Questions and Reflections

Oil: looking for the absurd and consistent in Jesus' parables (sermon manuscript)

[Jesus said to the disciples: ] “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Matthew 25:1-13

My sermon from the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (November 12, 2017) on Matthew 25:1-13. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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So I know Halloween is over and Thanksgiving is just around the corner but like every retail store out there, I too, have Christmas on the brain. Well, not Christmas exactly - just Christmas sweaters. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but the Ugly Christmas Sweater is a thing. It’s no longer a name we give to the knitted sweaters we find at Goodwill that are covered with trees, snowmen, and lights.  The Ugly Christmas Sweater is now a fashion design with the name right on the tag. If, say, you headed north after worship and stopped by a Target in New York, you can pick up a fantastic Ugly Christmas Sweater. If you wanted a sweater that lights up using long lasting LEDs? Target has a dozen to choose from. If you’re looking for something more branded, and you want to celebrate the new Star Wars movie with R2D2 wearing a Santa hat? You can get that in red. And if you love the story of Santa but wished he had tabby cats pulling his sleigh instead of reindeer - your dream is now a reality. Ugly Christmas Sweaters are amazing because they are completely absurd. They’re silly, light hearted, and challenge us to look at the world in a new way. When we see a coworker, family member, or friend wearing a ridiculous sweater, we’re forced to see them in a new light. The more absurd their Ugly Christmas Sweater is, the more that sweater changes our viewpoint and perspective. Ugly Christmas Sweaters are absurd and looking for the absurdities is what we need to do when listening to Jesus’ words today.

And doing this isn’t always easy. When we hear Jesus speak, we want to keep his words reverent, sacred, and important. We should take his words seriously. But that doesn’t mean we can only approach his words in a serious fashion because parables, by their very nature, are not completely serious. They are stories that are a little bit off. And they need to be because they translate into human terms what Jesus “the kingdom of heaven.” Since our world isn’t the kingdom of heaven quite yet, we need stories that are a little off to help us see God more fully. So parables need us to, in my opinion, find those slightly askew parts in the story, to find those Ugly Christmas Sweater moments. the story. And one such moment comes at the very end of today’s parable. Jesus, in a sentence designed to sum up the entire story, tells everyone to “stay awake.” But who, in this parable, actually stays awake? No one! Everyone, the wise and the foolish, sleep. So if everyone sleeps, what’s the point of the story?

Now, the thing about Ugly Christmas Sweaters is that there is always more than one and that rule applies to Jesus’ parables too. We need to look for all the absurd moments. But that’s hard because we no longer live in Jesus’ cultural context. We are not Jews living in Galilee and Jerusalem 2000 years ago. We don’t know what wedding would really be like back then. From what we can tell, the groom would show up on their wedding day and one of the first rituals involved bridesmaids. These bridesmaids would use lamps and torches to escort the entire wedding party from the bride’s home to the groom’s. Once the groom, bride, and everyone else made that move, the three day long party would start. But we don’t know how many bridesmaids would be needed. So the fact that Jesus mentioned ten, and then splits them into two groups of 5, is a little bit off. The story also starts with everyone ready to do their part.  Every bridesmaid has a lamp and, it seems to me, every lamp is already on fire. Even when they notice that the groom is delayed, they keep their lamps lit, instead of conserving their oil while they wait. And this waiting is weird because everyone seems to fall asleep, right where they are, with everything still burning. That doesn’t feel very safe. And then, when the groom finally arrives in the middle of the night, some torches are ready but others are about to go out. Five of the bridesmaids need more oil but their sisters do a completely unChristian and unJesus-like thing: they don't share what they have. They reject their sisters, telling them to go to the store which, if we’re honest, probably wouldn’t be open since it is the middle of the night. But 5 bridesmaids go anyway and while they’re away, the groom finally shows up. The 5 that meet him don’t tell him that others have gone on an errand. Since the groom was late, it would have been thoughtful for him to wait for the other bridesmaids to return. But he doesn’t. Instead, the escort happens, the party begins, and they shut the door behind them. When the other bridesmaids finally show up, they are rejected again. When we look at the details of this story, we see that everyone ends up wearing an Ugly Christmas sweater. Everyone does something slightly absurd. Lamps burn unnecessarily. The wise do not share. The foolish are able to find an oil store at midnight. And the groom, who we usually identify as Jesus himself, isn’t very kind, considerate, or loving. The only part of the story that we can attribute to Jesus himself is that very last sentence which doesn’t seem to make much sense because everyone sleeps. Everyone in this parable is a little absurd. Everyone is wearing an ugly Christmas sweater. The only thing that stays consistent is: the oil.

So what is the oil supposed to be?

