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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Footsteps of Jesus on the Mountain: Teaching the Kingdom (Matthew 5:38-48)

38 [Jesus said] “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39 But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. 40 When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. 41 When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. 42 Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you 45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.

Through these Sundays in Lent, we are retracing the footsteps of Jesus, taking a spiritual journey to the places where some of the most important aspects of his ministry took place.  We are walking where Jesus walked so we may walk as he did.

Last week we were in the town of Capernaum, where we remembered the healing ministry of Jesus.  Today, we’re still in the region around the Sea of Galilee, and we’re moving less than two miles, from the town of Capernaum, to the top of the Mount of Beatitudes.  Let us pray.

Sunset from the Mount of Beatitudes
The Mount of Beatitudes – lovely spot.  Overlooking the Sea of Galilee, and about halfway up the mountain, the contours of the earth come together in a natural Amphitheatre. It’s the site where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, which had at least 5000 men, plus numerous women and children, in attendance.  It’s the same multitude Jesus would feed by multiplying five loaves and two fish.

Jesus came preaching and teaching about the kingdom of God.  He spoke about the kingdom of God more than any other topic, and his most developed and thorough teaching on the subject is the Sermon on the Mount.

Maybe you’re aware that there’s a political campaign happening right now.  Part of what is happening – or should be happening, anyway – is that the candidates are telling us who they are and what they stand for.  Telling us what’s important to them, their plan, their vision for the future.

The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ stump speech.  It is his party platform, his magnum opus.  When folks are new to the faith, or curious about what Jesus stands for, one of the first places I refer them to is the fifth and sixth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, where we find ourselves today.  If you want to know what’s important to Jesus, and how people will live in God’s kingdom, start here.

Where is the kingdom of God?  It’s easy enough to think of it as “up” – “up there,” and “up ahead.”  Some lofty place, some idealized, utopian dream of a place, “heaven” in the grandest sense of the word.  “Up ahead” in that it’s further down the road, we haven’t reached it yet, still on our way there.

But Jesus also taught us the kingdom of God not just a future hope, but a present reality.  He taught us that the kingdom of God is all around us, it is among us, it is even within us.  The good news he came to proclaim is that we need not wait until we die to get into heaven, but that heaven comes to earth and gets into us right here, right now, enabling us to live as God’s people in the world.

Growing up in the city of Niagara Falls, our house was only about three miles from the famous waterfall for which the city is named.  Every summer, we were treated to an international parade of visitors through our fair city; you could go to restaurants and parks and hotels and stores, and see people on vacation from all over the world.  I used to like to guess where people were from; once you knew something about the manners or customs or clothing of different places around the world, it wasn’t that hard.

As I’ve travelled outside the U.S., I’ve discovered that Americans are just as easy to pick out in a foreign country.  Something about our shoes and clothes.  Even when we buy clothes there and try to blend in – just the way we talk gives us away.  Simply put, we’re embarrassingly loud – even if you don’t see a group of Americans at a distance, you will most certainly hear us!

And that got me thinking: is there anything so distinctive about us as Christians that people would be able to recognize us right away?  Anything in how we live, how we speak, how we treat one another, how we behave, that would give us away as citizens of the kingdom of God?

Friends, even as we live in this world, in this country, we do so, first and foremost, as citizens of the kingdom of God.  We are, as Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas put it in their book of the same title, Resident Aliens, permanent residents of this land, but our citizenship is in the kingdom of God.  We belong, first and foremost to God, and as such our role is not so much to change government or change society, but to live our lives in ways that model the love of Christ.  Rather than trying to convince others or change them or impose our beliefs or views or ethics on them, Jesus wants us to ground our lives, distinctively, in his life, death, and resurrection.

That looks like not returning evil for evil.  It looks like overcoming evil with good.  Resisting hate with love.  Not hitting back when we’ve been hit, but turning the other cheek.  To overcome violence with acts of peace.  Living as citizens of the kingdom of God looks like being generous with what we have, going the extra mile with people, loving your neighbor, loving your enemy, praying for those who persecute you.

