Kent M. Organ, Interim Pastor
Text: John 3:1-17
A team of fundamentalist Christians invaded Shipshewana, Indiana, to bring the lost of Shipshewana to Christ. In front of Yoder’s dry goods store, one of the earnest souls confronted a Mennonite farmer with the challenge, “Brother, are you saved?” The farmer was stunned by the question. All his years of attending Peach Bloom Mennonite Church had not prepared him for such a question, particularly in front of the dry goods store.
Not wanting to offend, and believing that the person posing the question was of good will, he wondered how he should answer. After a long pause, the farmer took out pencil and paper, and wrote the names of ten people who knew him well. All of them were perceptive and honest. And the farmer suggested that the evangelist might ask these people whether they thought he was saved or not, since he certainly would not presume to answer such a question on his own behalf.
* * * *
People who identify with the UCC tradition live quite a distance from the eager evangelist of Shipshewana , a distance both theological and cultural. We would probably flinch in response to the question, “Are you saved?” And as to the matter of being “born again,” we tend to be those whom Henry James described as the “once-born” in religious experience, those who were gradually nurtured into Christian faith, rather than dramatically changed.
It is interesting to realize that if anyone in the Bible ever fit the United Church of Christ profile, it would be Nicodemus: intelligent, well-bred, civic-minded, conservative, cautious. He came to Jesus at night, probably so he wouldn’t be seen talking to him.
Nicodemus is nobody’s fool. When Jesus speaks of the need to be “born again” – that’s the familiar King James translation; the New Revised Version has it “born from above,” or in the footnote “born anew” – when Jesus speaks of the need to be “twice-born,” Nicodemus wants rationality. He fends off this challenge by taking Jesus’ turn of phrase literally, making it absurd: “Can somebody re-enter the womb?” That’s his rejoinder.
I think of my father’s story, of the time when he was a graduate student in religion, and he was accosted on a Chicago elevated train by a man who asked him, “Brother, are you saved?” to which he patronizingly responded, “Brother, are you educated?”
That could have been Nicodemus, not about to be taken in by any flash in the pan evangelist. Still, there is something about this Jesus that nags at him. Too bad we aren’t told more about Nicodemus. Though he appears once more at the end. After the crucifixion, John refers to Joseph of Arimathea as “a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one [out of] fear.” Joseph got Pilate’s permission to place Jesus’ body in his own tomb. And then John adds that “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came bringing [spices].” Careful Nicodemus, not one to go overboard, nevertheless, never quite able to shake the impact of those words uttered years before in the shadows: “You must be born anew.”
* * * *
Because fundamentalism has set up camp on the phrases, “born again” and “Jesus saves,” non-fundamentalist Christians have tended to shy away from them. I certainly do. Even though salvation is an essential teaching of our faith.
The argument we have with fundamentalism should not be that it emphasizes salvation. The argument is that fundamentalism stops short. Fundamentalism tends to see salvation in terms, rather exclusively, of rescue – the rescue of individuals from – from this world, from eternal punishment, from a fate worse than death itself. Whereas Reformed theology tends to understand salvation as salvation for – for the eternal, but also for life abundant – for God’s created purposes, for humanity’s potential, and working for God’s reign “on earth.”
Bill Muehl used to teach at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta. Muehl had a grandfather who ran a saloon, and was saved by Billy Sunday five times. His grandfather loved to tell about those conversion experiences. His eyes would light up as he talked about his sense of sin, his separation from God, his contrite heart. Sometimes he even wept as he told about the joy of knowing that no matter how low the sinner, Jesus was always waiting to receive him into grace. And then, Bill Muehl says, his grandfather would rise out of his chair, clap one arthritic hand against the other, and say with a grin, “But every Monday morning, there was that damned saloon!”
And that’s the way it is, whether for you and me it’s “that damned saloon,” or some other irresistible, damning temptation. So long as the function of the Gospel is only to convict and then to rescue, there is something crucial missing. Listen to the way that grandson and theologian expresses the positive meaning of salvation: “The function of redemptive love,” Bill Muehl says, “is not to make sinners feel good about the past. The function of redemptive love is to give us back the future.”
* * * *
Billy Sunday used to say that the best thing that could happen to anyone would be to accept Jesus Christ as Savior, and then walk out of the revival tent and be run over by a truck! Now, that might be all well and good if Jesus is only our Savior, but that is not all we claim. Jesus is also Lord.
Now, let’s not get too self-satisfied here. Let’s not slide too quickly past the challenge of “twice-born” religious faith, the challenge to Nicodemus and to us, his kin, who also approach Jesus gingerly and guardedly. “You must be born anew.”
In mainline Protestant traditions, and here at the Trinity United Church of Christ, our approach to faith-development, our Christian education program, has assumed that people become Christians imperceptibly, step by step, that we evolve into faith. We don’t seem to expect that to be a Christian entails a crisis, or even much of a decision. Ours is a “once born” tradition. And there is much to be said for that, for the nurturing of persons within the faith community, confident that through the influence of other Christians, and through God’s Spirit, it rubs off. We grow into faith. Believing becomes a constituent part of who we are.
But it is not enough – never enough – for individuals merely to float along like little paper boats in a current. Because being a Christian involves choosing. And “not to decide is to decide.” Will your engagement with Jesus Christ be such that you, in the stream of life, have a rudder? a compass? a sail? Are our lives touched sufficiently for us ever to dare rowing against the prevailing current?
Real Christian faith is a faith that is claimed, owned, that has some sense of a difference between before and after. “You must be born anew.”
* * * *
But then, what about Monday morning, where there is that damned saloon, or something else every bit as damning? What lies beyond repentance? Or, to put it differently, what does it mean Monday through Friday to say, “Jesus is Lord?”
Jesus saves. Yes. But for what?
In the fullness of the Gospel, Jesus saves me from giving in to my lesser self.
Jesus saves me from judging others more harshly than I judge myself. Jesus saves me from hatred and vindictiveness toward those with whom I disagree, or who have shown hatred and vindictiveness toward me.
Jesus saves me from claiming more forgiveness and grace for myself than I am willing to show toward others.
