• followersofchrist3

Sermons from 03/15/2020 to the present are recorded on the church Facebook page.

Second Sunday in Lent - March 8, 2020 (Scripture: John 3:1-17 New Revised Standard Version)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ - Amen

The older you get, the more you know – the more knowledge you have. My son Robby has reminded me of this. “When I am grown up and big like you,” he has told me, “I want to know how to drive a car, like you do.”

“Just how big and grown up am I?” I’ve wondered to myself. Well, maybe not so much in my own eyes. But in Robby’s eyes, the eyes of my son, yes… I am a grown-up as he likes to remind me. And one of the things grown-ups get to do, which Robby is already particularly interested in, is drive cars. “When I’m big like you, I want to drive a car too,” he says. As a rule, the older you get, the more you know – like knowing how to drive a car – as well as all of the other construction vehicles he plans to drive when he is old enough to know how.

In today’s Gospel, Nicodemus, a leader and teacher of the Jewish people, has a conversation with Jesus. Nicodemus is a religious teacher known as a Pharisee. He is an authority on the Torah, the Jewish Holy Scriptures used to instruct God’s people. Nicodemus has grown up learning and studying Torah in order to teach his people the ways of God. And Nicodemus rightfully has the knowledge and the authority to instruct his people according to Torah, the Jewish Holy Scriptures.

Nicodemus knows things. And Nicodemus comes to Jesus to discuss his knowledge of who he thinks Jesus is. Nicodemus even addresses Jesus as a fellow teacher when he calls him, “Rabbi,” for the word, “Rabbi”, means “teacher.” “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God [Nicodemus says]; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (John 3:2 NRSV). We know, Nicodemus tells Jesus. We have the knowledge that you have come from God, based on the signs and the miracles you perform.

It might seem as though the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus is off to a good start. After all, Nicodemus, the Pharisee and teacher of Torah, is offering what seems like a positive assessment of Jesus. We know you are from God based on what we see you doing, Nicodemus tells Jesus; so far, so good.

Based on Jesus’ reply, however, Jesus doesn’t seem to think that things between him and Nicodemus are headed in the right direction. “Very truly, I tell you [Jesus answers Nicodemus], no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3 NRSV). You see, Jesus doesn’t simply agree with what Nicodemus knows. Jesus doesn’t nod his head in agreement with Nicodemus and say you’re right about me. What Jesus does instead is complicate things for Nicodemus, by telling him, “…no one can [even] see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” It doesn’t matter what you think you know; you can’t see until you are “born from above.”

What Jesus is telling Nicodemus, in effect, is your knowledge of me – what you think you know about me – is getting in the way. Your knowledge of me – what you think you know about me – is actually getting in the way of you seeing me.

What we learn from Jesus throughout the Gospel of John is that knowledge isn’t the same thing as sight – not when it comes to Jesus. In fact, what we think we know about Jesus can actually blind us rather than help us see. Again, knowing about Jesus – our knowledge of Jesus by itself – isn’t the same thing as seeing: as actually seeing who Jesus is.

As we become “grown-ups” in the eyes of our children and get older, we acquire knowledge. Not only the knowledge to drive a car or operate construction equipment, which of course is most important to Robby, but we grow in our knowledge of how the world works and the way things are.

We can assume according to our knowledge that our laws of supply and demand must always go hand in hand with God’s law. We can assume that our world’s ruthless speed and competition, our rampant consumerism, must be God’s will. To our knowledge, everyone always gets what they work for, if they would just work harder. But we forget how much help we ourselves have received to get to where we are.

We can assume according to our knowledge that we must always achieve and perform in order to avoid the fear and shame of failure. We can assume according to our knowledge of the way things are that wealth and success must always be praised and worshiped. And we can assume, finally, according to our knowledge of the way things are, and of the way the world works, that Jesus must simply nod his head and agree with everything we already know.

But Jesus doesn’t do that. Jesus doesn’t simply pat us on the back for all the knowledge we’ve acquired over the years. He doesn’t just let our knowledge of things stand all by itself. Instead, Jesus insists on telling us and Nicodemus about things that seem completely impossible to us; things like being born again, from above, by the power of the Holy Spirit, whose coming and going we can never control, like the wind.

And yet, the things Jesus is talking about only seem impossible according to what it is we already know. Like Nicodemus, we can’t conceive of being born after having grown old. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” we ask with Nicodemus. “Can one enter a second time into a mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4 NRSV)…

We don’t easily admit when we don’t know something. But when it comes to Jesus, our knowledge – what we think we know about Jesus – can actually get in the way. What we think we know about Jesus can actually get in the way of us seeing him.

According to Jesus in the Gospel of John, then, it’s not our knowledge – it’s not what we know – that enables us to see. It’s actually believing and trusting in Jesus that helps us to see him.

