Three’s Company – A Sermon for Holy Trinity Sunday

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         How easy it is for adults to ignore, gloss over, or to block out some of the pressing questions of faith of youth?  Even to say “I don’t know” is so much better than some flippant or derisive answer.  Today is one of the weird Sunday’s in the church calendar known as ‘Holy Trinity” Sunday. It’s a Sunday in which we come face-to-face with a mystery; the mystery of Almighty God.  Like the children who are trying to wrap their young minds around the concept of God, we too have questions about the Trinity.  Who is God?  Where is God? What is God doing?

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Frederick Buechner, who always has something witty to say about the Christian faith, describes the Trinity in his classic book, “Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC” describes the trinity in this fashion: 

If the idea of God as both Three and One seems far-fetched and confusing, look in the mirror someday. There is (a) the interior life known only to yourself and those you choose to communicate it to (the Father). There is (b) the visible face which in some measure reflects that inner life (the Son). And there is (c) the invisible power you have in order to communicate that interior life in such a way that others do not merely know about it, but know it in the sense of its becoming part of who they are (the Holy Spirit). Yet what you are looking at in the mirror is clearly and invisibly the one and only you.”

          This is one the days in the church year to ask these questions.  Our appointed readings give us a sense of what God is like.  You might say a glimpse of the Trinity; for we see Jesus, the Son of god, speaking of his father and of the unseen power of the Holy Spirit.  For those who are interested in searching for God, John’s Gospel gives us an unusual perspective.

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         Meet Nicodemus.  You know this story well.  Nicodemus is a man whose questions may have been squashed at one time or another, but he is curious about God.  He has searched for God, and went to one person whom he thought could give him a couple of answers, (or most likely more questions!)  Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews go to talk about God to Jesus by night.  No one of his social significance would take the chance of being seen with a rebel teacher. But Nicodemus was curious, so he meets with Jesus in the dark of night.

         You’ll note in verse 2 of the reading Nicodemus says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.”  Nicodemus pointed to the signs that Jesus did as evidence of his identity.  Without even asking a question, Nicodemus heard an unexpected answer about entering the kingdom of God.  “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” Jesus tells Nicodemus. 

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         New birth is the entrance into the kingdom of God.  And if it’s the entrance into the Kingdom, it must be pretty significant. To Christians, especially Lutherans, baptism is essential.  God may have other ways of bringing people into the kingdom, but if God does, the Bible doesn’t say.  Someone has said, “God has bound us to baptism, but he has not bound himself to it.”

         What is this kingdom into which we are baptized?  We know it’s not a place.  You won’t find it on a roadmap.  There are no billboards or road signs.  This kingdom is instead a matter of your heart’s allegiance.  God’s kingdom is found in the soul of every believer.  Outwardly to the secular world, the reign of God doesn’t exist.  The domain is invisible.  But the people of the reign are everywhere.  We are gathered here this morning into what we call the church or the body of Christ.  Baptism is God’s new birth, and it changes us and makes us ready to respond to God’s will. It gives us a fresh start, a new beginning. 

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         You and I make all kinds of new beginnings.  New school, new jobs, new marriage, or merely a fresh start to an old way. None of these brings us into God’s kingdom.  Only that which God provides can do it.  The Bible calls it Baptism, by water and the Spirit of God, it is God’s means to enter the kingdom.

         And baptism lasts forever because it is the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the name of God in which we baptize. It is God’s grace that saves us- and that never wears thin.  No matter how old we are when it happens, in baptism, we come before the Trinity and receive grace upon grace.  God’s goodness comes to us, washes us clean, and saves us from death and the devil. Sometimes it’s helpful to think of the church has a large swimming pool with all kinds of kids floating around in the baptismal waters. 

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         Because every ministry we do in the name of Christ, we do from the waters of our baptism.  And our baptism isn’t a spectacle.  It is a sacrament featuring God – the Holy Trinity.  That means the spotlight is on God’s love and grace for us, each and every time.  And each of us can be part of the lighting crew that shines forth God’s love. Thanks be to God.

        

Life Interrupted: A Bad Thing?

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         Mystic Meister Eckhard once said, “To Grasp God in all things – this is the sign of your new birth.” Being in love with the ordinary and the sameness is the challenge to see God present in each and every moment. Each morning in the same place watching the rising of the son from the same house, hearing the same birds awaken, and to realize how inexhaustibly rich and different each moment is. That is the challenge that Eckhard speaks of; the problem to see God in the most ordinary moments, not in the moments of the magnitude of emotions.

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Martin Luther in his theology of vocation, to points at encountering the divine through our labors and occupations. Where we are called to serve and earn our living is the place where God meets us. It is our duty and delight..” so says the Eucharistic liturgy we seek to glorify God through both our household duties, work in the fields, and the humming of a song in our head. When we invite God into our labor, we begin to see how the most ordinary of job or task is actually serving others. Farmers in the combine all day are not just collect a check or harvesting corn when we grasp to understand this, we realize we are helping our neighbors by providing food and substance to a hungry world.

But we must recognize what we are doing at the moment. Otherwise, we will have faith to see God at work in all things. It’s so easy for us to miss as we are all distracted and unencouraged to look for God at work. But God is there.

That is the holy disruption that faced the disciples as they were trying to make sense of what happened to their teacher and Lord. The Living Lord disrupts them as they were huddled in fear and doubt to transform the moment. “Touch and See,” Jesus invites them to make this moment real. They want validation of what God has done and is doing through Jesus in spite of the world’s attempt to crush the power of the divine.

Lutheran Theologian and pastor in Nazi Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writes in his seminal novel, “Life Together”[1]

“We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God.

God will constantly be crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions. We may pass themby, preoccupied with our more important tasks. . . . It is a strange fact that Christians and even ministers frequently consider their work so important and urgent that they will allow nothing to disturb them.

They think they are doing God a service in this, but actually, they are disdaining God’s “crooked yet straight path.”

