Sunday’s sermon: Finding Ourselves in the Dark Woods

Gifts of the Dark Wood

Texts used – Psalm 139; Matthew 14:22-30; 16:13-18a

  • The world of fiction has long since taught us that deep, dark woods are something to be avoided – something to be feared.
    • Fairy tales
      • Hansel and Gretel lose their way in a deep, dark woods and end up on the dinner menu at the witch’s house
      • Beauty and the Beast – Beast’s castle is buried deep in a dark wood
      • Prolific composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim even composed an entire musical about all the formidable and terrible goings-on in the dark woods: Into the Woods → a handful of the most recognizable fairy tale characters (Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Jack/beanstalk, etc.) meet within the depths of the deep, dark woods as they try to avoid the pitfalls of their own stories
    • Epic stories
      • The Forbidden Forest in Harry Potter books is clearly a dark and dangerous place … otherwise, J.K. Rowling wouldn’t have called it “The Forbidden Forest,” right? → home to fearsome beasts (volatile centaurs, giant spiders, etc.)
      • Deep, dark woods are never a good place in Tolkien’s Middle Earth → both Mirkwood (Hobbit) and the Forest of Fangorn (Lord of the Rings) bring menace and danger at every twist and turn
        • Tolkien’s dark woods = such a thorough presence of evil that they basically end up being characters in and of themselves
    • Classic literature
      • Wizard of Oz: Dorothy runs into all sorts of trouble as she tries to make her way through the dark woods
      • Beginning of Dante’s Inferno: “In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a Dark Wood where the true way was wholly lost.” → analysis: In Dante’s understanding, the Dark Wood is a place of confusion, emptiness, and stumbling that is entered because of our sin and is inhabited by strange and terrifying denizens.”[1]
  • Over and over and over again, we’ve been told that the deep, dark woods are a bad thing. They are scary. They are uncertain. They are dangerous. Don’t go there! But what if that advice is wrong? What if those deep, dark woods that we encounter in our lives are actually our places of deepest, most profound growth and learning? What if those deep, dark woods are where God and the leadings of the Holy Spirit are most clearly revealed to us? → idea that we’re going to spend the summer exploring with the help of a book: Gifts of the Dark Wood by Eric Elnes[2]
    • Each chapter (and, subsequently, each summer sermon) explores different gifts that we find in those “dark wood” moments in our lives … gifts that don’t necessarily strike us as gifts at first glance.
      • E.g.s – next week: “The Gift of Uncertainty,” my favorite: “The Gift of Misfits”
    • Today: tackle the idea of the dark wood
      • What is it?
      • Why is it?
      • How do we find ourselves in it?
      • Where is God in it?
  • At its core, the Dark Wood – as understood in literature and as presented in the book – is a place in which we are confronted with the unexpected and, at least on the surface, the undesired.
    • Can see this in the titles of the various chapters – The Gift of …
      • Uncertainty
      • Emptiness
      • Being Thunderstruck
      • Getting Lost
      • Temptation
      • Disappearing
      • Misfits
      • When we’re honest with ourselves, none of these things sound appealing to us, right? Nobody wants to live in uncertainty. Nobody likes getting lost. Nobody likes wrestling with temptation or feeling empty. And yet, that’s the reality of life, isn’t it? We do find ourselves in those places.
        • Disciples find themselves in one of those places in our NT reading this morning – text: Meanwhile, the boat, fighting a strong headwind, was being battered by the waves and was already far away from land. Very early in the morning [Jesus] came to his disciples, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified and said, “It’s a ghost!” They were so frightened they screamed.[3]  unmitigated fear, immediate danger, and definite uncertainty … Dark Wood
        • Peter especially finds himself in a “dark woods” place – text: Peter replied, “Lord, if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus said, “Come.” Then Peter got out of the boat and was walking on the water toward Jesus. But when Peter saw the strong wind, he became frightened. As he began to sink, he shouted, “Lord, rescue me!”[4]  Peter thought he had it all wrapped up. He was pure confidence. “Lord, if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water.” In his mind: “I’ve got this. No sweat. I’m strong enough … brave enough … secure enough to handle this.” But then things get uncertain and scary and dangerous and dark … and Peter starts to go down. Surely not the experience he anticipated when he swung his legs up and over the side of that boat.
  • Because of the prevalence of this story – it’s probably one of the most familiar stories out of the gospels – and because of the inevitability of those “dark woods” places in all of our lives, Christians have been wrestling with the idea and theology of them for centuries, and not all of them have come to the conclusion that dark woods are places and experiences to avoid.
    • Elnes: Another side of the tradition, represented especially by the ancient Christian mystics, understood struggle not as punishment for sin, but as the central context in which revelation takes place. … All of them insisted that the Dark Wood is a place where one receives strange and wondrous gifts whose value vastly exceeds whatever hardships are encountered there. The Dark Wood is where you meet God.[5]  Let’s look back at our gospel story. At the very beginning, Jesus “made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds.”[6] Then he goes off on his own for a while. We don’t know how long Jesus intended to stay up on that mountain praying by himself. We don’t know when he intended to join the disciples. All we know is that, when they encounter rough waters in the middle of the lake and are in trouble – when they find themselves in that frightening, “dark woods” place – Jesus comes to them. Jesus … Emmanuel … “God With Us” comes to them on the water, joining them in that place where they least expected him to be.
