone.

Christ uses yoke language to talk about it.  “Take up my yoke…it is light.”

When you yoke, of course, you yoke to something, bind yourself to something.  This, Christ says, is the most free you can be: when you’re bound to God.

These paradoxes all set the scene for the choice in today’s parable.  “When the Son of Man comes in his glory…” Jesus says.  For so many that sounds like “end times” sort of stuff, but if you know the Gospel of Matthew you know that Matthew believes Christ has come in his glory, with angels attending him, and indeed is in his glory at this very moment, both in the text and amongst us today.  This little parable is not about the future, though it appears to be.  It uses apocalyptic imagery to give you a glimpse into the here and now.  Today, Sunday March 22nd, 2015.

This is not about the end times; the end time is today.  That crazy street preacher is correct, the end is near, because now is the moment to choose.  Choose…but choose wisely.

Think on that phrase “now is the moment.”  Can “then” ever be the moment?  No, of course not.  And neither can “out there” as in the future.  Now is always the moment.  So much of our life is lived in the future and the past, where the moment is gone or not yet.  Now is when we have to live.  Now.

And so when Jesus is talking about these sheep and goats standing before him, he’s talking about now. Right now. Now.

Which changes the whole choice for us, right?  Because we cannot waste a moment deciding. And for Lutherans this is hard, because we talk a lot about the irresistible love of God, right?  And yet we also have free will; we must remember that.  Our response to God’s call means something…it does.  So today, right now, Jesus is on the deciding bench, the sheep and the goats are being separated, it is the moment of decision…but deciding on what?

Don’t get worried here…I’m not doing an altar call or anything.  I’m entering the apocalyptic language.  Go there with me.  Sheep and goats: decision time.

I have a real problem with the examples that are given here by Jesus: clothing the naked, feeding the poor, healing the sick, visiting the imprisoned.

My issue isn’t with doing that…we should be about all of these things, right? My issue is that we, the church, Christians in general, have taken these actions and made them the goal of the Christian life instead of the symptom of a life transformed.

What I mean by that is this: I don’t think that the goat’s sin was that they didn’t feed, clothe, visit, etc.  The sin of the goat is that they refused to be transformed into sheep.  The goat’s sin is that they only clothe, visit, feed, when they choose to, when it will get them recognized.

And if you want proof of that, think on their implied response to Jesus’ accusation that they never clothed, fed, or visited him: “Well, Jesus, if we’d have known it was you, we would have done these things…”

They would have done those things if they had known that it was Jesus and that clothing, feeding, visiting would get them points in life.  And, man, do we love getting points in life, right?  It’s part of what helps us to make our choices, right?  We choose to do and attach ourselves to the things that will get us further down the road, will help in the right way, will do the right thing that will advance us.

We seek out praise, it takes us up a few notches.  We shun criticism because it takes us down a few notches.  Everything depends on taking that next step forward toward the goal.

And, look, I’m not knocking goals.  I’m not knocking ambition.  I have both.  I hope you have both.  But when our goal becomes about us, when our ambition has the elevation of ourselves as the final answer, we’re using fuzzy math if we proclaim to be transformed by the grace of God.

See, the sheep were sheep that were transformed.  Some people might say that they were transformed into Christ followers.  That’s an interpretation I think.  But more rightly, I think that they were anyone who had been transformed by the love and grace of God, which I see clearly in the person of Christ.  And those aren’t the same thing necessarily.

Because I certainly know many Christ followers who never miss a Sunday of church, who give offering and do all sorts of charitable good, but who certainly aren’t transformed because they continue with their gossip, and their anger, and their hurting of others, and their inability to get over themselves for the sake of others, and their prejudice and homophobia and racism and…

If the tree is known by its fruits, it is equally known by its bark.  And the bark of a Christ follower is transformed into the shape of the cross, producing the fruits of goodness because that’s just who they are now…not because they think it is who they should be, or because they think people are watching, or because they think that doing these things makes them better.

That beautiful bald New Mexican monastic Richard Rohr talks about this in his wonderful work The Immortal Diamond.  He notes that, “Before transformation, sin is any kind of moral mistake; afterward, sin is a mistake about who you are and whose you are.”

The grand mistake of the goats is not that they didn’t feed, clothe, visit, etc.  The grand mistake is that they thought they had a choice in the matter…it was a mistake in identity.  People transformed by the grace of God have no choice but to do these things.

I was chatting with someone the other week, and they were telling me about their new job and the great accolades that they were getting for their work.  They expressed feeling kind of awkward at receiving so much praise so early on.  I told them to hold both praise and criticism lightly, as both become idols by which we define our being and our worth.

And then I said, and I don’t know where this came from, but I said, “We do not live for the opinions of others; we just live for others.”

Perhaps it came from years of reading these texts and trying to live in this way; or perhaps I just hit a moment in my life where something clicked, but that line, I think, encapsulates exactly what this text, and even this journey through Lent, this movement of death and resurrection, means.

