This is the second Sunday after the Epiphany, and even though our focus for this church year will be in Mark’s gospel, the second Sunday after the Epiphany always brings us to John. We’re still in the first chapter, and our reading today will bring us to “what happens next” after Jesus is baptized.Continue reading
I have long thought it was pointless to write a sermon for Christmas Eve. I mean, how many Christmas Eve sermons have you actually remembered afterward? Hmm? Yeah, me too. Not one.
So I’ve always operated from the viewpoint that the gospel could speak for itself this one night of the year. The story of the incarnation is enough.
But lately, I’ve begun to realize that this is only true for people who already believe. For everyone else, it’s just a nice story. It makes us feel all fuzzy and warm, and for an hour or so, we can bask in the gentle glow of candlelight. We can pretend that the cute baby in the manger sleeps in heavenly peace, and won’t bother us too much with the reality of our human existence.
And that’s where we’d be wrong. Continue reading
Have you ever wondered why one of the Advent wreath candles is a different color than the others? In the traditional church calendar, the third Sunday of Advent is called “Gaudete” Sunday. Gaudete is Latin for “Rejoice!” We light a rose-colored candle, to contrast with the purple or blue candles used on the other three Sundays of Advent, to represent joy.
In the early church, Advent was a penitential season, much like the season of Lent. New believers prepared for baptism through spiritual practices such as prayer and fasting. Gaudete Sunday was a break from that fast, a time to rejoice in the promise of Christ’s coming as Emmanuel, God With Us.
One of the features of Gaudete Sunday is the use of Mary’s song from the first chapter of Luke. Next week, we will get the story surrounding this song, now known as the Magnificat – that’s Latin for the first word in the song: “magnify”. We’ll hear how Mary sings this song when her relative Elizabeth greets her and calls her ‘blessed.’ This week on the third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Joy, let’s focus on the song itself:Continue reading
“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”Mark 13:24-37 (NRSV)
Have you been losing sleep these past several months? Do you find yourself lying awake around 2 or 3 AM? Insomnia is apparently a side effect of pandemic stress. Researchers have even coined a term for it: “Caronasomnia”.
The problem with this kind of sleeplessness is that our bodies and our minds never really get the rest they need. We depend on good sleep to let our brains “reboot” and our minds to refresh. Losing sleep creates “brain fog” – we are sluggish and easily confused. We can’t think creatively. We aren’t as effective at our work. We have a hard time staying alert.
So here we are at the beginning of a new church year, diving into the season of Advent, when we should be looking forward with anticipation to Christ’s coming, and all we really can think about is how much we’d like to take a good nap. Jesus’ admonition to “keep awake” just isn’t very appealing, is it? Until we realize that the kind of exhausted sleeplessness many of us have been experiencing isn’t what Jesus has in mind at all.
It’s the first Sunday in the season of Advent. That word “Advent” means “arriving” or “coming toward” – God is coming toward us in the person of Jesus Christ, as we come toward God through Christ’s grace. And we do that “coming toward” God by means of hope.
I think it’s interesting that we begin the first Sunday in the new church year near the end of Mark’s gospel. Over the last few weeks, we heard Matthew’s version of Christ’s final teachings, and here we get Mark’s recollection of the same timeframe. Both accounts focus on the ‘end of the age’ or ‘end times.’
While these words sound apocalyptic, Jesus is making it clear that he isn’t predicting when the end will come – no one knows the day or the hour. That word “apocalypse” really means “revelation,” and this passage seems to obscure more than it reveals. So it might be more helpful to understand what Jesus is saying by remembering he is actually talking about his own end, the completion of his own ministry on earth.
One clue that we should hear this as a farewell discourse is the way Jesus uses so many imperative verbs: learn, beware, keep awake, be alert. Christ is giving instructions for his disciples to follow after he is gone. Paul does the same thing in his late writings. So perhaps we should take these words of Jesus personally, because he is speaking to all his disciples, and that includes us here and now.
So what does it mean to “keep awake” as we wait for Christ’s return? How do we demonstrate our hope for Christ’s coming with alert anticipation? The first Sunday in Advent is traditionally called the Sunday of Hope. Where do we find hope in these difficult times? How can we see light breaking into our darkness?
The prophets of the Old Testament weren’t fortune tellers, they were truth tellers. They didn’t predict the future so much as they announced God’s presence in times when people couldn’t see it for themselves. The prophets showed God’s people where to find the light when they despaired in darkness.
We are in a time that seems quite dark. I used to check the COVID Situation Update website every day – now I don’t want to know how bad it is, how many more deaths there have been, how many more people are sick – because now I know some of those people. They aren’t statistics any more; they are friends and family.
We are all suffering from pandemic fatigue. Remember when we hoped things would get better soon enough we could celebrate Easter together? And then we hoped for summer to settle things down.