      • Blowing their minds
      • Shattering their expectations
      • Stretching their faith
      • Expanding their understanding
      • And Jesus comes to them not because they’ve got it all together and are expertly navigating those waves on their own but exactly because they are in a time and place when everything seems to be falling apart. – Elnes: The mystics taught that in the Dark Wood you discover who you are and what your life is about, flaws and all. … In the Dark Wood you bring all your shortcomings with you, not in order to purge them or be judged by them, but to embrace them in such a way that your struggles contribute meaningfully to the central conversation God is inviting you to have with life.[7]  It’s about recognizing and embracing those struggling places – those “dark woods” – for what they are: places where we are desperate for God to show up, not in the ways that we expect or in the ways that we want but in the way that we most deeply, truly need God. Because it is often in those moment that we find our truest strengths, our greatest gifts, and our deepest reassurances.
  • Our OT reading for this morning, Ps 139, gets not at the “how” or the “what” of Dark Woods this morning but the “why” of God finding us in and amongst the shadowy tangles.
    • Text: Lord, you have examined me. You know me. You know when I sit down and when I stand up. Even from far away, you comprehend my plans. You study my traveling and resting. You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways. There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord, that you don’t already know completely. You surround me – front and back. You put your hand on me. … You are the one who created my innermost parts; you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb. I give thanks to you that I was marvelously set apart. Your works are wonderful – I know that very well. My bones weren’t hidden from you when I was being put together in a secret place, when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth. … Examine me, God! Look at my heart! Put me to the test! Know my anxious thoughts! Look to see if there is any idolatrous way in me, then lead on the eternal path![8]  reassurance that God knows us – all the parts of us, up and down, sideways and slant-ways, good and bad and ugly, and everything in between – and that God still chooses us, still love us, still claims us
      • Means that God desires to be present with us, especially in those “dark woods” places when we feel most lost, most empty, most vulnerable, most in need
  • BUT … we have to be willing to receive God in those moments. We say that we are. Few prayers are prayed more frequently and fervently than those uttered in “dark woods” moments. “God, help me! God, be with me! God, guide me!” But when it comes down to it, we have to be willing to not only say we’re asking for God’s guidance but to actually follow that guidance.
    • Said it before, say it again  the most dangerous prayer you can pray is one we pray every single Sunday: “Thy will be done”
    • Elnes gets to the crux of the matter: I do know that when it comes to making decisions that truly affect my life’s path – or the path of others – the Holy Spirit always has an opinion. But do I listen? … If there is a will, the Spirit makes a way. And the Spirit’s way is frequently unexpected. Part of what it means to seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance in life’s Dark Wood is to learn how to rearrange the seating arrangement at your inner dinner table on a daily basis in order to hear the Spirit’s quiet, unassuming whispers.[9]
      • When we’re in those “dark woods” moments, what we want is for the Spirit to lead us out as quickly and painlessly as possible. “Take me into the sun again. Put my feet on the easy path – the one that’s smooth and flat and straight. Remove these obstacles that block the way so I can keep going the way I’m ” What we don’t expect is for the Spirit to lead us deeper into the woods, deeper into the dark. But sometimes that’s the way we need to go in order to find the best version of “us” that God intended us to be from Day 1.
        • Journey can look like struggling
        • Journey can look like aimless wandering
        • Journey can look like failure
        • Elnes: Failure can indicate that something is going right, not wrong.[10] – see that in our Gospel story  Peter sank. Like a rock … like a big, dumb rock. Pretty obvious failure, right?
          • End of today’s reading: Now when Jesus came to the area of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Human One is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” He said, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Then Jesus replied, “Happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you. Rather my Father who is in heaven has shown you. I tell you that you are Peter. And I’ll build my church on this rock.”[11]  Would Peter have been so sure in this response if he hadn’t had his “dark woods” experience of sinking in the middle of the lake and being rescued by Jesus? We can’t be sure, but an experience like that certainly had to have been formative in his belief and trust in the man that he was following – this Jesus character, this Messiah, this Son of the living God.
  • So as uncomfortable, as undesirable, as unintentional as they might be, who knows what we might find out – about God and about ourselves – in those “dark woods” places in our lives? Where is the Spirit trying to lead you? Where is your path taking you? Where have you been reluctant to follow? We can ask the same questions to ourselves as this congregation as well. But more important than asking the questions is having the boldness and the courage to step out along that path and follow. So into the Dark Wood we go. Amen.