Jesus saves me from indifference toward the suffering of other people; saves me from ever assuming that someone’s social condition, or economic plight, or health or un-health is simply a matter of God’s will, so that there is nothing I should do to interfere. Jesus saves me from ever accepting evil as the dominant reality.
Jesus saves me from a self-centered view of the world, saves me from ever thinking God loves me more than another, and therefore challenges me to share what I have more readily than I might otherwise do.
Jesus saves me from despair, from ever believing life has no purpose, or giving in to the inclination to abandon hope.
Jesus saves me, finally, for joy, and for the full and abundant life which derives its meaning from knowing that God can be trusted, trusted not only with my sin and my salvation – my eternal destiny – but also trusted to redeem each day from insignificance.
* * * *
Even we can be born anew – born of water, symbol of cleansing, and of the Spirit, symbol of power. We have to respond – as somehow, that night, our brother Nicodemus could not – in order to move from the ranks of Jesus’ admirers to the ranks of his followers. There is always a choice. Think about it.
Lent is a good time for that.
- with thanks to Stanley Hauerwas and P.C. Ennis
Kent M. Organ, Interim Pastor
Text: Mark 8:27-37
Everything is about to change for Jesus and his friends. They are about to leave the halcyon days of Galilee, with its adoring crowds. They are heading for Jerusalem.
It’s the turning point, time for mid-term exams. So Jesus asks them, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter gets it right. “You are the Messiah of God, the Christ.” But Jesus warns, “There’s a cross ahead for me. And for you also.”
Peter protests. Jesus reacts: “Get behind me, Satan.” Which is pretty rough on poor old Peter. He was just trying to be upbeat, positive. “Don’t talk crosses,” he says to Jesus. “You don’t have to suffer. You’re the Messiah.” And Jesus rebuked him. Because he knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
Everything that had happened up to this point had been wonderful. Jesus came on the scene casting out demons, healing all kinds of diseases, saying uplifting things. He announced a new way of living. He forgave people their sins, befriended the poor, welcomed children, even fed a huge crowd from a couple fish and a few hunks of bread. Just wonderful.
People wondered, maybe this is it, what we’ve been waiting for: the kingdom of God. The Messiah. Onward and upward. And suddenly, Jesus says. “It’s all going to be different from now on. I’m going to Jerusalem – to suffer, and die.” (Now, we see that there was something too about rising in three days. But that went right over their heads. What they heard was: “be killed.”
They are at the crossroads now. Galilee is behind them. Jerusalem is ahead. Jesus begins to teach them sobering things – all familiar, all similar, all disturbing – you know these teachings:
It’s the crossroads, the decision point between learning about discipleship and being a disciple, between talking the talk and walking the walk. No one goes to Jerusalem easily.
* * * *
I once led a group of church people to the Holy Land – it was in the mid-1990s – during the intifada. There were suicide bombings in Jerusalem. A few people who’d signed up decided not to go. We who did began in Galilee. And for four wonderful days, we visited he locations of Jesus’ initial ministry. We walked along the seashore, were out on the lake, went to Nazareth, Capernaum, Cana. We actually forgot about the conflict. But, on our last morning, before we got on the bus to Jerusalem, our guide got us together in an empty restaurant in the basement of our Tiberius hotel to talk about safety and security. It was sobering. We were heading to a city where convictions still clashed violently – to which , twenty centuries before, Jesus had led his followers, and put it on the line. The parallels were striking.
Do you know what Galilee is? Galilee is the land of retreats, seminars, inspiration and spiritual growth. Galilee is the land of small, intimate study groups, where you get personal support as you talk about the faith you share.
And there’s nothing wrong with Galilee. It’s just not Jerusalem. Jerusalem is where you are asked to give up the familiar and pleasant in order to be true to the highest you know. Jerusalem is where you have to carry a cross you didn’t ask for.
I’m sure Jesus loved Galilee. I don’t expect Jesus wanted to leave Galilee, all the adulation and encouragement, the crowds. It was wonderful. It would have been crazy for him to want to leave it. Which was Peter’s point.
He left Galilee, not because he wanted to, but because God wanted him to. Because it was time. God’s time. That’s why he left. He couldn’t get around it; he couldn’t avoid it. He gave up his life for something greater than his life, denied himself, took up his cross – and triumphed.
* * * *
I remember a cartoon, with somebody praying, “Can’t you use me, Lord, in some advisory capacity? But Jesus doesn’t ask for my advise. I may even have good advice. What Jesus asks me for is my life. We much prefer Galilee, where it is comfortable, and agreeable.
But once in a while, there is a crossroads. Something unavoidable emerges. Something that has risk in it, or fear in it, or grief in it. Something haunts you, confronts you. Something clearly beyond your known capacities. What will you do? We are all amateurs here.
And you’re almost afraid to ask, Which way would he go? Because we know which way he would go. He’d go to Jerusalem, and face the hardship, and do the thing that has to be done. So what he asks of us, when we are in that place, with a choice between the benefits of this world and following him – he asks that we follow him, no matter the cost. It’s that simple.
* * * *
This is nearly inconceivable to us. But there are normal, everyday people who have found themselves in situations where more is required of them than they know how to give – people who had every reason to say, “I can’t do this” – but they said Yes, and found that it’s true: you can lose your life, as you have known it, and gain a new one.
Georgene Johnson was 42 when she began to sense a mid-life crisis coming on. She decided to take up running. And she got good at it. She loved the way she was getting into shape. So she decided to try a little competition. She entered Cleveland, Ohio’s annual 10K, a six mile race.
She arrived early on the day of the race. She was nervous. Lots of people milling around, stretching. So she did it too, imitated them. The gun sounded and they were off. After four miles she wondered, When is the course going to double back? She asked an official, who told her she was running the marathon. Twenty-six miles. The 10K started a half hour later.
Some of us would have dropped out right there. Stopped and headed back to Galilee. To her credit, Georgene Johnson kept going, even though she complained to the officials all the way. But she kept running. And, to herself, she said this: “This isn’t the race I trained for, and this isn’t the race that I entered. But, for better or worse, this is the race I am in.”
