This page contains the manuscripts for sermons preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church.
You're always welcome to worship at Calvary! Worship is 10:00 each Sunday morning.
Calvary Presbyterian Church is located at 3400 Lemay Ferry Road, St. Louis, MO 63125

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Divorce and Dish Dogs

Scripture: Mark 10:2-16

Preached 10/04/2015

Matt[1] worked at a restaurant that a famous television actor loved. Every time the actor made a reservation the cooks picked out the day’s best steak. The bartender pulled a second bottle of his- the actor’s favorite Scotch. Table number one was set aside. And then, two hundred diners, waiters, drinkers all leaning in, eager to be seen by a TV star.

The last time Matt saw the actor, he devoured attention as he pretended to ignore it. He ate and told crude jokes and drank enough liquor to float a small boat. It was a hot night. He was blurry eyed. He looked sad and red and heavy. Everyone in the dining room and crowded around the bar did. A sweaty, drunken congregation, star-struck, depressed, each member hungry for some glory, all of them looking in the wrong direction.

The moment was broken by sounds from the kitchen. The Prince song "U Got the Look" blaring out of a tinny boom-box and unhinged, outrageous laughter. The dish dogs! How dare they intrude on the star’s meal! The manager glared. The dish room is for chronic alcoholics, kids with no work experience- not the important likes of TV stars. Matt burst in to quiet them.  

It was a trap! Not the dish room. Our scripture reading this morning. Jesus is in the middle of a trap that the Pharisees have tried to lay for him. The Pharisees are scholars of the law, nitpicky and legalistic lawyers who are more than a little bit self-righteous. They believe they have all the right answers, and they can prove it, and anyone else with a different opinion is clearly just not educated enough. And this Jesus guy who has come along, and who had been teaching differently than they are, and he’s eroded some of their celebrity status. Fewer people are coming to them for answers, and fewer are respecting the high authority they claim.

They don’t like Jesus, and they don’t like what he has to say. So they lay a trap for him with their best trick question. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” They ask. They’re attempting to get Jesus to take sides here. Because in their eye’s there’s a pretty straightforward answer in scripture, in Deuteronomy, and it’s yes. A man is permitted in Deuteronomy 24 to give his wife a bill of divorce if he finds something “objectionable” about her. But the two main schools of interpretation- Shammai and Hillel, if you’re interested- had been disputing exactly what this meant for years.  

Jesus acknowledges the scriptural allowance for divorce, but then goes on to give a counterpoint, citing the Genesis text about the joining of two into one, and “let no one separate”.

Now, before we go any further, I want to say that I know this passage has been used as a clobber passage against many people, and probably against a good number of you. First and foremost, I am sorry that anyone has done that in the name of God or the Church. It is wrong, and they were wrong. What Jesus is saying here is not that divorce and remarriage go against the will of God and are awful and make you an adulterer. Let’s delve deeper to see what he is actually saying.

Divorce in the first century was very different from divorce as we know it today. In the first century- that’s Jesus time- marriage was a property arrangement, in which a woman ceased to be the property of her father and instead became property of her husband. Marriages were arranged, and a woman had next to no say on who her husband would be.

In these marriages, a man was the only one who could initiate a divorce. And, using that Deuteronomy passage, at least the Hillel interpretation, he could pretty well divorce his wife for any reason. Rabinically accepted reasons for divorce included childlessness, failure to complete household tasks, even burning bread.

As a divorced woman, her future was bleak. She had almost no chance at remarriage. Economic opportunities for divorced women did not exist, and her two options for survival were prostitution or begging. There were very few childless marriages in those days, and the children the marriage had produced would go with the woman. She was not only supporting herself, but attempting to put food on the table and a roof over the head of her now husbandless family.

Meanwhile, the former husband’s life continued as normal, he kept the money and the property, he had fewer mouths to feed, and there was not a stigma about his remarriage should he feel the urge to do so.

This ancient divorce created two classes of people- those who mattered: that would be the men, who could end the marriage at will, who were financially stable, and whose life went on quite easily after a divorce. TV celebrities. And then there was the second class of people: the women. They could not leave an abusive marriage, nor some we would consider adulterous today. They could be dismissed at will for burning the toast, and if dismissed, were left destitute and with a very bleak future. Dish dogs, at best.

It’s pretty clear that Jesus, while using the word divorce, is condemning a practice that is much different that the divorce we know today. To be fair, I believe that Jesus would object to the fact that men still tend to have improved financial statuses after divorce while women have diminished financial statuses. I believe his heart would hurts for the pain that unhealthy relationships cause, and that the ending, even if a good ending, an amicable one cause because God wants us all to be in healthy, life affirming, just and loving relationships, marriages and other relationships.

So to say, based on this statement of Jesus that he does not permit divorce and remarriage, is just awful biblical scholarship, and also wrong. What Jesus objects to is any action that reinforces the idea that there are different classes of people- those who matter and those who do not. What Jesus objects to is the discarding of certain people as if their lives don’t matter. What he objects to- as he makes the point by bringing a child, the one with the least status among them- is any of God’s beloved children being left to starve, to fend for themselves, to have to beg or sell themselves just to be able to survive. The divorce Jesus objects to is not the one that ends an unhealthy marriage. The divorce he objects to is any time we attempt to divorce ourselves from our responsibility to make sure that all of our brothers and sisters are being treated with loving justice, and that we treat them that way as well.

Matt burst into the dish room to tell them to be quiet, he burst out of a trap. He burst out of the trap of the dining room that said the TV star was the one who mattered, and everyone else ranked lower. What Matt found in that trap-bursting dish room was a college student named Roy cracking up as a developmentally disabled teenager named Mike drenched him with a spray gun. Next to them, the occasionally homeless dishwasher named Art was doubled over with laughter. And Prince sang along. It was pure glee.  