[1] Eric Elnes. Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers). (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), 6.

[2] Eric Elnes. Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers).

[3] Mt 14:24-26.

[4] Mt 14:28-30.

[5] Elnes, 6.

[6] Mt 14:22.

[7] Elnes, 6, 7.

[8] Ps 139:1-5, 13-15, 23-24.

[9] Elnes, 16-17, 20-21.

[10] Elnes, 21.

[11] Mt 16:13-18a.

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Sunday’s sermon: The Greatest April Fool’s Joke Ever

Easter April Fools

Texts used – Mark 16:1-8; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

  • Christ is Risen, He is Risen indeed! Alleluia! Happy Easter! No sermon today! [PAUSE] April Fools’!! (Hey, my other option for an April Fool’s joke this morning was to fake labor, so count your blessings, people!) Yes, today is Easter: a day to celebrate Christ’s resurrection and God’s triumph over death for all time – an empty tomb, a risen Lord, and a gospel quite literally come alive. And yes, today is also April Fool’s day: a day to celebrate laughter and fun and good-natured pranks – silly jokes, fool’s errands, and a little frivolity. And I have to tell you that these two holidays landing on the same day – which hasn’t happened in more than 60 years – was just too good an opportunity to pass up. Because while they may seem unrelated on the surface, Easter and April Fools’ Day have a lot more in common than we may think.
  • History of April Fools’ Day = somewhat uncertain
    • Some think it started in France back in the late 1500s when the date of New Year’s was moved from Apr. 1 to Jan. 1 → those who were slow to hear about/pick up on the change were teased about being foolish that they were still celebrating the new year on the wrong date
    • Could also be linked to ancient Roman festival of Hilaria celebrated at the end of Mar. during which people dressed up in disguises
    • Started growing in popularity in England/Scotland back in the 1700s with typical practical jokes and pranks
      • E.g., Scotland: “Gowkie Day” for “gowk” = cuckoo or a fool – people are sent on phony, fool’s errands
  • And if we really think about it, our gospel passage this morning reads more like an April Fools’ tale than anything.
    • Basic outline
      • Women head to Jesus’ tomb after the Sabbath to anoint his dead body with the culturally-appropriate spices
      • Get to what was supposed to be a sealed tomb only to find that giant stone at the entrance rolled away
      • Enter the tomb → find a “young man” in a white robe who tells them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.”[1]
      • Women’s response: Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.[2]  → And friends, as far as scholars can tell, that is where Mark originally ended his gospel! No tender, sunrise reunion in the garden. No joyful declaration of a risen Christ to the disciples. No appearance of the resurrected Jesus whatsoever. It’s an ending that is as immediate and abrupt as the rest of Mark’s storytelling and delivery throughout the rest of the gospel. The women are terrified. They run. And they tell … no one.
        • In Bible: 3 separate endings to the gospel of Mark
          • 1st and most ancient (therefore most authentic) = where we ended our reading today
          • “The Shorter Ending of Mark”: They promptly reported all of the young man’s instructions to those who were with Peter. Afterward, through the work of his disciples, Jesus sent out, from the east to the west, the sacred and undying message of eternal salvation.
            • Pretty clearly a later addition to the gospel → doesn’t match the rest of Mark in either writing style or understanding of who Jesus is
            • Sort of a “just kidding” ending: “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid … EXCEPT THAT they promptly reported all of the young man’s instructions to those who were with Peter.” → definitely feels like an “April Fools’!” sort of ending
          • “The Longer Ending of Mark” = 9 more verses that speak of the resurrected Jesus appearing to Mary, then to two more disciples “as they were walking into the country” (sound like the road to Emmaus, anyone?), then to the rest of the disciples, and finally finishes with a sending commandment: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news to every creature.”[3]  → Scholars agree that this longer ending was probably written and added sometime during the 2nd century – more than 100 yrs. after the gospel itself was written – because it draws on themes and stories from some of the other gospels.
    • In truth, the ending of Mark’s gospel reads a lot like an April Fools’ story: a young man in a white robe sending these poor, stunned, frightened women on a fool’s errand to spread the news about a resurrected Rabbi that no one has even seen! Of course they’re going to run away! Of course they’re going to keep their mouths shut and not tell anyone! Why would anyone believe their wholly implausible tale? They probably didn’t even believe it themselves right away … and they were there!
  • But the foolishness of Easter goes beyond the absurd and incredulous nature of the events of that morning. Of course we now believe this unbelievable tale because it is the basis of our faith – that God resurrected Christ from the dead in order to bring us new and everlasting life through the gift of grace. But the whole premise of that is foolishness as well, isn’t it? Death is supposed to be permanent, undeniable, “written in stone.” And yet, on that first Easter morning, death did not have the last word. God stole the punchline away from an eternity of darkness and uncertainty, instead offering grace upon grace and a place in the eternal Kingdom. God offered light in the face of darkness. God offered hope. God offered resurrection.
    • Back in Feb., when Ash Wed. also fell on Valentine’s Day, began monthly newsletter article with definition of “irony”: a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result → By this definition, I think we could call the whole idea of resurrection and the whole Easter story irony in the extreme! A resurrected Jesus is definitely an event deliberately contrary to what was expected, and is, frankly, pretty darn amusing.
    • Paul proclaims this in our NT passage for today – just how foolish faith is and yet how God works wonders in even the most inconceivable foolishness: The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved. It is written in Scripture: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will reject the intelligence of the intelligent. Where are the wise? Where are the legal experts? Where are today’s debaters? Hasn’t God made the wisdom of the world foolish? In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom. Instead, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of preaching. Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called – both Jews and Greeks – Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.[4]
      • Additional, later endings of Mark’s gospel = perfect illustrations of this → human “wisdom” trying to come up with a better ending to the story … as if God’s ending wasn’t good enough
        • Scholar: The story of Jesus does not end with his death. God has done something new, something unheard of to this point. The crucified one is now the risen one, but risen to a new life, rather than simply to more of the same life. … A sense of incompleteness to the story clearly reflects the truth that it is God who is at work. God is not done with the Christian community yet.[5]
    • Sometimes – often times! – we as humans take ourselves too seriously. We look for the downfall and the destruction and the signs of death all around us – in our relationships, in our jobs, in our society, in our environment, in everything! – but we forget that we are not the be-all-end-all. We forget that our knowledge, our understanding, our “wisdom” pales in comparison to that of the God who created us – that even God’s foolishness is wiser than our very wisest moments, even God’s weakness is stronger than our strongest days. We forget that God is indeed a resurrection God – a God who was not and is not finished yet in this world. And in the face of that unbelievable and yet undeniable truth, we forget to keep our eyes and our expectations open to those flashes of God still at work in the world and the people around us.
      • Resurrection = perfect example of this → God took something as final and cold and barren as death and turned it on its head with the resurrection
        • Resurrection = filled with light
        • Resurrection = dynamic (energy and movement and commotion)
        • Resurrection = not the end of the story but a whole new beginning
  • And having Easter – this day of ultimate resurrection, the day in which God triumphed over sin and death for all time – having this high holy day land on April Fool’s Day, a day of practical jokes and hoaxes, is all too poignant. The tomb that was supposed to contain the broken body of the conquered and humiliated Teacher instead contained only empty grave clothes. Not even the greatest ironic writers and satirists today could have come up with a more staggering, more meaningful, more emphatic twist.
    • Also why having our Gospel reading on this Easter morning be Mark’s strange and seemingly-incomplete end to Jesus’ story is so perfect – scholar: The words with which Mark ends – [“Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid”] – are the necessary beginning point for any Easter proclamation. They express awe at what God has done in this life and death of Jesus. … [The women’s] silence is not a failed or inadequate response. Silence is a wholly appropriate response, because the women’s silence creates a space for the voice and presence of God to resound. … The women’s restraint and Mark’s parallel restraint in recounting the Easter story combine to allow a moment of holy awe for the reader of the Gospel.[6]  → So on this day, let us celebrate the ultimate, awe-inspiring, faith-forming foolishness of the resurrection. Let us bask in the unbridled joy of a Savior who has pulled the ultimate prank on death. Let us recognize the holy and the sacred in the midst of the absurd and the unpredictable. And let us be open to the possibility and grace of unexpected endings because in those moments of apparent imperfection, God is truly doing something new. Alleluia! Amen.