Those are Christian principles; kingdom of God principles.  I’ve heard a lot of our presidential candidates bragging about their Christian faith.  At least a few of them are at least two Corinthians short of a Bible, and for their espoused great love of the Bible, they don’t seem to be versed in its actual content.  I don’t see them advocating anything that looks remotely like what Jesus is talking about in this Sermon on the Mount.

But we say, “A person’s faith is private.  It’s between them and God.”  Friends, while our faith is deeply personal, it is never private.  “The assumption that being a Christian is solely a matter of a personal relationship with God has no basis in Scripture or Christian tradition.

“Read the gospels. When Jesus’ called people to be his disciples, he was inviting them into a process of training by which their lives would be reoriented around his vision of the Kingdom of God becoming a reality in this world through their actions.

“Being a Christian is about the way the Spirit of God is at work to shape our lives around observable behaviors that demonstrate a growing consistency with the way, words, and will of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

“In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls his followers to a radically different way of living, to observable behaviors that demonstrate a life that is constantly growing in love for God and love for others” (Jim Harnish).

Our world can be a harsh place to practice mercy and love and forgiveness, but how we live, how we speak, how we behave, so distinctively shaped by the grace of Jesus, should give us away as citizens of the kingdom of God.  Friends, we’re not called to look like the world around us.  We’re called to stand out.

One of my favorite places in the state is Grandfather Mountain.  Next time you’re up there, you may notice, in places where there is neither soil nor a crack in the rock, on top of this windy mountain, a small purple flower grows.  It stands out because it doesn’t look like it belongs there.

Its seeds have been blown by the wind into high, tiny crevasses in the rock, and the plants have adapted to their harsh surroundings, and the result is that beauty blooms in the midst of a very hard place.  But there’s more.  Over time, the plant itself can crack the rock in which it grows; it just takes time and persistence.

These teachings of Jesus – turning the other cheek, refusing to return evil with more evil, loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us – are like seeds of the kingdom of God, blown by the winds of the Holy Spirit into difficult places.

We bloom where we’re planted.  Given enough time and persistence, the kingdom of God takes root, and when it does, we find it shattering all the old systems of fear, and hate, and violence – all destructive patterns and forces are cracked, and the life-giving sunshine of God’s delight is allowed in.  The kingdom of God bursts into bloom all around us, within us, through us.

When it comes to the Sermon on the Mount, you won’t find any political party incorporating its principles into their platform.  That’s ok.  As Christians, you and I are called to bloom where we’re planted.  May we live as ambassadors of the kingdom of God, on a mission of love and grace and forgiveness, in the middle of a harsh and unforgiving world.

God, we see people around us acting in certain ways all the time.  We see it on the news, we see it in our politics, sometimes we even see it in our church.  It’s hard not to jump in sometimes.

And yet, we know better.  You’ve called us to do better than that, to be better than that.  Help us to live as the people you want us to be.  Help our words and our behavior to look more like we’ve taken our cue from you rather than the world around us.  Help us to take the high road, to act with integrity, love, compassion, grace, and forgiveness, even when everyone around us isn’t.

God, we thank you for the awesome fullness of your kingdom that is yet-to-come, and we thank you that your kingdom is right here and right now.  We’re citizens of your kingdom – now help us act like it.  All this we pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Footsteps of Jesus in Capernaum: The Healing Ministry (Mark 5:21-43)

Jesus crossed the lake again, and on the other side a large crowd gathered around him on the shore.  Jairus, one of the synagogue leaders, came forward.  When he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet and pleaded with him, “My daughter is about to die.  Please, come and place your hands on her so that she can be healed and live.”

A swarm of people were following Jesus, crowding in on him.  A woman was there who had bleeding for twelve years.  She had suffered a lot under the care of many doctors, and had spent everything she had without getting any better.  In fact, she had gotten worse.  Because she had heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his clothes.  She was thinking, “If I can just touch his clothes, I’ll be healed.”  Her bleeding stopped immediately, and she sensed in her body that her illness had been healed.