By October, we were struggling with decisions to cancel or limit traditional Fall activities like a bazaar or trunk-or-treat. Now we are so tired of being vigilant, so weary of staying isolated, so stressed that – even in our weariness – we can’t sleep through the night. Where has our hope gone? Some have given up, and abandoned safety measures altogether. Others have given up and slipped into depression. Where is the light shining into our darkness?
Part of the problem is that, while we know we must keep alert and be ready, we have no idea when Christ will come. These months and months, which we all thought back in March would be maybe a few weeks, have given us an opportunity to train for this kind of alert anticipation.
In the first few weeks of closing businesses and events, we learned how to pace our response to the COVID virus spread, realizing we were heading into a marathon, not a sprint. We learned to curb our anxiety as we sheltered in place. We found ways of adapting our normal routines to maintain safe distances from others, while we washed our hands and put on our masks. We became more disciplined. We started to pay better attention to others.
This is exactly the kind of ‘being awake’ Jesus asks of us. Instead of fear and worry, we respond with discipline and compassion. “There’s a difference between “keep awake” because everything is out of your control, you can’t fix most of what happening, and it’s getting downright scary—and “keep awake” because God never ceases to be at work, the Spirit is doing a new thing, and you don’t want to miss any of it!” (Diane Strickland)
In today’s epistle reading, Paul greets us with those familiar words we hear every Sunday: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ,” and we wonder if he knew, nearly 2000 years ago, just how much we would need to hear those words now.
Then Mark interrupts again with the admonition to “Keep awake!” Another way to translate this is “Be awake” – Jesus isn’t telling us to wake up from sleep, but to stay alert. Be in a state of readiness. When Christ comes – and we learned last week in the parable of the sheep and goats that Jesus comes when we least expect him, in ways we least expect him, and through people we least expect to bear his image – but when Christ comes, we are to be ready for him, because he does come. Your hope is in the Christ who comes to you in the here and now, bringing light into your darkness, calling you out of despair and weariness into his strength and peace.
Four times in this passage, Jesus says, “Be awake.” He doesn’t say, ‘drowsily prop your eyelids open’ or even “wake up!” with a jolt. He says, ‘remain in a state of readiness, of eager anticipation for the joy that is to come. Live in hope.’
Hope gives us the fuel we need to stay alert. Hope gives us the energy to remain ready to welcome Christ into our midst. It is hope that keeps us awake and rested.
Have you ever watched a Texas A&M football game? Did you notice the entire student body standing for the entire game? The spirit of the “12th man on the team” goes back to 1922, when the Aggies had suffered so many injuries, there was no one left on the bench. One version of the legend says that a student jumped down from the bleachers to take the field when the next injury occurred, running in the final touchdown to win the game.
The facts aren’t quite that dramatic. E. King Gill had recently left the football team to concentrate on basketball. He was at the game that day, and put on an injured player’s uniform, standing on the sidelines for the entire game in case another player might get injured. But he never had to go in. The Aggies rallied and won the game, and from that time on, the student body stands throughout each game, partly to honor Gill’s selflessness, but also to demonstrate their readiness to hit the field if needed.
This is the kind of ‘staying awake’ Jesus asks of us. It’s the kind of alert attention that anticipates victory, and remains willing to participate at any moment. Over the next four weeks, we will celebrate Advent in ways we never have before. Traditions we hold dear will be laid aside, as we look for the light of Christ to shine into us in a new way. We need to be awake to see that light. And there’s another kind of alert wakefulness that demonstrates our hope as we move from darkness into Christ’s light. A mom was driving along when her 8-year-old asked,” Do you want me to throw the confetti in my pocket?” “No, not in the car! Why do you have confetti in your pocket?” the mom asked. Her 8-year-old answered, “It’s my emergency confetti. I carry it everywhere in case there is good news.” (private Facebook post)
As we move from darkness to light during this season of Advent, this time of ‘coming toward,’ may your hope be anchored in the good news that Jesus comes, just as he promised, and when he comes, he hopes for something, too. He hopes you will be alert, that your supply of emergency confetti will be ready to announce his coming.
November 29, 2020 Advent 1B
We’ve finally made it. Today marks the end of the church year, when we celebrate the ultimate reign of Christ. This also means that we’ve come to the end of the year of Matthew in our cycle of scripture readings called the lectionary. And it means that in today’s passage, we hear the final words of Jesus’ final sermon on the end of the age. Like the three parables that have come before this closing statement, the parable of the sheep and the goats describes what will happen on the final Day of Judgment. So take a deep breath and get ready for what you are about to hear, because this is Christ’s last word on the subject, end of story.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; or I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46)
The thing that strikes me about this familiar parable is the element of surprise. Throughout this final sermon, Jesus has repeated the warning that the final judgment will come when we least expect it. When the Son of Man comes in glory, it will be a big surprise to everyone. Back in chapter 22, we heard of a wedding guest who is surprised to be thrown out of the party because he isn’t dressed correctly. The foolish bridesmaids at the beginning of chapter 25 were surprised that they had run out of oil, and they were further surprised to be shut out of the wedding feast when they arrived after the door had been closed. The third servant in last week’s story was surprised that his master had expected him to invest the talent he’d been given, instead of burying it for safe-keeping, as conventional wisdom would indicate.