Maybe, it will be something like that. One day, you discover, I’m on the road to Jerusalem. I didn’t ask for this. I don’t want it. This isn’t the race I entered. But I’m in it. Almost as if I was placed there, almost as if someone entered me in this.
And the word is, Keep going, don’t go back. Do your best. You may not have realized it, but this is the race you have been training for.
- With thanks to Carlyle Marney, Peter Miano and Mark Trotter
Kent M. Organ, Interim Pastor
Texts: James 3:1-10; Matthew 5:21-24, 12:35-37
American political discourse has become increasingly coarse and damaging to “the dialogue that ought to be at the essence of democracy.” Scorn and derision have become “the common coin of political argument.” This past year, much of that has come from the highest level of government.
It was one thing for a Presidential candidate to engage in ridicule and name calling. But it didn’t cease after January 20. Critics were dubbed “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer,” “Jeff the Flake,” “Liddle Bob Corker” and, of course, “Pocahontas.” Then there are also “Leakin’ James Comey,” “Sleepy Eyes Chuck Todd,” more recently “Sloppy Steve Bannon.” But most dangerous of all, there is “Little Rocket Man.” Contempt breeds contempt. And so, we now hear as retribution words such as “fool,” “idiot,” “unhinged,” and “crazy.”
Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis once wrote that “Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by example.” What are we being taught in this acrimonious time?
Now, the acrimony didn’t begin with the current Administration. Think of the divisions and hostility during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years. We wonder, where is all this heading for us as a people? This Martin Luther King Memorial weekend is a propitious time to think about this – and, here in worship, to do so Biblically and theologically.
* * * *
Clearly, in a democratic society, we need to learn how to deal with differences. They are here to stay. As our society becomes more pluralistic – racially, ethnically, religiously – the need for understanding and tolerance increases. In politics, in education, in economic spheres, even in the church, issues will continue to be before us to which we bring different experiences and perspectives. But the encounters can be constructive; they need not be destructive, barbarous. Our ability to deal civilly with one another is crucial to the preservation of community.
What’s at issue is not so much the substance of the debate, but the manner in which we conduct it; not the solutions to be reached, but the way in which we come to them. I think the Christian understanding of the human condition can make a contribution.
All of us, we believe, are made in the divine image; all of us share a common humanity, and have enormous potential – which argues for respect. Yet all of us are flawed – we see things from our own limited frame of reference; we act from mixed motives – and that argues for humility. An attitude of respect toward others, and of humility about the correctness of our own position, would go a long way toward restoring civility. It’s an attitude Christians ought to be able to bring to discussion and debate, whatever our view on the issues at stake.
As citizens and as Christians, we should take seriously what both of today’s lessons emphasize, that the absence of civility is anything but a trivial matter. Jesus essentially equates incivility with murder in his “You heard it was said…. but I say to you” teachings. We have seen all too often incivility leading to murder. Jesus virtually equates attitude and act. Words can kill, he says. Abusive language can inflict mortal wounds on the mind and soul and heart of another person. Apparently, we don’t get away with telling God, “It was just talk; it didn’t mean anything.” The way we talk – even the way we think – is an indication of the way we live. Jesus says, “You will have to give an account for every careless word you utter.”
And the Book of James issues a warning about the harmful effects of uncivil language which one contemporary translation renders this way: “It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. The careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony into chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it.”
As Christian citizens, we can refuse to use disrespectful, hurtful speech, which is where violence begins. We can refuse to participate in the language of divisiveness, of the demeaning of character and demonizing of foes. We can insist on civility from those in the media, in politics, in sports, in schools – and in the churches.
We can examine our own behavior, review our own habits of speech. Every one of us contributes daily to either the barbarism or the civility of our common life. We speak respectfully or we ridicule. We tell and listen to bigoted jokes, or we don’t. We gossip or we don’t. We spread rumors or we won’t. We express our opinions with humility or with arrogance. We speak disparagingly of people of another race or religion or life-style or political party, or we refuse to do that.
I want say something about the means available to us when we have differences. And, specifically, I want to caution about the reactive use of social media. Have you had this experience? Someone does something that makes you angry, and so you fire off a retaliatory email, or text message, or Tweet. And what happens is that instead of reducing the tensions, what you did is: you escalated them. Oh, the damage we can do. So, please, be careful with the temptation to knee-jerk texting and emailing. Remember the old-fashioned counsel to “count to ten.” Calm down. Think about your feelings. May pray about them. Sleep on it. Then consider responding – best in a face-to-face conversation. Know what I’m talking about?
Those of us who are parents and grandparents, teachers in school or in church, leaders of Scout troops or coaches of teams – we can engage in what Theodore Parker Ferris called “basic training.” Training in things such as: consideration, courtesy, kindness, listening, telling the truth, caring about other people, including those whom you don’t really like.
Aristotle expected that it was too much to ask people to be good. About the most that could be hoped of ordinary people, he said, is that we learn and teach good habits – the habits of decency, respect and kindness, the habits that fashion a civilized, civil person.
Or consider Jesus’ belief that what comes out of us is what is inside of us. “The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure.”
Stephen Covey emphasizes this inside-out approach in his Seven Habits: Start with the self, he urges. Even more fundamentally, start with the innermost part of the self, which is your character. The inside-out approach says that if you pay attention to what goes in, you don't have to worry so much about what comes out. Which is no small part of what the church is here to help us with.
* * * *
This weekend we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Part of the legacy Dr. King left us which warrants celebration is his example of civility. Issues mattered to him, and he fought hard and long for racial justice, for integration, for the poor, for the end of the Vietnam War, among other things. In doing so, he was often the target of incivility, of verbal abuse on the streets of Skokie, of physical violence – he was punched, he was stabbed – of unjust imprisonment. He endured relentless death threats. But, remarkably, he did not descend to the level of his adversaries. In the face of violence, he practiced non-violence. Confronted with attacks against himself and his people, he responded by persistently calling on this society to live up to its ideals. He serves as an example of how to engage the issues, fight hard for what you believe, and yet do so without degrading, dehumanizing, or demonizing those who disagree.