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And in the gospel, as the disciples stood in wonder at the Holy Disruption of Jesus dwelling and dining with them, that that is when they started to make sense of it. Jesus sets them straight on the law of Moses and the understanding of scripture and makes them the witness of God.

Isn’t it just like God to show up an unknown time and only after reflecting on the scriptures and the Word of God then we realize, like the disciples how God was working in our life? Discernment is a practice of discovery and it’s a practice that is done by having spiritual conversations with other people. Wondering what God’s call for my life is? Ask someone and share a conversation with them about what you believe you are being called into and then prepare for Jesus to be present in the conversation just like he was with the disciples following that first Easter.

We are a distracted people. If we are not thinking about God at work in the world, in our busy-ness, we will surely miss the moving of the Holy Spirit among us. But let me pose this question to you this morning.  What if, instead, of our spiritual lives becoming what amounts to just another thing we should do, what if what we learned to experience as a disruption is actually the Holy Spirit trying to grab our attention? Rather than viewing all outside interruption as the enemy of productivity and creativity, what if we considered our lives as expansive containers for the sake of the other? If we open ourselves to holy interruption, we may usher in newness, revelation, enlightenment, and story to inform our work and life in ways that otherwise would just not be possible.

Interruption Is God’s Invitation | Desiring God, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/interruption-is-god-s-invitation (accessed April 16, 2018).

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What if we learned to understand that when God wants to break through and speak to our lives, but we are too busy, we acknowledge the moments of spiritual interruption and take the time to deepen our relationship. What I am suggesting is those holy interruptions are God’s invitation. God is inviting us to see him all around us, in the lives of others, in our conversations, in our serving those in need. Interruption is not merely a matter of our heart developing patience; it’s about experiencing real life. It is one of God’s ways of waking us up to what’s around us to see there’s more to be done than our self-appointed tasks for the day, as important as they may seem.

And there are many ways God might interrupt our lives. God might disrupt our life when we are called to share a portion of our time and resources with Christ’s church, or showing up to worship Christ in his church. Not for necessarily my own sake, but maybe my presence in worship will bring someone joy. God might interrupt our life by speaking up for what we believe and offering up testimony by how we live life and what values we hold. There are so many ways that God interrupts life and tries to capture our attention. Unfortunately, often times, so many brushes off the interruption and move along.

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Interruption is God’s enhancement of our craft and our work, and his tender way of encouraging his creatures to be a part of the kingdom come. Welcome the One who stood among the disciples and invited peace to be among them and be a witness for God interruption. Disciple our trying to tune out the call, God will keep interrupting each of our lives. What might God be trying to tell you?

Amen.  

[1]Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John W Doberstein, Life together: the classic exploration of Christian community, 2009.P. 23.

Pouting in the Pit or Preaching to the People?

If I had been assigned the task of putting together the Old Testament, it would probably look a lot different than the one we use today.  First of all, I would take the opportunity to get rid of some of the folks I’ve never liked.

I know David is a pretty significant character, given that he is the ancestor of Jesus and all, but the whole infidelity thing has always bothered me—so, either David would have to go, or I would revise the story to take out his transgression.

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I would keep Deborah, for sure.  And maybe write a little more about her— we don’t really have enough female leaders in the Bible, right? 

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Elijah and his wonder-workings are too good to pass up, so he’d stay.

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Elisha, on the other hand, would have to go. After all, I think it is highly inappropriate to retaliate just because some little boy has called you – ‘baldy.’ (- 2 Kings 2:32-35)

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In my version of the Old Testament, Amos would stay with his beautiful metaphors of God’s justice rolling down like cascading waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

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Hosea would have go—his divine marriage metaphor just doesn’t work for me. —    (Hosea 1:2-3:5)

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And some of the smaller, minor prophetic books seem redundant, so I’d probably cut some of them and add someone a little more modern like Dorothy Day or Martin Luther King Jr.

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But the person I’d be least likely to include in my canon would be Jonah.  Sure, it makes for a great story, being swallowed by a fish.  But if you look at his character, it just doesn’t meet what I like to think of as good family values.

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Let’s see, the first time he ‘got the call’ from the Lord, Jonah went running the other direction.

In fact, he tried to hide from God by getting in a ship with a bunch of sailors and going to sea. Jonah must have known what God had in mind.  God must have known that God wasn’t going to cause destruction upon those Ninevehites.  Jonah must have known that God was merciful, even to those who run away.  And Jonah, in his indignation, did not want the good news to come to people like them.  Jonah thought he could keep the good news from the Ninevehites.  So he wimped out and ran as far away as he could from God’s call.

Okay, maybe not the first place that I would go if I were hiding from God, but this is Jonah’s story, not mine.  Not only does Jonah not listen to God, but he tries to make things better by getting the sailors to dump him overboard.

Jonah goes into the ocean only to be swallowed by a giant fish.

I don’t recall enough of my high school biology classes to remember much about fish anatomy.  I presume they must have ample stomachs.

But one big enough to hold a person, for three days? 

Or maybe Jonah was just a petite person?

I’d be curious to know what the Biblical literalists do with this one.

At any rate, Jonah’s marine home is short-lived, as he is literally ‘vomited‘ by the fish onto the shores of Nineveh.  God comes to him a second time, as we have in today’s lesson.

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I wonder why God is so patient with little Jonah here. It’s equally as unbelievable as Jonah’s being swallowed up by the fish.  He’s already proven himself to be a bit of a weasel and reasonably fool-hardy to boot.  Why God didn’t look for another more qualified person to prophecy to Nineveh?

But God tells Jonah, again, to go to Nineveh.  Get up, God says, Go to Nineveh and proclaim the message. 

So Jonah, grudgingly, picks himself up out of the sand and wipes off the fish goo.  His fists are clenched, his face twisted, as he stomps off to do the ministry he was called to do.

We never get to find out why it is that Jonah is so opposed to going to Nineveh.  We don’t know why these people, the Ninevehites, who were so eager to hear good news, were the object of Jonah’s disdain.

