Fridays from Fairmont – Weekly Scriptural Blog

FRIDAYS FROM FAIRMONT

Weekly Scriptural Blog

November 17, 2023 — Matthew 27: 35-54

Golgotha, literally the place of the skull in Aramaic. Perhaps you know it as Calvary, which means the same thing in Latin. Despite what our Sunday School posters may have suggested, it was a fractured rock outcrop in a long-abandoned quarry just outside the Joppa gate where the northern wall of Jerusalem jogged sharply to the East. It was a very public spot along the busiest road into the city for a very public event. For the Roman Empire, crucifixion was all about publicity. Crucifixion was a billboard of human suffering to remind the population exactly what happens to anyone who opposed the state.

We hurry past averting our eyes. We prefer our crosses tidied up, preferably set with semi-precious stones. In the church we tip toe around it somewhere between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. In our own congregation we do not ever preach on it, carried along with the crowd by the liturgies of Holy Week. But regardless of our attention or lack of it, the cross stands in quiet testimony to the end of all things.

Most Christian theology ends up as a debate over prepositions. Prepositions are those little words that define relationships. I no longer believe so much in the cross as I believe through it. The real horror of the cross for me means that it in and of itself does not mean anything at all. To the contrary, it is the symbol for the absence of all meaning. Instead, it is more like a lens, focusing our attention and helping us see what we otherwise could not—who God is, who God is for us, and who we may yet be in and with God. The cross is a lens to see the truth.

The question of how Jesus saves is the question of atonement. You may have heard it said that Jesus died for our sins. I am no longer so sure that the cross yields such a simplistic transactional solution. Jesus died because of human sin—human brokenness, alienation, ignorance, rage, fear, anxiety, prejudice, jealousy, anxiety and the compulsive need to control and dominate. But I am not so sure he died for those things. I think he died for love, both a love for us and love for the purposes of God. And somehow, someway, in his death he broke death. I do not need to understand how he did it. I only need to accept his invitation to participate in the life he offers.

On a long hot Friday, probably in the year 33 A.D. in a disused quarry just outside the Joppa Gate in Jerusalem, this creation changed. A hole erupted into something, somewhere, someone else. And this creation has not been the same since.

The cross is not the end. The cross is a doorway. Step through it and discover the Kingdom.

November 10, 2023 — Matthew 26: 36-56

Gethsemane. It is a strange word for a strange place. It simply means olive press in Aramaic. It is the place where they kept the olive presses at bottom of the slope of the appropriately named Mount of Olives. But the name reveals much more than location. Olives were pressed in the ancient world by placing them in a stone vat and then piling up stone weights on top. Stone after stone. Slowly squeezing, crushing the olives until their oil ran out. That is the true nature of the place, slow crushing weight, squeezing ever tighter until what is really on the inside comes out.

Gethsemane is not a place for answers. Gethsemane confronts us with questions. How will we choose and in doing so, who will we be? When confronted by adversity our normal human responses are fight or flight. Gethsemane certainly invites and expects those. But there is another option, the one we would not choose.

Jesus is not like us. He refuses to be a messiah on our terms. He chooses a different path and then shows us how to follow it. And that makes all the difference.

October 27, 2023 — Matthew 22: 34-40

No man is an island,

entire of itself;

every man is a piece of the continent,

a part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less,

as well as if a promontory were.

as well as if a manor of thy friend’s

or of thine own were.

Any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind;

and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

it tolls for thee.

John Donne, Meditation 17 (1623)

As a society, we are more separated, alienated, and disconnected than ever before. Our culture prides itself on our stubborn individualism from Rene Descartes’ declaration that being is the product of self-willed thought (“I think, therefore I am.”) to our culture’s obsession with solitary cowboys on the range living by their wits and strength to bend nature and neighbor to their will. But individualism only gets you so far. We were not created to be alone and since COVID, we have learned that lesson only too well.

Many things change with time. Some things never change. The Bible is perfectly consistent from Old Testament to New: humans are made for relationship with God and each other. Jesus does not create a new rule, he simply embodies and then quotes very old ones. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your mind and all your strength, Deuteronomy 6:5. And, love your neighbor as yourself, Leviticus 19:18. These are not simply summary commandments of what human beings are supposed to do. These instructions are the description of what human life is.

We were made for relationship with God and with one another. Alone, apart, we wither into something less. Together we become more than we could imagine on our own. And this year we have seen the proof of both extremes.

The first five books of the Bible are called in Hebrew, Torah. Christians often translate the term as “law.” But that is not right. Torah simply means “teachings.” God taught us how to live and we failed to learn. Jesus now shows us how to live in a human life, his own, lived in utter and intimate dependence on God and lived entirely for others. Have we learned from his demonstration?

October 20, 2023 — Matthew 22: 23-33

Resurrection is the central idea, dynamic, event, and hope that holds the system of belief and practice we call Christianity together. But resurrection is neither uniquely nor originally a Christian idea. It comes from Judaism.

In the first century, Resurrection was one of the most hotly contested ideas separating different squabbling factions of Jews. One group, the Sadducees, were the aristocratic group of temple officials that in centuries past had held a monopoly on the High Priesthood. They only accepted the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, as scripture. They did not believe in resurrection. For the Sadducees there was this life and this life only and when you were dead, you stayed dead.

The Sadducees’ main rivals for influence were the Pharisees who embraced a more expansive understanding of scripture including the books of the prophets and the writings (like Psalm and Proverbs). Even more importantly, they believed that there was a parallel oral tradition, an oral law, that had been handed down from Moses. On the basis of the prophets (especially Isaiah and Daniel) they preached that human beings one day will all be raised bodily from the dead by God. At that point all would be judged, and some would enter into God’s Kingdom while others would not. While Jesus disagreed with the Pharisees over many issues of applied practice, he never argues with them about resurrection. Indeed, many of Jesus followers and friends, like Mary and Martha, appear to have adopted the Pharisees’ beliefs.

The problem is that resurrection is really hard to think about let alone describe. There is nothing in this world like resurrection, which is sort of the point. Resurrection is the complete, total transformation of this world and everything in it. All our metaphors, allusions, illustrations, and assumptions break down. And that was the Sadducees problem.

The Sadducees do not believe in resurrection. So, their question to Jesus was no question at all. They were merely trying to catch him up in the trap of their own presumptions that they had set for him. But Jesus will not so easily be ensnared. Resurrection is not what you think it is. Resurrection is not the extension of this life and this world. Resurrection is transformation. And that means that all our assumptions are now invalid.

When it comes to resurrection, understanding is highly overrated. Instead, Jesus suggests, what is called for is participation.

October 15, 2023 — Matthew 20: 39-44

Matthew’s gospel brings us a healing story of two blind men who not only beg Jesus to heal them but yell loudly at Jesus to heal them. The feelings are definitely on the surface in this story! It is a short pericope of scripture but there are deep truths to be found here.

You may be more familiar with this story from Mark’s gospel in Mark chapter 10. It is the healing of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar. The passion is the same in both gospels but Mark gives us a few more details and one less person to be healed. But what Mark’s gospel does not give us is what Jesus was feeling. Compassion. Jesus is moved with compassion and touches the men’s eyes and heals them.

It might seem like a small detail and, of course, the Jesus of Mark’s gospel is the same compassionate healer. But the writer of the gospel of Matthew seems to bring the focus of this story straight to Jesus. The men who are healed are unnamed. We know very little detail about them. The story is shortened. But Jesus is spotlighted for his compassion. We see Jesus as fully human and fully divine.

This Sunday is Children’s Sabbath. A day we celebrate the gifts of children and remember children here and across the world. Every year, places of worship across the nation and from every religious tradition, join together in common concern for the struggles children, youth, and families face. This Sabbath is our expression of shared commitment to listening deeply to the voices of children and youth.

The beloved children of Fairmont will be leading the entire worship service at 10:30 a.m. I know you will be blessed and will see and hear God in their faces and through their voices. The children will be lifting prayers and liturgy about the compassion of Jesus and his healing touch.

Our 8:30 a.m. worship service will also be held as usual in the Fellowship Hall with our wonderful Praise Team! Join us either service (or both) for a meaningful sabbath day.

October 6, 2023 — Matthew 22: 1-14

One day the King throws a wedding feast, a big party, but the invited guests don’t come to the party.  Some have good excuses.  They’re minding their farms or businesses.  Other invited guests go out and beat up the messengers.  Not a particularly nice thing to do.  Really annoyed the King.  Not a good idea to annoy the King.  So the King got mad and had all those people who mistreated his messengers rounded up and killed.  Makes you think twice before failing to RSVP to a wedding invitation doesn’t it.

But now the King has a problem.  No one is coming to the big party he has planned.  So, the King says, enough with these guys, the original guest list, time to expand the invitation list a bit.  And so the King sends his messengers out into the street to invite everybody and he meant everybody, the rich and poor, the smelly and the smart, the tricky people, the stupid people, the foreigners who talk funny, the sick, the disabled, the criminals, and convicts, everybody.  Now these folks never expected an invitation to the palace, let alone a royal banquet.  It is not like they earned it somehow.  But there goes the royal herald running around town yelling, y’all come down to the palace for the party, you, you are all invited.  So, they went.  The hall was packed with people and the only thing they had in common is that the none of them ever expected to be at a party in the palace.

And that is where we want the story to end.  Big party, everyone lived happily ever after.  The end.  And that is where most sermons stop.  The parable is simple allegory.  God hosts the party.  Jesus is the bridegroom.  The prophets are the messengers.  The Jews are the originally invited guests who ignore the invitation and kill the occasional messenger.  God the host gives up on them and instead invites all these other folks, namely the gentiles, namely us.

Despite our preferences to the contrary, this is not where the story stops, that is not where Jesus stops.  Jesus pauses, takes a breath and continues.  All these people are wandering around the hall having a grand old time.  The King is mingling with all his new guests, but then he spots someone out of the corner of his eye who is not dressed for the occasion.  He hasn’t polished his shoes and has not put on his good clothes.  It does not look like he has changed at all for the occasion.  The King stops him, “friend,” did you hear that the King calls him friend.  Friend, how did you get in here without changing first before coming in.  How did you get in here without wearing a wedding robe.  Now there were lots of things the guy might say, but instead he says nothing.  The silence spread like a cold wet blanket over the party, the King’s festive mood shifted to anger and then to sadness.  The King turned his back on the man and told his guards as he walked away ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.  . . . And for two thousand years the church has sat in heavy silence at Jesus’ words.

Is God all about love or all about judgment?  We all know folks who have made up their minds on that one.  Is God is unconditional acceptance welcoming you and loving you exactly as you are forever and ever.  Or, is God a judge who will punish the wicked for all eternity?  Those are our caricatures, cartoons drawn by our rather limited moral imagination usually penned to make us feel good or at least make other people feel bad.  Is God all about love or all about judgment?  The answer of course is, yes.

The invitation goes out to everyone.  God’s party is for the entire community not just and exclusive few.  No one is excluded from the list.  Your name is on that list and so is mine.  We haven’t earned the invitation, we haven’t bought tickets, we cannot afford an appropriate gift.  It is all the King’s grace.  How do you respond?  The invitation is solely at the King’s initiative, but how you respond to that invitation, that is all up to you.  Do you put on your best clothes; do you go out and get rid of your shabby old things and put on something new?  Do you get a hair cut, a manicure?  Do you at least take a shower and comb your hair?  How do you change in response to the invitation?  The Greeks had a word for that kind of a change, that sort of extreme whole-person makeover.  They called it Metanoia, to change the whole self.  Jesus and John use that word over and over again.  In most English translations it gets translated as repentance but it simply means changing who you are in response to God’s invitation.

God’s love is freely given and we call that kind of love grace.  But, if you actually accept grace, then it will change you.  God will not leave you just the way you are.  When the sick and the blind and the lame came hobbling up to Jesus, he didn’t just say I love you just the way you are, he changed them.  He healed them.  When the tax collectors and prostitutes came to him he did not say you are alright just the way you are, he said I love you and his love refused to let them stay as they were.  Accepting the invitation, accepting the grace, accepting the love will, necessarily change you.  But conversely, if I do not change, if I remain content in my old ways, if I hold too tightly onto my old hurts and wounds, then I have never really accepted the invitation at all.  If I go to the party and the gracious invitation has made absolutely no difference in my life, then well, I don’t belong there.  The invitation is from God, but how we live in response, that is up to us.

God does not judge us.  God loves us.  We judge us.

September 29, 2023 — Matthew 20: 20-28

We like control. That is one thing Jesus promises that we will never have. Instead of control, Jesus promises us relationship, belonging, and home. Jesus promises us new life as a new people living by new rules and as such people, we do not need to be afraid anymore. And Jesus called that new life The Kingdom of Heaven.

The problem is that more often than not, we do not believe our good fortune. We do not trust the promises we have received. Our fears outweigh our faith. So, we try to muddle through on our own terms. We learn to be competent, competitive, and successful. We strive for achievement and success in order to maintain control over our lives and the immediate world around us. We define ourselves in what we do, accomplish, possess, and control, rather than who we actually are. That fundamental misunderstanding of identity gets us in trouble because we start to lose ourselves along the way.

It got James and John in trouble. These two hot-tempered sons of Zebedee ask Jesus to share in his glory. They do not understand what they are asking for. They want to assume and undertake Jesus’ own destiny, which is fulfilled not over a glory, but in wood and nails. They did not, perhaps could not, understand that real power has nothing to do with control or dominion, but rather comes from letting go. And nothing says letting go of everything the world values quite like getting publicly executed naked on a cross.

Our lives end, or more accurately begin anew, not in the fulfillment of all our wishes and fantasies but God’s. We can make God in our own image like Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island fulfilling our wants, but our wants only tend to get us into more trouble and lead us further away from our destination. Or, we can let go of our wants and our endless need for control. We can let go of everything we hold on to and instead simply be held. We can renounce all those things we claim to possess and simply be possessed. Down in the murky depths, where everything else is drowned, there is only one thing you can trust. Strong arms embrace you, pull you up and declare for all time and above every other claim, you child, you belong to God.

September 22, 2023 — Matthew 20: 1-16

Stories mean different things to different characters.  The same story can be for one a comedy and for another a tragedy.  So, from whose perspective do you read this Sunday’s parable story and what does it matter?

In churches we tend to read this story from the perspective of those who have responded to the vineyard owner’s early summons and have gone off to work in the fields before dawn.  From this perspective we tend to hold a certain prejudice against those lazy, loafing miscreants.  We instead hear the story as a warning against presuming privilege on the basis of our self-righteous work.  We read the parable as a Protestant fable warning against dangers of both sloth and works righteousness.  Except . . . Except, the text does not actually say any of that.

Before I identify with those who have punctually responded to the vineyard owner’s summons, I need to ask myself whether I have actually done that?  The truth is I sometimes do, but more often do not.  Much of the time, I am a lot more like those folks hanging out by the side of the road without a clear sense of direction, purpose, or calling.  For them, this story is neither a riff off of Aesop’s fable of the ant the grasshopper, nor is it an allegory for Martin Luther’s theology of justification.  For those people waiting and hoping this story is about something altogether different.  For those people this story is about grace.

The Kingdom of God is not like the payout, not like the reward.  Jesus’ story begins, the  Kingdom of God is like the manager.  And this manager rewards in the most surprising way imaginable.

September 15, 2023 — Matthew 18: 16-30

Of all the uncomfortable passages of scripture, none have had more ink spilled over them trying to persuade the reader that Jesus did not actually mean what he said than Sunday’s reading.  Simply put, we don’t like it. So, for centuries we try to sneak around it. We try to sneak around Jesus and into the Kingdom of God.

A rich young man, a rich and apparently quite pious young man, asks Jesus what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. He already follows all the commandments, not just the twelve, all 613 of them. So what else is on the to do list? Only one thing, Jesus tells him. No big deal. Sell all that you have and then come and follow me. Ouch.

I do not want to sell all I have. I trust Jesus . . . to a point. That point is probably my retirement savings account balance. So, I rather empathize with the rich man as he walks away grieving, shocked, and maybe a bit ashamed.

I wanted the man to stay. I wanted him to keep talking from Jesus. I wanted him to tell Jesus that he is scared and needs help. And I wanted Jesus to wrap his arms around him and tell him it would be okay. But that did not happen. As Jesus watches the man wander off, the Gospel says something remarkable. Jesus says that it is impossible for human beings through our own effort, achievement, accomplishment, or even faith to reach the Kingdom of God. But not for God. I read the rest of the passage not as judgment or condemnation, but as a promise. The Kingdom is not a reward for meritorious service. The Kingdom of God is a gift and we call that gift grace.

There is hope, even for the rich man, even for you and me. Come and find out.

September 7, 2023 — Matthew 18; 15-20

What if Jesus actually, literally meant what he said?

Do you ever wonder how to find Jesus? Some people go looking in prayer. Others go looking in worship. Jesus never actually said he would be found there (although maybe he can be). There are only two places where Jesus literally, actually said he could be found. In the Great Commission in Matthew 28, Jesus explains that he can be found when we go out and do what he told us in baptizing the world and teaching them everything that Jesus commanded of us. And relatedly, in Matthew 18, Jesus taught his disciples that whenever they engaged in the work of reconciliation and restoring relationships, Jesus would be with them. So, if you want to find Jesus, he is easy enough to locate. Go find the person you have your biggest disagreement with and work to mend your relationship. If and when you do that, Jesus promises to show up.

The phrase “wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there I shall be,” is one of those Bible quotations that has broken free from its moorings and wandered off on its own to mean something totally different from what Jesus intended. We use the phrase to assume some sort of spiritual ubiquity such that Jesus is somehow present whenever a few people meet for prayer, worship, or fellowship. That of course ignores the context of everything Jesus said leading up to this famous line. Jesus explains that he will be present whenever we resolve conflicts and mend relationships with others. Jesus provides remarkably concrete advice. First, go talk the person and try to settle things. If that does not work, bring another person as mediator and observer. And, if that does not work, take it to the assembly, what we call the church, to make things right. When you do that Jesus promises that he will be present. That means that reconciliation and conflict resolution are in a very literal sense sacramental. Jesus shows up.

The curious corollary of Jesus’ teaching is that it is precisely the person you cannot stand, the person with whom you have the biggest disagreement, that is the person from whom you have the most to learn. It will be in your reconciliation with that person that Jesus will be present, in, by, and through the work of reconciliation which is always of God. So do you want to find Jesus? He lies off in the direction of the person you least want to talk to.

Good luck, but luck has nothing to do with it. Instead, Jesus does, and if you have the courage to try, Jesus will.

August 25, 2023 — Matthew 15: 21-28

We are well familiar with the beautiful healing passages in Gospels when Jesus lovingly heals those who seek his aid, both for themselves and for their children. Our church artwork often portrays Jesus restoring sight, mobility, and even life. We turn to those passages in our own life and prayers when facing adversity as a source of hope and encouragement.

This Sunday’s text is not one of those passages.

Sometimes, Jesus says no.

When facing Jesus’ refusal, what is the faithful response? Acquiesce? Argue? And how do we understand Jesus’ refusal anyway? A rather tenacious Lebanese woman reveals the answers and they may surprise you. They may in fact have surprised Jesus, just as she did. Which raises a very interesting question, what does it mean for Jesus to change his mind?

Listen on Sunday and while you may not find all the answers you are seeking, I guarantee your questions will be deepened.

August 18, 2023 – Matthew 15: 1-20

Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition. Jarsolav Pelikan

This quote by the probably the most important church historian of the past century sums up the promise and problem with tradition. We all begin somewhere. We do not exist in a vacuum. Tradition is the resource and foundation for every innovation. But when tradition becomes identity rather than the foundation for identity, the living submit to the dead. The question is never one of values, whether or not tradition is important. The question is rather functional, how will we will use it to inform our lives today.

Jesus upholds and celebrates Torah, the Jewish Law. Along with Paul, he remains a Torah observant Jew. But Torah was never intended to be an end in itself. Torah exists to nurture healthy relationships between God and human beings and among people. When the specific traditions surrounding the law get in the way of that purpose, tradition must yield.

We often overhear these arguments from the First Century and think, oh those stubborn Jews. This is a characteristically Christian prejudice that feeds into anti-semitism. But how many habits of our lives do we hold dear and expect others to follow? How do the ways that we do church keep other people away? What boundaries, invisible to us, have we constructed that keep brothers and sisters out?

August 11, 2023 – Matthew 14:22-33

So, for once I have just a simple question.

When Jesus criticizes Peter and asks him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” was Jesus criticizing Peter because Peter failed to walk on water, or was Jesus criticizing Peter because he got out of the boat in the first place?

How you understand discipleship and faith will follow from your answer.

August 4, 2023 – Matthew 14:13-21

On the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, about a half hour walk from Capernaum, is a small Benedictine Church, called the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes. The church commemorates Jesus’ miracle of the feeding of the 5000. The modern church sits directly on top of an ancient Byzantine church from the fifth century. So, while the church itself is modern, its mosaic floor is around 16 centuries old. As you might expect, the image of a basket filled to the brim with pieces of bread takes pride of central place. But around it, curiously, you find images of all sorts of birds, especially peacocks, and every sort of wild animal, plant and tree.

Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 intentionally points forward and backward in time. Jesus organizes the people into eating groups just like Moses did in the Exodus. He provides food in the wilderness just like God did raining Manna on the people. And he even quotes Moses, taking compassion on the people, “like sheep without a shepherd.” And then the miracle points us forward in time. Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks to God for it, breaks it, and gives it to them. In other words, Jesus demonstrates communion before the last supper. Finally, the people are described as filled, but in a very particular sense in the original Greek. The people are not empty voids whose volume has now been filled. Rather they are now complete, whole, and who they were meant to be.

Jesus’s feeding of the 5000 bridges human need with God’s compassion from our ancient past to our ultimate future. That is why the ancient artists of the church filled it with images of birds and beasts and a river. They imagined the miraculous feeding as a foretaste of paradise, Eden 2.0, paradise restored and perfected. The river that runs through it is the river for the healing of the nations as described in Revelation and those peacocks, an ancient symbol for resurrection. The meal and Jesus’ feeding compassion points us towards our destiny and homecoming.

God meets human need with divine compassion. This is not just what God does. This is who God is. In the Exodus, God feeds the people in their need. On the hillsides of Galilee, God feeds the people in their need. And right now, in the various assorted train wrecks of our lives, God feeds us, if only we are willing to acknowledge our hunger and receive. The compassion of God is expressed as God again and again saving us. “God saves,” or in Hebrew, Yeshua, the name we translate: Jesus.

July 28, 2023 – Matthew 14: 1-14

It is an awful story. Most churches avoid it. Wiser pastors never preach on it. But it also reveals some of the cold hard truth that we would rather avoid. Sometimes people die. And sometimes they do not die heroic deaths. Sometimes there are no heroes, only victims.

John the Baptist is portrayed in all the Gospels as the final prophet, simultaneously calling the people to transform their lives (repentance) and announcing the coming of the Messiah. His message struck a chord in many people’s spiritual and moral imaginations. That made him dangerous to the powers of his world.

Kings and princes rely on fear for their power. If people let go of their fear, there is no telling what they might do. Herod Antipas knew this only too well. He grew up in a homicidally inclined family where his father murdered one his wives and at least two sons. Herod’s position was always precarious. Mockingly, the Romans gave him the title of Quarter King (Tetrarch). He had no legitimate claim to rule, only Roman muscle backing him up. Chronically insecure, he is easily manipulated by his own family into murder.

The story of the death of John the Baptist is a tragedy. Even its antagonist Herod is not so much a tyrannical villain as a weak coward. Lacking any morally edifying content or spiritually uplifting ending, a sensible person would skip over it to the next chapter.

Except . . .

There is one odd thing about this story. Someone is missing. Told as a flashback, this is the only story in the Gospels in which Jesus is completely absent, never appearing, never even mentioned. In other words, this is a story of precisely what this world and our lives are like without Christ. And maybe, that is the whole point.

July 21, 2023 – Matthew 13: 45-46

Jesus said: “the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

 

The Kingdom of God is like . . . (wait stop there for a moment) . . . well not exactly like anything that we can see and know and understand. That is sort of the point. The Kingdom of God is not like us and not like here, which means you cannot really compare it to anything we already know. Absolute dissimilitude breaks down every metaphor and shatters every simile. What is a storyteller to do? Tell a parable.

At the frontiers of human perception, where knowledge and vocabulary fail us, Jesus resorts to parables, little rhetorical viruses that are designed to get inside the listener’s imagination and begin to transform us from within. Parables do not answer our questions. Parables rewrite the imagination of the questioner. Parables do not convey information. Parables change people.

The Kingdom of God is like a merchant who went in search of fine pearls. Notice that the Kingdom is not like the pearl. It is like the man in his search. Somehow, Jesus is not teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven as remote and detached thing. Jesus is instead teaching about our relationship to it. With that clarification, the dam to all the questions opens. Who is this man? What did he want? What does it mean to be merchant? Is this good or bad? Is a merchant all he was? What is he seeking? Why? How would you seek it? What does he actually find? Is it what he sought? How did he find it? What does he understand this pearl of great price to be or represent? How does it change him? Does he sacrifice for it? How does that make him feel? Is he still a merchant? How does he know it is of such value? What can you do with such a pearl? What is a pearl anyway? Having found the pearl, who is he now? And then far more uncomfortably for us Jesus’ raises more intimate questions. What exactly are you seeking? Why? How? Is your seeking defined by your role, your job, your economic position? What are you really seeking? Do you even know? How would you know if you found it? What would you do to obtain it? How would that change you? How do you determine worth? What do you really want?

Jesus does not answer the questions. You do. That is the whole point of parables. They do not teach us so much as change us, which was Jesus’ whole purpose after all. So enter Jesus’ parables, but expect to come out a different person on the other side.

July 14, 2023 – Matthew 13: 31-35

How do you point to what does not (yet) exist? How do you describe something that exceeds all human comprehension let alone vocabulary? How can you share something that people cannot (yet) imagine because our imaginations are too small? The problem is not that our communication skills are not sufficiently developed. The problem is that what we are alluding to exceeds human conception, perception, description and language altogether. When language and thought fail, you need to turn to a different operating system. You need to turn to poetry.

Jesus’ parables are a sort of poetry. They use metaphor to allude without describing. Every parable has multiple meanings that can be gleaned from multiple readings. Moreover, they serve as ticking rhetorical time bombs detonating days or weeks later in the hearers’ imaginations in surprising ah ha moments. You cannot flatten a parable into one stale “meaning.” It has as many meanings as arise from the interactions with all its hearers. As such, parable stealthily bypass rational deductive thought to access image, symbol, archetypal memory, and feeling.

Jesus cannot describe the Kingdom of God any more than one of us could describe the Milky Way to an amoeba. There is a gross mismatch of scale, dimension, perception, and context. So instead, he taps into metaphor, or more precisely simile and accesses our analogical imaginations. In one sense the Kingdom of God is nothing at all like a lump of sour dough starter. But in other senses the Kingdom of God is exactly like a lump of sour dough starter. The Kingdom of God voraciously consumes and transforms everything it touches. It transforms indigestible matter into a superabundant feast. It can live forever. It moves where it will and remains hidden from direct observation. In changing the dough, it makes it many times bigger than it was in the beginning. It does all this all on its own, you do not need to make it do anything. Sometimes the best thing we can do is simply leave it alone. It creates an abundance that can be shared. It harkens back to Abraham and Sarah welcoming the Trinity into their home in Genesis 18:6. It symbolizes hospitality and welcome reception not just to others, but to God. It can be found in the most mundane, ordinary places. It creates through synergy making a final result that is more than the sum of its parts. It is always working, always transforming. It may seem small and insignificant but give it time and be surprised. Which of these meanings did Jesus intend? Probably all of them and many more we have not imagined.

That is what parables do. Parables open our imaginations to things we cannot yet conceive of. And the biggest thing of all is the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God is like . . . any words you may insert next that are neither metaphor nor a negation are necessarily a lie.

So instead of answering and describing, paint a picture.

–Brian

July 7, 2023 – Matthew 13: 1-23

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on a path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched, and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. If you have ears, hear!”

Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:

‘You will indeed listen but never understand,
and you will indeed look but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes,
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.’

“But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.

“Hear, then, the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet such a person has no root but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of this age and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

June 30, 2023 – Matthew 12:1-21

Sabbath was not only commanded by God in the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, in Exodus but was also observed and named as “hallowed” by God in the creation stories of Genesis.

Sabbath rest was for life and healing and relationship renewal. Sabbath was the holy mark of God’s people, separating them from all others as God’s own chosen. For faithful Jews, Sabbath observance was taken seriously, and it was a joy not a burden. And the purpose of Sabbath observance was relationship building and sustainment of life.

But what happens when Sabbath laws intercept with moments of human need? Moments such as healing someone who is suffering or feeding someone who is hungry or giving drink to someone who is thirsty. This is life-giving also. This becomes Sabbath, too.

And what happens when the heart and spirit behind Sabbath loses its meaning, and laws become rules to simply imprison people? The question of Sabbath keeping was complicated and holy. Jesus cared about life and relationships. Jesus understood that Sabbath laws were meant for God’s people, not the other way around.

We are God’s people. We are so desperately in need of Sabbath rest and renewal and relationships. Yet, we too, like the Pharisees lose the heart and spirit behind the meaning of Sabbath. Come join us for worship, as we remember that we are people of the Sabbath. We belong to God and to one another and need our rest and worship.

June 23, 2023 – Matthew 12: 22-37

Jesus forgives our sin. Except when he doesn’t.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record (with minor variations) Jesus’ warning about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit as the unforgiveable sin. Usually, we tip toe around this text in our preaching. Preachers worry that it may unduly disturb listeners. It raises a whole host of questions about how Jesus forgives and saves and how we participate in that action. Specifically, it raises the specter (perhaps literally) that there are entities and agencies directly opposed to Jesus and by extension to God’s work and intentions.

The Gospel of Matthew is clear. God is not the only supernatural power at work in the world. God’s Kingdom is not the only one seeking your commitment. To whom you align your life, whom you worship and follow, is a choice. And we are free. We get to choose. Over and over again Jesus emphasizes in Matthew’s Gospel exercising that choice wisely choosing life.

I believe that God forgives all sin except this one not so much because God will not but rather because God cannot and at the same time preserve human freedom. The only sin that cannot be forgiven is the utter rejection of God’s forgiveness and the repudiation of God’s grace. If you choose to opt out of God’s love, that is on you. God cannot forgive secession from forgiveness itself because such forgiveness would necessarily defeat human will and remove human choice. God loves us, but also respects our freedom as creatures, free to love or not.

What matters is how we choose.

June 16, 2023 – Matthew 11:7-24

Early in Matthew’s gospel, John the Baptist proclaims:

This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’

Jesus now sings the praises of John, the one who went before and pointed to Jesus:

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Try as they might to prepare the people for the coming of God’s Kingdom in Jesus, the words of Jesus and John fall short on ears that hear. They hear but do not listen. They talk but do not speak. They are like children who call to one another, “Come dance; come mourn” but no one dances and no one weeps. Jesus calls to the people with an almost mournful voice but the righteous anger quickly builds.

This dance, this invitation, is an invitation to life. Come out of your places of death, and dance in this kingdom of life. But the people could not or would not see.

An invitation has been sent. Will we listen? Will we dance? Will we mourn the generations of our dissonance and doubts? God’s Kingdom has come in this person, Jesus, the one John the Baptist prepared the way. Come, let us worship together. Let us listen!

June 9, 2023 – Matthew 10: 34-42

In popular media one can often hear Christianity identified with family values. I don’t think Jesus ever got that message. Jesus is playing by a different script. He doesn’t fit into any of our categories and roles, not the norms of religion or politics or economics or even family. We usually assume that what we know, have experienced, and hold to be true is normal, natural, the way things should be, and that becomes the standard by which we measure — and judge — the thoughts and actions of others. And if someone does not live up to those norms we label them abnormal, deviant, crazy, or even possessed. You can understand why many of Jesus’ listeners thought he was crazy. You can turn your back on many things in ancient Israel. You cannot turn your back on family.

Jesus’ whole ministry thus far has been about announcing a new vision of God and a new vision of what God is up to in the world. And at the heart of that vision is his commitment to rescue and redeem the family of God’s people. And that family is a lot bigger than anyone expected. The family of God, according to Jesus is accessible to every one of us, not just the religious folks. Instead, Jesus is shaping a new family defined not by religion, tribe, or genetics, but rather our shared commitments to God and to each other, defined by those binding relationships we call covenant. This new relationship, this new family identity as part of the people of God sets lots of people free for the first time, especially people who had been ostracized and shunned by polite society. But Jesus’ reframing of religion and family also has a more poignant consequence. Jesus’ new identity for you and every human being necessarily undermines every human identity based on our constructions like politics, economics, race, class, even religion, tribe, and yes even family.

Jesus is never about reinforcing old family values. He is all about inviting us into a new family that we never knew existed.

