The Hill We Climb

Mark 1: 14-20

After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” As Jesus passed alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” Right away, they left their nets and followed him. After going a little farther, he saw James and John, Zebedee’s sons, in their boat repairing the fishing nets. At that very moment he called them. They followed him, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired workers.

Today’s Message

This week, we, as a nation, began the long, difficult journey back to a place of decency, respect, and freedom. At the inauguration of President Biden we heard powerful speeches and beautiful music. But I think the words of poet Amanda Gorman were the most moving. With just 723 words, she echoed the hearts of so many and opened the door to the transformation, the unity, that we as a people so desperately need.  In her poem called The Hill We Climb, Gorman shared these words:
“When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? The loss we carry, a sea we must wade. We’ve braved the belly of the beast. We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace. In the norms and notions of what just is isn’t always justice.”[i]

She went on to share a verse from the Prophet Micah:
“Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid. If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made. That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb if only we dare it.”[ii]

Amazing. What a beautiful articulation of Justice and grasp of the challenge that justice seeks. I mean, Micah’s as of yet unfulfilled dream of equality for all people is so clearly imagined in this text. The Prophet envisioned that “…everyone [would] sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid.” No one would make them afraid.

This is so important for us to understand and live-into as we face the injustices of our time. Fear-mongering has become the norm rather than the exception. Hate-filled rhetoric specifically and intentionally designed to divide us by making us afraid of the “other” whoever the “other” may be. And disinformation; disinformation that came from a place of darkness and fear about the pandemic, has lead to an unfathomable 400,000 deaths here in our nation since this pandemic began, with many more expected by the spring.

So, what do we do? Where do we turn? Or as the poet said, “Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?”

Well, I think we can begin to find some answer these questions right here in the gospel text we have before us today. Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” Change your hearts and lives! That’s big. That’s a key theme not only in Mark, but a thread we see running through all of the gospel accounts. Change your hearts and lives!

However, we must be careful to understand that Mark 1:15 is not a fixed theological formula, as if Jesus had only one sermon and delivered it in a variety of places. There are many other important themes and threads in the gospels. But, this core understanding of transformation allows us to both, enter the world of the gospel writers and to take a step back to take stock, and to open our eyes to the presence of injustice all around us. No matter what we’ve believed in the past, the truth is, as the poet so beautifully shared, “The norms and notions of what just is isn’t always justice.”

What did she mean by that? Well, consider our text for today. Two sets of brothers (Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John) were called from their task of fishing. And the key thing about this text is their response. They respond immediately and decisively. Their vocation as fisherman gives way to what John Calvin called their “higher calling;” a higher calling to “fish for people.”[iii] But that calling could not have been fulfilled if they refused to change. What if Peter said to Jesus, “I don’t know if I want to leave the comfort of what I’ve always done and who I’ve always been.” What if John said, “What if we fail?” What if Andrew said, “Prove it! Prove to me that you are who you say you are.” What if James had said, “That not the way we’ve always done it.”

Now, please don’t misunderstand me here. I know change can be difficult. However, if we’ve learned anything from the darkness of 2020, it’s that the status quo, the refusal to accept that which is right before our eyes, perpetuates the darkness and even deepens it.

But there is hope. There is light. If we are willing to open our eyes and our hearts, seeing and feeling the plight of the “other” than we will be climbing the hill of justice. “…If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made. That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb if only we dare it.”

May each of us dare it! May we all endeavor to be the voice of compassion, summon the courage to be the arm of transformation, indeed, may we the people, all the people, live-into the calling of our faith; a calling to be the very soul of justice.  

May it be so for you and for me

Amen & Amen.


[i] Amanda Gorman The Hill We Climb (Poem recited at the Inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris, held on January 20, 2021)

[ii] Ibid Gorman

[iii] Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elisabeth Johnson eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press) 2014

Follow Me

Third Sunday After Epiphany

January 24, 2021

Study Guide for Mark 1:14-20

First Thoughts

Here we go on an new adventure!  Starting today, through Lent (and hopefully beyond) we will be using this format for Bible Study. These study guides coincide with the text and message of the previous Sunday and are intended to promote a further and more in-depth study of the passage.  The Epiphany Season will feature Mark’s Gospel as this the B year of the RCL. But we will move in a slightly different direction during Lent. I will be preaching (and we will be studying) a sermon series called The Enduring Empire: A Contextual Study of the Gospel According to John. This is a series and I developed that focuses on the teachings of Jesus in light of the Roman occupation and persecution that John’s community was enduring. I will be sending all of you the study guides in advance and they will be posted on this blog.

General Background

What do you already know about the Gospel According to Mark as compared to the other three accounts? What’s the same? What’s different?

Mark 1:14-15

Theme

Jesus establishes his authority about who he is and what he’s up to.

Theological Perspective

The beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Mark’s Gospel follows his baptism and temptation. No birth narrative. No stories about his childhood. Mark gets right down to the nitty-gritty. The text tells us that Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (CEB)  

This passage is a summary statement that introduces themes present throughout Mark’s Gospel. These themes form the core of what Jesus’ disciples and, later, the early Christian church preached and taught. (We will encounter many of these themes throughout the coming year as we move through the Gospel of Mark)

However, Mark 1:15 is not a fixed theological formula, as if Jesus had only one sermon and delivered it in a variety of places. Instead, the themes here open into the way Jesus explained and expounded upon them throughout his ministry, in different places and contexts. They open into what the church developed into it’s primary theological understandings. In other words, the kingdom or reign of God came in the person of Jesus with the primary goal of changing human “hearts and lives.”

Food for Thought

How might “changing hearts and lives” still be relevantin the world today? …in our nation or community? The Church?

Mark 1:16-20

Theme: Calling of the first disciples.

Contextual & Theological Perspective

The power and authority of Jesus’ words are experienced in the call of his first disciples. Two sets of brothers (Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John) are called from their task of fishing. They respond immediately and decisively. Their vocation as fisherman gives way to what John Calvin called their “higher calling” to “fish for people.” Leaving jobs and families shows us that they were utterly convinced by Jesus about who he was and the nature of his mission.