Well, without oil, lamps do not burn. Without oil, the bridesmaids have nothing that will bring them light in the middle of the night. Without that light, shadow is all there is. This parable, and the two right after it, are ones where we spend a lot of energy trying to figure out what they  say about the afterlife. We don’t want to be denied entry into the party that Jesus is throwing so we latch onto the words “stay awake” and we do whatever we can to figure out what we need to do to get into heaven. We can be so laser focused on getting into that final party that we miss a key to this parable that Jesus gives to us way back in chapter 5. At the start of his ministry, in the very first parable he used to teach something to his friends, he tells them, “you are the light of the world” (5:14). “You are” already burning bright. “You are” already lit up. We don’t start this parable as characters without the fuel, the oil we need. We start as light. And that’s because you have something the characters in this parable do not. A parable needs a storyteller and our storyteller does more than just tell stories. Our storyteller made a promise to you in your baptism that the oil used to mark the sin of the cross on your forehead will never run out. Jesus promised that he will always give you the oil you need to shine bright. In the long periods of waiting, when nothing seems to go right, you will have oil. In those moments when we feel stuck in one place, exhausted, worn out, and unsure of what we’re supposed to do next, you will have oil. When the days feel long and the nights feel even longer, Jesus promised that you will have fuel for your journey. But that fuel isn’t always a motivation, a power, a feeling that we feel deep inside. That fuel is also a community, a church, where we all turn to each other and ask: “what do you need to keep going?” (Lundblad, Feasting on the Word (Matthew volume 2), page 259) And in the moments when we don’t have an answer to that question, the community around us still does what it can to carry us through. The church sings can sing when we cannot. The community can prays when we cannot. Others worship even though you yourself might not be able to set foot through that door. All of us can believe the hurts that you share and we can all break the silence of pain, suffering, stigma, and hate that makes this world hurt too much. And then, with a little piece of bread, a little thimble of drink, and a simple word of promise - we can give you all of Jesus because Jesus has given all for you.

Amen. 



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Declare: Making a Statement

Cats rarely listen to me. The two that live at my house, Finn and Flotus, never respond well to my verbal commands. When I tell them to stop sleeping on my jacket, they purr. When I order them to jump down from the kitchen counter, they crawl into the kitchen cabinets above. I don't consider my two cats as pets. They're really small and furry roommates. Finn and Flotus live their own lives and they enjoy not listening to a word I say. It can be frustrating to live with two cute fuzzballs who ignore everything I declare to them.

As I reflected on our text from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 today, I'm struck by what Paul declared to the community he was writing to. Scholars believe that this is the earliest letter from Paul we have. And since Paul's letters were the first pieces composed for what became our New Testament, this letter is the first written record of what the gospel is all about. Paul is writing to a small community who are worried. They were expecting to Jesus to return very soon. But there was a delay and people, in their community, have died. The question was: did the ones who die miss out on Jesus? 

Paul answers by doing something we don't always get to do. He stated clearly and forcefully that our union with Jesus transcends life and death. This promise is a promise God made to us in our baptism when we, through no strength of our own, were united to the entirety of Jesus' story. Paul declared what he knew to be turn and he invited the community to do the same. Imagine, for a moment, making this kind of declaration in your own life. It doesn't matter if someone (or some cat) listens to you. Paul, in this text, doesn't tie this promise to anything that the people in this community have to do. The promise is true because God is true. And this promise is something we all have. Part of our life in faith is to, with the help of the Holy Spirit, make these kind of declarations to our family, friends, and even strangers. We don't always know what the declaration will look like but we know what the declaration will be about. It will be words, actions, and deeds centered in a hope, and a love, that does not end. 



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Marching On: Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:1-12

My sermon from All Saints' Sunday (November 5, 2017) on Matthew 5:1-12. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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If we’ve spent time in church, these words from the gospel according Matthew are ones we probably already know. We might not have all twelve verses memorized but if someone starts saying “Blessed are…” - we can fill in some of the rest. Jesus, at the start of his long sermon marking the start of his public ministry according to Matthew, says that there are specific groups of people who have specific kinds of experiences and that these people, in the eyes of God, are blessed. But, right now, as I stand here overlooking the sandbox that we will shortly fill with lit candles, I am drawn to Jesus’ words on mourning. Today is a day where we, as a community, mourn. We will read out loud the names of people connected to this church who have recently passed away. We will light candles for family, friends, coworkers, and colleagues who burned bright in our lives. We’ll remember everyone who mattered to us; everyone who loved us; everyone who, through their thoughts, words, and deeds, filled each of us with so much life. Today we create a space in this church where it’s okay for all of us to just mourn and express that mourning in any way we want to. If you want to be stoic, calm, and collected? That’s totally cool. And if you want to shed a tear, we’ll pass you a box of tissues. All Saints’ Sunday is a day when you get to be just you. But I wonder: does what we’re feeling now match up with what we think being blessed actually feels like? In other words, when Jesus says that those who mourn are blessed, do we really believe him?

Now, on some level, the answer to that questions is yes. I mean, these words are coming from Jesus. Jesus, the Son of God, the firstborn from the dead, the one - as the Nicene creed says - through whom all things were made. If we're going to believe anyone, then we should believe Jesus. His words about those who mourn being blessed is an idea that we can, in theory, get behind. We can hear his words and, as they bounce around in our head, we can reason through the  concept of mourning. Being able to mourn means that we had something worth mourning. We had a connection with someone where real-honest-to-goodness-life flourished. The time spent with that person might only have lasted a moment or it could have grown over decades. But we were changed because they were a part of us. These kinds of people are literal gifts from God. So it’s easy, on one level, to say yes, this is what being blessed looks like. We were blessed by special people in our lives and mourning is part of what that kind of relationship actually looks like. But I’ve never been good at keeping life-giving relationships stuck in my head. Emotions, feelings, and my soul get involved. Even when I try to think and reason my way through mourning, there’s still a part of me that...just plain hurts. Or feels empty. Or feels incomplete. It’s as if there’s some kind of hole inside me that is held open by the memory of the person that once filled that space. Even though I trust Jesus’ word. And I know about heaven, the communion of saints, and how, since we are part of the body of Christ, we are always connected to each other - no matter what. Even though I know all of this - that empty space is still just there. This feeling...this reality...is hard to describe and I don’t know if what I feel is something you feel too. But it’s hard to imagine that carrying around these kind of holes inside of us each and every day is what being blessed is supposed to be like. 