Jesus would much rather be much rather hang out with the dish dogs, the outcasts, the downtrodden. His heart is with those most vulnerable members of society, and on this world communion Sunday we remember our responsibility to them, no matter how far they may be away from us. The homeless in our city, the refugees fleeing Syria. The hungry in our neighborhoods, and the starving in Guatemala. Those affected by violence and brutality here, and those whose lives are torn apart by violence in Sudan. And where Jesus’ heart is, there our hearts are to be also. Not just our hearts, but our prayers, our words, our actions, and yes, even our money, for to such belong the kingdom of heaven so if we want to experience it we’d better go where it is on display.

So I encourage you this week, and in the rest of your weeks to come, to break free from the traps you are in. To discard the notion that there are people who matter more than others since Jesus has reminded us we are all in this together. To work on your relationships, as wonderful as they may be, to see if you can move them a little closer to just, a little more loving, a little more like the Genesis text Jesus cites in which equal partners work together for the common good. And to take those same principles out into the world so that you may be and see his presence in a world that’s been looking in the wrong direction.

There was joy in the dish room and false merriment outside it. There was unforced laughter in the dish room and the thin reassurance of too much booze out on the floor. In the dish room, joy mattered. Love mattered. Friendship mattered. Worldly status did not. There was Jesus in the dish room and nothing but his absence at the seat of “honor” the TV star occupied.  Who knew? Jesus did. You do. Show the world. Amen.

[1] “Dish Dogs” Matt Fitzgerald, UCC Daily Devotional

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Little things

Scripture: Isaiah 50:4-9 & James 3:2-12

Preached 09/13/2015

It’s the little things in life that matter most. Take for example the lowly comma. It’s a tiny little curve half hidden at the bottom of a string of letters and words, and yet, it’s vital. Skpetical? Well, check out these pictures and see if you change your mind.

This first one admittedly could benefit from the use of the word “or.” But as is, I don’t think anyone in the world would qualify to use that toilet, as it’s hard enough to be elderly and a child at the same time, let alone a disabled elderly pregnant child.

This second one is something I’m sure you’ve all seen. And honestly it kind of drives me crazy and kind of cracks me up every time. As it stands, it tells us that slow children are playing. If you add in the comma that we’re supposed to realize is needed, it’s a warning. Small comma, big difference.

And if that hasn’t pulled you over to the grammar nerd side yet, check out picture number three. Commas save lives people. No matter how small they are, they’re important.

Both of our scripture readings this  morning focus on something that is also small, and also important, even more so than the not-so-lowly-anymore comma. They focus on the tongue, a very small part of the body, and yet one that they assert is vitally important. To be more specific, they both assert that what we do with our tongues is of vital importance. What we heard from Isaiah and James points out for us two very different possibilities for our use of our tongues.

I promise I’m not a pyro here, but let’s jump right in and start with the option that has flames. James is the most clear about how the little tongue can lead to big problems. “ided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature. . . is. . .restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

You may remember from last week that the book of James was written as practical advice to Christians who had been struggling with what it meant to actually live out their faith. From James’ diatribe on the evils of the tongue, it’s safe to say that one of the things they were struggling with was nasty words to one another. And while this may seem like small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, James points out that it is not, in fact so small.

Like a small fire can set a whole forest blazing- and we’ve seen a lot of these fires this year- destroying millions of dollars of property, polluting the air, causing death even- like the little fire that starts it all, so can the wrong words can turn any situation into one flaming with problems.

Walter Brueggemann illustrates for us just how this can look in our time. Destructive flames spread when we speak words of gossip that destroy trust[1]. They spread through words of false promise, generating a desire for things that are neither needed nor wanted and ensuring the disappointment and hurt of the one receiving them. Those flames spread through words of propaganda, using false “facts” to generate fear that has no basis in reality, but then serves to justify brutality or brutalizing policies. Flames spread through words of false ideology .

Or perhaps burns are inflicted onto others through unkind words- a tutor calling a student stupid when they are truly hard-working and just struggling. A parent calling a child lazy when they are still learning how to complete tasks. These verbal burns hurt, and often leave impacts that last a life-time. I bet every one of us in this room can recall a time in which we have been called a name, and have been burned by it.

Thankfully, though, there is an alternative to the fiery destructive tongue. This is what Isaiah describes for us- “having the tongue of a teacher.” While the fiery tongue spreads destruction inside and out, the tongue of a teacher does the opposite. It “sustain(s) the weary with a word.” Rather than tearing down, it builds up, supports, sustains.

And, not to sound like an infomercial, but that’s not all. The tongue of a teacher comes with a companion. The listening ear. “Morning by morning,” Isaiah says, “God wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” It’s a strange translation choice, because the word for teacher and “those who are taught” is the same. You can’t teach with your tongue if you have no words on it. And to teach wisely, Isaiah tells us, you need to listen and be filled with God’s wisdom and love.

These words of God’s instruction- words like “You are forgiven,” and the peace and freedom they grant. Words like “I love you,” “you are important to me,” or simply “I’m listening,” or “I care about your experience,” even “help me understand.” Those are the kinds of words that come from the tongue of a teacher as Isaiah describes them.

Just like the tongue of fire, this tongue of a teacher has wide ranging effect. When we speak fiery words of resentment, division, and anger, we become more resentful, more divided, more angry. When we speak God’s wisdom with the tongue of a teacher, words to sustain and uplift, we are sustained and uplifted. And not only that, but they can enhance community, give courage, advance just causes, and assure.  