At that very moment, Jesus recognized that power had gone out from him.  He turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”

His disciples said to him, “Don’t you see the crowd pressing against you?  Yet you ask, ‘Who touched me?’”  But Jesus looked around carefully to see who had done it.

The woman, full of fear and trembling, came forward.  Knowing what had happened to her, she fell down in front of Jesus and told him the whole truth.  He responded, “Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace, be healed from your disease.”

While Jesus was still speaking with her, messengers came from the synagogue leader’s house, saying to Jairus, “Your daughter has died.  Why bother the teacher any longer?”

But Jesus overheard their report and said to the synagogue leader, “Don’t be afraid, just keep trusting.”  He didn’t allow anyone to follow him except Peter, James, and John, James’ brother.  They came to the synagogue leader’s house, and he saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly.  He went in and said to them, “What’s all this commotion and crying about?  The child isn’t dead.  She’s only sleeping.”  They laughed at him, but he threw them all out.  Then, taking the child’s parents and his disciples with him, he went to the room where the child was.  Taking her by the hand, he said to her, “Talitha koum,” which means, “Young woman, get up.”  Suddenly the young woman got up and began to walk around.  She was 12 years old.  They were shocked!  He gave them strict orders that no one should know what had happened.  Then he told them to give her something to eat.

Through the season of Lent, we are walking in the footsteps of Jesus, touching a few of the places where he walked.  Last Sunday, we followed the footsteps of Jesus in the wilderness.  We remembered that it's tempting to settle for less than what God wants for us. To give priority to our preferences over our purpose. Anytime we’re tempted to take the easy way out, we’re reminded that we follow the same Jesus who chose God's way over his own.

Today, we follow his footsteps about 60 miles north to the region around the Sea of Galilee.  In just 60 miles, the landscape shifts from the dry and rocky desolation of the wilderness to the green and fertile lushness around the Sea of Galilee.

The Sea of Galilee is so important, we’re going to spend three Sundays on and around it.  Today, we remain at the water’s edge, in the town of Capernaum, on the northwest side of the lake.  What makes Capernaum so special?  Simply put, it’s the town where Jesus chose to live as an adult.

Maybe you’re thinking, “I thought he was from Nazareth?!” and if you mean, where he was raised and where his family was from, then yes, he’s from Nazareth.

But, if you remember, Jesus’ teaching didn’t go over so well in his hometown of Nazareth.  They didn’t care for his message – partway through his first sermon there, the good folk rose up and angrily drove him to the edge of the hill on which their town was built because they intended to kill him.  Talk about a strong reaction to a sermon!

Nazareth is a great town to be from, meaning, you don’t live there anymore!

Ruins at Capernaum

And so, the scriptures tell us that Jesus withdrew from Nazareth and made Capernaum “his own city,” his new hometown (Matthew 4:12-17, 9:1).  The people of Nazareth had closed off their hearts to anything new, and as a result Jesus withdrew from them.  But in Capernaum, he found fertile ground for his message, for the people were open to the words of hope, healing, and reconciliation that Jesus taught.

The ruins at Capernaum are incredibly well-preserved.  You can see the layout of the streets, the buildings, all of it.  I looked over it, and in my mind’s eye I could see Jesus, coming in from the shore, walking through the streets, talking to people, laughing with them.  This was his town, and these were his neighbors.

Ruins of the 4th Century synagogue in Capernaum
Right in the middle of town, are the ruins of the synagogue.  What we saw are the ruins of the synagogue that was built in the fourth century, on the site of the previous synagogue, where Jesus would have gone to worship and teach.  In today’s Scripture from the 5th chapter of Mark’s Gospel, we meet one of the leaders of that synagogue. 

News of Jesus calming the storm and casting out demons has made it back across the sea before he did.  A large crowd is there to greet him when his boat comes ashore, and at the edge of the crowd stood a man named Jairus.  He was one of the leaders in the synagogue, an important person in town.  He was also father to a dying girl. 

Her parents named her Talitha, which means “beautiful little girl.”  It’s a term of endearment, and for Jairus, it may as well have meant “Daddy’s little princess.”  No father has ever loved a daughter more than Jairus loved his precious Talitha.