June 2, 2023 – Matthew 10: 1-23

Discipleship is hard. Jesus does not sugar coat the truth for the Apostles (literally those who are sent out). They will face hardship, failures, hunger, rejection, abuse, ridicule, and imprisonment. Nonetheless, they go. They go not because they hope that they will somehow succeed in building up the Kingdom of God on earth. They go because that is who and what they are, apostles, those who are sent.

Our modern obsessions with achievement and meritocracy have a hard time making sense of the Apostles’ ministry. Reading Acts, they tend to lurch from failure to failure with boundless enthusiasm. We think Peter got crucified in Rome for his efforts. We really are not sure about the rest. Indeed, other than Peter and Judas, we do not know what happened to them. The Gospels and Acts cannot even agree on all their names. Whatever they did is lost to us.

I wonder what drove them onward despite resistance, hostility, and failure? They could not have seen much success in their lifetimes. I suspect that their identity, worth, and purpose was not grounded upon their success, but simply in following. It was not the the success or achievement that changed them. What transformed them was obediently following and in doing so, participating in Christ’s work in the world.

Sometimes in the church we like to say things like we are building the Kingdom of God on earth. That is more than a bit presumptuous. Only God builds the Kingdom of God, not us. But despite our follies and failures, we do get to participate. Our participation does not so much build up the Kingdom as build us up to live into God’s Kingdom.

We do not save the world. That job is already taken, thanks be to God. All we need to do is follow.

May 26, 2023 – Matthew 9: 9-13, 18-26

Take a moment for some sympathy for Jesus’ critics. They have a point. The Jewish religious leaders, most notably the Pharisees in the Gospel of Matthew, are trying to hold together a people, nation, and a tradition under enormous threat. The overwhelming cultural, economic, and military power of the Roman Empire threatened to annihilate them. When Matthew was written, Rome had already obliterated the Temple, destroyed the entire temple sacrifice system that mediated the relationship between God and humanity, murdered all the priests and scribes, and sold a large percentage of the population off into slavery. It is not surprising given those circumstances that the Pharisees were a wee bit sensitive in matters of Jewish identity and the boundaries of their community. Indeed, it is because of their attention to those matters that there are still Jews in the world today.

The problem is that Jesus has a different purpose in mind for Israel beyond survival. He wants Israel to be the means through which God will redeem, heal, and save humankind. Jesus embraces a particular sort of messiahship based not so much on a renewed Davidic monarchy, but rather a transformational sort of second Moses who will both call and then send Israel off towards its ultimate destiny as a means of saving the whole world. That sweeping vision and destiny will collide with Jewish leaders who are simply trying to get by.

In Matthew, Jesus first preaches and then demonstrates. In calling Matthew, a corrupt and rapacious tax collector, he befriends and enlists an enemy of the common people. In doing so he demonstrates that calling really has nothing whatsoever to do with us or our merit, only the hopes of the one doing the calling. He then goes on to welcome two women back into community who had been excluded by disease and the ultimate separation of death. In all these examples, Jesus chooses embrace, association, and inclusion over the boundaries of community definition. That is how Jesus will heal the world, not by keeping it at a distance, but by drawing to it more closely than we can possibly imagine.

May 19, 2023 – Matthew 8:28 – 9:1

Our story for this Sunday is not any easy story to hear. Jesus casting out demons from two tortured men, commanding the demons into a herd of swine who then run off a high cliff into the sea and drown – that is a disturbing story!

Matthew’s version of this story is short and lacks details. Mark’s version of this story is packed with details, including the number of swine in the herd – two thousand swine! Chaos, fear, mystery, power, and awe are all woven together into our short passage of scripture.

It is easy to get stuck on the disturbing detail of the entire herd of swine – someone’s livelihood – running off the cliff to their death, and understandably so. But Matthew’s gospel gives little detail about the swineherds or the healed demoniacs or even the townsfolk who were witness to it all. Matthew’s gospel cares only about one thing – Jesus as victor over all powers of evil; Jesus as God’s supreme agent against all evil and chaos.

This is a story about the cosmic conflict over evil and the divine authority of Jesus! Even the demons knew Jesus for who he was – the Son of God! Just one word from Jesus, and the demons are gone!

In our world filled with evil and chaos and suffering and pain, God has conquered death and evil in the resurrected One, Jesus the Christ. We need not fear because God has the final word in this broken, painful, and evil world. Who is this man who calms the sea and cast out the demons with just one word? Come and see!

May 12, 2023 – Matthew 8:18-27

Youth Sunday
“Why Are You Afraid”

The Youth of Fairmont will be leading worship this Sunday at the 10:30 a.m. service. The liturgy, prayers, scripture, children’s time, tech, and music will be led by our amazing youth! Pastor Brian will be preaching a sermon just for the youth of our congregation. It will be a meaningful morning of worship.

In Matthew’s gospel, chapter 8, Jesus has finally found a place “to rest his head” as he is sound asleep on a boat, on the Sea of Galilee, with his disciples. Due to its low-lying position in the rift valley, surrounded by hills, the Sea of Galilee is prone to sudden violent storms. And so, the disciples find themselves being tossed about by a violent windstorm, waves wildly rocking the boat.

All the while, Jesus is sound asleep, apparently finding much needed solace and rest in the wave-rocked rhythm of the boat. Ever the anxious ones, the disciples cry out to Jesus:

“Lord, save us! We are perishing!”

I find myself relating to that one verse a lot more than I should! Anxiety, fear, desperation, and worry all seem to be my “go to” language these days. The disciples were terrified. They were also baffled as to why Jesus was asleep in the midst of such a storm. Jesus meets the disciples where they are – in the midst of fear – and rebukes the wind and the sea bringing instant calm and peace. Jesus also gently rebukes the disciples, too! “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?”

We all live with anxiety, especially these days. Our youth carry an extra heavy burden of anxiety in the midst of these days of post-pandemic, changing culture, violence, bullying, war, and constant media lies that tell them they are not worthy of love.

Come join us for worship this Sunday – regular worship at 8:30 a.m. and Youth Sunday worship at 10:30 a.m. Together in worship as God’s people, we will hear the calming words of Jesus, “Do not be afraid.”

May 5, 2023

Sunday is our annual special music Sunday when we celebrate God’s gift of music and the gifts of Fairmont’s musicians. One of the original words for worship in the New Testament is Leitourgia from which we get our word liturgy. The word does not mean the spoken parts of worship or responsive readings. It literally means “the work of the people.” That is what worship really is, the common, shared work of devotion, praise, confession, and learning together through and in God’s Word. It is always a corporate and participative event. And nowhere in our worship is that more obvious than on music Sunday because the primary instrument of music making is you, the people of God, raising your voices in prayer.

It is reported by some that Saint Augustine once said, “when we sing, we pray twice.” When we sing aloud, we sing the literal words of the hymn, anthem, or spiritual song and they all are in the form of prayer. Sometimes they are the hymns of the Bible drawn from the Book of Psalms like our Doxology (Psalm 100) and our second hymn (Psalm 150). Sometimes they are songs of praise and adoration like our third hymn, All Creatures of our God and King. Sometimes they are confessions of our faith like I Believe in God the Father. And sometimes they express our hope for our future in God’s Kingdom like our benediction response, My Life Flows On. All our hymns are a form of shared communal prayer.

But music is more than its lyrics. When voices are raised together in song several amazing things happen altogether. Music touches our hearts bypassing our well-tended reason in ways prose cannot. Music can be a direct, affective expression of feeling. And when we do it together, something we call harmony, we provisionally demonstrate almost as an acoustic icon what that communion in our diversity, what God ultimately intends for all people, sounds like. I do not know what the Kingdom of God looks like, but I have a pretty good idea of what it sounds like. It sounds like a vast choir composed of infinite voices each making a unique contribution that at the same time produces a shared theme that is deeper, grader, and more expansive than any individual voice could ever produce. We sing together because it reminds us, as a sort of acoustic icon, of our home and homecoming. It is not that in heaven there will be music as a soundtrack, rather heaven is like music itself.

Come and join us. Come and join the song.

My life flows on in endless song;
  Above earth’s lamentation,
 I catch the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn
  That hails a new creation;
 Thro’ all the tumult and the strife
  I hear the music ringing;
 It finds an echo in my soul—
  How can I keep from singing?

April 28, 2023 – Matthew 5:14-29

After ten weeks and three chapters of the Gospel, we finally come to the conclusion of The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ longest and most demanding teaching on what it means to live as a human being the way God intends.

For Matthew and the other Gospels, Jesus is not concerned with creating a new religion. Jesus is instead concerned with creating a new humanity: women and men who no longer live in bondage to this world and its ways, people finally freed from every anxiety, even that of death, so that we can love each other and God fully and completely just as God intended from before Eden. Jesus is seeking nothing less than to create a new and you me.

Our problem is of course that we do not want to do that. We prefer our own anxieties, attachments, desires, shames, judgments, and pride. We want what we want and we get upset at anyone, including God, who suggests we might consider upgrading our desires to something a bit more fulfilling. God tries to teach us, but we did not and do not listen. So, we put The Sermon on the Mount on the top shelf out of reach lest it trouble our consciences. And for those who take Jesus’ sermon seriously, people like Bonhoeffer, King, Romero, and Gandhi, the world tends to kill them young just as it did to the sermon’s author.

Taking the sermon as a whole, you can read it two ways. You can read it as a vast extension of the law, 33 or so incredibly demanding statutes that we are unlikely to fulfill. If it is simply law as we understand that term, then these are the criteria by which we will be judged regardless how demanding. How exactly does one “be perfect as your Father above is perfect?” Alternatively, you can read it as practice manual, not criteria by which we are judged, but rather a detailed description of the patterns of practice that can and will change our lives if only we try. It all comes down to a fundamental question of how you understand Jesus’ mission and purpose. Did Jesus come to judge us or did Jesus come to save us?

What we do matters. How we speak, how we behave, how we love matters. Those behaviors, chosen over and over again across a lifetime redefine not just our rational thoughts but the depths of our hearts.

Jesus ends the sermon. The lesson is over. It is time to leave the mountain.

. . . And follow.

April 21, 2023 – Matthew 9:25-34

How might your faith, indeed your life, be different if the first and greatest commandment in scripture, the most essential divine mandate that shaped our living was not to love God with all our heart and mind and strength, let alone any of the ten or the other 613 commandments, but simply this: Do not worry?

Maybe it is.

Behind all our other problems, lurking somewhere behind pride, shame, despair, gluttony, rage, greed, lust, envy, and sloth lies their all too familiar, universally human precursor: fear. We are afraid that we will not have enough, afraid that we will not be enough, afraid that we will die, afraid that we will live, afraid of pain, afraid of boredom, afraid of others, afraid that we will be less than others, afraid of age, afraid of failure, afraid of success, afraid of labor, afraid of love, afraid of being alone, afraid of being seen, afraid of being overlooked, afraid that nothing matters, even more afraid that everything matters, and afraid that it all will come to a final end in death. Because of that fear—take your pick–we do horrible things to this world, to other people, and to ourselves. And then we look around and ask why God has abandoned us and wonder why.

The truth is so much simpler. It is simpler than a child’s lesson. It is in fact the lesson of a flower or a bird. Know what you are. Know whose you are. Then be that with pure conviction, trust, and confidence. And if you do that you will not merely be content. You will be beautiful.

The flower and the bird do not know many things. They only know one thing. They are completely and utterly dependent on God. Their lives are short. They may experience pain and death, but not fear. Their silence is their testimony of witness to their identity and relationship to the creator. They forget even themselves. Devoid of care or regret they are free to finally be the creature they were meant to be. And as such they are the glory of God manifest within this creation. What Jesus promises those who would follow is that you can be so too.

The way to the Kingdom of God is simple. Let go. Let it all go. Let go of fear. Let go of attachment. Let go of ego. Finally, one day, let go of life. Jesus did.  In theology we call that letting go, that process of self-emptying, Kenosis. It is what Jesus does on the cross. Emptied of everything other than utter reliance, dependence, and trust upon God, Jesus literally falls into everything. Emptied of everything in this life, Jesus falls upward into the Kingdom. And if we follow him and learn his ways, so can we.

April 14, 2023 – Matthew 7:1-14

God calls us daily to live into the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. As we near the end of the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus’ teaching on how we live into God’s Kingdom here and now – we are ever aware that this “living into God’s Kingdom” is a struggle!

We long to:
-love our neighbors
-do unto others as they would do unto us
-turn the other cheek
-enter the narrow gate
-pray always

But somehow our brokenness and sin gets in the way!

This Sunday we will look at that narrow gate and long road to faithfully living out the Kingdom of God here on earth. We are on this road together as God’s people, and we need each other to stay true to God’s calling. In the end, love is the way. Always, love is the way to live out God’s Kingdom.

But along the way there are sacred and holy things we are to keep and do in order to love one another and love God. Those sacred and holy things have everything to do with our relationships with one another as we trudge through this life together. God’s way is not easy, and we cannot do it alone.

Let us join together in worship this Sunday, as we seek God and God’s Kingdom together.

April 7, 2023 – Matthew 28: 1-10

We tend to sentimentalize it all. Our greeting cards portray it as either a vague sentiment of hope or some extended metaphor of new life. We domesticate Easter to keep it safely under wraps. But there is nothing safe or tidy about what Easter recounts. God’s revolution has begun.

He was dead. Really truly dead. That is the whole point of waiting three days. Jews believed that after three days the soul had departed the body. All his followers, except a few brave women, had abandoned him . . . or worse. The women go and do what brave women throughout the Middle East still do. They clean and anoint the body for final burial. But there is a problem. He is not there. Grave robbery would be terrible and profoundly disrespectful. But what they faced was something far more unsettling. He was not actually missing at all. He had been resurrected. He had been transformed into that kind of human life that God ultimately intends for us all. And in doing so, as perhaps the greatest act of cosmic vandalism ever, God broke death. It still exists. It just does not work right anymore. It no longer has a door that will close. From now on, the dead will not stay dead.

Let’s be clear. Resurrection is not the belief in eternal life. Lots of pagans in Jesus’ day believed in that. Resurrection is the uniquely Jewish and then Christian description of God not restoring life but transforming it qualitatively. Resurrection is the transformation of mortal existence into the kind of life God ultimately intends for all people and all creation. Resurrection is not the belief that you go to heaven when you die. Resurrection is what happens when this world and heaven become the same place. Jesus is simply the first, the prototype, a new Adam, of this new kind of existence.

If the dead will not stay dead, then almost all our tired assumptions about life are simply wrong. The powerful, absent their control over our fear of death, have good reason to be worried that their rule is coming to an end. Those who mourn will embrace those they love again and celebrate. Our fears of failure, abandonment, isolation, and death will seem distinctly short sighted. And those qualities that appear now as so fleeting—mercy, compassion, beauty, truth, kindness, and love—will finally be revealed to be far more durable than death.

All of it begins at Easter, in an empty secondhand tomb, in a disused quarry, just outside the Joppa Gate of Jerusalem, over a long weekend in the spring of 33 AD.

The universe changed. And that change is not yet over. Happy Easter, but more importantly trust in the Resurrection.

–Brian

March 31, 2023 – Matthew 6: 19-21

It was a rag tag group that wandered in from the shantytown on the back side of the Mount of Olives. His disciples “borrowed” a donkey for him. It was not a sign of humility. Quite the opposite. It was a sign that the final king of the Jews had arrived (check out 1 Kings 1:33-48 and Zechariah 9:9). His more fervent followers cut down branches from the trees to waive overhead and carpet his pathway just like they did centuries earlier for Simon Maccabee (1 Macc. 13:51). And the crowds cried out Hosanna, which literally means, “save us,” which seems oddly fitting since Jesus real name, Yeshua literally means, “God saves.”

It is a beautiful inspiring sight watching the parade wind its way down the Mount of Olives and across the Kidron Valley. But any politically astute observer that day would have concluded that there was only one way this enthusiastic street theater would end. There was only one way that anyone advanced by his supporter as an alternative to Caesar would end.

Palm Sunday is about many things, most of them bad. The ironies of politics and human religion are on full display. But most of all, Palm Sunday is a question for us. What kind of Messiah are you looking for and what kind do you find? What kind of Kingdom do you really want?

On Thursday night, the crowds expressed their dissatisfaction with the answer as they changed their shouts from Hosanna to Crucify Him.

The question for us this week is the same they faced. What sort of kingdom and what sort of kind do we seek?

March 24, 2023 – Matthew 6: 1-15

The normal human response to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is despair. We are simply not up to it. If this is what Jesus has in mind for human life, we’ve got a big problem. The Sermon on the Mount is much more popular as an aspirational ideal rather than a blueprint for our lives and world. Indeed, the world has nasty habit of murdering people (like Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and Oscar Romero) who suggest that we should actually do what Jesus said.

I do think we should do what Jesus said. But I also recognize that we cannot do it alone. After deconstructing and reconstructing Torah and all the ways in which our wants and desires get us into trouble, Jesus changes the subject. He starts talking about worship. He starts talking about prayer. And for Jesus that is always something we do together.

The problem is that for many people, worship is what pushes them away from God. More specifically, other worshippers push them away from God. That is a problem. Jesus suggests remedies that are designed not so much to inform our liturgical practices as to improve our relationships in the pews.

Then he moves on to the solution for all the moral, spiritual, ethical, and economic challenges he has already saddled us with and that solution is prayer. His prayer. The Lord’s Prayer.

The Lord’s Prayer is the hinge of the Sermon on the Mount connecting its ethical imperatives with God’s gracious embrace of precisely those who are going to mess up again and again. He teaches us to ask for and to extend forgiveness precisely because we are going to fail to live up to the standards he already described. That is alright. There is a solution. Instead of impossibly strict moral perfectionism, we are slowly being perfected through belonging and participating in family. For that is what we are. With God as our loving and patient parent we are all siblings sharing in the family business which is the salvation of the world. And we participate in that great work every time we forgive just as we ourselves are forgiven.

There is something better than perfection. Belonging.

March 17, 2023 – Matthew 5:38-48

As God’s people, we live in the profound tension of living in the here-and-now and the not-yet. We live with the awareness of God’s kingdom realized here on earth through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and God’s perfect kingdom that is yet to come. And as God’s people who are broken and sinful, we are painfully aware that we are incomplete and not yet whole, strive though we may to faithfully live into that kingdom.

As we continue our study of the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew, we are continually reminded that Jesus calls us to live in a new way – a radical new way set apart from the selfishness and fear of our world. But living this radical kingdom of love seems truly impossible at times.

How do we do what Jesus has called us to do? How do we love our enemies? How do we turn the other cheek? And how do we live into the command “to be perfect as God is perfect?” It is an honest struggle.

There are no easy answers to these questions. Only the gift of knowing that God’s Spirit changes our hearts and empowers us do what seems impossible – live into this glorious kingdom here and now. And we need one another to live into this kingdom of love, this radical kingdom of love.

Come join us for worship, fellowship, and connection as we seek to be faithful to who God calls us to be.

March 10, 2023 – Matthew 5:27-37

Divorce is hard. I do not know anyone who has ever celebrated it. But I do know those for whom it came as a relief. Sometimes, the best one can choose is the least bad.

I wish we lived in a perfected world, a kinder, gentler, more compassionate, more truthful world. I suspect Jesus did too. But we do not. Our lives and our relationships are touched by the stain of separation and alienation that we summarily call sin. So, we do the best we can as we are–fearful flawed followers of a crucified Messiah.

The Sermon on the Mount is not a new statute book according to Jesus. It is a vision of life restored and perfected according to God. An important part of such life is togetherness. We are made for life together, with God and with other people. Jesus believed in this so strongly he would not let death separate us. But we are not Jesus. Sometimes, the pains and struggles of this life keep us separated indeed. But we do not need to add to those pains. The church does not need to heap shame and guilt on top of human suffering. That is not our role. People, left to their own devices, do that all on their own.

The role of the church is two-fold. First, we are a school reminding people of both what could be and how to make that possibility a reality. We share Jesus’ aspirations and his curriculum for transforming human identity. Second, we are a first aid station, tending to the soul-sick walking wounded with compassion, empathy, and love. We are a hospital for sinners staffed by sinners trying to share and show the love we have received. We do not do the actual work of healing, that is a bit beyond our paygrade. Instead, we try to help each other limp along until we are embraced and healed by the only one who can and will.

On Sunday we will consider some of Jesus’ teachings on desire, divorce, and telling the truth. Jesus did not share them with us to wound each other. He shared them with us to point the way forward to healing, wholeness, and hope.

March 3, 2023 – Matthew 5:21-26

Throughout the first few centuries of the Common Era, a vast conversation unfolded within Judaism about Torah, God’s commandments to human beings on how we should live our lives in relationship with God and each other. People talked, reasoned, and argued about how we could best keep the 613 commandments (sorry the first ten are just the tip of the iceberg). What they tried to develop was an applied understanding of how we could systematically live according to God’s commands. Sometimes this meant creating rules around the original rule to make sure that one never ever violates it. They called this process, “putting a fence around the Torah.” The fence was composed of the daily practices and prohibitions that if followed would keep you in the clear.

One of the early rabbis participating in this conversation was Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’ ideas about building a fence around Torah can be found in longest teaching on Torah, the Sermon on the Mount.

The Sixth Commandment prohibits unlawful killing, Thou Shall Not Murder. It seems straightforward. But Jesus now begins to build a fence around it. To make sure you should not murder, you should also not do any of those things that are precursors to or preconditions for murder. So, Jesus extends the commandment to include a prohibition on hateful anger, no name-calling, labeling, or slandering, no revenge or vendettas, no condemnation of another, because all of these things can lead to murder. So, in order to not kill, do not do any of those things.

Jesus’ unpacking of the commandment has another deeper purpose. He considers the meaning, purpose, and rationale for the commandment. Rather than rote compliance he asks to consider pursuing the goal or purpose for which God made the commandment in the first place. God made us for relationships with God and with other people. In order to live into that life, we need to reconcile with others who have wronged us, or we have wronged. So, Jesus extends the prohibition on murder into a positive mandate to reconcile.

Far from suspending or replacing the law of God, Jesus lives it and shows us how to live it as well, not as some checklist of rules to avoid punishment, but as a guide for a thriving life.

February 24, 2023 – Matthew 5:13-20

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is an actual sermon. That means it has a structure and pattern. It begins with a statement of its intended goal, the kind of life and world that God intends for all people. That end goal is a condition of shalom, God’s blessedness, rest, completeness, and satisfaction precisely for those who experience none of those things in this life. Jesus begins his sermon with his goal, blessed are those who experience no blessings today. By beginning his sermon with the beatitudes describing the end goal of the sermon and indeed of human life, Jesus shapes our interpretation of everything that will follow. Specifically, you must keep in mind that the beatitudes describe what Jesus is trying to achieve and the rest of the sermon details how it will be achieved.

The second introductory part of the sermon establishes Jesus’ sources and responds to an immediate objection. Jesus is going to rely completely on the teachings of God that have come before him. Jesus is going to creatively use and apply God’s teachings, the Torah, in new ways for new people. He is not going to invent a new Torah or replace the old one. Instead, he is going to do precisely what the Pharisees were also doing. He is going to articulate oral instructions on how to live into Torah as a guide for how to live and how to relate to God and other people. Of course, his oral instructions would be written down a generation later as the Gospels.

The great insight of Torah is that if you modify people’s patterns of behavior, over time you modify their hearts and minds. Jesus understands this and uses his sermon as an opportunity to begin to reprogram people’s lives and consequently their hearts through concrete actions and commitments. The Sermon on the Mount can therefore be understood to be the application and explanation of Torah, not its replacement.

What Jesus seeks is not changed ethics or even a changed society, but a transformed you and me. And the way Jesus is going to do that is one life at a time.

February 17, 2023 – Matthew 5, 6, & 7

The Sermon on the Mount – Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7 – set the gospel of Matthew apart from all the other gospels. Matthew gives us the precious gift of these sayings, commandments, and teachings of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most important collection of scriptures in our gospels, taking us back to the feet of Jesus as he teaches us how we live out this great new Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus takes us from the great ushering in of the Kingdom of Heaven drawn near, the eschatological rule that the prophets spoke of in the ancient scriptures, to the intimate interior of our faith reminding us of God’s nearness.

Beginning with the Beatitudes which remind us that God’s way of living is completely upside down from the way of society, to the Lord’s Prayer – that sacred prayer binding us to saints across the generations, to the gentle words of God’s provision when we are anxious and worried, to the deeply challenging words about possessions and vows of marriage, to the interpretation of the law of God, the Sermon on the Mount is the heart of the teachings of Jesus and how we live into this great new Kingdom of Heaven.

We will be journeying together through Lent with these challenging, comforting, and beautiful words of Jesus. This Sunday, Transfiguration Sunday, we will hear the words of the Sermon on the Mount in its entirety and we will share a Lenten Breakfast in between the worship services.

Come prepare your hearts and minds as we enter Lent this next week, as we share ashes on Ash Wednesday, and as we hear these sacred words of Jesus from the mountain.

February 10, 2023 – Matthew 4:12-25

Jesus has been baptized by John the Baptist, proclaimed as “Beloved” by the Spirit of God, led into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil, resisted the temptations thrown before him, and – after forty days – cared for by angels.

Baptized, called, tested, and cleansed, now Jesus is ready to begin with the Great Beginning, the ushering in of the Kingdom of God. The beginning of something completely new yet prophesied about for thousands of years. The beginning of something not just for this small community of faithful Jews but a new beginning for everyone – Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, male and female, young and old.

But Jesus cannot begin his proclamation of the good news of God’s new Kingdom alone. Jesus needs people to build this new Kingdom of God. And so Jesus goes fishing for fishers of people.

Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of people” Jesus cries out to Simon and Andrew, James and John on the Capernaum shore of the Sea of Galilee. And to our amazement, these first disciples leave immediately to follow Jesus.

The story of the Fishers of People is often preached as an individual call story – Jesus is calling you and me to follow him, to leave everything behind and follow this Rabbi from Nazareth. And it is a call story for each of us, but it is so much more than just that. This Great Beginning of the public ministry of Jesus is the beginning of that which was created and set in motion before creation – God’s redemption of all humankind, God’s new way of living as a community of God’s people. God’s covenant keeping for all.

And we are called to follow Jesus who has brought near the final arrival of God’s great eschatological rule. And it all begins here by the seashore at Capernaum.

Come, let us join together in worship this Sunday, to worship the God who has called us to be part of that Great Beginning!

February 3, 2023 – Matthew 4:1-11

Temptation gets a bad rap. For many people it summons up thoughts of ascetic puritanism. Alternatively, it conjures up a caricature of a little person in red spandex on you shoulder urging you to eat the chocolate lava cheesecake. The term is morally loaded, implying a seductive inducement to do something if not downright naughty, at least ill-advised. So, when we encounter a tiny little story in Matthew traditionally called, “The Temptation of Jesus,” we bring a lot of our imagination with us to the text.

The Holy Spirit is the real author of this story. It is the Holy Spirit, the one that just descended on Jesus in Baptism, that literally drags Jesus out into the desert. The Judean desert is rather devoid of everything human, a blank slate unshaped by culture or civilization. Out there Satan, literally the questioner (not yet quite Dante and Milton’s persona of supernatural evil), tests Jesus. That is what the term we so often translate as tempt or temptation literally means, to test, to prove, or to discover. Immediately after this test, Jesus commences his public ministry. Indeed, the whole rest of Jesus’ life and work may be the answer to this test.

Testing certainly sounds better to me than temptation. Testing is the moment when you prove yourself, the place where what you could be emerges to become what you are. Testing is where hope and possibility take on concrete form as a human life. Jesus has just been baptized in the Jordan. The voice booms over the waters, “you are my son, the beloved. In you I am well pleased.” It is great that God believes that and says that, but it would not matter at all if Jesus does not believe it himself and accept God’s pronouncement of his identity as his own. The moment of testing is when that happens, the moment that the son of God, the Messiah, steps into the fullness of his identity, vocation, power, and calling.

Matthew will not give us a simple answer to the precise nature of the identity Jesus adopted that day. Instead, Matthew seems far more interested in re-directing the question to us. You too have been baptized. You too have been declared a child of the Living God. In you too God is pleased. And you too have been tested, whether you realize it or not. So how do you respond? God gives us extraordinary gifts, but never coerces their acceptance. In those moments of testing when you can live into being one sort of person or another, who do you choose to be? The author of Matthew, Jesus, and most of all God await our answer.

January 27, 2023 – Matthew 3:1-12

We tend to dislike John the Baptist for the same reasons as Herod Antipas and his other critics. John calls us out, tells us the truth, and demands that we change our lives. We would much rather live our lives on our terms pursuing our own private pleasures. So, we tend to imagine John as a sort of cranky prophet out there in the desert proclaiming gloom and doom. Maybe it was eating all those bugs that put him in a bad mood?

John’s insistence results from a sense of urgency not grumpiness. He understands that the Kingdom of Heaven is coming soon. He desperately wants people to understand that much of our lives do not and will not fit into that Kingdom. So he implores us to change. Turn around, return, repent, before it is too late!

Contrary to the way he is often portrayed, John’s message and ministry are motivated by his compassion for the people, not judgment of them. He genuinely wants people to avail themselves of the gift and opportunity presented as Heaven condescends to earth. So he tries to warn them, tries to teach them, that in order to enter that approaching Kingdom, they will need to change their lives. Later in Matthew, Jesus will explain precisely what that changed kind of life looks like and lives like. We call Jesus’ unpacking of the sort of change John proclaimed, “The Sermon on the Mount.”

Beyond instruction, John offers us one final hope. No matter how badly we mess up, no matter how we confuse God’s life and our own desires, God will sift them apart. We call that judgment. It is not punishment. It is purification. Like any person attached to bad habits that do not lead to life, letting go may be painful at times. But letting go of what is not God is necessary for life.

January 20, 2023 – Matthew 2:19-23

Nazareth. It was not exactly a household name in the first century. You probably would not have found it on any maps. It had no claim to fame. It had no history we can discern. It is never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. A small village of perhaps 200-300 souls, it had no earthly reason to make it famous. And maybe that is precisely the point.

A proper Jewish messiah should come from a proper Jewish town. Jerusalem would be most fitting, but Bethlehem, Bethel, Hebron, and Modi’in would have been better choices. But not Nazareth. It was not even particularly Jewish. It was a ramshackle collection of cave huts perched on the hills outside of Sepphoris. Sepphoris got all the attention, “the jewel of the Galilee.” No one ever came from Nazareth, and no one ever paid attention to it.

Nazareth was on the frontier set between the Roman world and the Jewish one. Amid the Galilee of the Gentiles, its Jewish traditions would have rubbed uncomfortably up against their pagan neighbors.

Nazareth makes a horrible choice for messiah’s home . . . unless God had a very different sort of Messiah in mind. Not a Davidic King restored like Isaiah envisioned. Not the mysterious Son of Man as Daniel foresaw. But something, someone altogether different with a different aim and purpose, a Messiah not just for Israel but all humanity including the gentiles, a Messiah with a different purpose not merely liberating the people politically but freeing everyone from every bondage to which we are held in thrall.

A Nazareth Messiah does not merely restore Israel.

A Nazareth Messiah redeems the world.

January 13, 2023 – Matthew 2:13-18

In our journey through the gospel of Matthew this year, we move from the heart-warming, mystical story of the Magi bearing gifts for the Christ child, to a disturbing story that often does not make it into the common lectionary nor into our Sunday pulpits.

Matthew’s gospel uniquely brings us the story of the flight to Egypt by Joseph, Mary, and young Jesus in order to escape the terror of Herod the Great, and the horrific story of the massacre of the innocents by a paranoid and power-hungry Herod.

In this parallel story of Moses, Pharaoh, and the Exodus of God’s people out of Egypt, we see the infant Jesus as the new Moses who is called out of Egypt and will save God’s people. And tragically, we see the parallel of innocent children slaughtered in both the Exodus and the flight to Egypt, a heavy reminder that innocent children suffer everyday and evil is still rampant in our world.

Where do we journey in our faith with this difficult passage? How do we understand the coexistence of both God’s sovereignty and human choice? Why is Rachel weeping for her children? In this season after Epiphany, where is our hope of God’s presence and revelation to us in the midst of evil and suffering, especially the suffering of the innocents? And how do the waters of baptism tie us to this Christ child fleeing to Egypt?

Come join us as we worship and hear God’s word to us. Come be the covenant community of God together as we seek truth and God’s presence.

January 6, 2023 – Matthew 2:1-12

Have you put away your Christmas decorations yet? My mother used to always wait until after Epiphany to take her tree down and put her decorations away, but I enjoy the fresh start that comes with the turning over of a new year. I love to put the decorations away, clean the house, find homes for all of my new gifts and donate things that no longer serve me. I love to make New Years’ resolutions (and then promptly break them after three days). There is just something refreshing about getting back to a normal routine after the hustle and bustle of the holidays has come and gone.

And yet, I don’t see the Magi in Matthew hustling to get back to their own day-to-day schedules. They’d waited their entire lives to see the star that marked the birth of the Christ child and traveled for months (through some pretty treacherous territory) in order to reach him, and yet it feels like we are in more of a hurry to have it over with than they were. Why is that?