There’s a struggle in Jesus’ words here and it made writing this sermon a bit of a struggle too. In the midst of this struggle, I did what I always do when the words for Sunday don’t seem to be coming. I opened Facebook. I scrolled through my newsfeed, congratulating a friend on the birth of her new baby girl and wondered why my father-in-law was posting pictures of horses. I saved a few articles to read later and I did my best to avoid getting sucked into posts with 200 comments in the various groups that I’m a part of. Some people might call this procrastinating. To me, I was just scrolling. And then, one post jumped out at it. Someone left a photo on the facebook page of a friend and I noticed the caption for this picture first. It said, “I bought you an angel.” And below the caption was a dark and grainy photo, taken at night. There was a candle lit up and sitting on a white base with some figurine or sculpture on its side. I couldn’t make out what the sculpture was but I the candle shined just bright enough to illuminate the tombstone it was sitting on. That angel was for a friend of mine who had committed suicide several years ago. I stared at that picture for a bit and I kept coming back to it as I wrote the rest of these words. When it comes to being blessed, we don’t imagine heartbreak or sadness or having an empty spot inside of us as being what blessed looks like. Being blessed is reserved for for an answered prayer, or when we get or dream job, or when something takes away the worry, anxiety, and stress that hangs over our lives. Being blessed is when the voids and empty parts inside of us fill up. It isn’t supposed to be when we admit the ways we still sad, broken, and still grieving. Yet Jesus says that even us, even those with holes in their hearts and empty parts in their souls - even you are still important to God. Mourning isn’t a process designed to fill up the spaces in our lives that our loved ones still occupy. Mourning is how we learn to live with, and through, death. This doesn’t mean, however, that God caused this mourning or that God really wants the void that we carry to be part of our life. Instead, mourning is an experience that God promises to carry you through because even Jesus suffered heartbreak. Even Jesus mourned. The Son of God stood at the tomb of his friend Lazarus and Jesus just cried. And when Jesus rose from the grave, the holes on his hands from the nails that hung him to the cross were still there. The holes didn’t go away. The holes inside us, these parts holding the memory of those who gave us so much life, are not parts of ourselves that we are supposed to avoid, push aside, or just get over. We mourn because there are people who will always matter to us; there are people who we will always light a candle for; and there are people who showed us what living the faith actually looks like. We mourn because God gives us to each other as a gift - a gift meant to give us life. And that kind of gift is a love that no hole or void or empty feeling can ever overcome. The sadness we feel isn’t the end of the story. The space inside us that feels empty is a space God reserves for our loved ones to fill again. We who mourn are blessed not because of the holes that we carry but because God promises that these empty spaces won’t be the limit to the story God is already telling. Even though the candles we place today in this sandbox will eventually burn out, the light God gives to each of us is a light that will always burn bright. Blessed are those who today, mourn. Blessed are those who today, ache. Blessed are those today, who feel sad. And Blessed are those who knew us, who loved us, and who are with the Lord forever. 

Amen. 



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Seals: Revelation

This summer, my family and I visited the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington D.C. To escape the constant thunderstorms, we took shelter in a fake structure designed to look like a cave. One side was made up of a large piece of glass. Half of the glass was submerged under water, showing us animals swimming inside. We stood there for awhile, watching two sea lions dart around the water tank in circles. They would swim by us quickly, as if they were saying hello to us. They then swam as fast as they could to the other side of the tank and we could no longer see them. They circled like this over and over again. We were mesmerized by their speed, agility, and grace. My kids loved that they seemed to know we were there. We watched them. They played around with us. And, for a moment, our perceptions, viewpoints, and realities danced with each other. 

When the bible mentions seals, I instantly think of these kinds of animals. But I'm always wrong. In the bible, seals were emblems and symbols used to mark letters, packages, and other containers as being authentic and true. Vases were marked with a seal representing the ruler who owned it. A letter would have a little ball of melted wax shaped by a specific mold to show it came from a specific person. If the letter was opened, the seal would break. A seal was a sign that something (or someone) was authentic, unbroken, and tied to a specific lord or ruler. A seal showed who this item was from and who it belonged to.

Our reading from Revelation 7:9-17 today is a vision of what it looks like to be sealed by Christ. In our baptism, our forehead is marked with the sign of the cross. We are declared, in a very public way, as being someone who is authentically and materially part of Jesus Christ. We cannot earn this kind of declaration. None of us can ever be as perfect we should be. Instead, we are sealed in this way as a gift from Jesus himself. This seal is a promise that we do not live this life alone. Instead, we carry Christ with us no matter what. Like watching a seal swimming in a zoo, there are times when we cannot see Jesus. He might be on the otherwise of the tank that is our life. But he is never as far as we think he is. He is always just around the corner. He will meet us, challenge us, and change us with a love that can never be undone. And that love is a love that even death cannot break. 



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Is Or About? A Reformation 500 Celebration.

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, 'You will be made free'?" Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed."

