Jesus the Mother Hen

Luke 13:31-35

31 At that time, some Pharisees approached Jesus and said, “Go! Get away from here, because Herod wants to kill you.”

32 Jesus said to them, “Go, tell that fox, ‘Look, I’m throwing out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will complete my work. 33 However, it’s necessary for me to travel today, tomorrow, and the next day because it’s impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’

34 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you! How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that. 35 Look, your house is abandoned. I tell you, you won’t see me until the time comes when you say, Blessings on the one who comes in the Lord’s name.”


 

The last time I was here with you, back in January, we talked about the possibilities of the then-upcoming February Special Session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. I explained our denomination’s history regarding the debate over human sexuality, the process leading up to this special General Conference, and the three plans that had been presented by the Commission on a Way Forward. It seemed that most of us in the room at that time agreed that the question of a person’s sexuality or gender expression is such a small issue in the grand scheme of our Christian faith that it is absurd how much effort, time, and money has been spent and how much deep pain has been caused by our denomination continuing to argue over it for so many decades. I could be wrong, but I sensed general consensus in the room that day that something like the One Church Plan could have been a helpful way forward to allow the UMC to move past this unproductive and frequently hurtful argument by proposing a future where we can agree to do ministry together in the name of Jesus Christ while acknowledging that we do not all believe exactly the same thing on every issue. I still think that this plan could have been a good step for our church, although it was far from perfect, but—as you probably heard or read on the national news—it was not to be. The One Church Plan was defeated by a majority vote not once but twice. Meanwhile, the Traditional Plan, which was meant to increase enforcement of biblically conservative stances on human sexuality and thereby provoke more liberal factions to leave the denomination, passed.

It is painfully frustrating that the one time that I personally can ever remember seeing the United Methodist Church featured prominently by news outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, CBS, NBC, and pretty much every other prominent outlet, the headlines and story were broadcasting to the entire world the fact that our governing body voted to approve increasingly exclusionary and punitive church laws. For atheists, agnostics, nominal Christians, or others who don’t know much about the UMC, the dominant impression they will now have of our church is that we stand so strongly against homosexuality that we want to punish clergy and bishops who act upon their conscience to marry or ordain LGBTQ United Methodists. Not the
“Open hearts, open minds, open doors” that our slogan suggests. Not that we are followers of Jesus Christ who proclaim the good news of his resurrection. Not that we love God and love our neighbors. Not that we are passionate about working with the Holy Spirit for the transformation of the world. Not that we value building meaningful relationships with fellow believers across state, national, and theological lines, in the “Catholic spirit” preached by our founder John Wesley—the belief that it is more important to take one another’s hand in the ministry of Jesus Christ than it is to agree on every detail of church doctrine.

No. We truly have much to be proud of and thankful for within our Methodist heritage, but none of that was communicated to us as local United Methodist churches or to the rest of the world by the bitter legislative process and vindictive outcome of this General Conference. Instead, what we and the rest of the world saw was a desperately broken system of governance, embroiled in deep and hurtful divisions, in which decisions were made in typical political fashion of manipulation and name calling, us vs. them, and winners and losers. The Holy Spirit was called upon in name to “do something new” and to bring unity, but in practice, people’s minds were already decided, and their hearts were unwilling to let the Spirit move. Delegates and caucuses supporting both proposals failed to open their ears to the full diversity of voices that the Holy Spirit had brought into the room.

On Monday the 25th, I felt like the breath had been knocked out of me when I heard that the One Church Plan had already been voted down in committee. I had been so sure that the Holy Spirit was going to do something big, something new, and bring us forward out of our human-made mess of debate and division. I thought the One Church Plan was the answer. And when it was defeated yet again on Tuesday, to be supplanted by the Traditional . I could see the deeply personal harm and pain this General Conference inflicted on dear friends, respected colleagues, and other United Methodists I am grateful to know. Where was God? Why didn’t the Holy Spirit do something to fix this? How could it have gotten so bad? This betrayal, this brokenness, and this despair were so hard to try to process.

But then, barely a week later, Ash Wednesday arrived. The season of Lent could not have come at a more appropriate time this year. We as United Methodists are in the wilderness—a place of fear, of isolation, of pain, and of the unknown. During Lent, Christians spend these 40 days repenting of the ways in which we have sinned, remembering Jesus’ ministry as he journeyed toward his death on the cross, and praying for discernment of how God is calling each of us to live into our callings as followers of Christ. On a corporate level as United Methodists, this means we must now look inward in a more deliberate and, dare I say, painful way than we are accustomed to. We have now seen the extreme brokenness of our humanity, of our institutions, and of our fellowship. The status quo is shattered. In fact, it has been broken for a long time, but it took this painful mess of a General Conference to force us all to see the corrupt systems that were already there. I know that, for myself, this experience has been a wake-up call.

In today’s Lenten reading from Luke, we see Jesus weeping over the city of Jerusalem. Never before have those verses had such resonance for me as they do right now: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you! How often have I wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that” (Luke 13:34). Jerusalem, or Zion, is for the Jewish people the epitome of their inheritance—the crowing glory of their identity as God’s chosen people and their spiritual home. And yet, this is also a city that has been conquered by foreign rulers, whose magnificent Temple was destroyed twice, and that holds the distinction of being the location where numerous Hebrew prophets—and later the Messiah himself—were killed. This city on a hill, the site of God’s promises to bring a new heaven and new earth, is also a place of shattered dreams and unrealized expectations; the home of hope in God is a place of .

Like Jerusalem, the United Methodist Church is deeply flawed. That is to say, they are both deeply human. This is not to say that either Jerusalem or the United Methodist Church is beyond redemption. Not with our God who is compassionate and merciful! Even in the midst of human sinfulness, Jerusalem is arguably the most religiously significant location on earth—central to three different major religions—and has produced inspiring leaders and teachings for millenia. In fact, it was at the Jerusalem Council where the early Christians made the monumental decision to welcome Gentiles into the Christian faith without requiring them to first convert to Judaism. In that historic moment, leaders responded to a divisive issue with prayerful discernment and unity rather than vitriol and division. And, like Jerusalem, the United Methodist Church today has the potential to do something different. Something groundbreaking. Even now.

In his weeping, Jesus expresses this. He longs to gather his people under his wing, just as a hen protects and nurtures her chicks. He is there, reaching out with his encompassing embrace—patiently, devotedly, inviting us to come closer. But he goes on in verse 35, saying, “you didn’t want that. Look, your house is abandoned.” We as individuals, and we as the body the United Methodist Church, have strayed. Instead of moving closer to the source of our love, nurture, strength, and our very life, we have wandered off—aimless and self-absorbed like day-old oblivious chicks who leave the safety and love of their mother’s wing. We unwittingly and unwisely put ourselves in the paths of danger, of harm, and of isolation.

But, Jesus does not end there. In the very next sentence, he provides our way back: “I tell you, you won’t see me until the time comes when you say, Blessings on the one who comes in the Lord’s name” (Luke 13:35). So when will we see Jesus, our mother hen, again? Only when we see differently: when we know where, and to whom, to look. Only when we leave our self-centered concerns behind, and turn back to the one who gave us life. Only when we look to the One and Only: the One who came to us to be closer to us than we are to ourselves. Our Way out of the wilderness is to return to the God who gave us birth. Our One, Triune, God—who took on flesh to walk among us—and who lived on earth to show us the Way of God’s kingdom that heals broken places and yields abundant, everlasting life.

