Christmas Shoes

sandals2

John 1:6-8, 19-28 NRSV

Regarding the gift of Christmas, the gift of God’s enfleshed self to the world, John said, “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”

It was written in Jewish law that “pupils should do everything that is commanded by their teacher with the exception of unlacing the teacher’s shoes.”  The subservient task of kneeling to the ground and unlacing another’s shoe was something only a slave should perform.[i]

This means that John not only regarded himself unworthy to be a disciple of Jesus, he believed he was unworthy to even be a slave of Jesus. When he compared himself to the one wearing the shoes of Christmas, John regarded himself as lower than the lowliest lowly.

And who could blame him? John was talking about God, the Holy Creator of all that is, the Divine One who has come down to earth wearing shoes. John was talking about the great sovereign of the universe from on high, miraculously and lovingly stooping  low enough to the earth to kneel down to the ground,  put on, lace up and wear shoes. John was talking about heavenly feet accustomed to walking on celestial streets where angels trod that have put on earthly shoes in order to walk the same roads each one of us walk.

Although it was John’s plan to make our windy and rocky roads straight and smooth for these holy shoes, the purpose of these shoes was to walk every crooked path, experience every twist and turn, identify with every bump, every dip, every rut. The Lord of Hosts stooped down, knelt down, and laced up shoes to walk down snaky roads; travel down uncertain roads; journey down long, lonely, and desolate roads.

God knelt down and put shoes on feet that would grow weary and sore from those roads. God laced up shoes that would cause great suffering when Jesus’ feet would swell, blister and bleed.

Those shoes ran down fearful, foreign roads to escape Herod’s sword. Those shoes would journey down dark, dangerous wilderness roads that try the soul. Those shoes would travel down desperate roads to bring good news to the poor. Those shoes would travel down neglected roads to give dignity to those marginalized by a religion that had been hijacked by evil. Those shoes would walk roads lined with the hypocritical and judgmental to defend and forgive the sinner. Those shoes would move down roads paved with suffering to heal and restore the sick. They would go down tear-soaked roads to comfort mourners and raise the dead.

And near the end of his road on this earth, those holy shoes, worn, frayed and tattered by life, would lead him to a table with his friends. After supper, he would get up from that table, take off his outer robe, and tie a towel around himself. He would then pour water into a basin. And like his humble beginning in a lowly manger, he would once again stoop down, kneel to the ground, and lovingly, empathetically and subserviently untie the shoes of each one at that table, even the shoes of the one who would betray him and of the one who would deny ever knowing him.

Now, in the historical and cultural context of the day, the disciples’ shoes would be removed long before they reclined at the table. However, figuratively and theologically speaking, Jesus untied their laces and removed their shoes.[ii]

Relief, respite and release overcame them as they realized that none of their unworthiness prevents their Lord from graciously taking their feet into his hands and washing away all of the dirt and grime from every road they had ever traveled. None of their filth is too offensive. There are no stains too deep. The fresh water from the basin that restores, refreshes and relaxes their wearied feet is miraculously transformed into living water that saves their wearied souls.

The good news of Christmas is that the Holy One, whose laces we are unworthy to untie, comes to us, stoops down, kneels before us, and unlaces our shoes, freeing us in the places we have been too tightly bound.  He empathetically takes our feet into his hands and washes our dirty, sore and weary feet, and makes us ready for the road again.

That is the good news of Christmas. Now, listen to the good irony of Christmas.

John believed he was unworthy to untie the shoes of Christmas. However, because of those Christmas shoes, John is not only worthy to untie and remove those shoes, John is actually worthy to put on and wear those shoes.

Through the gift of Christmas, through the gift of the God who has walked where we walk, through the gift of the Divine who stoops down, unties and removes our shoes, washing our feet and our souls, we are made worthy to not only untie the shoes of Christmas, but to wear the shoes of Christmas. We are worthy to put on Christmas shoes to go where he went, to do as he did, to include as he included, to forgive as he forgave, to love as he loved, to bend ourselves to the ground to touch the places in people that most need touching.

It is believed that fourteenth century saint Teresa of Avila once said:

Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world, and yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.

The Apostle Paul has written:

How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the good news (Romans 10:15).

Don’t worry. It is perfectly natural to feel unworthy to untie those laces, wear those shoes, to be the feet, the body of Christ.  And if you believe you are unworthy you are in very good company.

Abraham and Sarah did not believe they were young enough to be worthy (Genesis 17:17). Jacob was not truthful enough to be worthy (Genesis 27). Moses was not articulate enough (Exodus 4:10). David was not faithful enough. (2 Samuel 11:2-4). Rahab was not pure enough (Joshua 2:1). Jeremiah was not mature enough (Jeremiah 1:6). Mary was not rich or powerful or old enough (Luke 1).

Yet, God makes the unworthy worthy to be God’s enfleshed presence in this world, to be God’s body, hands, eyes, and feet in this world. As the Apostle Paul reminds each of us:

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong (1 Corinthians 1:26-27).

William Willimon tells a wonderful story about a visit to a fraternity house one night while he was the campus minister at Duke University. The reputations of the fraternity houses at Duke were getting so bad that the University Dean required each fraternity to have a certain number of religious programs each year to give them at least some semblance of respectability.

One of the fraternities invited Willimon to lead one of the programs. He was to come to the frat-house and give a lecture on “Morality and Character on Campus.”

On the appointed evening, Willimon went to fraternity and knocked on the door. When the door opened, he was greeted by a young boy who appeared to be nine or ten years old.  He thought, “What in the world is a little boy like this doing in a frat house at this time of night?”