John 8:31-36

My sermon from the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation (October 29, 2017) on John 8:31-36. We were thrilled to worship together with Pascack Reformed Church and First Congregational United Church of Christ! Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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In New York City near the Empire State Building, there’s an entire city block that’s one of my favorite places to go. 32nd street, between 5th Ave and Madison Avenue, is filled with karaoke bars, beauty shops, and bbq restaurants that let you grill seafood, meat, and vegetables right at your table. This block is the heart of Koreatown, a cultural hub for the 200,000 Koreans and Korean-Americans who call the City and the surrounding area - home. When I lived in New York City, I had an old roommate who introduced me to this place. She was born and raised in South Korea so when we went out, we’d let her order for everyone at the table. She’d look at the menu, pick a few dishes, and switch seamlessly between English and Korean as she ordered our meal. And then, once the food arrived, her stories would start. She’d introduce us to a new vegetable, telling us where it grew, how it was used, and when it was harvested. We learned what foods were served on holidays and which dishes her grandmother made to mark special occasions. In her stories, we met extended family members, visited distant villages, and reveled in the old legends and myths that make a culture what they are. The more we ate, the more we experienced the history, culture, and personal stories that made my roommate who she was. Events that I could read about in my history books - like the occupation of Korea by Japan prior to World War 2, the Korean War in the early 1950s, and the dictatorships and the struggle for democracy afterwards, were fleshed out as my roommate told these same stories but with the names of her family members baked in. One of the dishes she introduced to me is Budae Jjigae, known in english as Army Base Stew. After the cease-fire between North and South Korea was signed, food was in short supply. Processed meats from US military bases were smuggled and sold on the local black markets. Spam, Hot Dogs, and various kinds of ham were mixed with Kimchi, Baked Beans, scallions, and whatever else was lying around. Army Base Stew is one of those dishes where literally everything is thrown into a pot - and you have no idea what you’re eating - but it’s delicious - so you just keep on eating. This dish was invented because people were hungry. Families created Army Base Stew to feed each other and their neighbors. This dish tells a story and when eat it, especially if we’re not Korean or we don’t need food pantries or SNAP benefits to survive, this dish moves us to experience something new. This, I think, is one of the amazing things that happens when we mix meals with stories. When we eat together, every story spoken around the table connects, mixes, and forms something new. Instead of learning about someone else’s history and culture, we encounter it, discovering a history and an identity that’s filled with real people with real names. When we listen to these stories over steaming stews, plates of food, and when we’re surrounded by bread and drink - the chewing on the food and the chewing on the words - changes us. We are no longer what we were before. The story and its storyteller have left their mark.

So, it might be a little strange to begin this sermon on the 500th anniversary of a movement that started in Germany by describing a Korean dish that was invented in the 1950s and that I consumed in a city that didn’t even exist when Martin Luther posted his 95 thoughts about Jesus, faith, and the church on a big old church door in Wittenberg on Oct 31, 1517. But if we’re honest, all of us are doing something a little strange today too. At this very moment, we’re supposed to be in our different church buildings using our different liturgical and theological traditions to feed, grow, and reflect on our faith. Each one of our communities can trace their origin to what Luther started 500 years ago but every one of us, including the Lutherans, have traditions and experiences and expectations that put distance between us. We have a long history of using our arguments about God, Jesus, and the Christian faith to keep us from sitting at the same table. During these last 500 years, our churches are not used to coming together. What we’re doing now is still a new thing. We are, as churches, changing our own spaces to become places where we can tell our stories to each other. And one way we do that is, I think, by following, something Martin Luther knew very well. We share ourselves and our Jesus while eating a meal.

A few years after the Reformation started, Luther was given an old monastery as a home. His wife, Katie Luther, had gifts and abilities Martin didn’t. She was the one who could manage the household, oversee their ten employees, keep track of their finances, and she made sure that their 50 person table was open to anyone who stopped by. Luther had a habit of inviting everyone to dinner. Locals and visitors, university professors and students, the rich and the poor, men and women, boys and girls would gather at that table. These dinners were more than just an opportunity to eat delicious food and enjoy a beer that Katie herself brew. Like our own dining room tables, the meal was a place to talk. We know a bit of what was shared around Luther’s table because people would take notes about what was said. Most of the time, students and theologians were trying to pick Luther’s brain, to get him to share a special insight about Jesus and the Christian faith. But for every question about Jesus, there was a story or a confession or a prayer rooted in an encounter with Jesus himself. Someone would admit feeling depressed or sad, sharing some personal demon that kept them awake at night. Another would ask about a piece of dogma or a rule of the church that was causing them some unbearable pain. Over the clatter of dinner plates and the clanging of glasses, the conversation didn’t stay in the “about stages” for very long. Instead, it dug deep into just how hard the faith of everyday life can be. Painful decisions, long periods of living in shadow, the joy of weddings, and even a father changing their child’s diaper - nothing was off limits at that table because, for Luther, nothing about our lives was off limits to God. It wasn’t enough to just know about Jesus. Jesus wanted to be encountered and experienced in the places God revealed him to be. Jesus didn’t want to wait for us to come to him. Instead, he chose to be with us in our everyday, even in those time and places when we are just living our life and don’t see Jesus right there with us. He is there when we shed tears of sorrow and tears of joy. He is there when we cry out in fear or in hope. He’s there when we have a decision to make that we just don’t want to or when everything right now seems easy and carefree. Our encounters with Jesus are not limited to moments that only feel super religiously. Even when we share a meal and tell stories with people who we don’t usually eat with, Jesus makes himself known to each of us. What matters to Jesus isn’t what we know about him. What he wants is for us to know him because he already knows us. When we came into this world, Jesus knew our name before we did. When we were baptized, we were publically acknowledged as belonging to His holy family. And as we grew up in our own families, cultures, traditions, and congregations, we learned stories that made us who we are and we were met by a Jesus telling us how his story, his life, his Cross, and his resurrection makes us into something new. As we celebrate this 500th anniversary of the Reformation and look forward to the years to come, we will keep doing something that is new and is old, all at the same time. We will keep sharing the stories that make us who we are; we will keep opening up our personal spaces so that we can listen to stories that are not our own; we will share bread and drink with all whom God puts in our path; and we will keep holding close to the One who encounters us with a gift of love, a gift of hope, and a gift of faith that frees us to live as Jesus’ people each and everyday.

 

Amen.