When the Jerusalem Council realized the signs and wonders the Holy Spirit had done among the Gentiles, they concluded that the logical way forward was to welcome those believers gladly into the fold. While some leaders had argued that adherence to the Law was paramount, the gathered body “fell quiet as they listened” (Acts 15:12), and they discerned a different path. The Law was still important, but it was no longer the only means by which the Holy Spirit was reaching people. God’s faithful, steadfast love continued to bring life and light to the nations, but in new and unexpected ways. With their decision to refocus on the gospel through the movement of the Holy Spirit, these early Christians discovered a vitality of mission that quickly spread across the entire Roman Empire and beyond, and is still transforming lives 2,000 years later.

When John Wesley stumbled his way into founding the Methodist movement in 18th-century England, he was fighting against the same institutionalist tendencies that challenged the inclusion of Gentiles in the early church and that have caused such strife in the United Methodist Church today. When Christianity, a Spirit-filled movement of followers of a persecuted homeless rabbi in a rural town in an occupied state, became instead the religion of empires and the dominant force in the European political system, the church lost sight of the One who had started it all. The more we as humans fall into thoughtless routine and build up habits, or—even more so—build up wealth and power, the more we tend to forget where we came from. We forget that our Savior was born in a stable, to an unwed teenage mother. We forget that our Lord and Teacher challenged the status quo with every sermon, that he consistently dined with sinners, touched outcasts, and broke with tradition and Law to heal on the Sabbath.

Similarly, our founder John Wesley pushed the institutions of the church to take stock of what they were really doing. Who was being ministered to? Who was NOT being ministered to? Who was being called to preach? Whose voices were being silenced? Through his commitment to follow the Spirit’s call, even when doing so angered church authorities, his and his colleagues’ work gave rise to a movement that flourished in England, in America, and has now spread out and become an influential global church.

And yet, with that influence has come the ever-present human sin of pride, forgetting where we came from. Those in power within the UMC today have failed to look to the margins, to follow the example that Jesus demonstrated so decisively in his ministry. United Methodists from both the Traditional and One Church Plan camps fell victim to the hubris of power and privilege, assuming that our opinions were best and right and would have to win out.

Left out of the discussion were those for whom this entire debate hits straight to the heart: those LGBTQ United Methodists who grew up in this church, were formed and called in this church, were wounded by this church, and yet inexplicably could not shake the Spirit’s calling to remain in this church. For four days, hundreds of delegates from around the world gathered—only a handful of whom were themselves LGBTQ—to debate and vote on a world stage whether or not our LGBTQ siblings in Christ are worthy enough to be equals in our church. The results of that vote rang out with a resounding, “No, you are not worthy.” The passionate voices of these LGBTQ people, quite literally on the margins in multiple senses of the word, were drowned out both by legislative rules and by a devastating lack of commitment on the part of leaders who claim to be allies (such as myself) to intentionally engage their perspectives throughout the entire process.

So where does that leave us? Our denominational system, our legalistic governance, have lost sight of the Holy Spirit who gave our movement birth. As Jesus said to Jerusalem, “your house is abandoned.” The house, the walls and doors and ladders that we have built—those are human creations. The Holy Spirit, who brings the Incarnate Christ into our midst 2,000 years after he walked this earth, does not dwell inside these walls. But when we lift our gaze up, and look out beyond our walls and borders, our lines in the sand, we see something new. “Blessings on the one who comes in the Lord’s name.” It cannot be about power, or status, or wealth. It cannot even be about absolutist views of right and wrong.

This moment, for us as followers of Christ in the United Methodist Church must be about One thing, and One thing alone: our Lord, Jesus Christ. If we are not looking to Jesus, we are lost. Nothing else can support us; all other ground is sinking sand. But in Jesus Christ, led by the  Holy Spirit, we can be the chicks who hear their mother hen’s coo in the wind and return to dwell within the warmth and safety of her wings.

In the words of the Psalmist for today, “I have asked one thing from the Lord—it’s all I seek—to live in the Lord’s house all the days of my life” (Psalm 27:4a). May it be so. Amen.

 

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Staying Alive, or Living?

Text: Matthew 6:25-33

Yesterday, I was up in the Cities for the memorial service of my mom’s mom, my last living grandparent. My Grandma Carol was very much her own unique person, as strong-willed and fiercely independent as they come. I will always remember her for her tell-it-like-it-is comments, her matter-of-fact approach to life, her lifelong love of sewing and providing alterations for people’s clothing, and—most recently—the sparkle in her eyes as she enthusiastically played marbles with my son at my parents’ house less than a month ago. Saying goodbye to her has been a bit surreal—the end of an era for me—an era of having my grandparents’ generation just a phone call or a drive away. I don’t know that I’ve fully processed that change yet, but I do know how thankful I am that I was able to have over 30 years of my life to know and make memories with my grandparents. But this change has also brought with it some realizations about the nature of life and death, some of which jumped out at me when I was reading today’s passage from Matthew, part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Now that Grandma Carol is no longer living on this earth with us, we as the family have to decide what happens to all her stuff. And even though she and Grandpa Bob downsized when they moved into their townhome almost 20 years ago, and she chose just select furniture and belongings when she moved into assisted living a year ago after Grandpa died, the number of physical remnants of a person’s life is still astounding. Now that she has moved on, I have a newfound appreciation for the assortment of things of hers that have found their way to my house over the last couple years, both the decorative ones like her candlesticks and the practical ones like her socks and handkerchiefs (which remind me of her even more, since she passed on her practical-mindedness so strongly to her children and, in turn, her grandchildren).

But at the same time, even an apartment full of favorite photos, mementos, furniture, and the other accoutrements of life cannot sum up who a person is. No objects can. They can help us remember, which is wonderful. They can perform useful tasks such as telling time (we have a clock in our living room now that was from my grandparents’ house). But my grandma is not in any of those things. She is in my heart and in the hearts of so many who knew her. And, more importantly, she is now together again with her beloved husband of 60 years and in the peaceful embrace of her loving God.

So when Jesus says in verse 25, “Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes?” the answer is so obvious. Of course it is! Grandma Carol’s possessions cannot contain who she was as a person, and her physical needs for food or shelter did not define her life! Food, water, shelter, and clothing keep us alive, but what gives us life? If I think back to the moments in my own life that mean the most, I can assure you that what is most powerful from those moments was not what I was wearing or what I ate that day. What I remember and treasure the most are those shared hugs, deep conversations, sights of breathtaking beauty, and feelings of boundless joy. And when I reflect on this passage, I think this is the message that Jesus is trying to get across. What gives us true life? How can we live for that, rather than be tethered to what keeps us down?

For when we allow ourselves to worry, we are blocking off our own freedom to live fully. Worrying is natural, of course; we’re human. We get afraid of things. Life is stressful. Dangers exist—all over the place. We get hurt. Money is limited. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the world and think that we have no choice but to worry. BUT, even in all that stress and fear, worrying is not the solution. When we worry, we are choosing to ignore God. When we worry, we are grabbing the reins ourselves and shouldering all the responsibility for everything that happens. Why? Why do we do that?? (I say this as someone who is totally guilty of this, too!) Why do we, instead of letting go of that pressure and stress, grip our worries tighter and tighter until we get to—or past—our breaking point? Why is it so hard to have faith?

Faith is a hard word to define in English because our language doesn’t have the adequate terminology to express it. In ancient Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written, the word “faith” was both a noun and a verb. For those of you who aren’t huge grammar nerds like I am, let me explain. In English, “faith” is just a noun: an idea, or a thing. We often use the word “believe” as the verb form of “faith,” but “believe” has its own noun form (“belief”) that is distinctively not the same thing as “faith.” To have a “belief” is like having an opinion, or a thought about something. To have “faith” is to trust. In the New Testament, we often see the verb “believe” when really the Greek word is the action form of the word “faith.” When Jesus criticizes our faith, it is not about which doctrines we intellectually agree with or not. It’s about what we do with our beliefs.