“They are waiting for you in the common room,” the little boy said politely. Willimon followed the boy back to the common room where all the young men were gathered, glumly waiting for the preacher’s presentation.

Willimon says for about an hour he talked about morality, responsibility, character and faith and how the frat houses on campus gave little evidence of any of those things. When he finished his talk he asked if there were any questions. Of course they were none. So he thanked them for inviting him and headed out.

One young man got up and walked him to the door. Before they got to the door, Willimon overhead him say to the little boy, “Hey buddy, you go and get ready for bed. I’ll come up, tuck you in and read you a story in a few minutes.”

When they got outside, the fraternity boy lit a cigarette, took a long drag on it, and thanked the pastor for coming out.

Willimon turned and asked, “Who is that kid in there, and what is he doing here?”

“Oh, that’s Donny,” said the young man. “Our fraternity is part of the Big Brother program in Durham. We met Donny that way. His mom is addicted to drugs and is having a tough time. Sometimes it gets so bad that she can’t care for him. So we told Donny to call us if he ever needs us. We go over, pick him up, and he stays with us until it is okay to go back home. We take him to school, buy his clothes, books, and stuff like that.”

Willimon stood there dumbfounded. He said, “That’s amazing. You know, I take back everything I said in there about you guys being immoral and irresponsible.”

“I tell you what’s amazing,” said the college boy as he took another drag on his cigarette, “what’s amazing is that God would pick a guy like me to do something this good for somebody else.”[iii]

In other words: “What’s amazing is that God, the Holy Creator of all that is, would make an unworthy guy like me worthy to not only untie, but to wear the shoes of Christmas.

Let us pray together.

God, continue to remind us that you have made each of worthy to untie and wear Christmas shoes to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Amen.

 

INVITATION TO THE TABLE

The angel announced to the shepherds that they were bringing good news of great joy for all people. All people.

Thus, all people, those who belong to this church, those who belong to other churches, and those who belong to no church, are invited to gather around this table and receive holy communion. All people.

This means people of great faith and people of great doubt. All people.

May all prepare for communion as we remain seated and sing together.

 

COMMISSIONING AND BENEDICTION

Go now into the world as the enfleshed presence of God, the body of Christ wearing Christmas shoes on your feet.

Go remembering that Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours.

Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world, and yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.

And may the love of Christmas, the grace of Christmas and the communion of Christmas be with us all. Amen.


[i] Alan Culpepper, Smyth and Helwys Commentary: Mark, 2007, p. 47.

[ii] From a sermon by J. Will Ormond entitled Advent on a Shoestring preached during Advent in 1987 at the Columbia Theological Seminary.

[iii] From a sermon by William Willimon in Pulpit Resource, January 2006, p. 19.

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We Need a Little Christmas Right this Very Minute

john the baptist

Living in a nation where greed, racism and bigotry make Christians blind to all kinds evil, even overlooking accusations of child molestation, I cannot help but to think that what we need more than anything else is a little Christmas, right this very minute!

The gospels tell us that in order to get a little Christmas, we first need to get a little John the Baptist, a voice crying out in the wilderness telling people the God’s honest truth.

They tell us that “multitudes” went to hear the truth, even though they knew that sometimes the truth hurts. However, they instinctively knew that it was the truth that was going to set them free.

John preached something like: “You are not right. Some part of you needs to be cut off; something inside of you needs to be burned away.”

From his prolific sermon illustrations, “the fire, the ax, and chaff,” John was preaching that before something can be born anew, something rotten has to die. Before healing can take place, something sick has to be removed. As the “Me Too” movement has taught us in recent weeks, before something can be restored, someone needs to resign.

And as John preached with brutal honesty, the eyes of the blind were opened, and the first thing they saw was a little Christmas.

As we prepare this place of worship for Christmas, making a way for Christ, may we search our souls, asking what we must we do to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ.

As we decorate this place with poinsettias, remembering the star that signaled love being born in a town called Bethlehem, may all indifference perish, may silence in the face of evil pass away, may all complacency be banished, as we stand up and speak out for the inclusive love of Christ to be born in right here in our town.

As we decorate this place with wreaths signifying the never-ending reign of Christ, may all despair and resignation die, as we resist to fight hate and persist to do justice in our world knowing that the love of God never ends.

As we decorate this place with mistletoe known throughout the world as the plant of peace, may the fear that divides us be removed, as we do what we can, where we can, however we can, to work for peace on earth.

As we decorate this place with holly and ivy, may all self-righteousness and spiritual pride and any feelings of superiority be cut off, as we cling to divine strength.

As we decorate this place with the fire of candles, may all prejudice be burnt away, as we light up our world with grace.

May our lights shine honestly, pointing out all of our failures and flaws, yet giving us the mercy to be better and do better.

May our lights shine so brightly that the eyes of all people are able to see a little Christmas.

Room for Christmas

hope

Isaiah 64:1-9 NRSV

It was a dark time in a dark world. The prophet Isaiah prays a desperate prayer asking God to rip open the heavens and come down and heal the nation, to bring peace on earth and joy to the people; a prayer asking God to establish a new order that will override the destructiveness of those in power. It’s a prayer of hope that God will come in the same liberating way as God had come in the past.

However, the mood of the prayer changes. Hopeful expectation turns into dreadful despair as the sins and transgressions of the people are considered.

The term “unclean” means “ritually unacceptable.” It is not believed that Israel is a community where God’s presence is willing to come. Like a “filthy cloth,” the nation is so impure and contaminated that no one would dare touch it.