Isiah points out that we may well need to be sustained and uplifted, encouraged bound together more strongly in community and because the fiery powers in the world will not like what we have to say. We may be reviled, maligned, even assaulted simply for speaking words that sustain the weary.

But nonetheless that’s our calling. We don’t just get to refrain from fiery words. James uses the metaphor of a bridled horse. The bit and bridle in a horse’s mouth don’t stop it from running, just direct and control it toward a particular end. And that’s what we are to do with our tongues. We can’t stay silent because there are in fact words that need to be said and weary people who need to be sustained. To quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, if we stay silent “God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” In terms closer to James, it is to allow fire to spread unquenched.

So the challenge for all of us is to bridle up our tongues so we can speak words that sustain rather than ones that burn. Words to uphold one another, support one another, and grow community. You are forgiven. You are loved. You are important. Your experience matters. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, this week is to use those sustaining words. Bridle your tongue, and keep away from words that burn. And instead use the tongue of the teacher God has given you.

Commas, however small yet important they are, change sentences. But your words, small yet important, can change the world. Use them wisely. Amen.

[1] “Free Speech: A License to Destroy or a Responsibility to Build Up (James 3:1-12), Walter Bruegemann:

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Little purple pieces

Scripture: 1 Kings2:10-12, 3:3-14 & Proverbs 9:1-6

Preached 08/16/2015

A box arrived in the mail, heavy and full of small purple parts. It was supposed to be a bike, at least that’s what was ordered. But looking at the jumble of purple metal shapes, it sure didn’t look like one. Now you’d think that this would be the point where I say, luckily, there was a lovely instruction sheet showing just how to turn those pieces into the desired bike. But it’s not because there was indeed an instruction sheet, but it was not in English, and from the pictures it contained, seemed to be for a completely different bike with little metal pieces shaped in very different ways.

It had totally been the smart move to buy this bike with “some assembly required.” It saved a good chunk of money, and online descriptions were so reassuring that assembly would be a breeze. There would be that pride that comes from making something with your own hands. That extra love included in the present. And okay, maybe some bragging rights too, because come on- making a bike. And beyond all that, I am a fairly smart person- no comments from anyone who disagrees here- and if Joe C. from Oregon can put this bike together in under a half hour, as the review claimed, then it should be no problem for me.

But looking at those little purple parts, confused as all get out, only now remembering that my crowning achievement in handiness at this point was that one time in junior high shop class I made a clip board that is still functioning, I realized that all my smarts were not going to save me now. And so, much like Solomon, I prayed a devout and lovely prayer for God’s wisdom. No, just kidding about that, I got frustrated, put the box in a closet, shut the door, and walked away. BUT, Solomon, on the other hand, when facing an overwhelming and complicated situation, did actually pray that prayer.

You’ll hopefully remember that we’ve been following the story of David most of the summer. And at the very beginning of the first scripture reading we hear in just a few words the end of it. David died. The NRSV says he went down and slept with his ancestors- a euphemism for death there, nothing else- in a very matter of fact, undetailed and undramatic way. Both the story bible we read and the actual lectionary scripture skip what happens next, partially because it makes the story incredibly long, partially because it’s unpleasant.

But since we’ve been following the story it’s important for us to know it all, so here’s a quick summary. Solomon doesn’t just become king quickly and easily as the verse left after the cutting out would have us think. What is left out is the section headed “Solomon consolidates his reign,” and it deserves the Godfather soundtrack playing behind it for proper effect. Solomon schemes, has his brother killed, and slaughters all of his enemies just to make sure that no one challenges the legitimacy of his reign as king. He marries the Pharaoh’s daughter- which he is not supposed to do, and he sacrifices at the high places- shrines of other religions, which again, he is not supposed to do. It’s not a pretty start to his leadership of the Israelites.

And you can also see, maybe, hopefully, now that you’ve gotten a bit more detail, that when God comes to Solomon in a dream and compliments him for not asking for wealth of the vanquishing of enemies- both of which Solomon has forcefully taken for himself or done already- God’s compliment might be a little tongue in cheek. Something like “Wow- shocker that you didn’t ask me for that stuff you did and I did see, Solomon.” There’s a bit of chastisement there, too, if you didn’t catch it.

And I hope you see already too, how much Solomon is like his father- both good and bad, righteous and ruthless, devoted to God yet deeply flawed. Just ascended to the throne he already has hands covered in blood. And yes, he makes the very good move of asking for wisdom when he could have asked for anything.

He was young- just a boy in his own words, probably around 20 years old and he found himself in charge of a whole country, 12 tribes a lot of whom didn’t really like the other tribes, who were often quarreling with each other, and who were constantly being threatened by larger, more powerful nations outside Israel. He had established his legitimacy, but he had a long way to go in figuring out the day to day complexities of being in charge of such a small, fractured, and often endangered nation. And yes, he was smart, clearly knowing how power works, at the very least. But his smarts weren’t going to be enough. He needed something more. He was looking at the box of little purple bike parts and realizing if he didn’t figure out what to do with them, how to put them together, how they could work together, he was just going to be left with a bunch of junk, not a functioning bike, or nation as the case may be.

