Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sermon: The Sword

Grace Presbyterian Church
March 12, 2017, Lent 2A
Jeremiah 20:7-13; Matthew 10:24-39

The Sword

Honestly, this just doesn’t fit.
We call Jesus the Prince of Peace. We sing a whole lot, particularly around Christmastime, about peace – “Sleep in heavenly peace,” or “Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace,” or there are songs like “I’ve got peace like a river” or any hymn based on St. Francis’s prayer, “Make me an instrument of your peace.” In fact, if you go to the back of the hymnal and look at the indexes, you’ll see that in the Subject Index “peace” actually gets two different sections – “Peace, Personal (Spiritual)” and “Peace, World.”
And it’s not as if Jesus doesn’t have plenty to say about peace: earlier in this gospel, one of the Beatitudes plainly stated “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (5:9). John 14:27 records Jesus’s words to his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” And in almost all of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus recorded in the gospels, one of the first things Jesus says is some variant of “Peace be with you.”
And yet, there’s verse 34 in today’s reading, with Jesus saying plain as day, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
A sword?
Not what we want to hear.
Even another gospel writer, Luke, seems to be in agreement with us. When Luke records this teaching, he replaces the word “sword” with “division.” Now that sits uncomfortably enough in our ears, but “a sword”? We can’t bear to hear that.
But Matthew pulls no punches. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace,” Jesus says. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” And he doesn’t stop there, but goes on to suggest that families will be divided – man against father, daughter against mother, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law – and flat-out upends what we would call “family values” altogether. The final sentence seems hardest of all: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
The modern church has built up a veritable cottage industry around being peacemakers and generally promoting the idea that peace is the way to live. But Jesus doesn’t seem to have a lot of patience with that idea here. Before we despair too much, though, it’s a good idea to back up and hear what has brought Jesus to this point. What sounds like a total renunciation at first turns out to be a simple statement of fact.
This passage we have heard today is part of a larger unit of teaching with a specific purpose. Jesus is, from the beginning of chapter 10, preparing his twelve disciples to go out and do the teaching, preaching, and healing that he himself had been doing. This teaching and sending is not described here in the same degree of detail as it is in other gospels – Matthew never does record the disciples’ return from this commissioning, for example – but this commissioning does have parallels in the other gospels. On the other hand, Jesus’s teaching in those other gospels is not quite so stark and pointed as what Matthew records.
Already in verse 16 Jesus has warned the disciples that he is sending them out as “sheep in the midst of wolves” and that they should be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” which suggests that their experience will be a bit more challenging than your average Vacation Bible School. Verse 22 makes the warning more explicit: “you will be hated by all because of my name.” So when Jesus says in verse 24 that “a disciple is not above the teacher,” he is making clear to his disciples that they should, if they are truly following him, expect the same kind of attacks and slander that he has experienced.
What we often forget or overlook here, though, is that the attacks and slander Jesus has experienced and will experience, and that Jesus warns his disciples that they will experience, aren’t from random strangers. Jesus isn’t being challenged by “the world,” that generic boogeyman we in the church love to conjure up; Jesus is being challenged by the religious authorities of his time and place. Beginning in chapter 9 Matthew records the Pharisees, the great advocates of cultic and personal piety and purity in Jesus’s day, increasingly turning their questioning towards Jesus, culminating in the strange accusation in 9:34, after Jesus has cast out a demon, that “by the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.” In short, they’re charging Jesus with being in league with the devil.  And Jesus rightly points out in 10:25 that if the religious authorities are willing to say that about Jesus, the disciples can’t expect to be treated any differently.
In the midst of this uncertainty, Jesus takes pains to remind his disciples that for all the likelihood of false accusation and defamation, betrayal and hatred, they are watched and cared for by God, the one who cares even for those two-for-a-penny sparrows. Even that comfort seems a bit late, when Jesus’s idea of reassurance is that the disciples be less concerned over “those who can kill the body, but cannot kill the soul” and more over the one who can kill both. I’m guessing that by now the disciples are wondering what they’ve signed on for after all. Even after the Sermon on the Mount and the healing episodes Matthew describes in chapter 8, this commissioning speech must have felt a bit jarring to a bunch of fishermen. Being scorned as poor dumb fishermen was one thing, but family turning on you? Being attacked by the Pharisees? They couldn’t have expected this.
Then the hard sentence, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” which makes sense in the context in which Jesus has already spoken – if you follow me, if you truly follow me and do the will of God and live into the kingdom of Heaven, the sword will find you. Even if you’re living into that beatitude about “Blessed are the peacemakers,” the sword will find you. But you are not abandoned, any more than those two-a-penny sparrows. And even the losing of one’s life – whether in a literal sense or in the sense of one’s life being truly absorbed into following Jesus in genuine and submitted discipleship – will end with life, true life, real life found, not lost. On the other hand, those whose life is caught up in the world, congruent with the world’s standards – or even the standards of the empire-accommodated church so prominent these days – will find their lives are truly lost.
In the end, then, that hard sentence is just practical advice – know what you’re getting into, know what’s coming, know that the sword will find you. And follow Me anyway.
For the One who cares for us even when the sword comes, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#829            My Faith Looks Up to Thee
#478            Save Me, O God, I Sink in Floods (Psalm 69)
#718            Take Up Your Cross, the Savior Said
#661            Why Should I Feel Discouraged?