For Jesus, it doesn’t matter what we know, or how much we think we know. When it comes to Jesus, seeing isn’t a matter of our knowledge and what we know.

Instead, to see Jesus is to believe in him. To believe is to see. Seeing who Jesus is depends, more than anything else, on our trusting and believing in him. To believe in him is to see him.

When Nicodemus comes to see Jesus, he comes to Jesus by night. Coming to see Jesus in the darkness of night made it difficult for Nicodemus to see him. Everything Jesus was saying about himself seemed impossible to Nicodemus. What Jesus says about us having to be born again, from above, seems impossible to us; impossible based on what we know about how the world works and the way things are: impossible.

But that’s just it, isn’t it? What we know or think we know can only take us so far…

What is impossible for us is actually possible for God and his Son, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

To believe that God can do the impossible is to actually see Jesus for who he is.

To believe that God can do the impossible is to see that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17 NRSV).

To believe that God can do the impossible is to see Jesus actually do the impossible: suffer and die and perish so that we may be loved, and have life for eternity - Amen.

First Sunday in Lent - March 1, 2020 (Scripture: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11 New Revised Standard Version)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit - Amen

“A ‘god’ [according to Martin Luther] is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in need. Therefore, to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart. […] Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God” (Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism,” The Book of Concord, p. 386).

So in "The Large Catechism", this is how Luther is defining what a “god” is: “Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.”

We can read the whole temptation story of Jesus in the wilderness in light of what Luther is saying here: “Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.”

In the wilderness the devil is trying to tell Jesus what his heart should be relying and depending on. The devil is trying to convince Jesus of who his god should be. And the devil is doing this at a point where Jesus is particularly vulnerable.

Jesus hasn’t eaten for forty days; he’s hungry. Jesus also hasn’t heard from God his Father for a while. At his baptism Jesus heard his Father say, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” But that was forty days ago.

In the wilderness Jesus hasn’t heard from God. And God the Father hasn’t offered Jesus, his Son, the chance to rule all the kingdoms of the world; but the devil has.

The devil is the only one speaking to Jesus at this point in the wilderness. And the devil is offering Jesus the power to rule all the kingdoms of the world, which not even his own Father has offered him…

What will Jesus’ heart rely and depend on at this moment? Who or what will be his god?

Well, we know going back to Adam and Eve, what their hearts relied and depended on. They like what they hear when the serpent tells them, “…when you eat [the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5 NRSV).

With the words of that crafty serpent, the man and the woman’s heart turn away from God who had created and provided for them. And their hearts turn toward the tree and its fruit instead: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew they were naked…” (Genesis 3:6-7 NRSV)

The man and the woman’s heart relied and depended on disobeying God and possessing the fruit for themselves, in order to make them wise, like God. But in doing so, their hearts no longer relied, depended, or trusted in God. They no longer had God as their God; they had made themselves God…

And rather than be exalted as gods, the man and the woman – Adam and Eve – end up ashamed of their nakedness instead: hiding from God and hiding from each other instead. They end up afraid, ashamed, and blaming one another instead. All of this because their hearts no longer relied and depended on God…

Temptation always seeks to steal our hearts away from God. And the tricky thing about temptation is that temptation always uses something that is good for the wrong purpose. Temptation always uses something good for the wrong purpose: in the case of Adam and Eve, wisdom, the knowledge of good and evil, and being like God. Those are not bad things in themselves. Or in the case of Jesus, bread to relieve hunger, reassurance from God, and the power to rule: again, not in themselves bad things.

But temptation uses things like money and power, as well as knowledge and success, in order to turn our hearts away from God.

Temptation uses good things for the wrong purpose. And the goal of temptation, and of our adversary the devil, is to steal our hearts away from God; so that our hearts no longer rely and depend on God; so that God is no longer our God; so that someone or something else becomes our God instead.

In today’s Scripture there’s an essential difference between Adam and Eve and Jesus, however. There’s an essential difference between Jesus and us, for that matter. For Jesus never once has his heart stolen away from God, his Father. Jesus’ heart never once relies and depends on someone or something other than God his Father. Jesus never once has anyone or anything as his God, except God himself, his heavenly Father.

Despite his hunger for bread, his need for reassurance, and the way he’s told he should get his power in the wilderness – despite all of that – Jesus already knows who he is. He knows whose he is; he’s God’s Son. And he trusts that his heart doesn’t belong to anyone or anything other than God. He can resist the devil’s temptations to steal away his heart only because his heart already relies and depends on God. Jesus has proven that God the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is truly his God.

Despite the ways we find ourselves giving in to temptation along with our parents, Adam and Eve; despite having our hearts stolen away from God, Jesus nevertheless enters the wilderness and renounces temptation. And he does so for us.