He asks for wisdom, and I’m sure you all know by know many of the quippy ways wisdom can be defined- smart is knowing a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is knowing not to put it in your fruit salad, for example. But we’re actually going to look at our second scripture reading- remember that one?- for a more biblically sound definition of just what Solomon is asking for when he asks for wisdom, and just what we might hope to achieve if we too,

Because as our Proverbs reading reminds us, God wants to grant us wisdom too. In fact, God wants to grant us wisdom so much that wisdom personified as a woman here- is throwing a wisdom party and calling out in the streets to invite everyone to it. And besides food and drink she’s inviting everyone to share in herself, to share in wisdom. And her definition of wisdom breaks the word down for us a bit- insight and understanding. Both of those are words that imply something deeper than knowing- going beyond the facts, the jumble of bike pieces in the box or jumble of tribes making up Israel. Insight and understanding both go deeper to find what something really is, how it can be used, and work together with other things.

So, for example, smart is knowing the rectangular piece is a pedal, wisdom is knowing it’s the pedal can be part of a bike, and how a pedal works, and what other pieces need to be attached to it for all the pieces to work together in harmony. Smart is Solomon knowing he has to be accepted as legitimate for his power as king to be effective. Wisdom is knowing how to use that acceptance and power to build up God’s people into an enduring nation.

Smart for this congregation might be recognizing we have a lot of space to spare most days. Wisdom would be figuring out how that extra space can serve our community- like housing through room at the inn, or simple sharing of parking lot space to support the Mehlville high school cheerleaders. Smart is knowing what the average age of this congregation is. Wisdom is knowing the years of experience and expertise behind those numbers, and figuring out how that can be harnessed and used to help our neighbors- through gardening, tutoring, or feeding. Or in our lives outside this congregation, smart is knowing your neighbor’s names, wisdom is knowing and tending to their needs- maybe watering their plants when they’re away, being a listening ear when they have a loved one die, bringing them a meal when they’ve been ill. You see where I’m going here. You’re all smart people of course. And you all, and we all, would be wise if like Solomon, we prayed for God’s wisdom too.

Our lives are a lot like a box of purple bicycle parts.

They can be lovely, exciting, but we need wisdom to put them together and take shape towards God’s wise goal for us. And we need God’s wisdom, because without it we’re just sticking random pieces together and hoping they become something good. Or getting frustrated and quitting before we really even get going. But with God’s wisdom? We can really take shape, get moving, become who God intends us to be.

So use this opportunity to take stock of the pieces of you and your life- your talents, resources, passions, all you have and who you are. And follow Solomon’s wisdom in getting some help in learning how to use you. Ask for wisdom, ask how to be put together and be of best use to God. Our own individual and collective intelligence won’t be enough.

I never figured out how to put the bike together. I had and still have no idea how to make those pieces go together usefully. But I was smart enough to ask for help, from someone who did have that wisdom. And that bike is now together and loved. It brings joy and it really works and moves and everything.
*sorry all- the end of the sermon wasn't written! The general idea was to ask for God's wisdom , then go and do, sharing God's love with your community and the world. So, go and do!*  


Monday, May 4, 2015

To be...

Scripture: John 15:1-8


Preached 05/03/3015

She made a list the other day. She wrote it in bright Crayola, partially because that was what was close at hand, and partially because that was what fit the list she was writing. In case you can’t read it up there, here’s what Emily’s list consists of[1]:

1.      Kiss Trent (that’s her husband)

2.     Tickle and snuggle my kids

3.     Laugh

4.     Put on some music and dance

5.     Paint with bright colors

6.     Eat something yummy

7.     Tell trent and the kids how much I love them

8.     Go for a walk or run

9.     Do something I don’t want to do for someone else

10.   Pray

Emily called it her “to-do” list, but as you can see it’s not the normal kind of “to-do” list, filled with chores, errands, and other obligations. I actually think that Emily was wrong in what she named it, because rather than this list being about doing, it’s about, well, being.

In our scripture reading this morning, Jesus gives us a command. Our Spark Story Bible translation says that it’s important to “stay connected to Jesus,” which is a great kid-friendly translation of this command. However, I think for a bit deeper exploration the NRSV translation is helpful. Jesus says “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower…Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

Much like our scripture passage last week of Jesus the Good Shepherd, this is another much beloved and often immortalized in stained glass kind of image. And also much like last week, it’s very easy to get stuck in sentimentality- the vine, the branches, and the Holy Vinegrower- and completely miss the point of this scripture passage.

Remember how I said Jesus gives us a command in this passage? Did you catch it? Really, did anyone catch the one thing that Jesus used an imperative and told us to actually do? To be fair, this is kind of a trick question. Our first instinct is often to say “bear fruit,” which is lovely, but not what Jesus tells us to do. The only actual command is this “abide”- or, in other words, be.

That’s all Jesus tells us to do. Abide. Be. Live in him as he lives in us. If only it were that easy, right? But we have so many places to go, so many things to do, people to meet, chores to complete, obligations to fulfill… you get the picture. And you know, too, how quickly a day can become full to overflowing with things to do.

I’ll tell you a little secret that’s not very secret. I am awful at taking days off. I wake up and have this day ahead of me, a time when I can just be, and not worry about having to do anything other than remember to eat occasionally, and you know what I do with that day? I fill it with all kinds of stuff. I have to do the laundry. Wash the dishes. Clean the floors, write that letter, send those bills, go grocery shopping make dinner, exercise, re-organize, and more and more and more. And I spend the day frantically trying to cross stuff off that list that never gets smaller, and by the end of the day I’m exhausted and stressed out and thinking that what I really need is a day off.

