Friday, March 25, 2016

The Evil of Good Friday

Holy God, we call this day Good, but there is not much good about it.  On this day we remember how Jesus was tried and convicted by the sham courts of priests and then Romans.  We remember how he was beaten and whipped and mocked and spit upon.  We remember how he was forced to carry his own cross up Golgotha where he was crucified.  We remember that his crucifixion was gruesome and grim.  We remember it all.  So there is not much good to remember on this Good Friday because of the evil that was done.

You call us to look upon this evil, and to look upon the evil in our communities and in the world.   Every day we are faced with bad news – the evil of the slave trade around the world; the bombings not just in Brussels, but across the Asian and African continents; the ugliness of our current political race; the racism that is still present in our own country and around the world; the violence that is all over the news.

The list goes on and on, seemingly without end.  We confess, O God, that sometimes we feel the pain of the evil in your world, but that at other times, we put on our blinders and board up our hearts because it is just too much.

Yet you, O God, are always present, even in the face of evil.  You look upon it, and experience pain.  You know our pain when we are confronted with it.  You stand with us in the midst of all that is evil and terrifying and dismal.  You dare evil to try and overcome good.  You stare it in the face, knowing that your power is greater than the greatest evil in the creation.  

Help us, O God, to confront the evil we experience and see.  Help us to not be afraid, but to know our own strength through the power of your Spirit; strength to not look away and ignore that which threatens to overwhelm us.  Help us to live lives filled with power and grace, lives in which evil holds no power over us.  And help us to confront the evil of the world, whenever and however we can, in your name.

Because evil does not have the last word.  Tony Campolo says  “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.”    On Friday, Jesus made a spectacle of evil; he showed the hatred we are capable of.  But he triumphed over that evil with love.   Your love, which is greater than anything else, triumphs over evil in all its forms. Your love tramples hatred until it is subdued.  Your love and grace will have the last word.  

We trust in your love, O God, even as we sit in the darkness of Good Friday.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Not Far from the Kingdom of God

A sermon preached at Andrews Presbyterian Church on Sunday, March 6, 2016

Love God and love your neighbor.  It sounds easy, doesn’t it, but we all know it’s not. 
Nora Gallagher, an Episcopal layperson and writer, tells a story about her experience in a soup kitchen her church ran.  (“Our Vulnerability, Born in a Manger,”  Initially, the church handed out the soup through a little window in the church kitchen.  But soon the summer turned to fall and the rainy season, and volunteers began asking why the homeless couldn’t come in.  There weren’t really any good reasons not to invite them in, so they did.  The men were quiet and orderly, eating and thanking the volunteers before they left.
She continued her work there, making and distributing soup, eating with the other volunteers before they opened.  Then one day, she looked up and saw a table with four homeless men, and a volunteer, who was eating with the men.  The next week, she decided with fear and trembling to do the same.  She awkwardly approached a table and sat down, and began an awkward conversation with the men sitting there. 
She was happy to have a conversation starter, and confidently asked these homeless men if that had seen the game the night before.  There was a long silence, and then someone asked what game she was talking about.  The world series game she replied, less confidently. 
Again there was a long silence, and one of them said, “I don’t really watch tv.  I prefer reading.”
“Or I watch PBS,” another said.  “There’s a great series on German Expressionism on right now.”
Over the days and weeks, Nora continued to sit with these men, getting to know them.  Alan was a Vietnam vet, and swept the floors every day after the meal was finished.  Greg had mental illness, and helped wash dishes each day.
One day, she arrived dirty after working at home, disheveled and in sweats, and without checking in, got in line with the others.  When she got her soup, the woman serving her looked at her with pity in her eyes.  She started to explain, then changed her mind, and sat down with her friends.
The boundaries has ceased to matter for Nora Gallagher.
When the scribe asked Jesus about the commandments, he wasn’t trying to trip Jesus up; he was genuinely curious.  When Jesus answers, he responds in a curious way: by commending Jesus and reciting Torah and Midrash that support what Jesus says. 
He recognizes that laws and ritual and purity and prejudices and class and ability do not come before the actual person.  This was unusual because the scribes had, in that day, lapsed into legalism – putting laws before people.  But this scribe, he knew the difference between legalism and love.
This is significant when Jesus observes the widow as she comes to the temple to make her offering.  Notice that Jesus does not commend her; he just observes her and remarks on what she’s doing.  In the eyes of the scribes, her act of giving all she has is laudable because she is keeping the law.  But Jesus observes that she has not only given all she has, but all she has to live on.  She now has no means for survival.
For Jesus, this is a tragedy.  She is not an example of what we should emulate.  Rather, she is a case where meeting the letter of the law has taken precedence over the needs of and care for the widow.  This is not in keeping with what the commandments say, for the scribes and treasurer have required death instead of mercy.
In his conversation with the scribe Jesus commends him by saying, “Truly you are not far from the Kingdom of God.”  But the other scribes he condemns. 
38…Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

