Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Sermon for September 16, 2007

The Unforgivable Sin
Matthew 12:22-37

Three ministers and their wives got into a car crash and died one day. They found themselves standing at the pearly gates together before St. Peter. St. Peter opened his big book, pointed to the first minister, and said, “You’re going to Hell.”

“What? Why?” cried the minister.

“Because you lusted after money. You never actually stole any money, but in your heart, you were constantly thinking about money. You had money on your mind so much that you even married a woman named Penny. So you’re going to Hell.” And in a puff of smoke, the first minister disappeared. St. Peter flipped a few pages in his book and pointed to the second minister. “You are also going to Hell,” he said sternly.

“Why?” said the anguished minister.

“Because of your love of alcohol. You never actually drank any alcohol, but you constantly yearned for it in your heart. You thought about it so much that you even married a woman named Brandy. So you’re going to Hell. “And in a puff of smoke, the second minister disappeared.

The third minister turned to his wife and said, “Well, Fanny, it’s been nice knowing you.”

Here’s something for us to think about today. Is God really like that? Does the God you worship enjoy the thought of damning you because of your faults? Does God ever get tired of our mistakes? Will God ever stop loving us? Can we ever move ourselves beyond the boundaries of God’s forgiveness?

Imagine this scenario. You come to worship and have a transforming experience. You make a decision to change some aspect of your life – to turn something around or do something better. You day to yourself, “This week, I’m going to be good.” It’s easy to be good in church, right? Walk out the doors into the so-called “real world” and what happens? If you are like me, then you blow it. Some dimwit upsets you and you lose your patience. Someone betrays you and you plot revenge. Someone hurts you and you want to hurt that person back. It’s not that we didn’t take our life-transforming commitments seriously. We meant them with all our heart. We want a new and changed life. But something gets in the way and trips us up. And so we go back to church, recommit ourselves to godly living, and then we go home and mess it up again.

How do you think God feels about this scenario? Does God lose patience? Will God punish us for not fulfilling our commitments? I grew up with a faith that said, “Yes, of course God will punish us!” My faith told me that all of us are guilty before God. All of us deserve to be punished. God does not allow certain kinds of behavior even if everyone does it. If everyone breaks the law of God, God holds everyone accountable. God would not be God if He (God was always “He”) allowed the punishment to be suspended. This means that sin must be punished. I was a very worried teenager and young adult. I just knew that God was terribly angry about the sin I was born with as well as the sins I committed. As a just judge, God would punish me, and all sinners, now and in eternity. We ourselves cannot hide the filth of sin; but we could be washed clean by grace. The Savior, Jesus Christ, stood between me and the awesome judgment of God. God sent Jesus to take my place. Jesus received the awful punishment for sin that you and I deserve. It is in Jesus that we see God’s justice and God’s mercy being displayed at the same time and in the same person. This is what I was taught. This is what I believed.

I was also taught that there was sin and there was unforgivable sin. If I ever did anything to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, I would earn a non-refundable one-way ticket to Hell. But what was blasphemy? I was taught to equate blasphemy with doubt. I was told that the original sin was doubt. The only way to reverse it was to have faith in Jesus. There was no doubting that Jesus died the death I deserved. It was sinful to doubt that Jesus performed miracles. I questioned how Jesus could be the one and only way to get to heaven, but I kept those thoughts to myself. I was taught that if the temptation of doubt troubled me it was because Satan was messing with me. But I always felt tortured. The more I tried not to think bad thoughts about Jesus, the more they flooded my mind. I had doubts. I was sure that I had committed the unforgivable sin.

I realize that not everyone has this problem. For instance, The Blasphemy Challenge continues to play on YouTube. People are encouraged to submit online videos saying their names and the words “I deny the existence of the Holy Spirit.” Some of the videos get right to the point. Some are quite vulgar. I saw a video of a man named Jim who filmed himself standing in the doorways of various local churches. At each church he proudly said, “My name is Jim. I deny the existence of the Holy Spirit and I’m not afraid.” He figures if there really were a God, he would be instantly punished for saying such callous words in a church. Since Jim is still alive, there must be no God.

What do you think? On the surface, Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading sound clear: whoever blasphemes the Spirit will not be forgiven. Will Jim’s public blasphemy send him to eternal punishment? Can we ever do something that puts us beyond the reach of God’s love? Let’s take a moment to revisit our Gospel story.