Because as long as we think that we can or cannot when it comes to being living missionaries of God’s grace in the world, we are stuck in the hell of choice.  As long as we think we have the freedom to feed or not to feed, to clothe or not to clothe, to give or not to give, we are in the hell of choice…and it can be an eternity.  An eternity of hell even worse than staring at mustard varieties on end (though some of us would love that…mustard is heavenly).

If you think you’ve heard this all before, then I’m glad.  You were paying attention to the sermon I gave two weeks ago.  This theme continues to pop up in these texts like a golden thread buried in the parables: we must, if we are to be known as Christians, be about grace and love in our very being, which our actions then testify to.  Our actions do not necessarily testify to our being, though.  Even goats are willing to clothe and feed if it will get them ahead.  The transformed life does it because that’s what we do in Christ’s name.

It’s what we do.  We are transformed.

Lent is that time where we yoke ourselves again to practices that remind us again who and whose we are.  We give of our money and time because that is what a Christ follower does: they give as they have been given.  We clothe the naked not worrying if they will sell the clothes to buy drugs, and do it because that is what a Christ follower does: they clothe as we have been clothed with the grace of God.  We feed not wondering if the person in front of us has a job or could have a job or has enough food at home, but because that is what a Christ follower does: we feed because we weekly partake of the bread of life, the wine of compassion.

And every time I fall back into the choice model of my life and faith, I have to remember that actually I only have one choice: to be transformed or not.

And sometimes I choose not to be transformed.  Sometimes by baser self gets a hold of me, and I find myself numbered amongst the goats of this world, hoarding what I have, sharing only when it looks like it will get me praise and notoriety or get me ahead.

But sometimes, those magical Christ moments, I find myself sheepishly, quietly, living into who I am: one yoked to Christ in this world.  And in those moments, I have to be honest with you, I’ve never felt freer or like I’m more able to participate in God’s freeing work in the world.

Free because in those moments I am truly who I am, and my relationship with God and humanity is as it should be; it is righteous.  And when that happens it’s kind of like the whole universe opens before me, into an eternity of beauty and wonder, and happiness falls away, as does sadness, and only pure joy remains.

Joy that feels as if it can be everlasting if only I can always live as one transformed.  Maybe you’ve been there, too.

That’s what I imagine heaven to be.  That and rows of mustard where we need not choose between them, but can try them all.

Feed or don’t feed.  Clothe or don’t clothe.  Visit only if it gets you ahead.  I guess we can live like that, people of God.

But if we are truly people of God, if we truly trust that, then I don’t see how we can live in that hell choice.  No. In these last days of Lent, let us affirm our true sheepish nature and give with abandon, live with abandon.  Jesus calls for us to be so, invites us, tempts us, entices us to live freely in this world as people who are servant of all and yet free.  It is the greatest grace in the world to be yoked to God’s love, to be transformed.

Let us choose to be transformed.  For eternity.

Amen.

Will God or Won’t God?

This Saturday I’ll be doing an interment for a saint of our congregation.  We held her funeral a few months ago, but it’s now sami-yusuf-wallpapers-8time to lay her to rest, as the ground thaws and the flowers spring up.

This interment will be…unconventional.  We’ve mourned, and now we will celebrate a bit.

Dan, her husband, has asked that we craft the service together, and we have.  He asked me to reflect a bit on God’s will at the memorial…not an easy task.

Not to give too much away, I’m putting it here for thought and reflection.  If you’d like to celebrate Kim’s life with us, you can meet us on Saturday, March 21st at 1:30pm at Memorial Gardens in Arlington Heights.

Will God or Won’t God?

Dan invited me at this time to discuss what he called “the mysterious will of God.”  Thanks, Dan…

Dan is right, God’s will is mysterious.  Philosophers and theologians even parse God’s will into parts: the specific will and general will.  And then we make logical guesses as to what God’s will is in the particulars and in general…as if God cares about logic.

A particular: does God want me to eat a burrito at Taco Bell or Chipotle?  Does God want me to buy a Nissan or a Honda?  Seriously, people wonder about this, as if God has an opinion on fast food chains or car manufacturers…

A general: does God intend for me to love everyone?  Everyone?

I could bore you more with theology, but I won’t.  But I will name the pink elephant in the room about God’s will in times of death, in burials…even joyous burials like today.  In these moments especially we might wonder such things like, “Is it God’s will that MS is in the world?”  “Is it God’s will that we die too early in life?”

To that we certainly can say, “No. That is not God’s will.”  I mean, to be honest, I think God’s will is often not done and not realized in a world where holy perfection is a dream.

So when we’re wondering about God’s will, perhaps we should flip it.  Perhaps it’s not, “Is it God’s will…” but rather, “Will God?”

Will God give us comfort in our sorrows?  Yes…we have one another.

Will God lead us to grace and faith?  Yes…we have examples of that here, too!

Will God hold our sister Kim even in death?  Yes…and raise her up with the saints.

Yes.   God will.  And that is mysterious, too.  It is mysterious how God makes joy out of sorrow, life out of death, resurrection out of destruction.

And yet God does.  And God promises God will.

So today, on the heels of Easter, let’s have a little party celebrating God’s will: God will raise us all up, Kim included.  That is God’s will in this world!