[1] Mk 16:6-7.

[2] Mk 16:8.

[3] Mk 16:15.

[4] 1 Cor 1:18-25

[5] Nelson Rivera. “Mark 16:1-8 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 532, 534.

[6] Gail R. O’Day. “Easter Vigil – Mark 16:1-8 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 355, 357.

Sunday’s sermon: Misplaced Treasure

misplaced treasure

Texts used – Psalm 36:5-11; Mark 14:1-16

  • Okay, so you may be saying to yourself this morning, “What is she doing? Doesn’t she realize she picked the wrong passage? Today is Palm Sunday. We’ve got our palm branches. Our bulletin cover is all about palms. We’ve sung our palm hymns. … So where is the Palm Sunday story – the adoring crowds, the preordained donkey colt, the shouted ‘Hosanna’s, the cloaks tossed on the road? What gives?” Well, friends, you would be right … in part. Yes, today is Palm Sunday. Today is the beginning of Holy Week – the beginning of our intentional march toward the cross with Jesus with the light of resurrection at the end of the tunnel.
    • Confession: Holy Week is my favorite time of the church year
      • Busiest time of the church year? For sure.
      • Also a time of deep contemplation
      • Time of wide variety of tactile, sensory-related experiences inextricably linked to our faith
        • Feel of the palm branches in your hands this morning
        • Smell and taste of the meal and the bread and juice on Maundy Thurs.
        • Visual impact of the progressive darkness as well as stark sounds during Good Fri. Tenebrae service
        • Sights and sounds of Easter morning – white paraments, color and brightness of the memorial garden, hymns of joy and praise
    • And yes, this is in part a shameless plug to try to get you to come to these various services this week. I know it’s a lot of church in one week … but each service, each story, each experience is so different. They all make up a piece of the Holy Week puzzle … which is exactly why we read the story that we did instead of the typical “Palm Sunday story” this morning – it’s a piece of the Holy Week puzzle.
      • Jesus had lots of different experiences between entering Jerusalem on a donkey that morning and being arrested by Pilate later in the week – very often, these other experiences get pushed aside to make way for the Holy Week stories we already know → But each of these different experiences sheds a different light on the week that Jesus was having – how he got to the cross, what he may have been thinking or feeling or praying in those days and hours leading up to that most horrible inevitable moment of death. So today, as we enter into this Holy Week journey together – the last leg of our Lenten journey – we’re going to take a look at a different piece of that Holy Week puzzle: the story most commonly known as “The Woman with the Alabaster Jar.”
  • Scripture sets the scene pretty well for us
    • First, gives us the climate in Jerusalem – text: It was two days before Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and legal experts through cunning tricks were searching for a way to arrest Jesus and kill him. But they agreed that it shouldn’t happen during the festival; otherwise, there would be an uproar among the people.[1]
      • Sets the timeline – 2 days before Passover = 2 days before Jesus celebrates the Last Supper in the upper room with his disciples (Maundy Thurs. for us)
      • Gives us some insight into the tone of the city
        • Joy and celebration of the Passover and the festival
        • Dark, ominous undertone of the chief priests and legal experts discussing and plotting how to best get rid of this Jesus rabble rouser once and for all → I imagine that, if this were a movie scene, the camera would be panning the crowd with light, fast-paced, happy music playing in the background, but when the camera focused in on the faces of the chief priests, that music would suddenly switch to a minor key, discordant and menacing – the kind that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
    • Briefly sets scene in terms of Jesus’ particular experience, too – text: Jesus was at Bethany visiting the house of Simon, who had a skin disease.[2]  → Now, this may be one quick sentence in the midst of this long story, but it tells us quite a lot.
      • Tells us that Jesus is once again eating with those whom he isn’t supposed to – namely, those who are unclean → Remember that at the time, many (if not all) diseases were considered some sort of punishment from God, either for something that you yourself had done or even some sin that you parents had committed. Those with diseases like Simon’s (other translations call him “Simon the Leper”) were considered unclean by the chief priests. The disease was outer evidence of their own inner sin, so they must remain apart from “good, honest, healthy folk.” And yet here Jesus is, not just having a simple conversation with this unclean man but sitting down and sharing his table – food, drink, ritual footwashing and other signs of peace. In the eyes of the Jewish leaders, this would have made Jesus unclean. He knew it. Simon knew it. The disciples knew it. But here he was anyway.
  • Story ramps up
    • Enter the woman with the alabaster jar → Now, this is one of those interesting times when, if we compare Mark’s version to the other versions of this story in both Matthew and Luke, their stories are quite different. Mark actually treats this woman much better than Matthew, Luke, or John in his retelling.
      • Other gospels – woman is cast in a sinful light (“woman of the city” → traditionally has been translated as a prostitute)
      • Other gospels – woman is obviously sinful because she is weeping as she anoints Jesus → washes his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair (truly scandalous actions in that time and that religious tradition)
      • But Mark tells us none of those things. Mark simply tells us that she came in, broke open the jar, and began anointing Jesus. Perhaps Mark, in all his quick storytelling and immediacy, is just trying to save words and time. Perhaps the details of exactly who she was weren’t as important to him. Or perhaps Mark was just a little less judgmental than his later gospel counterparts. We don’t know. But it’s an interesting element to the story.
    • In Mk’s version, it’s not the woman’s presence that is so problematic to the disciples but her actions – her wastefulness! – text: During dinner, a woman came in with a vase made of alabaster and containing very expensive perfume of pure nard. She broke open the vase and poured the perfume on [Jesus’] head. Some grew angry. They said to each other, “Why waste the perfume? This perfume could have been sold for almost a year’s pay and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her.[3]  → This is hard, because we cannot truly fault the disciples in this reaction. After all, they’ve spent the past 3 years traveling around with Jesus helping those who could not help themselves – healing people, casting out demons, spending time with those who had been cast out of “decent society” for one reason or another. They had heard Jesus’ teachings about how those who are poor and meek and humble will be blessed while those in power and wealth are in for a rough go of it. And yet here comes this woman with her insanely expensive jar filled with insanely expensive perfume, and she just dumps the whole darn thing over Jesus’ head! Truth, y’all, I might have been grumbling, too.
    • Jesus calls them out … not for their complaining and grumbling (like we might expect), but for their attitude … for their misinterpretation – text: Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me. You always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do something good for them. But you won’t always have me. She has done what she could. She has anointed my body ahead of time for burial. I tell you the truth that, wherever in the whole world the good news is announced, what she’s done will also be told in memory of her.”[4]  → Once again, as throughout most of Mark’s gospel, the disciples have utterly and completely missed the point.
      • Not the first time that Jesus mentions his death in this gospel → Jesus makes three separate announcements of his death earlier one (chs. 8-10) but the disciples failed to hear and understand
    • Goes on to set up the rest of the Holy Week story
      • Dissatisfaction with this interaction = last straw for Judas → goes to the chief priests to “give Jesus up to them” for money
      • Takes us to the day of Passover → Jesus’ instructions to the disciples for finding the upper room: “Go into the city. A man carrying a water jar will meet you. Follow him. Wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I can eat the Passover meal with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs already furnished. Prepare for us there.”[5]
      • Final line that will get us into Maundy Thurs.: The disciples left, came into the city, found everything just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover meal.[6]
  • But let’s back up a minute. In our story for today, Jesus is once again trying to drive the point home that he has very little time left with this group of followers. He’s trying to point out to them that they have placed the highest value on the wrong thing, on the material objects – the jar and the expensive perfume – as opposed to on the One in their presence, the Son of God, the Savior.
    • Scholar: The temptation [Jesus] cautions against is not the moralistic one of “neglecting the poor,” so much as it is the theological one of considering ourselves so rich as not to think we are in great need. Only the very rich can be so full of themselves as to afford the luxury of worrying about the stewardship of “costly ointment” when the abundance of God’s love is placed right before them.[7]  → The disciples are so concerned with the extravagance of the oil that they completely miss the extravagance of the love of God sitting right across the table from them. They have misplaced their treasure – putting stock in the physical, in the here-and-now, instead of in the holy.
      • Ps this morning reiterated for us just how truly precious the love of God is – text: But your loyal love, LORD, extends to the skies; your faithfulness reaches the clouds. Your righteousness is like the strongest mountains; your justice is like the deepest sea. LORD, you save both humans and animals. Your faithful love is priceless, God! Humanity finds refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the bounty of your house; you let them drink from your river of pure joy. Within you is the spring of life. In your light, we see light.[8]  → “Your faithful love is priceless, God!” That is what this coming week – this Holy Week – is all about: God’s faithful love poured out for us through Jesus Christ: through the Last Supper, through his arrest and torture and death, through the power of his resurrection.
        • Heb. for “faithful love” = powerful word in the Hebrew language, rich with meaning[9]
          • Love that always involves interpersonal relationships – must involve more than one person (cannot have “faithful love” for your new car, for example)
          • Love that always entails practical action on behalf of another → dynamic love that moves and does
          • Love that endures → another translation “steadfast love” – love of covenant and lasting relationships, love that does not tarnish or fade away
          • This is the kind of love that Jesus is encouraging the disciples to recognize and treasure. This is the kind of love that Jesus is preparing himself to literally pour out for them … for you … for me … for all as he walks through his own Holy Week trials. This is the kind of love that God has for each and every one of us.
  • So as we approach this Holy Week this year, let us do so thinking about the treasures in our lives. What do they say about us? What do they reveal about our intentions, our priorities, our triumphs and our hidden sins? What “treasures” have we placed above God in our lives? What is Jesus calling us to examine or re-examine during our Holy Week journeys this year? [PAUSE] Amen.