And now, we see that both the sheep and the goats are surprised to learn they have encountered the Good Shepherd whenever they met “the least of these.” Whether they were caring for the needs of others or ignoring those needs, the surprise is the same: “Lord, when did we see you…?” they ask.
And I think the reason both sheep and goats show surprise is also the same: when responding out of our primary identity, it doesn’t occur to us that we are doing anything special or unusual. It isn’t that caring for the poor, the sick, and the hungry makes you into a sheep instead of a goat. Caring for the poor, the sick, and the hungry simply shows the world whether you already are a sheep … or a goat. The way you respond to ‘the least of these’ demonstrates where your true identity lies.
Because if your identity lies in yourself, or what you think makes you important in the world, you won’t see the needs around you as something that should matter to you. But when you identify with Jesus, you see Jesus in others, whether they are sick or poor or hungry or in prison – you see them as Jesus sees them, and you see Jesus in them. When meeting the Lord in the least instead of the greatest, the righteous will respond out of righteousness, and those who are not righteous … will not.
And that’s where the rub comes in this parable. Because, too often, we don’t see others as Christ. We don’t recognize Christ in the people we encounter every day. We don’t respond to each person in the same way we think we’d respond to Jesus if we met him on the street.
But what would happen if we recognized Christ in each of the people we encounter every day, and responded to each person knowing that he or she was Jesus? How differently would we behave toward the person who rings up our groceries, or hands us our lunch through the drive-up window? How would we react to that obnoxious co-worker, or the people who act like they are better than we are? How could we be changed if we knew that each unexpected meeting was really a chance to look into the eyes of Christ himself?
You see, just as he once came to earth in human form, Jesus will come again to rule as Christ the King. In the meantime, Christ comes among us as one of the least of these, asking for food, in need of shelter, calling our attention to the thirst for living water that we see all around us, if we will only look. And Jesus comes in a way that makes him accessible to us in our need.
Karoline Lewis writes, “At the end of the day, to claim Christ as king, to believe in God’s reign, has to be a claim on our present, and not just the future glory of ‘thy kingdom come.’ … how we decide to live matters. Not just for ourselves. Not just for those immediately around us. But for the sake of … the reign of Christ here and now.”
So what is the point of the parable of the sheep and the goats for us, in the here and now? Do we really need another story of division and separation in this time of growing polarization in our society? In a season when what we long to hear is a word of encouragement and hope, do we really need to be reminded about judgment?
Yes, we do.
In fact, I think Jesus tells these stories about judgment at the end of time in order to offer us some encouragement and hope. And not so we will think ’those people who don’t believe like I do are gonna get what’s coming to them when Jesus separates the goats from us sheep!”
The Hebrew word often translated as “righteousness” in our Bible is rich in meaning. It means justice, or God-rightness. But what we too often forget is that God’s justice includes both judgment and mercy. And that’s a good thing for all of us.
Just as both groups of bridesmaids fell asleep while waiting for the bridegroom, both the sheep and the goats failed to recognize Jesus in the people they encountered – the sick and hungry and naked and imprisoned. Neither those who cared or those who ignored the ‘least of these’ saw Jesus when they met him.
And that’s the point. Whether you recognize him or not, whether your lamp is lit or not, Jesus still comes. Jesus shows up for us. In the mundane, everyday interactions we have with others – and even in pandemic quarantine, we still interact with others everyday, if only in the way we think about them – even there, Jesus comes to us.
Remember that Jesus tells all these parables about the time when God’s reign will be fully established in the context of Holy Week. Within 48 hours, Jesus will wash his disciples’ feet and tell them “I have set an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15). But just before that happens, a couple of “Greeks” approach Philip and say, “Sir we would see Jesus” (John 12:21). John’s gospel never tells us if they get to have that face-to-face interview, but isn’t it interesting that they ask in the way they do? “We would see Jesus,” or “we want to see Jesus.” I have a feeling that if Jesus had been in earshot, he might have responded, “You would, would you? Well, just look around!”
When we were in the Holy Land, we met with Archbishop Elias Chacour in Galilee. He offered to answer any of our questions the time would allow, but first we had to answer his question: “What did you come to the Holy Land hoping to find?” He waited, and few offered some timid responses. He shook his head and said, “Did you come here looking for Jesus? He isn’t here! Didn’t you get the memo? He is risen! He goes before you, just as he said he would!”