To Dr. King, it was at the heart of the Gospel to recognize that love could really change a situation of conflict. That was the purpose of aggressive non-violent action in Selma, Birmingham, and elsewhere: love reaching out toward the oppressor, love forcing negotiation. He was not naïve about the persistence and power of evil. But his evangelical Christian faith insisted that even the most hardened sinner runs the risk of being converted. He really believed that ruthless Southern sheriffs and politicians were sheep who had strayed from the fold. And that however powerful evil is, love is more powerful still. Said Coretta Scott King, “He refused to lose faith in the ultimate redemption of humanity.”
* * * *
There was an unusually public, unusually positive and bipartisan meeting at the White House last Tuesday. A made-for-TV event, certainly. But hopeful, in that the topics were DACA and immigration reform. But two days later there came that unbelievably racist vulgarism about wanting Norwegians to immigrate, and not people from “s---hole” countries. So here’s my take-away. We, as Christian citizens, can’t merely wait for public figures to do what is right on our behalf. We mustn’t sit around in hopes that Washington – or Springfield – will do justice and love kindness for us. That kind of apathy is no way to honor the legacy of Dr. King.
Because, friends, we each and together have important roles and responsibilities. So join me, please, in our striving, consciously and intentionally, to reflect and express – in the living of our days – the civility of Jesus Christ.
– With thanks to Eugene Bay, David Broder, Martin Marty and James McClendon
Sunday, January 7, 2018
Trinity United Church of Christ, Deerfield
Kent M. Organ, Interim Pastor
Text: Isaiah 42:1-9; Mark 1:4-11
“In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” According to Mark, it is this incident that constitutes the beginning of the good news. It’s the beginning of his Gospel. There, in the muck and mud of the Jordan River, is where it all begins: the miracle of grace, the manifestation of God’s love, the ministry of reconciliation through Jesus Christ our Lord. It all begins with John’s baptism of Jesus.
It’s not only Mark who says so. Each of the Gospels makes the Jordan River the place where it all begins. True, in the other Gospels there are preceding events. But all four agree that the baptism of Jesus is the moment when he begins to fulfill his destiny.
We are naturally curious about the earlier years. We wonder about the influence of Joseph and Mary. What did Jesus learn from them about their faith tradition? What was his experience of God as a child, as a teenager? How did he arrive at his sense of vocation? Aside from one story – about the 12-year old’s visit to the Temple – we know next to nothing about any of this. These were the silent years. Fred Craddock says, “You don’t hear roots growing. They had to be silent years.”
All we know is that, one day, Jesus put down his woodworking tools, took leave of his family and his hometown, and went out into the wilderness where John was preaching “a baptism of repentance.” There, Jesus joined all the others who were responding to John’s preaching. Along with them, he also waded into the river and was baptized.
The question is, why? We ask, because John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins. What was Jesus doing in that crowd? What did he have to repent of?
That he was there – in the Jordan, undergoing baptism – is something even the most skeptical participant in the Jesus Seminar does not dispute. The reason being that no believer would have made up this story. The Savior of the world submitting to a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” is a little embarrassing. And the Gospel writers are nervous in telling about it. According to Matthew, John the Baptist was reluctant, saying he needed to be baptized by Jesus. He went through with it, Matthew says, only because Jesus insisted. Luke makes as little of the event as possible. The Fourth Gospel is so defensive about Jesus’ sinlessness that it doesn’t explicitly say that he was baptized. It just says that John saw the Spirit descend on Jesus like a dove, but neglects to mention that Jesus was standing waist-deep in the Jordan River when it happened. Mark seems the least embarrassed, but even he has John proclaim of Jesus, “…I am not worthy to… untie the thong of his sandals.”
So, what are we to make of Jesus’ baptism? In spite of their discomfort about it, why do all four Gospels insist that Jesus’ baptism is where it all begins?
Here’s what I think. Jesus went out to where John was baptizing because the time had come for him to respond to God’s claim on his life. John was baptizing at the Jordan – the very river boundary which, when the children of Egypt came out of the wilderness, they crossed to enter the Promised Land. Many Israelites, during this time, were seeking a renewal of their peoplehood. What did it mean to serve God together in this world? Where had they failed? What was required of them now? Galvanized by the witness of John, the people returned to the place of their beginnings in a new land: to the Jordan. It was like going back to Ellis Island to start over, at least to get a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty to remember what our peoplehood is all about. Friends, a pastoral interim can be something like this, as we’re seeing. It is an opportunity to step back and remember: Who are we? Why are we here? What is it that God wants us to be, and do? Getting in touch with our Christian identity, and our unique calling.
So, of course, Jesus went there – to be baptized – identifying with all who recognized the need to start over again on a more faithful path as servants of God in this world.
* * * *
The Baptism of Christ, observed today in churches around the world, witnesses to Jesus’ solidarity with and compassion for all of us who come on a Sunday morning, just as our ancestors went to the Jordan River. They went, and we come, with a multitude of aspirations and anxieties, with our failures – individual and corporate – in what we have done and not done. The Baptism of Jesus was then and is now the sign that Christ saves us not by shouting instructions from the safety of the shore, but is down in the mud with us, joining us in the sorrow of repentance and the joy of a new beginning.
What would have constituted sin for Jesus would have been for him not to have been baptized – to turn away from his destiny, to refuse to be Emmanuel, “God with us.” But he didn’t refuse. He didn’t separate himself from us with our questions, our failures of will and of nerve, our failures to do the good we know. He went down to the Jordan and joined us. His baptism is a luminous sign that he is truly one of us. Which is why Mark calls it “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
What was not obvious then, but is now is how his baptism marked the beginning in another sense. It launched him on a ministry that would take him from the Jordan to the poor, to lepers, to the tables of social outcasts, public sinners, to the weak and powerless, to those who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and finally – on Calvary – to a convicted criminal at the place of his execution, His baptism, in other words, is the beginning of a journey that will lead Jesus to the cross where, as Paul declares, “For our sakes [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin,” and where, as the Philippian hymn says, “Though he was in the form of God, he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.”
* * * *
The account of Jesus’ baptism belongs to the season of Epiphany. Epiphany means “manifestation,” “disclosure.” What Jesus’ baptism discloses is who he is – the beloved Son – and what he does, as the beloved Son: he becomes one with us. In the end, his identification with us and his commitment to us will take him to the cross. But it begins at the Jordan. From that act of solidarity, it was almost inevitable that the time would come when, as Paul puts it, God would prove God’s love for us in that while we were sinners Christ would die for us.