About a year ago, six months before her twelfth birthday, she had gotten ill.  At first they thought it was some sort of a bug that would run its course and be gone in a few days, but she had slowly gotten sicker and weaker.  Every day she was sicker than the day before, and you could see in the way Jairus walked was someone who carried too much of the world’s weight upon his shoulders.

Jairus knew, deep down in his heart of hearts, that Jesus was the only one who could help his daughter.  But, he also knew that Jesus was controversial, and going to Jesus would potentially put him at odds with his peers, possibly even cost him his job and reputation. But, the unconditional love of a father wins out every time, and he pushes his way through the crowd toward Jesus, and Jairus falls to his knees at Jesus’ feet and says, “Please help.  My little girl needs you.  I need you.  Please, Jesus, help me.”

Jairus wasn’t the only one looking for Jesus that day.  Another familiar figure was slinking through the crowd, her posture hunched and her pace slow, also like someone with the world’s weight upon her shoulders.

Her internal bleeding had gone on for 12 years now.  “Unclean,” they called her.  She had been turned into an outcast in her own community, as even her own friends and family turned away from her.  She knew Jesus right away when she saw him, but she also recognized the man escorting Jesus through the crowd.  It was that man from the synagogue, the one who had turned her away on more than one occasion when she came to beg a few small coins from those coming to worship.  He couldn’t allow an unclean person to defile the holy place, “nothing personal” he always said, but it was certainly personal to her.

How can it not be personal to be cast aside and treated like yesterday’s garbage?  How can it not be personal to yearn for a deeper connection with a loving God, yet banned from making that connection by the very people who claimed to be closest to God?  How can it not be personal, when you’re desperate for hope, yet told by those around you that you are hopeless?

So she’s been told - unless, unless, unless - she can get to Jesus.  She crept closer.  No one was paying any attention to her.  Jesus and the synagogue leader were walking this way.  Jesus was going to walk right past her, and as he passed, she reached out and the trailing edge of Jesus’ robe whispered across her open palm, so lightly that the fabric didn’t even tug or buckle, but it was enough!  She knew she was healed, and no one would have to know how it happened.

Except, Jesus, sensing that power had gone out from him, immediately began to look around and ask, “Who touched me?  Who touched me?”  Jairus, having seen the woman creeping through the crowd, secretly prayed, “Please God, anyone but her, anyone but that woman, anyone but that unclean woman.”

As the synagogue leader’s stare was clearly fixed on her, she knew she might as well come clean.  Embarrassed, she mumbled, “I did it.  I reached out for you, Jesus.”

Jairus’ heart sank, and then he became furious.  Didn’t she see that Jesus was on his way somewhere important to do something important for someone important, but, before he could even blurt out, “Who do you think you are?”, Jesus says, “Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace.”

"Daughter . . . "
And that word, “daughter,” pierced Jairus like an arrow.  “Daughter” is a word that means something to him.  He thinks of his own daughter and his love for her and his willingness to do anything for her, and then his mind flashes back to the ways he has treated this woman – the times he has run her out of the synagogue, the ways he has treated her like a pain or a nuisance, and here Jesus is, calling her “Daughter,” a term not terribly different from “Talitha.”

Jesus is addressing this woman with the same sort of unconditional love as Jairus has for his own daughter; could it be that Jesus loves this outcast woman in the same way?

What might that mean for how Jesus loves every other outcast, every other person on life’s margins, every other person we have rushed to call “unclean?”  Could the love of God fill our hearts and lead us to see others as Jesus sees them – somebody important, somebody who matters, somebody who is part of the family of God?

The call is to see every other human being as Jesus does – as a son or daughter of God, as a beloved and precious member of God’s own family, not to bully or marginalize or label people who are already on life’s fringes, but to reach out to them with the healing love of Jesus himself.

Henri Nouwen writes, “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.

This is the God we serve and proclaim in Jesus Christ. God, in Christ says, “Daughter, Son – I see your pain.  I’m gonna share your pain and touch your wounds with a warm and tender hand.”