That’s why Jesus is in the wilderness. He doesn’t have to be there. But he wants to be there for us.

Jesus wants to face the same and similar temptations that we do; the people and things that we’ve given our hearts to, rather than God.

Jesus wants to face and then resist those temptations for you and me, in order to reclaim our hearts for God.

Jesus wants God to become our God again, rather than our money and our success, our knowledge and our power.

Jesus resists temptation for us so that our hearts can once again rely and depend on God – so that his God may once again become our God – and we might live again as God’s beloved.

“Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God,” Martin Luther reminds us.

May we therefore be strengthened by the promise that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ also wants to be our God, and wants to reclaim our hearts, here, in the wilderness of our lives - Amen.

Transfiguration of Our Lord Sunday - February 23, 2020 (Scripture: Matthew 17:1-9 New Revised Standard Version)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ- Amen

Take a moment and imagine one of your heroes – someone you admire and especially look up to. Maybe the hero you’re imagining is a teacher you had, or a coach, or a member of your family – a parent or grandparent. Maybe they’re a friend or a mentor, an actor or actress, sports figure or musician, a favorite author or artist, a president or an exemplary leader of some kind.

Whoever they are, you know that they’re your hero. You look up to them, and want to be like them; perhaps you put them on a pedestal even. If you like them and admire them, the last thing you want is for your hero to somehow let you down. Granted, no one is perfect – not even the people we consider our heroes. But the last thing we want is for our heroes to go down, to topple from their pedestal, to suffer pain, to become disgraced and ashamed. We don’t want our heroes to fall…

Six days before Jesus led Peter, James, and John up the mountain, Peter thought he knew who Jesus was. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked his disciples. Peter replied, “You are the Messiah.” But Peter evidently didn’t understand what it meant to be the Messiah. Jesus explained that to be the Messiah – to be the chosen king anointed by God to rule over God’s people for all eternity – meant that he, Jesus, “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” In Peter’s mind, however, suffering, rejection, and death do not fit the Messiah’s job description.

So Peter tells Jesus not to go through with it – the suffering, rejection, and death – that awaits him. Jesus, not to be swayed, reminds Peter that he’s not in charge, however. He calls Peter by the name of his adversary, Satan, and orders that he get behind him.

Six days later, after this frightening exchange between Jesus and Peter, Jesus nevertheless takes Peter up a high mountain with him. The disciples, James and John, come along as well. And you have to wonder, what will be revealed to them on the mountaintop? How will they respond?

Something happens on the mountaintop; Peter doesn’t know what to say. But in typical Peter fashion, Peter says something anyway. Before Peter even opens his mouth, however, “…Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.

And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.”

It is at that point that Peter opens his mouth, even though he doesn’t know what to say. Peter and the other disciples are terrified by what they see. And yet, they figure that Jesus shining in all his glory – his clothes having become dazzling white – must be the real Jesus. This Jesus, who’s displaying the glory of God, in the company of the greatest prophets of all time, Moses and Elijah; this Jesus is their Messiah.

It made sense that Jesus would display the glory of God in this way, even though it was beyond what they could have ever imagined, even though it terrified them.

Perhaps the power and glory of Jesus – terrifying though it was – would protect all of them atop this holy mountain. Perhaps once they got used to Jesus transfigured in dazzling white, they would never have to be afraid again. They’d never have to leave the mountaintop and return to the cold, cruel world below. They’d never have to leave the protection of God, of God’s power and glory displayed in Jesus, their Messiah. Perhaps Jesus, their hero, had brought them to the mountaintop with a terrifying display of God’s power and glory in order to save them, once and for all. Perhaps this had been their hero’s plan all along – to save himself and to save his chosen few atop the mountain – to save himself and to save them from the cold, cruel world below.

Peter, terrified, not knowing what to say and yet saying something anyway, turns to Jesus and says: “…it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

Peter does have a point, doesn’t he? With God’s power and glory displayed on the mountaintop, why in the world would you want to go anywhere else, other than the mountaintop? Why leave, ever? Why not stay on the mountaintop where you can see the power of your hero, your Messiah forever; where you and your hero would never have to stumble, never have to fall ever again? After all, we never want our heroes to fall. For if our heroes fall, we fear what will happen to us.

For our sake, Jesus doesn’t listen to our fears, however. For our sake and for Peter’s sake, Jesus doesn’t follow Peter’s advice. Jesus doesn’t stay on the mountaintop – he’s not interested in saving himself and a few of his followers from the cold, cruel world below.

For our hero didn’t ascend the mountain in order to escape the world and leave it behind forever. Instead the power of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop is God’s promise to the world living below in the shadows. The power of God’s beloved Son displayed on the mountaintop is a promise for you and me; for us who can’t escape the cold, cruel world and the power of our own sin.