[1] Mk 14:1-2.

[2] Mk 14:3a.

[3] Mk 14:3b-5.

[4] Mk 14: 6-9.

[5] Mk 14:13-15.

[6] Mk 14:16.

[7] Thomas W. Currie. “Mark 14:3-9 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospel: Mark. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 444.

[8] Ps 36:5-9.

[9] Will Kynes. “God’s Grace in the Old Testament: Considering the Hesed of the Lord” from Knowing & Doing: The C.S. Lewis Institute, summer 2010 edition. Accessed via http://www.cslewisinstitute.org/webfm_send/430 on Mar. 25, 2018.

Sunday’s sermon: If You Open Your Heart

social justice

Texts used – Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 5:1-12

  • Peter and I were watching a movie this past week. We’re a bit behind the times, so it’s one many of you have probably seen already: “Hidden Figures.”[1]
    • Basic premise – follows the true story of three incredibly intelligent black women (Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughn) who worked for NASA during one of the most critical times of the Space Race back in the in early 1960s
      • Without giving too much away for those who haven’t seen it, this movie makes it clear just how crucial the actions and accomplishments of these women were to NASA’s function and successes at the time. But it also highlights the rampant racial tensions of the Civil Rights era.
    • Opening scene of the movie: 3 women all carpool into Langley together, their car is broken down on the side of the road on their way to work, one woman is working on fixing the car with the help of the other 2 when a state trooper shows up à Now for any of us in this room, if we were broken down on the side of the road and a state trooper showed up, we’d be thrilled. It would mean that help had arrived and that we were safe. But this was Virginia in the 1960s. These women were black. The trooper was white and male. Their first reaction wasn’t relief but intimidation and fear.
      • Reminder of the pervasiveness of the Jim Crow laws that made things so difficult and dangerous and unjust for African Americans living and working in the southern U.S. throughout the Civil Rights movement → Jim Crow laws starkly segregated black people and while people in the south from 1877-1967
  • Now, I bring up Jim Crow laws this morning because the final confessional document that we’re tackling during our Lenten sermon series – the Confession of Belhar – was written in a similar context.
    • Written as an outcry against apartheid in South Africa (1948-1991)
      • Apartheid laws = very similar to Jim Crow laws of the south → segregationist in the extreme, enforced by the state in ways that were often brutal and terroristic
    • Written by leaders of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South African in 1982 as an outcry against the way in which the Dutch Reformed Church had upheld and sanctioned the segregation and disunity of the races
      • The DRMC was specifically founded by DRC in the late 1800s to serve the “colored population” but the DRC reserved right to veto all decisions made by the DRMC, held title to all DRMC properties, and refused to allow black people and white people to share communion at the same table
    • Final draft of Belhar came out in 1986 → officially became part of the Book of Confessions in 2016
  • Now, there are a couple of unique things about the Confession of Belhar that are important.
    • 1) It’s the only confessional document that we have that comes from the global south – from a mission field → Friends, it’s no secret that the Church is on the decline in much of the northern hemisphere – here in the U.S., Canada, Europe, etc. But in the global south, the Church is growing in leaps and bounds. It is both powerful and vital that our Book of Confessions finally includes the voice of our brothers and sisters in this part of the world.
    • 2) Every single one of the “We believe” statements or paragraphs (down to the individual bullet points) come specifically from Scripture → I couldn’t figure out a way to easily fit this onto your bulletin insert today, but if you look at the text of the document in the Book of Confessions, you’ll see that there’s a specific Scriptural reference listed next to every statement except the “We reject” statements.
      • All confessional documents have Scripture woven into them in some way or another but none are based quite as heavily in Scripture as this one
    • 3) (and maybe most important) It’s the only confessional document that focuses the church’s confession solely on its own life → Not the ways in which the culture around us has influenced us but the ways in which we have sinned as the body of Christ. – from the letter written by the committee that worked on getting Belhar adopted by the PC(USA): It is far too easy for the church to look outside of its walls and find fault, all the while ignoring the sin in its own life. Belhar focuses the church’s attention on the way its own life and witness has fallen short of the gospel.[2]
  • Friends, this is where the rubber meets the road this morning. This is where our wrestling with this confessional document begins. This is where our Scripture readings for this morning fit in.
    • OT reading = God calling out for justice through the prophet Isaiah
      • Begins by calling the people out for their mistakes: Shout loudly; don’t hold back; raise your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their crime, to the house of Jacob their sins. They seek me day after day, desiring knowledge of my ways like a nation that acted righteously, that didn’t abandon their God. They ask me for righteous judgments, wanting to be close to God. “Why do we fast and you don’t see; why afflict ourselves and you don’t notice?” Yet on your fast day you do whatever you want, and oppress all your workers. You quarrel and brawl, and then you fast; you hit each other violently with your fists. You shouldn’t fast as you are doing today if you want to make your voice heard on high.[3]  → God is not mincing words here (not that God ever really does). Basically, it comes down to matching words and actions. Are our actions speaking a different message – proclaiming a different gospel, revealing a different God – than all of the flowery words and phrases that come out of our mouths? Do we speak too often of thoughts and prayers without following those good intentions up with solid actions? Do our actions outright contradict the faith that we supposedly claim as central to our way of life?
      • In lieu of these hypocritical fasts – these empty displays of faith – God goes on to describe exactly how we are to embody God’s message and mission in this world: Isn’t this the fast I choose: releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke, setting free the mistreated, and breaking every yoke? Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house, covering the naked when you see them, and not hiding from your own family? … If you remove the yoke from among you, the finger-pointing, the wicked speech; if you open your heart to the hungry, and provide abundantly for those who are afflicted, your light will shine in the darkness, and your gloom will be like the noon.[4]  → Caring for those in need, sharing from our own abundance, bringing together the body of Christ throughout the world instead of highlighting the things that separate us. These are the actions pleasing to God, plain and simple.
    • Importance of this also highlighted by Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount in our NT passage (most commonly referred to as The Beatitudes, or the Blessings): Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad. Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth. Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full. Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy. Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God. Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children. Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you.[5]  → Many of the blessings that Jesus lists in this passage are the opposite of what we desire for ourselves. We don’t seek to be hopeless. We don’t seek to be grieving. We don’t usually seek to be humbled (although we are often quick to claim humility as one of our many virtues). We don’t seek to be harassed or insulted. And yet Jesus lifts up these challenging, troublesome things as ways that we will indeed be blessed, not because God wants us to be beaten down and suffering, but because so many of God’s beloved children live their lives like this day in and day out, and God wants us to understand just how precious each and every person and their experience is to God. But to do so, like it said in Isaiah, we have to open our hearts to something or someone that may be wholly different from ourselves.
  • Paul in Rom: Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? … I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.[6]  → “Any other thing that is created” … including all the ways that we separate ourselves from each other. And let’s face it, we’re living incredibly separated right now, aren’t we?
    • Colleague during spiritual direction training → one of many assessments – “anger” score was high, high enough to alarm her → response of the instructor when they went over her results: “You’re just living in America in 2018. Everyone’s angry.” → Are Isaiah’s words echoing for anyone else? “‘Why do we fast and you don’t see; why afflict ourselves and you don’t notice?’ Yet on your fast day you do whatever you want, and oppress all your workers. You quarrel and brawl, and then you fast; you hit each other violently with your fists. You shouldn’t fast as you are doing today if you want to make your voice heard on high.” We are so good at pointing out ways in which others have wronged us … ways in which others have fallen away … ways in which others have screwed up and are beyond saving … ways in which others need to “get their act together.” But both our Scriptures and the Confession of Belhar remind us this morning of that old playground turn-around: When you point one finger at someone else, there are always three other fingers pointing back at you.
      • From Belhar: We believe in one holy, universal Christian church, the communion of saints called from the entire human family. … Therefore, we reject any doctrine which professes that this spiritual unity is truly being manifested in the bond of peace while believers of the same confession are in effect alienated from one another for the sake of diversity and in despair of reconciliation.[7]“If you open your heart … your light will shine in the darkness.” Amen.

[1] “Hidden Figures.” Directed by Theodore Melfi. Based on Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. Distributed by 20th Century Fox, released Dec. 25, 2016.

[2] “Why Belhar, Why Now: Belhar and the US Context – A Letter from the Special Committee on the Confession of Belhar” from The Book of Confessions: Study Edition (revised). (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 402.

[3] Is 58:1-4.

[4] Is 58:6-7, 9b-10.

[5] Mt 5:3-12.

[6] Rom 8:35, 38-39.

[7] The Confession of Belhar from The Book of Confessions: Study Edition (revised). (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 10.2, 10.4.