A man is brought to Jesus. The man is blind and he cannot speak. People assume that demons have taken up residence in him. Jesus has compassion and heals the man. Jesus enters that which others see as unclean or defiled, and he brings new life. As soon as he’s done, the criticisms begin. Those who are in power—those religious leaders who feel that Jesus threatens their positions -- accuse him of healing in the name of the devil. It’s an insult. They think that they are the only one’s allowed to represent God. They insist that they alone have the full and complete accounts of reality. They leave little room for debate or difference of opinion. They expect unflinching loyalty from their followers. They try to discredit Jesus by saying he’s in league with the powers of evil.

But Jesus has come to clean house. Jesus leads the revolt against the powers that keep people trapped. Jesus turns things around on the religious leaders. Jesus says, “Ignorance can be forgivable. Failure can be turned around. However, using religion to turn human liberation into something odious is not pardonable. The real sin against the Holy Spirit is refusing to see when God does something real before your very eyes.”

Jesus engages in a battle of one-upmanship. His opponents are the ones who are against God. They are captives to their need for power. They smother God’s effort to make broken people whole. And when you intentionally do that, you bypass the grace of God.

Think again about the faith commitments you have made – and perhaps failed at. Maybe we fall short in our quests for transformation because we are looking for Jesus to take something bad in us and make it good. Jesus did not come to make a bad people good. Jesus came to bring dead people to life. We can be good but not alive. There are a lot of people who are morally pure, but they have no life, no joy, no celebration. If our faith is not marked by raw, passionate love, then we are no better than the close-minded religionists that Jesus corrected.

Author Shane Claiborne tells a story about living in intentional poverty with some friends in Chicago. He headed out one night to get a loaf of bread in an area notorious for its prostitution and drug trafficking, where the air is thick with tears and struggle. He walked past an alley, and tucked inside was a tattered and cold woman on crutches, selling herself to make some money. On the way home, he saw the woman again, crying and shivering. He knew he could not pass her by. Shane stopped and told her that he cared for her, that she was precious, worth more than a few bucks for tricks in an alley. He brought her to the house he lived with his friends. As soon as they entered the house, the woman wept hysterically. When she gained composure, she looked at everyone in the house and said, “You are all Christians, aren’t you?” Up to this point, no one had said anything about God or Jesus. There were no crosses in the house – not even a Christian fish on the wall. She said, “I know you are Christians because you shine. I used to be in love with Jesus like that, and when I was, I shined like diamonds in the sky. But it’s a cold dark world, and I lot my shine a little while back. I lost my shine on those streets. She asked these people to pray with her. They did. They prayed that this dark world would not take away their shine.

Weeks went by, and they did not see the woman. One day, there was a knock on the door. On the steps was a lovely lady with a contagious ear-to-ear smile. Shane stared at the woman, not recognizing her. She finally spoke. “Of course you don’t recognize me, because I’m shining again. I’m shining.” He finally realized that she was the same woman he pulled off the streets. She talked about how she had fallen in love with God again and she wanted to give him something to thank him for his hospitality. She said, “When I was on the streets, I lost everything, except this.” She pulled out a box, confessing that she smoked a lot and always collected Marlboro Miles points from the cigarette packs. “This is all I have, but I want you to have it.” She handed Shane the box filled with hundreds of Marlboro Miles. Shane says, “It’s one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever been given.” He uses them as bookmarks in his Bible. Every time he sees them, he is reminded of all the broken lives that have lost their shine.

When people tell me that they have rejected God, I say, “Tell me about the God you have rejected.” They usually describe a God of condemnation, of laws and lightening bolts, a frowning, gray-haired God who enjoys boring committee meetings. You know what? I have rejected that God, too.

The bottom line is that piling guilt upon ourselves does nothing to correct the source of our real problem. Know this and believe this. God wants you to shine again. You are guilty of nothing. God loves you. God loves you more than any of us can even begin to fathom. You are a bright and clean spirit in God’s eyes and the only one who sees this differently is you. God already accepts you for who you are, and God is not going to punish you while you struggle to live the life of faith. Jesus Christ shows us that God makes broken people whole, and that there is nothing you will ever do that can put you outside the boundaries of God’s love.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Sermon for September 16, 2007

Reviver of the Dead
Matthew 12:9-14

This morning, I invite us to hear, with fresh ears, a story about Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew says, “Then Jesus went over to the synagogue, where he noticed a man with a withered hand.”