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Whose Head: What's in Your Wallet? (Sermon Manuscript)

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

Matthew 22:15-22

My sermon from the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (October 22, 2017) on Matthew 21:33-46. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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One of the “fun” questions my wife and I ask each other, usually as we’re coming home from a night out and there’s babysitter waiting at our house, is the question “do you have money?” And that’s a great question because I usually don’t. I don’t really carry cash. Instead, I’m a little old skool and I carry plastic. I came of age when credit card companies would literally throw cards at you during your first week in college. Over time, I discovered which cards gave me the most reward points and which restaurants didn’t overtly complain when my friends and I plopped down a pile of credit cards to pay for a meal. I’ll admit I didn’t always use credit cards the way I should. And there were times when paying the minimum balance was the only thing I could do. But I’m now at a place in my life where a piece of plastic, or an app on my phone connected to that piece of plastic, is how I physically pay for almost everything. And this credit is how I get to live my life. I’m a homeowner because of credit. I drive my mini-van because of credit. And I’m a pastor because credit let me figure out how to pay (and still pay) for seminary. Credit, to me, is a kind of promise. But it’s also more than that because credit creates relationships. I recently learned that credit and the rating agencies that support what credit can do came into being because people with money to lend and people who wanted that money needed a way to trust one another. That trust became a bond, a kind of faith, between people, moneylenders, and more. But this kind of faith comes with a lot of fine print. There are, in theory, rules everyone needs to follow. And when we borrow, we agree to be rated, to have the details of our life sniffed out so that we can be assigned a score, a number, that tells others our worth. Each credit card transaction is really an agreement, establishing a relationship, and using generations of legalese and case law to describe, in theory, how that relationship should work out. So last night, when I used my credit card to pay $1.89 for 2 cans of blacks beans, I entered into a faith-based relationship with Stop’N Shop and VISA - where the terms and conditions of that relationship were laid out in long bit of fineprint that I’ll never read. My regular, everyday life, needed those two cans of beans so I bound myself to an odd kind of faith that generates relationships and assigns value. I didn’t really think of the implications this all means when I inserted my credit card into a machine. But in light of today’s reading from Matthew, maybe I should.

Jesus’ words here are pretty famous. Even my non-Christian friends quote about what to give to the emperor and what to give to God. When we take Jesus’ words out of context, we can make these words mean whatever we want them too. But if we want to listen to what Jesus is saying, I think we should copy Jesus and do what he does in this passage. He doesn’t just talk to the Pharisees and Herodians, these religious and political groups trying to get Jesus into trouble. He asked them for a coin. And when they dig that coin out of their pockets to show him, I imagine Jesus actually taking that coin and holding it in his hand. A denarius is a Roman coin. And like our coins, it’s covered in symbols and images telling a story. We don’t know exactly what coin it was that Jesus held in his hands but it probably looked like one of our quarters. On one side was a picture of the head of Tiberius, the Roman Emperor, and it’s surrounded by words. The words tell us that Tiberius’ dad is Augustus and that Augustus was a god. On the other side of the coin was a picture of a woman, the Roman goddess of peace, holding an olive branch and a spectre. This peace would be a peace Rome would bring to the entire world… once it conquered it. The coin was more than just a piece of metal used to buy things. The coin was making a statement and a promise. The world, it said, belonged to Rome and the son of a god was sitting on its throne. The Roman war machine, it’s way of life, and it’s beliefs were the source of peace, prosperity, and hope in the world. These coins were worth something because Rome, with all it’s power, was worth everything. The worth of everyone in that crowd, according to that coin, was centered on Rome and nothing else. The people gathered around Jesus mattered because Rome defined their worth.

Now, I’ve never used a denarius to pay for anything. I’ve never called myself a Pharisee or a Herodian and I’m sure you haven’t either. We could, if we wanted to, leave Jesus’ words on the page. But what if we didn’t? What if listened to Jesus, took out our dollars, our checkbooks, our credit cards, and actually looked at the claim they make on our lives? My favorite credit card is dark steel gray, with a chip, two foil logos, and my name on the front. On the back is a magnetic strip, another foil logo, my name again, the credit card number, a few phone numbers, a website, and a statement that says “use of this card is subject to the cardmember agreement.” And then right there in the middle, is the place where I signed; where I agreed, in theory, to everything that card represents. I agreed to use it and let companies collect my information. I agreed to let them make judgments based on the information they collect. I agreed to support this even though their judgments about who is worthy of credit and who isn’t is still impacted by the legacy of racism, sexism, ageism, and predatory practices that sometimes help me and sometimes don’t. I even agreed, in some ways, to not even complain when I go through my yearly ritual of canceling my card and getting a new one because it’s number was stolen from me. To live the life I want to live, I am caught up in a system of credit that, because it’s created by humans, is never far from sin. We didn’t create credit or the sin of greed and racism and other systemic issues that infect the idea of credit or our use of it. And I don’t think any of us really asked to have our worth defined on an arbitrary scale from 300 to 850. Yet the value this system gives us can, through our participation in it, end up defining who we value...and who we don’t. Any faith, any tradition, any idea that gives us value impacts how we view the world and our neighbors. The coin the crowd brought to Jesus claimed that their value depended on Rome. But Jesus asked for this coin during the last week of his life while he was teaching in the Temple. Jesus is, at this very moment in the gospel according to Matthew, standing in the place God promised to dwell and he’s already in the shadow of the Cross. Our ultimate worth isn’t defined by our credit rating, or by our wealth, or by the systems of power and authority that we, as human beings, create, maintain, and reinforce without even thinking about them. Our ultimate worth is defined by the One standing there with that coin in his hand and who faces everything that coin represents: our false trust in power and might, our false belief that violence will bring us peace, and our complicity in the ways our life denies what’s life giving for those around us. Jesus takes all of that and heads to the Cross. He dies because of the things we value, but rises to show what God values instead. In our baptism [and even in the baptism of a young child like ----], our old value system, our old way of life, our old way of seeing who is important and who isn’t, is replaced by a faith that has no fineprint. This faith is a gift that says we’re loved. It’s a statement that we matter more than our credit score. Jesus gives us this gift knowing we won’t always know what to do in every situation and that we will, without thinking, participate in systems and a way of life that impacts others in negative way. Yet the gift he gives us is grounded in the choices God makes and the relationship God chooses. Jesus is loyal to us not because we will always be loyal to him - but because Jesus never gives up on those he loves. He loves us. He loves you. He loves this world [And he already loves ----]. We are given a faith that calls us to lean on God, to lean on Jesus, and lean on love even when our life going forward feels unsure, unsafe, and unknown. Jesus’ love is one credit card we can never max out and it will never be canceled on us, no matter what our credit score becomes. And when we lean on Jesus, we can finally discover how much Jesus value’s us and we will stop seeing ourselves and our neighbors as people only worth their 3 number score. We will see ourselves and our neighbors as Jesus sees us - as people worthy of a love that never stops giving.