On Grace and Other Stories of Misery

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Life is a wedding. Are you attending?

Matthew 22:1-14

1 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

On Grace and Other Stories of Misery

Lord, your grace is offensive to all our desires to do it ourselves.

Invite us to your table,

The good and bad alike.

Transform us by your offensive grace.

Amen.

It’s time for some campfire singing.

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.

And we pray that all unity will one day be restored.

And they will know we are Christians by our love, by our love,

They will know we are Christians by our love…

So, what will Christians be known by?  Love. Right, love.

I think that song is really funny.  I think it’s really funny because, for much of my life I cannot say that I’ve identified Christians by their love, or that most of the Christians I’ve come in contact with have identified love as their primary attribute that makes them Christian.

Perhaps it’s because, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our right beliefs and correctly held dogmas and penchant for being kind of judgy…” doesn’t fit with the music, but that’s the impression that led me away from the church for a long time. Christians weren’t known by their love, they were known by their right answers, right ideas, by accepting Jesus Christ into their hearts and getting other people to sign on that dotted line…

Which often times was done with a lot of guilt and not a lot of love.

That song is Biblical, by the way.  John 13:35.  Jesus says, “And they will know that you are my disciples…because of your love.”

So, here’s the thing, and here’s the thing specifically for Lutherans: we view Scripture, all of Scripture, through the story of Jesus, which is essentially a love story.  Lutheran tradition is clear on this.  If we have a center to the scripture that we test all other scripture to, it’s probably John 3:16.  And I know you all watch sports, so you all know that verse.

And so when we run across parts of scripture that chafe with that understanding of love and grace, the understanding of Jesus as being God’s love-letter to the world, we have to start asking some questions.  Questions like: are we reading this correctly?

A little side-note here: love isn’t always warm and fuzzy.  I’m not imagining Jesus as always being, or always having to be, warm and fuzzy.  In fact, Jesus was pretty radical.  God’s love is pretty radical, and I mean that in the very basic form of that word.  Radical essentially means “root.”  God’s love is from the root of God’s being, the root of creation.

And from the roots the whole plant gets nourishment.

And sometimes what I think is nourishment for me is actually poison.  I’m looking at you, Diet Coke…

But my inability to tell the difference between nourishment and poison means that sometimes God’s love doesn’t appear to be something that I want.  God’s grace sometimes puts me in misery.  Martin Luther was also clear on that.  The mystics identify that as losing yourself to gain life.  God’s love and grace gives us true life, but in the process we lose those parts of ourselves where we pretend we can do it all, have it all, and be it all on our own.  That stuff has to go for God’s love and grace to take root, and letting go of my belief that I can do it all is kind of painful if I’m honest.

This parable that Jesus tells is a parable of grace that is full of misery, and it’s about losing your life to gain it.  And if during the reading of this parable you didn’t kind of scratch your head or even audibly gasp (yes, you can gasp in church, btw), I don’t think you were listening.

A guy throws a feast…and by the way, I think it’s important to note, as some scholars of this text do, that the Kingdom of Heaven in the Bible is almost always equated to a huge party or a feast.  OT and NT alike. It’s why you’ll hear tons of feast songs today.  So much of the Christian world looks like a courtroom though, and the courtroom in the Bible is where the bad stuff happened.  The feast is the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God. We’re at a party, not a courtroom.  And if it’s a lame party, well, look at the company, am I right?

No, seriously, there is no one I’d rather party with than you.  And Jimmy Buffett.

But I digress…

So this guy–no a king–throws a party and invites the people to the party and they all shrug him off.  You have to understand that for people in the ancient world, this part alone would be gasp-worthy.  As subjects to a king you do not shrug off an invitation to a wedding the king is hosting.

You just don’t.  In an honor and shame society, which the ancient world was and much of the world still is, it is the height of dishonorable conduct to do this.  We in our hyper-individualized culture probably say something like, “I get it, you’re busy, sorry you can’t make it…”

Nope.  You didn’t do that.

And then some of the people who turn down the invitation even kill the servants who bring the invitation.  At this point if you didn’t say, “Holy cow…what’s going on here?” you weren’t listening.

But it gets weirder.

So then the king goes and wipes out the whole city in revenge!  Where was the gasp?! Not one of you gasped. Can you believe it?  What kind of crazy story is this, Jesus?

And see, it’s supposed to sound a little crazy, because it’s a parable.  It’s a story full of hyperbole.  Remember that word: hy-per-bo-le.  Because we forget that when reading the Bible we have hyperbole and other literary devices at work, OK?

But you get that the king doesn’t like his invitation being rebuffed. So then the king invites everyone to the party, not just those plucky few of the upper echelons, but everyone, “the good and the bad alike” the text says.  And we, in our hyper-individualized world, say something like, “That’s nice.  He let just anyone in.”  But in the ancient world, this would be gasp-worthy.  You don’t just let anyone in!  As your mother told you, “who you hang with says a lot about who you are,” and in the ancient world that was even more so true.