Baptism is where it all begins – not only for Jesus, but also for you and me. That is to say, our journey of faith begins at the baptismal font. It is there that we first know the grace of God in Christ. It is there we are first shown that our lives are not our own. “In baptism God claims us, and puts a sign on us to show that we belong to God.” Like Jesus at the Jordan, at the font we are given our identity: “See what love God has for us,” we are told, “that we should be called children of God, and so we are.” At the baptismal font we not only learn who we are, we learn what we are to do – we are given our vocation. “By water and the Holy Spirit… we are joined to Christ’s ministry of love, justice and peace.”
For us too, baptism is where it all begins. It’s where God first says to us, “You belong to me; you are loved by me. Stop worrying about whether that is true or not, and start learning to follow the way my Son shows you. Stop fretting about who you are – you are my beloved! Get on with the life I have called you to live, and with the work I have given you to do.”
Each year, on this Sunday, we at Trinity are encouraged to renew our baptism vows. Why so often? Why – every year? Because it is easy to forget to whom we belong. Are we primarily Democrats, or Republicans? White Sox fans, or Cubs fans? Caucasians, or members of the human race? Americans, or citizens of the world? Here, today, we remember – and attest – that fundamentally, we belong to God, the God we know in and through Jesus the Christ. Which tells us important things about those other belongings of ours.
Baptism is where it all begins. For Jesus, it’s at the Jordan River. There he begins to fulfill his destiny as Emmanuel, God with us. For us, it is at the font. That is where we re-begin our life-long journey as God’s own.
- With thanks to Gene Bay, John Burkhart and Barbara Brown Taylor
Sunday, December 31, 2017
Trinity United Church of Christ, Deerfield
Kent M. Organ, Interim Pastor
Texts: Isaiah 52:7-10; Luke 2:22-40
That was the last scene in Luke's story of the birth of Jesus. Luke divides the story into several acts – each act with dialogue, and a song. We are familiar with most of the scenes: the angel’s announcement to Mary, after which she sings. The birth of John, and his father's song. Then the shepherds are visited by angels, who sing, “Glory to God in the highest.” Then the birth itself, and all is quiet. Mary ponders all of this in her heart.
The last scene is our Gospel text for this morning, the concluding scene in Luke’s drama, the visit to the Temple. The final song belongs to Simeon. He sings, “Now you are dismissing your servant in peace.. for my eyes have seen your salvation.”
The holy family have come to Jerusalem to the Temple for a Jewish ritual. Mary and Joseph are devout people. They intend to raise their son in the faith. There are two old people there, Simeon and Anna. Luke says they were constantly in the Temple. In Jerusalem they are probably known as the odd couple, Simeon and Anna. You could always find them in the Temple.
Simeon is there because he is expecting the Messiah. In Malachi, it is prophesied that when the Messiah comes, he will come “suddenly to the Temple.” So every morning, old Simeon gets up and goes there. It also says that Simeon is righteous, old and righteous. Those are offered as impressive credentials for Simeon, which is important because, for Luke, Simeon is an expert witness.
So Simeon is standing at the entrance to the Temple, looking for the Messiah. He's been there for years, waiting, watching. He even checks out babies. He sees Mary, Joseph and the baby come up the steps, holds out his arms. “Let me see the baby.” Mary lets him. There is an instant of recognition. And Simeon sings, “Now, let your servant depart in peace.. for my eyes have seen your salvation.” Translation: “The Messiah has come. I can die now; the reason I've been holding on for so long has now come.”
Simeon is the expert witness. If anyone should know who the Messiah is, it’s Simeon. This is it, he announces. The Messiah is here.
Simeon’s song is called the Nunc Dimittis, after the first two words in the Latin text, the Vulgate. “Nunc dimittis” means “Now I can leave.” It's a song of thanksgiving to God for the gift of this child, “a light to the Gentiles, glory to the Jews.” Which means, this child is a savior for everyone.
After the song of thanksgiving, though, there is a prophecy of pain. Simeon announces, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many,” which means this child is going to be controversial. There's going to be division because of him. Then he turns to Mary, and says, “A sword will pierce your own soul too.” She herself is going to undergo pain because of this child.
Which is a harsh conclusion to the lovely story of the birth of Jesus. Already, Luke has sketched in the shadow of a cross beam. But, wait. There’s something more. Right after the warning of Mary's suffering, the very next verse, Anna is introduced. It says, “There was also a prophet, Anna.”
* * * *
Anna is the other half of that odd couple that was always at the Temple. Anna, who prays and fasts night and day, is identified as a prophet, so she too is an authority. Luke says also she was “of great age.” Another expert witness. And Anna agrees with Simeon. This baby is what we have been looking for. And, what's more, Anna told that to anybody who would listen: “This is the Messiah.” She is a corroborating witness.
But I think she’s also there for another reason. Luke is the gospel writer who pays most attention to women. He has women appear continuously in his writings, both in Luke and in Acts. He did this in an age in which to do so was controversial, even defiant of convention. For instance, Luke mentions widows at least eight times. Widows were dependent on other people's charity in that time, often poor and treated unjustly.
And here comes Anna, a widow. Luke is specific in describing that part of her life. She has been a widow for 84 years, which means she knew what suffering is.
Simeon has just said to Mary, “You will have a sword put through your soul.” And here comes Anna. It was said of the Messiah, in Isaiah, “He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (53:3). Mary, you will know that too. And here comes Anna. She can tell you all about that, also. She is a woman of sorrows, acquainted with grief.
When Simeon says, “This is the Messiah,” it means something. It’s an authority speaking. He’s a Messianic scholar. He knows all the Scripture texts. He knows who to look for, he knows where to look. He’s an expert.
Well, Anna is too. She is from the university of life, the school of hard knocks. She is among the company of sufferers in this world. She is, as we say nowadays, “a survivor.” So when Anna says, “This is the Messiah,” this is also authority speaking.