I went to High School with a girl who suffered from crippling rheumatoid arthritis. She rode a scooter from class to class because she could barely walk. Her body was frail and tortured. I always remember her hands. They were usually bandaged. However, on the rare occasion her gauze wrappings were off, we saw her swollen, blistered, and twisted hands. I’m embarrassed to say, we were not kind to this girl. She was ridiculed and mocked without mercy. She was different. She was an easy target. School must not have been a safe place for her. She was one of our schools outcasts, excluded by those of us who felt that she did not belong among us healthy and robust teenagers.

I imagine life was hard for the man with the withered hand in today’s gospel reading. In Jesus’ day, a person’s deformities were seen as a symbol of that person’s sin, or the sin of the family. He was treated like an outcast. His physical deformity made him unclean, polluted, out of place.

I’ve learned something since High School. We all have withered hands. We all face those moments in life when we are down and out. We all face times when we feel out of place and out of reach. We all face moments when we wonder if others really know us. Sometimes we wonder if we are loved with our faults and not despite them. Devastating event traumatized us. Our hearts shatter because of a loved one's infidelity or a role model's hypocrisy or a friend's dishonesty. We swell with fear when we hear about cancer or other illnesses. For some, this is the beginning of cynicism. Cynics stand back in contemptuous criticism, no longer surrendering their trust to others. But no one is born a cynic—we become cynics, shaped into being by our wounds. Inside the most jaded cynic is a tender idealist who cannot bear this world’s brutality.
Yes, at some point, we all have withered hands, withered hopes, withered relationships, and withered lives. You would think that we might be able to turn to religion to help us out. But sometimes, all religion gives us is withered faith. Listen to what happens when Jesus begins to heal the man with the withered hand.

The Pharisees ask Jesus, “Does the law permit a person to work by healing on the Sabbath?” (They were hoping he would say yes, so they could bring charges against him.)

Every religion has them. They are the people whose dominant concern is to keep the faith pure. When I was ordained to ministry 10 year ago, I made a promise to promote the peace, unity, and purity of the church. What an impossible task! When I promote peace and unity, I open my arms wide in unquestioning acceptance of another. When I promote purity, I need to filter out any who might defile or contaminate our traditions. We can’t have it both ways. One side of the boundary is embrace -- the will to give ourselves to others, to welcome them, to readjust our identities, and to make space for the other. On the other side of the boundary is the struggle against deception, injustice and violence.

People like the Pharisees tried to enforce purity in others. However, enforced purity is really a form of exclusion. It stems from a belief that the source of evil lies outside of a person without taking into account that evil also lives inside a person in an impure heart.

Exclusion is alive and well in religious life. Historically, religions excluded others through elimination. Christians had crusades and inquisitions. Muslims had Jihad. I wish this was still history, but we still see the shameless brutality of religious elimination in places like Darfur and Iraq. The more benign side of exclusion by elimination is exclusion by assimilation. This happens in churches all the time. We say, “You can survive, even thrive among us if you become like us. You can keep your life if you give up your identity.

Religious purists also exclude through domination. They will think of others as inferior and then exploit them. Another form of exclusion is called abandonment or indifference. In the name of purity, we keep a safe distance from those who are beneath us so that they won’t contaminate us.

Exclusion and purity rules expose our withered faith. We exclude because we are uncomfortable with anything that blurs the boundaries or disturbs our identities. We want to remove the dirt and restore a sense of propriety in the world. Is this what we really want -- scrupulously and tenuously clutching a shriveled faith system that gains strength only by making distinctions between us and them, insider and outsider, righteous and sinner?

How would Jesus deal with this – the Pharisees in and among us who want to focus on rules rather than relationships? Well, here is how Matthew continues the story . . .

Jesus answered, “If you had a sheep that fell into a well on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you work to pull it out? Of course you would. And how much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Yes, the law permits a person to do good on the Sabbath.”

Jesus knew the answer before he asked it. He knew that unless one’s life was in danger, it was absolutely forbidden to heal on the Sabbath because it was regarded as an act of work. But Jesus was wise. He said there is no time so sacred that it cannot be used for helping someone in pain. In the eyes of Jesus, there are no insiders and outsiders. We are one—one nature, one flesh, one grief, and one hope.