Below the mountain, the cold, cruel world and the power of our own sin would appear to defeat him. He would not die a hero’s death, after all; he’d die the death of a criminal instead, on a cross, abandoned by God and disgraced by all. He’d appear to stumble and fall in the worst possible way, without any of the power he had displayed on the mountaintop. Our worst fears would appear to come true – should have listened to Peter and stayed on the mountaintop – should have saved himself and those he could up there.

Jesus didn’t follow Peter, though. He doesn’t listen to and obey our fears either. Jesus listens to God instead.

And having listened to God, Jesus the Beloved Son would die and then be raised from the dead by the power of God, the same power displayed on the mountaintop. Only this dying and rising would not be for his sake, but for ours and for the sake of the cold, cruel world.

Our hero is a hero, not because he used the power and glory of God to save himself. He’s a hero, as we’ll see, because he didn’t abandon our cold, cruel world.

He’s a hero because he did stumble and fall under the power of our sin; so that we wouldn’t have to stumble and fall away from him; so that we would be raised with him rather than abandoned by him; so that we might no longer want, in fear, to escape with our hero to the mountaintop, but join him loving and serving our neighbor here below instead - Amen.

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany - February 16, 2020 (Scripture: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37 New Revised Standard Version)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ- Amen

The only time I’ve been overseas was a trip to Thailand I took during college. There was an opportunity to work with Habitat for Humanity International in that particular country in Southeast Asian, halfway across the world, and some friends and I decided to go. As you probably already know, Habitat for Humanity provides decent, affordable housing worldwide. The future homeowners put in what’s called “sweat equity” as they work alongside volunteers and skilled builders to construct their own homes. The homeowners receive a no-interest loan, which they then pay back.

Jula helped to plan the trip. She talked with her family, including her father who is Thai and originally from Thailand. And her dad recommended that we go to his home country of Thailand; not only that, but to his hometown of Lampang in the northwest part of the country. As far as he was concerned, he wanted us to be safe there. There were some violent uprisings happening in the far southern part of Thailand. And along the borders with Burma and Laos was to be avoided as well; the closer you got to those particular borders, the less safe you were. Lampang, my father-in-law’s hometown, was a safe distance from any of the particularly dangerous areas. Safe, quiet, and uneventful was exactly what we were looking for.

After a twelve hour flight from Chicago to Japan, and another six hour flight from Japan to Thailand, we landed in Bangkok, the capital city of Thailand. I was exhausted, but not too exhausted to notice the soldiers gathered at the airport. The soldiers were wearing army fatigues and carrying AK47s. We learned that they were members of the Thai National Army, being deployed to the southern part of Thailand, near Malaysia, where they would be fighting against the violent uprisings.

Thankfully we knew about that ahead of time, and we were going the opposite direction. The soldiers were going south, and we were going north. But there’s nothing like troops carrying AK47s at an airport to wake you up, even after a combined 18 hour flight.

After a short night of sleep, we awoke early to see the sites around Bangkok. And then that evening, we boarded an overnight train that would take us 12 hours northwest to our final destination, the city of Lampang. After the sprawling, bustling, and crowded conditions of Bangkok, which is Thailand’s largest city, the little city of Lampang seemed more like a village. The almost three weeks we spent in Lampang and the surrounding area were wonderful.

Today’s second reading is from the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. That particular church wasn’t facing any of the violent uprisings as there were in southern Thailand and along the borders. Paul himself would face persecution, and eventually so would the churches he helped plant. But the church of Corinth to which Paul wrote was still experiencing a conflict of its own, particularly infighting in the form of jealousy and quarreling among its members.

As we heard read today in the second reading from 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, some in the Corinthian church were saying, “I belong to Paul.” Others were saying, “I belong to Apollos” (1 Corinthians 3: 4 NRSV). The early Corinthian Christians couldn’t agree on whom to follow. They couldn’t agree on who was right, that is, on who, finally, they wanted to be their leader.

In his letter Paul shares his observations of their behavior, and then voices his disapproval: “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you,” Paul tells the Corinthian church, “are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another, ‘I belong to Apollos,’ are you not merely human?” (1 Corinthians 3:3-4 NRSV)

You see, being the church extends beyond what we say or do in our relationship with God. Being the church is a matter of both our relationship with God in Christ, and our relationships with one another.

In fighting over who their leaders should be – whether Paul or Apollos or someone else – their relationship with God and with one another was out of whack. Paul even agrees with Jesus who, according to today’s Gospel reading, tells his disciples to make things right – to be reconciled – with their brother or sister before coming to worship God. “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you,” Jesus says, “leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24 NRSV).