Luke wanted to make it perfectly clear that the Messiah had come. So he subpoenas authorities, because it wasn't all that clear. The days after Jesus was born, the world looked just the way it had the previous day. An alien army still occupied the land; Rome still ruled with an iron hand. Eruptions of violence kept happening. Taxes went up. The rich got richer, the poor got poorer. The sick didn’t get well. The problems that plagued the people before Christmas were there to greet them after Christmas.
So, somebody had to ask it. Are you sure this was it? Is this what we were really looking for? That’s why Luke brings in Simeon and Anna, expert witnesses to reassure us that in spite of the way it appears, this was it.
* * * *
It is an appropriate question on the first Sunday after Christmas, a poignant question to ask on New Year’s Eve. When we are still basking in the holiday spirit. And you haven’t gone back to work yet. (I’ve gone back to work, but you haven’t.)
Are we sure this was it? The fades. The world returns to its pre-Christmas state. Terrorist threats remain. An ugly political era continues. Your problems remain. And you will know some sorrow this year, some grief. The world will be the same.
Martin Marty has an apt illustration of our world. He went to see a dreary Irish play, full of heartbreak, in which there are four unmarried sisters, one of whom, near the end of the play, says this: “You work hard at your job. You try to keep the home together. You perform your duties as best you can, because you believe in responsibilities, and obligations, and good order. Then suddenly you realize that hair cracks are appearing everywhere, that control is slipping away, that the whole thing is so fragile it can’t be held together much longer. It's all about to collapse.”
“Hair cracks are appearing everywhere...” Things we have to live with: a world at war, threats abounding, economic priorities gone haywire. And, close to home, the beloved spouse now gone, a dreaded diagnosis, children who have wandered away – we wish we could change these things, but we aren’t able to. A job that is no longer exciting or fulfilling. And the world you grew up in and found meaning in is cracking. There are hair cracks everywhere. The whole thing seems so fragile now.
What this text says to us, so soon after Christmas, is that the Messiah has come to this world, to the world with hair cracks. This is it. The witnesses have testified. This is it. This really is. There will be no additional Messiahs. No one is going to come and solve your problems for you. So, if the world is going to get better, and if your life is going to get better, then you have to trust that the power to change things is already here, waiting for you.
Anna is telling everybody about it. Old Simeon, he has now departed in peace. But Anna is still here, announcing, “The Messiah has come.” Which means, the world doesn’t have to be perfect for me to know all the things that were promised: Peace, and joy, and reconciliation, forgiveness and new life. It means that my life can have a wholeness and purpose, even though there are cracks in it.
There’s a wonderful verse in today’s final hymn, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” It fits perfectly with this text. It could be written about Anna. It goes like this:
And you, beneath life’s crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow,
look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
and hear the angels sing!
- With thanks to Martin Marty and Mark Trotter
Reign of Christ Sunday, November 26, 2017
Text: II Samuel 5:1-5; John 12:9-19
Today is the last Sunday of the church year. Next week a new year begins with the season of Advent. To conclude this year, today is called the Festival of Christ the King, or the Reign of Christ. We’ve just heard lessons for this feast day, with David being anointed king of all Israel; and then the Gospel of John’s version of the Triumphal Entry in which Jesus is extolled as king. That lesson concludes with a remarkable statement: The Pharisees say, “Look, the whole world has gone after him.”
And so it did. Within a few decades of his death, stories were told about his miraculous birth. By the end of the first century, he was awarded the most exalted titles imaginable: Son of God, One with the Father, the Word become flesh, Bread of Life, Light of the world, the One who would come again as cosmic King and Judge. Within a few centuries, he was recognized as Lord of the Empire that crucified him.
No other figure in the history of the Western world has ever been accorded such extraordinary acclaim. But less so now in America.
In the lifetimes of most of us there has been a huge cultural shift from “modernity” to “post-modernity.” Postmodernity challenges the notion that there is anything such as universal truth, whereas once the Christian narrative held sway in this land. For instance, when I was kid, a weekly radio program was called “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” It was all about Jesus. But now, no single “meta-narrative” can speak for all of humanity. In post-modernity, no one has a “God’s eye” view of the world. Even generic belief in God has taken a huge hit. According to the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Survey, in just the last twenty-eight years, there has been a 26 percent drop in the certainty that God exists.
And so, mainline Protestant churches – churches like Trinity – have been shrinking for more than four decades. The numbers are devastating. Statistically, every Sunday, somewhere in the United States seventy-one churches will celebrate their last Sunday service. Annually, some 3,700 churches end up closing their doors. Researcher George Barna says that churches lose an estimated 2,765.000 attendees every year. In our current congregational project, we need to recognize that what we are trying to do is to climb up on a down escalator. Which, of course, makes the small, but noticeable surge of increased children and their families here at Trinity Church even more impressive. We are trying to rise at a time of sharp decline in mainline Protestantism. We know that, don’t we? But I suppose, it can serve to make our shared adventure that much more interesting, don’t you think?
Before I move on from this excursis into religious sociology, one more thing I want to say, which is, that this bad news is not the whole story in 21st century America. Sure, says David Hollinger, an historian at U.C. Berkeley – sure, the old-line, ecumenical Protestant denominations are in decline. And up until recently, the more evangelical and fundamentalist churches have been thriving, apparently at our expense. But also consider this: We of the ecumenical mainline have been “more accepting of religious diversity, more sympathetic to anti-racist legislation and judicial rulings, more skeptical of American foreign policy, more supportive of abortion rights, more concerned with civil liberties issues, more tolerant of non-marital cohabitation, and more accepting of same-sex relationships.” The fact that these values are now embraced by many, if not most, Americans is due in no small part to the leadership of the old-line Protestant churches. All of which has led sociologist N. J. Demarath III to contend that the ecumenical churches – we – may have lost American Protestantism, but we have won the United States. Isn’t that fascinating? And deeply heartening?
David Hollinger goes on to say that the steep decline of Protestant establishment churches has occurred because, by and large, the children raised in this tradition, where they learned the values of acceptance of diversity and tolerance for difference, did not see the indispensable need for communities of faith or for theology to sustain the values they learned in places like this. And so religion, and especially spirituality, have become a personal choice rather than a vital necessity.