Why did Jonah dislike them so?  Why is it that sharing the good news was so awful for Jonah, that he would have preferred the cold sea to ministering to them? Was it because the Ninevites were different than Jonah?  Was this an ancient ‘race problem’?

Perhaps Jonah wanted to claim God for himself, and not share him with those of a different lifestyle and culture?  Was this an ancient case of ‘affirmative-action’?  Did Jonah think that these non-Jews were getting special treatment?

Maybe Jonah was upset because he had been faithful to the covenant, keeping the law, and earning the love of God, while the Ninevehites—who had done none of these things, were about to receive this very same love of God.

Was he mad because he had played by the rules, the same rules that had gotten him ahead in life?  Was Jonah jealous that God would waste his time on people he refused to get to know? 

Jonah, in his refusal to go to Nineveh, was saying that he knew more than God.  Surely, you don’t want me to go there, to those people, Jonah was speaking.  You wouldn’t want me to spend time with people who don’t share my same values, could you?

God, Jonah must have been thinking, you must have misspoken.  I’ll just wait over here for a while until you come to your senses.  Indeed, your message can’t be for people like them.

I said earlier, how I would choose to keep Jonah, among others, out of the Hebrew Scriptures.  I mean, his story is disturbing, perhaps too distressing. There is a part of Jonah’s story that hits a little too close to home.

There is a part of Jonah’s story that looks a little too much like myself, like someone I wish I were not.

It’s the part of me that get jealous when I hear other people’s good news.  It’s the part of me that gets angry when it feels like others get rewarded for not following the rules.  It’s the part of me that would instead judge a person based on stereotypes then get to know her for myself.

And its this same part of me that fakes happiness for a friend when deep down I am scowling with envy.  It’s this little, but persistent part of me that would instead remain in my insecurity than enjoy the Nineveh’s of the world. 

It’s the part of me that would rather pout in the cold stomach of a fish than celebrate what God has done. 

There is this pit, deep inside of me that resists being seen.  There is an ugliness that shows itself when one’s guard is down.

And it is from this pit that we find ourselves doing things for which we are later ashamed, like feeling for our wallets when we walk past a person of color, like only having friends who look like us, like thinking less of immigrants or the working poor.

These shameful parts of ourselves show themselves at unexpected moments.  We try to hide them by insisting that, ‘yes, I have black friends,’ or ‘skin color doesn’t matter to me.’ But our ugliness keeps us, like Jonah, sitting in the pit of a fish, holding us prison to our jealous fears and insecurities. 

But God doesn’t want us to stay in these pits.  God doesn’t want us to stay in the stomach of a fish when there are places like Nineveh that have yet to hear the good news.  God offers us a way out of our hatred, our isolation, and our shame.

And God doesn’t want us to rewrite scripture or pretend that there are not parts of us yearning for connection and security.  God knows that we are held prisoner to shame and envy. But God does not want us to live that way.  God does not want us to keep on living in the stomach of a fish!

That’s why God sent Jesus to us.  That’s why God offers us a new way to live, a new way that doesn’t see envy before humanity.  God teaches us this new way to live. God frees us from our pits of despair in the simplest of ways.  We don’t need to stay bound by our ugliness and insignificance.

Because God loves it away. 

God loved little Jonah, stuck in a fish, insignificant next to giant Nineveh, the giant sea, and the giant fish.  God found little Jonah, who had tossed himself away to sea, who was afraid of all that life had to offer and returned him to safety.

God seeks us out, especially when we feel insignificant, especially when we are isolated, and returns us to dry land.  God loves us out of our shame.  God loves us out of our insecurity and our envy. God loves away any ugliness that may be buried deep inside.

But the story doesn’t stop here. 

God rescues us from the pit, so that we may be freed to go to places like Nineveh, that we may be able to love others as we have been loved.

God rescues us from the isolation that we may connect with others.  And those of us, like Jonah, who know what it feels to be trapped in the pit of a stomach don’t forget this feeling of insignificance.

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But instead of being bound by this feeling, we use it to seek out others who may feel or who may be treated that way.

God sought us out, so we can do nothing else but seek others out, and share with them this great love that has restored our humanity and given us life.

Because with God’s love, no one is insignificant, no one is shamed, and all are made whole.

Amen.

 

God’s Great Reversal – Matthew 20:1-16

I’m going to share a truth that we know is true, but for some reason, it’s easier for us to deny it.  The truth I’m speaking of is that sometimes life just isn’t fair.  It’s a reality that sooner or later we’re all going to face.  It’s best that we are learning this fact while you are in your first half of life than waiting until old age to discover this truth.  In fact, you can learn this truth in nursery school – Sometimes lives deals us lemons.

Sometimes that’s the way things happen, isn’t it?  Sometimes life isn’t fair.  So we learn to deal with the unfairness.  So, let me tie this life reality in with the Gospel text today.  It’s a crucial point that I don’t want you to miss in the text.  Saying life isn’t fair is not the same as saying that God isn’t fair for two reasons.  First, of all, because God doesn’t owe you and me anything at all.  Like Luther said on his deathbed, “It’s true.  We’re all beggars.”  And second, God’s justice doesn’t work the way the world’s justice works.

Saying life is not fair is not the same as saying God isn’t fair because God doesn’t owe us anything at all.  In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, the very opposite is correct.  We owe God everything:  our time, our talents, and our treasures.  The very life that lives inside each of us has been gifted to us; even the breaths that you take, the clothes on your back, the food that is prepared for you, even your health to some extent is a gift from God.   The simple fact is:  God doesn’t owe us anything.

As active disciples of Christ, we commit our lives to God.  We resist the urge not to show up or to sleep in on our Sunday morning to worship God.  We spend our hard-earned money and resources to support the work and ministry of our congregation.  We spend time in prayer and the study of Scripture when we could be golfing or some recreation.  Our confirmation students could do something with their one hour on Wednesday nights other than talking about faith formation.  You see, as active Christians, we follow Jesus, the landowner into the vineyard, where we are called to do the work of God.