Like “a faded leaf,” it’s in danger of rotting away. Because the people have called on false gods, there seems to be no room for the God of truth. Because they have turned their backs on social justice, there seems to be no place for the God of mercy. Because the people have chosen a way of violence, there seems to be no way for the God of peace. There seems to be no hope.

But then, the mood changes once more with one of the most hopeful words in the scriptures: “YET!”

YET, you are our Parent. YET, you are our potter. YET, we are all the work of your hand. YET, we are your people.

Isaiah hopefully asserts: YET, you made us, you own us, you are responsible for us, we belong to you. Thus, we trust that you will indeed come again to love us, to save us, just as you have come in the past.

Advent is a time of celebrating this hopeful: “YET!”

It was a dark time in a dark world. The sick and injured were passed by on the other side by prominent men claiming to be religious. The poor were unfairly taxed. Foreigners, scapegoated. Women, objectified. Victims of abuse, stigmatized. Anyone different, marginalized. The entire nation, demoralized.

YET, a peasant girl named Mary carries hope in her womb and a song in her heart:

 ‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…

..he has scattered the proud…
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

This is the hope of Advent! The world seems dark, YET, the Light of the World is coming!

Later, the parents-to-be were on the road to pay taxes to a puppet king of an occupied land. The road was long, and being with child made the road especially difficult. And to make things more difficult, when it was time for the baby to be born, they discovered that there was no room in the inn.

There was no room. Sounds like the desperate prayer of Isaiah.

There was no room. There was no place. There was no way. There was no hope.

YET, as God had proved over and over throughout history, from the covenant of Abraham to the great Exodus, there is nothing in all of creation that can separate the world from God’s love. For God, would once again come! In spite of every demonic power that tried to thwart God’s coming, God came.

And the good news of this Advent season is that we know that God still comes. And there is nothing in all of creation, nor things above nor below, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor life nor death that can stop God from coming.

A church once presented a Christmas play. You know the kind. I used to be in one every year when I was growing up. Three boys playing shepherds are carrying long sticks wearing bath robes with towels wrapped around their heads. And three more boys playing wise men wearing cardboard Burger-King crowns wrapped in Reynolds Wrap are carrying boxes decorated with left-over Christmas garland. They all walk up on the chancel, greet Mary and Joseph, and bow down before the baby Jesus.

Well, during one particular play, after the wise men and shepherds came and bowed before Jesus, a spokesperson for the wise men made the announcement: “We three kings have traveled from the East to bring the baby Jesus gifts of gold, circumstance and mud.” Of course, laughter filled the sanctuary.

But you know what they say: “out of the mouths of babes.”

In the circumstance of being told there is no room for you, there is no place for you, there is no way for you, and there is no hope for you, through Christ, God came to Mary and Joseph and God comes to us and says: “YET!”

The good news of Advent is that God comes to us in all of our circumstances and offers us the assurance that there is no circumstance on earth or in heaven that is beyond God’s amazing grace.

And coming as a human being, coming into the world as a fleshly body, a body made up of dust and water, God comes and joins us in our mud.

Through Christ, God came into and still comes into our muck of pain and sickness and offers comfort and healing.

Through Christ, God came into and still comes into our muck of loneliness and fear and shares divine presence and a peace beyond understanding.

The world says there is no room; things are not going to get any better. The world says there is no way; the good old days are long gone. The world says there is no place; evil will get the best of you. The world says there is no hope; peace on earth and good will shall never happen.

YET, a young woman named Mary goes into labor as God says: “I am working all things together for the good!”

YET, a baby is born in the darkness as God says: “The best days of life are always before you.”

YET, a child cries in the night as God says: “Although you cannot go back to the good old days, good new days are coming!

The world says: “There is no room. You will never amount to anything.”

The world says: “There is no way. Sin will always get the best of you.”

The world says: “There is no place for you. Nobody really cares about you.”

The world says: “For you, there is no room, no way, no place, no hope.”

YET, a baby is wrapped in bands of cloth born to underserving, unwed teenagers in an occupied land, as God says: “I love you just as you are, and I come to wrap you in my mercy, clothe you with my grace. I know your sins and I forgive you. I will always be with you and never away from you. I will always be for you and never against you. I will always stay by your side fighting for you, even if it means dying for you.”

The world says: “Racism will never end. Bigotry will not cease. Misogyny isn’t going away. There is no way this country will ever come together. There is no room for diversity. There is no place for equality. There is no hope for unity.”

YET, a brown-skinned baby’s birth to a Hebrew woman is announced by angels: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for ALL the people. For you, ALL of you, a baby is born who is Christ the Lord, and through him there is no longer Jew or gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one!”

The good news of Advent is while the world often seems dark, YET the light of God will not be diminished.

Fake news seems to divide us, YET the good news that unites us will not suppressed.

The poor always seem to get the raw end of the deal, YET the justice of God will not be defeated.

The sound of gun violence is deafening, YET the Word of God will not be silenced.

Our leaders rule with fear-mongering, YET the Prince of Peace will not be conquered.

The powerful lie to push their agendas, YET truth cannot be hidden.

Hate seems to have its way, YET love will not lose.

Sin seems to get the best of us, YET grace will not fail.

Despair seems to overwhelm, YET hope will not die.

The nation feels like a faded leaf that’s about to rot away, YET the kingdom of God will reign forever and ever.

It’s Advent, and our world grows darker; YET, it’s Advent, and the Light of the World is coming!