 

Amen.



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Covered Up

I am all about those hoodies. As I write this reflection, I'm wearing my bright red hoodie with Ocean City written down one sleeve. Later tonight, you'll find me in another hoodie with the Denver Broncos' logo on the side. I love the season of Fall because I wear hoodies. And these hoodies are, in some ways, my security blanket. I spend this entire season in the warm embrace of a comforting piece of fabric. A hoodie does more than keep me warm. A hoodie makes me feel safe. And it's something I rarely want to shake off. 

Isaiah, in our first reading today (Isaiah 25:1-9), imagines death as a shroud. A shroud is a piece of fabric wrapped around us but this one brings no comfort. This shroud is one we cannot shake off on our own. In this passage, death is more than just something that we know will happen to us "eventually." Instead, as Walter Brrueggemann writes, "death here is an active force of negativity that moves to counter and cancel and prevent well-being." Death is the "power of diminishment," doing everything it can to interfere with our sense of wholeness and our relationship to each other and to God. Isaiah does recognize death as passive. It's not only something that will happen later. Death is active right now. And God promises to take everything that limits life and swallow it up. God is active against death because God is, at the core, life-giving. 

This reality of death as an active force is not something everyone experiences in the same way. If we own our own home, have health insurance, and know where our next meal is coming from, death feels a bit far away from us. But if we are vulnerable, poor, or suffering, death's activity (as described by Isaiah) is very real. Isaiah raises up the promise you were given in your baptism and it is the same process the world was given in through the Cross: you will not be defined by a world that diminishes you. Your value rests in the One who holds you forever. "Biblical faith is not a moral system; it is not a mode of holding on or staying in control. It is rather an act of yielding in the present to the assurances given for God's future." You are already part of God's future because you are already part of God's world. But we need to remember that God's world is not the same as our own. Inequality and the ways we diminish and dismiss each other is not life as God imagines it to be. We are called to work against the forces of death because we are wrapped up in something more. We are clothed in the person and body of Jesus Christ. And this Jesus is more than just our security blanket for something that will happen later. Jesus is an active right now, transforming us and our world to make God's future a reality in our lives. 



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Speechless: Another Violent Parable

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 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.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 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. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.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.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Matthew 22:1-14

My sermon from the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (October 15, 2017) on Matthew 22:1-14. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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I sometimes wonder if our structure of scripture interferes with scripture itself. As Christians, we chose long ago to split the Bible into the Old Testament and the New. The Old Testament starts with Genesis - with the beginning of the universe - and tells how God choose slaves in Egypt to be the chosen people. The text is filled with songs, heroes, villains, and prophets. As Christians, we see in its pages the foreshadowing of Jesus and the promise that, through the Jewish people, the world will be blessed. And then, chronologically at least, we skip 400 years or so - straight to Jesus’ birth. Even though we only have one bible, we talk about it as if it was two. And when we do that, we invite ourselves, I think, to split God into two as well. The story of ancient Israel is filled with wars and violence so the God of the Old Testament becomes war like, angry, and full of wrath. The God of the New, however, is more comforting; a kind shepherd who is busy watching over fluffy and carefree sheep. It's sometimes difficult to reconcile the two - to take the God who extends the hours in a day so an army can destroy their enemies with the same God who was born as a tiny little baby in a barn in Bethlehem. By splitting the Bible into two testaments, we've inherited a way of though, a structure, that doesn't always know what to do with this God we split in two. It feels like we're being asked to make a choice, to decide which version of God we’re going to follow. And we might end up clinging to the “nicer, more loving” version of God that we think only shows up in the New Testament because that's the God that feels more...safe. God is more comfortable when we split God in two. So knowing that we do that - look at this reading from the gospel according to Matthew again - and tell me: is this a story we can imagine our “nicer” God actually telling?