So, if you are hurting and in need of healing in mind, body, spirit, or in relationships, hear this: Jesus sees you, calls you as a son and daughter of God. Jesus knows your name and stretches his hand out to you.

In a moment, we will try to be faithful disciples and imitators of Christ by laying hands on one another in prayer for healing and wholeness.  The book of James says, “Are any among you sick?  They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.”

We’re going to do just that.  Martin Luther says that we are to be little Christ’s to one another.  We have the opportunity in this sacred, present moment, to allow Christ to be alive in us and to be like Jesus and “see” one another, - see and not judge, see and not ignore, but to see and love in a tangible way, by laying these hands, my hands, your hands, these hands crafted by God on one another with prayers for healing in Christ’s name.

I don’t know what other people have called you.  What they see in you or don’t.  And frankly, I don’t care.  Because, whatever other people say, you’re a son or daughter of God, one of God’s beloved.  No son or daughter of God who reaches out for Jesus ever does so in vain.

If you are in need of healing this morning in any form, in a few minutes I will invite you to come forward, where I will anoint your forehead with oil in the sign of the cross, and pray for the Holy Spirit to work within you to bring healing and wholeness in all areas of your life.  If you would like to stand in and be anointed for someone else, that’s fine.  Others who wish to come forward with anyone else for prayer and laying on of hands are welcome to do so.  If you can’t come forward, but need to remain in your seat, and you desire anointing and prayer, we’ll come to you.

Let us pray:

O God, the giver of health and salvation,

We give you thanks for this gift of oil.

As your holy apostles anointed many who were sick and healed them,

We ask that you may use it

To give courage to those who are afraid;

Strength to those who are weak;

Patience to those who are afflicted;

Hope to those who are lost;

Comfort to those who are alone.

Therefore, pour out your Holy Spirit on us and on this gift,

That those who in faith and repentance receive this anointing

May be made whole; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Jesus would heal not one, but two daughters that day.  You’re a child of God.  And so is the person next to you.  No son or daughter who reaches out for Jesus ever does so in vain.  Turns out there’s plenty of Jesus to go around, and he’s still healing sons and daughters today.  If you would like prayers for healing in any form – body, mind, spirit, relationships – I invite you to come forward now.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Footsteps of Jesus in the Wilderness: Tempted and Tried (Luke 4:1-13)

Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.”

Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; 10 for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you 11 and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.

12 Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God.” 13 After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity.

Exactly a year ago, I was in the Holy Land.  Harry and Betty Jo Chandler were there with me, along with their friend, Mike, and Sandy, from Stokesdale UMC.  We joined with our bishop and about 150 other spiritual pilgrims in walking in the footsteps of Jesus.

There is something about being there – seeing the geography, walking the paths, reading the stories in the places they happened, praying in those holy sites.  In the Bible, the four Gospel books – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – each tell the story of Jesus in their own way.  A pilgrimage to the Holy Land has been described as “The Fifth Gospel.”  Having visited the Holy Land twice now, reading that fifth Gospel has informed the way I read and understand the other four.

Last year, I took a few of you to the Holy Land.  This year, I’m taking all of you.  Through the season of Lent, we are going to take a spiritual journey, walking in the footsteps of Jesus.  I’ll be hitting the highlights of some of the significant places of his ministry, places I have also visited, bringing some of the insight and experience of those places to you.  As you come to worship over the next several weeks, come expecting to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.  If you’ll do that, I guarantee this will be one of the most meaningful Lenten seasons you’ll have ever had.

Today, we’re beginning the series by re-tracing the footsteps of Jesus in the wilderness. The first Sunday in Lent always recalls the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  This is for a number of reasons.  First, Jesus was tempted and fasted in the wilderness for how many days?  40.  And how many days, not counting Sundays, does Lent last?  40.

The number 40 is significant in the Bible.  It represents a period of testing, trial, and waiting.  When Noah boarded the ark, it rained for 40 days.  Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days before God gave the Ten Commandments.  The Hebrew people wandered in the desert for 40 years after leaving Egypt, before entering the Promised Land.  Elijah fasted 40 days before hearing God’s still, small voice.