And the darkness will not overcome it.

It’s Advent. God is acting. The Spirit is moving. Christ is coming. Hallelujah.

Who Is Your King?

paris

John 18:33-37 NRSV

Jesus has been arrested for his actions and his teachings and has already been questioned by Caiaphas, the high priest. Because the sad truth is, that in this world, when you love all people and teach others to love all people, there will always be some people, probably religious, who will want to kill you. It is now Pilate’s turn to question him.

“Are you the King of the Jews?”

Jesus is the King. But as he told Pilate, Jesus is a different kind of King, for his kingdom “is not from this world.” He adds: “If my kingdom was from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

And, if we are honest, this makes those of us living in this world very uncomfortable. But that is Jesus. He comforts the afflicted of this world and afflicts the comfortable of this world. Whether we like to admit it or not, the truth is, we have grown rather fond of the kings and kingdoms of this world.

We prefer the kingdoms in this world that “would be fighting” to keep Jesus “from being handed over to the Jews.”

We prefer “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” We prefer “You’ll have to pry my gun from my cold dead hands.”

We prefer “It’s not our job to judge the terrorists. It’s our mission to arrange the meeting.”

We prefer “I hear you, and the ones who knocked down these buildings will soon hear from all of us!”

We prefer “the statue of Liberty…shaking her fist.”

The truth is that we prefer answering violence with more violence. We believe combating hate with more hate. We believe in fighting for what we believe, even for Jesus.

We believe in coercing our convictions, imposing our opinions, forcing our beliefs, and we don’t care who it offends or even destroys in the process.

We prefer a kingdom where we say it loudly and proudly that “we eat meat; we carry guns; we say Merry Christmas; we speak English, and if you don’t like it, get the heck out.”

We prefer a kingdom where we do unto others as they do unto us.

We prefer a kingdom where we love and help only those who we believe deserve our love and help.

We prefer a kingdom where people know their places and have earned those places.

We prefer a kingdom where people put the needs of their own before the needs of a foreigner.

We prefer a kingdom where we love ourselves, while our neighbors fend for themselves.

Jesus is implying that there are two types of kings. There are the kings of this world, and then there is the king from another world. And Jesus is asking Pilate and Jesus is asking you and me: Who is your king? Who do you say that I am? Am I your King? Is your king from another world or is your king from this world?

One king offers safety and comfort;

One king promises persecution, saying if you follow him, people will rise up and utter all kinds of evil against you.

One king offers security;

One king demands risk.

One king endorses greed and prosperity;

One king fosters sacrifice and promotes giving it all away.

One king caters to the powerful, the wealthy and the elite;

One king blesses the weak, the poor and the marginalized.

One king accepts only people of like-mind, like-dress, like-language, and like-faith;

One king accepts all people.

One king is restrictive with forgiveness;

One king is generous with it.

One king controls by fear;

One king reigns with love.

One king rules by threat of punishment;

One king rules with the promise of grace.

One king governs by imposing;

One king leads with service.

One king throws rocks at sinners;

One king defends those caught in the very act of sinning.

One king devours the home of the widow;

One king offers her a new home.

One king turns away the refugee;

One king welcomes the refugee, for he, himself, was a refugee.

One king destroys his enemies with an iron fist;

One king dies for his enemies with outstretched arms.

For one king’s throne is made with silver and gold;

One king’s throne is made with wood and nails.

One king wears a crown of rubies and diamonds;

One king wears a crown of thorns.

So, of course the powers that be, the kings of this world, arrested the king “whose kingdom is not from this world.” Of course they tortured this king, spat on this king, mocked this king and crucified this king, this king from a foreign realm. Of course they tried to bury this king and seal this king’s tomb up with a stone.

But hate could not defeat this king. Bigotry could not stop this king. Religion and patriotism could not overthrow his throne. This king would rise again. But not the way the kings of this world rise. Despite the desires of his followers or the lyrics of their songs, there was no thunder in his footsteps or lightening in his fists. There were no plagues, fire, brimstone, or flood. There was no shock and awe or violence of any kind.

For this king understood what, sadly, few since have understood, and that is:

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.

Consequently, this king arose from the darkness of the grave, powerfully, yet unobtrusively; mightily, yet unassumingly; leaving room to recognize him or not to recognize him, leaving room to believe in him or to doubt him, to reject him or to follow him. This king drove out the darkness, not with more darkness, but with light. This king drove out the hate, not with more hate, but with love.

So, how do we live in these dark days of November 2015?

It all depends on who your king is.

This past Monday, Antoine Leiris, who lost his wife in the attacks in Paris, proclaimed to the world which king he chooses to serve. He shared it in beautiful tribute to his wife on Facebook, promising to not let his 17-month-old son grow up in fear of ISIS.

Friday night you took away the life of an exceptional human being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hatred…

I do not know who you are, and I do not wish to…

If this God for whom you kill so blindly has made us in His image, every bullet in the body of my wife will have been a wound in His heart…

So I will not give you the privilege of hating you. You certainly sought it, but replying to hatred with anger would be giving in to the same ignorance which made you into what you are. You want me to be frightened, that I should look into the eyes of my fellow citizens with distrust, that I sacrifice my freedom for security. You lost. I will carry on as before.

The good news is that our king does not have to be Pat McCory and our King does not have to be Barak Obama.

If we choose, our king will never be Donald Trump or Ben Carson, and our king will never be Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton.

For their kingdoms, like all of the kingdoms of this world, are flawed and dark, and the peace they offer is temporary. Their reigns are fleeting.