As we know, the church is made up of humans. And humans have their inclinations and behave according to those human inclinations. Jealousy and quarreling occurred not only within the church of Jesus’ and Paul’s day, but in our day as well, and at every point in between. The violence and conflict within our own lives may be more hidden. But we can’t keep our more hidden jealousy and quarreling, our anger and hatred toward others, as far away as we’d like to believe. Our own conflicts with others aren’t as far away as those violent uprisings along the borders that my friends and I were trying to avoid while in Thailand. Instead, our own violence, anger, hatred, jealousy and quarreling is within our own hearts – much, much closer to home.

And yet, there is hope for us.

Even though our world is filled with conflict and violence – and the church often doesn’t look all that different from the world – even so, God is reconciling the world to himself in Jesus Christ. God in Jesus Christ is in the process of making our relationship with God and one another right again. Along these lines of reconciliation, of God making things right with us, the Apostle Paul shares God’s perspective on the church of his day and our day…

“What then is Apollos? What is Paul?” Paul asks. He then answers his own question: Paul and Apollos are “servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. […] The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose. […] “For we,” Paul continues, “are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3:5-9 NRSV).

Anytime we are fighting over who our leaders should be, or we are embroiled in any type of conflict that divides us out in the world; we need to be reminded of who we belong to. We don’t need to take sides, or have others take sides whether for or against us; we need to be reminded of who we belong to: that we are God’s field, God’s building, as Paul says, not our own. And as the church and servants of God, we have the privilege of planting seeds and watering them in people’s lives. But only God can bring the growth.

We can plant and water seeds of faith and healing and reconciliation, but only God can bring the growth. Only God can make the faith and healing and reconciliation happen, in God’s time, and in God’s way.

While building homes with Habitat for Humanity in Thailand, a safe distance from the borders, I got to do what Paul’s talking about here. We didn’t speak the same language, but we each did our part: mixing the cement, spreading it on the concrete blocks, stacking the blocks, and in this way, building the outside walls of the house. God was using everyone at that work site to help build that house. And at the same time, God was bringing the growth, bring us all closer to him, and closer to others halfway across the world.

Likewise you and I, as the church, all share a common purpose. We plant and we water seeds of faith and healing and reconciliation. And God, in his own time, and in his own ways, brings the growth - Amen.

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany - February 9, 2020 (Scripture: Isaiah 58:1-9; Matthew 5:13-20 New Revised Standard Version)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ- Amen

Fifteen years ago in 2005, two researchers conducted a study of the common beliefs of American youth. A focus of the study was to what extent youth believed in God, and if so, what they believed about God. In a monthly column she writes for the magazine Living Lutheran, Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton, summarizes the results of that study.

The overwhelming evidence is American youth believe – and here I’m quoting Eaton – that “God exists, God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, the central goal in life is to be happy and feel good about oneself, God does not need to be particularly in one’s life except when God is needed to solve a problem, and good people go to heaven when they die” (Elizabeth A. Eaton, “We are broken,” Living Lutheran February 2020, p. 50).

The researchers gave this widespread but thin belief in God a name, and it’s kind of a mouthful: “Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (Eaton, p. 50). It’s moralistic in the sense that God wants us to be nice; it’s therapeutic in the sense that God wants us to be happy and feel good about ourselves; and it’s deism in the sense that God is pretty much far-off, hands-off, and only a part of our lives, if he plays a part at all.

If we believe this kind of thin soup about God – as a lot of American youth apparently do – then we believe God exists simply to reward us for our good behavior.

Or we believe God serves simply to remind us to do a better job next time of being nice to others, or to do a better job next time of feeling good about ourselves.

In other words, according to the “Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deist” view of God, we are in the driver’s seat. And we are using God, if at all, to get us where we want to go. This is a far cry, however, from the God of Israel, the God of Jesus Christ, the God of the cross and the resurrection…

In today’s first reading from Isaiah, for instance, we learn that God doesn’t give out rewards to people for being good. God doesn’t exist to pat us on the back when we feel good about ourselves either. You see, according to Isaiah, God’s people desperately want God to reward them for their good works: “Why do we fast, but you do not see?” they cry out to God. “Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” they demand of God (Isaiah 58:3 NRSV).

God’s reply, however, isn’t to tell his people how great a job they are doing as they fast from food, for religious purposes. Instead, God asks them: “Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?” God asks. (Isaiah 58:5 NRSV)

The answer God implies, of course, is “No.”

“Look,” God tells his people, according to the prophet Isaiah. “…you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.” “Look,” God continues, “…you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high” (Isaiah 58:3-4 NRSV).

This isn’t at all the reward that the people want from God for their good religious behavior, their fasting. God’s response is just the opposite, in fact. God brings the hammer down by telling his people the truth, saying, “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day… […] such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high” (Isaiah 58:3-4 NRSV).