Application

How might this immediate and decisive decisionby the first four still be relevant to us in our context?

Have you ever considered what your life’s calling might have been? What is still is? What it may yet be? How might “changing hearts and lives” fit into your sense of call?

————————-

The primary source of information for this study guide: Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elisabeth Johnson eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press) 2014

The Work of Christmas

Let me begin today with a poem by the wonder philosopher and theologian Howard Thurman, as he reminds of the true meaning of Christmas in his poem, “The Work of Christmas.”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
And to make music in the heart.[i]

But how do Thurman’s words connect with The Word or the Logos from today’s Christmas reading? Well, the best way to understand this connection is to realize that the Bible is not just one book. It’s a collection of many books and ideas and worldviews, gathered across centuries by hundreds of people, and compiled into a library if you will, where “new ideas sit side by side with old ideas”[ii].  The theology of the Bible is vast, expansive, and complex. I can’t over-state this point! The books of the Bible and often parts within books of the Bible, were independently written.

But that doesn’t mean the books are disconnected. The Bible, in my view, has an overarching story of progress. Theologian Rob Bell says, “The stories in the Bible – and the Bible itself – have an arc, a trajectory, a movement and momentum like all great stories have”[iii] And I would add, like all great stories the Bible has a central theme. And that theme is “love of God and neighbor.” This is the reoccurring premise we see over and over again in the Hebrew Scriptures and from the mouth of Jesus in his words and teachings. You see, Jesus was, and continues to be, the greatest revelation of who God is, and who we’re supposed to be as humans. That’s the point of the incarnation, of Christmas, of our very existence. So, it’s important to understand that the Bible is finally not a field guide about how to get to heaven. Rather, it’s about, in the words of John, “light and life.” Jesus came to be that light that guides us into an abundant life. And not just for ourselves, but beyond ourselves.  

I think we sometimes forget the second part. We’re called to experience life beyond our selves, our own comfort, our own pleasure, and our own concerns. And we are challenged to experience God beyond our group of peers, reaching out to and interacting with people who may not look, or speak, or act like us with open minds and hearts. This is why the Bible, and subsequently, our shared journey of faith is on-going. This is why we in the United Church of Christ say, “God is Still Speaking.” The Bible should never be the end of the conversation, always the beginning. The Word, the Logos, wasn’t just a theological moment back then, but the on-going, progressive, incarnate work of Christmas in the here and now. This is the essence of the light and life that Jesus represented.

So, when Howard Thurman says the work of Christmas includes things like finding the lost and broken and restoring in them a sense of inclusion and wholeness, he’s really saying, be the light and life to others. When Thurman says the work of Christmas includes feeding the hungry, bringing release and liberation to those in bondage, the marginalized, the oppressed, by rebuilding nations and bringing peace among people, he’s really saying, be all that you’ve experienced from God by being light and life to others.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. I have a pond on my property. Now, I use the term “pond” loosely here because it’s really a low area where excess water collects. So, most of the time it’s stagnant, motionless. And yes, you can make the argument that there is life there, I mean, algae and mosquitos love it. And please don’t misunderstand me, I do value my little stagnant pond for what it is, but when I go to the Namekagon River it’s a whole different experience. The river is always moving, changing, evolving, and bringing forth life in new and wonderful ways.

Do you see what I’m driving at here? The life we’re call to as people of faith is dynamic, passionate; we’re called to be the church beyond ourselves. Live the river, always moving, changing, evolving, and bringing forth life in new and wonderful ways.

Let me put a bow on all of this by offering you a quote from William Faulkner. He once wrote, “Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion, against injustice and lying and greed. If you will do this you will change the earth.” My friends, the work of Christmas has begun. Let us go forth and “change the earth” offering light and life to all, through acts of simple kindness, and by doing the hard work of restoring justice and propagating peace.  

In the name of the Incarnate One, the Logos, the Word. Amen, and the people of God said, Amen!


[i] Howard Thurman The Work of Christmas (www.progressivechristanity.org) 2014

[ii] Rob Bell What Is the Bible? How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything (Harper One, 2007) p.123

[iii] Ibid Bell p.116 He also stated, “The Bible is a library of books reflecting how human beings have understood the divine. People at that time believed the gods were with them when they went to war and killed everyone in the village. What you’re reading is someone’s perspective that reflects the time and the place they lived in. It’s not God’s perspective— it’s theirs. And when they say it’s God’s perspective, what they’re telling you is their perspective on God’s perspective. Don’t confuse the two.”

Gold, Circumstance, and Mud

 

The Annunciation

When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. God will give him the throne of David his father.  He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.” Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?” The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. Nothing is impossible for God.”

The Magnificat. 

Then Mary said, “In the depths of who I am, I rejoice, in God my savior. God has looked with favor on the low status of this servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the Mighty One has done great things for me. Holy is God’s name. God shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honor God. God has shown strength with a mighty arm. God has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. God has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. God has come to the aid of Israel, remembering mercy, and the promised made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”

Gold, Circumstance, and Mud

The Magi, the shepherds, the donkey, of course, Joseph, and even the inn keeper are all important to the Christmas story. But, outside of Jesus himself, I think Mary takes center stage. And in this fourth Sunday of Advent, the day when we celebrate the love of God come down to earth, I think it’s no accident that Mary is the star.

Why? Well, because when she hears the call of God, she responds. She’s a  model of faith, servanthood, discipleship, and hospitality. I mean, in the Annunciation, the first part of our reading, Mary hears an incredible message. ! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. And of course, Mary asks, as any of us would: “How could this possibly be true?” The response, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

Now, the point of this story isn’t whether or not it’s literal or symbolic, in other words, let’s not be bogged down in the virgin birth debate or whether or not stars stop over particular buildings. I don’t think that the message we need to focus on today. Instead, we’re invited to consider who God calls rather than the circumstances surrounding that call. What do I mean by that?  Well, we need begin by to remembering that Mary was call an ordinary young woman. She wasn’t a princess or a queen, she wasn’t a great warrior or scholar, Mary was an ordinary teenage girl who, within the boundries of her ordinary daily life, was invited to see and do something, extraordinary.