If we choose, our king is and will be the one whom the prophet Daniel speaks:

As I watched,

thrones were set in place,

and an Ancient One took his throne;

his clothing was white as snow,

and the hair of his head like pure wool;

his throne was fiery flames,

and its wheels were burning fire.

A stream of fire issued

and flowed out from his presence.

A thousand thousand served him,

and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.

The court sat in judgement,

and the books were opened. As I watched in the night visions,

I saw one like a human being

coming with the clouds of heaven.

And he came to the Ancient One

and was presented before him.

To him was given dominion

and glory and kingship,

that all peoples, nations, and languages

should serve him.

His dominion is an everlasting dominion

that shall not pass away,

and his kingship is one

that shall never be destroyed.

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

Gone out of the Religion Business

GoingOutOfBusinessHebrews 10:11-25

This morning, I wonder how many of you could answer the following question if you were on television playing for one million dollars. You’ve already used all of your lifelines. You can no longer poll the rest of the congregation or use your friends at AT&T to telephone a friend.

Which of the following is not a religion?

a. Running Marathons

b. Investing in the Stock Market

c. The Atkins Diet

d. The Christian Faith

Again, you can only choose one. All life lines have been exhausted. Which is not a religion?  If you said, “d. the Christian faith,” and that was your final answer, you just won one million dollars!

The wonderful truth about our faith is that it is not a religion. No matter what some may tell you, the church is not in the religion business.

While I was pastoring a church back in 1993, a deacon asked me where I saw myself in twenty years. I told him that I believed that I would still be pastoring a church somewhere.

He laughed out loud.

“What’s so funny?”

“I see you more as the type who might be teaching in some college somewhere, or playing a college professor in a TV commercial. I don’t think you are going to be a pastor.”

“Why do you say that?”

He said, “For one thing, pastors are generally religious people. And you, my friend, are not very religious!”

What this deacon failed to realize was that the church is not in the religion business. The truth is, the last thing a Christian pastor should be, is religious.

Let me share with you what I think is a good definition of religion.  This comes from Robert Capon. 

Religion is the attempt by human beings to establish a right relationship between themselves and something beyond themselves which they think to be of life-giving significance.

William Willimon has said: 

Religion is the human attempt to get a handle on the key to life, to plug in to power, to find the program that leads to happiness, meaning, self-esteem, or whatever it is that gives a person life.

And the strange thing is: that key, power or program may have absolutely nothing to do with God. Before my knee surgery, Lori used to say that I ran religiously. She has said that I read Runner’s World magazine like I read the Bible. I read it religiously every month, trying my best to run faster, achieve good health and look better so I can enjoy the good life!

We have all observed the religious habits of others. “He studies the Wall-Street Journal religiously.” “She sanctimoniously follows the Atkin’s diet.” “He works 60 hours a week, religiously.” “He plays golf, religiously.”

The truth is many of us are doing all we can do, working out, eating right, studying, going to work, following a regimen, all with the same goal: to achieve life! We do it for ourselves, but we also for that something which is beyond ourselves: low blood pressure and cholesterol, smaller hips, a house on the river, for that something which will grant us fulfillment and satisfaction. So, it’s possible to be a religious fanatic and have absolutely nothing to do with God.

However, for some of us, religion is all about God. There are those of us who feel that we must be religious to get right with God. Religion is viewed as something that people work at in order to have a correct relationship with God. If we can say the right prayers, believe in the right creed, behave the right way, avoid the right sins, then we can be right with God. If we can conduct our lives based on high moral and ethical standards, we can place ourselves in a right relationship with God and achieve abundant and eternal life.

Willimon says that the bad news is that we human beings are always flunking religion. No matter how hard we work at religion we can never get it right. For years I had been following the advice of Runner’s World magazine by eating salmon every chance I can got for those omega three fatty acids for my heart. I used to eat the stuff all the time. Lori once said she thought I was going to turn into a salmon. Well, in an issue not that long ago, I learned that if the salmon is not caught wild, straight from the ocean, it will probably give you cancer. Turns out, the farmers who raise the fish feed it these food pellets which are laced with cancer-causing chemicals. No matter how hard we try, we can never get it right.

They used to say that eating bacon and eggs every morning will make you fat and kill you. Now, they say it is that bagel which is going to make you fat. They used to tell us we could get thin by snacking on rice cakes, now they tell us its best to snack on pork rinds. We can’t win! Religion is always a one-way ticket to failure.

Take the religion of golf. You master your irons and start slicing with your woods. You drive long and straight with your driver, hit your iron and land on the green in two, and then you three-putt. That is part of the reason golf is so addicting. It is a one-way ticket to failure. You make a bad shot and it makes you mad. You make a good shot and it makes you mad, because you wonder why you can’t hit it like that every time!

The truth is: at religion, the harder we try, the greater we fail. We can eat all of the right foods and exercise every day of the week and still need knee surgery.

We can place all of our time and energy into our careers, going to work early and leaving work late, and still be unappreciated and miserable.

And when you finally arrive at the place where you think you have it right with God. You finally believe you have got it right in the ethics and morality department, guess what? It usually leads to pride and arrogance. I had a church member tell me one day, “I am the most humble person in this church!”

Sure you are.

The good news of our scripture lesson this morning is that God came into the world through the person of Jesus Christ to put an end to religion.  Hebrews notes that the priests stood before God in the temple. Of course they stood. There was no time to sit. There is no chair in the holy of holies. Think about it: I know if a priest is going to be setting things right between God and my sin, he’ll never have a chance to sit down! The poor priest will constantly have to be running back and forth between my sin and God’s salvation.