We think of Jesus being in the tomb for 3 days, but if you add up the actual number of hours he was dead – about 3pm on Good Friday to 7am Easter Sunday, guess how many hours that is?  40.  And after Jesus was raised from the dead, he appeared to his disciples over the course of 40 days before he ascended into heaven.

All told, the number 40 is mentioned in the Bible 146 times.  Each time, it represents a period of testing and trial, but also the preparation and waiting for something better that is yet to come.

That’s what the season of Lent is.  A time of testing and trial, sacrifice and confession, but also preparation and waiting for something better.  It’s 40 days of preparing for the joy of new life at Easter.  In the church, it’s historically been a time when new converts to the faith were instructed and prepared for baptism, which often took place early Easter Sunday morning.  It’s a time when those who had committed serious sins were in a state of repentance, preparing to be restored to the community.

Lent begins in the wilderness.  The Judean wilderness, the setting for today’s Scripture reading, is just west of the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized.  Immediately after his baptism, he went into the wilderness for 40 days, where he fasted and prayed, and was tempted and tried.

When you go to the Holy Land, one thing you will come to quickly appreciate is that, though it’s a relatively small area, the geography is not all the same.  The Judean wilderness is a place of rugged hills and mountains, sharp cliffs, deep canyons, and the whole place is rocky.  It receives little to no rain, and so there’s no grass, no trees, no bushes - nothing green - just fold upon fold of brown and tan as far as you can see.

The first time I went to the Holy Land, we hiked, just about half a mile, through the wilderness.  We arrived at a rocky cliff overlooking St. George’s Monastery, built in the middle of nowhere, and the thing that overwhelmed me in that place was the silence. 

Have you ever been someplace that was so quiet the silence itself was deafening?  Where even the wind rushing past your ears sounds like it’s miles away?  You could yell at the top of your lungs, but the silence would smother your voice?  Now, double that intensity, and that’s what sticks in my mind most – the silence of the wilderness.

We were only about two miles from a major highway, but you heard no road noise.  There were no trees, so no birds chirping.  Just the “crunch-crunch” of footsteps on a rocky path, and I imagined Jesus in that place, sleeping in caves, alone with his own thoughts, the perfect sort of place for temptation.

When culture talks about temptation, it's usually describing the urge to do something we already know will destroy us, “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” kind of stuff.

Christians who observe Lent certainly wrestle with those obvious forms of self-destruction, but the goal of the season is to help us recognize the more potent tools of the tempter—the temptations that don't look like temptation until we see them in the rearview mirror.  The temptations offered to Jesus don’t sound all that harmful:

·        “Take care of yourself.”

·        “Increase your reach.”

·        Prove your faith.”

On the face of it, it all sounds like good advice.  It all sounds like the three points in a good graduation speech.  The devil even starts quoting Scripture to justify each of these temptations, and I’m struck here by the realization of how well the devil knows the Bible.  In my life, I’ve known plenty of devils who knew the Bible.  Can quote it, chapter and verse – know it well enough to misuse it to get us to do all sorts of things that are against the will of God.  Just knowing a lot of Bible verses doesn’t make someone godly any more than sitting in a garage makes them a car.

It’s tempting to construct a God and a faith that’s centered around ourselves.  Our consumer culture spills over into our faith, we end up with expectations of a God who serves us and caters to our desires.  The church can run more like a country club, rather than doing the hard—but faithful—work of redeeming, restoring, and reconciling.

The temptations that are the most dangerous are the ones that sound most like good, the ones that sound the most like God.  They bend and twist God into ways that are self-serving.  Tim Keller says, If your God never disagrees with you, you might just be worshiping an idealized version of yourself.”

The biggest temptation Jesus faced in all of this was identity theft.  The devil wanted him to forget who he was and to whom he belonged, to pledge his allegiance to anything other than God.  To settle short of what God wanted for him and to be content only with what he wanted for himself.

And to do that when he was tired?  Hungry?  Lonely?  Brilliant.  The folks over at Snickers aren’t the only ones who know we’re not ourselves when we’re hungry.  Get him when he’s already vulnerable.  Already down.