Harold Kushner writes, “Life is not a trap set for us by God, so that He can condemn us for failing. Life is not a spelling bee, where no matter how many words you have gotten right, if you make one mistake you are disqualified. Life is more like baseball season, where even the best team loses one third of its games and even the worst team has its days of brilliance. Our goal is not to go all year without every losing a game. Our goal is to win more than we lose, and if we can do that consistently enough, then when the end comes, we will have won it all . . . But at the end, if we are brave enough to love, if we are strong enough to forgive, if we are generous enough to rejoice in another’s happiness, and if we are wise enough to know that there is enough love to go around for us all, then we can achieve a fulfillment that no other living creature will ever know.”

Jesus was brave enough to love, strong enough to forgive, and wise enough to show God’s love. Listen to what he does next.

Then he said to the man, “Hold out your hand.” So the man held out his hand, and it was restored, just like the other one!

If you were here last week, I said that Matthew wrote his gospel as a liturgical text. Jewish Christians wanted to hear stories about Jesus during their worship services, so Matthew took stories about Jesus and lined them up with events in the Jewish calendar. The next event on the Jewish calendar is Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement. It starts Friday at sundown. In Matthew’s church, this reading from Matthew 12 would have been read at Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is day that reminds worshippers of their alienation and their need to be right with God and other people. Yom Kippur is the day when God is reconciled with creation. It’s a day for God to be merciful, to pardon, to cleanse and to forgive. It’s the day when God revives the dead.

Early Christians understood Jesus through the lens of Yom Kippur. Jesus enters that which the world deems as impure and restores the victims to wholeness. Jesus walks into the realm of sickness. He cleanses and redeems withered people who need a touch from God.

I just need to ask you – are there any withered-hand people out there today? Outcasts who feel out of place? Any who feel rejected or misunderstood. Any who have been made to feel like dirt? Is there anyone here who is hurting? Are you sick? Are you unsure of the future? Are you tired of being asked to give up who you are in order to become what someone else wants you to be? Are you living a life of withered hands? Withered hopes? Withered relationships. Withered faith?

If so, then I invite you to come. This morning, I offer anointing with oil as a symbol of God’s love, forgiveness, and blessing. As we sing the hymn, you are invited to come forward and receive the laying on of hands and anointing with oil. We use oil as a symbol of the Holy Spirit who us here in this place, bringing us to wholeness and unity. You can receive anointing and a word of blessing, or just one. If you choose to remain in your seats, I ask that you do so prayerfully.

We all need a touch from Jesus – the Reviver of The Dead. Jesus revives dead hands and dead religion. Jesus gives us life. If you would like to receive anointing and prayer as a statement of your desire for healing, wholeness – if you would like to have tangible symbol of God’s love, please come.

Sermon for September 9, 2007

“Therefore You Shall Choose Life”
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 11:1-6

In a tiny house lived a mother and her two children — a girl and a boy. The mother loved her children and worked hard to support them. Their house was very small — barely big enough for the three of them — but it had a little yard. In that little yard, the family had a modest garden that provided some food. They had a couple of chickens that gave them eggs. And in that small yard they had a duck. The duck was precious. The duck would one day be dinner for the little family.

On one spring day, the boy was in the tiny backyard throwing rocks, as little boys like to do. His young hands were barely as big as the rocks he threw, and his aim was not as sure as his desire. For a while, he threw them at a mark on the fence, missing it nearly every time. Then a voice from somewhere inside him told him to throw a rock at the duck. He threw the rock, and for once his aim was true. He killed that duck.

The boy was horrified. In panic, he began thinking about how to cover up his mistake when his sister came out from behind the chicken coop. “I saw you throw that rock,” she said, “and I saw you kill that duck.” The boy looked at his sister with fear as she said to him, “I won’t tell Mama what you did, but you have to do something for me. You have to pull me around the neighborhood in our wagon this summer.” And the boy, conquered by fear and shame, agreed. All summer, he pulled his little sister around in the wagon. Around the yard. Around the house. Around the neighborhood. He would be playing with his friends when his little sister would appear and say three words, “Pull the wagon.” And he would. Or he would be reading on the back steps when he’d hear those words, “Pull the wagon.” And he would. All summer he bore the weight of his guilt and his shame in that wagon.

One particularly hot August day, the boy had been pulling his sister around in the wagon all
day. In a spare moment, he went into the house for a glass of water. He saw his mother standing at the sink, washing the dishes. She greeted him warmly, and returned to her work. He sidled up to her quietly as she stood at the sink, and leaned his little body against hers, his head barely reaching her waist.