When we sit down at the table with the those who have different views and befriend them and eat with them, when we welcome a stranger into our midst, particularly one who is different, we are not far from the Kingdom of God.  When love rules instead of law, when we speak against hate speech masquerading as politics, we are not far from the kingdom of God.  When traditions – “we’ve always” or “we’ve never” - take a back seat to caring for another, we are not far from the Kingdom of God.
Andy Stanley tells a story about his small (150-200 people!) church that is beautiful.  (
There was a five-month old baby in the church who was sick, who because he was on iv antibiotics, couldn’t leave the hospital.  He was going to have heart surgery, and his parents wanted to baptize him beforehand.  But he couldn’t leave the hospital.
Now that church, like here, has the congregation make promises to the family and the child during the baptismal liturgy, but the congregation obviously couldn’t all gather in the hospital room, and most wanted to be there.  So the pastor thought outside the box in the name of love.
Andy writes:
During worship this particular Sunday morning, the day before the planned heart surgery, our pastor put a picture of the baby up on the screen in front of the church. He asked everyone who could to take a picture of the picture with their cell phones.
After the picture was taken, our pastor read the traditional baptismal liturgy just as he would if the family and their child had been there in person.
When it came time for the congregation to respond we responded with our phones, texting the picture we had just taken to the child’s parents with 2 simple words attached.
“We promise.”
It was an incredibly holy moment where two worlds collided, the old and the new, to extend the hand of God to a family who needed His loving touch the most.
Truly, they were not far from the Kingdom of God in that moment.

When we come to this table, we come as Nora Gallagher learned to, to eat with those we might not have chosen to before.  We acknowledge that being part of the body of Christ means forgetting the boundaries that divide.
When we come to this font, we demonstrate, as Andy Stanley’s church did that love takes precedence over law, that our life together is shaped by love.
We when partake in the sacraments, we are recall that, in love, God has gifted us with ways to know him and to love him, both in liturgy and in life.
May we, in our, journey of faith learn to break down the walls that divide us one from another.
May we, as we practice our faith, learn to value justice over law.
May we, as we try to the best of our ability to keep the commandments, discover that we cannot do one without the other; that in loving God we cannot help but serve one another, and that in serving our neighbors, we cannot help but draw closer to God.
For then, truly, WE will not be far from the Kingdom of God, either.
May it be so.  Amen.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

A sermon preached at Andrews Presbyterian Church on Sunday, February 28, 2016.

Mark 12:13-17

I bet you think this sermon is going to be about money!  After all, this this text is often one used when preaching about giving, or stewardship.  And sermons about money are uncomfortable at best. 

Jerry Falwell (google images)
When I was in college at Tech, for a while I attended University Baptist Church.  They had a worship specifically for students, which I had never experienced before.  I really enjoyed it, though there were some things that made me uncomfortable.  My parents came for Parent’s Weekend, late in the fall, and went to church with me on Sunday morning.  Although I didn’t know it ahead of time, it happened to be stewardship Sunday, and the preacher preached a hellfire and brimstone sermon about how we should give to the church and therefore, to God.

Later that day, my mom remarked that I was lucky that my dad hadn’t gotten up and walked out.  Apparently, he’s not real fond of that kind of teaching.  We’ve never discussed it, but that made an impression on me, even at that young age.

Money is hard to talk about in church; in fact, it’s one of just a few subjects that we’re not supposed to talk about in church – money, sex, politics, and ????  Why are they so hard to talk about?  They’re very personal, we say.  The thing is, these things are really part of our everyday life, and therefore should be talked about.  Jesus didn’t shy away from talking about these subjects.  We’re just uncomfortable hearing what he has to say.

This sermon is about money, but only in the broadest sense.  It begins with the Pharisees and Herodians try to trip him up.  The Pharisees were religious leaders who were resentful of the Romans, and King Herod, though the didn’t actively opposed Herod.  The Herodians were those Jews who supported King Herod.  They were strange bedfellows, but they conspired to put Jesus in a bind.