Sunday’s sermon: Common Identity, Common Call

common identity

Texts used – Genesis 11:1-9; 1 Corinthians 12:12-26

  • In both his full-length picture books and a number of his short stories, Dr. Seuss was a master at tackling complex social issues through his immediately recognizable lens of silliness and wild imagination.
    • E.g. – Horton Hears a Who[1]
      • Basic story breakdown: Horton the elephant finds a clover one day → on the clover: speck of dust → on the speck: town full of teeny, tiny people – the Whos → Horton tries to convince others of the presence of the Whos but no one can see them and only he, with his giant elephant ears, can hear them → some of the other animals are outraged that Horton is talking to people who “aren’t there” → try to destroy the clover out of malice and spite → at the last minute, someone else finally hears the Whos and saves them and the clover from destruction
      • Seuss’ moral of the story: “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” → can certainly substitute just about any qualifying factor for the word ‘small,’ any of those qualifiers that we use to separate ourselves from one another
        • Age
        • Race
        • Gender
        • Economic status
        • Education level
        • The list could go on and on.
      • Horton Hears a Who originally published in 1954 just as the Civil Rights Movement was beginning à time that both highlighted the ways that we have become divided and the beauty and incredible things that can be achieved when we come together
  • Plenty of times in the history of the church – even and especially the recent history – when we have been keenly aware both of the ways that we have become divided and the beauty of coming together again → This type of scenario provides the historical backdrop for the confessional document that we’re talking about today: A Brief Statement of Faith.
    • History
      • For 100+ yrs., the 2 main streams of Presbyterianism in the United states had been divided – the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (“northern church”) and the Presbyterian Church in the United States (“southern church”)
      • Reunification occurred in 1983 after 14 yrs. of negotiation → part of reunification process was creation of an intentionally diverse committee (because Presbyterians, no matter the stripe, love a good committee!) whose mission was to write a new creedal document for the church that spoke not to division but unity
      • Result: A Brief Statement of Faith
        • Took 4 yrs. to write
        • Another 2 yrs. of feedback and revisions
        • Officially added to the Book of Confessions in 1991
    • Purpose: to celebrate diversity while also articulating Presbyterians’ common identity
      • From preface to A Brief Statement of Faith: It celebrates our rediscovery that for all our undoubted diversity, we are bound together by a common faith and a common task.[2]
    • Specifically designed to be read aloud in worship as a community affirmation of faith
    • Lots of firsts for this confessional document
      • First to address Jesus’ ministry, not just his death and resurrection → recognizes the importance of Jesus’ humanity as well as his divinity
      • First to address care of creation as an important facet of faith
      • First to use inclusive language and both recognize and affirm both male and female in God’s covenant with the people, in the person and work of God, and in ordination
      • First to recognize and affirm the importance and contribution of racial and ethnically diverse people to the story of our faith
    • Did all of this by maintaining the basic tenets of the Reformed tradition → uplifting and celebrating our diversity as a denomination through our unifying beliefs
  • Celebrating diversity and coming together = theme for both of our Scripture readings this morning
    • Obvious one = NT text – Paul’s encouragement to the Christians in Corinth that their various gifts were all given by the same Spirit and crucial to the functioning of the Church as a whole body of Christ
      • Text: We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink. Certainly the body isn’t one part but many. … If all were one and the same body part, what would happen to the body? But as it is, there are many parts but one body. … If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it.[3]  → Paul is speaking all about celebrating diversity by coming together in unity
        • Not about whitewashing over the things that make us different but about highlighting the ways that those differences help us function together
        • Not about being envious of someone else’s gifts/abilities/characteristics over our own but about finding value in contributions that all make
      • One of the reasons that I love this passage is because Paul gets almost whimsical – as close to whimsical as Paul ever gets, really – when he addresses this issue by personifying various body parts. It’s almost Seussian in the farcicality of it. – text: If the foot says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not a hand,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? If the ear says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not an eye,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? If the whole body were an eye, what would happen to the hearting? And if the whole body were an ear, what would happen to the sense of smell? … But as it is, there are many parts but one body. So the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” or in turn, the head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.”[4]  → I mean, really, it’s ludicrous to imagine a body that is made up only of an eye or an ear! It sounds like something out of a bad Nickelodeon cartoon! And yet by evoking such a nonsensical image, Paul makes his point in a way that is both entertaining and highly effective. We cannot function as the church – as the body of Christ – if we are all the same. Our strength comes not in our sameness but in our unity in diversity. We are a vastly varied people united in one common identity with one common call – to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the world.
        • In terms of our call, diversity just makes sense: all people are created differently, so how could the exact same message delivered the exact same way reach such a wide variety of humanity → the answer: it can’t!
    • OT text = a little more challenging this morning, mostly because of the way it’s historically been interpreted → This is the story of the Tower of Babel, and throughout much of the lifespan of Biblical interpretation, we have been told that this is a story of God punishing the people for their arrogance. But after looking again at the original Hebrew and various translation options, many more recent Biblical scholars are pushing back on that interpretation and seeing the story of the Tower of Babel as God’s blessing of diversity among the people.
      • First part of the story = people’s part
        • See that all are one (one people, one common language)
        • See that all are perfectly happy with the status quo (don’t want things to change) – text: They said, “Come, let’s build for ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and let’s make a name for ourselves so that we won’t be dispersed over all the earth.”[5]  → For some reason, throughout the centuries, we’ve come to believe that the building of this tower has something to do with pride and with the people wanting to be like God. But that isn’t actually mentioned anywhere. It’s not actually part of this story! What we hear instead in the people’s ambition is a desire to remain the same. What we hear is a fear of diversity. “Let’s make a name for ourselves so that we won’t be dispersed over all the earth.”
          • “Let’s make a name for ourselves” = where scholars have traditionally inferred the pride that brought down God’s punishment BUT more recent scholar points out that “making a name for ourselves” is not a point of pride but of establishment à if you “made a name for yourself,” you are attempting to endure – e.g., Israelites finally establishing their home in the promised land[6]
      • Second part of the story = God’s part – text: Then the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the humans had built. And the Lord said, “There is now one people and they all have one language. This is what they have begun to do, and now all that they plan to do will be possible for them. Come, let’s go down and mix up their language there so they won’t understand each other’s language.” Then the Lord dispersed them from there over all the earth, and the stopped building the city. Therefore, it is named Babel, because there the Lord mixed up the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord dispersed them over all the earth.[7]
        • Scholar: The story of Babel in face deals with the origins of cultural difference, not with pride and punishment. … The author describes a primeval time when everyone spoke the same language and used the same vocabulary. The goal of the building project was to keep the community in one place, lest they be scattered over the surface of all the earth. … Building a tower was only a means to this end.[8]
    • So rather than this being a story about humanity’s excessive pride and a punishment doled out by a fickle God with a frail ego, it’s a story about the value of differences … of getting to know “the other” … of the blessing that diversity truly can be.
      • Scholar highlights the juxtaposition that we find in diversity – the blessing and the challenge: Babel is not all bad. From our Babel component we get cultural diversity. We get to push ourselves outside of our own understandings. We get humor and most things that are fun in this world. But Babel is also what makes injustice thrive. Babel is what makes a distinction between rich and poor. Babel is what makes people think they can own other people. Babel is what makes enemies. Babel is what makes wars to happen. Babel is often lived out in individual and corporate sin, because we tend not to look to God, but to ourselves for the ultimate answers. And what we end up with is confusion. None of us speak the same language anymore. We all have a Babel component.[9]  → “None of us speak the same language anymore. We all have a Babel component.” Friends, in this day and age, we seem to have lost our appreciation for diversity. We have allowed – sometimes even encouraged! – the things that divide us to grow to the size of mountains while the things that unite us in all of our crazy, messy, beautiful diversity have shrunk to mole hills. That is why the words of A Brief Statement of Faith are so important – words that celebrate all of those things that make us different and highlight just how in that difference, we find the Oneness of God. So let us recite those words together this morning.

[1] Dr. Seuss. Horton Hears a Who. (New York, NY: Random House), 1954.

[2] A Brief Statement of Faith from The Book of Confessions: Study Edition (revised). (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 421.

[3] 1 Cor 12:13-14, 19-20, 26.

[4] 1 Cor 12: 15-17, 20-21.

[5] Gen 11:4.

[6] Ralph W. Klein. “Day of Pentecost – Genesis 11:1-9 – Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 5.

[7] Gen 11:5-9.

[8] Klein, 3.

[9] Douglas M. Donley. “Day of Pentecost – Genesis 11:1-9 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 4.