But Jesus, though weakened, isn’t distracted.  He keeps his eye on the prize.  He wasn’t out there in the wilderness completely on his own; the Holy Spirit was leading him.  Tested, tempted, and tried, Jesus emerges from the wilderness resolute in a mission and purpose that serves God’s will rather than his own.

The Spirit of God gets hold of him, guides him, directs him, fortifies and strengthens him, and Jesus chooses God. Jesus chooses his mission and call. Jesus chooses to give himself to offer life and love.

The same choice confronts individual people of faith and every church itself.  Will we choose our mission, our call, our purpose to restore, renew and reconcile – or will we become distracted by other things? Yes, there is a lot that can draw God's people away from primary call and purpose. Distraction is all around us as we fall prey to the temptation to fight over disagreements or interpretations or perceptions.  Minor things become major things.  Opportunities become obstacles which become obstructions.  Preference takes priority over purpose.  And the driving mission of the church – to restore, renew, and reconcile, to make disciples, to make all things and all people new in Christ – gets lost in the shuffle.

The purpose of God's church is mission; we are the ones called to proclaim good news, manifest release, and show forth the saving, restoring, redeeming love of God to all people everywhere. That is the mission of God's people.

It’s tempting to settle for less.  Personally, I'm glad to follow a Savior who was tempted and overcame it.  It reminds me when I’m tempted to take the easy way out, or to settle for less than what God wants for me, that with the Spirit’s help, I can choose God’s way over my own.  That means setting my own preferences aside, which can be uncomfortable, but always turns out to be the most faithful option.

I don’t wish for those wilderness times.  But in hindsight, I’m grateful for them.  Those dry places can help focus us around who we are, to whom we belong, and what we’re about.  And when we’re led by the Spirit of God, overcoming temptation prepares us for something better that’s yet-to-come.

Don’t be distracted.  Don’t turn away.  Choose God.  Choose God’s love.  Choose God’s mission and call for your life, and for this church.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Confession is Good for the Soul (Matthew 6:1-6,16-21, Ash Wednesday)

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart shall be also.”

On Ash Wednesday, we commit to laying aside the things in our life that would stand between us and God, so we can grow deeper in our commitment as followers of Jesus Christ.

The use of ashes as both a sign of mortality and repentance has a long history in Jewish and Christian worship.  The Old Testament kings, during times of mourning, would remove their royal robes and wear sackcloth, and cover their head with ashes or sit in the dust.  They did this as a sign of humility, mourning, and devotion, and they did so for all the people to see and to follow.

Tonight, St. Matthew’s Gospel warns us against practicing our piety in order to be seen by others, about praying, and fasting and giving in the public eye.  It encourages us to seek a life of quiet devotion pleasing to God, a life that is hidden and secret from public scrutiny.

But, even Jesus sends mixed messages.  On the one hand, Jesus has said we are the light of the world, and we ought to shine it brightly.  But on the other hand, he wants us to be careful about showing off.

What gives?  The issue here is one of motivation.  Are our religious practices aimed at receiving the praise of others, or are they offered in heartfelt praise to God?

Lest there be confusion, Jesus is not saying:   "Don't take offerings at church,"  "Don't lead in public prayer," or, "Don't join in fast days."  He says,"Beware of practicing your piety in front of others..."   and adds this important phrase -- namely, "... in order to be seen by them."   In other words, don’t engage in religious activity for others.  Do it for God.

Don’t treasure applause or accolades.  Don’t find your worth in pats-on-the-back and others thinking highly of you.  Who you are in the eyes of God – that’s priceless treasure, that’s what matters most, that’s where we derive our worth.

During the season of Lent, many Christians practice “giving something up.”  The point of this is to clear our hearts of those things that we are tempted to treasure more than God.  When done properly, giving something up for Lent, fasting, is aimed at improving our spiritual life by focusing less time and energy and money on things that distract us from God, and spending them on things that help us grow in our love of God and neighbor.