For us, active disciples of Christ, things may not always seem the way we would like.  It doesn’t seem fair to us that some deserve God’s grace when they don’t even show up or participate.  We are the ones, after all, who’ve done most of the work, we tell ourselves.  The laborers in the parable that began picking the first hour of the day picked more grapes than those who started picking the last moment.  If that were to happen today, there would be an uproar; labor strikes and unions would lash out. It is only right that the reward for our work should be consistent with the time we put into our efforts.

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But this parable has nothing to do with economics, at least in the sense that we understand the economy.  It is not a description of how employers should treat workers.  It is, after all, a description of how God works in the kingdom of heaven.  God’s goodness may or may not be entirely understandable.  We don’t fully understand the grace of God.  And based on this parable, we may indeed think that God doesn’t operate fairly.

God’s not fair, according to our limited human reasoning.  In fact, if we put ourselves in the place of the laborers who started at sunrise or midmorning or even early afternoon, we have missed the point of the parable.  Jesus is the one who works from sunup to sundown.  Jesus is the one who has borne the burden of the day and heat.  Only Jesus has earned us salvation.  The grace is that God still calls us towards God’s self and gives us the full wage.   God offers you the promise of salvation, not because you have worked hard enough but because Jesus has done it for you.

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God gives us more than we can ever earn.  The Bible teaches that the wages of sin are death, but it is God who gives life.  The laborers in the vineyard all received a full day’s pay regardless of the hours they worked.  We have all been given salvation, irrespective of the sins we’ve been under.

And perhaps even more remarkable is that God has entrusted us to do God’s work.  In baptism, we’ve been given the work of a lifetime, and at the table, God renews us and then sends us out as labors to plant the seeds of God’s word, to speak to those who have never heard and to proclaim the word anew to those who have fallen away.

ripe-47423__480.jpgRemember that the kingdom of heaven is a gift, and in a way, we’re all latecomers, aren’t we? In Christ, it’s never too late to come home to the mercy of God. Thanks, be to God.  Amen.

 

 

THE WEARY WAY: Reflections on the Road to Emmaus Story – LUKE 24:13-35

The Road to Emmaus from Luke 24:13-35

Have you ever met anyone famous? Or maybe somewhat famous? Or perhaps just have been in the same airport or restaurant as someone well known?

In early April, I attended the opening day celebration for baseball by attending the home opener for the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.

 

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Waiting in line to enter Busch Stadium on Opening Day 2017.

 

This year’s home-opener featured a team *from Chicago* that won the World Series in 2016, and, is a team that most in St. Louis would consider the Cardinals greatest rival.

The energy on opening day was incredible. People filled with spirit and cheer because of the return of America’s “favorite past-time” following a long offseason.

Folks are everywhere around Busch Stadium for opening day. Many are across the street to gather in the BallPark Village waiting for the gates to open and the crowds to begin to file in on Opening Day, find their seats and wait for the greatest living Cardinals and the current team to be introduced. It’s quite the spectacle with all the Clydesdale Horses prancing along the warning track making their way to home plate.

 

 

Despite my lack of intimate knowledge of the appearance of former Cardinal greats, I convinced myself while standing in the BallPark Village that on the second-floor balcony, I spotted Bruce Sutter, a pitcher from the 1970-80’s who arguably developed and perfected the split-finger fastball pitch.  Bruce was standing near the VIP club waving down to the crowds with a scepter in his hand.

 

For many seasoned Cardinal fans, this would not be so remarkable a feat as Sutter is well known in the St. Louis Area.  And yet,  I had a sense of pride in my ability to recognize this well-known figure based on his appearance from a distance.

So, if I, a casual, yet passionate, fan could recognize a Cardinal great somewhat out of context, I’d like to think that I could have spotted the risen Jesus Christ if he had chosen to accompany me just a few days after his resurrection.

Moreover, you might say to me that I’m relying more on my own ability to recognize someone, and while that’s true, the Holy Spirit also assists us in “seeing” the personhood of others.

The Holy Spirit opened the eyes of two early disciples of Jesus shortly after his resurrection on a rural road as they walked.

As Luke, tells the story, we, the reader get to be in on the joke. Luke says of these two travelers, returning home, perhaps, after Jesus’ death and resurrection. As listeners of this story, we are stunned to find out that anyone could fail to recognize the risen Christ, especially two of his closest followers.

But that is just what happens. Cleopas and his companion, just happen to be joined by Jesus on their walk to Emmaus. And instead of instantly recognizing who he is, they take him for a stranger. And they fail to figure out who he is until the end of today’s lesson when Jesus breaks bread with them. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

 

 

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“The Road to Emmaus”  artwork by He Qi. 1997. 

As easy as it is to kind of laugh at poor Cleopas and his companion, thinking of them as fools who don’t know their leader, I must say I just may be able to recognize myself—and maybe a few others in their plight.

Cleopas and this fellow traveler without a name, I sometimes imagine her as his wife, were among the faithful. They were friends with the 12 disciples, we learn later, which suggest they were among the inner circle.

Their statement of faith, which they somewhat humorously share with the stranger-Jesus, uses all the right language, hits all the highlights. Surely, they would have passed any confirmation test on their first try.

Cleopas and companion were dedicated and faithful followers. They had certainly been to church Easter Sunday. Well, not just to church—they probably helped cook the churches’ Easter brunch. Surely, they had attended all the Lenten services, probably helped with the Wednesday meals, most likely had washed more than their fair share of dishes.

They were the type of couple that we can imagine as dedicated and faithful. The sort of people to volunteer, to show up, to serve on the committee after committee, the kind to come to church not just on Easter but 2 Sundays into it. And I imagine that they had become weary.

In all their efforts to be faithful, their vision had become blurred. They missed seeing the most famous person. Perhaps their dedication had gotten in the way. Maybe the stress of leadership, their stubbornness, their investment in an outcome had slowly squeezed Jesus out of the picture. So that when he showed up, they had no idea who he was.