By the way, this is why Jesus was so suspect to the religious and political authorities—if who you hang with indicates who you are, the ancient people had a lot to be suspicious about.  They didn’t get this radical guy who hung out with people at the base of society…or, as we might say, the root of society.

But I digress…

And then they have this party, and in the ancient world you didn’t just dress any way you wanted to when you attended a party.  You dressed in a certain robe, usually a white robe, an official robe.  It’s like when the White House has a white-tie affair.  Those are the super-fancy ones.  Tails and white bow-ties and fancy china and all that jazz.

So when someone shows up not wearing the wedding robe, the king gets offended and “binds him hand and foot and throws him into the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth!” That’s a favorite literary device of Matthew, by the way.  It’s like his literary calling-card. Jesus doesn’t end his parables in any other Gospels with that phrase; just Matthew.  It’s his little note of danger. And our hyper-individualized society where we want to encourage you to be yourself and wear what you want to wear and do what you want to do we read this and gasp and think to ourselves, “how dare he?! He won’t let him be himself! She has a right to wear whatever she wants!”

And, true, in some ways that’s absolutely the right reaction.  It’s offensive to our modern ears.

I have a hunch, though, that the ancient people would gasp at the fact that the individual wouldn’t wear the robe.  Because it’s thought by some scholars of the ancient world that if an attendee couldn’t afford the wedding robe, the host would provide them with one.  And if that’s the case, then this isn’t a situation of “I couldn’t afford to dress in white tie.” Instead it’s a case of, “I choose not to dress up for your party, even if you give me the clothes.”

And so, here’s the thing: if we’re looking at this through a lens of love, through the lens of Jesus, we need to understand that this parable is using this really extreme, hyperbolic language to make us pay attention, and I think we’re supposed to pay attention to this: we’re invited to the party.  The heavenly party.  And all our excuses for not attending the banquet are rubbish like the rubbish of a city burned by righteous fire.

We’re invited to live and be and move in this world in such a way that we feast on God’s love and grace and extend that feast to others.  And not just invited, I would go so far as to say expected.  We’re expected, as recipients of grace, to wear the clothes of love and grace in this world.

There. I said it. In a hyper-individualized world I am saying to you that it appears God expects this from us.  That God wants it for us and for the world. We are to be agents of love and grace and, sorry, you don’t get a pass.

That news may put us in a bit of misery.  Because we don’t always want to live in that place of love and grace.  Because, darn it, I like my excuses!  I like my reasons for being judgmental, for not loving my neighbor as myself, for thinking I have all the right answers and that the spiritual life has nothing to teach me; for thinking that I am the center of the universe, for thinking that I can do life all by myself and don’t need a this community or a God at all. Sometimes we’d just like to sit in our corners of self-righteousness, and right answers, and right beliefs, and right dogmas, and think we’ve got it all right.  On our own. Which means we can be gracious or not, we can love or not.  My life. My clothes.

But that’s not a life transformed by God’s grace, that’s a life transfixed on being correct and righteous by its own standards.  That’s a life not being known by love, but being known by doctrine or dogma or judgment or whatever.  It’s a life that wears its own robe of righteousness; it doesn’t need the grace of God.

It’s a life that is already bound at the hands and feet by the chord self-righteousness. And I can’t think of a scarier place to be.

See, what we miss is that the person who shows up at the wedding and who won’t wear the robe isn’t expressing her individuality, she’s expressing her outright refusal to be transformed by God’s love and grace.

And this is important for us to hear.  Because we say that God loves us just for who we are, and that is absolutely true.  But God certainly does not want us to live out of our brokenness, but live out of the grace extended by God in Christ to the good and the bad alike.

This parable has been used forever as one where we point out that people who refuse to believe the right things are kicked out of God’s grace.  That interpretation made me leave the church for a while.  I think it has it backwards.  I think it’s dis-graceful. I think it’s exactly the kind of stuff that the Christian church has told people throughout the world to make us feel superior, holy, righteous.

I think, actually, that the one who won’t wear the robe is the one who is too reliant on the rightness of their beliefs, thoughts, and actions.  They don’t need the grace of God…they got it figured out.  That sounds like a lot of the religious to me…including this religious person standing wearing this robe today in this pulpit.

But, hey, just in case that last person is you, as it is often me, think on this: this parable has a different ending when you read the rest of the Gospel of Matthew.  Because at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus wouldn’t wear the right robe by the world’s standards, the robe of self-righteousness, the robe of the religious and political authorities, what did they do to him?  They tore off the robe he was wearing, bound him hand and foot, and took him out to Golgotha, the place outside of Jerusalem where the wild dogs roamed gnashing their teeth, and they crucified him.

That’s right: at the end of Jesus’ life, he becomes the one in the story who won’t wear the robe of the elites at the feast of religious righteousness and political power.

So even in my moments of self-righteousness, when I refuse to wear the robe of God’s grace and love and extend it to others, even there I’m covered in the grace of Christ in the cross where Christ joins me in the outer darkness of my own need to be right, redeeming me even there.

See, that’s the great thing about the grace and love of God.  It, gasp, never lets you go.  It’s God’s calling card.  It’s what God is known by…and then, of course, what we as Christians should be known by.