Sunday’s sermon: Rebuilding the Ruins

Upcycling

Texts used – Isaiah 61:1-9; 2 Corinthians 5:14-21

  • There’s a DIY (“Do It Yourself”) craze that’s swept the country in recent years, and that craze is something called ‘upcycling.’
    • Upcycling = process of taking an old, worn out, broken item and refurbishing it → making it into something new and usable again
      • Could be making into a fresher version of what it was (e.g. – reupholstering and painting an old chair)
      • Very often it’s repurposing it into something entirely new (e.g. – turning an old door into a headboard)
    • Lots of energy dedicated to the idea of upcycling
      • Books
      • Magazines
      • HGTV shows
      • “How tos” on YouTube, Pinterest, and other online sources
    • I think we’re probably even more aware of the potentials (and maybe even pitfalls) of upcycling here in Oronoco because of Gold Rush Days!
      • Plenty of vendors sell items that have already been upcycled
      • Lots and lots of people come to Gold Rush Days looking for that perfect item to upcycle themselves
        • Junky set of chairs
        • Old window frame
        • Various types of signs
        • Rusty lighting fixture
    • The trick to upcycling is finding a way to both honor whatever the thing was before and make it look like something new.
      • Not trying to hide its past life/purpose
      • Trying to celebrate what it was while also making it useful and beautiful again
        • E.g. – window frame that I bought a few years ago and turned into a picture frame → All I did was clean it up, sand down the rough paint edges, and add some hanging hardware. I didn’t paint it to try to make it look uniform and new again. I didn’t remove the original window hardware. It still looks like a window … but it also looks like a picture frame. There’s no hiding what it was or what it’s become.
  • Now, throughout Lent this year, we’ve been taking a look at some of the creeds and confessions of the Presbyterian Church and talking about how they still speak to our lives.
    • 1st week: Nicene Creed (oldest and most universal creed)
    • Last week: Theological Declaration of Barmen → document that came out of Nazi Germany and speaks to the authority of God above all else
    • This week – tackling the Confession of 1967
      • All about reconciling
      • All about rebuilding relationships → taking what was old, worn out, broken and making it new again … spiritual upcycling.
  • The Confession of 1967 – historical background
    • Document born out of the turbulence and cultural uncertainty of the 1960 → contemporary of Vatican II in both the time it was generated and the way in which it tried to bring the church into a new era
    • Creation of the confession = long process
      • Originally, in 1956, a number of presbyteries requested to modernize the language of the Westminster Catechism (one of the older confessional documents that came out of the Reformation period) → morphed into a decision to write a new confessional document to speak to the current age
      • First draft took a special committee 7 yrs. to write
      • Reviewed and revised by a different special committee in 1965
      • Finally adopted by the General Assembly in 1967
    • Certainly the longest of the confessions that we’ve tackled so far → In fact, this is the only time throughout this sermon series that you do not and will not have the whole text of the confession in your bulletin insert. Frankly, it was just too long to print the whole thing. You have …
      • Preface: gives you a taste for the intent/purpose of the confession
      • The text of the confession itself [READ CONFESSION]
      • Heading titles for the 2 main parts of the confession (“God’s Work of Reconciliation” and “The Ministry of Reconciliation”) → This is the main body of the text which addresses a wide variety of theological topics from the grace of Jesus Christ to the love of God, the role and authority of Scripture, the mission of the church, and the Sacraments. If you’re interested in reading the body of this document, I’d be happy to either loan you a copy of the Book of Confessions or make a copy of the Confession of 1967 in its entirety for you.
      • Part III (the conclusion): “The Fulfillment of Reconciliation”
    • As you can probably tell from the titles of those parts, the central theme = reconciliation → built around a line from our NT passage for today: God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ[1]
      • Encompasses Reformed understanding of reconciliation – Presbyterian theologian and scholar Jack Rogers points out the two main movements of reconciliation under Reformed theology: God comes to humanity in forgiveness, and people are to be peacemakers with their fellow human beings.[2]
        • Addresses first and foremost the ways that we are brought back into right relationship with God
        • Also addresses the importance of being brought back into right relationship with one another as a facet of our spiritual well-being
  • Now reconciliation – the restoration of right relationships – was certainly an issue that arose in the face of the massive cultural shifts of the 1960s: the explosion of rock and roll; the divisiveness of the Vietnam War; the Civil Rights movement; the assassination of key political figures like President Kennedy, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert Kennedy; the waning of mainstream religion … I could go on and on. But I think that today, we find ourselves in a time that is at least as desperately in need of this message of reconciliation if not even more so: our political system, which was initially built on the ideas of compromise and working together, has become fractured and combative at best; social media and the invention of smartphones has caused us to be more insular and self-centered than possibly any other time in history; across the board, churches have been declining for decades, forcing some to make difficult decisions; our society has grown to relish things like unhealthy views of women and violence, leading to the birth movements like Me, Too and Time’s Up; gun violence has become such an acceptable part of our day-to-day news cycle that the massacre of 17 students in a high school only stays in the headlines for a week (at most!) before we move on to the next thing. Again … I could go on. If anything, all of this bespeaks a desperate cry for the restoration of right relationships with God and with each other.
  • Need for reconciliation = spelled out in both Scripture passages today
    • NT passage = reconciling with God
      • Text: So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived! All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation. In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them.[3]  → all about how we are called back into good and beautiful relationship with God
        • Makes it very clear that this is something that God does for us, not something that we achieve on our own → this is grace – totally one-sided in its generosity and freely given
        • Friends, this is what it’s all about when we come to the table. As we will in a few minutes, we participate in this sacred meal because we are coming to God asking for forgiveness … asking to be restored in our relationship with God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, asking to rebuild that relationship one step … one prayer … one piece of bread … one cup at a time. That’s why, in our communion prayer, we acknowledge that there are times when we have indeed turned away, acknowledge the power of Christ’s death and resurrection, and ask God to pour out the Holy Spirit on us again to draw us together with God and one another in mission and in grace.
      • NT passage also speaks to our call to share that message of reconciliation with one another – text: [Christ] died for the sake of all so that those who are alive should live not for themselves but for the one who died for them and was raised. … He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation. 20 So we are ambassadors who represent Christ. God is negotiating with you through us. We beg you as Christ’s representatives, “Be reconciled to God!”[4]
    • OT passage speaks to how we can enact that reconciliation in our relationships with one another
      • Text: He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and a day of vindication for our God, to comfort all who mourn, to provide for Zion’s mourners, to give them a crown in place of ashes, oil of joy in place of mourning, a mantle of praise in place of discouragement.[5]  → Basically, it’s about treating people well – treating people like people, no matter the circumstances.
        • That is the call we hear from Isaiah
        • That is the call we hear from the Confession of 1967: God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ embraces the whole of man’s life: social and cultural, economic and political, scientific and technological, individual and corporate.[6]
  • But here’s the thing about reconciliation. It’s a lot like upcycling in that it’s not meant to simply smooth over what was and pretend it never existed. Reconciliation isn’t a “forgive and forget” sort of action. That sort of mentality, in fact, defeats the whole point of reconciliation. In order to restore those right relationships, we have to be able to acknowledge what broke them in the first place – to confess it and express our regret and desire for forgiveness, to bring ourselves in humility and ask for forgiveness. Reconciliation isn’t about restoring a relationship to what it was before it was broken but about making it stronger, better, fuller than it was before. There’s no hiding what it was or what it’s become.
    • Beautiful, powerful example in some of the work of the missionary family that we support – Rev. Shelvis Smith-Mather works with RECONCILE International, an organization dedicated to rebuilding relationships after the decades of violence and civil war that eventually split the nation of Sudan into Sudan and South Sudan → from RECONCILE’s website: RECONCILE International was established in 2003 as an affiliate church organization by the New Sudan Council of Churches (NSCC). The recent civil war killed an estimated 2 million people, and has had a dramatic affect upon the peoples of southern Sudan, resulting in an environment where it is difficult for communities to build trust, heal the wounds of trauma, transform conflict into peace, and promote reconciliation. We aim to contribute to Nation Building and realization of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement by equipping communities with knowledge and skills for peacebuilding through psychosocial rehabilitation, civic education, and advocacy. This will ultimately help to create an environment for a healthy, peaceful, democratic society.[7]
      • Story after story from this crucial organization about people who were traumatized engaging with those who caused the trauma in the first place in ways that both honor/acknowledge the past and build a bridge toward the future through discussion, prayer, mutual community building, education, etc. → powerful, powerful ministry
  • Nothing in our readings today – in our Scripture or in our confession – says anything about reconciliation being easy. And frankly, I don’t think we’d want it to be. President Theodore Roosevelt said, “Nothing in this world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty. No kind of life is worth leading if it is always an easy life.” Just like the work and the sweat that has to go into successfully upcycling something, we have to be willing to put work and spiritual sweat into restoring our relationships, both with God and with others. But in the end, it all comes out beautiful. → words from Isaiah: They will be called Oaks of Righteousness, planted by the LORD to glorify himself. They will rebuild the ancient ruins; they will restore formerly deserted places; they will renew ruined cities, places deserted in generations past. … You will be called The Priests of the LORD; Ministers of Our God, they will say about you.[8] Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] 2 Cor 5:19.

[2] Jack Rogers. Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1985), 220.

[3] 2 Cor 5:17-19.

[4] 2 Cor 5:15, 19b-20.

[5] Is 61:1b-3a.

[6] The Confession of 1967 from The Book of Confessions: Study Edition (revised). (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 9.53.

[7] http://www.reconcile-int.org/drupal/about.

[8] Is 61:3b-6a.