What sort of objects blur your vision? What is grabbing so much of your attention that you are unable to realize that Jesus is right next to you? What is keeping your life out of focus?

Perhaps Cleopas and his companion were caught off-guard by the trauma of Jesus’ death. Perhaps this experience was too much to handle, more than they had bargained for, their grief eating them alive.

I wonder what kind of stress losing not only a dear friend but a leader can cause. Isolation? Need for distance? An overwhelming desire just to forget everything and leave town?

This is the part of the lesson that begins to look familiar, at least to me. Cleopas and his companion remain the center of activity. Disheartened at what has happened. Stuck in the middle of the story, unable to see through to the end.

They look for an escape, a way out, one that doesn’t require believing in something so extraordinary. They look, to perhaps, shed themselves of idealist principles. They can’t take any more disappointment or disillusionment. Wanting to get away from a life of faith which brings on struggle, despair, and cynicism.
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And how familiar is this road—the one that makes us believe change is unlikely, one that drains our energy, one that makes us feel any real work done will not make a difference.

One thing the faithful know is that the life of the faithful can get weary. It can feel pointless. This weariness can erode our hope; it can blind our sense of purpose, can diminish our drive to keep at it.

And it is just then that Jesus shows up, re-enters our lives.

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I like this Jesus… this Jesus that Luke writes about. It’s not a neon-tee-shirt Jesus or an extra-large billboard on I-80 Jesus. This is a reserved Jesus.  

Jesus is a little cunning and a lot clever.

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A Jesus who bides his time, very willing to let Cleopas and company do the talking, a Jesus who is not just offering answers but is willing, encouraging really, of Cleopas and companion to come to their conclusions.

What kind of presence draws you within? What type of conversations keeps you up past your bedtime? What kind of stranger is so compelling that you can’t get enough? That, however, long or short your conversation is, you are left wanting more?

We don’t get to know Jesus’ motivation for not blurting out that he indeed is the risen one. But we do know that because of his actions, his ability to remain mysterious, Cleopas and his companion are left wanting more.

They practically beg Jesus to stay with them. Jesus has listened to them. He has taught them. They are compelled to stay with him, to be close to him. They invite Jesus to stay.

And that’s when it happens. As Jesus breaks bread, their hearts turn, re-turn to him, their eyes are re-opened and they re-congnize. They re-know Jesus once again.

If you are one of those people who can recognize Jesus in everything, in every moment, in every person, then you have a lot to offer the rest of us. But if you are like Cleopas and his companion, like me, like so many others, and you can’t always make out Jesus, even when you have your glasses on and he is right in front of you, this story brings good news.

Our vision may not be perfect, but Jesus’ is.

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He comes over and sits right beside us. He IS patient with us. He listens to us. Wants to hear what we say. He recognizes us from a distance.

Even more shocking, he recognizes us close-up. Despite, maybe because of our blemishes, our imperfections, our choices that look ugly, no matter the lighting. Jesus knows who we are, comes to us, recognizes us, and walks along on our journey with us.
He is companion, listener, teacher, and provider. He promises to show himself so that we may recognize him and be witness to what he has done and is doing in our lives.

Today we get to experience this promise. Today we welcome Cameron Hill into the fold. We promise on his behalf to tell him what we know, to show him what we have seen.

About Jesus in this world; about Jesus in our lives. About a hope so high we cannot avoid it. About a love that is always gathering us in, despite, and especially when we try to run away from it.

And then we do what we do every Sunday.

We come to the table for nourishment. Because when everything else has gone astray, when hope seems lost, when God feels distant, when disillusionment begins to steal our souls, Jesus opens our eyes and shows his love to us.

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Crumb by crumb, drop by drop, God gives us something to chew on, liquid love to restore our souls.

And with a restored vision, we may continue our journey, sharing this meal, hearts burning with love, to all that may receive it.

Amen.

Easter- Evidence or Experience? A Sermon for Easter

 

The Bible makes a definite point that Jesus died.  He hung on the cross until he was dead.   It wasn’t a spiritual death, but a physical one.  His body was dead.  The heart of man stopped beating.  Furthermore, when he was taken down from the cross by the soldiers, they made sure there was no mistake about it – they speared him in the side to drain the blood.  Eventually, the body of Jesus found its way to the tomb of a wealthy man, Joseph, because Jesus had no tomb of his own.  The body was laid to rest in the grave, and the tomb was sealed off from the world, placing a stone in front of the grave, the guards were ordered to watch the tomb to protect the order of the empire from the people’s uprising.

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Everyone thought the story was over.

The death of Jesus on the cross was like a baseball announcer thanking everyone for coming out  to watch the game following a disappointing home team loss,  but it’s now time to return to your cars and depart for your homes.

The game was over. Even those who followed Jesus had already returned home try to make sense of all the events that took place.

 

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Then early on that third day, the gospel accounts record that the women – Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb to out of respect for their spiritual leader to anoint the dead body with oil and spices so to remove the stench of death. We are not sure what the disciples thought about their teacher, but no could have suspected that he rose from the grave.  That’s just not humanly possible, nor does it follow any logic of the natural order!  As Jesus hung on the cross, folks though he was just one more honorable person who had said and done some amazing things, but who died like everyone else.

 

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The Bible says that early on that first Easter when the women arrived at the tomb, they met an angel of the Lord, who came and rolled the stone away.  The women boldly make their way to the tomb when the angel appeared the men, the guards were the ones who stood in fear and were rendered useless.   “Don’t be afraid,” the angel told the women.

You remember those words, “Don’t be frightened!” Don’t you?  They happen all the way back when at the beginning of the gospel at Jesus’ birth when the angel speaks to the shepherds on the hillside.   This time the words are articulated to the women as he announces the good news of Jesus resurrection.  “Jesus isn’t here.  Come and look for yourselves. And then, go and tell…”

And then Jesus appeared to them, calms them, and tells the women to continue to Galilee and to tell the men to go to Galilee where his brothers will see him.

