Sermon delivered at Saint James United Church, Montréal, Québec. We are not strangers. We are not aliens. We are fellow citizens with all the saints, members of the household of God. And this, friends, is true, EVEN when frail Christians mess up and act as if we are not. We can boldly claim now that Jesus lived and died rose again for me just as much as for anyone else. Continue reading »
Sermon delivered Sunday July 8, 2012 at Saint James United Church, Montréal, Québec. The Bible is full of miraculous stories, but where are miracles today? The answer may be in what we find Jesus’ miracles all have in common. Continue reading »
Sermon delivered Sunday August 14, 2012 at Mystic Congregational Church in Mystic, Connecticut. Sometimes in Biblical stories, the question isn’t what did Jesus do, but what did he expect those around him to do, and thus, what would Jesus have me do? Continue reading »
A reading from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 4, verses 5 through 10. Let’s listen for a Word from God.
The devil took [Jesus] to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “‘Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’
Again the devil took [Jesus] to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan!’
The Good News of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Let’s pray together.
O God, our loving parent, you have given us all that we have as generous gifts, our lives, our faith, and our voices. Bless us to study your Word with the powerful presence of your Spirit, that we may have your strength uphold us as we strive to live your commandments through the grace of Jesus Christ our Savior, and in the name of God, creator, redeemer, and comforter, Amen.
Hallelujah for Christ our exemplar, our perfect example.
As a sisterhood and brotherhood of young preachers, those of us from all over, from California, to Canada, to Kentucky, from Pentecostal to Orthodox, conservative literalist to liberal Christian socialist, we are all here because we want to follow Jesus. But how do we follow Jesus as young adults? From ages 12 until 30, the Bible is quiet about his youth, saying only, from the Gospel of Luke “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (2:52). So we assume that He was every bit as good as the Son of God ought to be. But if we are to be truly Bible-believing, we have to accept that as a young adult there was much He still did not know. After all, only those who are yet lacking in wisdom have room to “increase” in it.
And who needs wisdom more, who needs God’s affirmation and guidance more, than a young adult wrestling those divine pokes and prods out of worldly pursuits and into ministry? So while he was good, in the most complete and perfect sense, he was still young, he was still learning, and he was called by God. So we confront a mystery, a perplexity of His holy incarnation. So truly God, yet so very much like us. Don’t we feel a portion that sacred restlessness the twenty-nine-year-old Jesus was feeling at home and at his carpentry shop. Let me be clear. Being a Nazarene carpenter is honorable. But no matter how honorable it is to craft wood with our hands, or catch fish in our nets, or sew tents on the street corners, once God’s call comes, God must be followed. So Jesus left home, left his mother, his younger siblings, and the family business, and followed his crazy, loudmouthed locust-eating cousin John—and don’t we all have that cousin—into the wilderness. Just as Jesus ascended from the water of Jordan, the Holy Ghost descend upon like a dove. When the calling of God leads you from the woodshop to wilderness, and the voice of God bursts through the heavens to you, perhaps we should all follow the example of Jesus, to pause, to think about it.
If we think the call to ministry leads to nothing but affirmation and self-assurance, watch for the example of Christ. Just when Jesus was refreshed and renewed in the waters of holy baptism and retired to the wilderness, true to form, that’s when Satan arrived. I wonder if Jesus felt any dim memory of his premortal life. When Satan presented that sweeping vista of earthly possibilities, did something feel familiar to Jesus? Did Jesus, in His divinity, have a glimmer of memory that the all those earthly kingdoms and splendors were rightfully His? Did Jesus, in His humanity, long for the instant gratification of power and possessions? Had Satan been tempting me on that mountain, the story would have ended badly. I am going to exegete, extrapolate, but not exaggerate. You see, Satan had counted on covetousness. Let me say it again. Satan counts on covetousness.