“Mama,” the boy began, tears beginning to stream down his face. “I killed your duck. I killed him, Mama. I didn’t mean to. I was throwing rocks and I hit him. I know it was wrong. I am so sorry, Mama. I am so sorry.” The little boy could barely stand, so deep was his grief and his shame, so strong was his sorrow. The mother looked down at the boy. She wiped her hands on her apron, and knelt down and drew her son into her arms. “Son,” she said. “I know you killed that duck. I was standing here at this window when it happened. And I’ve watched you pull that wagon all over creation this summer. I have been waiting for you to tell me. I love you. I forgive you. All is well between us.”

Well, the boy felt so freed up that his feet rose off the ground and the top of his head nearly touched the sky. Just then, his little sister came in, looking for him. When she saw him, she barked the words that had kept the boy imprisoned all summer: “Pull the wagon.” The boy turned to her, looked her squarely in the eye and said, “Little sister, I have gone to Mama and I have gotten my duck business fixed. I am not pulling that wagon anymore.”

Are you pulling a wagon load of something around this morning? Does shame weigh your feet down and prevent you from full life? Has your heart been deprived of dancing?

We all need some healing. Every one of us needs forgiveness in order to take on new life. However, just because we need it doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s hard to come to God -- not humiliated but with humility -- and to admit our failings. Our deep difficulty with repentance makes it almost impossible for us to feel forgiven. Repentance is probably one of the bitterest words in the lexicon of manipulation. Churches and church leaders have used this word to shame, divide, hurt, and cast out. This word has been used to plant the corrosive idea that our very beings are not good -- that God created us bad and we’ll never be good enough. That’s not what we’re talking about today.

Let me be clear about this: carrying around guilt and shame is not about God. It is about us. Like Mama in the story I told, God waits at the window, watching, hoping. As long as we pull the wagon, as long as we decide to haul our heavy burdens around, we cannot accept that love. We are the ones holding onto the troubles. We are afraid that if we admit we did something wrong, we will give up our last shred of pride and we won’t have anything left. So we get stuck. You have to give up your old comfortable life of pain to get the new uncomfortable life of joy.

There is a Jewish holiday coming up this Thursday at sundown. It’s called Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year. The holiday begins with the blast of the shofar, or ram’s horn. The blast calls worshipers to a period of eight days of self-examination known as “The Days of Awe.” This time of reflection and repentance prepares worshipers for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. This is a season to examine the hearts to see if one is truly living for God as we should.

We could use a little Rosh Hashanah in our lives – some time to think about our dead ducks and the wagons we pull out of fear, or shame or embarrassment -- to think about how we have devalued our selves, and our fellow human beings -- to prepare ourselves for the task of asking forgiveness and making things right. It’s about choosing life.

In Matthew’s Gospel, we hear something about the call to new life by giving up tired ways of living. Matthew was probably a Jewish scribe or teacher who wrote to a group of Jewish worshipers who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. The people who first heard Matthew’s Gospel would have known all about Rosh Hashanah. They would have been listening for the blast of the shofar. In Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptist is the human shofar who calls people to new beginnings. Imagine this scene: a group of early Jews who have become Christians. Its about 100 AD. Their lives are knit into the Jewish calendar. When they go to their churches, they want to hear stories about Jesus during their Sabbath services. So Matthew may have written his gospel to be read during the Jewish liturgical year. The reading for Rosh Hashanah in Matthew’s church would have been this episode from chapter 11. In today’s reading, John, the voice crying out in the wilderness, sends some of his followers to ask Jesus if he is really the One – the expected Messiah. Jesus answers by quoting Isaiah. “The blind see, the lame walk. Lepers are cleansed. The deaf hear. The dead are raised. The wretched of the earth learn that God is on their side. Is this what you were expecting? Then count yourselves most blessed!” This is the Rosh Hashanah message. When you look to Jesus, you will see the signs and know that the kingdom of God is at hand.

In our reading from Deuteronomy, God says these words: “Look at what I’ve done for you today: I’ve placed in front of you Life and Good, Death and Evil. Choose life so that you and your children will live.” What else can we do?

What else can we do when we run out of gas? What else can we do? Choose life.

What else can we do when life seems barren and drained of color and taste, when the landscape that used to thrill us with its beauty, now lies before us flat and dull? What else can we do? Choose life.

What else can we do when we finally admit to ourselves that we really don’t care about the things we used to care about anymore? Yet here we are in the life or the job or the marriage that we got into when we did care; here we are, daily required to promote feelings and principles that we once fervently believed, but which we now no longer believe. What else can we do? Choose life.