Credit: (consider it a word of caution...)

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Sermon: Don't Eat First

Grace Presbyterian Church
March 5, 2017, Lent 1A
Matthew 4:1-11

Don’t Eat First

“When going to hide, know how to get there.”
“And how to get back.”
“And eat first.”
That exchange comes from the finale of Stephen Sondheim’s highly popular Broadway musical Into the Woods. In that show, a mashup of numerous fairy tales, “the woods” are clearly a place of trouble, danger, and even (in the case of one character) death. In the course of the show the characters – the likes of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of beanstalk fame) and Rapunzel (and her mother the witch) – have gone into the woods twice, each time facing the challenge of giants making their way down the aforementioned beanstalk. Whether simply for comic effect or as a demonstration that these characters really didn’t learn much, those lines slip in amidst the patter of a number of similar bon mots of supposed wisdom gained from going into and coming out of the woods.
Taken on their own, those lines suggest that success in the woods is all about preparation: make sure you know where you’re going and how to get back when it’s all over, and make sure your physical needs are well supplied beforehand – “eat first.” By such fairytale standards of wisdom, Jesus’s journey into the wilderness in today’s reading from Matthew was doomed to be a spectacular failure.
Jesus goes into the wilderness immediately after his baptism, and we do mean “immediately.” If there were such a phrase as “very immediately,” it would apply here. He certainly didn’t “eat first,” and by the standards of that fairytale wisdom he paid for it, not eating for forty days and forty nights.
And waiting at the other end of that forty days and nights is none other than the Devil, the Accuser, the Tempter as Matthew calls him here. And of course the Tempter goes straight for the hunger: “If you are the son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Our fairytale folk might just be tut-tutting by about now: “See, there you go, you didn’t prepare and you’re right into the trap. Shame about that Jesus boy, he had potential.”
Except, of course, Jesus was prepared after all.
However hungry Jesus might have been he could still remember Deuteronomy 8:3, and thus shut the devil down. The Tempter tried again, with the temptation of putting on a great show amplified by his own biblical allusion (thus giving us the quote “the devil can cite scripture for his purpose”), only for Jesus to refute Psalm 91:11-12 with more Deuteronomy, this time 6:16’s injunction against putting God to the test. Finally the test of ultimate power is all that the Tempter has left, which of course isn’t really all that tempting to one who, well, already has ultimate power. With one more Deuteronomy verse (6:13, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”) the Tempter is brushed aside and angels appear to minister to Jesus, who, after all, still hasn’t eaten in forty days and forty nights.
We get confused about wilderness experiences. We tend to use that phrase “wilderness experience” when we are facing the consequences of our own actions, of our own falling into temptation, rather than for the act of facing that temptation. We have relied on our own preparations (“know how to get there…and how to get back”) instead of letting our preparation be in our reliance upon God, our immersion in God’s teaching to us, our trust in the Holy Spirit. It does make a difference.
These trials Jesus faces in the wilderness speak not just to immediate temptation to fill immediate need, but they reflect temptations or challenges that were repeated throughout Jesus’s earthly ministry: how to meet the needs of those to whom he ministered (he wouldn’t make bread out of stones for himself, but he’d feed thousands off a few loaves), how to save himself (ultimately, not; Jesus did not flee even the cross), how to draw all people to himself (by being lifted up on that cross, not by bowing down to that Tempter). The wilderness experience was less a moment of temptation, as we often tend to experience it, than a preparation for a lifetime. God’s preparation for us is not our way of preparing for the worst. Yet Jesus comes through, and in just a few verses is healing multitudes in Galilee, even if he didn’t eat first.
Yes, it’s a little ironic that this sermon comes as we will be coming to the table in just a few moments. Here, though, the bread broken and the cup shared point us to that Jesus who faced the wilderness armed with the teaching of scripture and trust in God. The bread here comes as gift and sacrament, not as temptation, that indeed we together might be fed on the stuff of eternal life rather than relying on empty processed foods for our spiritual fortification. For indeed, real wilderness experiences will come, whether we have “eaten” or not.
For the wilderness, and a God who would prepare us for it, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#392            Jesus, We Are Here
#833            O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go
#525            Let Us Break Bread Together
#167            Forty Days and Forty Nights

Credit:, and yeah, I feel this one...