Satan, in his characteristic ludicrous arrogance, wanted the Son of God to bow down and worship he who has been a liar from all eternity. But he was clever, but he knew Jesus would not be tempted directly into idolatry, the sin Satan was really after, so he tried to pry the Son of God with covetousness. If Satan can pervert our desires for what God has not given us, he can distract us from all that God has given us. We sure learn a lot about Satan in this story—first, that he knows the Bible better than we do, second, he attacks the servants of God on the heels of great spiritual experiences at the gateways to great spiritual promise, and, third, he will manipulate us, he will pry, try, and trick us into giving him want he wants by offering us what we want.
But listen for the Good News of the Lord. This time, in the wilderness with that lowly fasting young carpenter from Nazareth, with Jesus, it turns out that Satan had made a terrible miscalculation. Now, in Satan’s defense, it is strategy that surely had worked for him before and surely works still. But, sisters and brothers, we’re not here to talk about Satan. We’re here to praise Jesus. Jesus who did not blink or budge; Jesus who did not falter or fall; Jesus who stared down the Fall-down-and-worship-me devil with a holy Away with you Satan!
Jesus knew who He was and, if He were still learning what He was called to do, He did know who He was called to follow. Moses warned us clearly in the tenth commandment:
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17).
Covetousness is a silent sin. Jealousy for what is not ours that wells up inside of us. It makes us bitter. And it eventually erupts. Perhaps it erupts in the betrayal of adultery, in the greed of theft, in the violence of murder, in the ingratitude of idolatry, or scapegoating of bigotry. But erupt into our lives, it will. It is a gateway drug into the clenching addiction of sin.
We need to be careful, though, that we don’t subvert God’s view of covetousness. Moralizing against covetousness can be perverted by those who oppress. So let me be clear, to be free from the sin of covetousness does not mean we are blind to inequalities or that we do not strive for better lives for ourselves or others. It does not mean staying passive in our place, the place where the world has placed us, the place where our language, our bank account, our appearance, has placed us. The warning against covetousness is a warning against gaining our own advantage at the expense of others through the same sinful path of oppressors. It is a warning, do not long for that which is not yours so much that you abandon God’s principles, having what they have, but sacrificing the godliness they have sacrificed on the altar of materialism. Oh indeed, we avoid covetousness by knowing our place, but the place where God, God who creates, and gives life, God who calls and qualifies, has placed us.
Coveting is the distraction that gives our mind time for ingratitude. I don’t just mean forgot-to-send-a-thank-you-note ingratitude. I mean the kind of ingratitude that is so all-consuming we no longer see what we have. When we’re too busy obsessing over what God has not given us, we do not see what God has given us. We’re too busy lusting after our neighbor’s house that we aren’t shouting hallelujah for the tent God freely gave us. Now for those of us here who have heard God’s call to preach the Good News, covetousness will cripple our ministries if we spend our energy lamenting the gifts we don’t have so much we miss opportunities to use the gifts we have.
Some gifts in ministry are obvious. Paul lists some in 1 Corinthians 12—eloquence, knowledge, wisdom, healing, administration—to name a few. As we ponder the gifts of ministry, covetousness is what makes us hear the things we are not good at more loudly than the things we are. Personally, I often feel that I am the only youth minister in all of Christianity who cannot play acoustic guitar. In our modern churches, there are more gifts the Lord’s work needs—the gifts of understanding PowerPoint and web media (check), the gifts of music (not mine), the gifts of understanding teenagers (check), the gifts of understanding adults (in progress).
But rather than a check list of talents or spiritual gifts, no matter how Biblical, we need to see that God has prepared us for the ministries to which we are called in all that we have been given. And now sisters and brothers, this is the hard part, in all that we have not been given. And we must not let coveting what could have been distract us from what God calls us to do now.
Let’s look once again to God’s Word. During the reign of King Ahasuerus of Persia, about four hundred years before the common era, a stunningly beautiful young Jewish woman had found herself, much to her own surprise, Queen of Persia. When Haman, one the king’s advisors, plotted to kill all the Jews in Persia, the prophet Mordecai approached Esther. As a Jew and as the king’s most beautiful wife, she was in a unique position to stop the genocidal plot. We read Mordecai’s words to her in Esther 4. Listen to verse 14. “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to this royal dignity for just such a time as this.” It would be easy to covet Esther’s beauty, power, and position, but that would miss the point. Esther was given royal dignity; you and I may have been given poverty or riches, loneliness or popularity, instead. But what is universally true is Mordecai’s question. Who knows? Perhaps we are each are where we are—with the gifts we have and those we don’t—for just such a time as this.