But many times, our motivation does not reflect this intent.  Perhaps we give something up out of a sense of duty, or expectation, or because it looks good when we get together with our godly friends.  We can end up very much like the Pharisees: very religious in practice while completely bankrupt in our actual relationship with God and other people.  What good does it do for us to look good in the showroom, but have nothing under the hood?

Mark Twain said, “we’re all like the moon, we have a dark side we don’t want anyone to see.” And so, we cover it up.  We conceal it.  We fashion elaborate masks for ourselves, trying to hide that dark side of ourselves.  But, to borrow from Hawthorne, “no [person], for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitudes, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.”

We can fool others, and we can even get pretty good at fooling ourselves.  But we can’t fool God.  God sees behind our masks, our screens, and knows us for who we really are, not just who we want others to believe we are.  As the Psalmist rightly wrote, “Lord you have searched me and know me.” (Psalm 139).

From an earlier part of this sermon on the mount, Jesus taught “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”  The Bible speaks of the heart as the center of our judgment, intention, and motivation.  We are invited to consider whether what is happening in our heart – the very center and depth of our being – matches how we live, act, and speak on the outside.

Lent is the season for removing our masks and confessing our dependence upon God’s grace. I’ve often thought church services should be like AA meetings. An AA meeting avoids hypocrisy because upon attending you stand up and announce to all who are present, “I’m an alcoholic!” What if church services had a time where I could say, “Hi, my name is A.J., and I’m a sinner!”

There’s this cultural perception, often advanced by church folks ourselves, that church is a place for perfect people.  Not so.  I’ve talked to folks in airports and bars and waiting rooms and all sorts of places who say, “I’d like to go to church, but I’m pretty messed up, and I think it would shock the people there to have someone like me there.”

But here’s what we know – none of us comes to God because we’ve got it all together and figured out.  We come to God precisely because we don’t!  We don’t get ourselves cleaned up and put together first, we come to God because we can’t do it ourselves.

A friend of ours who is a Methodist pastor shared this story today.  She said, “The kids are out of school today and I have them with me at church for Ash Wednesday. I had to move some of Eliana’s Lincoln logs and the little house fell apart as I did. ‘I’m sorry about that,’ I muttered as I kept working.

“Later I heard her telling Brennan, ‘You can help me rebuild this. Mommy said she was sorry and that was good. But it’s still broken. It still needs to be rebuilt.’”

We are sorry, and that’s good, but we’re still broken.  We still need to be rebuilt.

I don’t come to church because I think I’m holy enough or good enough or smart enough or clever enough.  I need the church because I know I’m not, I’m a sinner in need of forgiveness, a child of God in need of God’s life-changing grace.  I need the church to help me confess the things I’m sorry for, to admit my brokenness, to seek, with God’s help, to be restored and rebuilt into the image of the God who first created me.

The church is not a museum for saints.  It is not a place for perfect people.  It’s where we take off our masks and are real and honest with God and with each other.  Tonight, when you receive the mark of the cross on your brow, we’re not doing that so people will whisper and point and say, “There goes a holy person.”  Those ashes are there to remind you to keep it real in front of God and yourself.  That you’re not a perfect person.  That you’ve got stuff – sin – you and God are still working through.  For, while it’s true that Christ died to save sinners, while it’s true that God loves us just exactly the way we are, God loves us too much to let us stay that way.

We are sorry, and that’s good, but we are still broken.  We still need to be rebuilt.

Friends, confession opens us to be what God intended all along: the living, breathing Body of Christ.  Not a museum of saints, not a perfect-peoples’ club – but the scarred, imperfect Body of Christ, reaching out with arms of love and forgiveness, building up those who are broken and bruised, because we know the depth of what we, ourselves, have been forgiven.

Confessing, confronting, and mourning our sin – symbolized by the ash you will soon wear on your forehead – is a way of setting our sin aside, resolute that sin and death will not have the last word for us.  Ash Wednesday is a time stop hiding behind a mask of having-it-all-together and lean more fully into God’s grace.  To stop concealing our sin and confront it, confess it, and move on.  To leave behind what we’ve done, and live more fully into who we are becoming.

We are sorry, we are broken, we are ready to be rebuilt.