What else can we do when we are daily afflicted with a sense of having sold out-- of going through the motions, of doing something we don’t really believe in? What else can we do? Choose life.

What else can we do when our life becomes characterized by a sense of meaninglessness, by a loss of passion, by fatigue and depression? What else can we do? Choose life.

What else can we do, that is, besides drink ourselves into oblivion, drug ourselves insensate, drown ourselves in shopping or television or sports, or try to simulate passion for objects instead of relationships? What else can we do? Choose life.

What else can we do when our religious life begins to feel this way; when we avoid God out of fear or shame. What else can we do? Choose life.

What else can we do when worship no longer brings us into a sense of communion with God? What else can we do when the words of our prayers no longer mean anything to us, but rather, grate on us? What else can we do? Choose life.

And what if we tell God what we’ve really done and how we’re really feeling and God gets angry? Or shames us? Or exposes us as nasty fakers? If you’ve ever been shamed by parents, or spouses, or teachers, or coaches, you may not deeply, honestly believe that God is like no one else. If you’ve been the tool to someone else’s pride, you may not believe that God can love you and expect nothing else in return.

Listen to the good news. God is fully invested in you. Jesus has come to give sight to those who cannot see their way to wholeness. Jesus speaks a word of love to those whose ears have become deafened by the abuse of others. Those who feel crippled by life can get up and walk. Those who feel dead can now choose life so that they may live.

God forgives you already. It is up to you to make room and receive that love. If you want healing, you have to admit you are broken. If you want God’s grace and love, you have to admit you need it. And your God, who loved you since before you were born, your God who is standing at the window watching you pull your wagon, your God is waiting for you to be loved, forgiven, and healed. Trust God to love you and forgive you like no one else can, for God in Christ loves even you, and nothing will ever change that.

Sermon for August 19, 2007

The Messiah is Among You
Matthew 10:40-42

A famous monastery fell on hard times. Once its buildings filled with young monks and its huge chapel resounded with the singing of the choir. Now it was deserted. People no longer came there to be nourished by prayer. A handful of old monks shuffled through the cloisters with heavy hearts. On the edge of the monastery woods, an old rabbi had built a tiny hut. He would come there from time to time to fast and pray. No one ever spoke with him, but whenever he appeared the word would be passed from monk to monk: The rabbi walks in the woods. And, for as long as he was there, the monks would feel sustained by his prayerful presence. One day the abbot decided to visit the rabbi and open his heart to him. After the morning Eucharist, he set out through the woods. As he approached the hut, the abbot saw the rabbi standing in the doorway, his arms outstretched in welcome. It was as though he had been waiting there for some time. The two embraced like long-lost brothers. Then they stepped back and just stood there, smiling at one another with smiles their faces could hardly contain. After a while, the rabbi motioned the abbot to enter. In the middle of the room was a wooden table with the Scriptures open on it. They sat there for a moment, in the presence of the Book. Then the rabbi began to cry. The abbot could not contain himself. He covered his face with his hands and began to cry, too. For the first time in his life, he cried his heart out. The two men sat there like lost children, filling the hut with their sobs and moistening the wood of the table with their tears. After the tears had ceased to flow and all was quiet, the rabbi lifted his head. “You and your brothers are serving God with heavy hearts,” he said. “You have come to ask a teaching of me. I will give you a teaching, but you can only repeat it once. After that, no one must ever say it aloud again.” The rabbi looked straight at the abbot and said, “The Messiah is among you.”

For a while, all was silent. Then the rabbi said, “Now you must go.” The abbot left without ever looking back. The next morning, the abbot called his monks together. He told them that he received a teaching from the rabbi who walks in the woods, and that this teaching was never again to be spoken aloud. Then he looked at each of his brothers and said, “The rabbi said that one of us is the Messiah.” The monks were startled by this saying. “What could it mean?” they asked themselves. “Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that's the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly, Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly, he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people's sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course the rabbi didn't mean me. He couldn't possibly have meant me. I'm just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn't be that much for You, could I?” They were all deeply puzzled by the rabbi’s teaching. But no one ever mentioned it again.