But what might doing extraordinary within the ordinary look like in our world? Well, there’s an old story about a man who was home with the children one afternoon while his wife went out Christmas shopping.  He was reclining on the couch, half sleeping, half watching a football game, when the kids came into the room. “Dad, we have a play to put on?  Do you want to see it?” Now, he really didn’t want to, but he knew he needed to, so he sat up, came out of his slumber, and became a one-man audience. His four children, four, six, eight, ten years old, were the actors:  Mary, Joseph, an angel and a wise man.  Joseph came in with a mop handle.  Mary came in with a pillow under her pajamas; another child was an angel, flapping her arms as wings. Finally the last child, the eight year old, came out, with all of the jewelry on that she could find in the house, her arms filled with three presents.  “I am all three wise men,” she said.  “I bring three precious gifts:  gold, circumstance, and mud.”[i]

Now, here’s the really amazing part of this story. The father didn’t laugh, as you might expect he would, and he didn’t correct his wise young daughter.  Instead, the father began to reflect on the extraordinary meaning behind those mis-understood words and how they somehow got to the heart of the Christmas story. I mean, God loves us for who we are: our gold. God loves us no matter where we find ourselves on the journey: our circumstances. And finally, God loves us in our brokenness, transgressions and mistakes and stubbornness and all: our mud.

The Christmas story reminds us God chose an ordinary human being–Mary—someone like us, to be the vessel through which God would become a little more accessible to humanity.  What is impossible for us is possible with God.  God can take our gold, our circumstance, our mud, and do something awesome with it. So this, in a nutshell, is the Annunciation. God’s calling to humanity. [ii]  

But remember, we have two parts to today’s lesson. There’s also the Magnificat!  Humanities’ response. In the text Mary says, ” … God has looked with favor on the low status of this servant.”  In other words, Mary is saying, “I am an ordinary person, I’m not perfect, and yet, God has chosen me for this.” 

My friends, the good news of the gospel is that when God begins to look for us, God is not looking for perfection. God chooses ordinary people like you and me, God loves the unlovable, and God welcomes everyone, no matter what country we come from, no matter what color our skin, no matter how we choose to worship, or how we voted, or who we love.

My friends, when all is said and done, the most important thing we can take-away from Mary’s story is that God is love incarnate. I always say at the end of my service, “God Loves You” and that’s true. But it goes even deeper than that, God is love itself. God is the embodiment of love. God is love come down to earth, born in a manger, embracing the most vulnerable with the security of love, healing the most broken with the wholeness of love; and calling each of us to be bearers of love, proclaiming and sharing it to all the ends of the globe.

Let me conclude my remarks today with a blessing. May each of you be surrounded and infused with the love of God. And may that love move us to overcome the challenges of this pandemic, may that love call to us to stand against the racial injustice that still favors the privileged and infests our systems of government, may that love challenge all of us to come together, to unify, even when we disagree, to become one people under God. And, my friends, if we hear and respond to love’s call, we can do these things, we can find unity within our diversity, we can bring justice to our neighbor and peace to our shores, and with God’s love we can endure the struggles of our times; and it’s then, then that we will truly be, ordinary people doing extraordinary things. My friends, nothing is impossible with God, …nothing.  Amen & amen.


[i] James Moore Won’t You Let Him In? (found in “An Advent Study for Adult”, pg.30)

[ii] Bishop Kenneth Carter Call and Response (www.Day1.org) 2011

Unabashed Joy II

Isaiah 35

The desert and the dry land will be glad;
    the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the crocus.

They will burst into bloom, and rejoice with joy and singing.
They will receive the glory of Lebanon,
    the splendor of Carmel and Sharon.
They will see the Lord’s glory, the splendor of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands, and support the unsteady knees.
Say to those who are panicking: “Be strong! Don’t fear!
    Here’s your God, coming with vengeance; with divine retribution
    God will come to save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind will be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf will be cleared.
Then the lame will leap like the deer,
    and the tongue of the speechless will sing.
Waters will spring up in the desert,
    and streams in the wilderness.
The burning sand will become a pool,
    and the thirsty ground, fountains of water.
The jackals’ habitat, a pasture;
    grass will become reeds and rushes.

 A highway will be there. It will be called The Holy Way.
The unclean won’t travel on it,
    but it will be for those walking on that way.

Even fools won’t get lost on it;
     no lion will be there, and no predator will go up on it.
None of these will be there;
    only the redeemed will walk on it.

The Lord’s ransomed ones will return and enter Zion with singing,
    with everlasting joy upon their heads.
Happiness and joy will overwhelm them;
    grief and groaning will flee away.

“Each year, it seems to get worse. The build-up to Christmas becomes more frenetic, more stressful, and more expensive with each passing season, and the observance of “Advent”–even the word itself–seems to get lost in our secularized holiday outburst of consumerism.”These words come to us today from the pen of Kathryn Matthews whose scathing observance of the post-modern Christmas Season seems to challenge the very notion of hope; of joy.

“And yet,” she continues, “each year, the hope is the same. Each year, underneath the fast-paced, media-driven, frantic preparations for ‘the big day’– the shopping, the family gatherings, the arrival of Santa and the opening of gifts, so many people express a yearning for something else, for something more.”[i]  

“A yearning for something more.” Perhaps that’s the greatest hope of this season we call “Advent.” Perhaps Advent isn’t about looking back at the nativity to see a little baby in a manger, so much as it is to remember the incarnate presence of the Divine that the Christ-Child represents. A memory, by the way, which can propagate within us a reason to be moved toward hope. The kind of hope that challenges us to look forward to the healing Reign of God in all its wholeness even while we are in the midst of brokenness; even as this pandemic rages on, even as injustice continues, even as our very planet is in peril.  It’s a hope not only that things might change, but that they will change.

Now, as people of faith we have come to understand that hope and the beginning of that movement toward Justice and Peace have indeed arrived in the person of Jesus Christ. And as the Body of Christ today, we continue to embody hope even as we look longingly toward a time when there will be a fullness of justice and peace and healing in this world. And not just some pie-in-the-sky, faraway in heaven after death kinda peace, but real peace and genuine transformation, right here, in this time and this place, and for all of God’s people and creation.