Now, I am not often mistaken for a stunningly beautiful Persian Queen, but I am convinced that God has placed me where He needs me, and that everything we have and everything we wish had, is part of a divine plan. As Paul says in Romans 8:28, “All things work together for good.” But the covetous will not notice. This leads to another observation about coveting. The coveted objects are not necessarily sinful. There is nothing wrong with having a wife, or an ox, or a donkey. In fact, coveting is perhaps most tempting, or at least most easily self-justified, when we covet truly honorable things.
When I was eleven years old, my mother died of cancer. That was seventeen years ago now, but if I am to be truly honest with myself and with you, I would admit that I really have not outgrown my sense of loss one bit. Young adulthood is full of moments that remind me. My wedding, the birth and blessings of my daughters, my college graduation, my sermons, Christmas, this festival, in every grand event I notice her absence. A painting of my mother hangs in my daughters’ bedroom. My wife and I tell our daughters who it is, Grandma Ginger, Daddy’s mommy, and that she lives in heaven. One day my three-year-old Lanéa walked up to me and said, “I miss Grandma Ginger, I want Grandma Ginger to visit.” Oh, I want her to visit too. How dare God rob me of my mother, how dare God rob my beautiful daughters, my nieces and nephews of their Grandma Ginger.
Just last week, I saw a Facebook photo of a fellow seminarian’s children snuggling their grandmother before the flight home at the end of Christmas break. To my friend’s family, this was a sad moment, but all I saw was happiness, and I looked at the picture teary-eyed, and honestly, covetously. I could not rejoice for my friend, because I was mourning for myself. I covet mothers and those who have them. Even in the miraculous story of Jesus at the wedding at Cana, I covet Jesus. How I wish my mother would boss me around when I am thirty.
One warm summer night in Sonoma, California, hundreds of teenagers filed out of a dance at a church youth conference where I was a counselor supervisor. As the dance hall emptied, a frantic counselor ran up to me and said, “Jonathan, only you can help.” A girl in her group, a fifteen-year-old, had just been called by her father. He was coming to take her home from the conference early. Her mother had been battling cancer for years, and the latest rounds of treatment failed. The doctors gave this sweet girl’s mother only days to live. And as much as I struggle with my own grief, as much as I covet those whose mothers are alive and well, my co-worker was right. Of all the staff at that conference that night, God had prepared me to sit by that precious daughter of God under that moonlight. To cry with her. To tell her that I understood, and that I didn’t understand. To tell her that it would not be okay—that it would suck, that it would ache more painfully than anything she had ever felt. To tell her that it would be okay, that she would emerge a stronger and more loving saint. To tell her that faith in God may no longer mean trusting He will heal your mother, but trusting He will sustain her family even when she dies. Who knows? Perhaps my life brought me to that young woman for just such a time as that.
Because friends, even in our suffering, God is good to us. Sometimes God is denying us curses that look like gifts, while pouring down gifts that feel like curses. To covet is assume we see better than God does, and to deny God’s goodness, and to deny ourselves opportunities to minister where and how God calls us to serve. To covet does not just lead to idolatry, it can be idolatry. If I see better than God, if I know what I need better than God does, I have made myself my own god. There is nothing dishonorable about an eleven-year-old boy mourning his mother, or even the twenty-eight-year-old grown son yearning for her child raising advice. But how grand was God’s vision that he took that grieving boy in 1994 Massachusetts and led him to that grieving girl in 2005 California. When we are coveting, we are not rejoicing, we are not serving. So, may God our creator, redeemer, and comforter, say, away with Satan, and may we follow Jesus by His grace and with joy, wondering always if our circumstances have prepared to serve in just such a time as this. Amen.