No matter how great and sincere my sacrifice is when I go to the temple, my sin is still going to get the best of me before I can get back to my car. The poor priest is never going to get a day off. He’s never going to be able to sit down. That’s why we read: “And every priest stands day after day at his service and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.”

In contrast to the posture of the priest who is always standing, notice what Jesus is doing? Jesus is sitting. “When Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.”

The veil in the temple, separating us from God was torn in two at his death. In this great gift of God’s self, God put religion out of business. And now, Jesus is sitting down.

Consequently, there is no point of us getting on some treadmill of right thoughts, right speech, right actions, because that right relationship we so desperately seek has already been made right by God. We have to only trust that God has indeed done what was needed to be done through Christ. This is why our church teaches “no creed but Christ.” Being a member of this church is not about believing this set of principles or that set of ideals, that biblical interpretation or this style of worship. It is about believing and following the Christ.

That is why we call it the gospel. It is good news. If we called it religion, it would be bad news. Religion would mean that there was still some secret to be unlocked, some ritual to be gotten right, some law to obey, some theology to grasp, or some little sin to be purged. Praise God, in Jesus Christ, this thing called sin between us and God has been made right. Thank God the church has gone out of the religion business!  If it hadn’t, there is no doubt in my mind that I would be in some other line of work by now!

This is why extremist or fundamentalist religion is wrong and dangerous, whether it is fundamentalist Muslim religion or fundamentalist Christian religion. Religious extremists believe that their salvation and the salvation of the world is dependent on the laws they believe, the laws they teach and the laws they obey. That Is how they can justify shooting people in a marketplace, in a school, or in a church, or blowing up a plane, a restaurant, a theater, an abortion clinic or a building with a daycare center. And this is how they can justify creating a fuss if others do not believe as they believe. They believe it is their God-ordained, religious duty to force their beliefs on others to keep themselves right with God.

The good news is, unlike the priests who are standing, running around, creating a fuss, trying to get it right, Jesus is sitting down. His work is done. The work of religion is out of business. We accept salvation trusting that Jesus has already done the work for us.

Think about that. Because I know that are some of you who still believe that what we do here in the church is religious. You have never professed faith in Christ through baptism because you are waiting until you somehow get it right yourselves. You’re busy running back and forth to altars of good heath, right conduct and correct thinking. I invite you to come and realize that God has already made it right through Jesus Christ. I invited you to take a good look at Jesus this morning.

There he is. He’s sitting down.[i]

[i] Inspired from a sermon written by William Willimon.

The Jug Did Not Fail

Cornucopia by Joyce Lethworth- A symbol that with God, there is always more than enough.
Cornucopia by Joyce Letchworth symbolizing that with faith in God, there is always more than enough

1 Kings 17:8-16 NRSV

“The word of the Lord came to him” (1 Kings 17:8).

Whenever I read a text like our scripture lesson this morning, someone will inevitably comment: “I sure wished the Lord spoke to people and worked miracles today like God did back in the Old Testament.”

I usually respond: “I believe God still speaks to people. The problem is we’re not listening. And I believe God still works miracles. The problem is we’re not paying attention.”

Go now to Zarephath and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you when you arrive (1 Kings 17:9).

Notice that Elijah is listening. He sets out and goes immediately to Zarephath. And when he comes to the gate of the town, just as the Lord had said, he meets a widow who is gathering a couple of sticks to build a fire for dinner. He called to her and said, “Pour me a glass of water. And while you are at it, bring me a morsel of bread.”

But she said, ‘As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug.’

See, like you and me sometimes, she must not have been listening when the Lord spoke, when the Lord commanded her to feed Elijah when he arrives. Or perhaps she heard the command; she just doubted the command. She questioned the command. She feared the command, for she knew that she only had enough flour and oil to make one final meal for her and her son. Then, in the midst of the drought and famine in the land, they would surely die.

Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid” (1 Kings 17:13).

Old Testament Professor Katherine Schifferdecker imagines her saying:

“Easy for you to say! You’re not the one preparing to cook one last meal for yourself and your son before you die. You’re not the one who has watched your carefully-hoarded supply of flour and oil relentlessly dwindle day-by-day, week-by-week, as the sun bakes the seed in the hard, parched earth and the wadis run dry. You’re not the one who has watched your beloved son slowly grow thinner and more listless.”

Elijah said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son (1 Kings 17:13).

“How dare this man of God ask me for bread, knowing that I have so little? Who does he think he is, asking me for bread before I feed my own child? There is simply not enough to go around. I told him that I have only “a handful of meal, a little oil, and a couple of sticks. There is not enough. And Death waits at the door.”

Then the good news:

For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: ‘The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.’ She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah (1 Kings 17:14-16).

Have you heard the word of the Lord? Or have you not been listening?

Have you heard the word of the Lord? Or have you doubted it? Have you questioned it? Have you feared it?

I thank God that many of you have not only heard it, but you believe it. And not only do you believe it, you live it. And today you are a living testimony to the miracle of that word.

One day, you lost your child in a tragic accident. Years later, you needed open heart surgery. A year later, you fell and broke your hip. Then just a few weeks ago, you fell again, this time breaking several ribs. But yesterday, you got up, got dressed, and in spite of some who did not believe you had the enough energy to leave the house, you not only came to the Fall Festival, but you came to decorate this sanctuary with this beautiful fall cornucopia, symbolizing abundance, symbolizing that with faith in God, you not only have enough, you have more than enough, symbolizing a jar that will not empty and a jug that will not fail.