When I try to personally answer that question, I feel like my answer really depends on my mood. If I'm having a bad day and I feel exhausted by life, I read this story through verse 10 and then just stop. I'll stick with the welcome and ignore all that harsh and violent stuff. But if I'm feeling a bit angry, or upset, and I know that there are a whole bunch of folks who are doing this Jesus thing wrong, then it's easier for me to read this parable to the end. I mean, as long as I don't see myself as one of those who first ignored the king's invitation, and I'm not that guy without the robe, and I'm not one of the “them,” the chief priests and religious leaders Jesus told this parable to, then I'm okay with Jesus telling this parable because it really has nothing to do with me. Sure, it's violent and gruesome, but as long as I get to make the claim that I am one of the good guys in this story, then I'm okay splitting God in two, because Jesus’ harsh words are never really meant for me. But Jesus doesn't let us pretend as if these parables are meant only for other people. As a colleague of mine likes to say, “if the parables Jesus told doesn't make you uncomfortable, then you need to read them again.” Matthew 22 is a moment when our “nice” God is saying something to us we can't imagine God actually saying. It's as if Jesus is breaking down the barriers we build to keep the parts of God we don't like away from the parts we do. Jesus is keeping us on our toes by not letting us keep God safe. Jesus is showing us that there's a very real consequence when we come to his party and we’re not wearing the robe that God already gave to us.

One of the things I do as a pastor is visit people in their homes. And when I come by, I sometimes bring communion. I have this little kit with five individual communion cups, a little bottle for wine, and a little brass container filled with wafers. I'll pull out this kit, set everything up on a table, bench, or even the floor, and then we share the body and blood of Jesus - together. But, sometimes, before this little ritual starts, the silence I need to set everything up is broken by a question. If they've never had communion at home before, they'll wonder what they're supposed to do. If there is something on their mind, they’ll blurt it out as I place the communion cups on the table to share. And then sometimes, the fact that it's just the two of us creates a kind of intimacy that causes deeper questions, concerns, and fears to come to light. I'll discover the last time they had communion and why they haven't had it since. I'll discover some broken relationship that's never been repaired and they'll ask if Jesus can do what they cannot. And some will wonder if they can even receive communion because, at that moment, they don't even know what they believe in. When the table is set, when Jesus is right there, ready to serve you, we can sometimes be almost speechless except for the wonder, anxiety, fear, worry, and hope swirling in our souls. I can’t help but hear an unspoken question being asked at that moment. Am I, are we, truly worth Jesus?

And the answer to that is simply...yes. You are worth Jesus. You are worth this Son who lived and died and rose again to say you're worth all of that and even more. Because the story of God is about a story where God who clings to those whom God choose. And this kind of choice isn't something you and I get to do. God makes God’s choices. And the God of the Old Testament and the New chooses people and that same God chose you. We know that, as individuals, we were given a special gift, a special robe, making it known that made we are worth this Jesus thing. The robe we wear is the robe God gives to us in our baptism. It's a promise that you are worthy of the love that God gives you. And it's also an invitation to trust that this love we are given, this love that we did nothing to earn and that we often struggle against, is a love that truly change everything. We are no longer the ones who get to ignore or fight against the invitation God gives. We are no longer known only as the uninvited who only get to come to the party because others said no. We are already a part of it, eating the finger foods, sitting down for the 12 course meal, and drinking special little drinks with funny little straws. The party God is throwing is a party that is still going on. We don't get to control the guest list. We don't get to decide how to keep this party safe for only people like us. Instead, we have to live as if we are truly worth the kind of all inclusive party that can include imperfect people like us. The robe we were given might be invisible to our eyes but it's something that we have and it's a robe meant to be worn and lived out. It's a robe that tells us to, no matter what, just love. When we see fear, we are called to bring hope. When we see suffering, we are called to make the personal sacrifices necessary for others to be healed. And when we are finally face to face with doubt, sorrow, anxiety, and worry; when the soul you see in front of you is in as much turmoil as your own; and you don't know what to do, or say, and you feel like you have nothing to offer and nothing to share; just give Jesus because Jesus is already there.

Amen.



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Oriented to the Son: Isaiah 5

What do you always get when you go grocery shopping? For me and my house, we get grapes. Each week, I make a pitstop at the crates of grapes. The crates are usually stacked and taller than me. The grapes are black, red, green, seedless, and seeded. When grapes are on sale, I celebrate. When they are not, I buy them anyways. My youngest and I love grapes. And we both know just how wild grapes can be.

In a previous life, my landlord grew grapes in his backyard in Queens. They crawled up a lattice, forming a canopy over a concrete deck. Those grapes were green, plump, and sweet. When I moved to Paramus, my yard was full of wild grapes. Vines choked trees, bushes, and the house itself. Those grapes were small and tasted awful. The well cared for grapes in Queens and the unruly ones in Paramus both, however, chased the sun. The spots on the ground where the rays of the sun touched were the places where grapes sprouted. Without the sun, nothing grew. 

Vineyards take work. It takes time and effort to make grapes grow the way we want them to. In ancient times, vineyards were a sign of wealth and prestige. They were also a metaphor for love, fertility, and relationships. The care needed to make a vineyard work was a stand-in for the care needed to make a relationship blossom. When Isaiah starts our first reading today (Isaiah 5:1-7), people think they know what he is talking about. They look for words of love but they are met with something else. Isaiah is speaking to the entire community, including its political leaders, priests, and those with enough food to eat. He shows them the world they've created. God, who cares for God's people, is not seeing God's people care for each other in the same way. Where God expects justice and help for the vulnerable, God is seeing oppression, violence, and death. God expected God's people to share a love-song with each other but there's only injustice instead. 

So how do we sing a love-song for each other? This isn't easy. Disagreements are a normal part of life and hurting each other is something we are good at. We do not usually notice the ways we harm the people around us. We can become lost in our own vineyard, focused only on ourselves. But we also have a way to move past this vineyard of one. We have the Son. Through the gift of baptism, we are united with the one who knows how to keep God's love at the center of everything. When we keep close of Jesus, the fruit of our work is changed. What we do becomes life-giving to those around us. When we stay oriented to the Son in a conscious and intentional way, justice, healing, and wholeness becomes all that we do. 