We all have this tendency to fill the time that we have. We resist being still or idle because in our culture that’s often viewed as laziness and we certainly don’t want that label stuck to us. But all our activity comes at a cost. When we are so busy doing, we have no time left for the thing Jesus tells us is so important. Being. Right now you just might be wondering what exactly being looks like, other than perhaps sitting very still or taking a nap. Well…

1.      Kiss your significant other

2.     Tickle and snuggle my kids

3.     Laugh

4.     Put on some music and dance

5.     Paint with bright colors

6.     Eat something yummy

7.     Tell your family how much I love them

8.     Go for a walk or run

9.     Do something I don’t want to do for someone else

10.   Pray

And to be fair, these things may not be “being” for you. But you know what is? Those things which, while you do them and after you do them, leave you feeling relaxed, happy, whole, and connected. Those things that you don’t have to do, but enjoy. Those things you do that help you get a glimpse of God in yourself or someone else. These are the things that Jesus tells us are so vitally important. These are the things that connect us to our source in him, and in God.

Too often, being comes last. We only allow ourselves to be after we’re done doing everything else that keeps us so busy. But that isn’t the message that Jesus gives us this morning at all. Remember that bearing fruit isn’t a command. There is absolutely nothing we can do to force God’s good fruit to be borne in or through us. That ability comes only through their connection to, or their abiding in, the vine, and from the tender care of the skilled gardener. We aren’t to do so we can be. We are to be so that God can do in us, and bring forth that good fruit through our being.

I don’t want you to get distracted by that fruit. What our scripture highlights for us is simple abiding, being, living in Jesus as he lives in us. So I have for all of you little reminders for your daily life, simple pieces of paper you can take and tape up some place you’ll see them to remind you of just that- to let go of your desire to always do, and abide in Jesus, as he abides in you. It is enough, it is necessary, and it can even be transformational and good-fruit producing. It is most definitely holy. So go and be. Amen.


[1] From “How to love your family well in the sleepless years” by Emily T. Wierenga

Monday, April 27, 2015

Do we have to be the sheep?

Scripture: John 10:11-18

Preached 04/26/2015

I’m just going to come out and admit it. I have never really liked this scripture passage. I don’t want to be a sheep. I never have, so I’ve always struggled with this scripture passage, even though it’s one of the most beloved images of Jesus in scripture, even though we, like many other congregations, have it immortalized in our beautiful stained glass. I like Jesus the shepherd, caring and guiding, protecting and saving. But I don’t like being a sheep.

Now, I was born and raised in Iowa, but not on a farm, and my main experience with sheep has been in petting zoos. And they’re cute and all, but from what I’ve read, sheep are also not the smartest animals around. They’ll follow each other right off the edge of a cliff, lemming style. They won’t drink from moving water because they’re afraid of it. They’re largely defenseless, which is why they need that shepherd with his or her club to defend their many natural predators. And also, they’re kind of smelly and wool is itchy.

From what I read and researched this week, I’m not the only one who isn’t super-excited about being a sheep. Over and over again, theologians and commentators skipped right over the whole Jesus the shepherd, everyone else the sheep issue, and just decided that what this passage was actually saying was that we were supposed to be little shepherds too, and some other people were supposed to be the sheep. And I wanted to go along with that, because it makes this whole passage easier to deal with, and nicer to talk about. But unfortunately, try as I might, I just couldn’t read anywhere in this passage an instruction to take Jesus’ job, a promotion for some of us out of the ranks of sheep and into shepherd, or even a hint that Jesus wanted some help with his shepherding duties.

I am the Good Shepherd, he says. Twice, in fact, in verse 11 and then again in verse 14. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, not us. If you notice, Jesus gives us a warning about what happens when someone else attempts to nudge their way into the leadership position of the sheepfold- the hired hands. It doesn’t turn out well for us sheep. We get scattered and killed by wolves, in fact, so unless we want our brothers and sisters to succumb to that fate, we best remember our place in this metaphor- we’re the sheep.

My guess is that I’m not the only one who doesn’t have extensive experience with sheep, which makes our quest to understand this scripture a little tricky, right. Okay, so Jesus is the shepherd, and we’re the sheep, but why does that actually matter? What does it actually mean? Does it offer us more than a little bit of cuddly comfort on a Sunday morning? To answer the last question first, yes, there is more than a cuddly comforting image in this scripture passage. And to answer the other questions more fully, let’s take a deeper look at the very thing I’ve wanted to resist for so long- the sheep.

After Googling my way down several internet rabbit holes, let me save you all some trouble and say there is a LOT we can all learn about sheep. But the thing that is the most important for us to know is already laid out in our scripture reading. “14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” Sheep, though they may not be the most intelligent animals ever, though they may deserve their reputation for being stubborn and willful, have a remarkable ability to learn and respond to a human voice. In particular, the voice of their own shepherd, which they can differentiate from all other voices.

In ancient times, sheep spent their days outside in a large mixed fold, grazing with sheep who belonged to many different shepherds. In the evening, they were separated out into the individual sheep folds that belonged to each shepherd. This was accomplished not by marking the sheep or knowing them by sight, but by each shepherd calling his or her own sheep, who would then follow the shepherd along to the individual flock sized pen where they would spend their night guarded by the shepherd. This practice continues to the present day. In some Middle Eastern cities, it is common to see sheep following a shepherd through the twists and turns of packed streets to get to and from their grazing place. They know the shepherd, and the shepherd knows them. And they follow the one whom they know.

So, if you, like me, were looking for some guidance in living from this passage, here it is. Know your shepherd. Follow your shepherd, and your shepherd only. And, just a warning, it may not be quite as easy as it sounds to do this. Because we, like the ancient readers of this text, live in a world where many, many others compete to be our shepherd.