You have before you and have heard for yourselves the story of Jesus resurrection.  None of us were there that day, the gospel writers left us this evidence of the resurrection.    This morning I want you to know that there is a vast difference between the evidence of Easter in God’s Word and the experience of Easter.

This Easter morning, I can stand before you and offer you every possible view of the empty tomb.  I can try to explain to you in human ways in which the empty tomb might be possible, and I can point you to all the evidence of Easter, with all the emotional fanfare of the celebration of the Easter season. But what I cannot do for you that you should decide for yourself is to experience the empty tomb.

What I’m getting at here is the experience of an empty tomb to deepen our faith and trust in the resurrection of Jesus.  Evidence only can do so much, but the important step is going to the empty tomb of Jesus for yourself.

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The Easter story was never really meant to be argued about if it’s true, or real, or relevant, a waste of time, or otherwise.   Look at those Easter Lilies; they don’t argue; they just bloom.  The changing of the seasons doesn’t argue or listen to our popular opinion on the matter, the seasons just come.  Same as the setting of the sun and the rising of the moon.  It just is part of a natural process.  Around these parts, we could say the same when a farmer buys a bag of seeds and plants it in the earth.  It just does with it does without argument.  The same thing is true for music and beauty.  Sure, we have our favorite styles of music, and each of us has a differing appreciation for the beautiful things in life, but music and beauty are meant to inspire us and beckon us into a deeper appreciation of life.

The Easter story was made to invite us to experience the resurrection of Jesus as being true.  It’s intended to invite us into a deeper understanding of God’s love and grace.  The Easter story is only genuine when we experience the resurrection of Jesus and the impact that resurrection has on our collective life together.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve had the occasion to proclaim God’s Word to many who have lost a dearly departed loved ones. And one simple verse that we preachers proclaim at the time of death is from the Gospel of John 14 in which Jesus assures us: “In my father’s house there are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go and prepare a place for you?”  It’s Jesus way of saying to his disciples, believe me!  Trust me!  I’m not pulling your leg.  “And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may also be,” Jesus tells us there will be a reunion and a resurrection.

Like the fear experience by the guard at the tomb on that first Easter morning, death can and does create much anxiety in our life.   The Apostle Paul says that death is our last enemy that Christ has defeated for us.  But also like the words “Do not be afraid” that appear at the beginning of the gospel and Jesus’ resurrection, on the other side of all our lives at our birth, the prospect of coming and begin born into this world must be scary.  Think about it.  There is no way we can be born into this world understanding all the differences and ways of being.  We live without air in the womb.  How then can we live with it and breath on our own?  We live without light in the womb, yet how can we imagine the world without light?   In a certain way, birth seems like it is a death, wrenched away from all that sustains us in the womb.

But in the miracle of creation, God has prepared a place in this world for us.

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They say that a newborn’s first experience of the world, our first awareness in this life is of the strong arms that surround us and keep us warm; eyes that consider ours with love and tenderness.  Someone had anticipated our coming.  Created is a place for us to dwell.  Unknown to us we began to develop an awareness of our eyes and start to see the light, unknown to us was that we had a pair of lungs that we would need to breathe, ears to hear.  If God so carefully planned our entry into this world, what would make us think that he would have anything otherwise prepared for when we depart? Remember Jesus saying: “I go to prepare a place for you.

Sisters and brothers – Easter isn’t something that we can prove happened.  At the end of the day, Easter isn’t about the evidence of Jesus resurrection.  Faith, after all, is not provable.

Think about the last time you cried.   For some of us it may have been as recently as this week, others we may have gone for an extended period without the need to shed tears.   What is a tear?  It depends, doesn’t it? I can give you a dictionary definition of crying, but I’m not speaking to your personal experience, am I? Here’s the evidence:

A tear is a drop of the watery saline fluid continually secreted by the gland between the surface of the eye and the eyelids, which serves to moisten and lubricate these parts and keeps them clear of foreign particles.” 

That’s a tear?  Really?

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I give you no more evidence of Easter – I want to invite you to be aware of Easter and experience God working through the power of our final enemy –death- to create life.  Ask a child, “What does Easter mean to you?” and she might say (as my 4-year-old told me at Aldi) this week, “Easter is about the Easter Bunny and the chocolate rabbit.”  Ask a teenager, “What does Easter mean?” and he might answer that Easter means, “Christ rose from the dead.”  And if you ask a mature person of faith the same question, “What does Easter mean?”  That person might reply:

“Easter means that I have only begun to live.” 

The good news of Easter isn’t only that it is a celebration of a future gift in another life, but that it is ours to experience right now!   Today!

Easter is getting in touch with that same power that brought Jesus out of the tomb and into life.

Come to the tomb and see for yourselves!  You don’t have to fear like the guard at the tomb, but stand strong with the women – the Mary’s.  Don’t bend down in shame, hold your heads up high and proud.  And for Pete’s sake, don’t look for evidence of the resurrection.  It’s not there, at least in any form we can prove to the world! Just trust that experience of transformation will happen without anything we think, say, or do.  It’s all God!  So, embrace the resurrection moments.  Embrace the experience of the Lord who is risen and alive!  And who comes to offer to walk with us.

No matter what else comes our way.  Christ goes with us!  Amen.

A New Identity – Jesus and the Woman at the Well

Jacob’s well stood at the crossroads outside of town in Sychar in Samaria as the scripture reading tells us.  Though it still head good, clean drinking water in reservoir, by the time Jesus was around it was more of shrine than a well.  According to the Old Testament tradition, Jacob in the ancient Israelite past bought this land, dug the well and left it to Joseph, his favorite son.  Joseph, when he died, was carried back from Egypt and buried there. 

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But this history meant nothing to the woman who was at the well in our gospel text.  She was there in the noon day heat to get a drink of water.  The well was only a drinking fountain to her.  Being outside of town, the well was remote, not many people went around the well, especially in the noon day heat.  She had it all to herself, at least she thought.  No women in her right mind would come to draw water in the noon day heat.  That’s the way the woman wanted it, far away from all the town’s gossip and watchful eye.