This sermon was prepared for December 26, 2010 at Mystic Congregational Church, UCC, in Mystic, Connecticut.
A reading from the the book of Isaiah, chapter 63, verses 7 through 9. Let’s listen for God’s Word.
I will recount the gracious deeds of the LORD, the praiseworthy acts of the LORD, because of all that the LORD has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. For he said, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely”; and he became their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. (NRSV)
The word of the Lord.
O God our loving Creator, you whose hands shaped the world, but who humbled yourself as a swaddling baby on Christmas morning, bless our reflection on your word this morning, so that your Spirit may help us draw closer to you. In the name of the holy infant child, Jesus, we pray, Amen.
Christmas is over. For most of us, the hard part—the frantic shopping, decorating, baking, cooking, entertaining—is over, or winding down, and what a miraculous relief. As the holiday decorations come down and Santa vacates the malls, we can take a deep breath and relax. Knowing that I will get a ten-month break from hearing “The Little Drummer Boy” is a cause for a small personal celebration.
But as we look back to Bethlehem, the day after Christmas was not a relief for Joseph and Mary. Impoverished newlyweds, stranded far from their hometown in a barn, snuggling a newborn baby. The halos in the paintings show a strong, cool and collected holy family, but if we accept that baby Jesus had enough humanity in him to shiver, kick, and cry like any other infant, perhaps we can imagine Joseph and Mary as giddy, as terrified as any other new parents. When all the shepherds and wisemen leave, they are alone, fleeing Israel carrying a helpless baby whose tiny hands may have once fashioned the world and whose grown hands would bear the sins of the world.
Christmas day is not the end of the story; it is a birthday, and therefore the beginning of a lifelong journey. Throughout the Christmas season, we sing triumphant songs about stars shining and choirs of angels, but after Christmas, the manger is empty, the star faded, and the angels withdrew quietly back to heaven. It would be profoundly mistaken, however, to think Christmas’s promise was anticlimatic.
When a loving God looked upon humanity’s suffering, upon our “distress,” the prophet Isaiah tells us that God “became our saviour.” I want to look carefully at his next point. We have been taught, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” Those who bring us bad news are not at fault. And the logic is sound. So sound that the prophet Isaiah gives us the logical inverse of that advice. Don’t worship the messengers either.
As loudly and frequently as we remember the visit of Gabriel or the shepherds whose watch was interrupted by heavenly hosts, those were not the most sacred moments in the Christmas story. “It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them.” A visit from an angel can be powerful and memorable, sure, but it does not save anyone. The presence of God does. And, thus the baby in his mother’s arm was a far holier moment than all that preceded it.
And that is the hope and good news the angels proclaimed. That God is with us, has humbled himself to be as the least among us, a newborn baby in a lowly family in an oppressed land, so that, in Isaiah’s words “through his love and pity [he may] redeem” us.
This all reminds me of my favourite Hebrew literary device, and don’t we all have one, the merismus. A merismus is an artistic way to say “everything” or “all” by pairing opposites. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” for example, as a way to express that God created everything in between—the oceans, the mountains. Jesus does this too, when he calls himself the “alpha and omega,” the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. He’s everything in between—beta, gamma, psi. I think God often teaches us this way, by choosing opposite examples. The miraculous birth of the Christ child was announced to lowly shepherds and noble wisemen alike, because his birth is miraculous for all.
When we think of God’s presence in our lives, most us probably have felt the warmth and stillness of God’s love most clearly in the extreme moments of life—the happiness of a newborn baby or the agony of a tragic death. That should not lead us to believe God only dwells with us in the extreme moments, the Christmases and Good Fridays, but that God’s presence can save us in all the ordinary times in between. Yesterday we rejoiced in the miraculous birth of Christ, but we shouldn’t rejoice in angelic choirs only to abandon Joseph and Mary in the next few days. Now is the time to rejoice not in Christ’s arrival, but in his presence. Merry day-after-Christmas, and may the God who arrived among us remain with us all. Amen.