So we have an enormous challenge. It’s why we are spending so much time trying to get clear on what it is we stand for. And how we are going to express this in our life and work.
I think that we, along with all our brothers and sisters in ecumenical American Protestantism need to keep doing what is our unique hallmark. We are the followers of Jesus who take both theology and social action seriously. We not only appreciate the social sciences and the critical study of Scripture but also, at our best, practice the presence of God made know in Jesus Christ. We are people who appreciate tradition – not to be confused with convention – and also new ways of expressing the faith. We value the gifts of culture and, at our best, remain counter-cultural and distinctively Christian. Particularly, in this historical moment.
* * * *
So… okay. Mainline American Protestant Christianity is less fashionable than it used to be. But where did we ever get the idea that the way of Christ was supposed to be popular, successful, and culturally dominant? Yes, it used to be in this country. But the idea that it should be probably has much more to do with the anomaly of the so-called “revival of religion” in the 1950s – and the Emperor Constantine – than it has to do with Jesus of Nazareth.
When Jesus was born, it was in a shed.
Herod promptly sought to assassinate him.
His earthly parents opposed his vocation.
His disciples listened to his words, but did not understand.
The rich young ruler turned away from him.
Some whom he healed thought he was a sorcerer.
Religious leaders plotted against him.
Judas sold him out for thirty coins.
Peter repudiated him.
His other followers deserted him.
A crowd which had hailed him soon thirsted for his blood. He was accused of sedition.
Pilate at first tried to avoid him, then condemned him to death.
The soldiers mocked him.
A criminal taunted him from the cross.
Some gambled for his garments.
Skepticism greeted his resurrection.
A strange kind of king, this Jesus. It may not be the worst thing that our kind of Christianity has fewer cultural supports and is less “the thing to do” and “the place to be” than used to be the case. It could be especially at the margins that we can understand whose we are and where he would lead us.
He rode into Jerusalem, accompanied by those who had become part of his movement, his alternative community, based on active, risk-taking compassion. They entered to challenge the conventional wisdom of their day, and the culture of separation and exclusion that emerged from it.
But the outcome that week in Jerusalem was devastating. He and his counter-community were destroyed. Pilate and Herod were victorious. So quickly, it was all over. But we know better. Actually, it had barely begun.
* * * *
Still he rides – into cities and villages where outcasts are shunned and women abused, where hurts are not healed and the poor are despised, and violent means are employed everywhere. Still, he challenges the conventional wisdom which destroys the innocent, and blames victims, and exonerates those who are too important or too busy or too pure to get involved.
Still he seeks to enlist disciples for his new community. In its own life, his community is to live the alternative values he taught and lived, and to seek the transformation of the world. We can hope to do this only by being grounded in the Spirit of the compassionate, cruciform Christ.
He will not bowl us over. Not this humble king. He will allow us to put him off, to crowd him out of our busy lives. He will even allow us, again, to push him out of the world, onto a cross.
“He comes to us as One unknown,” Albert Schweitzer wrote in the conclusion of his classic work, The Quest for the Historical Jesus. “He comes to us… without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words: "Follow thou me!" and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn [– we shall learn –] in [our] own experience Who He is.”
-- With thanks to Norman Bendroth, Marcus Borg,
Jaroslav Pelikan and William Stringfellow
I need to say something about the Alabama special senatorial election, with evangelical leaders advocating for Roy Moore. What we are seeing is the degradation of Christian faith and Biblical morality. Like Esau, they are selling their birthright for “a mess of pottage” (Genesis 25:29ff.). I find it horrifying. And disgusting.
As Charles Blow wrote in the New York Times, “Piety is [mere] postscript. The principal motivation now is anger, fear of cultural displacement, and anxiety about the erosion of privilege and the guarantees it once provided, from physical safety to financial security.”
The accusations against Roy Moore are serious and not easily dismissed. But supposedly good Christians – including pastors – are actually saying, “Even if it did happen …” That rationale says that pedophilia is acceptable – if you are willing to advance a certain cultural agenda. Don’t forget that the possibility of pedophilia is the common mythology that religious conservatives use as a bludgeon against gay people.
I am reminded of a book by David Horowitz, whose title is: The Politics of Bad Faith. That is what we are seeing. This is not Biblical faith, despite all the pounding of that book. What it is is right-wing ideology dressed up in the guise of sanctimony. That needs to be stated bluntly and uncompromisingly.
Texts: Deuteronomy 26:1-10; Romans 5:1-2, 6-11
Today we are celebrating the Protestant Reformation at 500. Day after tomorrow is the precise 500th anniversary of its triggering event. It was on October 31, 1517, that an obscure German Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, challenged the established church to debate several doctrines he found to be grossly un-Biblical and pernicious. Why is it important for us to observe this anniversary? Because, as Scottish historian Harry Reid puts it, the Protestant Reformation brought about “the dangerous birth of the modern world.”
We just heard a verse from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, that “the proof of God’s amazing love is this: While we still were sinners Christ died for us. That verse spoke powerfully to young Martin Luther. It changed everything. Because he had been schooled in a totally different reading of God’s ways with us.
Luther was raised in the piety of the Middle Ages. This meant that he was continually preoccupied with his sinfulness, God’s judgment, and the problem of his personal salvation. The medieval church alternately played on people’s hopes and fears: hope that they would attain bliss in heaven, and dread that they would instead be consigned to eternal punishment in hell. The sensitive Christian was plummeted into a constant state of anxiety. Young Martin was a particularly sensitive and troubled Christian.
In terms of the theology he learned, he knew he was in the wrong before God. The more he pondered all he had done that he ought not to have done, all he should have done but hadn’t, the more he knew that God was even more aware of his sin and guilt than Martin was himself. Since God is “of purer eyes than to behold iniquity,” Luther could come to only one conclusion: Before God, he didn’t stand a chance.
Now, the medieval church had a solution for Martin’s problem: You could become “justified” – that is law-court language; it means you could be acquitted – (acquitted) by doing certain beneficial things to make yourself more pleasing to God. You could be justified before God, the judge, by doing good works. And there were many “works” that a medieval Christian could do. But most valuable of all, you could elevate yourself, not remaining an ordinary, run-of-the-mill Christian. Instead, you could become a nun or a monk. And that is what young Martin did. Here is how it happened.