Jesus is reminding us that it’s not up to us. We don’t have to take care of everything ourselves or worry ourselves to death trying to; we do have to give up some control in order to demonstrate that our faith is something we actually put trust in. And while that is certainly easier said than done, we’re being asked for good reason. Our all-knowing, all-powerful God already knows what we need and will take care of us when we need it. As Jesus says in verse 32, “Your heavenly father knows that you need” these things (food, drink, and clothing). God’s provisions will not always look exactly like the kind of care or answers we were hoping or praying for, and it will not always be easy, but we will be provided for. If God watches over even the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, we have no reason to doubt that God is likewise watching over us, always seeing and responding to our needs.

Where it gets hard, of course, is that necessary step of letting go. Until we relinquish our grip on the reins, we are bound to follow our own paths and the very human and imperfect consequences of those paths. Worrying and toiling may indeed help us get onto the less-bad paths in life, and for that, we can be grateful. But, in our constant hurried glances this way and that on our frantic ride through life, are we not totally missing the other path?

The thing is, worrying isn’t just a drain on our mental energy and quality of life. Worrying actually prevents us from living life as it was truly intended, and from getting on the path that will take us through Spirit-filled encounters and into amazing possibilities beyond our capacity to even dream! When we worry, we fill our minds with “What if…? and imagine the worst possible outcomes. We cling to what we have and worry about losing our grip. But what good, great, important things are we not doing because we’re afraid to even look? What wondrous opportunities are we missing out on because we are too busy worrying about things that seem important at the time but matter little in the end?

When Jesus tells us in verse 33 to seek first the kingdom of God, it’s not because he wants us to ignore our physical needs. It’s because he wants to free us. He is leading us into a life of faith in which our knowledge of what’s to come may be limited, but the possibilities of God’s transformative power are limitless. When we relinquish our attempt to control every detail of our lives, we are free to ride along with the pushes and pulls of the Holy Spirit and into places and experiences that would never be possible through our own efforts alone.

To help to illustrate what this kind of life can look like, here’s a recent example from my own life, which came in the process of David and me moving here to St. James. Due to the timing of his job offer and start date, along with the complications of buying our first home, we ended up closing on a house and starting a mortgage without any sense at all that there might be a job opening for me to teach ESL in this area. We could have decided to rent instead, or waited for a different opportunity with better timing, or hoped that something would come up that would give us both job offers, but we didn’t. Our own inner sense of God’s call was too strong, that feeling was confirmed and reinforced by the community around us, and we felt certain that the Holy Spirit had something great in mind for us if we would move here. And, sure enough, about 2 months after we closed on our house, I got a call notifying me that a brand-new ESL teaching job was opening here in St. James. I applied, interviewed, got the job, and have been blown away already this year by how well my own unique skills and passions have been put to good use in this position. Making the decision to leap into this move, no holds barred, was something we did not out of worry but out of hope and trust. And this path we’re on has been astonishingly rewarding from the very beginning.

I believe that the church today, especially the American church, is at a crossroads about worrying. With demographics changing, and Christianity no longer the only major cultural force across the country, we can’t just operate the way we used to and remain relevant to the world around us. We worry about changes that might be happening or how we can adjust to changing times, but how often does that worry end up turning into a desperate look inward and backward to what we remember from the past? We so badly want to be in control, to keep things comfortable, and to be able to plan and predict what will happen next, but that’s just not how God works. We can’t know what tomorrow will hold or where the Spirit will lead; what we can know is that God will be there and that God’s plans tend not to fit into our human boxes.

Whether as a denomination, as a church, or as individuals, that can be such a hard lesson to remember. Our worries and concerns always feel so urgent, and we feel like if we just had a little more money, or a little more power, or even a little more of an ability to predict the future, we could handle things better. All along, though, we’re forgetting that we’ve taken on this burden that we don’t need to carry. The sparrows and the lilies don’t get calendars or schedules, but they live each day in expectation of sustenance. We as Christians need to learn from their example. So often we live as Christians in name only, where our daily actions, major decisions, and financial practices are in no real way distinguishable from those of other decent human beings who believe there is no God. Instead, our lives should be lived joyfully and boldly, looking forward with hope in the faith that God is on the path with us and will take care of us every step of the way.

So when it comes to running the church, whether locally or as a whole denomination, we can’t operate like we’re some corporation or even an ordinary non-profit. We’re a church: a body of Christ-followers, who walk by faith and not by sight. Unlike the secular world, we can look to the future with promise, for we know a God who has the whole world in capable, loving hands. We can take big steps that sometimes even seem crazy by the world’s standards, but we do so by following the Spirit’s lead. We can’t let our worry keep us tied town to the human viewpoint; we have to open our hearts to feel the Spirit blowing in new and different ways. It won’t always look the way we expect or even want, but we can take that step forward in faith because we know that God’s plans are so much greater than our own. We are seeking to build the kingdom of God here on earth, and that means being more concerned with whether something advances the love and life-giving Spirit of God than we are with whether that thing is risky.

Because what it all comes down to is this: What really matters? What should guide our paths? If we let ourselves be subject to worldly cares above all else, our worry will get us nowhere. We can get by day-by-day, staying alive, but we are not living the abundant Spirit-filled life that God is offering us. And in the end, all our toils and worries get us to the same place. When it comes time for our earthly lives to end, we can’t take our money, or belongings, or fame, or achievement, with us. What we can take, and also leave behind for others, is our unshakeable faith that God is with us on paths even where the road ahead is too foggy to see. We can leave a legacy of love and generosity that reaches beyond the grave, changing lives for generations to come. Faith does not mean throwing away practicality, as my Grandma Carol knew very well. But it does mean living beyond just the practical and into the unknown—trusting in the God who watches over even the lilies and the sparrows to graciously lead us into a life of abundant love wherever and whenever the Spirit calls. Amen.

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Why Christianity?

Texts: Luke 4:14-21 & 1 Corinthians 15:17-28, 54b-58 (look them up here in my favorite translation)

It doesn’t take much of a foray into the Christian literature or talking points to become clear on one thing: Churches really want members. I know it’s trite to say, but it is even more pervasive if you ever look at books aimed at pastors. Denominations and famous Christians are seemingly always talking about church growth and gaining new members, or else bemoaning the decline in church membership and participation that has hit basically all denominations in the U.S. and other Western developed nations. It’s easy to get caught up in this quagmire of statistics, comparing numbers with other churches, holding tightly to those membership rolls, and constantly worrying about how much each member or visitor can contribute to the offering plate.

Now, I don’t want to diminish the importance of things like keeping a balanced budget or getting people involved in the church. Both of those tasks are necessary in allowing the church to function at is best and do God’s work in the world. However…

The problem with these concerns is that they can just get so all-consuming. Especially for those who, like me, have the tendency to obsess over things, or whose minds race endlessly in bed at night worrying about everything instead of letting them fall asleep. We have a right to care about these logistics, because they do matter, but the degree to which we allow our concern to dictate our actions and decisions is often far more than is needed. When we spend our time with our noses in a budget and our minds on crunching numbers alone, the fact is that we miss out on a lot. Beyond the simple everyday joys of sunshine, a friendly smile, or a funny moment shared with a loved one, we miss out on something even bigger. We miss out on our miraculous God.