Shepherds are those we allow to lead us, whose voices we listen to and follow. And now, like in Jesus time, there are a lot of voices competing to lead us. Jesus said he was different from those other voices because of the kind of leader he was. He was the good shepherd, as opposed to the hired hands, who were very different kinds of leaders. The Good Shepherd reading we have this morning is from John, and in John, Jesus is in almost constant conflict with the elite Judean leadership. These leaders- the non-Good Shepherd ones- were concerned with one main thing in their leadership. Keeping the hierarchical structure of society intact. They were the educated elite the top of the pyramid, and they wanted to keep it that way, even though it meant that others were so impoverished that they didn’t have enough to eat, and couldn’t even get access to basic health care.

Jesus comes into conflict with them again and again as he speaks out against their injustice, their hoarding of wealth, their disregard for those who aren’t rich and educated like them, and their claim to follow God while doing this. And Jesus acts against them too, including all those people they didn’t think were good enough for access to the same privileges they enjoyed in his ministry. Feeding them. Healing them. Removing barriers for their full inclusion in society, and living out God’s love for them. Leading them all into abundant life, as Jesus tells us is the whole point of his life and ministry, just a verse before out reading picked up today.

And in John, this is what gets him killed- his work for abundant life for all. Those with privilege were so afraid of the structures of oppression he was trying to break down that they killed him to stop the inclusive justice he was trying to create. Jesus knew where his ministry was heading. He knew what the leaders were going to do to him. And that didn’t stop him. He was willing to lay his life down for the sheep, no matter what, even though it meant his own death. The others who attempted to lead were not willing to do such a thing- their self-preservation came first.

So whose voice are we going to follow today? Sadly, we haven’t really come that far from the unjust hierarchical society of Jesus’ time. We still have “leaders” who tell us that for our own self-preservation, the lives of others have to be sacrificed, that we certainly can’t feed hungry people, or give health care access to the sick. And people who cross certain boundaries have to be excluded, because they’re not good enough to get the privileges that others enjoy. And of course, on top of it all we have to be very, very frightened of what those others might do to us or take from us.

They don’t speak in our Good Shepherd’s voice, though they do their best to play on our primal fears and lure us away. Our Good Shepherd is willing to lay down his life, to care and love beyond boundaries, to provide extravagantly for all, even those sheep we definitely don’t see in our own pastures, and those sheep who might make us nervous should they show up in the same fold. Because to him, there is no such thing as the “other,” for his flock is so much bigger and inclusive than we can ever dream.

Jesus is our Good Shepherd, and we are his sheep. He knows us, and our charge is to know him. To listen to and heed his voice. We are being led, whether we like it or not. The good news in this passage is that we have a choice about who leads us- the Good Shepherd or the hired hands. So listen very closely to the voice of those who seek to lead you- the politicians, the advertisers, even the friends and family. Do you hear fear mongering? The message that there is not enough? An insistence on excluding others? Or do you hear love? Extravagance? Care for the needs of all? A willingness for self-sacrifice on the behalf of others? Know your shepherd, and follow only him, and he will lead you to the way of abundant, eternal life. Amen.

Monday, April 20, 2015

A Story Worth Remembering

Scripture: John 10:11-18

Preached 04/19/2015

She met the risen Christ at a cramped kitchen table in North Carolina. Miss Willa Mae Mashburn’s kitchen table, to be exact.  Chelsey, along the seven others on the work crew, had traveled to Miss Mashburn’s home to install a wheelchair ramp on what had been a sagging and dangerous porch.  Before Chelsey and the others began their journey from St. Louis to North Carolina, they had been given loads of instructions on ways to avoid imposing on the woman they were going to serve.  Bring your own food, eat under a tree, use a porta-potty to avoid running up the water bill, don’t create more of a mess than you can clean up. And so on.

So on that first day, when Chelsey and the others were a mess of dirt, sweat, paint, and sawdust from their work on the porch, and full to the brim of those instructions to avoid imposing, they weren’t quite sure how to respond when Miss Mashburn invited them in for a lunch she had cooked for them all. So, they said yes. And all of them- that’s nine including Miss Mashburn, gathered around a small kitchen table in the middle of a tiny kitchen, rubbing elbows, spreading dirt, and listening to the stories Miss Mashburn had to tell.

And she was full of stories. She told them how her husband had built the home with his own hands, and how it once bustled full of children, friends, and nearly burst at the seams with love. About the day they installed indoor plumbing, long after the four children had been born. She told them about the interesting patchwork of repairs they saw on the porch, and how they’d kept it going, though sagging to one side, for years. Now, with her children far away and her husband deceased, Miss Mashburn found it hard to keep up with the maintenance of the home. Mr. Mashburn had always taken care of all that, she said, almost wistfully.

They thought the lunch was over, so they got up to head back to work, but Miss Mashburn sat them right back down. She squeezed behind the chairs to the old, avocado green refrigerator and opened the door, and then produced a cheesecake. She sliced it and served it to them. And in that moment, Chelsey’s eyes were opened, and she recognized the risen Christ at the table with her. She knew it immediately; felt it instantly; recognized it fully. The risen Christ was there. Right there.

It’s a moment that feels almost magical in the scripture reading. All of a sudden, even though they had been hanging out with him a good chunk of the day, the disciples recognize the risen Christ sitting at the table with them. I don’t know about you, but this story- this sudden recognition after the road to Emmaus- always surprises me. It always These were people who knew the living Jesus. Why in the world didn’t they recognize the resurrected one sooner?

I mean, I’d like to think I would have caught on before that bread-breaking moment. You know- “Hey Cleopas, doesn’t that guy look exactly like Jesus except for those crucifixion scars he’s rocking?”  Or maybe “Hi Jesus! Whatcha doing out here? Aren’t you supposed to be in a tomb somewhere?” Or maybe just simply “Hey! You’re not dead! You really got me there!”