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Message: Be Reconciled

Grace Presbyterian Church
March 1, 2017, Ash Wednesday  A
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10

Be Reconciled

This is a great shirt, isn’t it? (Note: see below) Upon receiving it from Mabel Tuma on Sunday I knew it was the coolest piece of clothing I’ve ever owned. Direct from Cameroon.
I am forced to confess that before coming to this congregation and meeting the Tuma family, I didn’t really know a lot about Cameroon, and didn’t really think much about it. When I did notice it, it was mostly around the quadrennial World Cup in soccer, if their national team (the Indomitable Lions – that is an awesome team name, people) made a run in the competition.
As a result, I was never particularly aware of the country’s nearness to the ongoing struggle against the violent group Boko Haram, kidnappers of young girls. I certainly knew nothing of the increasingly strained relations between the country’s French-speaking and English-speaking populations. No clue.
Cameroon would hardly be the only country of which this was, and still is, true for me. I know there is internal conflict in Myanmar, but next to nothing about it. There is also ongoing conflict, with acts of terrorism, in Peru, and Colombia is trying to work out a fragile peace with paramilitary rebel groups in its own borders. Ukraine is dealing with pro-Russian rebels, ongoing civil war in South Sudan, drug war in Mexico...if it isn’t in the Middle East, we can pretty easily ignore it. And we certainly don’t want to look at acts of violence in this country, including that shooting too near my old hometown back in Kansas a few days ago, that we would call terrorism if they happened anywhere else in the world.
We could talk about “white privilege” here – we good Americans don’t have to be concerned with these things, because, well, we’re good Americans. We could talk about a lot of things, but I wonder if we need to be listening to Paul here, and concerning ourselves with being reconciled to God.
This is how this reading from Paul begins – “be reconciled to God.” That’s pretty straightforward, or so it seems. But the context for this instruction is anything but. Paul, a founder of this church in Corinth, had found himself tossed aside as that body fell under the sway of fancier, more uppercrust self-proclaimed evangelists who filled the ears of the Corinthians with something like a first-century equivalent of prosperity doctrine, who presented themselves as classier, more sophisticated, more erudite, more elite leaders than Paul. That had to hurt.
Having earlier in the letter vented his frustrations at the Corinthians, Paul now turns to the crux of the matter, and he has enough wit to know that before charging off to try to patch things up with the Corinthians, it was necessary to remind them of the indispensible and irreplaceable thing; to be reconciled to God, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Of course, Paul then goes right to making his case before the Corinthians as to how he and his colleagues had conducted themselves in their work in Corinth.
But being reconciled to God, really being the righteousness of God because of Christ’s work on the cross, changes us – not just in individual personal ways, but us as a body of believers, us as the body of Christ. When we are seeing the world through the righteousness of God we see all the world, no longer obliterated by our more immediate concerns. We are reconciled to all God’s children, not just the ones in this place or the downtown church or the church out in the county.
We feel with God the grief or the sorrow for warfare, conflict, injustice, and oppression in all places where they happen, not just the ones that show up on our nightly news. Our compassions don’t stop at the city limits or county limits or state line or national borders. We see the world as God’s, and we realize the world’s mortality is our mortality, the world’s suffering is our suffering, the world’s cry for justice becomes our cry for justice.
No, this isn’t your usual Lent theme about ashes or giving something up, except in the sense of perhaps giving up our insular mindset or tunnel vision. Being reconciled to God means everyone matters, and that’s not an easy thing to learn. But perhaps that might be the kind of Lenten fast that would make a difference in our world fraught with conflict and strife. To be so reconciled to God that we see the world as God sees it, we see each other as God sees us all: now that is a challenge for Lent. To live as though Cameroon and Peru and Ukraine and Olathe, Kansas matter; there is a worthy fast.
For real, genuine, eye-opening reconciliation with God, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#165 The Glory of These Forty Days
#421 Have Mercy, God, Upon My Life
#166 Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days

The shirt in question. Best garment I have now.