The Magi were not in a hurry to start fresh or get back to the way things had always been because they couldn’t. They understood that the arrival of God in the world meant that nothing in it, including themselves, could remain the same. What might our lives look like this New Year if we took our cue from these Zoroastrian priests, and chose another road by which to travel after Christmas? Let’s explore together.

Peace,
Rachel

December 30, 2022 – Matthew 1: 1-17

The Gospel according to Matthew does not begin with the birth of Jesus. It begins centuries before with Abraham. Abraham was the first person who embraced a relationship with this curious God of the desert who urged him to leave behind his settled life in Mesopotamia and go off to the undiscovered country and there start something genuinely new in human history, a community created and centered on its relationship with God. That community was first a family, albeit a rather dysfunctional one, and then a nation, and then many nations, and finally the three monotheistic faiths to whom belong the majority of human beings alive today.

Matthew begins his story of Jesus with Abraham because Abraham is the foundation of the story of the relationship between God and humankind. Matthew is therefore telling us that his story of Jesus will be in continuity with the Great Story of the Old Testament. The differences are that Jesus will both fulfill that relationship both from the human and divine sides in his person and will simultaneously expand that relationship to explicitly include all human beings and not just on the final day but today. The Hebrew Bible anticipates all people coming in the final days to Jerusalem to worship God in truth. Matthew moves up the timeline and says that day is today and the point of connection between God and the world is no longer a building, but a person, Jesus.

Along the way, Matthew will go into great detail to emphasize the earthy particularity of Jesus, his life, and his teaching. Matthew shares a rather scandalous family genealogy for Jesus. This is precisely the kind of genealogy that the proud priestly families of Jerusalem would have tried to hide. We know nothing about most of the people in Jesus’ family tree. But it includes four women, who should not be in a genealogy at all, who were not even Jews!

From the opening tongue-twisting family tree of Jesus, to the final commissioning 28 chapters later, Matthew is going to challenge and confound how we think of this God and the Messiah. The world would never be the same.

December 23, 2022 – Luke 2

Incarnation is the theological term that describes God assuming human flesh and taking residence among mortals within creation in the historic person of Jesus of Nazareth. Christmas is formally known as the Celebration of the Incarnation because the birth of Jesus (or arguably conception if you want to quibble) marks the beginning of a new phase of the relationship between God and humankind. The life of the God-man Jesus proves that humanity and divinity can operate as one in perfect union despite all the potential breakdowns in the relationship (e.g., almost all of the Old Testament). This possibility of intimate and harmonious relationship means that humanity’s potential destiny is now beyond anything we had ever imagined. Our future, our destiny, and our ultimate perfection lie in and with God.

Incarnation means the salvation of human beings and creation does not begin at Easter, but rather at Christmas. God becomes one of us entering into creation and now so identifies with creation and human life that our future is changed forever. God will not be God without us. By merely entering creation, God changes it. We literally live in a God-touched, God-haunted world. That connection cannot be undone. Creation has changed and is now inextricably linked to God’s own life and love. And it all begins in Bethlehem.

There is however an opposite movement, not from God, but from us. Excarnation is the opposite of Incarnation. Excarnation is the process exhibited in late modern societies of systematically removing all sense of a living God who takes on flesh and lives deeply into the world. Excarnation is not the same thing as atheism. It does not for example deny the existence of an abstract divinity, just one concerned with and directly involved in our lives and world. Excarnation can be found in many Christian communities. It is the alienated form of disembodied and flattened Christian faith. In such communities, people will readily confess that God exists, but no one suspects that God may actually show up or actually do anything in our lives. Excarnation can quickly collapse into self-justification, which is just a stylized form of idolatry, or ethics.

The challenge of the Incarnation, the challenge of Christmas is that it actually calls us into deeper engagement and participation with other people and the world because that is precisely where an Incarnate God may be found and encountered. The Word, truth, hope, and love do not come from outside the world but emerge within it.

Behind every Christmas carol we sing, within every candle we light, in every prayer that we pray in this season we are simply trying to point this world away from Excarnation towards Incarnation. We are trying to do precisely what those angels did for the shepherds did long ago. We are trying to point to where God can be found. Here. Now.

December 16, 2022 – Isaiah 35

It is not a new story. It is a very old story actually. You can read it in Luke and Matthew as the children will do on Sunday. But that is not the only place you can find it. The story is all over what we call the Old Testament in Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, Daniel, Ruth, Zechariah, Jonah, Malachi, and elsewhere. The story is simple as it repeats over and over again. This bad old world is not left abandoned to its bad old habits and their consequences. Something changes. Something, someone intervenes. First there is restoration and then return. The people are saved, most of all from themselves. The joy of what we call Christmas is not old, it is now and it is always. God is just like that. God intervenes when and where least expected and changes everything. God saves. Indeed that is precisely what his name literally means–Jesus.

December 9, 2022

On Christmas Eve 1918, the world was weary with the trauma of the First World War that had ended only a few weeks before. Millions would die that winter of the Spanish Flu, the first great influenza outbreak. The world felt shattered with countless lives broken. Old hope and countless dreams had been destroyed. It was from this collective experience of trauma, loss, and grief, that the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was born.

Lessons and Carols was a unique and uniquely simple service of worship that debuted that Christmas Eve at King’s College of Cambridge University. Professors, students, and townspeople were all invited to participate in a simple but profound retelling of the Great Story, from the first days of our disobedience to the salvation of all people in the life and love of Jesus the Christ.

Since 1918, the service or worship has been shared every year and since 1928 has been broadcast live throughout the world on BBC and in the United States on Public Radio. In Dayton you can listen to it starting at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday December 24 on WDPR.

The music changes every year except for the introduction that is always Once in Royal David’s City and is always led by a solo male chorister who is not informed of his internationally broadcast solo until moments before the service begins. The service of worship features Christmas carols that had previously been considered secular music unfit for Christian worship. The embrace of these carols effectively marked the church’s adoption of what most people today consider Christmas music.

On this Sunday morning at Fairmont it will be “our care and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the angels, in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and with the shepherds and the wise men adore the child lying in his mother’s arms.” Join us as we participate in a century old and globe spanning tradition of worship of the child of Bethlehem in music and Word. May we be ever mindful that the hope and love of that good news emerges not from some perfect idealized world, but rather precisely this fallen creation which so needs it.

December 2, 2022 – Micah 5:1-6

According to the Gospel of Matthew, when the Magi were searching for the newborn Messiah, they brought a guidebook with them. They brought the book of the Prophet Micah.

Micah wrote centuries before to the people of Judah besieged by the armies of Assyria and uncertain of their future. He wrote to people who were not certain if they had a future at all. Instead of hope, fear ruled their hearts as it does for most people most of the time. The citizens of Judah had put their hope and trust in their generally competent King Hezekiah and his wise policy of strengthening Jerusalem’s defenses. They trusted his foreign policy and its mutual defense treaties with neighboring nations. And they trusted in the priests and the Temple of Solomon that stood proudly on Mount Zion overlooking the city. Micah tells them, in no uncertain terms, that they were all trusting in the wrong things.

Your hope will not come from Jerusalem he tells them—not its armies, walls, monarchs, temple, or priesthood. Nothing that humans have made will save us. Instead, look somewhere else. Look to one of the least propitious places imaginable. Look to a tiny little hilltop hamlet six miles to the south, a little sheepherding and barley farming village perched on the edge of the Judean Desert. The name of that place was The House of Bread. You may be more familiar with that name in Hebrew: Bethlehem.

Advent challenges us to look beyond the bright lights and big productions. Advent challenges us to see through all the illusions of power, security, and control that we fabricate to keep our anxieties in check. Advent challenges us to look beyond our own hopes to God’s. And that hope comes looking for us in the least likely place imaginable for a people who need to learn how to imagine anew.

November 25, 2022 – Isaiah 9:1-7

This Sunday is the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new church liturgical year, and the beginning of the time we set aside to prepare our hearts, minds, bodies, and spirits for the coming of God in the Christ Child. Contrary to the hectic, harried hustle of holiday preparation around us, the season of Advent is an invitation to stop, breathe, listen, reflect, and receive.

In our scripture passage for this First Sunday of Advent, God’s people were living in a chaotic, fearful time. Isaiah, the 8th century prophet of the southern kingdom Judah, spoke to God’s people with words of both challenge and hope. The days were dark for God’s people. They were walking in darkness, unable to see any light before them. Their life as God’s people was being destroyed by enemies who surrounded them and hope was gone.

With the powerful images of light and dark, Isaiah speaks hope to their despair, and light to their darkness. Joy is coming in the birth of a child who will bring peace for God’s people. Thousands of years later, we see and know this child as our Savior, Jesus the Christ. But God’s people in the southern kingdom of Judah knew not who that child would be. They only knew that there was hope for the future. And that hope was enough to keep them going through the deep darkness. Out of darkness would come new life and light. The zeal of the Lord of hosts would do it!

Come join us for worship as we prepare our hearts for the coming of the Babe born in Bethlehem. In the Sabbath space of worship, all the noise around us will be silenced and God’s voice will ring clear.

November 18, 2022 – Daniel 7: 9-14

It may seem an odd choice to use an Old Testament reading for Christ the King Sunday. But Jesus himself never goes around calling himself King. Jesus never tells people to worship him as the Son of God. He actually gets upset whenever anyone suggests he is the messiah. The title that he does accept, embrace, and apply to himself over and over again is the Son of Man. Jesus directly quotes from Daniel 7 to describe himself, his mission and his purpose. So, while the church considers Jesus through 2000 years of theological encrustations, Jesus considers himself squarely through the lens of this most curious book of the Old Testament and its mysterious figure, the Son of Man.

The Son of Man is a notoriously slippery phrase. It could just as easily be translated from Aramaic as a human being. But Daniel does not use it quite that generically. Daniel uses the term to refer to a kind of human, kind of divine person who will be given sovereign rule over the nations and the world. That same Son of Man will then render final judgment on the nations.

On Sunday we will consider this most ancient and distinctive of Jesus’ own titles. Along the way we will ask what kind of Kingdom are we celebrating anyway and why it is good news for all.

November 11, 2022 – Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah rank among the least considered in scripture. They do not include any dramatic plot shifts, no burning bushes or giant floods, no big battles, and no salacious palace plots. Instead, they are about the rather undramatic but important work of community development. Ezra rebuilt the temple. Nehemiah rebuilt Jerusalem’s walls.

Ezra and Nehemiah are set after all the dramatic events of the Hebrew Bible. About 75 years after Jerusalem and Judah were destroyed by the Babylonians, the Babylonians were in turn destroyed by the Persians (there’s always a bigger fish out there). Under more permissive Persian management, the Jews were permitted to return home and begin to rebuild their homes.

The Book of Ezra the priest is all about the restoration and reforms of Judaism as it transformed itself from the national cult of Judah into a world religion. Nehemiah was however an administrator and Persian civil servant. As cup bearer to the Shah, he had special access and authority. He used that authority to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

One of the first problems that the people returning from exile confronted was a lack of physical security. Bedouin nomads would regularly raid the rag tag construction site that was Jerusalem carting off treasures and sometimes people. Faced with acute underpopulation and a labor shortage, Nehemiah’s first problem was to establish physical security for the people. Walls and civic defenses may not seem like the work of ministry, but they were the necessary precondition for all further reform and worship.

Today is Veteran’s Day, a day to remember and express gratitude for those who given so much for our lives and welfare. Their contribution is so fundamental that it sometimes goes unnoticed or unmentioned. But it is their sacrifice, labor, and achievement that provides the necessary precondition for God’s people to thrive.

The work of the people of God is not advanced solely by prophets and priests. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things build the foundations of the beloved community.  They have sacrificed so that we can worship, work, and grow.

To all those who have helped make and keep us safe, Thank You.

November 4, 2022 – Ezekiel 37:1-14

Prophecy is not about predicting the future. Prophecy is all about reinterpreting the present. The prophet sees beyond the passing illusions that cloud our perception to what is real and what is really going on. Prophets are truth tellers who refuse to submit to the lies we like to tell ourselves. This is why they are often so unpopular. A prophet’s job is to re-narrate the present in light of God’s purposes so that the people can better understand the context, cause, and meaning of their current conditions. Like a slowly turning focus dial on binoculars, the prophet uses words to paint a picture with ever greater clarity of the truth.

The Prophet Ezekiel peers beyond the extreme edge of human experience and witnesses the end. He is one of original deportees exiled from Judah following its conquest by the Babylonians. In some dusty village along the Tigris, he stares with unblinking attention where no one in Israel ever dared to look. He gazes into the uttermost void of the end of all things, the end of life, the end of Israel, the end of history, the end of the people’s relationship with God. And there he perceives what neither he nor any mortal ever expected: a new beginning.

The destruction of Judah and the Babylonian exile mark both a catastrophic end to the national cult of the House of David and a revolutionary turn in the history of God’s relationship with humanity. And Ezekiel is the first to notice. The new beginning will not be grounded in restored political institutions or national sovereignty. The new beginning will be grounded in human flesh. All of it. And we call that new beginning resurrection.

October 28, 2022 – Jeremiah 32:1-3, 6-15

What should you do when your world is coming to an end? That is the question and predicament facing the supremely contrarian prophet Jeremiah during the long hot summer of 587 BC. His homeland, the Kingdom of Judah, was occupied by the rampaging armies of Babylon. All that was left was the final holdout, the capital city of Jerusalem. Rather unhelpfully, the prophet wandered the streets telling anyone who would listen that they were all going to die, and they might as well surrender now. Understandably, they locked him away.

From custody Jeremiah does something both astonishing and outwardly profoundly stupid. He buys real estate. Real estate in a nation on the eve of annihilation has a market value of exactly zero. It is a crazy transaction. Nevertheless, Jeremiah records the most detailed Biblical account of any legal transaction in scripture explaining all the precise legal steps he takes to obtain title in fee simple absolute.

Jeremiah is not a real estate speculator. He is a prophet and his symbolic action points us not to future appreciation, but rather the ultimate nature of hope. Even in the face of the greatest lost imaginable, there is hope and it is right in front of us, although we may not see it in the moment. Hope has an identifiable location and shape guaranteed not by circumstance or our feeble efforts to control, but rather by the identify and character of God. God is our redeemer.

In ancient Israelite law, property could never ultimately and finally be lost as long as some older member of the family was willing to pay off the debts. This benefactor who guaranteed the integrity of the family’s future was called the redeemer.

What Jeremiah understood and what none of his contemporaries could perceive was that Israel’s hope did not ultimately rest on the Covenant or its fulfillment, let alone its political fortunes. Israel’s hope rested on the simple fact that its redeemer lived and cared.

And so does ours.

October 21, 2022 – Isaiah 49: 1-7

The middle part of the Book of Isaiah contains three famous poems or songs that are known as the Servant Songs. Each of these songs paints a picture of a servant of God who is both subject to all sorts of failures and sufferings but who will be both protected and ultimately vindicated by God. The question is, who is this servant?

Ancient Israel and modern Jews said it was a poetic reference to the people of Israel. Since the time the Gospels were written, Christians have cherished these songs as prophecies of the coming of the Messiah Jesus. Alternatively, the servant could simply be the author of the songs or even the reader. One of the qualities of great poetry is that it sustains more than one reading with more than one meaning. So, for me, I see no need to decide. Instead, I just read it again and get lost in the images.

I love the image that we are God’s knife, sharpened to a razor’s edge or a finely honest arrowhead. Those are martial images suggesting conflict, but they are simply tools wielded by the will of God. And notice they remain hidden, concealed in the deep shadows of God’s hand or down in the deeps of God’s quiver. That is where I want to be. Hidden in God. Hidden alongside all the other arrows. Just waiting for the right moment to be used.

The servant songs will end in Isaiah 52-53 with the image of the servant suffering vicariously for the people and through those wounds healing the people. The burden is unimaginable. Such a burden could not be borne but for the constant reassurance the we first belong to the hidden places of God from which we find our strength.

October 14, 2022 – Isaiah 6:1-11a

The call story of Isaiah the prophet was a full sensory experience: Sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell! And it was a “whole being” experience, too! Physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual.

Envision this:
-Almighty God seated on the throne, high and lofty
-the skirt of the robe of God filling the Temple
-six-winged seraphim hovering over God and singing “Holy, holy, holy”
-smoke from the altar filling the room
-pillars of the Temple swaying from the sound of the seraphim’s voices

The holy sight of God, the sound of the seraphim singing, the smell of the smoke from the coals of the altar, the taste of the burning coals on Isaiah’s lips, and the touch of the tongs bringing cleansing and forgiveness.

Isaiah knew without a doubt that God was calling him to speak God’s truth to God’s people, Israel. And this God would give Isaiah all he needed to heed this call and respond humbly, “Here Am I. Send me.”

Being a prophet was a tough job. Isaiah knew from the very beginning that God’s people would fail and would follow their own way. Isaiah lived with the reality of the failure and fear and unfaithfulness of God’s people, and yet he said, “Send me.”

Come join us this Sunday for a very special Children’s Sabbath Sunday which will be led by the children of the church, as we hear again our call to be God’s voice and presence in this world.

October 7, 2022 – Jonah 4:6-11

Jonah is an easy character to despise or, at the least, to point a finger at as one we would never emulate.

In the four short chapters of the Book of Jonah, Jonah the prophet:

-disobeys God’s command to go to Nineveh and call them to repent
-flees to Tarshish which is the complete opposite direction of Nineveh
-boards a ship, causing God’s wrath to bring about a mighty storm
-gets thrown overboard and swallowed by a great fish
-gets vomited up on dry land
-finally obeys God and goes to Nineveh
-screams at God when the Ninevites actually repent
-pouts under a shade bush and asks God to take his life

Jonah is having a rough time!

It is not until we realize who the Ninevites were that we begin to have some compassion for Jonah. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, the savagely cruel military power of the Bronze Age. In 721 B.C. Assyria captured the Northern Kingdom of Israel and took the ten tribes into captivity. Twenty years later Assyria attempted to besiege Jerusalem, bringing devastation to towns and villages throughout the Judean countryside.

God is asking Jonah to preach repentance to one of Israel’s greatest enemies and when the Ninevites actually repent, God shows them mercy and forgives them. That is a tough pill for Jonah to swallow!

You see, God is a god of justice but God is also a god of mercy. And even people as cruel as the Ninevites and as broken as Jonah are under the grace and salvation of God.

Come join us this Sunday as we revisit an old, old story in a beautiful, new way.

September 30, 2022 – Leviticus 16 (Selected Verses)

The story of the Exodus recounted across the books of the Torah is filled with the Hebrews protests, complaints, repudiations, and abandonments of God. Time and again, Moses steps forward on behalf of the people. The troublemakers are punished. The people repent. And Israel is saved. But what happens when you no longer have Moses around?

Moses was a unique charismatic prophet. Aaron and the priests who followed him were not. They provided the ongoing means by which the people’s relationship to God could be maintained. Not every generation has a Moses and life would be unbearable if we never knew what we needed to do in order to be forgiven. So, God provides a way, a ritual, a habit of repentance, a ritual method for forgiveness.

The oddest part of this practice (still remembered on Yom Kippur, which falls this coming Monday) is the ritual of the two identical goats, chosen to be as similar as possible. Lots are drawn, one bearing the words “to the Lord,” the other “To Azazel.” The one selected to the Lord was offered as a sacrifice. The other set free to wander the hills, perhaps to an untimely end, perhaps not.

No one really knows who or what Azazel really was or is. Maybe it means a steep cliff or an abandoned wilderness place (Rashi). Maybe it means a fallen angel or demon as mentioned in Genesis 6:2 (Ibn Ezra). Maybe it was Satan (Nahmanides). Or maybe, it is simply the compound noun combining the word for goat (ez) and “go away” (azal). When the first English Bibles were translated William Tyndale rendered it as the “scapegoat” (i.e., the goat that escapes).

The curious thing about Yom Kippur is that it is the goat that is not sacrificed that receives the people’s sins. The goat, the scapegoat, receives our collective sin and goes far away never to be heard from again. It is not sacrificed as an atoning act of expiation; it is distantly removed as an act of purification. Forgiveness can always be granted by the one we have wronged. But shame sticks. God can forgive us of our guilt, those ways we have wronged God, but forgiveness alone cannot remove our sense of shame. Shame cannot be forgiven. It must be removed. And so goes the scapegoat carrying away our defilement that is the mark of shame. And it can only happen when the entire community as a community collectively shares in the process of confession, repentance, atonement, and purification. When we do this together, whole societies can be redeemed.

In the Christian tradition, we understand that this process of atonement was transferred to Jesus in his passion, death, and resurrection. Does Jesus combine the roles? There is certainly no more distant barren wilderness than hell. What if Jesus is not merely sacrifice for sin, but the one who removes it both collectively and individually away from our lives and this creation? What if Jesus does not merely forgive our sin, but so transforms it such that it no longer binds us?

September 23, 2022 – 2 Kings 5: 1-14

I have never really understood justice. A judge I once clerked for told me in a candid moment that law is the business of providing predictability and justice is just an occasional an incidental byproduct. Every time I think that I have a handle on justice it seems to vanish into the ether of personal interests and preferences. Nonetheless, the Bible in general and the Old Testament in particular focus on God’s passionate concern for justice in human affairs. The question is, what does that look like?

King Ahab of Israel has a very bad reputation in the Books of Kings. His wife Jezebel is portrayed as even worse. They arrange the murder of Naboth the vineyard owner whose sole offense was trying to comply with Torah and maintain his family’s land holdings. Naboth is wrongfully stoned on false charges of apostasy and sedition. Ahab and Jezebel’s crimes were murder, and therefore a violation of the Noahide covenant with all humanity, and the wrongful taking of real property forbidden under Torah, Ahab and Jezebel deserve death. Death is what the prophet Elijah promises them, and not just their death but the death of their whole family. Elijah gets a bit worked up in his rather salacious descriptions of just how that will happen. But then Ahab repents, and God appears to say, okay I won’t kill you. I will kill your children later on instead. And with this foreshadowing of the purges of Jehu, our story ends.

I know that God wants justice. I am just not so clear that is the outcome of this text. Naboth is not vindicated. He is just dead. It is not altogether clear who gets the land. Ahab appears to get off scot-free. Jezebel, the mastermind behind the operation, is threatened with some ambiguous end at some future date. Instead, horrible punishment is meted out to Ahab’s children who had nothing to do with the crime. So, we are left with the curious feeling that if this is what God’s justice looks like, it is a curious form of justice indeed.

Justice requires relationship and accountability and that seems to be what is sorely lacking. Kings have a nasty habit of pursing their own wants regardless of the people’s needs. Ahab is shamed into being more king-like, but in doing so becomes less human. Maybe that is where justice begins, the shared recognition that we are all together.

September 16, 2022 – 2 Kings 5: 1-14

He was not the sort of hero who was supposed to be saved. He was no hero at all, at least to Israel. His name was Namaan, and he was the conquering general of the arch enemy of ancient Israel, the Kingdom of Aram Haddad. Based on the archeological evidence we have found, it excelled at destroying Israelite cities. He was precisely the type of person that Israel’s covenant and its God were to protect against.

And look who comes seeking healing! Namaan and his entourage pull up before the prophet Elisha’s hut craving a dermatological consult. Elisha sends one of his assistants. Apparently, this is no big deal. Tell him to take a bath. After overcoming his initial resistance Namaan does so and is healed. The outsider with no claim upon God’s saving mercy comes looking for a miracle and is healed.

There are two grand traditions of testimony in the Hebrew Bible. One is the tradition of the Deuteronomist that what matters is Israel and Israel’s fidelity to the covenant. When Israel scrupulously obeys that covenant, Israel is rewarded and when it disobeys it is punished. The other arc of testimony is a bit fuzzier about the scope and conditions for God’s healing and mercy. Sometimes the outsiders are invited in. Sometimes God just bestows salvation on precisely those who least deserve it. And so Namaan is healed joining a long line of assorted outcasts and interlopers: Rahab and Ruth, Melchizedek and Cyrus, the Ninevites and Namaan, and later on a Roman Centurion’s servant, a Canaanite woman’s daughter, a repentant tax collector named Levi, and Ethiopian Queen’s eunuch, a gentile boy named Timothy, and in due time, you and me.

The mercy of God is far stranger than anything we have been led to expect.

September 9, 2022 – I Kings 8:22-30

The Temple stands at the very heart of Jerusalem. Thousands of years ago, the Jebusites worshipped their moon god on this windy ridge at the summit of the Judean Hills. Later Abraham would bring his son Isaac here, and more importantly they both went home again. Later David’s city would grow along the southern shoulder of the hill. Later Solomon would finally build a temple to the God of Israel, centralizing worship in this one location. And it would all be swept away a few centuries later by the Babylonians and rebuilt (admittedly rather shabbily) under Nehemiah. In the decades before Jesus’ birth, Herod the Great (whose Jewish credentials were a wee bit questionable) expanded and transformed it into the wonders of the Roman world. Jesus however was not terribly impressed. The entire magnificent structure was finally completed sometime around 55 AD, only to be torn down by the Romans in 70. The massive ashlar blocks of its proud walls still lie in a jumbled pile.

You cannot read the Bible or walk across Jerusalem without running into the Temple. It occupies an artificial mountain equal in size to 25 football fields. It occupies a far larger space in the history and hope of Judaism and Christianity. And yet, the Temple is an ambiguous place. Up until its construction, God had seemed to avoid settling down. The God of Israel was by definition not a god of place like so many other ancient deities. This God seemed most content prowling around the deserts or tagging alongside the people in a pup tent set up just outside their camp.

I suspect, like so many other holy things touched by human beings, that the Temple was both a symbol of God’s sovereign presence with God’s people and a monument to the authority and vanity of the kings who built it. It is both a locus of holiness where God’s presence could be uniquely experienced and the center of national authority and prestige. No wonder Jesus was so ambivalent about the Temple.

King Solomon had a clear agenda of centralizing the nation in his throne on that day when he consecrated the temple. But amid his speech he said more than he realized. “Will God dwell upon the Earth?” It is a good question. It fundamentally asks about relationship. What and where is God for us and with us? Is God in a marble chamber or in the highest heaven or closer than we can possibly imagine? How we answer that question defines both the nature of our faith and the God we follow.

September 2, 2022 – I Samuel 15:35-16:13

The old prophet Samuel is sent off to find the new King for Israel. He interviews several outwardly suitable candidates, but there is something wrong with each of them. He asks if they have any other brothers. They tell him, just their youngest brother. They did not even bother to invite him to the lineup. He is out watching the sheep. Samuel tells them to summon him. Immediately the prophet recognizes what the brothers never could. This diamond in the rough is the future King. He has an inner quality that only God could see and, on that basis alone, is worthy of the crown. Samuel anoints David as the King of Israel, and the rest is history.

That is how we normally tell Sunday’s scripture lesson. The problem is that is the basic plot of Cinderella, not the Book of Samuel. While Cinderella provides a morally comforting fable, the Bible is a bit more disturbing. There is nothing wrong with David’s brothers, hidden or apparent. No fault or defect is mentioned. There is nothing particularly right about David. No hidden virtue or talent is even mentioned. And the text never actually says that God sees something hidden in the brothers’ hearts, it says that God sees with God’s own heart. We like to make this story all about the hidden prince who does not know his own power (think Luke Skywalker, King Arthur, and Harry Potter). But what this story is really about is God.

God chooses David as King. There is absolutely no explanation for God’s choice. It is that choice and that choice alone that makes him King. No hidden royal attributes are ever mentioned. Instead, what lies concealed in David’s character will only emerge when as King he is unshackled from moral restrictions and almost none of it is good.

God chooses as God chooses. That is tremendously frustrating and confounding. But that inscrutable unmerited choice is precisely what we call grace.

August 26, 2022 – 1 Samuel 8: 4-22

God has one continuous plan for the redemption of humanity and the name of that plan is covenant. The covenant works like this. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will be our God and will be God’s people. There are lots of details and expectations along the way like from God’s perspective resistance to idols and from our perspective a desire to saved when we mess up. But at its essence Covenant is all about commitment to a relationship. It is that commitment, that Covenant that gets forged at Sinai and carries the people into the promised land and sustains them even though they mess up over and over again (which is the essential plot of the Book of Judges).

But then things go wrong.

The people no longer want to be a nation defined and sustained by a relationship with God. They want to be like all the other nations. They want a king. And so they go to Samuel, the senior prophet and ask him to ask God for a king so they can just be like everybody else. This request is a rejection of both God as their sovereign Lord, sustainer, and protector and implicitly Samuel as God’s spokesperson. Nevertheless, Samuel brings their request to God. And God says okay, if that’s what you really want then you shall have your wish. Samuel then proceeds to explain to them exactly what this will mean, who kings really are, what they do, and what you will become. And then in a chilling conclusion, Samuel reminds them that at some point in the future they will cry out to God for help and God will ignore them because they have chosen to go their own way.

After all the warnings, the people still demand a king. So, they get a king. And the rest of the Old Testament is all downhill from here.

So, what is the problem with wanting a king? The problem is not with kings per se. A few are good. Many are awful. Most are indifferent. Samuel has not yet even found a candidate for king (who will later be selected chiefly for his height). The problem is the people. The problem is us. Human beings like to associate our identity with the powerful. We derive vicarious value and esteem from the victories of our “side.” This is how both our politics and team sports work. And that is a problem. We were not made for power, especially not vicarious power. We were made to love. And the desire for power is love’s antithesis.

It would take Israel one thousand years to figure that out. And humanity still has not learned the lesson.

August 19, 2022 – Judges 4: 1-24

The book of Judges is an endless cycle of repeated mistakes. The Israelite people are going through some serious growing pains. They sin, God gets angry, the people ask for help, God sends a judge to help them, and each time the reader hopes that the Israelite people will learn and do better. It is a pattern that repeats throughout the book. Except in chapter four. In chapter four, much of the intrigue of the story is the mystery of who the true judge is. It is easy to claim that it might be Deborah, the respected legal counsel, or Jael, the fearless political genius with a hammer. Two powerful women in a society otherwise dominated by the leadership of men. And yet the military leader in the story, a man, also plays a role. So who is the real liberator of the Israelite people? It’s a difficult question with no real answer.

The story of the Israelites is our story, too. We as a church, a nation, and a human race continue over and over again to return to our old ways, and it will take God working through each of us, all of us, to make a difference. It is not about having one singular hero or heroine, one individual to act as “God’s chosen.” If we want to see change happen, it is about allowing God to work through each of us and using our gifts for the betterment of all people.

So how might God work through you? Join us this week as we explore the mystery of the judges of Israel…and become part of their story.

August 12, 2022 – I Samuel 3:1-21

“The word of the Lord was rare in those days;
visions were not widespread.”

The days of pillars of fire, columns of smoke, and parting of the seas were quickly fading with God’s people, Israel. God’s visions were rare and God’s people were a mess. They were disobedient, violent, and sinful. The days of the Judges of Israel were coming to an end and God’s people needed someone to lead them out of their self-destruction. Who knew that God would choose a young boy named Samuel?

I Samuel 3 is the call story of Samuel, the young boy dedicated to God by his grateful mother Hannah who had been barren, without child. It is the story of a very old priest, Eli, and a very young boy, Samuel, and God’s voice in the Temple in the middle of the night.

Samuel, though young and inexperienced in things of faith, is chosen by God to share the difficult news that God was going to punish Eli, his sons, and all of his household because of their great iniquity. This is not the happy ending of which Eli had dreamed. And this is not the word Samuel wanted as his first prophecy. But both Eli and Samuel listen to God and hear God’s call.

The lamp of God was still shining in the temple in the night; it had not gone out. And neither had God’s call to Samuel, the young prophet. Samuel needed only to listen to God, no matter how difficult the words, and obey.

This story of Samuel marks a new beginning for God’s people Israel. Samuel would be the one to anoint Israel’s first kings – Solomon and David – a new day for Israel. We, too, are invited to see what new things God will do in us. Join us for worship this Sunday as we listen for God’s word to us.

August 5, 2022 – Joshua 6: 1-5, 15-21

The most terrifying book in scripture is Joshua. It is terrifying in what it depicts—wars of absolute genocidal destruction. And it is even more terrifying about what it reveals about God—that at least on one occasion, God commanded such absolute violence. I simply do not see any way to reconcile who I understand God to be an what the rest of scripture reveals God to be, and the deity described in the Book of Joshua. Nor would I care to try.

Joshua presents us with a big problem. How do we deal with the word of God when that word is a command to commit genocide?
Sometimes things in the past only seem simple because we have projected our stories and conclusions onto them. Context matters for meaning. Not everything may be quite as simple as it first appears in Joshua. All literature has context and layers of meaning. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe is about none of those things. Animal Farm is not about domesticated animals. And the Crucible is not about the Salem witch trials.

Something interesting is going on in Joshua. It is the conclusion of a long conversation to which we no longer have direct access. But we can deduce how and why it came to be on the basis of scripture, history, and archeology. Joshua may not be as it first appears, and it may be trying to do something that we no longer understand.

How we read a text matters. How a text reads us matters even more. I do not believe that God commands genocide. I do not even believe that Joshua commands it. Come listen in on Sunday and find out why.