You see, all of that obsession with membership, or focus on financial obligation, makes us forget! We forget that God does not live in a spreadsheet. Jesus Christ is not confined to our church building. The Holy Spirit cannot be adequately expressed by some numbers on a page. When we think like this, we are committing the most human of all sins: deluding ourselves into self-reliance. We are forgetting that we are not alone in this universe. And not only that, but the God who created us—who called us at our baptism—who breathes life and strength into us every morning—is a God who takes delight in overturning human expectations!

What this means is that while church growth is wonderful, it is not the goal. The Holy Spirit’s work in this world is constant, and as ever-changing as the wind. While God is certainly building up and growing churches both here in rural Minnesota and throughout the world, that is not the sum total of what God is doing. More than just building up the church, the Holy Spirit is building the world. As Paul says in Romans 8, the whole Creation is groaning as if in labor as this entire world is being transformed into freedom and new life. And this is where we start to see a hint of the Gospel, a hint of that Good News upon which the entire church was built.

When it comes to the future of the church, or the question of membership or financial resources, or any other logistics-based discussion we tend to have within any congregation or Christian group, we have to start with the Gospel. Always. Without a gospel, we have nothing. We have no good news, no reason to be doing any of this in the first place. As Paul states in our second reading today, 1 Corinthians 15:17, “If Christ hasn’t been raised, then your faith is worthless.” He did not say, “If your church has less than 30 members, then your faith is worthless.” Or “If your budget is in the red, then your faith is worthless.” Those things do not matter in a cosmic sense, whereas Christ’s resurrection does. And indeed, the Resurrection is central to the Good News that we proclaim as Christians and as United Methodists.

If you ask me, the big question is this: “Why Christianity? Why bother being a Christian at all? What’s the point?” Or, in other words, “What is the hope upon which you stake your life?” This is the key, and this is where the Gospel comes in. If you don’t have Good News, then where does your hope come from? If your faith has no purpose, then why do you have it?

But if you do have an answer to these questions, then use it! And, while plenty of other religions in this world have many great things to offer, there are certain things that set Christianity apart. We have absolutely amazing, astounding, life-changing Good News to share with the world, and we have a Holy Spirit who is already blowing all over this earth inspiring people and bringing life into places of death and despair. We don’t need to worry about logistics, because this ministry is bigger than anything we could every plan or organize ourselves anyway! But as soon as we open ourselves up to following the Spirit’s call and proclaiming the Good News that has already changed our lives, God’s work will be done in our midst. It just might not look like we thought.

So what is this Good News? It all starts with Jesus Christ. No other religion proclaims an all-powerful, all-knowing Creator God who willingly and purposefully gave up all Divine power and knowledge in order to live as a humble, dirty, ordinary human being. We believe in God who, out of infinite love for a sinful humanity, volunteered—unbidden—to endure the indignities of human life and pain (in a time and place without indoor plumbing or developed medicine, keep in mind!). Not only that, but our omnipotent God chose to be born as a helpless infant child, of a teenage unwed mother, from a poor working-class family, in a rural town, in a country under military occupation by an invading imperial army. Could God have chosen any lower status with which to enter into our human world?

The reason this matters is that in his very being, Jesus Christ demonstrates a constant preference to always be on the side of the underdog, the unexpected, the lowly, and the needy. And all of us, along with all other human beings, all-too-often find ourselves in helpless, needy, problematic situations due to the sinful world in which we live and participate. But we can never, ever fall so low as to be beyond the loving reach of Jesus Christ—who even experienced the depths of physical and emotional suffering as he died a tortuous death on the cross. No matter what we’ve done, no matter how hopeless we feel, Jesus knows our pain and cares about us. The love of God through Jesus Christ is more powerful than even death itself.

But that’s not all! In his ministry, Jesus traveled the countryside proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God. His very existence as God-made-flesh demonstrates God’s love beyond all bounds, but his preaching shows us something else just as powerful. Have you ever stopped to think about what the kingdom of God is? In my experience, at least, it’s one of those church-y phrases that we hear so often that it loses all meaning. We know that we talk about it, but what is it really? Listen to Jesus’ words once again from our Gospel reading today, the words with which he began his public ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Because of the time and place in which Jesus chose to read these words, they should be seen as a sort of thesis statement of his entire ministry: the main point he wants everyone to understand as they witness everything else he says and does along the way.

And what is this main point? The Good News that Jesus describes here is truly a message of hope, especially for those for whom the world can feel most hopeless. God’s favor or grace is being showered on all people with abandon, but especially those whose situations are most dire: releasing prisoners from their bondage, healing those with ailments, reaching out to the poor, and bringing liberation to those who are oppressed. This is not the kind of message you can fit inside a box, and neither is it the kind of message that is confined to just to our hearts or spiritual lives. This message is real, it’s powerful, and it has legs. Jesus is telling us here that God has been watching out for us, and God is watching out for any and all who are downtrodden. And that those problems that we face in this world will not destroy us, for the Holy Spirit is already on the way to bring healing and liberation to all.

The rest of Jesus’ ministry is full of him modeling this kingdom life for all to see. He heals the sick, touches the untouchable, honors the lowly, shares bread with sinners, converses with children, and raises the dead. All the while, he speaks of loving our neighbors, of giving generously, of using our gifts to honor God. He preaches of the kingdom of God as a tiny seed that grows and grows far beyond what we could ever plan or imagine. He models a faith in God so deep that there is no occasion to worry about what to wear or even where to sleep at night. And then he walks willingly into the hands of the Roman soldiers who nail him to the cross for having dared to show allegiance to God over any human ruler. He is not concerned with practicality or risk management; he is concerned with following the Holy Spirit even into the unknown.

One might argue that in his life of teaching and preaching, Jesus isn’t all that special. After all, Christians do not have a monopoly on good deeds—far from it. He may be a great teacher and all, but some people don’t see the need to go all the way into the faith side of things. That is a valid point, and I, for one, am grateful for the multitudes of good people, dedicated charities, and passionate advocacy groups that minister to the needy and are not affiliated with Christianity. But, we must never forget that Jesus Christ is more than a great teacher. His greatest power, in fact, is not his teachings at all—great though they are. The power of Jesus Christ is his love—the very love of our all-powerful God. This love brought God into human form, and this love motivated Jesus to preach and live out the life-giving Good News of the kingdom of God. This love died on the cross for us and all people, and this love is with us in the deepest and darkest of moments of human misery. Others may try to change the world for humanitarian reasons, but they do not have what we have: an undying, unwavering hope in a God who will never leave our side and who will always come out on the side of life.

We know this because even after dying on the cross, Jesus is raised to new life! The Resurrection is the culmination of God’s constantly-present transformative power to bring life where there was none. Death itself has been defeated, and nothing can stand in the way of this transformation. We have already received this foretaste of the New Creation in which all wars will cease, there will be no more tears, and we all will stand at the banks of the river of the water of life. And now, with Christ ascended into heaven, the Holy Spirit is upon the Church as the body of Christ here on earth to bring abundant life to the poor, to bring unfettered life to the captives, to bring technicolor life to the blind, and to bring peaceful life to the oppressed. It is not up to us—by God’s grace—but we have the astonishing privilege of not only receiving this promise for ourselves but also being a part of God’s ministry to all the world. As we allow ourselves to be guided by the Spirit’s mysterious presence, we will find that the fruits of new life we will witness are far beyond whatever we are able to actually sow. And there’s no need to try to keep a tally sheet; the fruit is rich and abundant!

Jesus Christ has changed my life. I’m not one of those people who hears God’s voice audibly speaking to them, but I am utterly convinced that God is here. I have seen the power with which Christ has transformed people’s lives, I have felt the mystery of having said things that didn’t seem to come from me, and I have witnessed—time and time again—the ways in which God has guided me through life on paths I never would have predicted or chosen for myself but that yield amazing things I could never even dream of.