She had managed to make a mess of her life.  As far back as she could remember, there had always been a restless urge in her, an unsatisfied longing, and a thirst that could not be quenched.  She went through life as one possessed, looking for love in all the wrong places.  She had married the wrong men, eating and drinking and being merry.  She made promises and quickly had to break them.  She was used and because of her abuse she lost her self-esteem.  She lost herself.

So when she arrived at the well that hot mid-day afternoon, it never occurred to her that the man she saw there would reach out in her direction.  He was a man, a Jew, maybe even a rabbi.  She was a woman, a Samaritan, living in sin.  The wall of separation between them was high.  Women and men didn’t speak in public; especially a Samaritan woman and a man of the Jewish faith.

images“Give me a drink,” this man said to her.  And in the discussion that followed, this woman at the well in Samaria found both her true self and God. Jesus speaks to the woman at the well longer than he does to anyone else in John’s gospel.  Longer than he talks to any of the disciples, longer than he talks to his accusers, longer than he talks to his own family.  In fact, this Samaritan woman is the first person Jesus revels his true identity to in the Gospel of John.  She is the first outsider to guess who Jesus is and to tell others about him.  She is the first evangelist, John’s Gospel tell us, and her testimony about Jesus brings others to faith in Christ.

line-in-sandIn Jesus’ presence she found herself and the reality of her own sin. 

Jesus must have had a way with cutting through the small talk and getting to the heart of the issue.  He looked into her eye, and she could not put off the guilt.  And so in a moment of complete disclosure, this woman, who was considered untouchable by the divine and the Son of God stand face to face with no pretense about their identity.  Both stand fully lit at high noon for a bright moment in time, everything that separates this woman and Jesus fall forgotten to the ground.

When Jesus came, the woman of Sychar found in him peace for her troubled spirit, answers to her questions, and the living water of God’s forgiveness and grace for her soul.  Jesus spoke words of hope to her:  “Those who drink of the water I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”  But even more than these words was his presence—the calm strength of Jesus, the sound of authority in his voice, the assurance of his love.  She must have been assured that Jesus was God.  And somehow, she stood face-to-face with him.

I’m sure that the gospel writer, John intended this story to follow the story of Jesus and Nicodemus.  We heard that story last week.  After encountering Jesus in the middle of the night, Nicodemus (a leader of the Jews), falls silent when he learns who Jesus truly is, and then in the very next chapter of John’s gospel, we see an irreligious fallen woman at the water well when she takes an unexpected step:  she is the one who acknowledges Jesus as the messiah, not Nicodemus.  She is the one who remains in the light of the day and spreads the good news of Jesus.  She runs out after meeting him and tells others about the man she just met, bringing them to the good news of Christ, and as a result of her testimony, the Bible says that many came to believe in Jesus.

It’s as if John intended to place these two stories back to back for the reader to see the difference between the two.  You might recall that Nicodemus meets with Jesus in the dark for fear that others would discover he met with this itinerate preacher.  But, here is this fallen woman meeting with Jesus in the light of the day at noon.

And notice what Jesus does.  He deals with this woman’s thirst, and not her sin.  He reached out to her, not to cast shame and send her further away from God’s presence, but Jesus empowered her, he literally transformed her life.

Few of the people around Jesus have as much to tell about him and his effect upon them as the woman at the well in Samaria. 

The truth is, we are all like the woman at the well, and we all thirst for the Living Water that God provides.  We thirst for a savior who will meet us where we are on our level, not in some far away distant space, but a God who is like us.  The beauty of the story of the Samaritan woman at the well is that God reaches out to all and welcomes everyone to taste the living water.  No matter who you are, what you’ve done or haven’t done, you are all invited.  So come, accept your invitation and come.  Receive a drink way down in the well of Living Water of God’s grace. For in Christ, we are forgiven, redeemed, and refreshed by this living water.

In Jesus name.  Amen. 

 

The Good News We All Want to Hear – A Sermon for Christmas Eve

The first words that announced the birth of Jesus were not words that expressed great joy and glory.  They were not the words, “Behold, a Child is born this day…”   they weren’t “Peace be with you” either.

The Bible makes it clear that the first words that announced the birth of the baby Jesus were, “Do not be afraid.”

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Luke 2 – An account of the birth of Jesus. 

Jesus birth occurred during a time when there was great persecution and threats to the Jewish people. It was a time when people lived in great fear because of the Roman occupation and oppression.  There was much more than just the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire… many feared the census that was decreed by the Emperor, Augustus and his authority granted by the Empire.  Still others feared for their lives, wondering when they would eat their next meal.  Fear for their family, despairing over the future and whether their children would have a life of fullness and meaning.

And not only that, there were many skeptics’ who spoke out regarding the established order of the Jewish society.

All this fear and anxiety makes its way into the story of Christmas through what was perhaps the most vulnerable people of the day – those who shepherd the livestock.  The shepherds, undoubted, were afraid of the sudden appearance of the angels and the glory of the Lord that shone around them.  Then, as it is now, such appearances of angelic beings are not every day events.

That– seemingly ordinary night– there upon a Galilean hillside, the shepherds kept watch over their flocks.   We can’t know what was in their hearts and thoughts, but can only imagine that there had to be something more to life.  Fears and anxiety about being in the wilderness alone, about personal safety, economic safety, societal safety.   Perhaps, just when they may have had enough fear, then the angelic hosts come and heap yet another layer of fear upon them.  “Don’t be afraid.” 

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And with those words, then the announcement comes that there will be great joy for people of the world.  Born is the messiah, the Christ.  And, at least for the shepherds, the even greater news that he is one of them…  He was born in a manger and wrapped up in scraps of cloth from what was found lying around.

The bible says, the shepherds when from their hillside position and traveled to Bethlehem to see the baby and his parents.  When they say for themselves, they made know all that they had seen.  In this baby, Jesus, there was a source of great hope.  Perhaps the message of the angels and the sight of the baby Jesus lessened their fear and anxiety of things to come.