Our good behavior for which we expect God to reward us may not include fasting for religious purposes, as was the case in the prophet Isaiah’s day. Still, the good work that we do for God and other people is never purely good. Our worship, our prayers, and our acts of service at home, at school and work, and in the community are never purely for God, or for other people. We serve our own interests as well. We can even reach the point where we expect – and even demand – God and others to reward us for the good that we do.

And when no reward for our good behavior is forthcoming, or the reward is smaller than we’d like it to be, we may turn to God or other people, and demand of them: “Why am I doing all of these good things for you, but you do not see? Why am I humbling myself, going above and beyond the call of duty for you, but you do not notice?”

We’d rather God not tell us that it’s our own self-interest that has taken over at that point. We’d rather God not say that the good things we are doing are no longer good. But like he told his people through the prophet Isaiah, so God tells us: The good things that you and I are saying and doing for our own interests “will not make [our] voice heard on high” (Isaiah 58: 4 NRSV).

As much more than a prophet, Jesus in today’s Gospel also echoes the prophet Isaiah. And Jesus warns his followers as God warned his people through Isaiah hundreds of years before. Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees [the religious leaders],” you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20 NRSV).

Yikes! What is it about the religious leaders’ good and righteous behavior that Jesus is warning his followers? It’s the same issue God had spoken against through the prophet Isaiah. The religious leaders, as good as they looked on the outside, were the ones serving their own interests and oppressing others.

As far as Jesus and his heavenly Father are concerned, good outward behavior of any kind isn’t truly righteous – not if it’s done for recognition and reward – and to elevate ourselves above others.

So instead of tempting us to somehow earn our heavenly reward, or to somehow prove that we’re better than others, Jesus does something completely different. He gives us a completely new identity instead.

“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus declares (Matthew 5:13 NRSV).

“You are the light of the world,” Jesus insists (Matthew 5:14 NRSV).

And the thing about salt and light: Salt and light are absolutely no good on their own. Salt is only good when it’s used on food, to bring out the flavor. And light is only good when it’s shining on something, to illuminate the darkness. Salt and light are absolutely no good on their own.

In the same way, we are not any good on our own. As salt and light, we’re only any good when God is using us to season someone else’s life, when we’re using the gifts God has given us to serve them. Likewise, we’re only any good when God is using us to shine into someone else’s darkness, when we’re using the gifts God has given us to bring light to the darkness.

After all, we know how grateful we are for the people in our lives, the people God uses to be salt and light for us, when we are in darkness and have lost our savor.

We’re grateful that God isn’t a far-off, hands-off god that allows us to be in the driver’s seat…

We have a God who has enlightened and flavored our life in the person of Jesus, so that we may also be who Jesus says we are: salt and light for others - Amen.

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany - February 2, 2020 (Scripture: Matthew 5:1-12 New Revised Standard Version)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit - Amen

At the end of last week’s Gospel from Matthew, we heard that Jesus called some fishermen to follow him. And just like that, they became his followers, his disciples. Immediately, Jesus took those new followers of his to a crowd of people to whom he proclaimed the good news of God’s reign. And as Jesus also cured the diseases and sickness of folks in the crowd, the healing power of God’s kingdom began to transform people’s lives. No surprise, then, that the crowds grew and grew as more and more people were drawn to Jesus. This Jesus—the one through whom more and more people had been experiencing the healing power of God…

What we have in today’s Gospel, however, is Jesus stepping away from the growing crowd for a moment. He goes up a mountain. And as he goes up the mountain his disciples follow him. Jesus, then, sits down and begins to teach the disciples. He preaches to them a sermon we know as the “Sermon on the Mount”—that famous sermon beginning with those familiar words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

As I’ve thought about today’s Gospel, I’ve wondered what our Lord was responding to when he preached this sermon. I mean, what prompted him to preach this particular sermon, which later became known as the “Sermon on the Mount”, a sermon in which Jesus repeated over and over again the word “Blessed”—as in “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “Blessed are those who mourn”?

I’ve wondered to myself what brought on this first of Jesus’ sermons recorded in the Gospel. And I’ve thought that perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus was intending, through this sermon, to teach his disciples—his first followers—something about the crowds gathered at the foot of the mountain. If so, perhaps Jesus felt he had to make it absolutely clear to the disciples that the poor, the sick, and the hurting were exactly the kind of people he had come to heal, the sort of people God had sent him to—even though these poor, sick, and hurting folks were in no way what you would call good, upstanding, religious people by the standards of Jesus’ day.

You can see the problem here. When it came to being religious, when it came to having faith, the crowds had nothing to show for themselves. And I’ll bet it was quite a shock for the disciples to see those crowds—to see crowds of people who were hurting, sick, and in need of healing. They must have felt like fish out of water, those fishermen.