The parable of the sheep and goats teaches us to stop looking for Jesus, stop wishing you could see him face-to-face, and start realizing you see Jesus in every single person you encounter.
Start seeing Jesus in the ones who annoy you because they won’t wear a mask properly in public, and the ones who annoy you because they keep telling you how to wear your mask.
Start seeing Jesus in…
the ones who need the food we put in the Blessing Box,
and the ones who wipe it out daily;
the ones who agree with your political opinions
and the ones who clearly do not;
the ones who are victims of crime,
and the ones who commit those crimes;
the oppressed and their oppressors;…
the ones who’ve hurt you, and the ones you’ve hurt.
Start seeing Jesus, because he’s there, waiting for you to recognize him, to receive him, to accept his forgiveness, to enter into his joy. And when that happens, when you start seeing Jesus in the least as well as the greatest, they won’t be ‘least’ or ‘great’ anymore. They will become part of us, one in Christ. And you may be surprised that, when you see Jesus in them, they will be able to see Jesus in you.
Christ the King A, November 22, 2020
Watch a video of this sermon here.
What identifies you as a follower of Jesus Christ? In Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, and in Matthew’s gospel as well, we find a number of key attributes that tell others we belong to Jesus.
The first Sunday of October is traditionally known as World Communion Sunday. The words of consecration we use in the United Methodist Church further illustrate the unity of these attributes: “… one with Christ, one with each other, one in mission to all the world…”
Join me as we explore what it means to find our primary identity in Jesus Christ this month.
September 27, 2020
Identity Marker 1: Of the Same Mind (Philippians 2:1-13)
Humility in Obedience
October 11, 2020
Identity Marker 3: One with Each Other (Philippians 4:1-9)
October 18, 2020
Identity Marker 4: One With Christ (Matthew 22:15-22)
October 25, 2020
Identity Marker 5: One in Purpose (Matthew 22:34-46)
August 30, 2020 – Pentecost + 13A
Note: this is the final sermon in the “Identity Crisis” series. The previous two weeks were preached by others, while I spent time with my family at my mother’s deathbed. Watch this sermon on Vimeo.
We’ve been exploring the idea of an identity crisis in Matthew’s gospel these past few weeks. We’ve learned that the crisis isn’t just about how we identify ourselves as followers of Jesus. The crisis also stems from how we identify Christ at work in our lives and in the world. Sometimes it isn’t so easy to recognize Jesus, even when he stands right in front of us. Sometimes we doubt who he is, as Peter did when he tried to walk on water. But when we can name Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God – also as Peter did – we find our own identity as well.
Today’s passage from Matthew marks a turning point in the story. Continue reading
August 2, 2020
Watch on Vimeo.
Many people operate out of a scarcity mindset – we are all too aware of what we don’t have. During the early weeks of the COVID shutdown, it was difficult to find toilet paper in the stores. Some of that difficulty was simply because most of the toilet paper being manufactured is for institutional use – office buildings, schools, hotels, for example. Suddenly, office buildings, schools, and hotels were empty. Everyone was at home, and the demand for Quilted Northern and Charmin Strong outstripped the availability of those products.
But there was something else going on, too. People were ‘stocking up’ on basic essentials like toilet paper because they were afraid. They were operating out of a mindset of scarcity, hoarding resources instead of sharing them.
The crowds following Jesus around Galilee were used to living a life of scarcity. Continue reading
This three-part series has been updated from 2017.
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
July 5, 2020
Watch on Vimeo.
It’s been good to visit with a few of you this week, to learn what is on your heart as we begin the work of interim ministry together. You may remember a video that appeared on the church website a few months ago, where I explained the developmental tasks this congregation will need to address during this season.
Over the next several weeks, I will be explaining each of these tasks in greater detail, so that we can begin this important and urgent work with full understanding. The first task is to come to terms with your past. This might be the most difficult task of all, but the other steps of the process depend on getting this one right, so it’s a good place to begin. Continue reading
June 28, 2020 (Pentecost A +4)
Watch on Vimeo.
“Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me,” Jesus says to his disciples, “and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (Matthew 10:40)
We like to think we would welcome Jesus if he showed up on our doorstep, don’t we? We would recognize him immediately, and we’d usher him into our homes with joy. More than likely, we’d find some way to set out a meal for Jesus, knowing that good food usually makes for good conversation, and the gospels all tell us that Jesus liked to eat with people.
But what if Jesus showed up at your door when the larder was empty? What if the beds weren’t made and the place was a mess? What if there was no place for Jesus to sit, because every seat was piled high with newspapers, unfolded laundry – stuff… you get the idea. What if you hadn’t dusted or vacuumed in weeks, and there were dirty dishes in the sink? What would your welcome to the King of Kings look like then? Continue reading