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Renovation: Violent Texts after Violent Events (sermon manuscript)

“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

Matthew 21:33-46

My sermon from the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (October 8, 2017) on Matthew 21:33-46. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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Growing up, I had a friend who bragged that his dad was the very first person in Colorado to buy a red minivan. This “state changing” event took place in the late 80s and was as a point of personal pride for my friend. Before this, roadways in Colorado were blah - filled with tan, beige, and dull people movers. But once his dad made the bold and visionary choice to buy a bright red Dodge Caravan, the streets of Colorado were never the same. Now, if I'm honest, I never really believed my friend. His dad was a nice guy but he was never a trend setter. I couldn't see him somehow convincing the entire mini-van buying population of Colorado to change. Instead, I thought my friend never saw the red minivans on the road before because until his dad bought one, he didn't have to. Minivans are usually boring vehicles to look at. They're not designed to be seen or paid attention to. But once a red minivan was sitting in my friend’s driveway, once he had to ride in one to and from school everyday, his eyes were finally opened and he saw the red minivan truth that was all around him. He thought the world had suddenly changed once his dad bought a red minivan but it hadn't. My friend just had no reason to see any red minivans until his dad came home with one. This phenomenon of not noticing what's really around you until it becomes personal is something that's been in the back of my head these last few days. I think this phenomenon shows up regularly when we read and hear scripture. We can read the same text from the Bible over and over again but then something changes and we see something we haven't seen before. We might hear the words spoken by a different voice, experience them in a new place, or just be at a point in our life when these words impact us in a very different way. And sometimes, there are events, events outside our control that just seem to keep happening. And then the words we hear on Sunday take on a new meaning. 

For me, in light of last Sunday’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, I wish we didn't have these scripture passages today. I wish the passage from Isaiah didn't say bloodshed. I wish the parable Jesus shared in Matthew didn't talk about people being violently killed. And I wish Jesus didn't describe himself as a cornerstone that somehow bashes and breaks the people it encounters. Couldn't this be a Sunday where Jesus welcomed little children? Couldn't it be a Sunday where Jesus healed someone? If I picked the Bible passages for each Sunday, something more...comforting...would be on our agenda today. But today's readings were assigned by our lectionary, a three year cycle of texts a team of scholars from many different Christian traditions put together years ago. When they crafted this cycle, they didn't know Las Vegas would happen. They didn't know that another record breaking hurricane would be hitting the gulf or that 88% of Puerto Rico would still be out of power after hurricane Maria hit 18 days ago. They didn't know that the threat of war might be keeping us up at night. They didn't know about the countless things dominating our news cycle right now. And those crafters of the lectionary also didn't know what our personal lives would be like, right now. They didn't know about the fears or anxieties or worries we brought with us into church today. They didn't know about our broken hearts, our financial concerns, or the hard choices we’re being asked to make. Those scholars didn't know the personal prayers we repeat every night, those secrets that we hold and wished we could share, and the tears we shed for our loved ones who seem to find a new rock bottom everyday. 

Now I believe that the lectionary was inspired by the Holy Spirit. I believe God was personally involved in making sure we hear the words God knows we need. But that's also a bit of a problem because we, sadly, aren't God. As much as we would like to tell God how we want God to make us feel, God wants more than being reduced to some kind of feel-good magician in our lives. God wants us to know honest-to-goodness love. God wants us to experience true mercy. God wants us to expect unbelievable hope. And God wants us to live, right now, knowing that God made a bold choice by saying “you are worth living and dying for.” That kind of life isn't going to always feel good or comfortable because that kind of life requires us to see the world as it truly is. We can't act as if our personal perspectives and our personal experiences are the one true reality. We live in the world God made and tends. We are not the center of the world. The words Jesus shares with us are not always peaceful because we are not as peaceful as God made us to be. Jesus talked about violent tenants, killings, and other acts of violence because these are images and experiences we are all familiar with. We might never personally experience a mass shooting but if we can hear about it, imagine it, and feel that kind of terror in our souls, then we are never as distant from the kind of violence as we might like to imagine ourselves to be. We can't just shrug our shoulders and pretend that this is normal, that this is just the way things are meant to be, and that there is nothing we can do change it. That way of thinking assumes that violence is part of what God’s reality is all about. But when we see Jesus, and pay attention to his story, that thought is re-written. When Jesus was arrested and threatened by clubs and swords, he did not lash out. When he was tortured, interrogated, and sentenced to the most violent and shameful death known in the ancient Roman world, he called for no army from above to save him. And when the same crowd that inspired fear in the Pharisees and sadducees today demanded Jesus crucifixion just a few days later, Jesus prayed for those who killed him. And then when he rose on that first Easter morning, he sent his followers to preach, teach, serve, and heal. The violence we inflict on each other is not part of God’s normal. It's not part of the kingdom of God that Jesus talked constantly about. When violence happens, we mourn, we shed tears, we cry out, we protect each other, and we ask why. And then we move forward, living into a reality where the pain we inflict on each other is not treated like it's some kind of natural disaster, some kind of act of God that we are helpless to do something against. Instead we notice the true acts of God, the acts of Jesus himself, who did not let our violence win and who promised that no matter what may come,  the violence in this world will never overwhelm the eternal love, mercy, and grace God gives to you. Because you are still worth living, dying, and rising for. You are worth living in God’s eternal reality where violence is no more. And since you are worth all of that, we are invited to see experience a foretaste of that reality right now. 

Amen.


 



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