Now, we’re not the first to long for this peace, justice, and healing. The prophet in today’s reading looked forward to “signs of healing” or what I call “a movement toward wholeness” within creation itself. He wrote of a parched earth that would be transformed by streams of water breaking forth in the desert and of burning sands in the desert becoming pools of refreshing water. Beautiful imagery to be sure.

Imagery that invites us to recall the Peaceful Reign also from the Book of Isaiah. A Peaceful Reign where swords are pounded into plowshares and weapons of war and death are transformed into tools of agriculture, tools of life. A Peaceful Reign where lions and lambs coexist and no one will be held back by weakness of body or spirit, for God, whose power makes all things possible, will hold them up and carry them through.[ii] 

And again, beautiful imagery. But then, Isaiah unloads on us with this matter of “vengeance”. Vengeance isn’t something we like to think about at Christmastime, is it? So, what gives? Well, this is a place where the great United Church of Christ theologian Walter Brueggemann helps us out a bit. He expands upon this idea of God’s “vengeance” by transforming it into something “positive.” He says, “..that God will come to right wrong, to order chaos, to heal sickness, to restore life to its rightful order” and all of these things are encapsulated by Brueggemann in a single term: “transformative compassion” And here’s the really awesome part! This compassion can be expected to transform the lives of those who are “overwhelmed” or incapable of “living effectively or joyously.” People we all know. People we love. People like us.

But what did all this mean to Isaiah? Well, it meant that the lame would not just walk but would leap, and perhaps even dance with joy! The speechless would not just find words but music and a song of joy. “People are given back their lives,” Brueggemann notes; and “humanity is restored to its full function”[iii]

Do you see where I’m going here? The image of a lame person walking is awesome, I’m sure that person would be happy. But to leap and dance, that’s joy. Isaiah wants us to understand that joy, unabashed joy is what lays at the very core of God’s coming wholeness to all the earth.  

Now, you might say, that’s great theology, but what does it mean for me? Well, when December 26 rolls around, I think we must ask ourselves these questions: Where am I today? Where’s my hope? Where will I continue to find joy? I mean, will we continue to be disappointed because we didn’t get to gather with family or at church, or will we be let down because these modified holiday celebrations that didn’t quite measure up to expectations, or will we be just plain exhausted as we’re forced to face our troubled world once again? I don’t know what your answers to these questions will be, or mine for that matter. But perhaps Dr. King was on to something when he said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” …never lose infinite hope.

And even if our new holiday traditions were lovely and did live up to our expectations, is there not more to our hope than just a lovely holiday? Where do we find Dr. King’s “infinite hope”? Where’s that unabashed joy that supersedes mere happiness? And looking at Advent itself with an even wider lens, how is God still speaking to us today, in the church and in society, about our expectations?

Well, as I see it, this is something we must struggle with right here in our churches. We must challenge ourselves on a personal level as we move beyond the societal expectations of the holidays and begin to discover that deeper joy that Isaiah so longed for us to indwell. And on a communal or societal level, how will we as a church community continue to innovate, to work toward social justice and systemic change, and to engage all kinds of people as we begin to journey together, toward wholeness, by becoming a reflection of this deeper understanding of joy.

And again, there are no pat answers here. Even within the structure of community we’re all individuals with individual callings and talents and challenges and we’re all on our own journeys of faith. My friends, God is calling each of us to BE the Church in our own unique way; we’re a patchwork of characters if you will. But here’s the thing. It’s from a diverse patchwork of colors and patterns that the most beautiful quilts are created. So, the great hope for us today, the unabashed joy for us as we continue this journey, is that we are engaged in an on-going process of co-creating with God a beautiful quilt that will be marked by the peace and justice that Isaiah speaks of here. Not as individuals, but as a collection of individuals, a chorus of voices, neighbor with neighbor and friend with friend.

This is the deeper vision of Isaiah that we’ve been considering this Advent season, a vision that has the ability to move us beyond the mundane trappings of the holidays, to discover the “transformative compassion” of being in service to others, of welcoming and inviting all people to God’s table, of sharing the unconditional love of God and yes, the Unabashed Joy of Christmas with all whom we encounter in this world.

So, my prayer for all of you, as we approach the manger once again, is that you will open yourselves not only to the presence of the Sacred, but to the deeper joy and relentless hope of the season and that you will be compassionately transformed into instruments of peace and justice and healing as the on-going process of God Reign continues to indwell all of creation.[iv]

May it be so for you and for me. Amen and Amen


[i] Kathryn Matthews Choose to be Courageous (www.ucc.org/samuel/sermon/seeds) 2019

[ii] Ibid Matthews

[iii] Walter Brueggemann Isaiah 1-19, Westminster Bible Companion found at

(www. ucc.org/Samuel/ sermon/seeds) 2019

[iv] Phil Milam Unabashed Joy (www.birchwoodblessingsblog.com) Dec. 10 2019

From Hope to Peace

Philippians 4:4-9 (Common English Bible)

Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus. From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.

“From Hope to Peace And All the Gunk In-Between.” That’s the title of today’s Message. And I think it’s especially significant today considering the times we’re living through. I mean, we often talk about Advent in terms of a journey, right? And I was reminded this week to remember to “stop and smell the roses” along the way.  I was reminded to remember to look for the Sacred in each moment.

Now, this reminder got me to thinking about something I read a couple of years ago. In her book Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, Anne Lamott helps us to think about living in the moment. Lamott writes: Every time we choose the good action or response, the descent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal, resurrection, the place of newness, freedom, justice. The equation is: life, death, resurrection, hope.” She goes on to say, “We live stitch by stitch, when were lucky. If you fixate on the big picture, the whole shebang, the overview, you miss the stitching. And maybe the stitching is crude, or is unraveling, but if it was precise, we’d pretend that life is just fine and running like a Swiss watch. This is not helpful if on the inside our understanding is that life is more often the cuckoo clock with rusty gears.”[i]What a profound statement! I mean, in this time of pandemic when everything around us seems to be upside/down, I think we tend to “fixate on the big picture.” And please don’t misunderstand me. There is a time and a place to consider the big picture. Believe me, I’m a big picture kind of person. But in times like these it’s so important to live, as Anne Lamott suggests, “stitch by stitch.” We must pause and examine each stitch because each stitch, each encounter with another person, each moment spent listening, really listening to the sounds of nature, contains a bit of God; a spark of the divine as it were. You see, Advent is a time when we must live the life God has given us right now. We must refuse to live yesterday over and over again and resist the temptation to save our best selves for tomorrow. Do not put off living the kind of life your meant to live. Live in the moment. Which leads us to an even deeper place.  A place where we finally discover that living in the moment can bring peace.