July 29, 2022 – Deuteronomy 30: 11-30

The Torah, the original five books of our Old Testament end in a most curious fashion. It does not end with the triumph of the people finally entering into the Promised Land. It does not end with a fairy tale, “and they all lived happily ever after.” It does not end with the creation of the Kingdom of Israel. It ends instead on a question. Whom will you serve? Whom will you follow? This is no ending at all. Instead, it is left to us, the reader, to decide how this story will end.

The fundamental purpose of Torah (literally “teachings”) is not to tell us information about God, but to change our identity, lives, purpose, and destiny. The teachings are all about how to live. Because these teachings are about real life, they are particular and concrete, going into exquisite detail on how we should worship, raise our food, provide for each other, steward the natural world, and provide justice. These are not instructions on how to reach the highest heavens. They are instructions on how to be a human being on Earth.

Judaism, and by extension Christianity, are not fundamentally religions. They are fundamentally a choice of who or what we place at the very center of our lives. Later religions with all their trappings will grow from that choice, but at essence to follow our God is simply a choice, a leap of faith, which will redefine and redirect every other choice.

Moses understood all of this as he looked out from Mount Nebo across the breadth of the Jordan Valley to the Judean Hills beyond. He knew he did not have much time left. He needed to leave his people with the most important thing to cling to in the years and centuries ahead. I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live.

July 22, 2022 -Numbers 22: 16-34

Look a talking Donkey!

There are two stories about talking animals in scripture. The first concerns a certain serpent at the beginning of Genesis. The second recounts the testimony of a clear sighted and perceptive donkey who tries to lead a rather pompous and myopic prophet to the truth. When faced with a talking donkey, I highly recommend that you pay attention.

One of the main reasons pay attention is that we often think we already know all the answers. We presume that we understand the circumstances and solutions for our lives. We fail to pay attention the signs around us, even the fantastic sign of a talking donkey. The wizard Balaam believed his own hype. The thought he could curse Israel even when it was contrary to God’s intention. He sets off to join a conspiracy against Israel and fails to appreciate that the real threat is against him. But his loyal donkey sees everything and desperately tries to save both Balaam and her own hide. Balaam will not listen and just beats the donkey. Finally, she turns to him and clearly tells him what is going on and what he risks. Then, and only then do his eyes open. Then and only then does Balaam pay attention.

God can make a prophet out of donkey and a donkey (or another synonym) out of a prophet. The choice is always before us. The question is whether are paying attention.

July 15, 2022 – Numbers 13: 1, 17-20, 25-33

It did not take the Hebrews 40 years to walk across the deserts of Sinai to the Promised Land. It only took one year. But there was a problem. They lost faith. They gave into their fears. Trusting their fears more than their God, they were not ready. So, they wandered the trackless wastes for forty more years, just long enough for every person who began the journey in Egypt to die off. Their generation had faltered and would not enter the Promised Land. It seems so harsh. But sometimes quarantines are necessary to limit the spread of the most dangerous diseases.

The problem was and is fear. Fear corrupts. Fear confuses. Fear leads us astray. The spies sent into Canaan to report on the land bring it back to the people. The Canaanites are giants they report. They see us only as little bugs. The rumors spread. The blame game starts. It’s all Moses’ fault. Or God’s. Through fear they cannot see the truth. In fear they forget who they are and who goes with them. They follow their fear rather than God.

The story of Caleb and the spies unpacks the dangers of fear and the potential for a better way. It is no surprise that Jesus, after his resurrection, repeats the command, “Do not be afraid,” more than anything else. Fear leads to death. But courage leads us into the promise, the Promised Land, and the promised life.

July 8, 2022 – Numbers 6:22-27

Bewilderments and Blessings

Welcome into the bewilderments and wilderness journeying we call the Book of Numbers. Think of it as the pearl we get to ooh-and-ahh about when it really began as a grain of sand in a mollusk’s belly. It’s a dry read of genealogies, troop placements, the enrollment of clans into the Twelve Tribes, guidance on Nazirite vows (and how to break them faithfully, when completed). It is also the source of the most ancient blessing in this stream of the Sacred—the Aaronic blessing Pastor Brian offers as benediction after most services of worship.

Some scholars have called Numbers the “junk room of the bible,” suggesting it has no structure or legible purpose. My mother used to say that about my room when I was young, though I knew where everything was in its illegible piles. Other scholars suggest a structure that seems particularly apt today: generational transition. Numbers could be detailing how faith is transferred from one generation to another, Hebrew slaves becoming the people of Israel in the wilderness.

Numbers refers literally to the numbers in the Twelve Tribes that left slavery in Egypt for freedom in Canaan, and the numbers and names of those in the tribes at the end of the book. The stark reality is that all those at the start are not there at the end. All those at the end of the book were not there at the start. “Old generation of rebellion; new generation of hope and promise,” says biblical scholar Dennis Olson.

Blessing sits here, then, at the thresholds of all to come—wilderness journeying into promised land, slavery into freedom, chaos into sacred chaos. “It would be infinitely lonely to live in a world without blessing,” says John O’Donahue. “A blessing evokes a privileged intimacy. It touches that tender membrane where the human heart cries out to its divine ground.”

Come this Sunday into the bewilderment of faithful journeying today, as we learn together to trust the blessings at every threshold.

Rev. Lisa M. Hess

July 1, 2022 – Leviticus 25:1-24

The God of Israel was a God not only of Sabbath worship but a God of Sabbath rest. From the origin stories of Genesis chapters 1 and 2 where God breathes into life all of creation and then rests on the seventh day, to the formative stories of God’s people becoming who God meant them to be, to the commandments given to Moses on Mt. Sinai calling God’s people to “remember the Sabbath to keep it holy,” Sabbath is central to the life and faith of Israel.

In Leviticus chapter 25, our scripture passage for this Sunday, sabbath rest, sabbath renewal, and sabbath release are at the heart of how God will create a covenant community for God’s people. Echoing the seven days of creation with the seventh day of sabbath rest, God calls God’s people to observe a life of sabbath rest for the land, for the slaves, for the people. And this sabbath rest will be called Jubilee.

There were practical reasons to let the land rest every seventh year, to forgive long standing debt, as well as giving liberty to those who were enslaved, but the sabbath Jubilee was deeper than just practicality. It was a way of being God’s people.

As we come together on this communion Sunday, the weekend of our nation’s birthday, we are so desperately in need of sabbath rest, in need of Jubilee. A time of healing and forgiveness, rest and renewal, new beginnings and a new way of living. Come worship in-person or online as we remember the Sabbath day.

June 24, 2022 – Deuteronomy 6: 1-10 & Leviticus 19: 18

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said it but he did not come up with the idea. He took it from Leviticus. The moral imperative to love is the foundation of both Christian and Jewish ethical thought and runs through both Testaments as a challenge and an inspiration. But what if my neighbor is unlovable? And just who is my neighbor? For that matter what about fairness and justice? Do I need to love somebody who hurts me? These are some of the hard questions that God’s law and also Jesus’ command confronts us with.

Human beings tend to ground our ethical systems on notions of fairness. “It’s not fair!” was my first moral objection, by which I meant that I did not like it. God seems less concerned with procedural fairness and far more concerned with relationship, belonging, and love. The challenge is how do you maintain relationship, belonging and love when someone wrongs you? That is the question that both God and we need to address.

June 17, 2022 – Leviticus 8:1-21, 30

Right Rituals

In a subtle and surprising turn of scripture, Leviticus chapter 8 moves from the rich detail of the regulated rules of life and living for God’s people Israel that we have been reading about in the early chapters of Leviticus to a welcome and inviting narrative story. This narrative, beginning in Leviticus 8, draws us into the story of the consecration and anointing of the Tabernacle and the consecration and anointing of the High Priest Aaron and his sons.

With the rich detail of vestments, tunics, robes, sashes, ephods, breastplates, oil, blood, bulls, rams, unleavened bread, water, and some rather mysterious jewels called Urim and Thummim, we enter into the holy ritual of consecration and anointing that God has commanded God’s people to observe. These rituals are holy. They are sacred and serious and they seal God’s people together in relationship with God and one another. In these sacred rituals, God is present.

As we are taken back in time to these sacred moments of God’s people, we remember our sacred rituals of worship and God’s presence with us always. As we see Moses and Aaron faithfully do as the Lord has commanded, we get a glimpse of the relationship between rituals and righteousness, between rituals and rightness.

As we continue to journey through our post-Pentecost “50 Days of Embodiment: Living the Great Story in our Daily Life” may we will find our rituals for life and God’s anointing in these words and story in Leviticus. Join us for worship in-person and online this Sunday as we remember what it means to be God’s people.

June 10, 2022 – Leviticus 6: 1-13

Human, being humans, make mistakes. There are things we do which we should not. There are things we do not do that we should. Our actions, regardless of intentions, often hurt others and our world. When you mess up, how do you make it right?

Leviticus answers this question directly, practically, and constructively. It provides a guide for human behavior and how we can repair the injuries we cause to relationships and community. We can even participate in repairing our relationship with God.

Leviticus provides the basic plan that first the prophets and then later Jesus will follow to restore community. It requires our active participation, confession, and repair of injuries. It also requires us to pay a price beyond damages to the injured party for our guilt itself. It requires sacrifice. Then and only then, God simply overlooks our wrong. Our guilt is simply forgotten and overlooked. Instead, we are publicly and openly declared forgiven. And as the forgiven we are invited back into loving relationship with our community, with our friends, and with God.

The Book of Leviticus sometimes seems alien to us, filled with strange rituals. But there are so many people who are trapped in guilt and shame that would benefit from precisely such rituals. The beautiful truth of scripture is that same freedom is available to us, albeit in a slightly modified process, right now.

June 3, 2022 – Leviticus 1: 1-9

When people decide they want to read the whole Bible, they often skip over Leviticus. It is not a fun book. It contains almost no stories. It is a statute book explaining how to run the ancient priesthood and in particular how to perform sacrifices. It does not make for fun reading. It is the least preached on book of the Bible among Christians. But it stands at the very center of Torah because its practices stand at the center of ancient Israel’s faith.

Animal sacrifice seems alien to us. Please consider that our industrial animal husbandry operations would no doubt seem that way to ancient Israelites for whom all animals were organic and free range. When the people of God were all farmers and herders, they simply offered up what was most important and valuable to them, their crops and livestock. Sacrifice is simply the act of surrendering in love that which is most important to us for the sake of love. Every parent does it. Every married person does it. Every citizen does it. The question then is not the particulars on the method of sacrifice. The question is what do we sacrifice to show our love and devotion?

May 27, 2022 – Exodus 40: 16-19; 34-38

The Book of Exodus ends with a new beginning. God now has a home alongside the wandering Hebrews. Wherever they go, God will now companion them. The final sentence emphasizes that God is not waiting for them at their destination, God is with them along their journey.

Gods in the ancient world tended to be gods of a particular location where the people would build a temple in their honor. But not this God. The God of Israel does not want a temple at all. Instead God requests a tent. And even the tent will be a temporary abode for God’s unique presence. Sometimes God would be in residence and the tent of meeting would burn with a supernatural glow. At other times, God would simply be absent. The tabernacle was not so much God’s home as God’s guest room among the Hebrews.

Over time the people would learn the rhythm of God drawing close and then pulling away. It gave the people time to practice what God had taught them. It gave them room to learn to apply God’s teachings, the Torah. Most of all it gave them space to grow up a bit. We honor God by drawing close to the Almighty. In return, God honors us by giving us room to be fully and completely human.

Exodus is a journey not so much towards a destination, but ever deeper into a relationship. That same journey is available to us.

May 20, 2022 – Exodus 32:1-14

Human beings have a nearly infinite genius for crafting idols, by which I mean a finite object to which we ascribe infinite value. The worship of those idols is the most popular religion in the history of the world. While we may scoff at the primitive superstitions of ancient Mesopotamians worshipping golden bulls or Egyptians worshipping Ibis headed deities, idols come in far subtler varieties. Power, wealth, fame, security, family, love, nation, pleasure, control, food, sex, chemicals, risk, reward, beauty, certainty, sports, technology, entertainment, and most of all the self are more common idols to which we ascribe our time, money, and devotion. Often these can be very good things in themselves, which is precisely what makes them so insidious. The problem is that humans confuse these intermediate goods or means with ultimate ends possessing ultimate meaning and value.
Right now, our community is wracked with partisan political conflict. But politics, the winning and losing of elections, is simply a means of organizing decision making in society. And the process of ordering society is simply the means to provide for the best possible social circumstances so that people may live their best lives. But you are not supposed to ask the next question in our secular society. How do we want to live our best lives? To what end? For what purpose? That question actually points us toward the ends of human existence. To that question, politics has no answer.
But God does. Scripture does. We do.
The way to avoid idolatry in all its forms is to give infinite meaning and value only to things that are truly infinite and one of those things is our relationship with an infinite being we label God. In Exodus, we learn all about the formation of that relationship and the lengths to which God will go to safeguard it and save God’s people. God’s hurt and anger are no surprise when the people turn away from both the promise and the blessings of that relationship to frolic before of a cow effigy. The problem is not the idol. The problem is the people in their feckless commitment.
So, what will God do? God’s past response to this sort of betrayal was to flood the world and destroy almost all life on the planet. Can God change God’s mind, and if so how and why? This is the question we will consider on Sunday morning.
And until then, be gentle with yourself.

May 13, 2022 – Exodus 20:1-21

Ten Words

The Ten Words God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai (also known as Mt. Horeb) were ten of six hundred and thirteen laws given to God’s people in the wilderness so that Israel might become the nation God intended them to be.

They were relationship rules, rules for life, rules to show what love looked like. Love from God to people, love from people to God, and love between people. They were not punitive if unkept. They were not salvific. They were not the only laws that God gave to Israel. They were God words to God’s people teaching them how to live together in covenant with God and one another.

I would imagine that many of us who grew up in the church have had some childhood experience involving the Ten Commandments, good or bad, accurate or inaccurate. At the very least we have heard of the Ten Commandments if only because of Charlton Heston and Cecile B. DeMille!

Exodus 20 is one of those scripture passages that we know too well and may need to look at again with new eyes. The Ten Words were an important part of the journey of God’s people on their way to the Promised Land and on their way to a new life as people of the covenant.

We invite you to come rediscover the Ten Words of God to Israel, and God’s words to us. The Youth of Fairmont will be leading worship at the 10:30 a.m. service this Sunday, and all are invited (8:30 a.m. or 10:30 a.m.) to “keep the Sabbath holy” and worship God.

May 6, 2022 – Psalm 150

At the bottom of every finished composition manuscript Johann Sebastian Back wrote “SDG” which stood for Soli Deo Gloria, to the glory of God alone. In addition to be being a helpful indicator of which one of his countless manuscripts was final, it gives us a glimpse into Bach’s mind and faith. He viewed his vocation as a composer in theological terms, giving expression to human praise and thanksgiving to God. For Bach, music was not about us, not even about beauty, it was about God.

This Sunday we will be sharing in music in praise and worship of God. It is not a performance. It is not for us. It is a sung address to God and perhaps the purest form of such address. Music has an uncanny ability to circumvent our ceaselessly churning thoughts and connect with the essence of feeling somewhere underneath our critical minds. Music is one of the only forms of prayer that allows us to bypass the petty idolatries of the mind.

Together we will sing. In our shared song we are all individual and unique and we are all together in a shared harmony that is always the product of relationship. Singing together allows us to participate in the master metaphor for our lives in God, each ourselves and all together. And we will do it all for the glory of God alone.

April 29, 2022 – Exodus 25: 1-9

Human beings seem to be attuned to a sense of place. Every major religion in the world has had its holy places, locations where the divine and the natural realms seem to touch. Ancient Greeks had their holy springs and groves, the Egyptians had their massive temples, and the ancient Sumerians had their giant stepped Ziggurats. Ancient Israel was the odd one out. The God of the Israelites preferred a pup tent.

The God of Israel does not seem overly interested in fixed temples, however magnificent. Instead, this God wants something a bit more portable. This God will not be confined the back room of a stuffy temple. This God will go with and alongside the people wherever they go. But to help the people understand who this God is and their relationship, there will be a symbolic focus for God’s presence on earth. God will be uniquely present in the Tent of Meeting, sitting on a chest containing the terms of the treaty between God and humanity. We call that chest the Ark of the Covenant, but God is not in the Ark. Rather, God sits on top the Ark resting literally on the terms of our relationship. We call those terms of the treaty the Covenant and they have defined the relationship between God and us from the days of Moses.

God of course is not constrained to a particular location and time. But we, in our need to pay attention and intentionally enter into relationship may need some visual cues and object lessons. The Tent of the Meeting symbolizes the relationship and how we participate with this God who travels with us wherever we go.

On Sunday, my dear friend and colleague, Rev. April Blaine will be preaching at both services on the function and importance of sacred space and how the Tabernacle was not made for God so much as given to us by God for our sake.
–Brian

April 22, 2022 – Exodus 16:2-15

Manna

“It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”

As I reflect on this “manna from heaven” scripture passage in Exodus 16, I come back again and again to this last verse of our passage. Here I find comfort and even correction from God. This is a story about our deep hunger and ongoing need for sustenance that lasts longer than a morning meal. This is a story about God’s provision verses our frantic efforts to store up food that does not satisfy nor bring life.

It did not take long after the miraculous parting of the Red Sea and the Exodus of God’s people out of slavery for the Israelites to begin to whine about being hungry and thirsty. And I get it! I do not do well if I do not eat or drink! The Israelites were hungry and needed sustenance. And God would provide for them, as always.

It is easy to ask the “how, when, where, why” questions about the origin of the manna and even the quail which God provided the people of Israel in the wilderness. We are naturally curious about how nature might provide such a rich supply of morning manna in the desert. And there are several native plants which could easily supply an answer to this miraculous manna from heaven but maybe that is just another way for us to control and manipulate God’s provision in our lives. Sometimes we just need to trust God.

God is faithful to provide for us. “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”

Let us come together in this Eastertide for a morning of worship and sustenance as we seek out God’s manna for us. We will be fed the true bread from heaven.

April 15, 2022 – Matthew 28:1-10

After all the shouts and cries of pain, after all the barked orders and hurled insults, after the crack of whips and the clang of hammers on nails, after a long-pained sigh comes the silence. At the center of the mystery of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection stands an immovable and absolute silence. The crowds hurried home for the beginning of the sabbath. The Romans too were in a hurry to get this over with because they needed to be at the Temple in case trouble broke out over the Passover. A quicky burial in a gifted tomb is hastily arranged. And then the world went silent.

Around the central turning point of our faith, surrounding whatever Jesus is doing while dead, scripture stands utterly silent protecting the mystery.

For me the most important day of the Christian year is not Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, or Good Friday. It is Holy Saturday. Holy Saturday, the day in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, is the day when the deep work of re-creation occurs. It was shabbat, the day on which Jews recognized that God rested from God’s labors of creation. But now it is no longer a day of rest for God. Now it is a day for new creation.

Behind all the lilies and hats, beautiful music, and white linens, the church conceals an unsettling truth. The world is no longer the way we thought it to be. God has gone to meddling and reordered our surest assumptions. Sometimes the dead no longer stay dead. Sometimes matter is more porous than we thought. And sometimes space and time are purely relative projections of our need for certainty. Resurrection confounds not just our knowledge, but our imagination. Holy Saturday teaches us that the only fitting human response to this profound reordering of the deeps is silence, reverence, and awe.

“He is risen” is our Sunday proclamation, but his rising is simply the first evidence that something has changed in the abyssal deeps of time. Resurrection has begun. Holy Saturday reminds me that I have not yet begun to understand what that means. All I know is that by the grace of God, should I someday stand and behold with my tear-filled eyes the depth and breadth of God’s re-creating genius, I will simply whisper, “I had no idea.”

April 8, 2022 – Exodus 5: 1-9, 19-23

Palm Sunday is the most poignantly ironic day in the church year. It uncomfortably points out the paradoxes of life and faith. Jesus rides into Jerusalem as Messiah, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah 9. He enters the city surrounded by throngs of followers holding up palm branches in a not-so-subtle mockery of the Roman rite of Adventus, welcoming an emperor or conquering general. The crowds love it. The disciples are dizzy with excitement and anticipation. Jesus goes straight to the temple to the beating heart of Judaism and government. He gets into a scuffle with the money changers. Everyone expects the revolution to break out any moment. And then the moment passes
.
Jesus will not be the kind of messiah that Zechariah predicted or the Romans feared. His revolution is not of a political nature. As a political revolutionary, he failed. The crowds first scratched their heads in incomprehension that gradually grew into annoyance, frustration, and resentment. If he does not intend to become king then what good is he? Their antipathy grows into accusation and eventually violence as cries of “Hosanna” fade into shouts of “crucify him.”

This was of course not the first political failure of one of God’s agents. Moses made a mess of his attempted negotiations with Pharaoh. In thanks for his efforts, the Hebrews burdens were doubled and the people began using Moses’ name as a curse.

It is ironic indeed that God would use those moments of greatest political failure as precisely the moments for the most extraordinary displays of God’s saving power. Perhaps all human efforts needed to fail before God could show them what real power was like in the plagues of Egypt and through an empty tomb.

Failure is real and it hurts. But our failures appear to be precisely the launching point for God’s great work of redemption. The solution does not come from us. The solution comes looking for us from the outside.

April 1, 2022 – Exodus 3:1-15

More ink has been spilled on this passage than any other in scripture. Moses’ initial encounter with God lead us into a mystery that confounds translation and clear conception. This should not surprise us as this is God we are talking about. If it were easy to describe and explain, it would necessarily not be God.

Moses asks, so let’s say I go down to Egypt, whom shall I say sent me? God responds: אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה. I cannot translate it. No one can. I can tell you what it is, but not what it means. It is the first person singular causative imperfect form of the verb of being. No such word exists in English. So the best I can do is offer a metaphor. It is like “I will be what I will be” or “I will be that which will be.” But even those crude interpretations do not convey its true sense. What the name means, beyond God identifies as somehow related to “becomingness,” no mortal has ever known. In truth it is possible that the name may be a refusal to answer Moses’ question, God refusing any objectifying label.

Contemplation of the divine name, which in my own practice I do not utter, is an eternal well of spiritual renewal and imagination. It does not however make for a very good sermon. So, please do not expect us to “explain” what the divine name “means” because no one knows. The mere question of “meaning” would suggest attributes of God’s own being separate from God and comprehensible to humans, which would be an oxymoron. The purpose of the divine name for Moses and for us is not definition or understanding, which are way beyond our paygrade, but rather relationship and belonging.

God and Moses become friends and partners and it is all built upon this chance encounter in the wastes of Midian. No one has been the same ever since, not even God.

Who is God? Any answer that would assert an attribute, quality, or characteristic is necessarily idolatrous. For Moses and for Jesus the answer is not an assertion, it is instead a prepositional phrase because prepositions are the part of our language that define relationships.

Who is God? With me.

–Brian

March 25, 2022 – Exodus 1:1, 1:9-22

The Book of Exodus presents the most dramatic and universal story in the Old Testament. A small, persecuted, oppressed minority rises up against tyranny and eventually steps boldly into freedom. This is the story of the great hero of the Old Testament, Moses. This is the dramatic account of burning bushes, catastrophic plagues, genocide, war, parting seas, and a new covenant etched by God’s own hand. It is also the story of ordinary people who placed their hope before their fear. And finally, it is a story about what comes after, how you actually live in freedom without lapsing back into bondage.

But there is a story before the story.

A generation before Moses and all the Cecille B. DeMille’s special effects, there is a story of two rather nondescript middle-aged midwives named Shiphrah and Puah. They do not encounter any flammable shrubbery. They are not guided by curious meteorological phenomena. And they are not assisted by a deity who conveniently separates straits into an isthmus. All they have to rely on is themselves, and a stubborn, single-minded conviction that they would not participate in death.

Shiphrah and Puah simply refuse to participate in Pharaoh’s covert program of genocide. They engage in the first recorded act of non-violent resistance against oppression. In time Moses, with admittedly a lot more divine assistance, will take up their work. In time Jesus, would expand it further than they could have imagined it. But they started it. Shiphrah and Puah, two head strong bronze age Golden Girls that teach us both how to be human and how as humans to participate in God’s Kingdom. It all begins by choosing life.

“Choose life, so that you and your children may live.” Deuteronomy 30:19

March 18, 2022 – Genesis 45

Forgiveness is not easy. It requires something from both the one who is forgiving and from the one seeking forgiveness. It requires honesty, moral clarity, and ultimately a changed heart. That is what makes true forgiveness exceedingly rare. To be honest, it is often not possible.

The story of Joseph and his brothers presents us with the first account of forgiveness in the Bible and possibly in history. Appeasement, offering somebody something so they do not punish or retaliate, is a far more common event. Jacob, for example, appeases his angry brother Esau with herds of cattle. But a bribe to avoid revenge is not really the same thing as forgiveness at all. True forgiveness involves not just restoration of a relationship but its transformation into a deeper level of trust. True forgiveness changes both parties and brings them closer together than they were before.

The story of Joseph and his brothers unfolds over decades during which all of them are slowly worn down by suffering. What they lose in pride and ambition is replaced with wisdom. After some twenty years of separation, they cannot recognize each other, both because of their divergent life stories and because they themselves became different men. Mere restoration is no longer possible because they are not the same people than they were and could not enjoy the same relationship. The only way forward is to go deeper.

The story of Joseph and his brothers both shows us the necessary steps of forgiveness and it points to its ultimate promise. Through our vulnerability and willingness to transform, we can use forgiveness to lead us into a deeper belonging that we could have possibly imagined, both with other people and with God.

March 11, 2022 – Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

The Book of Genesis both ends its account of the patriarchs and builds a bridge to the story of the Exodus with the story of Joseph and his family. What tends to be remembered is something about Joseph’s fashionable outerwear (thank you Andrew Lloyd Webber). What we ignore is the very human tragedy of Joseph’s family—love denied, jealousies, sibling rivalries, trauma, and revenge. Jacob’s sons are the first generation of this foundational family to all belong to God’s covenant. The problem was that they did not really belong together.

Unprocessed, unconsidered, unhealed grief in an individual’s life becomes anger. Unprocessed, unconsidered, unhealed grief in a community’s life becomes rage. And there was so much pain in Jacob’s family. Jacob was a man of deep passion and emotion. Wisdom was not his gift. He showered affection on some and scorned others. His folly and favoritism took form in that silly coat or tunic (ornamented, colored, or whatever, we really do not know what פסים means). Despite the old man’s foolish hopes, the pain he set in motion would have dire consequences.

Sometimes the problem is not with our understanding, but with our loving. That lesson will unfold across the Jacob cycle leading us down into New Kingdom Egypt as the story of God’s people takes an unexpected detour. And while the tensions among Joseph’s brothers will temporarily be relieved amid the flesh pots of Egypt, they will not go away. That cure require a new way of living loving together that their descendants will learn on Sinai.

March 4, 2022 – Genesis 28: 10-22

Question: Where is God?
Answer: Here
Question: Then why can’t I see God?
Answer: Because you are looking at yourself

The Book of Genesis is all about relationships, between God and the world, brothers, fathers and sons, and with God. God has offered, invited, and promised belonging to Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Seth, Noah and about 287 other named characters. But none of them ever saw what was clearly going on. None of them ever directly perceived the connection, until Jacob.

Jacob is a scoundrel. He is a liar and a cheat. When opportunity permits, he is also a bit of philanderer. He does not know God. He does not pray. He shows no interest in the religious sensibilities of his father or grandfather. All of these qualities make him perfectly suited to be our spiritual ancestor, a messed up, too-clever-for-his-own-good, spoiled, overprotected, slightly neurotic, morally ambiguous, narcissist. In other words, perfect raw material for a saint.

Jacob is the first human to see the truth. Jacob directly perceives what Abraham intuited. Heaven and Earth are connected. God is not far away, but closer than we can imagine. They do not connect at one point or place, but at every point and place, in every time, in everyone. Using the religious iconography of the Middle Bronze Age, Jacob’s mind structures this perception as a stairway or ramp, the kind of stairway or ramp that connects a lofty temple with the people. Except here the stairway is not in the middle of the city and is not only for the high priest. This stairway is in the middle of nowhere and is presumably accessible everywhere. This stairway is where it always has been and where it always will be, right in front of him.

In order to see this, Jacob needed to look at the world differently. Specifically, he needed to remove the obscuring lens of his own ego. He needed to make himself vulnerable and there is nothing more vulnerable than falling asleep on a rock on a barren hillside wilderness while being chased by your enraged brother and a few hundred homicidal Bedouin. The key to seeing the truth was not to look harder. The key was to let go of self. Intense vulnerability can do that as can suffering. More pleasantly, silence can do that too. For just a moment, in his sleeping dreams, totally outside of his control, for the very first time, Jacob sees what is really going on, what has sustained his life, and true extent of his belonging to God. That moment changed him forever. That moment changes us forever.

The first and most important step in seeing God is to see beyond yourself. And there, right in front of you, is a step . . .

February 18, 2022 – Genesis 21: 1-20

The story of Hagar and Ishmael is a painful story to hear. Hagar, the Egyptian slave woman, and her son, Ishmael, are treated horribly by Abraham and Sarah. Ishmael is not even called by name in our pericope of Scripture. He is simply the slave woman’s son. And it seems initially at least that God’s treatment of Hagar and Ishmael is no better.

This oft forgotten story of a slave woman and her son, tucked in between the story of God’s call to Abraham and Sarah and the miraculous birth of their son Isaac, could have easily been left out of our scriptures, so insignificant it might seem. But it is not forgotten nor left out because it is most significant to our understanding of who God is and who we are.

Hagar and Ishmael are a painful reminder that even thousands of years later humans still treat one another unjustly. Hagar and Ishmael remind us that there are women and children everywhere who are forgotten, abused, unnamed, and cast out.

And Hagar and Ishmael remind us that God does care for those who are oppressed and violated and forgotten. Ishmael is as much a son to Abraham as is Isaac. Because of God’s redemption of Hagar and Ishmael, there is a genealogy in our scriptures that begins…

“These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, named in the order of
their birth…”

For God blessed Ishmael and made him great among the nations. God made Ishmael’s name known to all because God heard the cries of the son of a slave woman. Join us this Sunday in-person or online as we worship the God who has redeemed us all.

February 11, 2022 – Genesis 18:1-15

Twenty-five years is a long time to wait. Bengals fans would quickly add so is thirty-three years! In our weekly readings of scripture, it can seem like the story jumps to its next turning point every seven days. We tend to forget the real human cost of waiting . . . and waiting. Some twenty-five years or so separates God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah from its fulfillment. Humans are not a patient people. We want what we want now. And when our wants are frustrated, we tend not to be our best. We have all seen this first hand in ourselves over the past two years.

I would like to think that waiting builds anticipation. That may work over short time periods, but undefined waiting tends to result in cynicism and despair. What is needed then to snap us out of our dour doldrums is surprise.
The three mysterious visitors to Abraham and Sarah’s tent leave us with an unanswered question. What they want is a child. What they get, at least initially, is the immediate presence of God in their home and in their lives. But Abraham and Sarah only seem to recognize the gift when it clearly comes on their terms. So maybe, the gift had been right in front of them all along and they just failed to perceive it because they were so attached to the fulfillment of their desire. Maybe God had been there all along.

Faith that is contingent on God providing what we want when we want it is not faith. It is a transaction. As far as we can tell, all the ancient pagan religions were essentially transactional: provide your resident deity with the appropriate sacrifice and receive the appropriate blessing. But this curious God of the desert stubbornly refuses to operate that way. This wandering God with a mysterious name does not seem to be so interested in settling down, being fed in temples, and providing gifts on demand. This One instead seems to value freedom and relationship more than anything and seems to want it for human beings as well. Which all makes perfect sense if this One is not one at all, but three.

Trinity is not what God does. Trinity is who God is from the beginning. And the moment Abraham embraces not just obedience, but real belonging, new life and new hope is born. God is already there at the door. All it takes is a little hospitality.
–Brian

February 4, 2022 – Genesis 12:1-9

There are many key moments in the Bible, but only one is shared by the three great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The call of Abraham (Abram) starts a decisive new chapter in the relationship between God and humanity centered on a new type of trusting relationship that we call faith. This new relationship leads Abraham away from everything he relied upon for his life, identity, and security and follow the lead of this curious and curiously inviting God. Nothing will be the same.

There had been lots of religions in the world for centuries before Abraham. But they were all systems of maintaining the divine-human exchange namely sacrifices for blessings. Now Abraham is about to explore something new, radical trust. This trust, and all the ways it will be tested, confirmed, violated, and restored will provide the central plot and message for the remainder of scripture across both Testaments.

Abraham was not a particularly pious man, engaging in several morally dubious activities. He was not a noble hero. He was not a powerful king, just a nomadic pastoralist. He was not known for his wisdom. He is remembered for one thing only. When God called, he paid attention and had the courage to trust. And that makes all the difference.
–Brian

January 28, 2022 – Genesis 11:1-9

Sometimes the more closely I study a text, the less convinced I become that I understand what it means. The story of Babel is just such a text. In the church we tend to only mention it as a sort of anti-Pentecost, a warning fable on the dangers of human pride. But what exactly was the people’s sin? It does not say pride. It simply says they wanted a name, that is an identity, and not be scattered. Similarly, God’s purported punishment is just to send that people along on their journeys as God had been doing all along for the past two chapters. Nowhere does it say that the tower or the city were destroyed. So what is going on?