Most of the fears that were around in ancient times have not been erased in our day.  Countless numbers of people still struggle for daily bread and the uncertainty of work; we worry about our children, families and for safety; we fear the unknown.

And in many cases, the fear has only intensified over the past two thousand years since the first Christmas.  This past decade has a host of founded and unfounded fears and threats for those of us who are Americans.  The threats and fears of terrorism, immigration, economic uncertainty, and a changing climate are real.  Our public discourse mirrors our fear, often degenerating into rage and putting down others who disagree with us.  Yes, we still have much to fear.

Fear, in many cases, is a natural and necessary instinct.  But when it traps us into believing that the best has already come, it prevents us from the seeing a vision of the glorious and forthcoming Light that is trying to break into this old hurt and broken world.

This Christmas, as it was for the shepherds, Jesus comes to the world not eliminate our fear and anxieties, but to enable us to a more life-giving response to what is happening in the world around us.  Let us not be naïve to believe that the shepherds fear melted away when they heard the angelic pronouncement of the birth of Jesus proclaiming, “Do not be afraid.”  But these shepherds after hearing these words, did not flee the scene, run and through their necks in the sand and hid; instead they “went with haste” the things that had taken place and to tell others what had taken place.

This witness of the shepherds leads us to consider our own fears.  What are they? And how might we respond to the fears we all face? How can we respond not with a “flight or fight” response, but with (and out of a place of) love? As the one who are called to share the Good News of the birth of the Prince of Peace, we also proclaim that no matter what the future may hold, our fear does not get the last world.

The angelic host announcement still abides.  “Do not be afraid.”  Later in the story of Jesus, at an empty tomb, to women who visit a tomb they believed to hold the dead body of this baby we celebrate this night, we hear again the words, “Do not be afraid… He is not here, for he has been raised.”

Hear again those great words of wisdom and hope… “Do not be afraid.”  Spoken from a voice that brings us great hope and liberation, but also a voice that starts in the dark of night by meeting the shepherds (and us) in our darkness and addressing our fears.

May the shepherd’s words be enough for us this Christmas as they announce God’s better way in Jesus Christ.  For the angel comes here, too, to stand among us.  “Don’t be afraid,” they say.

God is with you, so, for God’s sake, do not be afraid.

Peace, blessings and joy for a most wonderful and merry Christmas. Amen.

 

 

 

“Celebrating God’s Saints” A sermon for All Saints’ Sunday

All Saints’ Sunday is exactly as the name suggests; we celebrate all saints.  Saints living and those who’ve entered the church triumphant.   We remember how the saints have showed us what the Book of Acts calls The Way.  The first Christians were known as people of The Way.   Many of those saints we remember not because they sought to be rich or happy or well-fed or popular, but because they made sacrifices, often without knowing the names of those for whom they were sacrificing.

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Do we take their Christian witness for granted?  You bet we do.  That’s why we need days like today to remind us of the Christian forerunners of thousands of years who remind us even to this day to keep our lives’ priorities in check with the God’s values.  Those lives of the saints whom we’ve never met, but who put their lives on the line so that we might gather to worship the risen Christ.   Saints from hundreds of years, or even thousands of years ago who gave on our behalf.  Sacrificing their happiness for a greater joy that comes with serving in the name of Jesus Christ.   They sacrificed their own fulfillment so that others could be filled. They sacrificed their own need to acquire more so others might have enough. They sacrificed their own popularity in their fight for the well-being of others.

This is All Saints’ Day, a day we honor those saints who have gone before us and whose memory is precious to us. It is no accident that these challenging words from Luke are chosen for this special day, for it is wrestling with these words that we come to understand the faith of a saint.

Today’s Gospel tells us that death and resurrection are the great levelers. Status things which seem so important to us now — money, gourmet food, entertainment, and popularity — should not seem important to us in this world; and they will be worthless when we are saints in the life that is to come.

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We live in a time when winning and success are so important, that coaches who lose too many games are fired, the bottom line of a company’s profit-or-loss statement gets the most attention from stockholders, and even congregations are judged as “successful” or “unsuccessful” by comparing this year’s average attendance with last year’s. All Saints’ Sunday is a good time for us to hear once the sports cliché:  The question is not whether we won or whether we lost, but how we played the game.

Because, when we get down to it, we have to admit, it’s not easy living the life of a saint. Jesus talks about that life, and it just sounds backward. “Blessed are you who are poor,” but “woe to you who are rich.” “Blessed are you who weep,” But “woe to you who laugh.” “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” Oftentimes, these words get twisted. “What are we supposed to do?” we ask. “Be a doormat? Lie down and let people trample all over us?” How in the world are you blessed when things are going badly? We think we are blessed when things are going well for us and we’re healthy and happy and safe. But the saintly life isn’t about wealth, popularity, or comfort. It’s about faith and hope, resurrection and life, compassion, love, and purpose.

The saintly life is not just about staying out of trouble. It’s not passive. It isn’t wimpy to live as a saint. To live as God’s holy people takes courage. Turning the other cheek is courageous. It’s bold and it’s tough and it’s impossibly gutsy. “No,” it says, “you will not win. I will not give up. Jesus died for me, rose for me, called me holy, and I will not let that go. I will not let anger and revenge and sin get the upper hand.”

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That’s backward to our way of thinking. It’s not natural. What we want to do, what we are inclined to do, is still largely our selfishness talking, our fear talking, and our sin talking. The good, the noble, the righteous, the merciful, the generous, and the loving — that is God talking. That is God calling. To live the life of a saint is to live in God’s mercy. To live the life of a saint is to live in the often-uncomfortable paradox of being the sinners we know ourselves to be, and at the same time, being the holy person God says we are. Maybe you don’t feel especially holy, but you are. God is calling us to be holy. God is calling us to be his. God is calling us forward. It isn’t easy. It doesn’t come naturally. But God is with you and will always be with you, just as God is with all the saints. Amen.