For me, this is the Good News. When I think about the future of the church, this is what I think of. I think about how much I have personally felt and witnessed to the power of God’s transformation in my life, and I wait with bated breath to see how the Holy Spirit will move the church to bring that life-giving transformation to more and more people. It’s not about a church roster or budget or building or name. It’s not even about denominational loyalty (I have numerous close friends who are passionate clergy in several different denominations, including my husband!). But what really matters, what draws us all together as Christians, is that we follow Jesus Christ. We follow our ineffable, almighty God in feeble human flesh who brought us the greatest Good News of all: a love that is more powerful than death, that brings a peace that passes all understanding. Love wins, and in the end, no matter the journey, it ends with life. Amen.

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The Powerful Diversity of Pentecost

Text: Acts 2:1-21

Last August, I had the unbelievable opportunity to spend a week in Switzerland with my family to celebrate my sister’s wedding to her Swiss husband. My parents were there, my sister and her husband were there, his whole family and all of their friends were there, and of course my own husband and toddler came along as well. We had a fabulous trip that I will treasure for the rest of my life. If you ever get the chance, I highly recommend you travel to Switzerland, as it is a country of simply outstanding beauty! While it is a shame to live so far from my sister, I am not at all sad to think that we’ll need to arrange some more trips out there in the future to visit!

One of the coolest perks of traveling outside of the United States, in my opinion, is experiencing how well-developed so many other countries’ public transportation systems are. Having lived in Europe myself for a year in high school, I really miss the convenient, timely, clean, and affordable non-car transportation options Europeans enjoy—a wide range of trains, buses, and even streetcars. As we were riding the streetcar from the wedding reception back to our hotel one hot August night, my husband and I, with our toddler on my lap, had an unexpected and delightful experience. We were minding our own business, mostly trying to keep the toddler occupied since it was past his bedtime, and speaking in hushed tones because we (well, I’ll speak for myself here, I) felt self-conscious as English speakers in a multilingual city where the dominant language was Swiss German. But all of a sudden, we noticed some familiar words and phrases drifting our way from a man and woman talking in some nearby seats. They were speaking English, too!

The city where we were, Zürich, is a multilingual place with lots of international students, workers, and immigrants from around the world. Finding other people who can speak English there is no challenge at all, but finding other people whose first language is English is a little more unusual. So when we realized that we had something in common with these two people, we excitedly started up a conversation. In no time, we found ourselves immersed in a discussion of multiple nerdy topics, including linguistics and even the good old Upper Midwest! It turned out that they were both grad students in Zürich. The man was from the U.K., and the woman was actually from Iowa! There we were, sitting on this unpopulated Zürich tram car and feeling like we didn’t belong, when all along there were these two fellow travelers just a few feet away with common interests, a common language, and a common enjoyment of friendly intellectual banter. When the time came for them to get off at their stop, I actually felt a little bit sad to have to say good-bye. But as I watched them leave, I felt a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to cross paths for that brief time and to discover meaningful connections across the world that I never would have expected. That simple connection of two strangers speaking my language made for the perfect end to a spectacular day.

Today’s passage from Acts is the classic Pentecost text, so in some ways it’s hard to find new ideas to preach about. We hear it every year around this time. The disciples are gathered, the Holy Spirit descends upon them, there are tongues of flame, people speak in all kinds of languages, blah blah blah. Yeah, it’s pretty cool and all, but we’ve heard it before. You’d think the story would get old. But actually, when I read through it this week, I could not believe the number of things that jumped out at me that I wish I had time to talk about. This text is so rich with meaning that it will never stop teaching us something new—which is very fitting, considering the subject it is about: the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is, as my husband likes to tease me about, my favorite member of the Trinity. It’s worth teasing about because the Trinity is really both Three in One and One in Three, so preferring one out of the three isn’t really possible… but I still kind of do. I just can’t help but feel inspired (pun intended) when I think about the Holy Spirit. To me, the Spirit is like the fresh, relevant, activist side of God who works nonstop to put in the sweat and time to get things done in every nook and cranny of this world. Now a quick side-note: as God, the Holy Spirit has no gender, but I personally prefer to use female pronouns to give her a more personal sense and feel more closely connected to her.

If you look in the text of Acts 2, the Holy Spirit shows up almost immediately in the form of a fierce wind filling the entire house where the twelve disciples are sitting. The Spirit can be a still small voice or a subconscious nudging, which is more how I have experienced her, but sometimes she can be loud and powerful. The Spirit lit flames of fire above each person, and suddenly they found themselves speaking God’s message in languages they didn’t even understand! All the people around them there in Jerusalem were shocked to hear this multilingual preaching coming at them so clearly and simultaneously, yet from a decidedly non-diverse, non-multilingual group of people. As it is today, the city of Jerusalem at that time was a hub for believers from many different nations, gathered together to share in their common faith in spite of their different nationalities and native languages. So the fact that this diverse crowd (there are 15 different groups mentioned in the text!) could all hear this same message being preached, in spite of their differences, is exactly the kind of thing the Holy Spirit does.

She bridges gaps where human effort alone falls short. She opens hearts that were otherwise closed. And she brings life into places of darkness and destruction. On that day in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit reversed the consequences of the Tower of Babel—that moment early on in Genesis when God took away people’s common language in order to prevent their all-too-human pride and greed from wreaking havoc in the world. At Pentecost, the Spirit poured into, through, and out of the disciples to remove those previous linguistic barriers that so often divide people.

Before I go on, I feel compelled to mention the fact that Jerusalem has been on the news a lot this past week. For years—basically continuously since Old Testament times—Jerusalem has been the site and subject of spiritual and political conflict. This conflict has been heightened as of late, and on Tuesday, a tragic 60 Palestinian protesters and journalists, almost all of whom were teenagers or young adults, were killed in a demonstration directly related to the question of who should control the city of Jerusalem. The fact that so much violence and harm is being done regarding and on behalf of Jerusalem, even today, after all these years, highlights the brokenness of our human condition and the level to which worldly forces continue to divide us from our fellow humans, our fellow children of God. But this division, this harm, this violence and force, is not the way of the Holy Spirit.

The good news is that the Holy Spirit breaks into our broken, divided world and opens up unforeseen possibilities. As we see in the story of Pentecost, she takes a group of a dozen probably-illiterate rural Galileans and uses them to shake up the whole metropolitan city of Jerusalem, bringing with her a sweeping new reality in which the old divisions are no longer relevant. The people on the streets of Jerusalem that day may have thought of themselves as Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, or the rest, but in that moment—as they all heard the same message delivered in their own diverse languages simultaneously—they were united. United as listeners. United as fellow witnesses of a world-changing moment in history. United as recipients of this incredible gift of the Holy Spirit. United as people, each one called by God into relationship. Because that’s what this message from the Holy Spirit is all about.

The message that this multinational, diverse crowd heard that morning was, in the words of verse 11, “the mighty works of God.” And for good reason; it was the story of Jesus Christ. What could be mightier than the story of God, humbly dwelling in human flesh, courageously facing a tortuous death on behalf of all humanity, then rising from the grave to victory and defeating the powers of death forever?! We can even see a little later in the chapter, past where today’s reading ends, that the message in Peter’s sermon hits its climax with this proclamation: “This Jesus, God raised up!” (v. 32).

By enabling the disciples’ tongues and lips to speak languages they didn’t even know, the Holy Spirit brought this powerful message of Resurrection—of redemption—of new life out of death—of hope—into a new era. It was no longer just a message for Jesus’ compatriots or his fellow Galileans. It was no longer just a message for other speakers of Aramaic, the language of that region at the time. It was no longer just a message for the Jewish people. The Holy Spirit broke in to that moment to break the good news out to the world. And in that moment, the church was born.