Sometimes the point of the text may simply be to disorient us enough to realize that we do not understand everything. In the case of Babel/Babylon the problem is precisely that they were creating identity, understanding, and culture, but on their own terms. They were producing culture without difference, diversity or encounter with others, least of all God. That does not make them inherently bad people. I empathize with their impulses and admire their ingenuity. But it is misdirected.

What if Babel is not about sin and punishment, but rather adolescent experimentation and gentle parental correction? Maybe in order to be close to God what we really need is to be honestly, authentically, and fully human in all our vulnerable, mortal, creatureliness?

The Bible is not big on empires or even cities. God does not seem impressed by pyramids, ziggurats, or vast temples. Maybe what God wants is simple honesty in our relationship? That will require something altogether different than bricks. That will require the openness of heart we call courage.
–Brian

January 21, 2022 – Genesis 9:1-17

So, what can get so upset that God decides to flush all of creation down the drain? That is an important question for human morality and survival. Chapter 6 of Genesis is more than a bit elusive. Certainly, there is something suspect going on between divine beings and humans (Gen. 6:2), but more pervasively evil crept into the human heart (Gen. 6:5). This evil was sufficiently bad to lead God to have second thoughts about this whole creation project (Gen. 6:6). What was it?

In God’s first speech after the Flood, God affirms that the world will never again be destroyed by a flood. God creates the rainbow as a reminder of this promise. But the promise, technically the first covenant, also addresses human behavior. “He who sheds human blood, by humans his blood shall be shed. For in the image of God He made humankind.” (Gen. 9:6). Dam is blood in Hebrew and Adam is human, so you can hear the play on words. For God to be so concerned to lift up this primordial prohibition of murder and bloodshed suggests that they were the endemic vice that God sought to wash away.

The original foundation of justice is simply this, thou shall not kill another human being. And the original foundation of a justice system is that if you do, there will be a reckoning and very serious consequences. In the original creation story, God proclaims everything to be good. Now, God appears to have learned from experience that perhaps human beings are not as good as God hoped. These humans, created in the image and likeness of God, sometimes kill. So, it becomes necessary to introduce something new into the divine human relationship, boundaries. Those boundaries limit both what humans and what God will do in this relationship. Humans will not kill. God will not destroy the world. It seems a fair trade.

Retributive justice will become the foundation for all human justice. But while foundational it can never be sufficient on its own. It needs that twin pillar of community and relationship: mercy. God demands justice, but then shows mercy. Perhaps we still have something to learn from Noah?
–Brian

January 14, 2022 – Genesis 3

Genesis 3 is a faith story about the first Man (Adam) and the first Woman (Eve) and their Creator God. It is a faith story about the relationship between the divine and the human. It is a faith story about the relationship between humans and creation. And like all relationships there are times of wholeness and there are times of brokenness.

Most of us carry a lot of theological baggage when we remember or re-read the story of Adam, Eve, the serpent, and God. From this single chapter in the Book of Genesis have come theological treatises (some good and some not so good) on free will, original sin, salvation, the Fall, predestination, total depravity, forbidden fruit, Life in Paradise, salvation, and sin.

Our challenge this Sunday will be to find the substantive word from God for us in this faith story. As we move from the beautiful “new order” stories of creation in Genesis chapters 1 and 2, we get a glimpse in Genesis 3 that if there is no choice in a relationship then there is no true relationship. Because God loved the first Man and the first Woman, God gave them the freedom of choice but with choice comes the possibility of wrong choices. Such is the nature of being human!

Thank God, though, for the nature of the Divine!

Join us this Sunday as we think about our relationship with God and with one another, and as we continue our journey in Genesis to see God’s Story in our own story.

January 7, 2022 – Genesis 2:4b-17

There are two creation stories in Genesis. The first, in Genesis 1:1 to 2:4a tells of the creation of the universe from God’s point of view. The second, in Genesis 2:4b-20 describes creation from a human perspective. The two stories are different in vocabulary, syntax, sequence, and actions. These differences have led some to conclude that they are separate stories written by different authors who never intended them to be read side by side.

I see things better with binoculars than with a telescope. Binoculars allow me to engage all my vision and perceive depth. I also prefer to listen to music on my stereo. The two speakers produce slightly different sounds that allows me to perceive greater depth in the music. Sometimes the same story told twice does the same for a reader. Some stories need to be told twice in order to gain perspective as things are considered from multiple perspectives. I believe that the creation accounts in Genesis are such stories.

The story of every relationship is necessarily two stories. Genesis is no different. It is less about explaining the how of creation and more concerned with understanding who. You cannot understand this relationship without considering both the divine and human point of view. By sharing them together, scripture introduces in its very first pages the sweeping theme that will run all the way to Revelation and end where it began in a garden: God and humanity are meant to be together.

December 31, 2021 – Genesis 1

God does not create out of nothing. The opening lines of Genesis are quite clear on this. God starts with the vast raw material of the chaotic, primordial, goo. In Hebrew it receives the most mysterious sounding of names, Tohu Va Vohu. It seems to relate imagistically to the trackless wastes of the deep desert. Creation then is not so much about God making something out of nothing. The process of creation, as described in Genesis, is instead about God creating boundaries, separation, complexity and order out of an entropic, undifferentiated, chaotic, potentiality.

Although I find the poetic reflections on creation in Genesis as deeply resonant with cosmological, geophysical, and even biological explanations of the emergence of complex systems, I do not read primarily read Genesis as a science book. I instead read it as a love story. God creates but cannot love and be loved unless God lets go. So, God takes the risk for the sake of love and lets go. Autonomous, willful, independent beings arise, beings a little bit like God in those qualities. They are not God. Rather, they are literally hybrid dirt and Spirit creatures, formed from the mud and breathed into sentience and self-consciousness through God’s breath. Genesis literally calls them “lump of dirt” which in Hebrew is Adam. Now God has someone, something, that is not God to talk to, to relate to, to befriend, to love, and perhaps to be loved by.

It is all a risk. But God takes that risk over and over again. God has unyielding faith in “lump of dirt” and all the lumps that will follow, down to you and me. The stories of that faith and how it is tested, violated, and restored over and over again are collected into an anthology we call the Bible. But more importantly, you already know the ways we live into that faith and the relationship it offers or run away from it as the story of our lives.
–Brian

December 24, 2021 – Luke 2

There is only one Christmas message that matters. It bears repeating because we and our world are so well defended against it. It is amazing news of extraordinary possibility, hope, and promise. But the powerful dismiss it because it dramatically relativizes all human authority and presumption. The claim is simple and audacious. God has entered creation and commenced the process of reunion.

Christmas is not about sentiment or vague hope. Christmas is about a particular fact, God entering into creation as a human being, and the consequence of that fact, the Kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of this world are becoming one. That union is not merely exemplified but literally embodied in this baby lying in an animal’s feed trough. He is the first. He is the beginning of the process of reconciliation and union. And he is by no means the last. The whole purpose of the incarnation is not merely to marvel at it (which is a perfectly understandable response) but to participate in it.

In the child of Bethlehem God took the first and necessary step to undo humanity’s separation from its creator. That invitation took the only form we could fully understand as one of us. The question of Christmas is how will we respond?

December 17, 2021 – Luke 2:1-14

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”
-Isaiah 11:6

“…and a little child shall lead them.” This is the heart of Advent. God incarnate in a little child born in Bethlehem. Whether we feel ready or not, God is coming. God is coming into the dusty, dirty, broken roads of our lives to bring hope and healing and wholeness. All through the birth of a child.

This Sunday we will celebrate the innocence of children as we hear the Word of God proclaimed through the voices of the children of Fairmont Presbyterian Church. The Children’s Christmas Pageant will be held at the 10:30 a.m. service of worship with costumes, carols, and children galore!

We will also be worshiping at 8:30 a.m. in the Fellowship Hall with our Praise Band and worship leaders. You are invited to both!

There will be a Hot Chocolate Sundae Bar for the children, youth, and parents following the 10:30 a.m. service and the Women of Fairmont will be selling their homemade cookies, too!

O come let us adore, him! Christ the Lord!

Peace,

Kelley

December 10, 2021

Christmas is not one story it is many. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke each share their own perspective. Luke focuses on the experience of Mary while Matthew on Joseph. Luke shares the news of the annunciation and Mary’s beautiful song magnifying God. Matthew describes the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies. Luke ushers in the shepherds to give witness to the blessed birth while Matthew introduces us to the Magi coming to pay homage. The narratives swirl around in our memory with stray bits of prophecy from Isaiah, Malachi, and Zechariah to provide the implicit narrative of Christmas. And if you look very closely, you may even detect a few subtle details courtesy of the mostly forgotten infancy Gospel of James.

Nobody comes to Church at Christmas time to hear something new. We all come to hear instead something very old, the story of God stooping to enter this world in the vulnerability of human flesh. Have pity on preachers, especially those who strive to explain the “meaning” of Christmas. The incarnation of God is less a phenomenon to be interpreted and more an intrusive historical fact that itself interprets history. So, we gather to remember the story both in prose and song this Sunday in our annual service of Lessons and Carols. While modelled on the original from King’s College, Cambridge, our worship is a bit less formal incorporating the breadth of the story and the full diversity of musical witness.

Join us on Sunday at 10:30 to sing, to hear, to wonder, and to remember that we are all now a part of the fullness of God’s embrace.

December 3, 2021 – Luke 1:57-59

We tend to celebrate Advent with a lot of noise—jingling bells, carols, a hearty ho ho ho—there is nothing quiet or subtle about our Advent. The Bible presents a much more subdued alternative punctuated by silence.

The old priest Zechariah had lived too long, seen too much, and known too many disappointments to accept everything at face value. Even when an angel shows up, Zechariah has a few questions. I cannot say I blame him. Flammable celestial beings do not usually show up in one’s workplace promising geriatric fertility. But arch angels are not accustomed to be questioned. So, ZAP! Poor old Zechariah is left mute and possibly deaf for the next nine months.

I always used to assume that silence was Zechariah’s punishment for doubt. Now I am not so sure. It is hard to take in new things, harder still for those of us who have been around a bit. Maybe God needed a few months of silence just to get a word in.

Over the next nine months Zechariah had plenty of time to consider what was worth saying and when that time came, nothing on earth would stop him. He shares the Benedictus, the final psalm of scripture praising God and proclaiming God’s fulfillment of the covenant’s promises.

Maybe in order to discover the true hope of Advent it requires a little silence.

November 26, 2021 – Phillippians 1:3-11

Philippians may seem like a strange book to jump to on the first Sunday of Advent. A letter written from prison to a fighting church while Christians are persecuted does not exactly seem like an appropriate message to begin our transition from Thanksgiving to Christmas. The church in Philippi is divided over leadership in Paul’s absence and best practices to protect themselves. They have lost sight of their purpose and the message of Jesus’ love that they have worked to share. Paul’s letter serves as their reminder to be of one mind and one spirit, putting aside earthly concerns and working together to share the hope of the gospel.

More than encouragement, however, Paul invites the congregation in Philippi to find love and joy in their work, even in their current circumstances. Paul is praying with thanksgiving and with joy for the Philippians, even as he writes from his dark prison cell. Confident in God’s presence and continual work in the world, Paul’s joy is a product not of his own situation, but of the promise that God is not finished.

Even as our own churches fracture and divide over vaccination and mask decisions, we can take Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians as an invitation extended across the centuries. As we enter this season of darkness and waiting, how might we find joy in the promise of God’s work through the coming of Jesus Christ?

Peace,

Rachel Boden

November 19, 2021 – Daniel 7:9-14

It may seem an odd choice to use an Old Testament reading for Christ the King Sunday. But Jesus himself never goes around calling himself King. Jesus never tells people to worship him as the Son of God. He actually gets upset whenever anyone suggests he is the messiah. The title that he does accept, embrace, and apply to himself over and over again is the Son of Man. Jesus directly quotes from Daniel 7 to describe himself, his mission and his purpose. So, while the church considers Jesus through 2000 years of theological encrustations, Jesus considers himself squarely through the lens of this most curious book of the Old Testament and its mysterious figure, the Son of Man.

The Son of Man is a notoriously slippery phrase. It could just as easily be translated from Aramaic as a human being. But Daniel does not use it quite that generically. Daniel uses the term to refer to a kind of human, kind of divine person who will be given sovereign rule over the nations and the world. That same Son of Man will then render final judgment on the nations.

On Sunday we will consider this most ancient and distinctive of Jesus’ own titles. Along the way we will ask what kind of Kingdom are we celebrating anyway and why it is good news for all.

November 12, 2021 – Daniel 12:1-3

Resurrection is a very old hope. It is not so much a hope of life after death as it is a hope for vindication in God’s redemption beyond life and death. Resurrection is God’s solution to all the problems of evil, pain, and suffering to which mortal flesh is subject.

Jesus did not introduce resurrection, although he was the first to demonstrate it. The hope, the idea is far older. Mary and Martha seemed to know all about it. The Pharisees believed in it. The Sadducees denied it. Isaiah and Ezekiel appear to imply it. Resurrection was frequently discussed in Jewish literature composed between the testaments in works like 1 Enoch, 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra, and Joseph and Aseneth. But Daniel 12 is the first explicit mention of resurrection in the Old Testament. As far as we can tell, Daniel 12 is the first explicit mention of resurrection anywhere.

The hope that holds both Christianity and Judaism together is resurrection, the hope that God’s redemptive purposes go beyond this world and unto eternity. Of course, Christians and Jews disagree about its sequence. And while Daniel does not address all the detailed mechanics of the process, his vision shines down the ages and would be adopted by John of Patmos in his own apocalypse. After a sleep down in the dust, we will rise. Those who yearn to be a part of God’s plan will shine like the stars. And those who intentionally and stubbornly oppose God’s plan will realize their shame. It is not heaven and hell as depicted in Dante and illustrated by Michelangelo. It instead appears to be the loving, saving work of a creator who both respects the autonomy and freedom of creatures and seeks their benevolent perfection.

We do not need to be afraid anymore. No matter what happens, we shall rise.

November 5, 2021 – Daniel 3:14, 15-26

I have never preached on the Book of Daniel. Ever. It is one of those books you avoid like that abandoned house that was rumored to be haunted a few blocks from where you grew up. Daniel is weird. It is the last book written to be included in the Old Testament. Most of it is written in a different language, Aramaic instead of Hebrew. It describes mysterious visions, cosmic struggles, the end of the world, and the beginning of a new one. Daniel belongs to that curious genre of literature that reveal the hidden workings of the world. We use the fancy Greek word for revealing something hidden to describe these sorts of books. We call it an apocalypse.

You can read through Daniel and tie your mind in knots looking for hidden symbols and hermetic codes. Or you can just read the book and accept the hidden truth it offers. The world can be a mighty rough place sometimes. Good does not always triumph over evil. But in the end, despite all current appearances to the contrary, God wins. That is the hidden secret of Daniel. God wins.

Knowing God’s ultimate triumph permits God’s people to behave in extraordinary ways. Knowing God’s ultimate triumph means God’s people do not need to be afraid anymore. Kings and countries may threaten, indeed may kill, but cannot triumph. Only God can. And only God will.
Three young Jewish men try to integrate into the Babylonian Empire. They serve in high up administrative positions. They wear the latest in court fashion, pointy slippers and all. But while their dominant culture can change their appearance, it cannot change their hearts. They are dedicated to the God of Israel. They are not dedicated to the God who will rescue them. They will not put God to the test. They are simply unyielding in their commitment to the truth.

The Book of Daniel introduces us to a new type of character in the Bible, not prophets, priests, or kings. These three men are simply witnesses to the truth, no matter what the world may say or do to silence them. The Bible uses the Greek word for witnesses to describe these sorts of people. They are called martyrs.

October 29, 2021 – Psalm 46

This Sunday we recognize our theological heritage arising out of the Protestant Reformation. Perhaps the most famous piece of music associated with the Reformation is Martin Luther’s Hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. Harmonized by Bach, symphonically scored by Mendelssohn, and sung in countless Lutheran church services, this song has served as something like the Protestant anthem. The problem is that it was never really intended to be a triumphal anthem and most people nowadays do not even know what all the fuss we call the Reformation was about.

Luther wrote Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott, as a paraphrase of Psalm 46. It is a song of confident hope that God is with us in every trouble. The Mighty Fortress of which we sing is not a place. It is a person. It is God. And that refuge is not from this world. The refuge of God is in this world, amid all the troubles and chaos of our lives. The song is not a triumph for the victorious, but consolation for the frightened and downtrodden.

What the Psalmist proposes and Luther endorses is not some escapist fantasy, but the simple recognition that God is immediately available and accessible to every person, right now. All it requires of us is the intention to seek God and the attention to let go of everything that is not God. The Psalm offers clear instruction: be still. That stillness is the attention to the quiet voice waiting to be heard inside of each of us.

The Protestant Reformation arose out of simple idea, every person has direct access to God without the mediation of church, clergy, or any human intervention. We cannot create that connection. God does all the work. Nothing we do or do not do connects us to God. It is all a gift. This is the hope that Luther and the psalmist sing. This is the hope that sustains us still.

October 22, 2021 – Psalm 139

It is perhaps the most personal expression of faith in all of scripture. Psalm 139 portrays human experience in all its dimensions as an expression of God’s knowledge, care, presence, creativity, and power. The Psalm radically relativizes human beings. We spend our whole lives presuming that we are the subjects, the authors of our stories. The Psalmist flips our presumptions on their head. We are actually objects in God’s drama, creatures within God’s sandbox, the artifacts of God’s infinite creativity, artistry, and craft. Divine reality and divine life enclose every human thought and experience, not merely our thoughts and experiences but every possibility. In poetry that would be unsettling for its demotion of human agency but for its reassurance of divine companionship, God-with-us/Emmanuel steps forward into our narrow awareness of not only who God is, but the reality of our lives and world.

Psalm 139 describes a God whose knowledge of us is complete, knowing our every thought not because we are so dominated or controlled, but simply because we are so transparently known. This intimacy of knowledge extends to our innermost parts (the Hebrew literally refers to our kidneys which were considered the source of human conscience). But that knowledge is not like our knowledge. God’s knowledge is not detached. God’s knowledge is always relational. Every line of the Psalm is addressed directly to God as thou in relationship with the author in what she does, what she knows, and where she goes. This is no passive God of metaphysics; this is a persistent God of steadfast companionship. We are never free of this God. Rather we are free for and to this God. Before God, we are real persons in our uniqueness all somehow participating in a divine plan whose motives lie far beyond our pay grade.

In the famous passage of 1 Corinthians 13, Saint Paul reflects that, “Now I know only in part; then I will be fully know even as I have been fully known.” Psalm 139 responds yes, but the most important part you know right now is simply knowing that you are already fully known.
–Brian

October 15, 2021 – Psalm 104

Songs of nature abound in art, but we rarely consider them from the Bible. Extolling the beauty of nature and the intricate ecological web that sustains us is not a topic we expect to find there. We expect the Bible to be all about . . . well, religious things. But sometimes the most religious thing of all is simply the truth right in front of us if (and this is a big if) we can perceive it.

Modern folks like us tend to distinguish nature from the human order. The ancients did not. They understood how utterly interconnected and dependent they were on environment. They understood that they were a part of nature not something separate from it. The 104th Psalm celebrates the natural world and our place in, specifically right in the middle of it. The Psalm does lead up to human beings as the culmination of the natural order. We simply fit into the middle of it somewhere between lions and rock hyraxes. The real spectacular representation of nature is Leviathan, the ancient sea monster personification of chaos, a monster we all know too well.

Modern, Western, post-Enlightenment folks like us tend to presume that we know more than we do and control far more than we can. The 104th Psalm provides a necessary adjustment to our perception. We are not much of anything on our own. But we belong to everything. And that makes all the difference. With that kind of change in our perception we can finally behold the truth, not understand, but simply stand beneath it all in awe and wonder. The only appropriate response to that kind of wonder is worship. It is for that kind of worship that we are made. It is not in its essence religious. It is simply recognizes the truth that is all around us.

October 8, 2021 – Psalm 90

At some point in our life, we realize that life is fragile and our days are numbered. Somewhere in the transition between childhood and adulthood we become acutely aware that we will not live forever on this earth.

At that moment, our faith comes crashing in and we remember that our days are like the fading grass but God is from everlasting to everlasting.

We continue our study of the poetry of the psalms with the powerful and humbling words of Psalm 90. Together let’s follow the words of the psalmist as he/she proclaims the finiteness of humans and the “forever” of our God.

Join is for worship this Sunday as we remember to whom we belong!

October 1, 2021 – Psalm 31:1-21

The psalms are the great poetry book of the Bible. Like so many poems and song lyrics, we often do not know the precise circumstances of their composition. Originally, they were probably sung by choirs of Levites in the temple in Jerusalem. But they have grown beyond their original setting and have sunk deep into our collective consciousness.

The 150 (or 151) psalms give expression to every human emotion and feeling from exaltation to despair. They speak honestly in the language of the heart about the joy and sorrow of being human. Christians and Jews down through the centuries have turned to their ancient words to give expression to our hopes and griefs down through the centuries and they have provided the foundational grammar of prayer for the synagogue and the church.

The 31st Psalm occupies a special place in Christian worship. According to Luke, a line from this psalm were the last words Jesus uttered: “Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, Lord, my faithful God.” It is not purely a plea, a prayer asking for something. It is instead a statement of confidence in God as the speaker hands her life over into the hands of God. Deliver me, is not so much a request as a sure and certain statement of what God does and who God is.

Our culture tends to emphasize our agency, ability, and control. The psalmist recognizes that those things are a trap for the unwary. Instead of our power, the psalmist focuses on our dependence. We do not rescue ourselves. We are rescued by God. And ultimately, we find our place and our identity not in our accomplishments or preferences, but inside a tiny little space inside of God made just for us.

We are human beings not human doings and our being is always in God. So, we do not need to be afraid. Not on the cross. Not before the grave. Not ever. We belong to God.

September 24, 2021 – Psalm 30

A Psalm of Thanksgiving

Somewhere in ancient Israel, an unknown writer of this psalm/song penned these powerful and hopeful words of praise and thanksgiving in the midst of deep suffering.

With the psalmist we fall deep into the pits of death and rise high into life restored. We feel the depth of the psalmists pain and we feel the absolute joy of life-instead-of-death. God had healed the psalmist and brought him/her back from sure death.

Years later, this compelling song of thanksgiving for God’s saving acts was sung at the Feast of the Dedication commemorating the cleansing of the Second Temple by Judas Maccabeus in 164 BCE following the desecration of the Temple by the King of Syria. It was healing of sorts for the Temple after the death of desecration in this sacred place.

This ancient psalm/song was carried through generations of God’s people bringing hope and healing for all. And it comes to us today to bring hope and healing for us in the midst of the suffering of this pandemic and endemic.

We are delighted to welcome Rev. Dr. Joni Sancken to our pulpit and worship leadership this Sunday as she shares God’s Word to us from Psalm 30. We invite you to join us for worship either in-person or via livestream. Information and links for worship are below. Peace to you.

September 17, 2021 – Numbers 6:22-27

A blessing is a special thing. A wish is simply an expression of a desired outcome and a blessing certainly contains that, but it is something more. A blessing evokes the sense of new possibility beyond our contemporary horizon of perception. Blessing taps into some hidden imagination of what may be possible if only we relax our tired and often cynical assumptions. But a blessing does something even more than evoke. A blessing invokes the power to make that possibility a reality. A blessing casts the blesser as full participant in the invocation of divine providence in the life of the blessed. As such, a blessing is an active word-act that helps to make the possibility it describes real. A blessing does not merely hope for something. A blessing actually does something.

Sadly, blessing is a lost art among Christians. We much prefer the dry topography of the indicative where we can map, order, and control. Alternatively, we prefer the language of critique with its passive violence to self and others to any healing language. But words have a power all their own, or more precisely words can channel a power from somewhere else.

The ancient Jews understood this well. The Old Testament is filled with stories of the power of blessings and none were more powerful than the great priestly blessing from Numbers. God told Moses to teach Aaron and all who would follow Aaron to bless the people using a precise formula, a rising crescendo of divine beneficence and belonging that would ultimately provide the people’s self-definition, the same words (albeit in Hebrew) uttered at the end of every sacrifice in the Temple and every Shabbat service in the synagogue to this day, the same words with which I end ever service of worship, and, should I attend you upon your deathbed, the final words I will whisper in your ear. These are our words that have the power to change us.

And as chance and providence would have it, these words are also the oldest words we possess from scripture, a testament to hope and faith, and a testament to our endless desire to participate in hope and faith.
What might be different if reclaimed these words and their power with the full sincerity and desire of our hearts? How might God be different in our lives and in our world if fully invited not merely through wistful evocation, but the holistic invitation of invocation that comes from deep inside?

September 10, 2021 – Haggai 1:15-2:9

The people were frustrated and a bit depressed. 73 years earlier, their beautiful temple had been destroyed by the rampaging armies of Babylon. The temple and their city, Jerusalem, were left as a rubble heap. There were no answers. They simply got by. Now, two generations later, they have returned to the city and started to rebuild. But something was missing. The new temple failed to meet their expectations. Memory, edited by two generations of nostalgia, conflicted with their present humbled circumstances. So, they did what God’s people have always done. They grumbled.

The people are frustrated and a bit depressed. 20 years earlier, our beautiful city and its gleaming white towers were destroyed by other rampaging Middle Eastern men, coming from not so very far from Babylon. Our temples to progress, modernity, prosperity, and national strength, were left a rubble heap. There were no answers, only victims. We got by. For a while we pulled together. Then we started pulling apart. Wars came and went. Courageous sacrifices were made. New towers, even taller, rose up in their place. We were not exiled from our nation, but somehow disconnected from our selves. Something went missing. Perhaps it was our sense of security, perhaps a sense of innocence, perhaps a sense that hope and progress must necessarily prevail. Now we find ourselves stuck between grief and uncertainty. For too many of us, unwilling or unable to process that grief and anxiety, we simply transmit our feelings as anger.

Anxiety and loss swirl around us, our nation, and our world. Anniversaries and wars bring no finality. Pandemics never end. Time has flattened. And all the while we are bothered by a vague, nagging sense of how it once was. But we can never fully trust our memories, lovingly edited by nostalgia. All we know for certain is this is not the way we are supposed to be.

There is a promise and a solution to our malaise. You probably will not like it. The people of Jerusalem certainly did not like it. It took four prophets (Haggai, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Zechariah) to get the message across even for God. First, the promise. I am with you so do not be afraid, says the Lord. It is the same promise God offered Abraham and Moses. It is the same promise that Jesus offered to us. God does not promise to relieve our suffering. God promises to companion us through our suffering. Always. Second, the solution. Get to work. Get to work, together, with God. When we participate together with what God is doing in the world, we are changed. Participating in what God is doing is the active means through which God nurtures us into new life. When we do it together with other people we are pulled out of our grief as we create community knit together by the Spirit.

The temple would be rebuilt but not in the way the people wanted or expected. The temple is never built out of stone and wood. It is built out of our lives, trusting God and working together.

We trust and we build. We build together with God and with each other. It will not conform to our expectations. It is not a memorial to the past. What we are building is our new home.

–Brian

September 3, 2021 – Isaiah 61:1-11

Home again! Now what?

After almost 200 years in captivity under Assyria and Babylon, God’s people of Israel (northern kingdom) and Judah (southern kingdom) were exhausted, discouraged, and spent. They had completely lost a sense of who they were and to whom they belonged. They longed for home, for Jerusalem, for their land.

Then Cyrus II, the king of Persia and conqueror of Babylon, issued an order in 538 BCE allowing exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. God’s people were finally going home.

But, now what? How would they rebuild Jerusalem? How would they rebuild the Temple? Who would lead them in rebuilding their beloved city? And mostly importantly, would God be with them?

Isaiah 61 is written by an unnamed and unknown prophet known as Third Isaiah who followed in the traditions and prophesies of First Isaiah. The beautiful and hopeful words of Isaiah 61 are written to the remnant Jews who had finally returned to Jerusalem following captivity. It is was a joyful time but also a difficult time of rebuilding and finding community with the Jews who had been left behind in Judah after so many generations.

God indeed would be with them as they rebuilt their lives. But God had a new plan for what that rebuilt city would be like. God’s ways were indeed better than Israel’s ways!

Starting over is difficult no matter where or when we live. We are rebuilding and starting over in so many ways as God’s people in this time of post pandemic confusion.

Let us join together this Sunday as we worship God, share in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and hear Isaiah’s words on how God’s people rebuilt a beautiful city!

August 27, 2021 – Isaiah 55:1-13

For you shall go out in joy and be led back in peace.
Isaiah 55:12

Joy that follows great suffering is a deep joy! God’s people had been wallowing in the mud of suffering and sin for a long time. They had lost their way and lost their sense of identity as God’s chosen people. As a divided kingdom – the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah – they were already broken as a community of God’s people. And now powers much greater than Israel and Judah had taken siege of what once belonged to God’s people, and scattered the people and their possessions to wind. Generations passed as God’s people lived in captivity under Assyria and eventually Babylon.

By the waters of their captors, God’s people wept for the days of their beloved country and God. Where was God? Who where they? When would they go home?

Through these exiled years of suffering and sin, God spoke to God’s people through the prophets and specifically through the beloved prophet Isaiah (and through unnamed and unknown prophets who followed in the steps of Isaiah). The joyful words of Isaiah 55 are the long awaited words of hope for which God’s people had longed.

“Joy is coming! Peace is coming! Home is coming!”

In the coming Sundays we will be hearing the words of the prophets and remembering that we too are God’s chosen people, often lost and often longing for home. Join us as we worship together both in-person and live-streamed as we find joy in the midst of suffering.

August 20, 2021 – Mark 10:46-52

“Son of David, have mercy on me!” He won’t stop yelling despite all the people telling him to be quiet. He has perceived too much, which is rather ironic considering he is blind. His name was Bartimaeus which was a rather cruel joke as it meant “son of the blessed one.” There was nothing blessed about him or his hard life. Yet when Jesus passed by, he took his chance. Jesus offers him precisely what he had offered all his disciples in the preceding chapters. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks Bartimaeus. The answers Jesus had received so far included: my own personal messiah, power and prestige, eternal life, and status. Now this blind man Jesus had never met asks for something far more precious and in his answering demonstrates that he already possessed what he sought. “Rabbouni, let me see again.” Interestingly, Jesus does not tell him that his sight is restored. Jesus offers him much more. “Go, your faith has saved you.” And so Bartimaeus goes, but does not go home. He follows Jesus and all the others off to Jerusalem. The final disciple goes off on the way.

What do you see and what do you perceive? What do you seek and what do you want? Are you willing to let those things redirect your life? If you beheld the truth, would you follow?

Long ago in the Exodus, the people of God paused for a moment in their incursion into the kingdoms of this world to pause for a moment in Jericho before entering the Holy Land. And now, just before Jesus heads up the hill towards Jerusalem he does so again, acquiring one final disciple on the way.

The way is still open for those who may wish to follow.

August 13, 2021 – Mark 10:35-44

You are not supposed to talk about death at a baptism. It is considered rather gauche, like talking about a divorce at a wedding. Baptism is supposed to be about family and new life. And it is. The problem is that new family and new life mean letting go of old family and old life and letting go hurts. We tend to cling onto the familiar and predictable. We like control. Baptism is the symbolic, and perhaps actual, ritual of drowning all that, drowning who we once were. We are given a new identity, a new name, literally our given name. And we are ushered into a new family, only a tiny few of whom happen to be alive in the same era as us. We come out the other side dripping wet, but changed. We have literally been through a drowning (that is what the word baptism means in Greek) and have emerged alive, but changed. Now we are the already-been-through-death people, albeit a little wet. And as such people, we do not need to be afraid anymore.

The problem is that more often than not, we do not believe our good fortune. We do not trust the promises we have received. Our fears outweigh our faith. So, we try to muddle through on our own terms. We learn to be competent, competitive, and successful. We strive for achievement and success in order to maintain control over our lives and the immediate world around us. We define ourselves in what we do, accomplish, possess, and control, rather than who we actually are. That fundamental misunderstanding of identity gets us in trouble because we start to lose ourselves along the way.

It got James and John in trouble. These two hot-tempered sons of Zebedee ask Jesus to share in his glory. They do not understand what they are asking for. They want to assume and undertake Jesus’ own baptism, which is fulfilled not over a font, but in wood and nails. They did not, perhaps could not, understand that real power has nothing to do with control or dominion, but rather comes from letting go. And nothing says letting go like getting drowned naked (admittedly, we don’t do it naked any more).

Our lives end, or more accurately begin anew, not in the fulfillment of all our wishes and fantasies but God’s. We can make God in our own image like Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island fulfilling our wants, but our wants only tend to get us into more trouble. Or, we can let go of our wants and our endless need for control. We can let go of everything we hold on to and instead simply be held. We can renounce all those things we claim to possess and simply be possessed. Down in the murky depths, where everything else is drowned, there is only one thing you can trust. Strong arms embrace you, pull you up and declare for all time and above every other claim, you child, you belong to God.