What do I mean? Well, consider the hope we encountered last week, the anticipation of Advent, which, in the order of things, gives way this week to the peace of Christ, a peace that Paul says, “exceeds all understanding.” Why? Well, hope is a precursor to peace, but we all know that the transition isn’t always smooth. There can be a lot of “gunk” in-between.

So, I think, the question becomes: “How do we wade through all of the gunk in order to discover this sense of peace?” Well, just the other day, when speaking about the abnormal-ness of our new normal,  I used the example of making lemonade out of life’s lemons. Now, this is an expression we’ve all heard a thousand times. It’s glib, it’s pedestrian, I know. But it’s also appropriate in these difficult days. I mean, how many more lemons can 2020 give us? How much can we take? That’s, of course, the lemon part. However, the lemonade part of this example might surprise you. The lemonade, as I see it, boils down to a single word: opportunity. Yes, we will miss our traditions. And yes, we will miss our family gatherings and seeing our kids and grandkids in person. But once the dust has settled on these realities, what opportunities for lemonade do these lemons provide?

Well, I can think of a couple. First, reflection. Amid the busyness, the hustle and bustle of preparing for Christmas, we sometimes forget the meaning of it all. We sometimes forget that the Christ-child is so much more than a ceramic figurine in our Nativity set.  We sometimes forget that the incarnation forever changed the world and forever change the way humanity viewed itself in relation to the Sacred.

Reflection on the true meaning of Christmas is the first thing and the second is related to it and ties back into this idea of living in the moment. You see, this change in ritual and routine affords us the opportunity to really contemplate and then implement those “higher ideals” that Paul shared. In our text for today, Paul said, “if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on those things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise.” Perhaps one of our pitchers of lemonade this Christmas Season could be a “refocusing” on any one of these values. Values, that while offered here in a very broad sense, could be narrowed down, by each of us, and applied to a specific event or segment of our journey. Values that could be lived-out in the moment, stitch by stitch, in ways that are as unique as each of you are unique people of God. Which, Paul says, will invite “…the God of peace to be with you.”

So, here we go. The journey continues as we move through all the gunk seeking solace, seeking that “solemn stillness”. But, our journey doesn’t end here. Next week, on the third Sunday of Advent we will consider the place of love in all this. So, until then, may your journey be smooth, may you and your family and your friends and your neighbors, be healthy and safe, and may the Peace of Christ, a peace that exceeds all understanding, indwell your spirit and enliven your soul. Amen, and the people of God said, “Amen.”


[i] Anne Lamott Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair (Riverhead Books, 2013)

An Attitude of Gratitude (Revisited)

        

Psalm 100 (from the Inclusive Psalms)

Acclaim our God with Joy, all the earth. Serve our God with Gladness! Enter into God’s presence with joyful song. Know that Adonai is God! Our God made us, and we belong to the Creator; We are God’s people and the sheep of God’s pasture. Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving and the courts with praise. Give Thanks to God! Bless God’s Name! For our God is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever, And God’s faithfulness to all generations.  

An Attitude of Gratitude (Revisited)

I remember the first time I shared a message called An Attitude of Gratitude. It was in Scales Mound Illinois, many, many winters ago, when I was still an undergraduate student and serving as a licensed pastor in a small, rural congregation. I remember it so clearly, because it was only the second time we had gathered for worship post-911. The week before, and the week leading up to that Sunday, were fraught with fear, raw emotion, conspiracy theories, and perhaps most troubling, words of hate and blame toward our Muslim neighbors.

Now, I wish I had a copy or could recall the message in its entirety, but I don’t and I cannot. But do remember two things. First, the overwhelmingly positive response to a message about gratitude, patients, and love defeating hate during such difficult times. And second, I remember I shared a quote from the famous mystic Meister Eckhart. Eckhart said of gratitude, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” Interesting. He’s saying in essence that the very heart of prayer, the core of our relationship with the divine, is gratitude. If our only prayer is “thank you,” that’s enough. Eckhart goes on to elaborate, “…acknowledging the good that you already have in your life,” he said, “is the foundation for all abundance.”[i]

Now, I share this experience today because I think we, as a people and as a nation, find ourselves once again mired in fear and angst. And who can blame us? This second-wave of the pandemic continues to rage out-of-control. It’s isolating us, it’s infecting us and killing too many of our neighbors. It’s cancelling or altering our holiday traditions and there’s no real end in sight. People are just getting tired of it. And if that’s not enough, elected officials at the very highest levels of our government are refusing to accept the clear and legal results of our election threating the very core of our democracy. And of course, there’s still poverty and hunger and homelessness, there’s the existential threat of global climate change, and there continues to be racism and inequality across our nation. So, yes, there are plenty of things of worry about.

But here’s the thing. Thanksgiving is more than just turkey and football and anticipating Black Friday deals. Thanksgiving is even more than pilgrims and feasts. Thanksgiving is about taking stock of our lives and then showing our gratitude to God for our blessings. Thanksgiving is about renewing, reestablishing, “revisiting” an attitude of gratitude each year. “If the only prayer we say is, ‘thank you,’ that will suffice.”