It covers you like a robe even when you don’t want it to…and sometimes it makes me miserable, me who likes to be right, and know it all, and have it all figured out

Thanks be to God for that.

It Was My Understanding That There Would Be No Math

Matthew 18:15-22

Jeans_for_men15 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” 21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

It Was My Understanding That There Would Be No Math

God of grace,

Your mercy is endless.

We can’t fathom such mercy

And yet, that is what it is.

Help us to trust it, even if we can’t understand it.

Like all things with you.

Amen.

One of my college roommates is stuck in the past. I say it jokingly, but it’s kind of true.

He was one of those terrible people that we all hate because he could still fit into the jeans he wore Freshman year of High School in his Freshman year of college. Some folks don’t think guys think about that sort of stuff, but we sometimes do. He was literally stuck in the pants of the past.

This meant, of course, that he had…perhaps still has…about 40 pairs of jeans. A little stuck in the past. Some were stonewashed. Some were tapered leg…in a time when that was not hipster…only doofus. He was obviously a fashion icon, and I know he’ll read this sermon because I clued him in that I was using him as an example, so I should say here at the beginning: he still is a fashion icon.

And he had these other funny quirks about him. Like when he’d make a mistake he’d go in this very exaggerated way, “Well excuuuuuuse me…” which was funny and endearing, but also kind of just…odd, for those of us who didn’t get the reference.

And he was a Biology-English double major, which means he loved torture, and when faced with a math problem he’d always say, “I was under the impression that there’d be no math…”

Which, when I first heard it I was like, “what do you mean no math? You’re a science major! It’s part of your major, man!”

Maybe some of you are catching on here, though…

It took me another year to figure out that he, this whole time, was just parroting lines from old Saturday Night Live skits. Steve Martin and Chevy Chase…but not the Steve Martin or Chevy Chase that I knew. These were the old ones, the old skits, where Chevy was Gerald Ford who apparently wasn’t good at math? I don’t know…before my time, before his time, too…

It’s like he was raised on that old comedy and carried it around with him in his back pocket to fling out to all of us who didn’t know that it was funny to come walking out of your bedroom with a huge vice on your head saying, “I have a splitting headache…” He’d do that kind of stuff. And it seemed kind of odd and fresh when brought back around, even if it wasn’t that funny (though he thought he was hilarious).

Living in the past just a little bit.

Hey, you know that thing in your life that revisits you every once-in-a-while and it makes you feel that certain way that you don’t like to feel? And it comes out of nowhere, but obviously from somewhere close by, like in your back pocket, because it hits you in a minute and, BAM-there you are, right back to that place in the past that you didn’t want to be? And it still feels odd and fresh when brought back around, but it’s not funny?

It fits like that old pair of jeans you used to wear but thought you grew out of but, nope, they still fit…unfortunately.

You know that thing?

Sometimes we all live in the past, even if we don’t mean to. There are some things in our lives that we still haven’t forgiven. Maybe it’s other people, maybe it’s ourselves…

Peter asks Jesus, “How many times are we to forgive? 7 times?”

Peter wants a rule around forgiveness, some sort of plumb line. He wants to know when enough forgiveness is enough forgiveness. He wants a rubric. Peter is kind of like me-or rather, I’m like him.

Peter wants permission to put a limit on forgiveness.

Jesus responds, “Not 7 times. 77 times.” Or maybe the answer is “70 times 7”…the Greek there is kind of fuzzy.

And I can just hear Peter saying, “It was my understanding that there would be no math…”

It might be helpful at this moment to tell you what forgiveness is.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I can do that. For as much as I’d like to think I’m an expert at forgiveness, I’m still a disciple of the master.

I think I know what forgiveness isn’t, though.

I know it isn’t forgetting. We forgive, but we don’t forget. That’s tricky, of course. Because people often say, “I will forgive, but I will never forget…” through clenched teeth and with clenched fists which makes me think they’re just paying lip-service to forgiveness. It’s not forgetting, but it isn’t holding a grudge, either.

I know forgiveness isn’t always reconciliation. I have forgiven people…and people have (I hope) forgiven me…but we will only be truly reconciled through God’s ending reconciliation of all things. I won’t be in some people’s presence ever again because, though I’ve forgiven them, we cannot be together. Forgiveness doesn’t always mean “water under the bridge.” Sometimes forgiveness means we’ll let one another live peaceably on different sides of the river.

We all got a powerful example of this in action this week, after 21 Coptic Christians were beheaded by ISIS, the Coptic Bishop of Britain, Bishop Angaelos, says he cannot forgive the actions of ISIS, but it is “his responsibility as a Christian minister” to forgive the individuals. I aspire to be so brave.

Perhaps this gets to what Jesus is talking here about binding and loosing. Bishop Angaelos didn’t loose ISIS from responsibility, but he loosed them from his hatred, even deserved hatred. It haunts me to imagine that perhaps my stubbornness in forgiveness, my desire to hold people in contempt, might keep someone from experiencing God. I may not be able to forgive an action…but do I have the option not to forgive the individual?