Sunday’s sermon: God Above All

God above all

Texts used – Isaiah 40:12-25; John 10:1-10

  • Last week, we began our Lenten sermon series on the Creeds and Confessions of the Presbyterian Church – talking about what they are, where they came from, why their important, and how they continue to connect us to God and help us to learn about and grow in our faith.
    • Just a refresher
      • Importance of the creeds/confessions outlined by the late Jack Rogers, prominent Presbyterian scholar and theologian: The creeds and confessions of the church identify us as a community, guide us in studying Scripture, and summarize the essence of the Christian tradition. Thus, the confessions equip us for the task of proclaiming the good news.[1]
      • 10 creeds/confessions that have been adopted into our Book of Confessions
      • Tackling 5 of those creeds/confessions during Lent
        • Started with the oldest – the Nicene Creed last Sunday
        • This week: jumping to the creeds that come out of the 20th → 1st: The Theological Declaration of Barmen
  • Now, in order to begin talking about The Theological Declaration of Barmen – or, more simply, The Barmen Declaration – I want to introduce you to a man named Karl Barth[2].
    • Karl Barth is a huge name in the world of theology. His works are required reading for many seminary courses across denominations, and there are a number of seminaries that will teach an entire course devoted solely to Barth and his writings/teachings.
    • Born in Basel, Switzerland in 1886 → father = Swiss Reformed preacher and prof. of New Testament and early church history at University of Bern
    • Eventually decided to follow in his father’s footsteps: ordained in 1909 and served as a pastor in a few small, parish churches before shifting his life and career path to academia (Incidentally, this shift is also the move that brought Barth into Germany.) → eventually became Professor of Systematic Theology at University of Munich starting in 1930
    • Now, if you’re following Barth’s timeline and mentally lining it up with a timeline of global history, you’ve probably realized that Barth was in Germany throughout WWI and into the start of WWII. This point is crucial, because Barth had a critical role to play in Nazi Germany and in the life of Hitler’s Third Reich: a role of opposition.
      • Was fundamentally opposed to the Nazi party and their overtly racist agenda before Hitler even rose to power in 1933
      • Was largely responsible for writing The Barmen Declaration in 1934 – a confession of faith adopted by 139 evangelical clergy and lay people that became one of the founding documents of the Confessing Church Movement in Germany
        • Confessing Church = those churches who spoke out and led spiritual resistance against Hitler and the Nazis
        • German Christian Church = those churches who used theology and Scripture to justify the horrors and actions of the Third Reich
    • Barth actually mailed a copy of the Barmen Declaration to Hitler himself! → eventually forced to leave Germany in 1935 because he refused to swear a loyalty pledge to Hitler without including his own clause: “to the extent that I responsibly am able as a Protestant Christian.”
    • Returned to Switzerland and continued to teach theology and write prolifically throughout the rest of his life
  • So that gives you some historical context for the writing of the Barmen Declaration. It is a document that comes out of Nazi Germany, and it is a document whose sole purpose is to oppose Hitler’s total authoritarianism and hostility toward the church. At that time, Hitler was basically claiming power over everything. He was claiming that the government had power over all aspects of life – that nationalism was more important than anything and everything else, including faith.
    • Rogers: Hitler believed that Germany would become a great power only when it had been welded into a powerful military nation. The necessary initial steps were to be purification of the race, elimination of class distinctions, removal of divisive elements such as political parties and religious denominations, and a new system of education.[3]  → Hitler wanted to remove anything that would oppose his totalitarian regime, and that included all of those pesky Confessing Christians who kept trying to claim that God was more important.
  • And that gets down to the main purpose of the Theological Declaration of Barmen: to declare that God is God above all else. Period.
    • Admittedly probably one of the more difficult documents to read because of the way it’s written (writing style of the time)
    • Basics
      • Begins with some basic declarations …
        • About who Confessing Church was
        • About the paramount importance of prayer and Scripture
        • About how people need to decide for themselves if the declaration was speaking the truth (instead of following blindly as Hitler demanded)
        • About how the integrity of the Church (universal and German churches in particular) was being threatened by the subservience and complicity of the German Christians with the Nazi Party
        • About how those writing and adopting the Barmen Declaration could, in true and good faith, no longer keep silent
      • “In view of the errors of the ‘German Christians’ of the present Reich Church government which are devastating the Church and are also thereby breaking up the unity of the German Evangelical Church, we confess the following evangelical truths:”[4]
        • Outlines 6 “evangelical truths” that follow a basic formula:
          • All begin with Scripture
          • All declare some aspect about the authority of God and the predominant nature of the claim that God has on our lives
          • All reject false doctrines laid out by Hitler and upheld by the German Christian movement that the state has more power over people’s lives than God
            • E.g. – We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords – areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.[5]  → Basically, God is God … and we are not, no matter who wants to tell us that they are or how hard someone or something else tries to be. God is God … and we are not.
  • Now, while we are certainly – and very thankfully! – not living in Nazi Germany today, there continue to be plenty of things that vie heavily for our attention and our devotion over and above our faith. There are plenty of distractions … plenty of “but what about this” moments … plenty of idols that we both encounter and create as we go about our day-to-day lives.
    • Some of the things that we can let eclipse our faith
      • Careers
      • Relationships (healthy or otherwise)
      • Politics
      • Material things
      • Addictions/compulsions
      • Overbooked schedules
      • Hobbies/pastimes
      • Fears/worries/anxieties
      • Technology
      • We have so many different things that try to compete with God for our attention and devotion. But God is God … and we are not … and neither are any of these things.
    • Exactly what our Scripture readings this morning address
      • OT passage kicks off with great questions: Who has measured the waters in the palm of a hand or gauged the heavens with a ruler or scooped the earth’s dust up in a measuring cup or weighed the mountains on a scale and the hills in a balance? Who directed the Lord’s spirit and acted as God’s advisor? Whom did he consult for enlightenment? Who taught [God] the path of justice and knowledge and explained to him the way of understanding? … All the nations are like nothing before God. They are viewed as less than nothing and emptiness. So to whom will you equate God; to what likeness will you compare him?[6]  → I love the attitude of these questions. They are just a little bit snarky, and they’re the quintessential rhetorical questions because they literally have no answer. “Who has measured the waters in the palm of a hand?” Ummm … no one but God. “Who has gauged the heavens with a ruler?” Again … no one but God. “Who directed the Lord’s spirit and acted as God’s advisor?” Yup, you guessed it … no one but God. And then the crucial question: “To whom will you equate God?” [PAUSE] God is God … and we are not … and neither are any of these things.
    • NT reading = Jesus addressing exactly those like Hitler and anyone else who tries to lure us away with false words and doctrines and promises – text: I assure you that whoever doesn’t enter into the sheep pen through the gate but climbs over the wall is a thief and an outlaw. … I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief enters only to steal, kill, and destroy. I came so that they could have life – indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.[7]  → Jesus speaks of sheep and shepherds and thieves. Jesus speaks of us and of God and of all those who wish to pull us away from our true home and identity in Christ – those who would steal our attention, our enthusiasm, our devotion.
      • Speaks in warning against those who would act as thieves
      • Speaks in warning to us: Be on the lookout! Do not follow the voice and the temptations of the thieves!
      • But Jesus also speaks in reassurance – reassurance that the shepherd is always with us, ready to lead us and shelter us and provide for us; and reassurance that our Good Shepherd does indeed have the best intentions for us. – text: He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and the follow him, because they know his voice. … I came so that they could have life – indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.[8]
  • Friends, there will always be people and experiences and things that try to be our “be all, end all” – that try to fill whatever void we have inside us; that try to convince us that truly, they are all we will ever need; that try to get us to lift them up above all else in our lives; that try to be a god in our eyes and our hearts. But God is God … and we are not … and neither are any of these things. They cannot hold the seas or measure the heavens. They cannot lead us safely to green pastures and still waters. They cannot compare to the One who created us, named us, claimed us as God’s own before we even knew any of these other things existed.
    • From Barmen: The Christian Church is the congregation of the brethren in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and Sacrament through the Holy Spirit. As the Church or pardoned sinners, it has to testify in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order, that it is solely [Christ’s] property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his directions in the expectation of his appearance.[9]  → And so we lift up the one Triune God above all. Because God is God, and thanks be to God, we are not. Amen.

[1] Jack Rogers. Presbyterian Creeds: A Guide to the Book of Confessions. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1985), 23.

[2] http://barth.ptsem.edu/karl-barth/biography.

[3] Rogers, 177 (emphasis added).

[4] The Theological Declaration of Barmen from The Book of Confessions: Study Edition (revised). (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 8.09.

[5] The Theological Declaration of Barmen, 8.15.

[6] Is 40:12-14, 17-18.

[7] Jn 10:1, 9-10.

[8] Jn 10:3b-4, 10b.

[9] The Theological Declaration of Barmen, 8.17.