But what if things aren’t so great? What if 2020 has kicked my butt and I just don’t feel like I have any gratitude left in me? Well, I came across an ancient saying from Buddhism this past week that might help us shed a little light in the dark places of 2020. The Buddha said, “…rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.”[ii]

This wisdom is a stark reminder of the serious-ness of our times. We all know someone, an acquaintance, a friend, or God forbid, a family member, who has died from this disease. That’s the reality of our times. But we also know, we also know deep within our being, that we do not tread these troubled water alone. God is with us! God is present in our relationships and in our interactions with each other. God is present in our religious traditions, although they may look a little different this year. God is present out there in the natural world, calling to us upon the breath of the wind and with the lapping of each wave and in the gentle rustle of the trees. And God is present within us, within our very being; in our thoughts, our reasoning, our consciousness. And for all of these places where God is revealed, we can be truly thankful.

You see, the blessing here is that even in our isolation, even when there’s civil unrest, even while injustice still exists and hatred boils just under the surface; we don’t face this world alone. We have each other and we have God. That’s the essence of faith. A faith that carried our forbearers through difficult times and it’s the very same faith that has the potential to carry us through as well.

Now, the Psalmist understood this. In Psalm 100 the author says things like, Acclaim our God with Joy, all the earth,” “Serve our God with Gladness,” “Enter into God’s presence with joyful song,” and “Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving.” And we know that life was no picnic in his day. We know this because these “Psalms of Assent” we see in the 100’s are bracketed by “Psalms of Lament.” Laments, crying out to God for liberation from the trying times that they were experiencing; times of civil unrest, injustice, and disease. Sound familiar to anyone?

So, here’s the challenge from today’s text. Even amid all the changes to our traditions, even with all of the worries of our times, we are challenged to adopt an attitude of gratitude. We are called to be the church, the church isn’t a building, but rather a people. We are called to be a people of hope, a people of faith, a people of justice, we are called my friends, to be a grateful people, thanking God for all of our blessings. May it be so. Amen.


[i] Matthew Fox Meditations with Meister Eckhart (Inner Traditions Bear and Co.) 1983

[ii] A Saying from Traditional Buddhist Wisdom

A Shiny New Coin

Parable of the Valuable Coins

Matthew 25:14-30 Common English

“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who was leaving on a trip. He called his servants and handed his possessions over to them. To one he gave five valuable coins, and to another he gave two, and to another he gave one. He gave to each servant according to that servant’s ability. Then he left on his journey.

“After the man left, the servant who had five valuable coins took them and went to work doing business with them. He gained five more. In the same way, the one who had two valuable coins gained two more. But the servant who had received the one valuable coin dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money. “Now after a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The one who had received five valuable coins came forward with five additional coins. He said, ‘Master, you gave me five valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained five more.’ “His master replied, ‘Excellent! You are a good and faithful servant! You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’ “The second servant also came forward and said, ‘Master, you gave me two valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained two more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done! You are a good and faithful servant. You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.’ “Now the one who had received one valuable coin came and said, ‘Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. So I was afraid. And I hid my valuable coin in the ground. Here, you have what’s yours.’ “His master replied, ‘You evil and lazy servant! You knew that I harvest grain where I haven’t sown and that I gather crops where I haven’t spread seed? In that case, you should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned, you could give me what belonged to me with interest. Therefore, take from him the valuable coin and give it to the one who has ten coins. Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them. Now take the worthless servant and throw him out into the farthest darkness.’ “People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.

A Shiny New Coin

William Faulkner once wrote, “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.” These words ring true for us today as we approach this timeless parable in a new way.

The proverbial shore here is the traditional way of understanding today’s parable. It holds that we’re called, as people of faith, to use our individual coins or “talents” for the good of all people. A great way to view this text. I have taught it that way many times as have many of my friends. This is also the way most Bible commentaries explain the Parable of the Talents. So, let me be clear, there’s nothing wrong with viewing this text through the lens of servanthood. But, at the same time, there’s some more going on here. But in order to get-at that “something,” we must first look at the parable itself.

Okay. In this parable the first servant turned his five valuable coins (called talents) into ten, the second turned his in to four, but the third hid his talent in the ground so that he would not lose it. Common wisdom says that we’re to be like the first servant, or at least, like the second one, but we should avoid at all costs being like the lazy, unprofitable third servant. And again, this isn’t a bad way to look at it. But that being said, I also believe that our common interpretation of the Parable of the Talents is completely opposite of what Jesus really meant. Let me explain…

Over the past twenty years or so, I have read, written, and taught a lot about the cultural and historical backgrounds of various Biblical texts. Context is my favorite word! And because of this attention to context, I have come to see that the cultural lens through which we read Scripture is completely foreign to the cultural lens in which Scripture was originally written or read.

Therefore, if we really want to understand the meaning and significance of what was written, we need to understand the cultural background of the people who wrote it and originally read it.

What do I mean by that? Well, we live in a materialistically-driven culture, governed by greed and the accumulation of wealth. That should come as no surprise to anyone. The Bible however, was written in an honor/shame culture. A culture where stuff and money didn’t matter nearly as much. You see, in this kind of culture, people desire honor above all else. Money is not an end, but a means to an end. In such a culture, someone might be insanely rich, but if they had no honor, they were not well-liked or respected.

Furthermore, since wealth and possessions were in limited supply, honor/shame cultures believed in a zero-sum economy. In other words, if one person gained wealth, it was necessarily at someone else’s expense. And this is important to understand as we look at our text. It’s important because the only way someone could accumulate wealth (gain more talents) was by taking it from someone else. The rich got richer at the expense of the poor. This is why ancient cultures such as this had so many “patrons.” As the rich accumulated more and more wealth, they saw it as their duty and responsibility to give back to society in the form of humanitarian works, giving alms to the poor, caring of widows and orphans, and so forth.  This way, the wealthy gained greater honor, but not necessarily greater wealth. [i]

Okay, let’s look at our parable once again through this cultural lens.

In our economically-driven culture, the heroes here are the servants who accumulate more wealth. But in an honor-based culture, the people who accumulate more wealth are the villains. Why? Because the only way they were able to get more was by taking it from someone else (i.e. the poor) So, the hero of the story is really the third servant, the one who did not become richer, but instead was content with what he was given. The master, however, gets mad at this third servant and tries to shame him by taking away (literally “stealing” is the word in Greek) the third one’s possessions and giving it to the one who is already rich.