A few years ago a failed marriage destroyed your business, your financial worth and your self-worth. For years, you struggled for enough sticks to survive. And today, your business is back, your debts are being paid, and you are using your gifts to make a difference in the world. All because, although your jar got low, it never emptied, although your jug almost ran dry, it never failed.

You woke up one morning with blurry double vision. You later discovered that you suffered a stroke. Unable to work, unable to see, unable to live without assistance, you never lost your sense of humor or your sense of gratitude. In the face of your suffering you continue to worship God, praise God, and thank God for the gift of life. Somehow, some miraculous way, your jar never emptied and your jug never failed.

Several of you made decisions in life that landed you in the hospital or in jail. It was not that long ago that people were saying that you were all but out of sticks. But here it is, just a short time later, and you have a new lease on life. Your jar never emptied. Your jug never failed.

You were taking out the trash one day when you fell and broke your leg. And when you needed him the most, your husband abandoned you. People said that you were too old to get back up, too frail to start over. They said you only had a few good sticks left. But miraculously and mysteriously, today, you are as strong as ever. Your jar was not emptied and your jug did not fail.

A few years ago, a church found itself without a pastor. An interim pastor was even hard to find. Attendance was down, the budget was behind, morale was low, sticks were about to run out. They could see the bottom of the jar and squeezing mere drops from the jug. But the church was listening, and the church heard the word of the Lord. The church followed and the church risked. Their jar never emptied and their jug never failed.

Some in our culture complain that following Jesus is too much risk. Some say that it brings too much discomfort, too much pain. They say that the grace of Jesus is too extravagant, the mercy of Jesus is too generous, and the love of Jesus is too abundant. The light he commands us to shine is too bright. They fear such light, and they say it would be better for business if it is kept under a bushel.

They say they can tolerate the church preaching “we welcome all to the Lord’s table as God welcomes us,” and it is ok to believe that all means all; just as long as the church doesn’t actually practice what it preaches.

But when the culture tries to control you, when it tries to hold you back, when it uses fear to tempt you to preach and practice what is popular instead of what is the gospel, to preach and practice what is socially acceptable instead of what is the Word of God, when the culture tells you that you do not have enough sticks; behold, you miraculously receive the word:

“Do not be afraid. Because your jar will never be emptied and your jug will never fail, and as long as you are following Jesus, you will always have a great big pile of sticks!”

Pricilla, a dear friend of mine from Louisville, Kentucky, called me one day to give me the news: “Brad and I have decided to adopt two more children from Ukraine.”

They had already adopted two the previous year, one is two and the other is three years old. They both have lived in an orphanage since they were born.

As a concerned friend, I asked, “Do you really think that is wise? You already have two adopted children. And I know what a handful they are. Pris, I know you are a great mother, and I know Brad is a good father, but don’t you think there are limits? Aren’t there limits to how much you can give?”

Pricilla responded by saying something like: “When it comes to love, I have not yet found the limits. You know, Jarrett, I really don’t believe one can ever run out of love. From my experience, love is a renewable resource. The more love you give, the more love you seem to have.”

The good news is that God is still speaking today. God is still filling jars and replenishing jugs, and in God’s kingdom, sticks that fuel the fire of the Holy Spirit are renewable resources. So, do not be afraid. There is enough.

No, in God’s abundant mercy, there is more than enough.

Thanks be to God.

On the Way

Our Missions Trailer that was recently purchased to help our church get moving on the Way.

Mark 10:46-52 NRSV

The first thing we learn from our scripture lesson this morning is that Jesus and his disciples are with a large crowd, and they are on the move. They were on the way. Jericho was not the final destination. There is one last stop to make. Jerusalem: Where furious religious leaders offended by the good news of the gospel, ashamed of the grace of the gospel, have been plotting to put an end to it all. Jerusalem: Where a selfless Jesus is prepared to sacrifice his very life for the sake of others.

It is on this way, this way of self-denial and self-giving, that Jesus is confronted by a man in great need. His name is Bartimaeus. He is not only blind, he is also a beggar. He is helpless, and he is poor. He is disabled, and he is marginalized. Because many believed there must be some purpose driven reason for his blindness, he has been judged and he has been demonized. And, in desperation, he is waiting for Jesus on the side of the road. He is waiting for justice, and he is waiting for grace.

He jumps up and pleads: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And notice the actions of the crowd. They try to silence him. They simply don’t want to hear his cries.

Does that sound familiar?

Have you ever been on the way somewhere, met someone, nodded your head and asked: “How you doin’?” It’s a stereotypical pleasantry, an informal greeting. You expect them to nod back, and say something like, “Good, how you doin’?”

But then, to our surprise, the person doesn’t answer the way we expect them to answer, the way we want them to answer, the way we believe they should answer. No, this person decides to unload on you. She has all of these aches and pains, all of these troubles and frustrations, all kinds of maladies that you label as TMI, too much information.

We don’t like that TMI, especially when the TMI has to do with suffering.

I believe this is one of the reasons why we do not eagerly visit someone who has some sort of disability. We might go, but we don’t want to go. Perhaps it threatens us to be around people who are suffering. Because their circumstances are a reminder of how vulnerable all of us are. We know that if it could happen to them, it could happen to us, or to one of our loved ones. So, we prefer to keep the sick, the troubled, the unfortunate, and the disabled out of sight, thus out of mind.