That’s what Peter’s fishing for here. That’s often what I’m fishing for. I want a rule around forgiveness because a rule gives me permission to live in the past. What I really need is permission to let go of it…

What I really need is permission not to be correct, not to be right. So often I hold a grudge against someone because they were wrong, I was right, and they fail to acknowledge it. They wronged me.

Fr. Richard Rohr, my dear theological crush, has an interesting tidbit on this. He once wrote that God is a rule breaker. The one who might have all the right in the world to hold a grudge against humanity, against you or me, breaks the rule of justice because a relationship with us is more important than being right for God.

What that tells me is that forgiveness is more about not giving something power than it is about giving something your blessing.

I know forgiveness isn’t easy, and I know that I don’t always know how to tell if it’s truly taken place or not. As I’ve said in other sermons, sometimes I have to remind myself that I’ve forgiven someone when that voice inside me starts creeping back up reminding me what they’ve done…

Or, more truthfully, I often have to remind myself that I’ve forgiven myself for missteps. That is truly one of the ways that I live most fully in the past. So many of my bad memories are from my mistakes and they’re not funny and they, unfortunately, still fit like that old pair of jeans from High School.

And sometimes I think that the only way they won’t fit anymore is when I fully, intentionally, truly live into these new baptismal clothes that Jesus keeps talking about, clothes I try to put on daily but who don’t seem to fit so well in a world that sometimes likes to push me into the past.

But sometimes it is a grudge that I’m holding against someone (or someones) else that fit all too well. And each time that grudge comes up I find myself reliving that moment, that fight, that wound.

Sigh.

70 times 7, Jesus? I’m working on 1…

We’re doing book studies here at LMC on prayer and living a life that is free, but perhaps next year…or later this year…we should do one on forgiveness. I could use it; maybe you could, too.

I don’t think it’s an accident, though, that Peter is the one to ask Jesus this question. Because Peter would need to do his own forgiving in just a few short chapters. Jesus gives Peter permission he’s going to need to forgive himself.

If you know the rest of the story you know that Peter denies Jesus, how many times?

3-Almost halfway to that magical 7 value that Peter wants to put on forgiveness. He wastes 3 of his 7 in a matter of moments.

And in Matthew 26:75 Peter remembers that Jesus said he would do this and he goes out and “weeps bitterly.”

I wonder if Peter finds himself in the upper room after Jesus crucifixion reliving the moment that he betrayed his best friend to save his own skin. I wonder if he said something akin to, “I will never forgive myself…”

I wonder if he relived it 77 times over the next 48 hours, pulling it on like an old pair of jeans, feeling the hurt in a fresh, odd way.

Perhaps Jesus was giving Peter a little bit of a clue here. Perhaps Jesus was saying to Peter what I hear Jesus saying to me, and to you, and to all of us now: forgiveness restores the forgiver as much as the trespasser. Jesus takes away the need to live in the past because our past, present, and future is already redeemed…we don’t need to attempt to redeem it ourselves.

Perhaps that’s another way of looking at what Jesus says here about binding and loosing. Perhaps our unwillingness to forgive excludes us from God’s kingdom because we can’t accept the love of God when our hands are clenched in fists of anger…

Because unresolved hate and hurt in our being rots us from the inside out and we know that the pain we wear on our hearts will eventually become the pain we wear on our sleeve and then the pain we spit from our mouth and write from our pens and keyboards and hit with our hands and…

Perhaps we must forgive the other person because we, ourselves, need to be healed. Perhaps that’s what lets us eventually throw away those old jeans we keep slipping on…or that keep getting put on us…to live in the news clothes that God gives us.

I still find forgiveness tricky. And I still find myself working at it, especially with myself.

But I don’t wonder if there is a limit to it anymore. It is now my understanding in these last years that there is no math when it comes to forgiveness.

You know, Lent is a time when we purge things, right? When we throw things out that we aren’t using anymore?

Perhaps it’s time to toss that old pair of jeans…they may fit well, but they’re out of style. Jesus invites us into different clothes this Lent.

Ain’t You Tired?

Matthew 18:1-9

1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 He called a child,1507985_989378521081023_1569871175287059984_n whom he put among them, 3 and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. 6 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes! 8 “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.

Ain’t You Tired?

Lord,

Tonight we pray that you are as you have promised:

That you are slow to anger

That you are abounding in steadfast love.

Be who you promised you are.

Amen.

There is a scene at the end of the movie The Help-a little spoiler alert, by the way, though if you haven’t seen The Help yet, shame on you-but there is a scene at the end of the movie where the maid Aibileen confronts the main antagonist Hilly after Hilly had gone around framing people and ruining lives, living a life that tries to be a step ahead of everyone and everything, and meanwhile stepping on everyone and everything.

She gets up in her face and she asks point blank to the woman who has all the power in her world, “Ain’t you tired yet Hilly?  Ain’t you tired?”

Ash Wednesday does that to us.  It gets all up in our faces and asks us-no, tells us-you’re tired.

Or you’re going to be.  Such is life.

Whether you’re in the rat race and wish you were out of it, out of the rat race but wish you were in it, or even if you love the whole race, tonight we all get asked the question by Jesus, “Ain’t you tired?”