August 6, 2021 – Mark 10:17-31

Of all the uncomfortable passages of scripture, none have had more ink spilled over them trying to persuade the reader that Jesus did not actually mean what he said than Sunday’s reading. Simply put, we don’t like it. So, for centuries we try to sneak around it. We try to sneak around Jesus and into the Kingdom of God.

A rich young man, a rich and apparently quite pious young man, asks Jesus what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. He already follows all the commandments, not just the twelve, all 613 of them. So what else is on the to do list? Only one thing, Jesus tells him. No big deal. Sell all that you have and then come and follow me. Ouch.

I do not want to sell all I have. I trust Jesus . . . to a point. That point is probably my retirement savings account balance. So, I rather empathize with the rich man as he walks away grieving, shocked, and maybe a bit ashamed.

I wanted the man to stay. I wanted him to keep talking from Jesus. I wanted him to tell Jesus that he is scared and needs help. And I wanted Jesus to wrap his arms around him and tell him it would be okay. But that did not happen. As Jesus watches the man wander off, the Gospel says something remarkable. It says that Jesus loved this man, the only person in the entire Gospel who Jesus is said to love. And because of that love, I read the rest of the passage not as judgment or condemnation, but as a promise.

There is hope, even for the rich man, even for you and me. Come and find out.

July 30, 2021 – Mark 10:13-16

Jesus blesses the little children. It is one of the most beloved scenes in the New Testament. We love children. We love Jesus. What then better than to bring them all together in a group hug.

Sentimental affection is what we perceive, but probably not what this passage was meant to convey. Children were not really children, at least in the highly valued way we think of them nowadays, in the first century. Childhood, and all that it culturally conveys to us, is a product of the Victorian era. Prior to that, children were not really considered people. Of little economic or social value, with uncertain chances of survival, and no possibility of accomplishment or acquisition, children were for most of history considered to be the epitome of nobodies. They did not earn anything, achieve anything, or even deserve anything. Which makes them the perfect object lesson for citizenship in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus embraces the children as those who may enter the Kingdom of God precisely because they are not worthy. The Kingdom of God is not about our worth, our goodness, religiosity, piety, or achievement. Instead, the Kingdom of God is about, as its name suggests, God. And God has a curious way of choosing precisely those whom the world holds to be of no value.

So how do you get your way into the Kingdom of God? You don’t. God simply welcomes with and open embrace. And if that is God’s way, perhaps it should be ours as well.

July 23, 2021 – Mark 9:33-48

It is a horrible text. It makes us cringe at Jesus’ words. Surely, he did not really mean that, did he?

Taken out of context, these words can cause enormous harm.

Taken in context, these words may be far more than they at first appear.

The earliest copyists of the New Testament struggled with this text. We know of at least three different versions of it. One says we are salted with fire. Another says that the sacrifices will be salted with fire. And yet a third tries to split the difference saying we are salted with fire and sacrifices are salted with salt. All three footnotes point us toward the object of Jesus’ lesson in this reading and it was not about self-dismemberment.
Sacrifices offered up in the temple were sprinkled with salt just before they were placed on the giant burning brazier of the altar. Salting the sacrifices was not a priestly custom, it was commanded by God’s law as sign and symbol of the permanence and purity of the relationship between God and humanity expressed in that sacrifice. Salt preserves, purifies, and sometimes stings as it cleans. So does the covenant.

Jesus now redirects our attention away from the temple and towards our own hearts. “Have salt in yourselves,” he tells us. And he is not talking about seasoning. Just as Israel marked the sacrificial offerings with this symbol of God’s promises, now Jesus wants us to internalize God’s promises as a marking of our new identity.

What matters then is neither our moral virtue, whether or not we live without sin, let alone our sacrifices in the temple. What matters is whether we have made God’s promises ours and allowed them to redefine and redirect every aspect of our lives.

Jesus does not want maimed followers terrified of damnation. He wants courageous people living into God’s promises. And if you do that, you need not fear the garbage dump of Gehenna. If you do that you will not merely persevere, you will savor God’s own delight.

July 16, 2021 – Mark 9:30-37

In a bit over a week, the Tokyo Olympic games will commence. We tend to forget that the Olympic Games were originally understood primarily as a religious celebration to honor the pagan gods (Zeus, Apollo, Athena, etc). Every four years, contestants, priests, poets, and playwrights from throughout the Hellenistic world would travel to the shrine at Olympia to offer up the very best in human performance as a sacrifice to and a celebration of their gods, who not coincidentally were an awful lot like them. Human excellence, achievement, and power, which they summarized with the term Arete, which simply means “excellence,” was their ambition and aim both for the gods and for humans. And judging by Facebook, it still is.

With that in mind, Jesus’ response to the question of the nature of true greatness is odd, offensive, and confusing. Gods are supposed to manifest their divinity through power, wisdom, and beauty, not self-emptying, sacrifice, and death. And human beings are supposed to manifest their greatness through the same expressions, not mercy, charity, and love. But the way things are “supposed to be” is exactly what Jesus came to overturn and offer us something better.

He takes a child, not as an example, but as a living, breathing, person in need of our care, compassion, and mercy. “You want to know if you are great,” he asks his disciples. “Then tell me what you will do for this little girl?” he asks them as he holds her close. It is not the answer that the disciples, or the Olympians, or anyone else in his world had considered. But it seems to be the answer that God gives when God shows us perfectly what God’s own care, compassion, and mercy towards undeserving nobodies looks like. It looks like Jesus.

July 9, 2021 – Mark 8:27-38

Usually, we read the Bible. Sometimes the Bible reads us. Sunday’s text falls into the latter category and haunts my imagination and conscience.

At the very center of Mark, at the geographic apogee of Jesus’ ministry, he poses a question on which not only the Gospel, but our lives turn. “Who do you say that I am?” He does not ask who the theologians or the church say he is. He does not ask who you think or speculate that he is. He asks who do you say, openly, publicly, as an act of witness, that he is. That question is not directed so much to Peter or the other disciples, but to you and to me.

It can be so hard after 2000 years of accumulated Christian theology, liturgy, music, and culture to set aside all the assumptions we have inherited and be shocked and surprised along with Peter and the others. We glibly refer to Jesus Christ as if Christ were somehow his last name. It is not. It is a title. Properly following rules of English syntax, it should be Christ Jesus or Jesus the Christ. And Christ does not mean God, it literally means the anointed one. Messiah, Christ, and the Anointed One all mean exactly the same thing in Hebrew, Greek, and English respectively. The Anointed One was the one anointed to rule, the one anointed to be King, much as English monarchs are anointed on their coronation. That means that the term is originally all about power, rule, and dominion. And that is the problem.

Jesus has an altogether different notion of what the Anointed One would be like and would do. He relies less on the triumphant prophecies of Isaiah and more on Isaiah’s suffering servant songs and the shadowy images of the Son of Man in Daniel 7-12, all describing someone who is paradoxically much more than a Messiah but who will also suffer for the sake of the people.

Peter does not understand and even if he did, he would no doubt not want that kind of Messiah. Few of us do. We prefer King Jesus and the Hallelujah Chorus to a broken man dying on a cross. No wonder the disciples had a hard time with it and with him.

We still do.

And yet, the question remains and one way or other we all answer it . . .

July 2, 2021 – Mark 7:24-37

We are well familiar with the beautiful healing passages in Gospels when Jesus lovingly heals those who seek his aid, both for themselves and for their children. Our church artwork often portrays Jesus restoring sight, mobility, and even life. We turn to those passages in our own life and prayers when facing adversity as a source of hope and encouragement.

This Sunday’s text is not one of those passages.

Sometimes Jesus says no.

When facing Jesus’ refusal, what is the faithful response? Acquiesce? Argue? And how do we understand Jesus’ refusal anyway? A rather tenacious Lebanese woman reveals the answers and they may surprise you. They may in fact have surprised Jesus, just as she did. Which raises a very interesting question, what does it mean for Jesus to change his mind?

Listen on Sunday and while you may not find all the answers you are seeking, I guarantee your questions will be deepened.

June 25, 2021 – Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

We leave the beloved story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand with its loaves and fish, and move to a different story about food. This story is filled with conflict rather than comfort. Jesus is coming to the end of his public ministry before he enters his own passion and finds himself, once again, confronted by the religious leaders. “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” Jesus cannot even eat a meal with his disciples without words of challenge and conflict.

The religious leaders are hanging their argument on the traditions of their ancestors. Jesus is holding on to the sacred Law. The Torah. God’s Law. And Jesus’ retort is quick and direct:

“This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;”

The religious leaders are screaming about practices and traditions created by humans and Jesus is teaching about things of the heart. Things from within. Practices of the heart. Both evil and good come from within.

“…there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

It is a humbling word to hear from Jesus. We can fixate all we want on our outward practices but true adoration and devotion of God must come from within. The heart tells all.

Out story is made even richer by some sarcastic humor from Jesus about clueless disciples and the simple facts of the digestive system! And we, who initially are taken aback by the abruptness of this passage, find ourselves having to see ourselves as both the arrogant religious leaders and the clueless disciples.

Come join us for worship this Sunday at both 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. in-person and also live-streamed at 10:30 a.m. You can find the links for online worship below. All are welcome!

June 18, 2021 – Mark 6:30-44

On the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, about a half hour walk from Capernaum, is a small Benedictine Church, called the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes. The church commemorates Jesus’ miracle of the feeding of the 5000. The modern church sits directly on top of an ancient Byzantine church from the fifth century. So, while the church itself is modern, its mosaic floor is around 16 centuries old. As you might expect, the image of a basket filled to the brim with pieces of bread takes pride of central place. But around it, curiously, you find images of all sorts of birds, especially peacocks, and every sort of wild animal, plant and tree.

Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 intentionally points forward and backward in time. Jesus organizes the people into eating groups just like Moses did in the Exodus. He provides food in the wilderness just like God did raining Manna on the people. And he even quotes Moses, taking compassion on the people, “like sheep without a shepherd.” And then the miracle points us forward in time. Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks to God for it, breaks it, and gives it to them. In other words, Jesus demonstrates communion before the last supper. Finally, the people are described as filled, but in a very particular sense in the original Greek. The people are not empty voids whose volume has now been filled. Rather they are now complete, whole, and who they were meant to be.

Jesus’s feeding of the 5000 bridges human need with God’s compassion from our ancient past to our ultimate future. That is why the ancient artists of the church filled it with images of birds and beasts and a river. They imagined the miraculous feeding as a foretaste of paradise, Eden 2.0, paradise restored and perfected. The river that runs through it is the river for the healing of the nations as described in Revelation and those peacocks, an ancient symbol for resurrection. The meal and Jesus’ feeding compassion points us towards our destiny and homecoming.

God meets human need with divine compassion. This is not just what God does. This is who God is. In the Exodus, God feeds the people in their need. On the hillsides of Galilee, God feeds the people in their need. And right now, in the various assorted train wrecks of our lives, God feeds us, if only we are willing to acknowledge our hunger and receive. The compassion of God is expressed as God again and again saving us. “God saves,” or in Hebrew, Yeshua, the name we translate: Jesus.

June 11, 2021 – Mark 6:14-29

It is an awful story. Most churches avoid it. Wiser pastors never preach on it. But it also reveals some of the cold hard truth that we would rather avoid. Sometimes people die. And sometimes they do not die heroic deaths. Sometimes there are no heroes, only victims.

John the Baptist is portrayed in all the Gospels as the final prophet, simultaneously calling the people to transform their lives (repentance) and announcing the coming of the Messiah. His message struck a chord in many people’s spiritual and moral imaginations. That made him dangerous to the powers of his world.

Kings and princes rely on fear for their power. If people let go of their fear, there is no telling what they might do. Herod Antipas knew this only too well. He grew up in a homicidally inclined family where his father murdered one his wives and at least two sons. Herod’s position was always precarious. Mockingly, the Romans gave him the title of Quarter King (Tetrarch). He had no legitimate claim to rule, only Roman muscle backing him up. Chronically insecure, he is easily manipulated by his own family into murder.

The story of the death of John the Baptist is a tragedy. Even its antagonist Herod is not so much a tyrannical villain as a weak coward. Lacking any morally edifying content or spiritually uplifting ending, a sensible person would skip over it to the next chapter.

Except . . .

There is one odd thing about this story. Someone is missing. Told as a flashback, this is the only story in the Gospels in which Jesus is completely absent, never appearing, never even mentioned. In other words, this is a story of precisely what this world and our lives are like without Christ. And maybe, that is the whole point.

June 4, 2021 – Mark 6:1-13

You can’t go home again. At least so wrote Thomas Wolfe. The problem is not that home has changed withdrawing welcome. The problem is you have changed. You are a different person. Everyone you knew who stayed behind relates to you now as who you once were, not who you are. Unless people are willing to let go of everything they knew or thought they knew about you from the past, real relationship and trust are almost impossible because they do not actually see you or hear you. They see and hear a well-edited memory.

The only place where Jesus could do no deeds of power was Nazareth, his hometown. After moving away and taking up his vocation as an itinerant healer, teacher, and exorcist, his fame spread throughout the region of Galilee. There was only one place where he could not work miracles, the place where people thought they knew him best, his hometown. You can imagine the small-town gossip. Who does he think he is? We know his people. We knew him when he was a little kid. Now he thinks he’s all that and a bag of chips. Well mister fancy apocalyptic prophet, how about settling down and doing something respectable for a change?

To enter into a deep intimate relationship with God or with another person, the first thing you need to do is let go of every presumption, assumption, prejudice, and judgment we hold about them. You need to release our little models of what that person is supposed to be in order to actually encounter and perceive who they are. And we are very fond of our little presumptions, assumptions, prejudices, and judgments. We let go of them, if at all, reluctantly.

Jesus could do no deeds of power in Nazareth. Why? We glibly answer because they had no faith. But look deeper. What is the foundation of faith? Relationship. And what it the foundation of relationship? A genuine willingness to encounter, see, hear, and perceive another. Openness and curiosity are the shared foundations of faith, love, and friendship. The very first step is the willingness to let go of what we think of another to meet him or her as they truly are.

So, who is Jesus for you? Your image of what Jesus should be? Or the one who is actually reaching out to you in and as this moment?

May 28, 2021 – Mark 5:21-43

This Sunday is Trinity Sunday. There are many things we do not know about the Trinity but one thing we do know is that the Trinity is about relationship. In the Trinity we see divine relationship – God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit – as One.

Our story from Mark for Trinity Sunday is also about relationship. The relationship between a father and his daughter, the relationship between a synagogue leader and Jesus, the relationship between an unnamed woman and Jesus. The story of the healing of Jairus’ daughter and the healing of the woman with the flow of blood is woven together so that one healing is sandwiched in between the other healing. We journey with Jesus from the beginning of Jairus’ plea to Jesus to heal his daughter to the healing of the woman with the flow of blood and then on ultimately to the healing of Jairus’ daughter. Jairus and the unnamed woman share in common their desperate need for healing and their genuine faith that Jesus can heal them and the ones they love.

We all experience our faith in relationship and not in isolation. We are created to be in covenant community with one another and with God. We all ache to belong and to be loved. It is the nature of who we are created to be – people in loving relationships with God and with one another.

We invite you to join us in worship this Sunday as we worship in community together both in-person and live-streamed. This is what we long for…relationship and belonging.

May 21, 2021 – Mark 4:35-41

The Gospels contain several miraculous stories about boats and storms. In most of them the plot is simple. Jesus tells the disciples to go somewhere and do something. They set out but are confronted by a storm. They panic. Things get very very wet. And Jesus comes along and rescues them chiding them for their lack of faith.

These stories have always bothered me. Jesus appears to be criticizing them for a natural and perfectly understandable emotion, namely fear, when faced with dire peril. So, I wonder, what if Jesus is annoyed at them not because they were afraid, but rather because they stopped rowing.

Jesus tells us to go somewhere and do something, maybe somewhere we have never been before and maybe something we have never done. We are then faced with a choice. Do we trust Jesus and follow or not? The disciples initially go along with Jesus’ plan, but when faced with adversity they collectively freak out and abandon the plan. No wonder Jesus gets a bit annoyed.

Fear is the problem. Fear is always the problem. Fear robs us of reason, compassion, perception, and personality. Fear reduces the infinite choices of life down to fight or run away. Fear obscures our essential nature and clouds our true identity. Fear defaces the image of God in us and reduces us to feral animals.

It is no surprise then that Jesus’ constant refrain throughout his earthly ministry and after is simply this: “Do not be afraid.” I suspect that is not merely a comforting word of consolation, but actual instruction for how to be authentically human. The problem is that “do not be afraid” is a conclusion without a process. The method to undo fear’s grip is to trust and follow, especially in the face of adversity, especially in the face of the storm. To the disciples, Jesus says row not simply to get them to the other side of the lake but to get them to the other side of their fear. The more they focus on their mission and purpose, the less fear is able to take hold over them.

Following Jesus will never be easy. The world will not like it. The world will try to stop us. And when that happens, Jesus’ advice is simple: keep rowing. The work itself will change you even when you cannot change the circumstances you may encounter.

May 14, 2021 – Mark 4:21-32

The Kingdom of God is as if someone put a seed in the ground and it grew all on its own into a full rich harvest and then voom! harvest is brought in. I am told, by people who know far more about horticulture than I do that this is not how things work. You can’t just throw seeds about and expect a cornucopia. You’ve got to water and weed and fertilize and keep the bugs and the birds away. In short you’ve got to work the garden morning and night and even then there’s no guarantee of what you’ll get. Jesus says the Kingdom of God is not like that. It just happens. It happens despite all the evidence in this world to the contrary. It happens despite the fact that we have forgotten to tend to the seeds sown all around us and those sown in us. On that day the astonishing, mysterious, hidden work of God will be revealed openly for all to see. The Greeks had a word for revealing, uncovering something like that, they called that moment apocalypse.

Growing up I always heard the tamed-down version of Jesus’ teaching, great things come from small and inconspicuous beginnings. And while that may be true, I think it is a rather tepid interpretation. Wild Mustard, Brassica Nigra, is a weed, a prickly scrubby shrub that grows to be about four or five feet high and then slowly takes over all the soil around it. You don’t want it in your fields because it will quickly push out all the other crops. That’s why you would find it growing in abandoned lots and barren hillsides because it is tough and resilient and hard to kill. The Kingdom of God is like a weed, growing fast, spreading out often where least expected or wanted, and nearly impossible to eradicate or control. Scientists call such a weed an invasive exotic, that’s a pretty good description of the Kingdom of God.

Kingdoms were symbolized by mighty trees. The Book of Daniel says that the Babylon is like a mighty tree, and Ezekiel says that Assyria is like a mighty cedar and indeed Ezekiel dreams of day when the restored monarchy of David will join with other nations and it too will be like a mighty cedar of Lebanon. But Jesus says, no, that’s not the way it’s gonna be. The Kingdom of God is not like those proud human Kingdoms. It doesn’t grow up vertically like a proud cedar, it grows horizontally, low to the ground spreading out, close at hand, accessible. Mighty oaks and cedars, those are human symbols for human empires built on pride and power. The Kingdom of God is built on an altogether different principle: power as humility, strength as weakness, and control as self-giving love.

Did you notice in that ever-expanding tangle of true vines there is room for the birds, for all who are weary of this world seeking a place of shelter and rest? The birds that Ezekiel suggests are all the nations of the world. And it all starts out so small, from the tiniest seed, from the least in the world, the overlooked, the ignored: a cup of water, a listening ear, a word preached, a helping hand extended, a hope encouraged, one person standing up against injustice. Small seeds, unnoticed by princes and presidents, small seeds that one day will bloom in spectacular bounty when and where we least expect it just as it started from the smallest of beginnings, a humble seed that looks dead, just like the message of a humble peasant with odd stories from the back hills of Galilee. Brian

May 7, 2021 – Mark 4:2-9, 13-20

Parables are not comforting moral fables. If you are looking for that sort of thing, you may find Aesop more to your liking. Parables are rhetorical time bombs often camouflaged as moral allegory designed to detonate deep inside our spiritual imaginations or consciences. Every parable has its sting.

Teaching, healing, and exorcising the occasional demon among the agrarian folks of the lower galilee, Jesus tells them a simple yarn. A person goes out to sow some seed and throws it all over the place. Some lands on the pathway where it gets gobbled up. Some lands on rocky ground where it sends up shoots but quickly dies for lack of roots. Some lands where the weeds choke it out. So far, the sower is 0-3. But finally, some of the seeds hit the sweet spot of good soil and they produce a crazy abundant yield. With Jesus’ pastoralist listeners we all nod in agreement. Yes, oftentimes our best plans don’t work out, but sometimes there is extraordinary abundance.
But then, Jesus offers up his own explanation of the parable. Did I say that you were sower? I’m sorry, I should have explained myself. You are not the sower. You are the dirt. I am the seed. Hunh? Wait a second, . . . ouch.

Parables are not tidy reassuring fables. They are designed to prick the conscience of the proud and force everyone to confront a choice, in the original Greek a crisis. God’s word is not just abundant, it is profligate. And yet, three-fourths of it falls on either deaf ears or unresponsive lives resulting in absolutely nothing. The transformation that Jesus’ message brings, which can be astounding, only happens to a few, perhaps a fourth of those who receive Jesus’ message. This is what happens when Jesus shows up. For most people, absolutely nothing happens.

The strongest antidote to saccharine-coated Christianity lapsing into license is Jesus himself. Yes, God’s love is abundant. Yes, God’s invitation is for all people. And yes, we have every opportunity to receive God’s revelation into our lives where it can and will transform us from within. But do we?
Looking around at the world, there is a lot of seed falling on unreceptive soils. Jesus would be quick to remind us this is nothing new. Our ability to change others’ responsiveness is severely limited. Dirt is dirt. What matters instead is what I let in and permit to grow within me.

April 30, 2021 – Mark 3:20-35

We tend to avoid these verses in Mark, among the most cutting in the New Testament: Jesus warning about a sin that cannot be forgiven and Jesus refusing to recognize his own mother. Avoidance leads to forgetting that they are even in there safely tucked away on the top shelf. I cannot explain them away or provide a clever exegetical trick to ease their sting. The only thing that I know for certain is that Jesus would not speak and teach this way unless the stakes were incredibly high.

It is an odd image that Jesus uses to describe his ministry and mission. No good shepherd, loving savior, or itinerant teacher is anywhere in sight. Instead, Jesus describes himself as a covert infiltrator sneaking into a strong man’s home and overtaking him by stealth and surprise, binding up the hapless victim, and then ransacking through the strong man’s possessions claiming them as his own. No one makes holiday cards of Jesus burgling Satan’s home. But that is essentially what Jesus is up to and, at least in Mark, how Jesus conceives of his mission. Jesus has entered into this world, a world subject to and under the domination of the strong man who is the power of sin and evil, through stealth. In Jesus, God sneaks into the realm of the powers and the possibilities of this age, in the role of a Palestinian peasant. And then, through his crucifixion and death, God sneaks into the strong man’s stronghold, the austere, proud, splendor of death itself. So certain of his dominion, Satan does not notice this covert operator and one-messiah hostage rescue mission. The rest, as the world says, is history. The rest, we say, is salvation. The one thing death cannot hold is God and so death breaks. The strong man is bound and his possessions, namely this creation and everything and everyone in it passes through Christ to God’s dominion and loving care.

If we are paying attention to Jesus as described in the Gospel and not the domesticated, tamed, and toned-down God of our imaginations and desires, we quickly notice that Jesus’ purpose is literally a matter of eternal life and death. Jesus is playing for keeps. What Jesus wants is everything and everyone, even you and me.

So, the next time a verse pinches our cultured sensibilities, let us give Jesus due consideration for his mission and the pressures he was under. Sometimes he will snap at our polite sensibilities especially involving family and religion, when they get in the way. Jesus did not come to make our lives marginally more pleasant. Jesus came to break this world and invite us into a new one, his. And may God help anything or anyone who hinders him.

April 23, 2021 – Mark 2:23 – 3:6

Rules are helpful. Until they are not.

When you want to learn how to ride a bicycle you start with training wheels that sit just an inch or so above where the tires touch the ground. If properly installed, the training wheels allow you to lean a little to the left or right before they hit the ground and start making an awful grinding sound. Eventually, you learn to ride such that the training wheels never touch the ground at all. Eventually you learn to balance yourself. The limits that had previously been imposed by the training wheels are now integrated into your own internal sense of balance.

The Bible is full of rules, 613 in the first five books. Those rules, collectively called Torah are the training wheels to help us live as human beings. Mature, well-adjusted people internalize them over time such that they do not consciously consider their application. Instead, we simply live our lives within them as a matter of habit and we call that habit, virtue.

Problems arise when the rules take on an undue importance on their own. If we forget the reason for the rules in the first place, unfortunate results can occur. This is the problem that Jesus addresses in the synagogue. The Law is good. Sabbath is good. But if the rules for the sabbath result in someone being excluded, marginalized, and alienated, then we have undermined the reason for the sabbath in the first place. Sabbath is all about liberation from bondage—bondage to Pharaoh, bondage to want, and bondage to death. Whenever a human being is held in such bondage sabbath demands liberation. And if our sabbath rules get in the way of God’s sabbath purposes, then our rules need to bend.

Religions are generally not adept at bending to human need. We much prefer to do it the way we have always done it. We tend to confuse means with ends and the map with the destination. But then an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth comes along and upsets the whole congregation. He still does and refocuses us again and again away from our rules towards God’s purposes.

April 16, 2021 – Mark 2:13-17

Walking along the Sea of Galilee you are bound to get muddy. The shore alternates between rocks and marshes, great for the migrating birds, not so good for people. Following Jesus along that shore is not so very different. If you want to follow Jesus, things are going to get messy.

Jesus chooses a curious assortment of characters for his endeavor including someone that most of the decent people of Galilee were no doubt quite happy left their neighborhood. Levi, alternatively called Matthew elsewhere, was a tax collector, not an IRS auditor sort of tax collector, rather legally sanctioned shake down artist who worked with the hated Roman occupiers. Even the Roman historians, not otherwise known for their sympathy for the Jews, commented that these tax farmers greed knew no bounds. No doubt Peter and the boys viewed Levi as a traitorous, rapacious, blood-sucking, parasite. This is the man Jesus chooses not to condemn, but instead to share dinner.

Jesus again frustrates and confounds. He chooses encounter over condemnation. He is more interested in the man than his crimes. Jesus engages in the personal rather than enacting justice. And in that encounter perceives Levi the person behind all his many well-earned ignominies. Preferring the personal over public perception, Jesus creates a space where there is at least the potential for Levi to transform.

We live in a golden age of ideological puritanism, quick to judge and pulverize any who purportedly deviate from our tribe’s self-defined norms. Especially now, after a year of separation and spending way too much time on social media, our tolerance for difference appears at an all time low. To us Jesus may be offering a far harsher lesson than he did by the lakeside long ago. Which is more important, being right or engaging in that curious pattern of self-restraint, curiosity, and attention to another that we call love?

April 9, 2021 – Mark 2:1-12

It takes a lot of faith to be willing to be dropped through a roof on a cot by four faithful friends all for the desperate hope of being healed. It also takes a lot of compassion to carry a paralyzed friend on a cot for a great distant, lift him up on the rooftop, and dig a hole through the roof in order that he might be healed.

Our story from the the gospel of Mark for this Sunday, the second Sunday of Easter, is a story about healing, compassion, faith and the authority to forgive sins. In this healing story Jesus takes a bold step not only to heal a man who was paralyzed but also to proclaim that he has the authority to forgive sins, knowing all the while that this would ruffle the feathers of certain religious leaders. This short passage of scripture calls into question some common misunderstandings about faith, healing, forgiveness, sin, and their relationship to one another.

What is the relationship, if any, between sickness and sin? Between forgiveness and healing? What false narratives do we still embrace today regarding sin and illness? Or illness and goodness? Why were the scribes so upset that Jesus forgave sins?

The story of the healing of the paralytic is a pivotal point in Mark’s short gospel. Jesus goes from healing miracle upon healing miracle in the region of Capernaum to sudden controversy and conflict with the religious rulers. This healing story is really a pronouncement story! Who is this Son of Man who can heal the paralytic and forgive his sins?

Join us for worship this Sunday, live-streamed at www.fairmontchurch.org, as we hear about Jesus, the Son of Man, and how he changed lives and ushered in a new kingdom of God.

April 2, 2021 – Mark 16:1-8

Holy Saturday is the day between Good Friday and Easter. On Holy Saturday the deeper mysteries of salvation unfolded. On that day Jesus was somewhere or perhaps everywhere somehow both still divine and yet quite dead going where no divine being was supposed to go. On Holy Saturday God enters death itself and in the greatest act of cosmic vandalism breaks death from the inside. The locks on the doors to death no longer work. Those who resided there are now free to leave. Neither I nor any mortal will ever truly understand what happened between Good Friday and Easter morning. Scripture itself stands in respectful mute silence before the awesome mystery of it all. But something did happen. On Easter morning first the women and then his followers discovered this amazing transformation had been completed, but the hard work of it was unfolding on Saturday.

I do not spend much of my life on Good Friday, thanks be to God. As a relatively comfortable, relatively secure American, I am not subjected to the systemic horror of arbitrary arrest, sham trials, public torture, and summary crucifixion. Nor do I spend much of my life on Easter running in exultation tinged with fear having materially seen that everything in my world has changed. I do however spend much of my life on Holy Saturday, knowing that God is doing something beyond my understanding in the deeps as I wait and watch and remember.

One practice of Holy Saturday is remembering, remembering all the promises of God even when we cannot behold their immediate fulfillment on our timetable, remembering the promises of God even when all other lights fail. So, we turn to scripture and His promises. Join us on Saturday at 2:00 p.m. on YouTube as we share together in those promises in our annual proclamation of a Gospel. This year we will be sharing the Gospel according to Mark. Please join us and hear the whole story as it was meant to be heard, orally shared by friends and recited as a whole.

The promises of God are not what gets us through the silence. The promises of God are what remind us that God is in the silence.

March 26, 2021 – Mark 11:1-11; 14:3-9

Faithful and Fickle

The triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem is the beginning of the most sacred week, Holy Week, for all of Christendom. For Jesus, the journey into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey is the final journey to Jerusalem, to crucifixion on the cross, and ultimately to the empty tomb and resurrection.

From Bethpage and Bethany near the Mount of Olives through the Kidron Valley to the east gate of the Temple, Jesus rides a humble beast while the crowds lay down their cloaks and spread branches before him. It is a heart-warming scene which later in the week will turn to angry shouts of “crucify him!”

Many of those who followed Jesus and faithfully shouted “Hosanna” would soon be fickle and unfaithful to Jesus. But one unnamed follower of Jesus was neither fickle nor unfaithful. We know very little about this woman, at least in Mark’s Gospel, but her act of anointing Jesus with precious oil and lavish love will be remembered for generations.

One seemingly insignificant act from a seemingly insignificant woman becomes a gift that matches all other gifts of service and love for Jesus. What was the meaning of this extravagant act of anointing Jesus? Who was this woman who risked all she had to show her love? What does her act mean in the midst of Holy Week and in contrast to the the triumphal entry and shouts of Hosannas?

Join us this Holy Week as we worship together. Be with Jesus in his journey to the cross and beyond to resurrection. This sacred week begins this Sunday, Palm Sunday, at 10:30 a.m. You can worship live-stream at www.fairmontchurch.org. Peace be with you.

March 19, 2021 – Mark 13:1-8, 32-36

Apocalypse and Revelation are the same word in different languages. Apocalypse is Greek and Revelation is Latin. Both of them simply mean the opening or the unwrapping. When a Greek mother opens up the soup kettle to check on it, that peeking under the lid is apokalypsus. And that term perfectly describes the vision that Jesus describes in the thirteenth chapter of Mark, his longest and final discourse in the Gospel, Jesus’ final teaching during his final week.

That apocalyptic vision, that revelation, is exactly what the first generation of Christians thought they were living into around the year 69. When the Gospel of Mark was being written, the last few men and women who personally knew Jesus and the Apostles were passing away. Imagine yourself as a Greek speaking Christian in a small town in Turkey at that time. You hear that down to the south there is a fierce war waging in Judea, the Roman legions have surrounded the temple and are slowly squeezing it to death. Meanwhile you hear news that that Rome has burned and that the emperor Nero has committed suicide only to be succeeded by a revolving carousel of generals who each rise up to take the throne by force. An empire-wide civil war is brewing. Everything you knew or thought you knew was now up for grabs. There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. These are the images that describe a world out of control, your world on a roller coaster ride into chaos. Soon it seems God will vindicate either the temple, or Jesus. You hang on to Jesus’ promises for dear life. The moment is at hand.

And then it passes. The world is not swept away. Rome is doing better than ever under a new emperor. Jerusalem is now a pile of rubble, the temple no more. The final fulfillment of God’s great promises for a complete transformation of this world lay somewhere in the future. Welcome to the time of the Gospel writers, the time of our lives, and the age of the church.