And as surprised as I always am, and as confident as I always am about my own Jesus-recognizing ability, I have to admit that there’s also a spooky element to this story. I’ve already said it and I’ll say it again. There were men who knew Jesus. And they didn’t even recognize him, right beside them, right in front of them. So I suppose the question that’s really most interesting for the morning is how did they not see him, but how in the world are we, people born thousands of years after Christ died, how are we ever supposed to recognize the risen Christ?

There’s a part in this story that our Spark Story Bible translation kind of glosses over, and really even Luke’s translation makes it difficult to notice, but it’s crucial for us, so I’m going to go back and read it from the Luke, rather than the Spark text. This comes after Jesus and the disciples have been walking together all day. “28As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.”

He walked ahead as if he were going on, and they urged him to stay with them. It’s a small, quiet moment. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, at first. But that moment is the turning point of the whole story. Without that invitation- given to a man who, even though he was Jesus, was a stranger to them at that point- they never would have known they’d met the risen Christ. This story never would have made it into the gospel, because it would just be some guys walking down the road, and that’s hardly the kind of story you keep going for thousands of years, that’ you’d put in your Gospel, that we’d read and talk about in church so much. Cleopas and the other disciple probably wouldn’t even remember it a few years later, let alone us, thousands of years removed.

But Jesus walked ahead as if he were going on, and they invited him to stay. That must have been quite a moment for Jesus. He was their teacher, after all, and here were his students, who had just stumbled and perhaps failed their “understanding of what Jesus kept telling us about the resurrection” exam. But this- this invitation to stay and break bread with them extended to a stranger- this is the disciples getting it just right.

Because, you remember of course that this is so much of what Jesus did. Yes, breaking bread with others- with sinners, tax-collectors, Pharisees, and prostitutes. Challenging the societal norm of segregating ourselves only to those who look like us, think like us, and have the same amount of money as us. Breaking bread, but also breaking boundaries. Going past that place where you are expected to go, and discovering Christ on the other side.

There’s a scene we can imagine here, that no one ever saw. Miss Mashburn in her kitchen, baking a cheesecake. Stirring up the filling, jiggling it in the oven, lovingly spooning the cherries over the top. She didn’t know Chelsey. She didn’t know any of that crew that was coming to work on her porch. She didn’t owe any of them a thing. All she was expected to do was let them work on her home. And she decided to sit down and have a meal with them. And then she decided to bake them a cheesecake. And because of her loving gesture that went so far beyond what was required of her, Chelsey was able to recognize that the risen Christ was there.

The disciples, even though they knew the living Jesus, didn’t know they knew the resurrected one. They didn’t owe anything to this man, who had just walked up alongside them and honestly been pretty rude to them in their grief and confusion. But they decided to invite him to stay, and to have a meal with them too. And the risen Christ was there, and because of that turning point, that going beyond what they had to do, they were able to recognize that the risen Christ was there.

I would bet that many of you, too have stories about meeting the risen Christ in one way or another- in a hospital room, class room, around a table, or during some kind of mission work. And while those stories are important and I encourage you to share them, what’s even more important is that you keep seeking out more of those stories. Not heard, but experienced, lived. You, inter, ntionally setting out to meet and recognize the risen Christ around you. And while you’re out there looking to meet him, acting like you already know him.

Going that extra step mile, that extra meal, that extra person. Inviting someone different to join you, listening to their story, learning from their wisdom. Extending hospitality far beyond the bare minimum, really welcoming the stranger. It might look like buying the homeless person a meal instead of avoiding their eyes next time you see them. Or maybe sitting down with them at Room at the Inn the next time we host. It might look like delivering food to Isaiah or Feed My People, and even volunteering to stay and help do more. Or having a real conversation- not about the weather or the Cardinals with someone who sits in a different pew- or a neighbor, or a co-worker. It might look like accepting an invitation to join someone, or try something, new. It might look like a cheesecake, lovingly prepared and sliced for people you hardly know.

There isn’t a magic formula for encountering and knowing the risen Christ. Sometimes, the ways you try to go beyond the minimum will indeed make your heart burn with joy in you. And other times, you may struggle to recognize Christ at all, even if he is right with you.

We remember this story of the road to Emmaus because two men went a bit extended an invitation to a stranger. Chelsey remembers her story because she accepted such an invitation. Why will other remember yours? Make it so. Amen.

*Many thanks to Chelsey Hillyer for the story and inspiration for this sermon! All credit for anything related to Miss Mashburn is hers, not my own, and much of the material of the sermon either comes from or is inspired by a sermon she preached*

Monday, March 23, 2015

10 Commandment Countdown: #4 Sabbath

Scripture: Exodus 20:8-11 & Mark 2:23-28


Preached 03/22/2015

Rachel Bailey did not lose her head over temporarily losing her head, reports Eli MacKinnon of Life’s Little Mysteries.*  The 23 year old Phoenix woman is making a miraculous recovery after a car accident fully separated her skull from her spine, a rarely seen and even more rarely survived injury called an internal decapitation.

Internal decapitation occurs when head trauma separates the skill from the spinal column while leaving the exterior of the neck intact.  Because of the types of head injury that can cause internal decapitation usually involve severe nerve damage or severing the spinal cord, the result is usually paralysis or death.

Quick action alone saved Bailey’s life.  Had skilled hands not immediately reconnected her head to her spine, she would have been left, at best paralyzed, or possibly even dead.