“Who is the greatest?” the disciple asks Jesus.  “Ain’t you tired?” Jesus responds.  And then he grabs a child and says, “Here. Here’s the greatest in all the world.  Chew on that for a while.”

It would have been great if Matthew had written in the text that Jesus did a mic drop after that, because that’s what kind of statement that is.

And, to be frank with you, the rat race looks pretty pointless when you hear from the Divine that a child is the winner.  But we shouldn’t be surprised.  In the prophecies of Isaiah it is noted that a child shall lead the world.  In Matthew and Luke it is a child who is announced as the “good news” for a languishing people.  King David is chosen as a child.  The prophets Jeremiah and Samuel are chosen as a child.

Jesus is just being consistent with God’s trajectory.  Kind of like a maid having the upper-hand in the Jim Crowe South, a child, the most vulnerable person in the ancient world, is the one to ask the right questions in the world.  Questions like the one I was asked this morning.

And, no, I’m not talking about the question Eliza asked me today when she looked at my desk and asked, “Why do you have a doll?” to which I responded, “It’s an action figure…”

I’m talking about a different question. This morning when I walked down stairs with my collar on, Findley met me at the bottom of the steps.  He grabbed me by the hand and said, “Color?!  Color?!”  He pointed at the table where his crayons were strewn about with scribbles on the big butcher paper we bought.  He wanted me to sit and color with him.

“I have to go to work, buddy,” I said.  But I was tired.  I was tired of that answer.  All I really wanted to do this morning was to sit with him and color, to be perfectly honest with you.

But little did he know that today he and I would color.  That I would be coloring a lot today on people’s foreheads…and on my own.

He screamed all through the noon Ash Wednesday service today.  He wanted to sit with me.  Be with me up at the front. He just wanted to color with me. And as he came up for ashes at noon he and I finally got our chance to color as I smudged a mark into his brow.  A mark that had been made by me a hundred times, and at his baptism.

And a mark that will be made upon him, God willing, in the hour of his death.  And my death.  And yours.

Today marks the moment when the Christian church pauses to color.  Today marks the moment where the Christian church pauses to hear Jesus’ question, “Ain’t you tired?” and re-think our rat race lives in light of that question.

Today marks the moment when the Christian church begins, over the next 40 days, to unlearn the habits that we have learned in this last year.  To return to the mind of a child.  To return to following the child of Bethlehem through the towns, to the cross, into the grave.

And then, of course, to resurrection life.

But we must begin in this way.  We must begin with Mother Eve and Father Adam, those dusty ones, with the mark of dust on our brow.  A mark that reminds us that if we’re tired there is hope.  And if we’re not tired, we will be one day…and there, too, is hope.

Come, return to the Lord who embraces us tired ones, begs us to enter into the arms, entreats us to sit tonight and color a bit with the colors of salvation, the colors of the cross.

Tonight, wonder not who is the greatest; that isn’t the question.  The real question, the question behind that one, the question that makes you ask that question, is “Ain’t you tired?”

Or put a different way, “Color?! Color?!”

Yes, Finn, let’s color and remember what is important today.  We are dust, after all, and do not know when our last Ash Wednesday will be.  So let’s color a bit on our foreheads so we don’t forget.

Power Couple

Matthew 14:13-33

16149566062_cf6ff73266_b13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. 22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Power Couple

We pray:

Call us from our boat, Lord.

Lead us into the desert for food, Lord.

A meal with you is worth a thousand meals.

A walk on water with you, Holy One, is worth ten thousand walks.

And we’re hungering to walk.

Amen.

It’s been over a month since I’ve preached now. And this week I’ve been struggling with what kind of sermon this should be. And I know most of you labor under the delusion that there are two types of sermons: boring sermons and sermons that are “meh.”

Well, there are not just two types of sermons, though I hope this one falls into neither of those two categories. But sometimes sermons teach us about the text, about God, about the world. Sometimes sermons teach us about ourselves through the lens of the text. And some sermons attempt to do both.

I want to do both, if you’ll let me.

If Jesus were on a dating site, I dare say he’d not match with any of us. His profile would probably be something like “Casts out demons. Has a penchant for speaking hard truths. Has few friends and many enemies. Can make dinner appear out of nowhere. Likes long walks on the water.” Not the beach, the water.

I’d have clicked “next” at “casts out demons”…too much drama for me.

Did you hear about this new dating site called The League that advertises itself as being solely for the attractive and successful? There’s this rigorous screening process that looks at your goals, your attributes, and of course your hairline, and weeds out those that don’t make the cut.

Look up my profile. Don’t tell Rhonda.

I’d never make the cut. The founder says that she intends, with this site, to make new “Power Couples.” Bill and Hillary’s. Demi and Ashtons. Oprah and…that guy she’s married to’s.

Power couples.

And, I think, that’s what some people are looking for out of Jesus, right? That somehow following Jesus or having a relationship with Jesus will make them powerful. Which is funny, of course, because if you read Jesus’ biography you find out that he dies hated by most and abandoned by the rest.