They ask him whether they should pay the imperial tax to Caesar.  The imperial tax was one of many taxes.  However, it was a bit different in that it was a tax on those who were subject to Rome – those who were oppressed by the Romans!  The tax was supposed to be used for the upkeep and rebuilding of the Temple which had been destroyed, but instead was used for the upkeep of the pagan temple.  It was an affront to Jews.  Only those who had renounced Judaism could collect the tax for the Romans.  Now you understand why tax collectors were so despised.  In addition, the coin of the realm had the image of Caesar on it, the image of the god Caesar, which was considered idolatry. 

 They butter up Jesus, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?  Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”  They’re really asking who it is that ultimately receives Jesus’ loyalty – Caesar or God.

They think they’ve caught Jesus in a double bind.  There is no way satisfactory way to answer the question as they’ve asked it.  If Jesus says yes, he is consenting to the use of a coin bearing the image of an idol, and declaring his loyalty to Caesar.  If he says no, he is committing sedition – and the Roman authorities could arrest him for rejecting Roman authority even as he claims God.  What will Jesus do?

Jesus knows what they are up to, and beats them at their own game.  Rather than answer directly, he asks for a coin.  You know that he asks whose image is on it, and when they reply “Caesar’s,” he tells them to give Caesar what is his.  That coin which bears Caesar’s image, give it back to him.  He wants it, he can have it. 

BUT he says, give God what is God’s, as well.

Give Caesar that which is made in his image, and give God what is made in his image – yourself.  In the first chapter of Genesis it says,
“So God created humankind in his image, in theimage of God he created 
them; male and female he created them.
We are created in the image of God; therefore, we must give to God our very selves.

So while this isn’t a sermon about money, it is a sermon about stewardship.  Are you confused?  Many of us think of money when we hear the word stewardship.  But listen to what it means to be a steward.  A steward is:
a person who manages another's property or financial affairs; one who administers anything as the agent of another or others.  (
A steward is a servant in the household of the the owner.

We talk about stewardship in the church.  We are God’s stewards.  We have been put in charge of God’s creation, all of it, money and creation and everything else.  We have become servants of God, with a special responsibility. 

It puts a whole different spin on things, doesn’t it?  Let’s not talk about money (we’d rather not, anyway).  Let’s talk about giving ourselves and that which we have back to God. Let’s talk about taking care of the things that have been put in our charge – our wealth, but also our hearts, our souls, our minds, our strength – that’s so much bigger than just giving money back to God.  If we are God’s stewards, we have a job to do and a responsibility to God to do it wholeheartedly. 

In the mid-90s, a woman named Ruth Coker Burks found herself doing something she could have never imagined.  In 1984, she found herself in a hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas.  She was visiting a friend who was ill, and as she visited, she noticed a door covered with a big red bag.  She watched the nurses draw lots to see who had to go in and check on the patient.  She knew what was going on; she had a cousin that was gay. 

The young man in the room suffered from what became known as AIDS.  One day she ignored all the warnings on the door, following what she calls “some higher power moving her,” and went into the room.  In the room she found a man who weighed less than 100 pounds.  He wanted to see his mother.  When she went to ask the nurses about calling, they laughed at her.  Nobody was coming, they said. 

When she finally wrangled a phone number from the nurses, the woman hung up the first time she called.  When Ruth Coker Burks called back, she told the woman that if she hung up, there would be an obituary for her son put in her local paper, and his cause of death would be listed.  The woman talked to her, and told Ruth her son was a sinner, and that he wasn’t their son anymore, and that they wouldn’t claim his body when he died.

Ruth went back into the young man’s room as she tried to figure out what to tell him.  She ended up sitting with him, holding his hand, putting damp washcloths on his face until he died 13 hours later. 

Glenwood Live Oaks (Google images)
Ruth’s mother had, years ago, given her a family cemetery that had 262 plots in it; the cemetery was acquired when her mother bought up every plot during a family feud.  Ruth says she always wondered what she would do with that cemetery.   Soon she knew.

Over the next years, rural hospitals started referring young men with AIDs to her.  She became a one woman AIDs ministry and hospice care.  She would do whatever she could – take them to appointments, pick up prescriptions, help them fill out paperwork, write wills.  As word spread, her work was paid for through donations, and young men in the gay community helped out.  Thousands came to her for help.  Forty-three of them are buried in the family cemetery.

As I hear stories like this, I am humbled.  So many do so much.  Some give all they have.  I feel so silly worrying about how much money I am to give to the government or God.  God wants so much more.  God wants the first to become last, and the last become first, to become servants of all.  “For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.”  (Mark 11:45)
Jesus seems not to be worried about what we give to Caesar, But he tells us that God wants something of great value from us – our very lives.
May we have the courage to make it so.  Amen.

Story about Ruth Coker Burks;