And one of the most amazing things, to me, is the beautiful diversity in our very birth. This day of Pentecost was a shining example of unity in spite of difference. The Holy Spirit brings unity in a different way from how we human beings tend to do it. So often, we assume that to be united, we have to be the same. That to join together, we have to assimilate. That to unite, we have to agree in our beliefs, or like the same things, or have the same backgrounds, or speak the same languages. But we don’t! The hearers of the Spirit’s message that day in Jerusalem did not have to speak the same language in order to be a part of this unified body. Through God’s miraculous and creative power, the Holy Spirit builds up relationships and unions that are grounded in this world’s marvelous diversity. We don’t have to lose ourselves to become one with the other, and others don’t have to lose themselves to become one with us. The Spirit works in diversity and through diversity to produce amazing results beyond what we could ever create through the limits of our own tendencies to group like with like.

Even in our serendipitous encounter with those two other English speakers on the tram that night back in August, it was—in essence—diversity that brought us together. If we had all been riding on a train in the United States or even in England, I can’t really imagine we would’ve ever started a conversation with them. And yet, over the muffled zooming of the electric streetcar and the sounds of distant chatter and laughter that night, we heard the words of our native language calling through the din. The homey-ness of those familiar words in the midst of that unfamiliar and foreign place brought forth a connection out of the contrast. Likewise, the Holy Spirit is flexible enough, creative enough, powerful enough, and persistent enough to call out to all of our hearts in whatever language we need to hear. The Spirit’s call may (and probably will) be shocking at times, and sometimes unwanted, but when it comes, it hits home. And this is because the Spirit is not limited by our human mindsets, our finite experiences, our knowledge of words or languages, or even our divisions. Ever since time immemorial, the Holy Spirit has been breathing into us and our fellow human beings the words of life.

As Peter exhorts the crowed following these amazing proclamations in all different languages, he quotes the Old Testament prophet Joel: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy. Your young will see visions. Your elders will dream dreams. Even upon my servants, men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (vv. 17-18). No one is excluded—not the young people, who have not yet attained their full status in society; not the elderly, whose power is waning; not the women, whose rights and social standing were minimal compared to men in those days; not even the slaves, who are the lowest of all. When it comes to the Holy Spirit, all are welcome and all are included. All can receive the Spirit into their hearts, and all can prophesy. In the Holy Spirit, our awesome, almighty, ineffable God has come down to us and is so close that she is the very air we breathe. When we long for connection and feel like God is far away, the Holy Spirit is right. here. The power of a God who loved us so much that, in Jesus Christ, he died for us and rose again is right. here. Breaking into our hearts, into this church, into this community, into this country, and all throughout the world. She is already working tirelessly to inspire more people to breathe in that love and power and join her in the transformative mission of building God’s beautiful kingdom of justice, unity, and diversity in every place.

Amen.

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Why Be a Christian?

“I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” –Genesis 12:2

Lately, I’ve realized something about myself: I’m a great evangelist. I mean this literally. The word “evangelist” comes from the Greek word for “good news” and is the term for a person who spreads good news far and wide. In my case, I am fantastic at excitedly sharing with other people the good news in my life. I love to tell people about the latest discovery I’ve made that has made my life better—a new food or recipe I love, a new favorite store to shop at, a certain exercise or training program that has helped me, a favorite gadget that makes life easier, the newest album or TV show that I’m obsessed with… the list could go on and on! And yet, what is conspicuously missing from this list of ways that I evangelize?

My faith.

This is not to say that I never talk about God with people. But the more I reflect on it, the more I see that I do so much of this non-God-related evangelism that my lack of Christian evangelism is, well, concerning. Why is it so much harder to tell people the good things that my faith does in my life than it is to talk about some gadget or TV show?

And I think I have the answer—or at least part of it. With all those other things, they are easy to define. It’s easy to explain to people exactly what it is I like about them, and to describe exactly what they do. They’re concrete. They’re limited. They don’t require me to open up about my inner self, my deepest emotions, or my dreams. I can tell people all about them without needing to bare my soul.

In contrast, my faith is much harder to put into words. It’s also impossible to adequately describe without letting down my guard and sharing with people my hopes, my dreams, my feelings, and my struggles. And yet, if my faith is truly something life-changing and important to me, I should be just as ready to evangelize about that as I am about all those lesser things. So the question becomes:

Why Christianity? What is it about my faith that makes it life-changing after all? Why do I do it? Why go to church? Why read the Bible? Why bother praying, or volunteering, or giving, or any of it?

The answer to those questions will be different for every Christian. I encourage you to spend some time thinking about them for yourself, because only then will you be able to articulate what the “good news” is in your life and why it’s worth telling other people about in the first place. For me, here’s how I would answer:

My faith is life-changing because it gives me a purpose that keeps me grounded throughout the ups and downs, the stresses and challenges, of day-to-day life. My relationship with God is a steady anchor for me when the world feels like it’s spinning out of control. I can always find comfort and peace in knowing that God is there and that God’s love and care for me will never stop. And when my to-do list is sky-high or I feel bombarded with bad news, I can always cling to the hope I have that God is constantly at work bringing life and goodness out of every bad situation. Beyond just my own peace of mind, though, being a Christian changes my life because it helps me live in line with a greater purpose. I don’t have to spend my lifetime seeking earthly sources of happiness, because there is far greater joy in knowing that what I do makes a difference. I chose the above verse from Genesis for this article because it has always spoken strongly to me; my sense of my own relationship with God is very much like this statement from God to Abraham. God’s blessing in my life is precisely that God allows and equips me to go out and make a difference in spreading blessing to others. When I make my decisions prayerfully and follow God’s lead, I feel an unparalleled sense of fulfillment because I can see how God is multiplying my humble efforts so that they have a greater impact than I could ever manage if I tried to go my own way. The decisions I’ve made in my life that have had the greatest sense of God’s “call” or leading have—without exception—been the most fruitful, amazing, and rewarding. Even though I don’t talk about it often enough, my faith in God is by far the best “thing” in my life, and the most worth sharing!

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Formless and Void (Sermon on Genesis 1:1-2:4a)

Text: Genesis 1:1-2:4a

From when I first started reading them at age 12 until Book 7 came out when I was 19, I was—to put it mildly—a tad bit obsessed with Harry Potter. I often spent my free time theorizing about what would happen in the next book or comparing interpretations and predictions with other Potter fans. I daydreamed about attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and I made myself a costume so I could dress up as Hermione Granger for the Book 7 midnight release party at Barnes and Noble. I almost wish I could say otherwise, since it’s so corny and unoriginal to say this, but the Harry Potter series is my favorite book series—and I’ve read a lot of books. But they are wildly popular for good reason: in addition to the incredibly well-developed characters, fascinating storyline, and fun magical world, these books speak powerfully about real life.

As does all good literature, the Harry Potter series explores themes about the human experience and brings to light the ways people feel, think, and act, and the consequences of those actions. Seeing something happen in a fictional story can help us better understand our own lives because we can analyze and understand the fictional example and then apply those lessons to ourselves. We do the same thing when we read any text, including the Bible itself: one aspect of biblical interpretation is looking for the messages that the scriptural stories can teach us about life, God, and ourselves.

In the case of Harry Potter, it’s not surprising that there are infinite topics one could analyze through the lens of these books, since the seven books together total 4,100 pages in the U.S. editions. That’s a lot of material to work with! However, today I want to focus on just one topic, from Book 7: The Deathly Hallows. (This is my favorite of the books, by the way, followed by 6, then 4, but who’s keeping track?) Since it’s been almost exactly 10 years since this book came out, I won’t worry about spoilers—although I do maintain that if you haven’t read these books yet, they’re still very much worth reading!