Not that powerful…

But today we might not remember all that. Because today Jesus does some powerful stuff; stuff that might make us want to be a part of his crew. Making food multiply. Walking on water. Some great stuff there.

Of course, we’d only see it as great if we ignore the not so great fact that Jesus leads a whole crew of people out into the wilderness before feeding them. Or that Jesus meets people on a stormy lake right before they’re about to die.

None of that sounds so great. But to an ancient person, it might sound familiar. It might sound like Moses leading a bunch of people into the wilderness who, like the disciples, begin to complain because there is no food only to have manna fall from heaven.

Remember the book of Exodus when that happens?

It might not sound so great to be stuck in the middle of a huge lake during a gale storm, expecting Gordon Lightfoot to begin singing about the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald any moment. But it might sound familiar if you’re an ancient person. It might sound like that time Moses led the people to the Red Sea wondering how they’re going to cross it only to be able to walk across it because God raised a mighty wind.

Yes, ok, Jesus does these miraculous things. But I don’t see bread appearing out of nowhere today. We still have hunger in this world. I don’t see people in peril on the sea being saved by a wave walker today. People die out at sea.

So what that Jesus did these things? So what? When we ask “so what?” what we’re really asking is, “What does this mean?”

The most interesting time I was asked “what does this mean” was when I was on an airplane. I was coming back from spring break in Florida, where my parents lived at the time, flying into O’Hare. We had a connection in Washington D.C., and I was in my Sophomore year.

I was taking Bioethics, a great class with a great professor who, after a back and forth between me and him over the ethics of organ transplantation, said, “Well, Mr. Brown, it is clear I can’t make you see the truth…”

Anyway, I was reading a book on abortion on the plane. And, look, if you’re going to read a book on a plane, you might want to pick one that doesn’t use the word “abortion” in the title, right?

So, this gentleman with wild gray-black hair and tinted glasses sits next to me. He has a thick German accent. And as we begin our flight he turns to me and says, “So…how do you like the book.”

“It’s interesting,” I reply, imagining him just to be someone making conversation.

But then he is all like, “So, abortion. Good or bad?” and “Amniotic testing? What are your thoughts?” And all these probing questions. So I gently and kind of pedantically explain to him what the author says in the book.

To which he starts to get visibly frustrated and, look, you don’t want to make a German frustrated because they often already sound like they’re mad at you, so you can imagine how angry it sounded when he all of a sudden says, “I know what the author has written! That’s not the point. What does it mean?!”

At that point I put on headphones…

By the way, I would see that man again. In my Ethics of Healing and Wholeness class at Valparaiso. Dr. Grundman and I shared a flight long before we knew each other’s names. I got an A in his class, by the way…only A he gave that semester. Maybe I could be on that exclusive dating site…

Back to the text, though. “What does it mean?!” What does it mean that Jesus produces food for 5,000 in the middle of the desert? What does it mean that Jesus walks on water in the middle of a storm? What does it mean for you, for me, for us?

Do you remember the last time I preached about a feeding text? I do. It was January a few years back. And I noted that some food pantries in our area had closed and I just asked, “What are we going to do about it?” And, by God, you took me seriously and two years later the Friendship Center was born here in Lincoln Square, and four years since it continues to feed people in this area that was known as a “food pantry desert.” Check out the upcoming Jam for Bread in April…there’s an announcement in the bulletin…

If you don’t think that words have power, just remember that moment. Words have power.

And sometimes when we’re following The Word of God, The Christ…as the mystics like to say…The Word leads us into the deserts of the world. A vocational desert. A relationship desert. All sorts of deserts. And we’re there and we’re asking like the disciples, “Where is the food for my aching soul here? What will keep me going here? Why did you lead us out here only to let me suffer and die?” And then you’ll remember the reading a couple weeks ago where Jesus says to the devil, “Humanity does not live on bread alone…”

And all of a sudden you’ll realize that you’re not in the desert by yourself, but that God is there. And these people sitting next to you are there. And like manna from heaven, like loaves and fishes, all of a sudden there is enough for your aching soul with more to spare.

And sometimes when we’re following The Word of God, The Christ…as the mystics like to say…we find that we can’t see Jesus anymore. And that the storms of life are raging all around us. And our faith looks like a shadow, a ghost of itself, and it begs us to return to it and come to it, but there is so much else going on in our world that we don’t think we can risk the time or the effort to reconnect.

And then we take the risk and get out of the boat…and here we are, and then we start to doubt and feel like we’re sinking back into that storm, only to find that Jesus doesn’t erase our doubts but embraces our doubts and holds us when we feel like we can’t hold ourselves.

Perhaps with Jesus you are a power couple. But not a power couple because you’re the strongest, the most attractive, the most ambitious. A power couple because you are certain that with God no desert will kill you, no storm will overtake you. You’re not powerful because you’re able to be above it all, you’re powerful because you’re able to survive it all with Christ as your vessel.

Yes, yes…but what does that mean?! Ok, Dr. Grundman, I’ll tell you.

It means dare to walk in the desert to where Christ is leading you.

It means get out of your boat.

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