Now, I know this is a challenging way of reading the Parable of the Talents, because we’re typically taught that the master represents God, and that each of us must give an account to God for how we used the time and money with which we were blessed. Obviously, in this alternate way of reading the Parable of the Talents, since the master behaves shamefully and teaches his servants to do the same, the master cannot represent God.[ii] I mean, when Jesus said, …those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them” …he wasn’t advocating for an upward redistribution of wealth. Instead, he’s criticizing the wealthy who haven’t taken care of the poor as Scripture commanded them. The master in this story isn’t God, but rather, the ones whom Jesus is taking to task.  

So, what does all this mean to us? Well, first of all, we don’t have to cast aside the idea of using our God-given talents for the benefit of humanity and all of creation. This is a twenty-first century, culturally defined way of viewing our text. This “servanthood” interpretation is an important aspect of our faith journey. But the original context is important for us to understand as well. I call this the “justice” interpretation.

In the justice interpretation we are invited to do more than simply use our talents, we are to share our resources as well. Like the patrons of old, we have been blessed with an abundance. Jesus is challenging us, both individually and collectively, to envision a society where everyone has access to the basic necessities and the opportunity to prosper. We are called to create a place where justice and equality and peace become more than mere ideals, but instead become living, breathing norms.

And this is vital for each of us to understand because over the course of the past eight months or so, we’ve found ourselves in the midst of “norm” building. What do I mean by that? Well, we’ve all heard the term “a new normal” in conjunction with this pandemic. But rather than lament the reality of these difficult days, maybe we should invest ourselves, our souls, into creating a culture where racial equality, kind words, and just actions become the norm. Maybe our new normal doesn’t have to be defined by disease, disunity, or death. These are the realities of our time, but we can choose to shine the light of justice in the coming days, months, and years by sharing our God-given talents and by participating in a downward, and ever-expanding, distribution of wealth.

So, as we continue to move in that direction, as we swim for Falkner’s new horizon, may we have courage to lose sight of the shore. May we, finally, turn our gaze in the direction of a just world for all people and the preservation of all creation. May it be so.   


[i] Jeremy Myers The Parable of the Talents Revisited (www.redeeminggod.com)2008

[ii] Ibid. Myers.

In The Aftermath

Hear the words of Paul as he challenges his followers, and us, to become imitators of Christ.

“Therefore,” he writes, “if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:1-5)

Today’s Message: Humility in the Aftermath

I think it’s safe to say that most pastors look forward to the end of an election cycle. No matter which side of the fence we’re on, there are always opposing views within our congregations, and, as you all know, there are a myriad of strong opinions and emotions as election day approaches. I’ve seen churches actually split and I’ve seen clergy move on because of political differences. And I’ve always thought it a shame. It’s a shame because in the end, both sides miss an opportunity to understand their fellow believer on a deeper level.

Paul understood this. In today’s passage, we hear Paul speaking to the fledgling church in Philippi from his prison cell. He was speaking to them in the form of an epistle, or a letter, which was in response to a previous letter he had received from the church asking him to solve a problem or multiple problems for them. This is the only form of communication that we have from Paul. It’s kind of like we’re listening in on one side of a telephone conversation. We don’t actually have a copy of the letter that came to Paul, but we can surmise what the problems within the community were based upon his answer.

Now, contextually, this was one of the final letters if not the very last letter Paul ever wrote. You see, he was nearing the end of his life and I believe he knew it. Now, let’s pause here for a moment and think about this. If someone like Paul, a faithful teacher and apostle, knew he was nearing the end, wouldn’t he have saved his best for last? Or at the very least, would he have not winnowed his theology down to what was most important?

So, if this is in fact the case, what was most important? Well, in Philippians Paul emphasizes things like keeping one’s priorities straight, living ethically, and what he called “standing firm” even in the face of adversity. Okay. So far so good. But the foundation of this letter, the centeral theme if you will, is the idea of imitation. Near the end of chapter 3 Paul says, “Brothers and sisters, become imitators of me and watch those who live this way – you can use us as models.” (3:17) Which, as you’ve probably already figured out, brings us to our passage for today.

Now, first of all, I think this passage and especially this idea of imitating Christ is centeral to Paul’s theology and it’s vital for each of us to consider as we begin the long, slow process of healing the soul of this nation in the aftermath of the election.

Why? Well, consider Paul plea.  …if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, by having the same love, and being united, and by agreeing with each other. 

Oh my goodness! Do we ever need to hear these words today. Paul is saying that if we could find any encouragement, or at least some semblance of comfort in love at all; if there’s at least a little bit of  sharing or any sympathy present in our lives or in the world, then joy will be complete.

Now, any is the key word here. Any is an indefinite pronoun and the word in Greek that’s used here is ti. But ti can also be used as an interrogative pronoun (who, when, where, etc.) Now, I think it’s imperative that we don’t let these multiple understanding of this tiny word get lost in translation. Paul is saying something even more profound than simply “is there any encouragement or comfort or sympathy left.” In essence, he’s saying who among you can infuse joy into the world by demonstrating encouragement in Christ, by bringing comfort to others in love, by sharing in the spirit, or by being empathetic toward the plight of all people.

And how do we do that? How do we “complete joy”? Well, Paul says, “…by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other.

With this election over, my hope and my prayer is that we can unite, forgive, and extend grace to those on the other side of the fence, because finally, each of us, no matter where we fall on the political spectrum, stand in need of grace, forgiveness, and love.

These words ring so true as we face the overwhelming obstacles that lay before us as a nation and as a people. We’re facing a pandemic that continues to rage out-of-control. We’re living in a shattered economy. We’re ALL affected by racism. All of us. When one of God’s children is demeaned or oppressed, or made to feel “less-than” – we’re all demeaned and oppressed; and when racism happens, whether explicit or systemic, all of our joy is “less-than” complete.  

Paul goes on to say, “Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.”

What a profound statement! With humility think of others as better than yourself. We’re in this mess because of hubris, the opposite of humility. We’re in this mess because we refused, as a people, to humble ourselves and put the needs of the other before our own.

We’re in this mess because we allowed ourselves to be divided, to be separated by ideology or race or party affiliation. Jesus once said that a house divided cannot stand. And he was right! I know he was right because we’re living with the consequences of being a divided nation each and every day.