So, besides this story being rather morbidly fascinating, why am I sharing it with you all this morning?  I love when I get crickets from you all sometimes!  Because, dear friends in Christ, I fear that we are all in danger of being internally decapitated.  I’m hoping you’re all familiar with the image of Christ as the head of the church- if not, it comes from the epistles of Paul, and we can talk lots more about it later. In this metaphor, Christ is the head and we are the body, and I fear that we pieces of the body are in danger of becoming separated from our head.

It’s true that all of us look fine from the outside.  We’re attending church, we may sing in the choir, serve on the session, come to or help out with Wednesday prayers and meals, teach the children’s class- we might look super connected to Christ.  But that’s how internal decapitation works- it’s tricky and sneaky, and that’s part of what makes it so dangerous.  We can be disconnected and not even realize it! 

It was the skilled hands of paramedics, and doctors that saved Rachel Bailey from paralysis or death from her internal decapitation.  But we’re not turning to paramedics and doctors to save us this morning. We’re turning, of course, to scripture: 8Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.

And maybe you’re asking in your head what in the world the commandment to keep the Sabbath has to do with keeping us from the dangers of decapitation from Christ.  Well, it’s because the way we get dis-connected from him isn’t through some kind of crazy car accident. As this fourth commandment reminds us, through busy-ness.  Through working too much, and not taking time to simply rest.

This commandment is a very strange one, if you think about it. Because God is commanding us to do something that should come naturally to us.  Think about it- babies come out of the womb, and almost immediately take a long nap.  And most of them, my kid excluded apparently, spent their next year sleeping well more than half the day away.  We are born professionals at resting.  So what happens to us?  How do we get away from that resting time that’s so important to connect to God, and into the busy-ness that can sever our connection to her?

Well, we certainly live in a culture that worships and rewards busy-ness. Even looking back at babies and their sleep, while there might be a general rush to get them to sleep through the night at an early age, there is certainly also a push to fill their days with all kinds of activities- play dates, clubs, sports- it only takes a few years before we fill our kid’s schedules as full as our own.  And as adults, too, we are pushed to keep busy.  We are told that relaxing is for slackers, and we need to get up and exercise more, or join this group, or come to this function, or try this or that hobby.

And when we meet someone, our first instinct is often to ask what they do, or if they look retirement age, what they used to do.  God forbid someone answer the “what do you do” question with- “I spend a lot of time relaxing,” right? Because then what would we do with them?  We define one another, and ourselves by the stuff that we do- by the ways we keep ourselves busy.  And that’s a problem.  A serious enough problem that in the 10 commandments we have this commandment to not be busy.  Because as we are reminded, as followers of the God we know in Christ, that our ultimate identity is not in the things we do to keep us busy.  Rather, our ultimate identity is beloved children of God.  And Sabbath, a day of rest from all that we do to keep ourselves busy, is God’s gift to us of a time to reconnect to that ultimate identity, and to God, Christ, the Holy Spirit.

Jesus’ walk with his disciples helps us understand what this time of sacred rest and reconnection is supposed to look like. Because I know us, and I know when I say that we’re supposed to relax and bask in God, you are wondering exactly what you’re supposed to do.  Well, luckily Jesus understood this human tendency, and in the short story from Mark we heard this morning, he does show us that we don’t just have to sit immobile on our couches to rest and reconnect.

Jesus and his disciples are taking a walk.  And that is a wonderful example of a way you can connect with God on the Sabbath.  Take a walk, if you can, sit outside on a nice day, or sit by a window on a cloudy one.  And purposely take in your surroundings.  Marvel at the height of an old tree, and the beauty of the shadows that fall from it.  Plant seeds and then watch them grow into something. Find joy in watching squirrels jump from branch to branch.  Find peace in the sound of a creek running by. Revel in the smell of black earth, or bright flowers. God made all that for us to enjoy, so connecting to creation is connecting to God, and Jesus certainly knew and modeled that.

What else can we do with our Sabbath to reconnect to God in Christ? The disciples give us another idea. We can eat something- nobody pass out on your Sabbath because of hunger, okay? We can eat good food, and through our enjoyment of the simple pleasures of taste, smell, and texture, connect to the Holy. Jesus’ story of David and his companions eating the bread of the presence reminds us that food itself is a powerful way we can connect to God, and how much God desires that we not go hungry- for spiritual or physical nourishment.  I think this story also reminds us- and to be fair, this may just be me reading into the text what I want to see there- but I think it reminds us that the Sabbath is also an acceptable time to enjoy those foods that you usually don’t indulge in. So go ahead and have that brownie or those potato chips.  And rest in the knowledge you are tasting how good the Lord is and how much God wants you to enjoy life.

Jesus says that the Sabbath was made for our benefit. We need Sabbath.  We need that time to rest from all the things that keep us so busy, and to reconnect to what really is important.  And we need a day set apart not only to keep our busy-ness and our resting balanced, but because God knows that as humans, we just aren’t very good at remembering the rest and reconnect part on our own.

And we need it.  Cut off from our Spiritual head, our spiritual lives quickly wither away into nothing.  As vitally as our bodies physically need to be connected to our heads, we, members of the body of Christ need to be connected to our spiritual head.  It is through God, and God as we know in Christ that we live and move and have our spiritual being, and those 6 days of work can become days of joyful service to our God.

So my charge for this week is very simple.  Take time for Sabbath.  Whether it’s today or another day, take as much of a day as you are able- or as many parts of several days as you can- and just reconnect to God.  Don’t do anything that feels like work. The Sabbath was made for you. So take it.  Rest, savor God’s creation and love, bask in God’s goodness, and find new life as part of Christ’s connected body.

(*Opening illustration from