When he was a teenager, one night he was terrified during a thunderstorm. Lightning struck nearby. Fearing for his life, and even more for his soul, Martin Luther fell on his knees, and cried out a vow to God that he would take holy orders – would become a monk – if he was spared. He was. And off to the monastery he went.
At first, Martin felt at peace. But his turmoil returned when he led his first mass. He was suddenly stupefied in recognizing that he, a puny, guilty creature, was daring to address Almighty God. At once, he redoubled his efforts to become more worthy.
There were other “works” that a Christian could do. You could do charitable acts. You could pray special prayers, and beat on yourself – whip yourself – mortifying your flesh. You could go on pilgrimages. You could fast. So Martin did all that. But still felt no relief.
He turned to the sacrament of penance for help. And when Martin placed his hope in penance, he did it with all his might. He would confess his sins for six hours at a time. His confessor once became so exhausted that he cried out through the screen: “Brother Martin, if you are going to confess so much, why don’t you go out and do something worth confessing? Why don’t you kill your father or mother, instead of trotting out all these baby sins?”
So for Martin, doing “good works” just didn’t work. No matter how much he did, the nagging questions remained: Have I done enough? Shouldn’t I have done more? Am I worthy of forgiveness yet? Martin couldn’t be sure. He was worse off at the end than he had been at the beginning.
* * * *
Martin Luther’s problem stemmed from the church’s theology. It could be a problem also for some of us, emphasizing “good works” as much as we do. For instance, consider tonight, when a number of us will be feeding fifty homeless neighbors through PADS. But I trust that none of us believes that, by doing loving deeds, we are somehow saving ourselves. That misunderstanding – the oppressive error of “works righteousness” – was what Brother Martin aimed to help us get over.
Here’s how it happened for him: Martin Luther finally discovered, through his long spiritual struggle, that he himself could do nothing about his problem, and that God had done everything. He rediscovered Amazing Grace. It was in the fall of 1513 – when he was teaching Bible classes, first on the Psalms, and then on Romans – that he found the answer.
In the Scriptures, he found that God is the gracious, merciful God, that God does not require that we first become worthy people before loving us, but that God loves us even when – even though – we don’t deserve it. God loves the un-worthy. “While we still were sinners, Christ died for us.”
A great burden was lifted off of Martin Luther’s shoulders. The oppression of his soul, of his life, dissolved. In and through the Bible, and particularly in the letters of Paul, he rediscovered the heart of Christian faith: “While we still were sinners, Christ died for us.”
And so, on October 31 in 1517, Brother Martin walked to the front of the castle church at Wittenberg, in Germany, and tacked up on the cathedral doors ninety-five theses – ninety-five arguments – that he wanted to bring to church leadership’s attention for debate and for the potential re-formation of the church’s teaching. The medieval church wasn’t ready for his message. Not then. Although it is now. And we are its liberated inheritors and beneficiaries.
Now, let me be clear. Luther’s argument was with the medieval church, not the current Roman Church. Contemporary Catholicism has learned from the Reformation. So much so that, in our time, among the most eloquent proponents of justification by grace through faith have been Hans Küng and Henri Nouwen, both theologians of the Roman tradition.
* * * *
Now, I realize, all that I have said may come across as a mere church history lesson. About the past. But it’s much more than that. Luther’s gains are always at risk. Christian self-satisfaction and complacency can always tip us into works-righteousness. But even more, the Reformation story is germane because we are in a similar time right now.
Phyllis Tickle, in her important little book, The Great Emergence, says that about every 500 years the Church finds it necessary to hold a giant rummage sale. It has to clean out the attic. Some things are important to keep. But the church needs to dispense with things that used to be treasures, but no longer are, are no longer are compelling. The practices and customs of older generations have lost their traction. The new must be allowed to emerge. 500 years before the Protestant Reformation, there was the Great Schism when East and West came apart, Orthodoxy separating from Catholicism, Byzantium from Rome. 500 years later, “the dangerous birth of the modern world” what we call the Reformation. And now, 500 years after that, we are in a new time of great upheaval. The certainties of modernity have fallen apart. We find ourselves in a post-modern era. The Christian mega-narrative no longer holds sway in our culture. The verities and pieties with which many of us were raised are no longer persuasive. Just one example, what did everybody do on Sunday mornings sixty years ago when Trinity UCC began? Well, that time is over. Habit and duty no longer serve. What now? How shall we reinvent ourselves? Or better, how might God’s Spirit reinvent us?
There are probably two main ways of looking at this cultural transition. We can see it as tragedy. Or we can see it as challenge and opportunity. God-given challenge and opportunity. Our tradition helps us here. Theologian Paul Tillich extracted from our history what he called “the Protestant Principle,” which is that we are finite, not infinite; mortal, not immortal; sinners, not saints; fallible, not infallible. Protestantism, at its essence, is a protest against any absolute claim made for a relative reality. We are “The Church, Reformed, and [thus] always re-forming.” Being re-formed. The Reformation must continue. Which really is our guide here at Trinity UCC with all these things are before us in a transitional time.
* * * *
Now, this wasn’t exactly the sermon your stewardship committee had in mind for this season. We dedicate our pledges for 2018 two weeks from today. So let me pause with a brief aside. Martin Luther used to say “There are three conversions necessary: the conversion of the heart, the mind, and the purse.” The third conversion, he suggested, may be the most difficult one. Now, does that mean our pledges for Christ’s ministries through the church are means to our salvation? No. That would be “works righteousness.” That Luther struggled to overcome. No. Our giving and our pledges express our gratitude to God.
* * * *
In conclusion, I have a gift to share with you. It’s the mature Luther’s definition of faith. This is what Christianity became for him after he had re-learned God’s love for us beyond what we are, and despite how we are. “Faith,” he wrote, “[Faith] is a lively, reckless confidence in the grace of God.” Can you remember that. It’s worth committing to memory. Can you say it with me, Luther’s definition of faith? “Faith is a lively, reckless confidence in the grace of God.” Amen.
- with thanks to Roland Bainton and Robert McAfee Brown