But, here’s the Good News! We can find our way out of this mess. We can and we will if we walk hand in hand and work side by side, male and female, young and old, liberal and conservative, Democrat Republican and Independent, black and white and brown and every shade in-between. No matter what our religion or ethnicity or social status we must come together if our joy will ever, even come close, to becoming complete.

My friends, I invite you to take these words of Paul into your heart, process them in your mind, and live them out with your voice, and your hands and your feet, as we seek to be imitators of Christ’s kindness, and grace, and love beyond ourselves, and as we attempt to create a more just, and kind, and peace-filled world for all of us.

May it be so,

Amen & Amen

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Matthew 23:1-12 (Common English Bible CEB)

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and his disciples, “The legal experts and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore, you must take care to do everything they say. But don’t do what they do. For they tie together heavy packs that are impossible to carry. They put them on the shoulders of others, but are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do, they do to be noticed by others. They make extra-wide prayer bands for their arms and long tassels for their clothes. They love to sit in places of honor at banquets and in the synagogues. They love to be greeted with honor in the markets and to be addressed as ‘Rabbi.’ “But you shouldn’t be called Rabbi, because you have one teacher, and all of you are brothers and sisters. Don’t call anybody on earth your father, because you have one Father, who is heavenly. Don’t be called teacher, because Christ is your one teacher. But the one who is greatest among you will be your servant. All who lift themselves up will be brought low. But all who make themselves low will be lifted up.

Religion has always been connected with words. If you look at the history of religion throughout the ages and collected all the words associated with them, you would find volumes upon volumes of wisdom contained within the scriptures and prayers, the hymns, and the chants of many expressions of faith. Even religions that proport to be “wordless,” such as Taoism or Zen Buddhism, tend to have their own collections of words. [i] And this, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. Buddhism for example, teaches that words can be like fingers pointing to the moon; the challenge however, is not to confuse the finger with the moon. [ii] In other words, don’t let the words themselves become more important than the meaning behind them.

Now, I think, this pithy bit of wisdom unearths an issue that we face as contemporary Christians. As people of faith, and especially as pastors, we say all kinds of things that might be considered profound, perhaps even beautiful to our ear, but at the end of the day I think our religious words can come-off as elusive or even exclusive to people outside the church walls. Why? Because far too often we don’t practice what we preach. I think religious people, even well-intentioned religious people, like myself, say one thing but do another. We offer words of compassion and cry out for justice but when it comes down to it, when it comes down to “putting our money where our mouth is” we sometimes fall short.

Which brings us to Matthew. In our reading for today, Jesus sensed the urgency of the hour, and therefore, he didn’t hold back in this speech. When he spoke to the crowds, he observed that the religious leaders, the ones with so much book-learning about God, were so full of themselves and so proud of their position that they missed the main point of it all. And Jesus, as we’ve seen so many times in Matthew’s account, used this teaching moment to instruct his followers about the way they should live. He invited them to become humble servant-leaders and servant-teachers. [iii]  They were not to imitate the example they had seen in the Pharisees and scribes, but instead, they were to live-into the higher ideals of their faith.

So, what were these “higher ideals”? Well, Jesus says in our text for today, “The legal experts and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore, you must take care to do everything they say. But don’t do what they do. For they tie together heavy packs that are impossible to carry. They put them on the shoulders of others, but are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”

The downfall of the religious leaders was their hypocrisy. They said one thing and did another. They didn’t practice what they preached, right? They created interpretations of the law that were so burdensome that no one could keep them. The only way for the common person to follow the law then, to be righteous, to be considered clean and therefore worthy of temple worship, was to enrich the religious leaders. The poor had to grease the palms of the wealthy.

So, Jesus was basically saying to his followers, “They say all the right things. They put together long, eloquent strings of words touting liberation and shalom; they talk a good game about caring for the widows and orphans and giving alms to the poor. And these things you should do. However, “if you want to know what a person believes, watch his feet, not his mouth.” [iv]  The words coming out of the religious elites mouths didn’t match their actions. That’s why Jesus said, “do as they say, and not as they do.”

And this makes perfect sense to me. James, in his writings, held that a faith without works is a dead faith. And that was the essence of Jesus’ criticism. The Pharisees and the scribes didn’t practice a living faith. In his book by the same name, President Jimmy Carter said, “In the Christian tradition, the concept of faith has two interrelated meanings, both implying fidelity: confidence in being (God), and action based on firm belief.”[v] In both the words of the former president and the brother of Jesus, we see what’s been termed “a theology of praxis.” That is, a theological understanding that just words must be accompanied by just action. Or, as in the words of the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez: “To be followers of Jesus requires that [we] walk with and be committed to the poor; when [we] do, [we] experience an encounter with the Lord who is simultaneously revealed and hidden in the faces of the poor”[vi]

As we come to this time of prayer and sacrament, I would like to invite you to ponder a couple of questions. Do we practice what we preach? Or, to be fair, Do we at least attempt to say what we’ll do and then do what we said? Do we have fidelity to both being and action? Do we take the time and effort to search for the face of Jesus in the faces of the poor, the hungry, the marginalized, or the lonely? In other words, is our faith a living faith, a faith that produces fruit, a faith that moves us, all of us, toward a more just world, and cleaner world, and kinder world?

These are the questions we must consider.

Amen & Amen.


[i] Alan Brehm Do As We Say (www.thewakingdreamer.com) 2011

[ii] Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian, on pg. 61, Knitter says, “Fingers serve to point us in the direction of that mystery, which can be as real in our experience as it is beyond our words and understanding.”

[iii] Katheryn Matthews What Should I Do (www.ucc.org/samuel/sermon/seeds) 2020

[iv] Richard Swanson Provoking the Gospel of Matthew (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2007) Pg. 255

[v] Jimmy Carter Living Faith (New York: Random House, 1998) pg. 4

[vi]  Gustavo Gutierrez, We Drink from Our Own Wells (Maryknoll/ Melbourne: Orbis Books/ Dove Communications, 1984), pgs. 37-38.