Waiting, watching, prayer and perseverance. It requires patience and discipline, two rare qualities in human beings, especially this year, as God slowly shapes us into the people that God wants. It all is on God’s timetable not ours. Perhaps the patience and the discipline are a necessary part of the process. Perhaps this is our time, our season to help perfect the world and our selves. But we do not do so alone or in vain.

The great medieval Jewish sage Maimonides, wrote a confession of faith called the Ani Ma’Amin, literally “this I believe.” To this day it concludes morning worship in Jewish congregations. It was widely reported that this prayer was sung by Jews as they were led into the gas chambers at Auschwitz. And it is our prayer too, no matter what may come or how long it may take. “I believe with all my heart in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he may tarry, nonetheless I will wait for him. I will wait every day for him to come. I believe.” Amen.

March 12, 2021 – Mark 12:28-34

No man is an island,
entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were.
as well as if a manor of thy friend’s
or of thine own were.
Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind;
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.
John Donne, Meditation 17 (1623)

This year, more than any other in our lives, we have come to face the realities of belonging and separation. Our culture prides itself on our stubborn individualism from Rene Descartes’ declaration that being is the product of self-willed thought (“I think, therefore I am.”) to our culture’s obsession with solitary cowboys on the range living by their wits and strength to bend nature and neighbor to their will. But individualism only gets you so far. We were not created to be alone and this year we learned that lesson only too well.

Many things change with time. Some things never change. The Bible is perfectly consistent from Old Testament to New: humans are made for relationship with God and each other. Jesus does not create a new rule, he simply embodies and then quotes very old ones. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your mind and all your strength, Deuteronomy 6:5. And, love your neighbor as yourself, Leviticus 19:18. These are not simply summary commandments of what human beings are supposed to do. These instructions are the description of what human life is.

We were made for relationship with God and with one another. Alone, apart, we wither into something less. Together we become more than we could imagine on our own. And this year we have seen the proof of both extremes.

The first five books of the Bible are called in Hebrew, Torah. Christians often translate the term as “law.” But that is not right. Torah simply means “teachings.” God taught us how to live and we failed to learn. Jesus now shows us how to live in a human life, his own, lived in utter and intimate dependence on God and lived entirely for others. Have we learned from his demonstration?

March 5, 2021 – Mark 12:18-27

The question is decidedly weird. If a woman’s husband dies and she marries his brother and that brother dies and she marries the next brother, and so on and so forth through seven rather unlucky brother/grooms, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? It is the kind of question they ask you in a law school class on domestic relations. And there are answers to be found, albeit conflicting ones, in Genesis 38:8, Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21, and Deuteronomy 25:5, in case you might be curious. But that is not really the question at all. Go back to the first line of the passage and it might help make sense of what is going on.

“Some Sadducees*, who say there is no resurrection, came to [Jesus] and asked him a question,” about resurrection. A question based on a premise you do not agree with is not a question. It is a trap. They are trying to trip up Jesus by taking his teachings about resurrection and expanding them to the point of absurdity to undermine his claims. They presume there can be no resurrection and now they want to demonstrate why no one else should.

The problem with the Sadducees’ way of thinking is that they were blinded by their own presumptions, a perennial human problem we call confirmation bias. We tend to accept data and arguments that validate our preexisting beliefs and ignore or discount anything that disagrees with our preexisting beliefs. This can lead to all sorts of trouble, especially when something genuinely new happens.

Approximately 1988 years ago in a disused quarry just outside the Joppa gate in Jerusalem something genuinely new happened. A dead man got up and left his tomb. We are still trying to get our imaginations around what that means. But one thing we know for certain, our assumptions about death and life were wrong. Letting go of our assumptions can be hard. The Sadducees could not do it. The question is, can we?

If that sounds too hard, perhaps this will help. Jesus will show you how and the Spirit is always happy to help if asked.

*Sadducees, just in case you are not up on first century Jewish religious politics, the Sadducees were the aristocratic faction of temple priests and wealthy land holders who exercised considerable control over Jerusalem. They were know for their extreme conservatism, like only accepting the Torah as scripture, not the prophets or other writings. Jesus appears to have really annoyed them.

February 26, 2021 – Mark 12:13-17

“Render unto Caesar . . .” It has become a rather trite saying, a slogan that people throw around whenever one needs to fulfill one’s obligations to authority. At least that is what we have made it. And that is a part of the problem.

In the last week of his mortal life, Jesus spends his time teaching and preaching in the Temple, generally annoying every political and religious official in Jerusalem. Chief among those officials are the Herodians, the faction aligned with the resident ruling family and the Pharisees, the reform party within Jewish politics. They pose to him a question. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? But the question is not a question. It is a trap. If Jesus says yes, then he is an irreligious, unpatriotic collaborator with Rome. If he says no, then he is advocating a tax revolt against Rome and commits sedition. These are frequently the choices offered by our politics.
So, what are Jesus’ politics and how do they change the options available. That is what Jesus will ultimately be hinting at in this lesson. Not whose policies do we agree with, but rather where do our ultimate loyalties lie.

Jesus gets killed on Good Friday by the two most powerful and deadly forces in human society: religion and politics. There is a way out. Come on Sunday and find out how.

February 19, 2021 – Mark 12:1-11

Jesus loved to teach in parables. The three synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – are filled with the parables of Jesus. And Jesus was not alone in his use of parables in that day and time. Parables were a common form of storytelling and teaching in the surrounding Greek culture.

Our scripture passage for this Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent, is a parable… the Parable of the Vineyard. But, unlike some of the other parables of Jesus such as the lost coin or lost sheep or lost son, the Parable of the Vineyard doesn’t end with much hope or joy. In fact, a first reading of this parable leaves us a bit in shock over the violence and vanity of the perpetrators in this parable. What is the meaning of this parable? Why would Jesus tell such a parable to the religious leaders of his time? Mark’s gospel is deep into the passion journey by the twelfth chapter of the gospel. How does this passion narrative help us to understand this parable?

Parables usually have a hidden gem or truth in the heart of them. On this first Sunday in Lent, as we begin our journey with Jesus to the cross, you are invited to dig deeper into this parable about authority, power, death, grace, and redemption as we worship together on live-stream. May we find the hidden gem in this surprising parable.

February 12, 2021 – Mark 9:2-9

Transfiguration is weird. Clothes are not supposed to glow. Dead people are not supposed to converse with the living. And supernatural voices are not supposed to boom out of the clouds. To avoid the weirdness of it, we contain it in religion, hoping no one will ask what is really going on. It is Transfiguration, the last Sunday before Lent, the validation that Jesus was, in fact, God’s Son! But we kind of new that from the opening line of Mark’s Gospel and we probably would not concern ourselves with the story if we did not assume something was up with this Jesus of Nazareth. So, what is going on?

Please do not listen to the sermon Sunday if you want to understand Transfiguration. I do not understand it and that is, I suspect, the point. It is all a bit beyond our paygrade. Understanding is highly overrated. Transfiguration points us in the direction of a mystery that we do not and cannot understand, but in which we can participate. God has so identified with us, with human beings and this creation, that the boundary between humanity and divinity has become a trifle porous. And whenever the divine leaks into the mundane or vice versa, things get weird. For some strange reason it tends to happen on hilltops: Zion, Sinai, Tabor, . . . and Calvary.

So, if you want dabble in the great mystery, join us as we stand alongside Peter and the boys and wonder at the enigmatic beauty of it all with our hearts wide open and our heads modestly hushed.

February 5, 2021 – Mark 1:29-39

After all the excitement in the synagogue, you would think things would settle down in Capernaum, but they are just getting started.

Educated, post-Enlightenment, Western folks distinguish between healings, which is what happens in hospitals, and exorcisms, which is what happens in horror movies. But that distinction is a not so clear in the first century where the problem was human suffering regardless whether caused by natural or supernatural influences. Jesus comes to free people from their suffering and that means that for him, healings and exorcisms are simply different aspects of the same mission.

Jesus sets people free. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is freed from a debilitating fever. Friends and neighbors are freed from all their afflictions and Jesus understands all of it as his mission of preaching and proclamation. For Jesus, healing, exorcising, and preaching are all one thing. And he does not do it alone.

After spending time alone, recentering himself in his own identity and God’s will, Jesus faces the distant horizon and tells his disciples it is time to go and fulfill my mission. It is time for us to engage with the enemy that holds human beings in thrall. So, he tells them, let’s go.

And he tells the exact same thing to every one of us.

January 29, 2021 – Mark 1:21-28

Unlike the other Gospels, Mark begins Jesus’ public ministry with an exorcism. From the very first chapter of this Gospel, Jesus is thrown into eschatological conflict with the forces that confound and corrupt humanity. All of this makes for a very dramatic Gospel that is often inexplicable to polite modern sensibilities.

Demons do not make for polite dinner conversation. We are far more comfortable with other more rational labels that give the impression of understanding and control like mental health issues, conduct disorders, trauma, racism, economic exploitation, colonialism, and lack of impulse control. We presume that by naming a thing and describing it we have some real understanding what it is and can control it. Slowly over time, the horizon of ignorance recedes as the scope of human agency expands. Or does it?

Was the author of Mark a hopelessly superstitious primitive who misunderstood all these problems as literal demons or are we hopelessly nearsighted in presuming that we now know so much more? If Mark is, as most scholars believe, the oldest Gospel, then its understanding of who Jesus was and the nature of Jesus’ work is closest in time to his life and those of his followers. It is, in a sense, Gospel in the raw.

Join us on Sunday as we examine the beginning of the work of God’s Holy One: redeemer, exorcist, demon slayer, and Messiah.

January 22, 2021 – Mark 1:14-20

Thus far in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has been silent. Present and engaged in the call to be baptized by John and obeying the Spirit’s prodding to be tested in the wilderness, yet silent even so. Here by the Sea of Galilee Jesus breaks that silence and begins his public ministry. By the shores of Galilee, where fishermen were mending, preparing, and casting their nets, Jesus sees Simon and Andrew, James and John, and cries out, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

In this inaugural moment of his ministry, Jesus reveals that he is not in this alone. Jesus calls others to be part of proclaiming this new kingdom, this new realm of God. God’s time has come, and Jesus wants these new disciples to fish for more than tilapia.

Mark’s gospel is sparse at best when it comes to the details of the call of the first disciples, leaving us with a multitude of questions about this seaside moment. Did Jesus know these fishermen before he called them to follow? Did Simon, Andrew, James and John know Jesus before they heard his call? Did these hard working fishermen literally drop their nets and leave “immediately” to follow Jesus? What other fish did Jesus intend them to catch? What was this new realm of God?

The call of the disciples on the shores of the Sea of Galilee seems simple enough in the telling of it, yet the reality of truly following Jesus then and now is very daunting and not at all easy. How does this story of casting nets and hauling fish speak to us today in the midst of a long pandemic as we discern our call to follow Jesus? How do we follow this Rabbi from Nazareth?

Join us on Sunday for live-streamed worship at 10:30 a.m. as together we seek to follow Jesus and hear him call to us, “Follow me.”

January 15, 2021 – Mark 1:12-13

Temptation gets a bad rap. For many people it summons up thoughts of ascetic puritanism. Alternatively, it conjures up a caricature of a little person in red spandex on you shoulder urging you to eat the chocolate lava cheesecake. The term is morally loaded, implying a seductive inducement to do something if not downright naughty, at least ill-advised. So, when we encounter a tiny little story in Mark traditionally called, “The Temptation of Jesus,” we bring a lot of our imagination with us to the text.

The Holy Spirit is the real author of this story. It is the Holy Spirit, the one that just descended on Jesus in Baptism, that literally pitches Jesus out into the desert. The Judean desert is rather devoid of everything human, a blank slate unshaped by culture or civilization. Out there Satan, literally the questioner (not yet quite Dante and Milton’s persona of supernatural evil), tests Jesus. That is what the term we so often translate as tempt or temptation literally means, to test, to prove, or to discover. Jesus is tested. How? Mark will not say. All we know is that immediately after this test, Jesus commences his public ministry. Indeed, the whole rest of Jesus’ life and work may be the answer to this test.

Testing certainly sounds better to me than temptation. Testing is the moment when you prove yourself, the place where what you could be emerges to become what you are. Testing is where hope and possibility take on concrete form as a human life. Jesus has just (“immediately” Mark’s favorite word) been baptized in the Jordan. The voice booms over the waters, “you are my son, the beloved. In you I am well pleased.” It is great that God believes that and says that, but it would not matter at all if Jesus does not believe it himself and accept God’s pronouncement of his identity as his own. The moment of testing is when that happens, the moment that the son of God, the Messiah, steps into the fullness of his identity, vocation, power, and calling.

Mark will not give us a simple answer to the precise nature of the identity Jesus adopted that day. Instead, Mark seems far more interested in re-directing the question to us. You too have been baptized. You too have been declared a child of the Living God. In you too God is pleased. And you too have been tested, whether you realize it or not. So how do you respond? God gives us extraordinary gifts, but never coerces their acceptance. In those moments of testing when you can live into being one sort of person or another, who do you choose to be? The author of Mark, Jesus, and most of all God await our answer.

January 8, 2021 – Mark 1:4-11

The story tantalizes us with questions just beyond our grasp. Why does Jesus get baptized? What exactly is John doing out there? What is the relationship between sin, redemption, and baptism? And what does it mean to be baptized with the Holy Spirit? Mark, in its spare narrative, leaves us wondering and watching.

The practice of ritual immersion in Judaism (Mikvah) is meant to remove ritual impurity, those normal biological functions that would prevent one from being permitted to enter the temple. Most people in first century Palestine would have spent most of their lives in a state of ritual impurity. The exception would be the priests and the Levites who worked in the Temple. So, if Jesus is not going into the temple, what is going on?

The truth is, I do not know. If I needed to understand baptism before I got baptized, it never would have happened. I rather doubt that it is about our understanding at all. John never asks Jesus anything at all about his intentions or his faith. Jesus just shows up. The only voice is the proclamation God declaring that Jesus is not merely some Nazarene peasant. He is now much more. He is God’s son, the Beloved, in whom God is well pleased. God is doing the doing of baptism. And if God is the subject of Baptism for Jesus, then maybe he is also for us.

In our Reformed tradition, we baptize babies. Babies do not understand baptism. Babies cannot confess their faith in Jesus. Quite to the contrary, babies are completely dependent on outside care and love. And that is the point we are trying to emphasize. Baptism is not meant to be a recognition that we have done the right things or believe the right things. Baptism is not about us saying yes, or anything else, to God. Rather the exact opposite is going on. In baptism God is saying yes to us. In baptism God is expressing faith in us. In baptism God is claiming us. If we had to wait around until we understood what was going on, we would need to wait a very long time. If we had to wait until we had sufficient faith to both understand and then affirm God, we would have to wait even longer.

God claims Jesus. God claims us. The formal recognition of that claiming is baptism. And it is all motivated out of God’s boundless, inscrutable love we call grace.

January 1, 2021 – Mark 1:1-4

A time for new beginnings . . .

The Gospel of Mark is not actually titled, “the Gospel of Mark.” Like the other Gospels, those titles are added centuries later. The book itself is anonymous. But it does have a title: “The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And that actually says a lot.

Everything that will follow, the whole Gospel, is in a sense merely the beginning. This curious introduction matches Mark’s curious ending, or the lack thereof cutting out midsentence at 16:8. The whole Gospel is open ended. It is the beginning of the good news, without introduction or conclusion. The end of the story has not yet been written. The Gospel of Mark is not so much a book you read to get information about Jesus. It is more a book that reads you and asks the question, now that you know the beginning of the good news, how will you respond, what will you say, what will you do?

For the next few months we will be considering this most curious, intrusive, and blunt of Gospel. We will consider what exactly this “good news” might be and what it means to prepare the way of the Lord. We will answer the Gospel’s intrusive questions not so much with our clever answers as with our lives. To read this book is to be read by it. And no one is left the same.

December 18, 2020 – Isaiah 61:1-6

This Sunday is our special Children’s Christmas Pageant where we worship God through the voices of our children and youth! We will celebrate this Fourth Sunday of Advent through music, readings, and the virtual presence of our children and youth. Our Children’s Director, Loralei Harding has worked with our children, youth, and parents to bring this meaningful worship service to us in this holy season. We are grateful for Loralei and all the families of the church who have helped make this virtual Children’s Christmas Pageant a reality.

We are especially excited to share the story of the birth of Jesus through the children’s book, “B is for Bethlehem” by Isabel Wilner and illustrated by Elisa Kleven. Elisa Kleven has graciously given us permission to share the storybook “B is for Bethlehem” as part of our online worship this Sunday.

We will also have a special Nativity Storytelling time. All families with children please have your nativity set (one or many) ready for worship this Sunday as the children will share virtually in the storytelling time using their nativity sets.

Join us in this most wonderful season of Advent as we wait for the Christ Child whom we adore. O come, let us adore him!

December 11, 2020 – Lessons and Carols

One of my favorite Christmas traditions is listening to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, broadcast live on Christmas Eve from the chapel of King’s College Cambridge. Every year at 3:00 p.m. Cambridge time (10:00 a.m. Eastern time on WDPR 88.1), the service begins with a solo chorister singing Once in Royal David’s City. Carols and anthems are rotated in and out every year and most years features at least one original composition. Before all the busyness of church on Christmas Eve, I close my eyes, put on my headphones, and imagine myself to be sitting beneath the magnificent fan vault hearing some of the finest choral music on Earth.

This year in particular I value the way they have maintained tradition. The concert will go on exactly as planned. But I also value the innovation involved. There will be no audience present. The choristers are their own quarantine pod, living full time at the college for months. There will be new hymns and always new songs to be sung, but they will be sung within a familiar framework that makes sense of it all. New is not bad. New is simply today’s contribution to tradition that in time will be built upon by future generations. I would like to hope that is part of what we have been doing at Fairmont this year, traditioned innovation in which we use today’s tools to meet today’s challenges but always guided by our shared commitments, identity, and values rooted deep in the past.

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols began in the immediate aftermath of World War One, in which so many of Cambridge’s young men died. In its second year, it persevered through the last great viral epidemic of 1919. It continued through World War One, when the stained-glass windows were replaced by sandbags. And it will be there tomorrow, a token of endurance, faithfulness, and hope.

On this Sunday we will celebrate our own Service of Lessons and Carols, a time to hold to old familiar songs and perhaps also learn a new tune. We stand on the backs of generations who have gone before us, and seeing further from our vantage, we turn our eyes to the horizon of the future.

December 4, 2020 – Isaiah 40:1-11

Despite what most people think, prophets do not forecast the future. Prophets re-narrate the present in light of the ongoing story of God’s relationship to humanity. Prophets are the folks reinterpreting the world, looking beyond the immediate and the sensational, to what is really going on. They are the ones who remind us where we are going, even when we get stuck.

If you think we are stuck in 2020, things have been far worse before. In 538 BC, things were not going well at all. The Kingdom of Judah had been snuffed out, their religious institutions destroyed, their people scattered across foreign lands, and now, most ominously of all, the people were starting to forget who they were as they began to integrate into Babylonian society. Adding insult to injury, the prophets of the preceding generation were quite clear that they deserved it. But now someone starts sharing a new interpretation of events. Yes, Israel was quite rightly punished, but now it has served its sentence. God’s temporary anger is now reverting to God’s eternal compassion. A new decree has been issued from the divine court. It is time for Israel to go home.

The Prophet Isaiah reminds the people of two things. First, there is always hope. Second, that hope is not based on who we are (in which case it would not be much hope), but rather who God is. This is the hope that would lead the people home and sustain them across the centuries. This is the same hope that drove John the Baptist on his mission and provided the outline for Jesus’ own work. And this is the same hope that sustains us.

Behind the pretty words sung in Handel’s Messiah is a stark claim about the nature of reality and human destiny. No matter how difficult the circumstances, God will come for you and lead you home. Advent is simply our longing for that embrace and Christmas is the celebration of the moment that hope took on flesh.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

November 27, 2020 – Isaiah 64:1-9

Advent begins on Sunday, the formal season of the church year focused on waiting and watching for God. Bowing to secular demands, the church has slowly transformed it into pre-Christmas, a time to reflect on all those characters and their stories leading up to the big night in Bethlehem. The accounts of the birth of Jesus in Matthew and Luke (and those are the only accounts of Jesus’ birth in scripture) begin much earlier with the genealogy of Jesus. Lots of tongue-twisting names of who begat whom torture lectors every year. The odd thing is, after David and the Kings of Judah there are lots of names, about ten generations, about who we know absolutely nothing. When we occasionally preach on the genealogy of Jesus it is usually focused on his relationship to other famous Biblical persons, especially some rather amazing women (Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth). But what I am curious about this year especially are all these other unknowns.

Advent is all about waiting and watching. This year will be an Advent like no other—no big Christmas parties, no Cookie Walk, no Messiah, no Nutcracker, and no pageant in the sanctuary. In some ways it is another loss borne of pandemic separations. But in another way, this may be the most authentic Advent we will ever experience. We are all literally waiting right now, for the Messiah and/or a more secular redemption in the form of a vaccine. We are anxious, weary, occasionally grumpy and generally demoralized. We know that there is hope, but it is not yet here. So, we wait and watch and wonder just like those generations of unknowns so long ago.
The problem of course is that God is not showing up as expected. Not then. Not now.

The absence or hiddenness of God is the essence of the problem. From the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians until the birth of Jesus, for over 500 years, God was silent. How did they deal with that? What did they do? And more immediately, what might it say to us in our predicament? The folks assembled in Bethlehem had the distinct advantage of all those angelic choirs yelling, this is important! Pay attention! God is now here! But what do you do when God is silent?

The amazing thing and the only thing I know about all those generations of unknown ancestors of Jesus is that somehow, someway, they held onto the promise and possibility of God when everything in their world encouraged them to give up. They held it and passed it on down the centuries. How? Why? And what can they teach us? What do you do when God steadfastly remains hidden? That is the question for Advent, this Sunday, and our lives.

November 20, 2020 – Ephesians 1:15-23

Most of our popular images of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth are all wrong. The first Thanksgiving feast was celebrated not during the first, but during the second autumn after the colony was established. More than half of all the Pilgrims died during the first winter during what they called ‘the starving time,’ when a ration of five kernels of corn was apportioned to each adult for a meal. As they sat down for that first thanksgiving they were surrounded by the graves of their children, wives, and husbands. When they sat down to eat a Thanksgiving feast together their hearts were still broken from the grief and trauma. But still, they celebrated their gratitude. It is still a local custom in Plymouth that on Thanksgiving Day, in the middle of the bountiful tables, five kernels of corn placed on a red maple leaf are set at each place to remind us, we who now enjoy a such bounty, of the “starving time” long ago. Five kernels to remind us, to whom we give thank and what it is we truly give thanks for.

Thanksgiving, not the day, not just the holiday, but a life lived in thanksgiving is an act of insurrection against the powers and death-dealing assumptions of this world. Thanksgiving defies every power that would seek to bind us, even death. Thanksgiving means that we cast our allegiance on God alone as King and no lesser power or prince. Thanksgiving is all the more heart grabbing precisely because it emerges most clearly out of the pits of human pain and need, not the summits of satisfaction. It is there where thanksgiving will change you because it is there where the Kingship and sovereignty of Christ matter most. He descended into Hell. And now there is no place that is not subject to his reign and rule. So while it may not seem like any other Thanksgiving, it is precisely in the depths of anxiety, separation, and loss, that we embrace the magnitude of the gift we have received and the sort of King we thank.

November 13, 2020 – Exodus 33:12-23

Moses, Miriam, Aaron, and God’s people had come a long, exhausting way through their wilderness journey out of Egypt, through the waters of deliverance, through the dry desert, to the foot of Mt. Sinai, and now they have turned their eyes toward the Promised Land. And even though God had always provided a way through the wilderness, God’s people still chose to disobey God and worship false idols, turning away from the one true God.

Moses now stands with the Promised Land on the horizon but also with the uncertainty of knowing who would lead Moses and God’s people into the promised land of milk and honey. “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here,” Moses cries out to God. All Moses wanted to know was that God would go with them into the days ahead. And not just that God would go with Moses but that God would go with God’s people also. Without God, they were nothing. God’s presence was everything to Moses and God’s people Israel. How would they move forward without God present with them?

This is the heart of our Scripture passage for this Sunday. Will God be with God’s people not just for one day but for all of their days? It may seem like a ridiculous question in light of all that God has promised and done for Israel, but the sin of God’s people had broken the trust and the relationship between God and them. Moses was desperate to know that God would indeed go with them.

Moses’ cry of desperation is one that echoes down through the generations! We, too, cry out to God to know if God will be with us in our wilderness journey. In these days of pandemic and monumental change in how we are the church together-yet-apart, we too must know that God is with us and will be with us beyond these days of COVID.

God had a promise for Moses and God has a promise for us, too! Join us in worship this Sunday to hear once again God’s promise of presence and hope.

November 6, 2020 – Exodus 32:1-14

Human beings have a nearly infinite genius for crafting idols, by which I mean a finite object to which we ascribe infinite value. The worship of those idols is the most popular religion in the history of the world. While we may scoff at the primitive superstitions of ancient Mesopotamians worshipping golden bulls or Egyptians worshipping ibis headed deities, idols come in far subtler varieties. Power, wealth, fame, security, family, love, nation, pleasure, control, food, sex, chemicals, risk, reward, beauty, certainty, sports, technology, entertainment, and most of all the self are more common idols to which we ascribe our time, money, and devotion. Often these can be very good things in themselves, which is precisely what makes them so insidious. The problem is that humans confuse these intermediate goods or means with ultimate ends possessing ultimate meaning and value.

Right now, our community is wracked with partisan political conflict. But politics, the winning and losing of elections, is simply a means of organizing decision making in society. And the process of ordering society is simply the means to provide for the best possible social circumstances so that people may live their best lives. But you are not supposed to ask the next question in our secular society. Why do we want to live our best lives? To what end? For what purpose? That question actually points us toward the ends of human existence. To that question, politics has no answer.

But God does. Scripture does. We do.

The way to avoid idolatry in all its forms is to give infinite meaning and value only to things that are truly infinite and one of those things is our relationship with an infinite being we label God. In Exodus, we learn all about the formation of that relationship and the lengths to which God will go to safeguard it and save God’s people. God’s hurt and anger are no surprise when the people turn away from both the promise and the blessings of that relationship to frolic before of a cow effigy. The problem is not the idol. The problem is the people in their feckless commitment.

So, what will God do? God’s past response to this sort of betrayal was to flood the world and destroy almost all life on the planet. Can God change God’s mind, and if so how and why? This is the question we will consider on Sunday morning.

And until then, be gentle with yourself.

October 30, 2020 – Revelations 7:4, 9-17: Who Shall Stand?

This Sunday is All Saints’, a day to remember those who have died, especially those who have died in the past year. The Book of Revelation is very particular about the ultimate state of those who have died trusting God, they dwell in eternal communion with God and each other. They are bonded together, like the seraphs, in common song. It is no surprise that Handel borrows so liberally from them for his oratorio, Messiah. And it is a vast chorus, too many for any mortal to count. This vast assembly is what we call the communion of saints.

Being a saint is not about being especially pious or churchy, it simply comes down to the question whether you want to be close to God. Those who do in this life are, at least according to Revelation, part of that assembly. Those who do not always can opt out. God respects human choice.

Being a saint is also not an individual activity. It is a group project, rather like a choir in which each voice is a unique contribution but all defined by the work the whole, hence “the communion” of saints. Their primary activity is giving witness to the truth. They testify to who God is and participate in the inner work and identity of God. The clear boundary between saints starts to blur as they begin to look a bit less like people and a bit more like God.

What we summarily call heaven, with all its cultural assumptions drawn from everything but scripture (think Dante, Milton, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Good Omens), is not so much about a place as it is about a relationship: human beings belonging to and belonging in God. Into that relationship our blessed dead now belong because that is the relationship for which we were made.

October 23, 2020 – 1 Peter 2:4-10

I do not consider rocks often. They are easy to overlook because they are common and seemingly inert. It takes a particular sort of person to really see a rock. Geologists see their origins in ancient lava flows. Sculptors see beauty that can be released from within. Jewelers see how they could be set in gold. And children may appreciate their hydrodynamic qualities for skipping. You need to see differently to really appreciate a rock.

Peter (ironically named the rock) describes Jesus and the church the same way. For some they will have no significance or value, but with the eyes of faith, you can see that these rocks are living stones of the temple of God, the literal meeting place between God and humanity, all resting on Christ the foundation and cornerstone. What you see all depends on how faith shapes your perception.

75 years ago, in the booming months after the end of World War II, 41 people met together in the old Van Buren Township fire station and saw a thriving congregation where others only saw a cornfield. Fairmont Presbyterian Church is the hope born of their vision built out of lives and relationships. This Reformation Heritage Sunday we celebrate our Reformed tradition focused on faith alone. But this Sunday in particular, we consider how that faith and the vision it provides us not only gave birth to Fairmont, but even now shows us the way forward.

October 16, 2020 – Exodus 20:1-17

“God spoke all these words…”

Ten Words! Ten words spoken by God to God’s people Israel – and just newly named as Israel at this point in the desert – to show God’s people how to live. Ten Words for life and living for God’s people in the wilderness.

The Ten Commandments have taken on a life of their own through the thousands of years of faith interpretation. We may think we are approaching these Ten Words with open eyes and open minds and open hearts but our present day Western Christianity eyes have a definite biased filter on them. We must look at these words of law – part of 613 total laws in the Torah – in a new and honest way if we are to understand how they speak to us today.

This Sunday is Children’s Sabbath, a day we celebrate the gifts and faith of children. You will be deeply moved by the voices of our children and by their pure faith as we worship together via livestream. The Ten Words from Exodus 20 are a gift to us just as the children are a gift to us. These Ten Words teach us how to live and to love. And our children teach us how to live and to love.

The Children of Fairmont, Loralei (our Children’s Director), and I invite you to worship with us this Sunday as we celebrate Children’s Sabbath and as we celebrate God’s law of love for us.

In Christ,

Pastor Kelley

October 9, 2020 – Exodus 17:1-7

It’s hot. I’m hungry. I’m bored. Are we there yet? Complaints are to be expected on a long road trip. They often sound like whining. But sometimes they raise legitimate grievances that must be addressed. The Hebrews, wandering through the amusingly named Desert of Sin, are quickly running out of water. Acute dehydration is a potentially life-threatening problem when you are hiking through the desert. So, they complain first to Moses and then to God. They are not asking for anything too luxurious, just water to continue their journey.

Unlike how we react when confronted by complaints, God responds and God provides. Not only that, this whole episode opens a new chapter in the relationship between God and the Hebrews. Up until now in Exodus, God tests the Hebrews. Here the Hebrews test God and far from being punished for it, they are led to the next big step in their journey and their relationship with God.

I once thought that the Hebrews were whiny and did not trust God. The very real pain and suffering of the past months for so many people has led me to change my mind. Sometimes the most vulnerable and honest sign of trust is acknowledging our pain and grief to someone we love. God is big enough to handle it. That kind of painfully honest sharing may in fact lead to a deeper relationship we call faith.

October 2, 2020 – Exodus 16:2-15

You can’t always get what you want.
But if you try sometimes, well, you might find
You get what you need.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards

Freedom can be difficult. The Hebrews learned this the hard way. Liberated from bondage in Egypt they began wandering in the stony desert wastes of Sinai. Nothing grows there. It’s hot during the day and cold at night. They were hungry and there was nothing to eat. This was not what they thought they signed up for. So, they do what we all do when our expectations are not satisfied. They start complaining.

God responds to whining better than most of us. God provides. Every morning God rains down some sort of flaky substance on the ground. They don’t know what it is, so they call it, “what is it?” or in Hebrew man-hu (aka Manna). At night God rains down quails into their camp. It may not be what they expected (no one expects poultry precipitation!) or what they wanted, but was enough. Actually, it was more than enough. It was an abundance.

God provides abundance, but there is always a stipulation. They can only eat the food that day. They cannot store it, dry it, can it, freeze it, or salt it away. They cannot hoard. They cannot control the means of commodity distribution which was the central source of Pharaoh’s power (remember they were previously building granaries in Egypt). Instead, they are going to have to trust that God will provide. They are going to need to learn to trust that God would provide their daily bread.

Trust is hard for human beings. We tend to want to be in control. We like to know where we are going and where our next meal will come from. And when our plans for the future and our systems of control and security get interrupted, we tend to get mad, sad, or scared or all at the same time.

Right now, we are learning a lesson in trust the hard way. Covid-19 has made a cruel mockery of our plans and our assumptions of scientific miracles on demand. We are being forced to relearn the lesson that every generation needs to learn. We are being forced to learn to trust, especially when we are not in control. Life, real life, has nothing to do with survival. We are saved through trust.