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, we find our main character, Harry, in his worst situation yet—and he has been through a lot in these past 6 years. You see, Harry is known as “The Boy Who Lived” and even “The Chosen One” because he is the only person in the Wizarding World to have ever survived the killing curse cast by the powerful evil wizard Lord Voldemort. Harry’s parents died in the attack that he survived, at age 1, and Voldemort seemed to die (or at least disappear) in the attempt. Orphaned and living with his neglectful relatives, Harry had no idea of his own backstory until he turned 11. Ever since then, though, Harry has had to fend off attacks from a returning Voldemort and his increasingly bold followers, eventually learning of a prophecy that indicates it is he and he alone who must defeat this dark wizard once and for all.

As if that weren’t enough stress for a teenager, at the beginning of The Deathly Hallows, Harry’s whole world is crumbling. The wise and powerful Professor Dumbledore, who took a special interest in Harry and served as his mentor, guide and even father figure, is now dead. The Ministry of Magic, the wizarding government, is now completely in the hands of Voldemort’s minions, and the first order of business in this new regime is to put a price on Harry’s head. Meanwhile, innocent people are being tortured and killed, and witches and wizards who aren’t “pure blood” enough are being rounded up and robbed of their ability to use magic. And Hogwarts School, the first place in his entire life that Harry ever felt welcome and happy, is too dangerous to go back to. While on the run from the government and with the help of just his two best friends, Ron and Hermione, 17-year-old Harry faces the gargantuan task of defeating the most powerful wizard of all time, before even more innocent lives are lost.

Let’s take a moment and try to imagine what Harry is feeling. Close your eyes and let this situation sink in. Feel how your gut would react to that kind of scenario and pressure. How would it feel to have lost some of your closest loved ones, to witness rising violence and see your entire country nearing the point of catastrophe, to be separated from almost all your friends and mentors, and to singlehandedly have to try to come up with a heretofore unheard of means to bring down the most dangerous person in history?

You can open your eyes again. Maybe you felt a little bit of grit and determination there, which Harry definitely has, but it’s impossible to look at the position he’s in and not feel overwhelmed. All the pressure, the grief, the stress, the danger, the worry, the loss, the fear… If I were him, there’s a very good chance I would have collapsed on the floor in tears at the immensity of it all. The vastness of the task at hand and the utter lack of a clear way forward would likely paralyze me in fear and anxiety. It’s like standing in pitch blackness so deep that you can’t see your hand in front of your face, let alone a safe place to put your foot to take your next step. You may not have any walls or chains holding you back, but you’re totally stuck.

We all have moments like this in some way or another, and they can be debilitating. Maybe things were fine, but something happened to stop us in our tracks. Or maybe things were just hard to begin with, and the fatigue sets in such that we feel like we can’t keep going. The reality is that life is not always (or even often) easy. Countless things can get in our way, and we can find ourselves grasping for dear life at what feels like thin air.

When I was reading our Genesis passage for this week, the second verse really spoke to me: “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep,” (Gen 1:2). The Hebrew phrase תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ (tohu va vohu) has been translated in many different ways. The NRSV calls it “formless and void,” the CEB calls it “without shape or form,” and the Message (which is actually more an interpretation than a translation) calls it “a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness.” Whichever way you choose to think of it, though, the general gist is clear. And this, I think, is what Harry was in the midst of as he set out to try to defeat Voldemort one last time. A formless void. An immense emptiness. A lack of foothold or direction. Nothing to hold on to.

This is not a foreign story in our faith, either. Only a couple months ago, we celebrated Easter. But before the joy of Easter comes the grief of Good Friday and the despair of Holy Saturday. What better example of a formless void and immense emptiness could there be than the feeling the disciples must have had on Holy Saturday? Jesus—the Messiah, their teacher and leader and friend, the one in whom they had put all their hope—was lying dead in a tomb, executed in the most gruesome, painful, and shameful way possible. These disciples had left their livelihoods, their homes, and possibly their families to follow Jesus in the understanding that he was bringing about a new kingdom that would right the wrongs of this world. And yet the Roman occupation still stood strong, and was in fact responsible for Jesus’ death! What were the disciples to think? What clearer sign of the enemy’s victory could there be than them killing your leader? Jesus—the shepherd to their sheep, the vine to their branches, the bread of life—was gone. All those promises he made of a new kingdom of God? Forget them. The disciples must have been utterly devastated and lost, trying to decide if they should try to go back to their old lives as if this never happened or if they should somehow try to continue Jesus’ ministry even though he was so disappointingly gone. After knowing the incomparable Jesus the Christ, who or what could possibly fill this enormous emptiness they were feeling?

Well, there’s one easy answer to that question. Or three answers, depending on how you look at it! As we all know, Jesus was not in fact gone forever; he rose from the dead on the third day and returned to his shocked, awestruck, and at times (understandably) doubting disciples. So in that way, Jesus himself filled the void that his absence had left. But he didn’t stay with the disciples indefinitely; after 40 days, he ascended into heaven and once again left them without his physical presence on earth. All along, of course, God was there with them hearing their thoughts and prayers, although they couldn’t always feel it. So what were they to do at that point? They found out shortly afterward. The week after the Ascension, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came down upon them and inspired them to do amazing works of power! Still today, the Holy Spirit is present throughout the world, continuing Jesus’ work of transforming the world into the kingdom of God. In other words, our Triune God is the answer to the question of who fills that void. Whether in the form of God the Father, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, or all three together, God is the one who makes empty spaces brim with possibility. God is the one who transforms the dying into the living. God is the one who breathes hope and promise into even the darkest and most expansive abyss.

If we look back at that verse from Genesis, we read that “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” That wind from God is the Holy Spirit. Even at the very beginning of Creation, the Spirit was there. And in the Spirit’s movement, life was breathed into the universe. The vast expanse of nothingness became something. And not only was it something, but it was good. It was light, it was shape, it was life, and it was abundance. The world that God created, with its incredible diversity of plants and animals, of stars and planets, and of billions of beautiful, individually unique human beings, God called “very good” (Gen 1:31). And remember, this complex, orderly, magnificent universe started out as an unruly, desolate expanse of darkness.

I think that normally when we read this passage, we tend to think of it on general terms of the Creation story and not so much on a personal level. After all, Genesis 1 is this beautifully poetic description of the creation of the whole Cosmos, and we are mere individual human beings—tiny specks in the fabric of the universe. This passage is primarily about the world’s history before humans ever entered the picture. And yet, the truths of this story are just as applicable to each of us as they are to the universe. The same God who took a vast, formless abyss of nothingness and transformed it into a splendid tapestry brimming with life is the God who loves and cares for you. The same Spirit who brought light to the universe can bring light into any and every dark situation life might throw at you.