As time went by, though, something unusual began to happen at the monastery. The monks began to treat one another with a very special reverence. There was a gentle, human quality about them now which was hard to describe, but easy to notice. They lived with one another as brothers who had finally found something. They prayed over the Scriptures together as those who were still looking for something. Visitors found themselves deeply moved by the genuine caring and sharing that went on among the brothers. Before long, people came from far and wide to be nourished by the prayer life of these monks. Young men were asked to become part of the community. The rabbi no longer walked in the woods. His hut has fallen into ruins. But the older monks who learned his teaching still feel sustained by his prayerful presence.

The followers of Jesus, both then and now, are sent to find the presence of the Messiah among us. Today’s reading represents Jesus’ closing comments to his disciples before he sends them out on a missionary journey. Let’s remind ourselves what’s happened in this passage up to this point. First, Jesus gives his followers their mission: preach, heal the sick, raise the dead, and drive out demons. What you have heard from me, Jesus says, shout it from the rooftops. Next, he warns them of the dangers ahead: People will turn against you. They will hurt you. Your family relationships and social network will be destroyed–but God is watching out for you. So do not be afraid. Then Jesus says, take up your cross and follow me.

Jesus concludes his pep-talk by telling his followers what the outcome of all this will be. Even though they have a difficult task ahead, even though they will be rejected by many, there are those who will receive and welcome the disciples as guests. To receive one of Christ’s followers will be just like receiving the master himself. Jewish people would have been very familiar with this concept. The Rabbis used to say, “He who greets a learned person is as if he greeted God.” The Jews always felt that showing hospitality to the ambassador was the same as receiving and welcoming the king who sent him. Now the disciples are being sent as Christ’s ambassadors. Any honor paid to the disciples will also overflow to God the Father through Jesus.

Jesus reminds us that if you welcome a good person who walks in step the will of God, you are agreeing with that person’s basic ideas. You recognize the truth of the message or the truth of the person’s lifestyle, and you make yourself ready to bring about goodness in your own life. You may not be the great prophet. You may not even be the person walking closely with God. But, if you can notice how God is working in others and receive God’s presence in another–if you can welcome and respond to it, then you will be rewarded.

Jesus then turns his teaching to how a follower should treat a person with no status–God’s little ones. Jesus talks about giving a drink to a person who is usually ignored. He’s speaking about giving the smallest imaginable gift to the most undistinguished of people. God notices even the smallest acts of service to those who are dismissed by the rest of the community as inconsequential and unimportant. You know, it’s nice to be recognized by the greatest, but Jesus reminds us that those who respond to the smallest needs of the humblest of his people will also be rewarded.

Wonderfully surprising things can happen when we take some time to look at those around us and notice that the Messiah is among us. Our perspective changes when we take time to see the Christ-like qualities in one another.

This is harder than it sounds. I am likely to find a person’s bad qualities before I look for the presence of Christ. I will think of ways to criticize another, or find reasons to convince myself of how I am better than the other person. I think this attitude saddens the heart of God and stifles the presence of the Spirit. Biblical hospitality is about welcoming the stranger, seeing Christ in the insignificant, and humbling myself in the presence of greatness. The twist is that the greatness I need to recognize in others comes from the presence and calling of Christ, not a person’s social status, family reputation, or job title. My job is to order my inner life in such a way that when I meet any person, Christian or not, I am looking into his or her eyes, walking in his or her shoes, and opening myself up to the possibility that this person is an embodiment of God’s presence for me today.

I’m looking at a person and seeing Christ-like qualities.
· “Wow, that mean old church person really sacrificed something important to so that this could be possible.” OR
· “Every time that person speaks to me, something stirs inside of me and awakens me to the movement of God in my life.” OR
· “I didn’t know that person has such a gentle, giving spirit. I never took the time to find that out.” OR
· “That teen-ager has such an inspiring faith.” OR
· “That child has such spirit-filled, simple wisdom.”

When we reach out and serve one another, we serve Christ. And the environment changes. We receive God’s reward. There will be a gentle, human quality about us which will be hard to describe, but easy to notice. Visitors will find themselves deeply moved by the genuine caring and sharing that goes on among us. We will be nourished by our prayer life together, and our need to explore Scripture together as we are sustained by the presence of God. It all begins with a simple but unnatural act of welcome. Remember, the Messiah is among us. In the name of God the Father who forms us, Christ who calls us, and the Spirit who opens our eyes, ears and hearts.

Sermon for January 21, 2018

How Far Would You Go? 1 Samuel 17 I had a sermon all ready to go today. It was a NICE sermon. You would have felt really good about i...