I admire companies like Target and Whole Foods who make it their mission to hire disabled persons. Fortunately, there are many advocates today for the disabled and others who have been marginalized by society who are urging them to come out, to come forward, to speak up, and to seek equity and equality.

This blind beggar does just that. Despite the crowd who “sternly orders him to be quiet,” the man keeps yelling at Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And the good news is that Jesus hears his voice. Jesus stops. And Jesus calls him to come over.

Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Not surprisingly, blind Bartimaeus says, “My teacher, let me see again.”

And Jesus does just that. He says, “Go, your faith has made you well.”

Then Mark says something that he does not say when recounting any other healing story. Out of all the folks that were healed in Mark’s gospel, Bartimaeus is the only one who chooses to follow Jesus “on the way.”  Out of all the people who were healed by Jesus, Bartimaeus is the only one who becomes a disciple and follows Jesus on the way to Jerusalem; on the way to the cross; down the road of sacrifice and self-denial and suffering; down the road of grace, mercy, justice and eternal life.

Thus, what we have here in this text is not just another miraculous healing story, but a wonderful story of discipleship. And guess what? It’s not just a story about one blind beggar. It is a story about you and me.

For I believe we have a tendency to come to Jesus asking him to heal us, solve our problems, fix what’s wrong with us. We come to Jesus saying: love me, feed me, and make me happy. Give me some sense of fulfillment. We come to church hoping that we might get something out of Jesus, that he might give us a semblance of peace and joy. We come to Jesus seeking help, security and spiritual bliss.

But how many of us come to Jesus because we are truly willing to follow Jesus as a disciple, especially to those places that we know Jesus is heading?

After restoring Bartimaeus’ sight, Jesus tells him that he can go on his way. And who would blame Bartimaeus if he turned around right then to go on his way? Think of all the places he might want to go! Think of all the sights that he might want to see with his new eyes!

Bartimaeus could have gone home with his new found faith in and love for Jesus. He could have been content knowing that Jesus heard his cries, restored his sight, and gave him salvation.

But no, Bartimaeus doesn’t go his way.

Bartimaeus goes Jesus’ way.

Bartimaeus chooses to follow Jesus. Where? Toward Jerusalem. Toward suffering. Toward rejection. Toward a mission of love, mercy and justice. Toward the cross.

The irony here is that Bartimaeus is introduced to us in this story as a blind man. However, if we are honest, I believe we would have to admit that, in many ways, Bartimaeus may see Jesus better than we do.

Bartimaeus teaches us that this thing we call Christianity, this thing we call church, is about following Jesus. Jesus is not looking for people who merely want to be healed, made stronger, see more clearly and fed by him. Jesus is not looking for people who simply want to agree with him, believe in him, or admire him. Jesus is not looking for people who only want to read about him or study him or even worship him. Jesus is looking for people who truly desire to follow him.

In C.S. Lewis’ classic novel, The Screwtape Letters, the devil advises an apprentice demon that the main way to keep people from the Christian faith is to prevent the potential convert from doing anything.

The devil says that the main thing “is to prevent his doing anything. As long as he does not convert it into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance. Let the little brute wallow in it. Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it…. Let him do anything but act. No amount of piety in his imagination and affections will harm us if we can keep it out of his will. As one of the humans has said, active habits are strengthened by repetition, but passive ones are weakened. The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able to ever act, and in the long run, the less he will be able to feel.”

To the dismay of the devil, Bartimaeus put his faith into action and followed Jesus, even toward Jerusalem.

In just a few moments this church is going to have what we call an invitation. Some churches call it an altar call. It is a practice that was started in many protestant churches during the turn of the 20th century. Those who wish to dedicate or rededicate their lives to Christ or become a member of the church are invited to come down to the front as a public sign of their commitment.

Sometimes, this practice has been emotionally manipulative. Preachers have used guilt and other forms of pressure to get people to walk the aisles. Sometimes the act has had little substance or consequence. Because of this, the invitation or the altar call has been dropped in many churches and is very rare in most denominations.

Well, I’m not ready to drop it, because I believe, despite its misuse, the invitation keeps reminding us that it is not enough for us to come together on Sunday morning to get something out of Jesus: a sense of well-being, as sense of peace, a feel-good feeling of spiritual bliss. It reminds us that the point of it all, the point of Christianity is to follow Jesus, to give our lives to Jesus, to stumble after him along the way, even to Jerusalem.

Some of us are doing just that. We are here today because we have been encountered by Jesus and we are trying our very best to follow him along the way. And that’s good. Some of us are going to be going to West Virginia this week to do some of the things that Jesus commanded us, namely to provide shelter for some of our poorest neighbors. Others are making the commitment to go to South Carolina next month to do what we can to help victims of the recent record flooding. Jameson Cowan is following by literally picking up his cross to defend the cause of freedom through service in the United States Marine Corps. And many more of us have committed to serve on various ministry teams through the church.

But some of us have yet to commit. We have yet to follow. The question then is: will those of us who have not quite yet been on the way with Jesus, will we, like blind Bartimaeus, summon the courage, stand up and not be ashamed, be willing to give and to sacrifice and follow him on the way?

On the way down the selfless, self-giving road of discipleship;

On the way to hear and answer the cries of the disabled and the marginalized;

On the way to defend liberty on the behalf of the oppressed;

On the way to speak words of healing to the sick;

On the way to offer grace to sinners;

On the way to put our arms around the troubled and offer hope to the despairing;

On the way to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned;

On the way to Jerusalem, where resistance, and even a cross awaits.