After all, those crowds were not the sort of people they would have ever thought to associate with in their small fishing villages. Nor would have they, the disciples, have wanted to. Their religion taught them to avoid such people. Crowds of sick people were to be avoided. Poor people with no hope were bad news—their faith was apparently too weak. Indeed, God must be punishing sick hurting people for something they had done wrong, something they had done to make God mad.

This, at least, was the prevailing view in Jesus’ day. People were sick or poor or had lost all hope because God was punishing them. They were cursed. And good, upstanding religious folks stayed as far away as they could from those “cursed” people.

Things aren’t much different today, are they? We all have our own ideas of who is cursed and who is not. People, we feel, are cursed if they vote differently from us. They’re cursed if they disagree with us on a whole host of hot-button issues.

To be blessed rather than cursed is to believe that God is on our side. To be blessed is to believe that we have done something to earn God’s blessing, that we have something to show for ourselves, and that those who don’t—who don’t have anything to show for themselves—are cursed.

Perhaps the fishermen thought that Jesus had called them to follow him for that very reason. They might have thought they had something to show for themselves, something that made Jesus want to bless them, something that made them better than and superior to the sick and the hurting, the “cursed” crowds of people to which Jesus led them.

If that were true—if the disciples believed they were “blessed” and the crowds were “cursed”—then Jesus’ first sermon to them must have come as quite a shock. Honestly, it must come as quite a shock to us as well.

For, against what we believe to be our better judgment, Jesus teaches them and teaches us what God’s kingdom really is. The poor, the sick, the hopeless are not cursed but blessed in the kingdom Jesus brings, the kingdom of his heavenly Father. Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, for they will be comforted. Jesus blesses the crowds—the sick, the hurting, the hopeless. God has come not to curse, but to bless those who have nothing to show for themselves.

And, shockingly, the ones who are cursed are not the poor, the sick, and the hopeless—the poor in spirit and those who mourn. Rather, the ones who are cursed are those who curse others. The ones God curses are the disciples when they’re convinced God’s only on their side—that they’re blessed, the only ones who’ve got anything to show for themselves. The ones God curses are us when we’re convinced God’s on our side—that we’re blessed, the only ones who’ve got anything to show for ourselves—rather than the poor, the sick, and those who’ve lost all hope.

But the thing about Jesus is that he’s intent on blessing, blessing us, even when we’re cursed, even when we insist on cursing others. In fact, Jesus our Lord has taken upon himself all of the curses we’ve uttered against each other, all of the curses that have cursed us. Jesus has taken every curse in this world upon himself; he has become a curse; he has suffered and died, a curse upon the cross; and he has removed the curse from us.

For God is on your side and on my side, not because we have anything to show for ourselves, but all for Jesus’ sake—because Jesus suffered and died and became a curse for us on the cross. Jesus died a curse, but God raised him from the dead, to remove the curse from him and from us.

So Jesus’ sermon today is for us as well.

We who are poor in spirit, we who are mourning our losses, we who are sick and are suffering are not cursed by God.

Jesus insists on blessing us instead.

And the mercy that he’s shown the crowds, his followers, and us, we get to show others.

We get to rejoice and be glad, even when others curse us.

For our Lord has removed the curse from us.

And Jesus has set us free to bless rather than curse—to show mercy—for the kingdom of heaven is ours - Amen.

Third Sunday after Epiphany - January 26, 2020 (Scripture: Isaiah 9:1-4; Matthew 4:12-23 New Revised Standard Version)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who calls us to follow him - Amen

The opening verse of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” goes:

“Almost heaven, West Virginia

Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River

Life is old there, older than the trees

Younger than the mountains, growing like a breeze” (John Denver, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”)

And then there’s the familiar chorus that goes:

“Country roads, take me home

To the place I belong

West Virginia, mountain mama

Take me home, country roads” (John Denver, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”)

The opening line in the song has actually been used to promote West Virginia tourism: “West Virginia, almost heaven,” the song begins. “…almost heaven”: that’s a powerful line that has drawn people to admire and enjoy West Virginia’s wonderful natural beauty, in a state beset by so much economic hardship and poverty.

“…almost heaven”: there is nevertheless something about the beauty of the mountains and the valleys of West Virginia that is “almost heaven.”

Maybe West Virginia hasn’t been “almost heaven” for you. Perhaps you’ve never been there; of if you have, you’ve never experienced it that way. In any case, you might have had the experience of “almost heaven” somewhere else.