September 25, 2020 – Exodus 14:19-31

My imagination of the Hebrews crossing the Red Sea is shaped more by Hollywood than by scripture. Cecil B. DeMille portrayed it as a grand, dramatic spectacle Charlton Heston firmly in charge. The Bible describes a rather different scene. The parting of the sea does not happen all at once. It happens gradually over an evening. Second it unfolds at night. The pillar of fire that guided the Hebrews on their journey is now behind them so when they descend into the sea they are walking into darkness. Finally, it is not so much the waves and the waters that stop the Egyptians, that will come later, but the mud.

It is so easy to get caught up in the spectacle of it all that we jump over a small but important detail. The chariots of the Egyptians get stuck in the mud. Chariots do not work so well in mud. But chariots are also the pride of the Egyptian army and the premier weapon system of the late Bronze Age, so the Egyptians push and pry and do everything they can to get their beloved chariots up and running again. They are so focused that they fail to notice that the winds have changed.

Sometimes God intervenes in history in dramatic and decisive ways. Sometimes God obliterates God’s opponents. But sometimes God merely sets up the conditions for people to destroy themselves. The Egyptians could have escaped. They could have walked back to their shore. What prevented them from doing so was their attachment to the means and symbol of their power. And so, they died.

Sometimes the way ahead merely requires us to let go. Letting go can be hard, but sometimes it is a matter of life and death.

September 18, 2020 – Exodus 12:1-14

One of the great comforts of our faith, among many, is the gift of ritual. Rituals to mark significant and meaningful moments in life and faith. Rituals that we come back to again and again and again, and yet we find new and sincere meaning in them each time. Rituals of faith allow us to mark God’s presence and work in our lives in the midst of busy and sometimes meaningless days.

Our Old Testament scripture passage from Exodus 12 gives us an inside view of one of the most important – if not the most important – ritual of faith for God’s people. In this rather detailed and somewhat difficult litany of the first Passover, we see God’s hand of redemption in the lives of the Hebrew people who were suffering under the torturous rule of the Pharaoh of Egypt. As slaves, the Hebrew people lived bitter lives of endless, back-bending work and lived through the horror of their beloved children murdered by Pharaoh.

In this litany of redemption, God calls the Hebrew people to be ready for the moment when God would save them from slavery in Egypt through the trembling and unsure voice of Moses saying, “Let my people go!” This moment of redemption, the Exodus, would be a moment to mark all days. It would be THE moment to mark all days for all of time for the Israelites.

Remember this day! In this moment, God saved God’s people from slavery and kept God’s promise to generations upon generations. And to this day, generations of God’s people remember and recite the litany of that night when God passed over the Hebrew people and saved them from death.

This story is our story too! God has marked his redeeming mark upon us in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We, too, are called to remember that day. Come, join us as we worship the God of Redemption and remember.

September 11, 2020 – Exodus 3:1-15

Sometimes faith can move mountains and transform our lives.
Sometimes God steps in and changes everything.
And at other times, something altogether different happens.

Moses was a mess. He was on the run from the Egyptians for murder. He had anger control issues that frightened the Hebrews. His life followed a downward spiral eking out an existence as a free-lance shepherd in the scrubby hills of Midian. He married his bosses’ daughter and gets promoted to middle management. That was there he was probably going to remain, minding a flock of sheep on the edge of the desert. And they were not even his sheep!

Then something happened, or more precisely Moses noticed something happening. Moses was not a particularly religious man. His faith is not mentioned up to this point. He was probably more Egyptian than anything else. But he sees something odd, a shrub burning out on the edge of the desert that did not burn up. We have no idea for how long that shrub had been burning, but it catches Moses’ attention. He gets curious and turns aside with his flocks to go and check out this flammable shrubbery. And in that instant salvation history turns.

In the church we so often focus on faith being the necessary and sufficient condition to connect with God, but Moses suggests it is much simpler than that. Moses has no faith, at least not yet. Moses is simply curious. That small measure of curiosity opens him up to this mysterious, wild God of the desert and this God’s plan for an audacious rescue mission.

That wild God of the desert still seeks out the curious and invites us to join in that ongoing rescue mission.

September 4, 2020 – Exodus 1:8 – 2:10

The book of Exodus provides the underlying story of liberation for the rest of the Bible and Western civilization. It is filled with amazing miracles, none more so than an all sovereign God who intervenes in human history on behalf of the powerless. Exodus has inspired everyone who has struggled for human freedom for the past 3000 years and has taught successive generations that oppression is never inevitable. And all of it starts with amazing, stubborn, courageous women who refused to cooperate with the politics of death.

Amram and Yocheved had a baby boy who was born under a death sentence. Pharaoh decreed that all baby boys must be drowned in the Nile. But for this baby, the Nile would become a means of deliverance as would other waters later in his life. His clever sister Miriam guided his floating bassinet into the waiting arms of a most unlikely savior. Pharaoh’s daughter was precisely the person who should have handed this baby over to the authorities. From Pharaoh came death. From Pharaoh’s daughter came life. She sees a child, not an enemy, not an alien, just a child, and she has compassion for this infant. Of course, she quickly figures out who this might be and she devises a plan to hide him in plain sight.

Sometimes the biggest miracle of all is simply when one human being does the utterly unexpected. Sometimes the biggest miracle of all is choosing life in the midst of death.

August 28, 2020 – Romans 12:9-21

It is easy, for the most part, to love those who love us. It is easy – again for the most part – to love our family, to love our close friends, to love our church family. But it is in the loving of strangers and even enemies that we really struggle, and understandably so! It is especially difficult in these days of deep political divide, deep theological divide, deep racial divide, and deep pandemic grief and weariness to love our neighbors and strangers and enemies.

It is hard enough to follow Jesus when he calls us to love our neighbors. Yes, Jesus did tell us even to love our enemies!

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” – Matthew 5:43-44

But we might be easily tempted to say, “Well, Jesus was God, you know! So, of course, he is able to love his enemies. We, on the other hand, are not God!”

But now the Apostle Paul, who was as human as it comes, joins in with the mandate of Jesus and calls us to “Let love be genuine…if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.”

At first, this passage from Romans 12 reads like the perfect vision statement for any church or faith community. It is so beautiful and so powerful and we are moved by Paul’s words and mandates. But then we realize that the living out of these words seems almost impossible given our brokenness, sin, and humanity.

This is our challenge for Paul’s words to us for this Sunday! How do we live with genuine love? How do we love our friends and family, let alone our enemies? What does it mean to be “church” today in this time of deep divide?

Join us for worship this Sunday as we seek to be faithful to both Jesus’ and Paul’s calling to love one another. You can find the worship link and bulletin link at Fairmont’s website www.fairmontchurch.org.

August 21, 2020 – Romans 12:1-8

Paul’s letter to the congregation in Rome is full of passages like this that at first glance seem to be saying much the same thing, but look closer because Sunday’s reading is actually extraordinary.

What is the purpose of your life? That is the question that Paul is addressing. The purpose of your life is this, to uncouple or unconform yourself from the world and the way that this world tries to define and mold us and instead to be transformed (literally in Greek metamorphisized) by the renewal of our minds (including our intellect, emotion, and will). That is what God wants for you and your life. God does not want a perfect life according to some preexisting set of rules or expectations. Rather what God wants is our openness to change, a willingness to be transformed into something, into someone else. And when we do that, when we are open to that kind transformation, then we are offering up the real work, the real worship that God has been wanting from us all along. Offering up a transforming and transformed life is, according to Paul, what God wants and takes delight in.

So, how does one do this? Paul suggests you first need to think rightly. Specifically you need to give every thought its proper due. This was not a uniquely Christian idea. The Greeks and the Romans included it as one of the cardinal virtues of human life. We normally translate that virtue it as temperance, but it means more that avoiding excessive consumption. It means avoiding excess in all things, like thinking too highly or too critically of yourself. It means letting go of the anxious chatter of our monkey minds and holding onto what is right in front of us. When we do that, the possibility of transformation opens up. And it is important to add that this process of transformation may not end with our deaths. Indeed, once freed of certain physical constraints, that is when transformation gets interesting.

For millennia, human beings had treated God like a vending machine–insert the right sacrifice or offerings (like a goat, candle, worship service, or prayer) and withdraw the blessing you seek. Paul says that was never how God worked, that is just how we operate and in our arrogance assumed that God operated. What God wants is nothing less than you, but not just you as you are now. What God wants most of all is you when you are a little bit more like God. And as Trinity God is change. That work of transformation is what your life is for.

August 14, 2020 – Joshua 1: 1-9

This summer, it seems that strength and courage are harder than ever to find…and more necessary, as even ordinary day to day activities can seem intimidating and daunting. A trip to the store never took such preparation. Drawing strength and courage from our friends and loved ones helps to keep our lives afloat, but we all have bad days. Sometimes, it all just becomes a bit too much. Sometimes, we find it impossible to be strong or courageous, especially when we seem to have been shoved into the deep end of a Coronavirus pool without a life vest.

Joshua’s story is a complicated one, full of questionable choices and difficult stories. At the beginning, though, he is just a man…a man thrown into his own pool, without warning, without preparation, without a mask or a vaccine; thrown into leadership of his people with only four words: “be strong and courageous.” Easy for God to say, but when the time comes to lead the armies into battle, to take the land by force, to step out of Moses’ shadow…when the time comes to stand up for what you believe in, to take a leap of faith, to say goodbye…what then?

Thankfully, the answer for Joshua – and for us – is that God provides all the strength and courage we will ever need.

August 7, 2020 – Romans 11:25-32

God is not transactional. God will not be bargained with or bribed. Similarly, once God’s mind is made up, the world changes and no one and nothing can change it. That seems to be Paul’s point. He is wracking his brain to figure out the absence of his people, the Jews, from the early church. He is struggling to hold together all those ancient promises and the way in which God had used Israel as God’s special agent to introduce monotheism to the world and the very clear absence of Jews from the early church. What was God up to and how could he reconcile ancient promises with a very present predicament?

Paul returns to the basics. God’s promises are unconditional and irrevocable. God’s purpose of blessing all humanity through this curious elect people called Israel cannot be thwarted simply because some of those people rejected God’s purposes. Instead, God now seems to be doing something curious. God has called two people side by side to achieve God’s purposes, Israel and this rag tag bunch of former gentiles called to faith through Jesus whom we now call the church. The church, this new community formed from God’s invitation to faith, are now grafted into the mighty and ancient tree of God’s providence reaching all the way back to Abraham.

As to the question of why this is so, Paul offers no answer. Nor can any human. It is not a mystery to be dissected, analyzed, and understood. It is an invitation to be celebrated. And that invitation is for you.

July 31, 2020 – Romans 10: 5-17

The early church had a problem: Jews–or more precisely the lack of them. God became incarnate in Jewish flesh to a very Jewish family in a Jewish village. Jesus grew up to become a Jewish Messiah fulfilling Jewish prophecy and law. All his followers were Jews and his brother James was known for being particularly devout. And yet, the church did not really catch on among the Jews. Instead, it caught on with the people they least expected, gentiles. So, what was going on? What was God up to? And even more unsettling, what did this mean for God promises to the patriarchs and Moses long ago? Was the covenant done?

Paul, a learned albeit sometimes slightly neurotic rabbi, directly addresses this question in the middle of his letter to the church in Rome. In Romans 9-11 Paul lays out the relationship between God’s twin creations: Israel and the Church. Paul explains exactly what is up with Israel, its purpose and its destiny. And those answers are deeply intertwined in the mission and identity of Christ.

More immediately for our current predicament, lots of people are wondering where God is in the midst of this Pandemic. Paul has some concrete answers, promises so concrete, you can build you life on them.

July 24, 2020 – Romans 8: 21-39

Beyond forgiveness lies something even better: belonging. The “Good News” is not that we are forgiven or that the Kingdom of God comes near, or even that Jesus is the Messiah. The good news is more basic, more immediate, and more relational. We belong to God. Period. Full stop. No qualifications. This was the Good News, literally the gospel, that Paul shared two generations before the familiar Gospels were written.

Now belonging to God might not be such great news depending on the sort of god we are talking about. That is why Paul spends much of his letter to the congregation in Rome going over God’s resume and explaining all the wonderful loving things that God has done demonstrating God’s wonderful loving character (e.g. creation, the patriarchs, the Exodus, Israel, and most of Jesus’ self-giving love). This God we belong to keeps going out on a limb for us over and over again and on that basis has more than demonstrated that in this God we can find our home even though we may be alienated, cut-off and afraid.

The lists of threats and dangers are different for us. Few of us are at risk of famine (actually its opposite is a greater danger). Few of us are at risk of sword blows. But we are at risk of corona virus. We are at risk of isolation, depression, despair, and grief. And so, Paul’s message is the same for us as the struggling congregation in Rome. Yes, the pain and grief are real, but so too is your true identity in God. You belong to God. Nothing in this universe can change that. So, do not be afraid.

July 17, 2020 – Romans 8: 1-4; 12-25

“Who will save us from our wretched sinfulness!”

That is as succinct of a summary for the first seven chapters of Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome as I can find! Honestly, some days I feel like the answer is “no one!” But grace upon grace is the answer the apostle Paul gives to the early followers of Jesus and gives to us.

Listen to these words again:

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Paul wrote these words toward the end of his long and world-changing ministry. The book of Romans is belovedly known as Paul’s theological “last will and testament” and these words in Romans chapter 8 are the heart of the last words Paul wanted the early church and us to hear. We struggle each day with “life in the flesh” and with our inability to love God, love one another, and even love ourself as we should.

There are very few of us who need to be reminded, as Paul writes in Romans 7:15, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” What a predicament we are in as humans! We strive so to be who God has created and called us to be yet, daily, we hurt one another and we turn away from God. But “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” and we do have hope in the midst of our despair; hope that God is making us a new creation in Jesus Christ. It may be hard to see but God has adopted us as God’s own children and we are loved! What does it mean to be “in Christ?” What does it mean to be children of God? How do we live a life in the Spirit and not in the flesh? Paul presents this struggle we live with as Christians and followers of Jesus, and gives us the hope we need to continue on.

We will gather again for live-cast worship this Sunday and together will hear Paul’s words to us that we are beloved children of God and heirs to all that Christ gives us.

July 10, 2020 – John 6: 56-69

The sermon did not go over well. 5000 people came to hear Jesus and 4988 wandered away confused and confounded. He turns to the twelve who remain and they become his disciples, but Jesus wonders if they too will go away. So ends Jesus’ longest sermon the Gospel of John, his most extensive presentation on who he is and what he is up to. And the people don’t like it.

I have always wondered, did the crowd abandon Jesus because they could not understand what he was talking about, or because they understood precisely what he meant? John, never one to eschew obfuscation, often presents Jesus symbolically like surrealist poet. But here maybe he means what he says. You must take my body, my blood, my life, my being, my substance and essence inside you. You must make me a part of you. Then, and only then, will you be alive truly, perfectly, abundantly, and eternally. That is a bit much for the crowds. It is a bit much for us. We prefer divine consolation with occasional sprinklings of ethics and rituals. But wholesale dispossession of the ego at the center of our lives? That is something up with which the people will not put!

It is hard to move yourself from the center of your world. All our perceptions, thoughts, and feelings eternally center on an intuitively presumed, but rarely examined “I.” Jesus is suggesting that the self is highly overrated. It tends to get clingy. Attachment to anything and everything that is not God leads us to suffering. The one way around this dilemma is to let go, which is far harder than it sounds. Prying loose the ego’s grip on our lives is both unsettling (indeed it would be the ultimate form of unsettling) and at the same time liberating because it creates space for something or someone else not of our making. Jesus demonstrates this metaphysical escape trick most perfectly in the cross. Only in self emptying of everything, even life itself, can one be found, embraced, lifted up, and made anew. When God does this in and through Jesus on a Friday afternoon outside of Jerusalem, it ruptures space time. But when we do it, realizing how disorienting it will be, we are not lost. We are found. We are held. We are lifted up.

Lord, to whom else can we go? You alone are the Word of life.

July 3, 2020 – John 6: 51-58

The Gospel of John has no last supper story. Instead, the entire Gospel is about what happens when you take Jesus into yourself. The entire book can be read as an extended meditation on who God is in Jesus and in turn we become when Jesus is in us. Sin and forgiveness are not of much concern to John. Sacrifice and punishment barely mentioned. Jesus dying for our sins is nowhere to be found. Instead, the main focus of John can be summarized by the nutritionists’ axiom: you are what you eat. So, what do you eat?

What do you take inside your body and inside your life? What do you make a part of you and your story? What give you life its vitality, energy, and potential? For many people it is the junk food peddled by our markets and media that define us all as commodities or consumers. Security, fame, power, money, charisma, sex, success, and prestige, are all pleasurable confections offered by the world. But none of them endure. None of them sustain. And none of them will help us grow to become truly human the way we were meant to be. Only one sustains. Only one builds us up. And He offers us nothing less than God life to nourish our lives.

For John, the Lord’s supper is really no different from the Lord’s work. He gives us new life.  So, for John, the sacrament of communion is not so much a curious ritual with little shot glasses and bread cubes (or whatever form of the elements you may be using at home). For John communion is instead the continuous vital experience of divine exchange operating at the depths of our being, growing God life inside us. We do not “do” communion. If we really follow what Jesus taught, we actually become the communion of God and humanity. For John there cannot really be a “Last Supper” because Jesus nourishing his disciples in new life is happening right now, inside you and inside the life of every child of God. The communion that matters is the one we embrace right now.

June 26, 2020 – John 6: 35-51

This is a season for getting by. Parties are cancelled. Vacations are postponed. Restaurants are scary. And I am getting sick of my own cooking. My main entertainments are walking my dog and angst laden German Netflix series. It is not necessarily pleasant, but it is enough. You can get by for a long time on enough, but you will never thrive.

Jesus offers the crowd bread, the most ordinary of foods. It is enough to satisfy their hunger. But Jesus is not satisfied. He wants them to want more, look deeper, and become more. So he starts to unwind the story of what God has done, is doing, and will do. Jesus explains the bread of heaven, how God gave it to the Hebrews in the law at Sinai, how they received it in the wisdom of the Prophets, and now how they are receiving even more. “I am the bread of life,” he tells them. If you accept my life as part of you, you will never die. This bread will be a far richer meal than they anticipated.

Some say that God always provides for our needs. That is not quite right. God provides much more. God does not want us to get by. God wants us to thrive. God does not provide us with just enough. God always gives us too much. And we call that curious, irrational generosity, grace.

June 19, 2020 – John 6: 24-35

One of my favorite memories as a young child is the smell of fresh baked bread wafting through my Grandma Kelley’s home. Even better is the memory of the taste of that hot bread smothered with butter. There is nothing quite like homemade bread, especially bread prepared with love.

As we continue hearing from John 6, the Bread Discourse as it is known, we will be “smelling” the wonderful waft of bread as we think about what it means to trust in Jesus, the Bread of Life.

We are hungry. Hungry for peace. Hungry for love. Hungry for answers. Hungry for community. Jesus understands our hunger. We as broken, sometimes desperate, human beings usually fill ourselves with bread that does not satisfy, bread that perishes quickly. Jesus calls us to what sometimes seems impossible: trust in him. What does it mean to trust Jesus in a time of coronavirus and social distancing? What does it mean to trust Jesus in a time of virtual worship and Zoom fellowship? What does it mean to trust Jesus in a time of social unrest and the systematic scourge of racism? How do we will fill ourselves with bread that is eternal?

As the Body of Christ together, we long to be true disciples of Jesus and we long for the bread that truly satisfies. Come, let us worship together this Sunday as we hear John’s words to us about true bread.

June 12, 2020 – John 6: 1-21

Miracles are complicated. I don’t know how they work. That is sort of the definition of a miracle. For the next few weeks, we will be looking at one of Jesus’ miracles, the feeding of the 5000. We are going to be spending some time with it because Jesus spends some extended time with it. A loaf of bread is more than a loaf of bread. What it means for Jesus, for the crowds, and for us will be our consideration this Sunday.

One of the problems with miracle is that people normally think of them as supernatural events that provide us with the results that we want. Using that definition of miracle, God is essentially a vending machine. The Gospel of John refers to miracles as signs, an event that points us towards a deeper truth. Do not doubt the power of signs. A two-foot red octagon next to the road can cause my car to come to a screeching halt. The signs that Jesus shares point to a greater power.

We will be unpacking Jesus’ cryptic use of signs and to what or to whom they may point. And then we will consider what those signs do. Do they give us rewards for good behavior, or are they signposts pointing us forwards towards a destiny we cannot yet see? So, John poses the hard question. Do we trust God because of the things God can do that we want, or do we trust God because God is God?  It is a test that every one of us will answer.

June 5, 2020 – John 15: 1-11

Jesus, in the Gospel of John, presumes an unsettling level of intimacy with us. For John, Jesus is not just the one who saves us out there and now waits at a comfortable distance presumably, “at the right hand of God the Father.” Instead, Jesus is in here, in us. “Abide in me as I abide in you,” may sound poetically comforting, but it is perhaps Jesus most provocative statement in the Gospel. If God is in some sense in us and we are in God, then all our assumptions about what a “self” is, indeed what life is, are wrong. Creator and creation are no longer quite so hermetically sealed off from each other. There is real connection and exchange. The vine gives the branch life, sustenance, and form. And the branch gives the vine its actualized expression and bears its fruit into the world.

“I am the vine, you are the branches.” What would it mean for our lives, for our identities, and right now most of all for our communities, for us to conceive of all our lives both as completely interconnected and as the medium through which God expresses and gives form to infinite love in the world? This is the question that Jesus poses to all who would follow him. He is waiting for our answer.

May 22, 2020 – John 17: 1-11

In his last days with his disciples before his death on the cross, Jesus shares with the disciples all that he desires them to know for the living of their days. These powerful writings in John (chapters 14 through 17) are known as the “farewell discourse” and our passage this morning is the “farewell prayer” which is the benediction, of sorts, of the farewell discourse. Farewell prayers were known in Jewish literature in ancient Mediterranean times and thus were familiar to the intended audience of John’s gospel.

As we approach this beautiful and somewhat baffling scripture passage, it must be noted that John’s gospel is known for its sectarianism and, at times, seemingly exclusive writings. The gospel of John can be difficult to understand, especially as we read it through our “western society eyes” in the year 2020. Even so, God’s Spirit is ever with us, guiding us in our understating and interpretation of the scriptures. May it be so for this passage, too!

In this farewell prayer, Jesus prays to God for his beloved disciples and for all who trust in him, beseeching God to protect them and make them one as Jesus is one with God. These passionate words are for us, also, as we seek to know and love God and to love one another. At this time in history we so desperately need to learn how to be one with God and one with one another. Join us in worship this Sunday (link below) as we worship God and seek to understand how we can know the God of creation who has come to us in Jesus the Christ.

May 15, 2020 – Hebrews 6: 13-20

This week is Youth Sunday. With the last two months a blur of fear and isolation, it certainly does not feel like May. We are all struggling with the time lost, and our students are no exception. Sports seasons, science fairs, spring concerts, school year wrap-ups…activities and milestones that are so important to children and teenagers…all cancelled. The loss is particularly potent for our three seniors, as their last [insert any meaningful school activities here], senior proms, commencement ceremonies, Baccalaureate services, any kind of closure for their thirteen years of hard work in school, and summer plans and parties have all been taken from them. Even fall semesters of their freshman years of college seem to hang in the balance as institutions decide how to move forward.

In light of the grief associated with so much loss (and it is grief, and it is loss; make no mistake about the reality of emotional strain on our youth), it would be easy for these young people to slip into sulky defiance and anger at the unfairness of the world and their circumstances. In fact, that is probably what society expects of them. Instead, our youth have rallied in the face of more disappointment and anxiety than any student their age should have to maneuver. Their resolve is strong and their faith is stronger, and it is that resilient faith that they wish to share with you on this, the most peculiar of Youth Sundays.

At the beginning of the year, the PYC selects a scripture verse to drive Bible study and small group discussions for the program year. In September, the youth chose this verse excerpt from Hebrews chapter 6: “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul…” Throughout the year, we have studied scripture and shared in conversation about what it means to have an “anchor of the soul,” and ways to remain anchored to our faith and to our God, especially in the midst of struggle. How fitting that they should get a chance to put into practice all they have learned…and all they already knew. Let them show you. Look to our youth, and let them teach you what it means to truly be anchored in your faith.

“It’s not the building that defines your relationship with God, it’s your own faith.” -Abby T.

“Though this free will created a whole history of sin and struggle, it allowed for a depth of emotion and love that would prove to be impossible otherwise.” -Cassie S.

“Being anchored means to be grounded. It means you won’t drift away. You stay in whatever you’re anchored in, from being anchored in faith to being anchored in a community.” -Max B.

May 8, 2020 – John 14: 1-17

Question: what is the difference between a fundamentalist Christian and an atheist? Answer: on a true/false exam about Jesus, the fundamentalist marks every question “true” and the atheist marks every question “false.”

The problem is not the questions or the answers. The problem is presuming that faith is a true/false exam.

“Believe in God, believe also in me.” (NRSV John 14:1). Sounds pretty simple hunh? Affirm some list of propositions about Jesus and voila you are good to go. For many people that would be their functional definition of the Christian faith, a true/false exam. Unfortunately, it sort of misses the point and that point is faith.

“Believe in God, believe also in me.” It is a problematic translation due to the deficits of the English language. In Greek the word faith has a noun form that we translate as “faith” and a verb form that we translate as what? There is no verb form of the word faith in the English language. You cannot faith something. So, we substitute another word, but in doing so subtly change Jesus’ meaning. We say we “believe.” But belief is not quite the same thing as faith. Belief is more of a head thing. Belief is something I do all by myself. When we say we believe something what we normally mean is that we give our intellectual assent that some proposition is true and correct. I believe that the sun rises in the East simply means that I believe that is true and valid statement. But Jesus is not a statement. God is not a proposition. Any attempt to treat them as such is idolatry. And any attempt to reduce faith to belief ignores most of what Jesus seems to be concerned about, namely trust, relationship, belonging, and life abundant.

So, I would propose a well-merited edit, a better substitute until we can introduce a verb form of faith. Trust. Trust in God, trust also in me. Trust is always relational, always dynamic. Trust always has a past and a future. Trust is not just about ideas, it is about character, caring, and commitment. Trust demands risk, not mere assent. Trust transforms us over time, changing the way we look at other relationships and the world. And best of all, I can trust someone I do not understand.  Indeed, the people I trust most in my life I will never completely understand. We call that love.

Trust in God. Trust in Jesus. It is not that hard. It takes a bit of risk, but so do all our important relationships. And if you extend that trust, I promise you it will never be ignored. If you extend that trust, it will change you.

May 1, 2020 – John 10: 1-10

I never much liked gate keepers. College admissions boards, committees on ministry, performance juries, and hiring teams all perform important tasks, maintaining boundaries and standards, but no one finds their work pleasant. Whenever I hear about Jesus as a gatekeeper, I tend to recoil a bit with traumatic flashbacks to being the last one picked for junior high gym class teams.

My surprise came when I realized I had been misreading this passage all along. Jesus does not call himself the gatekeeper, the evaluator, or judge. Jesus says I am the gate. Jesus is the way into the belonging and security of the sheepfold and Jesus is the way out into green pastures and good waters out in the world, not the one excluding us from it. Jesus is not talking about letting some in and keeping others out. He is talking about providing an abundant life for the sheep.

Sometimes we get so obsessed with judging and evaluating both ourselves and others. Something innate in human nature likes to build walls and define who is in and who is out. But not Jesus. Jesus invites all who recognize his voice to follow, not just follow into the sheepfold, but into abundant life now.

Friday, April 26, 2019

One of the great gifts of scripture, among many, are the post-resurrection narratives found in the gospels. Luke gives us one of the most beloved accounts known as the Road to Emmaus. This will be the only post-resurrection story we will look at during our Easter season at Fairmont because beginning in May Pastor Brian will be preaching on the ultimate resurrection story found in the book of Revelation!

This Sunday we will take a long walk with two bewildered and devastated followers of Jesus who had believed so passionately that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah – until he was crucified, died, and was buried in a tomb. How quickly and wonderfully their sorrow and disappointment will turn to unbelievable joy as the resurrected Jesus – still unrecognized by the two who are walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus – walks along side them and teaches them about all that was to be and to come.

There are so many moments in this endearing story where we can so easily enter in and become part of the narrative. We have all known times when God was ever present in our lives and yet we did not recognize God. Times when we needed to know God’s presence and yet felt so bewildered and alone, and then God comes to us in unexpected and surprising ways.

Friday, April 19, 2019

It all starts in pain and fear. Fear of failure and the sharp pain of grief. There is nothing sentimental about the Bible’s portrayal of resurrection. Instead scripture lifts up the fear and pain of these three days as the epitome of human experience, where all our hopes go to die. We are all intimately familiar with where resurrection begins.

But then the Bible’s account heads off in an altogether unexpected direction. This Jesus, abandoned by his disciples, reviled by the crowds, condemned by the religious officials, and crucified by the Romans would not stay dead. After being really truly dead he was now really truly alive. Resurrection is the most unnatural thing in the universe, indeed it is the refutation of our nature and every human expectation. If the dead can no longer be counted on to stay dead, then we are are living in an altogether surprising universe where what we always expected turns out to be plain wrong.

The women, Mary from Magdala and the rest, are the first to imagine the possibilities of what this might mean. They hear the testimony of the angels and begin to re-imagine everything he taught them and everything they experienced with the aperture of their hope now wide open. The run out to re-narrate the disciples memory that had been so corrupted by fear and shame. The women use the story to re-narrate the disciples’ lives and in doing so set them free. And Jesus’ disciples have been at it ever since.

This weekend, instead of wishing others “happy Easter,” or instead of proclaiming, “he has risen indeed!” consider sharing in the work of Easter. Consider doing precisely what the women did that first morning. Go and tell someone the story and more importantly retell them the story of their lives reframed as a part of Jesus’ story and a part of God’s story. And then get ready for something amazing.

Friday, March 15, 2019

The Gospel of Luke mentions the city of Jerusalem more often than any of the other Gospels. For Luke, Jerusalem is almost like another character in the story. But it is a decidedly conflicted character. Jerusalem is the locus of divine holiness on Earth, the object of pilgrim’s yearnings, and the center of Israel’s religion. It is the city that will one day welcome the Messiah with shouts of “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” And it is ground zero for God’s great transformation of resurrection. But Jerusalem is also the city that kills God’s prophets and turns its back on God’s way. Jerusalem is the city that turns faith into a business and sells the priesthood to the highest bidder. Jerusalem is, in other words, a stand in for us in all our confusion and contradictions.

It comes then as perhaps no surprise that Jesus will not be delayed or distracted from his mission to Jerusalem, even if, especially if, it requires his death. Where we are confused by our mixed motives and ceaseless rationalizations, he will be single-minded in his mission. And in Jesus’ determination we can take comfort that no matter what, he comes for us.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Our culture has a hard time with temptation. Desires, it is presumed by our markets and media, should be satisfied, not repressed. Indeed, suppressing one’s desires is viewed as somehow pathological. And of course, most of what we call temptation is simply a matter of choice between alternatives. But the story of Jesus’ temptation takes us much deeper to the very heart of the matter asking not what do you want, but rather the question that lies behind it: who are you?

Notice how subtly Satan introduces the condition, “If you are the Son of God . . . “ He is not asking about Jesus’ hunger, he is inquiring about Jesus’ identity. Exactly what sort of Messiah will Jesus be? And to make matters worse, Satan offers the opportunity to do good, to end hunger, reform the world political order providing peace and justice, and to enact scripture and publicly demonstrate Jesus’ divine authority. None of those things are inherently bad. Real temptation is never to do bad. Real temptation is to do good for the wrong reasons, reasons that will deny your true identity. Jesus knows who he is and it does not come from the power he wields. Jesus knows whose he is and will not be the Messiah without God. Temptation cannot touch him. Frustrated, Satan will bide his time for a more opportune moment in a Garden called Gethsemane.

Our Lent begins with the hardest question of all that will define your temptations and your response to them. Who, precisely, are you?

Friday, March 1, 2019

Matthew, Mark, and Luke each tell the story of Jesus appearing to a select group of disciples not as familiar Jesus of Nazareth, but rather as something, someone else, Jesus the Christ. The Gospel authors reach the end of their vocabularies as they simply describe him as “other.” But that otherness turns out to be interconnected with the deep purposes of God and God’s work in the world. Indeed, Moses and Elijah, the superlative prophets of the Old Testament, show up to discuss his own departure (literally exodus). It is all very impressive and very mysterious.Normally on Transfiguration Sunday we focus on the special effects: Jesus revealing for the first time part of his full majesty. But this Sunday I am less concerned with what the disciples saw (which they apparently had a hard time describing) and more concerned with how they saw it.

You can run right over the clue if you are not paying attention. It is there in the very first line. Peter, James, and John went up to the mountain with Jesus to pray. They did not go up to see a miracle. They went up to share in a time of prayer and everything that follows in this passage is all about what is revealed to them through prayer. Apparently they were up there for quite a while because they were falling asleep in their prayers. Nonetheless, through prayer they catch a glimpse, if only for a fleeting moment, of Jesus in the full glory of his true identity.

So if prayer is a way, perhaps the way, to see Jesus, now comes the uncomfortable question. Do we want to see Jesus?