For me, it was the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota, along the Canadian border. There was something “almost heaven” about paddling a canoe across one of many lakes, finding a campsite, setting up camp, and enjoying the view out across the lake, after a long day of paddling. The cry of the loons across the still water at sunrise and sunset; the sun’s reflection in the lake at morning and evening, along with a cool refreshing breeze coming off the water, brought so much stillness, peace, and calm. It was “almost heaven.” I can still remember it over twenty years ago…

I also remember this about the Boundary Waters: When I got bit by the first black fly of the morning, or felt the pin prick of the first mosquito of the afternoon, I was quickly brought back to earth. The wind had stopped blowing, and the flies and mosquitoes had returned in full force. As the sun disappeared over the horizon, we were even chased into our tents by a thickening cloud of mosquitoes. “…almost heaven”: not quite.

“Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali… […] From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matthew 4:12-13, 17 NRSV).

Jesus is fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah from long ago. The Gentiles, or non-Jewish nations and people, who have sat in great darkness and the shadow of death, will see a great light in the person of Jesus. They will have the light of Jesus dawn on them. The region of Galilee is the doorway to the Gentiles, who are the non-Jewish nations and people. And it is precisely in Galilee that Jesus starts proclaiming, to Jew and non-Jew alike, that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

You can bet that Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, the two fishermen, would have already heard something about Jesus and his message. After all, people talked. News of Jesus and his message would have reached the fishermen brothers before Jesus himself did. News traveled by word of mouth faster than the messenger himself.

Still, what could “the kingdom of heaven coming near” possibly mean for the life of a fisherman, when every day was the same? Casting, hauling, and mending fishing nets; sailing, docking, and repairing boats; and, having to depend on there being fish to eat and to sell in order to feed your families?

How could life as a fisherman have anything to do – anything at all – with the kingdom of heaven coming near?

For that matter, what could Jesus’ message, “the kingdom of heaven has come near”, possibly have to do with our day-to-day routines, with your life and mine? How could the kingdom of heaven possibly be near? How could the kingdom we hear Jesus proclaiming possibly be anywhere near life as we know it?

As much as we might want to idealize and romanticize being a fisherman in Jesus’ day, you can bet that those fishermen in today’s Gospel wouldn’t have seen it that way. Fishing was not “almost heaven.” Even if John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was around back then, no fisherman would have sung that song about their trade. Fishing was not “almost heaven.”

Nevertheless, the remarkable thing Jesus did was this: He showed up for Simon Peter and his brother, Andrew. He showed up for James and his brother, John. Jesus himself came near enough to the fishermen along the Sea of Galilee, so close that he could see them. Jesus could see the fishermen brothers; they were not invisible to him. He could see them, and he could see that they were fishermen, “casting a net into the sea” (Matthew 4:18 NRSV).

Jesus came near enough to see the fishermen brothers, and near enough to speak to them. The One who said “the kingdom of heaven has come near” was so close and so near as to speak to them – to single them out –to ask them to follow him. By bringing the kingdom of heaven near to them, Jesus even promised to make them a different kind of fisherman – the kind that fished for people.

You see, when Jesus entered these fishermen’s lives, the kingdom of heaven was brought near to them. Heaven itself was entering their lives; they were seeing a great light; a light that had dawned on their darkness and cast its light upon the death in whose shadow they struggled to live each day.

When Jesus entered those fishermen’s lives, they simply could no longer be the fishermen they once were. For Jesus’ own presence made them into a different kind of fisherman: fishermen without nets, without boats, without even a father to mend nets with. They were to fish for people, and Jesus was going to show them how.

Through our faith and trust in Jesus, our Lord is likewise near, and close enough to see us as he saw those fishermen. He sees you in your day-to-day routine. He sees you doing whatever you happen to think is insignificant. Jesus sees you doing whatever you happen to feel is farthest from the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus sees you as he saw those fishermen. And no matter how worthless you feel your life is, or how meaningless your work has become; Jesus nevertheless has brought his Father’s kingdom – the kingdom of heaven – near to you. So near, in fact, that he called you by name in your baptism and already asked you to follow him.

He’s promised to make you and me into a different kind of fisherman; or in our case, a different kind of boss or employee, a different kind of student or teacher, a different kind of parent, or a different kind of son or daughter, or friend.

In other words, to become followers of Jesus who look for opportunities to show others the good news of God’s love and light – a love and a light that breaks into our own darkness.

For we too can go about our work, and live our lives – despite all challenges and struggles – in a way that shows others how God’s light has entered our darkness, and how God’s love has dispelled the shadow of death in our own lives.

We can be agents of God’s light and love for others because of the presence of Jesus, now, in our own lives; Jesus whose presence has brought the kingdom of heaven near to us, here, today…

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people” (Matthew 4:23 NRSV).

This is what it looks like when the kingdom of heaven has come near.

Having the presence of Jesus shine into our lives, having him dispel our darkness and the shadow of death, we trust Jesus’ presence is a “foretaste of the feast to come”; or in other words, “almost heaven” - Amen.

Second Sunday after Epiphany - January 19, 2020 (Scripture: John 1:29-42 New Revised Standard Version)