The famous words of Psalm 23 echo this same truth: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me” (v. 4). In those dark valleys of our lives, those moments when it feels like we’re grasping at nothing but air, when the future looks as bright as an oncoming storm cloud, when all we can feel is that tohu va vohu or great emptiness… we are not alone. We are never alone. The Spirit of God who was present at Creation itself is always there, breathing life. The God who created abundance out of nothingness is standing guard over us with rod and staff. And Jesus our brother and our savior has promised, in his very last words to the disciples on the Ascension Day, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

In the case of Harry Potter, he finds these truths in the end as well, although it’s a secular fictional book so it is explained in different terms. He discovers that the answer for how to defeat Voldemort is right in front of him the whole time, in a book that Professor Dumbledore had left with him for that very purpose. And when the time comes to finally face Voldemort in battle, he realizes that he has within himself not only the strength for but also the knowledge of what he must do. (The book characterizes it as intuition, but I think it could just as easily be called the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.) The formless void is no longer formless nor void; the answers are clear, and he is not as alone as he thought! In addition to Dumbledore’s guidance that was with him even before he knew it was there, Harry finds in his most difficult moments that all of his lost loved ones are right there by his side. He realizes the way forward, and goes there in the strength given him by those who love him. And not only is he able to defeat Voldemort, but he does it through his own sacrifice rather than having to meet evil with evil and become a killer himself. There was a way where there had been no way. There was light where there had been darkness. There was hope and a new future when it looked like all was lost.

Here in the real world, we don’t have the luxury of magic wands or of happy endings in the same way as the storybooks; however, we have something even better. We have a God for whom bottomless emptiness is not a cause for fear but rather an invitation to create life! And we have a God for whom death is not the end! Our God not only conquered death once and for all in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, but our same God created the complexities of this universe and continues working through the Holy Spirit to breathe new life and possibilities into the darkest and emptiest parts of our lives and our world. Whether that be the fallout from a conflict or natural disaster, a health or relationship crisis, financial difficulties, overwhelming stress, or even the church’s transition to a new pastor, you are not alone. God has sent the Holy Spirit not only to comfort us, but to draw us forward: to be the lifeline pulling us through the darkness to safety. And when we get to the other side of the void, we can see new life emerging from the shadows. New life that is often as far beyond our wildest imagination as the entire created world is beyond a sea of nothingness! The possibilities are endless, but we can only see them if we take that step of faith in spite of the dark abyss around us. There may be nothing scarier than taking a step forward into the formless void, but we can do so in the full knowledge that the Spirit breathes life into our path and God walks with us every step of the way. Amen.

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No Need for a Sycamore Tree (Sermon on Luke 19:1-10)

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycomore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’ —Luke 19:1-10


tmp_939-2486382_e9075f4c-209931559 The story of Zacchaeus is a well-known one, especially for us short people. Ever since I stopped growing when I was in 8th grade, I’ve been able to relate at least partially to our vertically challenged main character in today’s passage from Luke. One of my most vivid memories related to my height was standing in the lunch line in high school. We were all teenagers, which means we were starving, so of course everyone was crowding as close to the front of the line as possible. Which meant standing shoulder to shoulder and heel to toe with the people beside and in front of you. Luckily, my female friends were more or less my height at the time, but the boys in our grade… not even close! They all had insane growth spurts around freshman year, so they were towering what seemed like feet above us. I distinctly remember standing next to my best friend, who was at eye level, and looking around to see nothing but boys’ t-shirts around us, since all the boys’ chins were above our heads. If I craned my neck, I could see some of their faces, but it wasn’t even worth trying to have a conversation at that angle. It was easier just to let them look over our heads and face the fact that we were basically invisible.

Being short, that is a nice advantage. It’s usually pretty easy to hide or escape notice when that’s what you want. As a naturally shy person, I’ve used this technique many times. Why draw attention to myself when doing so would mean having to worry about impressing people, whether by my appearance or wit or social skills? Much easier to quietly duck down and fade into the background. Anytime I’m not feeling particularly confident, this is a handy strategy.

Unsurprisingly, due to his short stature, Zacchaeus in our story was familiar with this strategy as well. And for good reason: he was about as unpopular of a person as you could find in ancient Judea. Zacchaeus was a tax collector, which means that it was his job to collect money from his fellow Jews to give as payment to the occupying Roman army. This “job” didn’t actually come with wages, so the only way to any kind of living doing it was to collect extra money from the taxpayers and keep some of it yourself. How much you chose to take, and from whom, was up to the individual tax collector to decide, so although it was a widely despised occupation, some tax collectors would have been more hated than others. Based on his reputation in our passage, Zacchaeus would’ve been in the “more hated” category for skimming too much off the top, since he is described as being very rich and is clearly disliked by his fellow citizens.

And so, when he wanted to get a better look at Jesus, he used a trick that he as a short man already knew: hiding. Although this time he cleverly combined it with adding height and therefore a better view: he climbed a sycamore tree. Now, sycamore trees in ancient Judea were a type of fig tree with wide, dense, fairly low branches. Those low branches would’ve made the perfect hiding spot for a small person to get a couple yards off the ground but stay concealed so as to avoid notice. His hiding didn’t work out quite as he planned, but we’ll get into that part later.

When most people hear the story of Zacchaeus, I think we tend to think of him either as this funny, bumbling man—probably due to that silly children’s song about the “wee little man”—or else as this worst-of-the-worst sinner who is just lucky that Jesus was so nice to him. I don’t know that we necessarily read the story and automatically put ourselves in Zacchaeus’s place. But when I read this passage this week, that was how it hit me. No, I may not be the “worst of the worst” as a sinner—I can certainly name some terrible sins that I haven’t committed, including the extortion that Zacchaeus was guilty of—but that does not make me innocent.

Yes, Zacchaeus took more money than he should have, and did so at the expense of his fellow Judeans. But, the very nature of his job required that he take some if he wanted any money at all to live on, and it’s hard not to get a little carried away when looking out for your own interests. How many of us could say for certain that we wouldn’t do the same in that situation, or at least take a little bit extra? I don’t think I, for one, could say that with 100% certainty. The truth is that our world is complicated. The systems in which we live and participate are corrupt, just as the system that produced Zacchaeus’ job as a tax collector was corrupt. We participate in sinful patterns and systems on a daily basis as we purchase clothing or food that was produced by workers paid less than a living wage, as we reap the benefits of not being discriminated against based on our skin color—or as we live on land claimed for “free” by our white ancestors after it was taken forcefully away from its Native American inhabitants. Not all of our actions are necessarily malicious, evil, or even sinful in themselves, but that does not mean that we are free from the burden and consequences of this sinful world around us. And that doesn’t even get into the everyday actions we do that are sinful, some large and some small: letting loose harsh words about a family member, coworker, or neighbor; selfishly taking something for ourselves when we know someone else wanted or needed it more; or pretending not to see the person in need whom we could have chosen to help. We are all sinners, plain and simple. And the more we stop to think about our sins, the more ashamed we feel. And the more shame and guilt we feel, the more and more tempting it is to hurry to the nearest sycamore tree and find a good hiding spot.

As Zacchaeus was sitting there up in the tree, he was trying to get an unobstructed view of Jesus. Jesus, this famous traveling rabbi known for his compelling teachings, happened to be in town, and for whatever reason, Zacchaeus really wanted to see him. I imagine it was because he had heard such amazing stories of this teacher: of the healings he had performed, the cryptic parables he would share, and the quotable sayings he originated. Jesus had a magnetic personality and drew people to him, and Zacchaeus was not immune to that pull. The truth is that no one is—that “pull” is the loving presence of God made flesh and dwelling in our midst. A whole crowd had already gathered to see Jesus walk by, and Zacchaeus had a good view of the proceedings from his tree branch, safely shielded by the leaves from anyone seeing such a high-ranking official doing something as undignified as sitting in a tree. Or so he thought.

Suddenly, when Jesus arrived at Zacchaeus’s tree, he stopped! No one else had noticed this little man sneak up the tree, since the crowd was so focused on Jesus and since Zacchaeus had run ahead so that he wouldn’t be seen. But Jesus saw him. And not only did he see him, but he really saw him. He saw him for who he was—for his self-conscious desire to hide, for his many sins, for his social isolation due to everyone’s hatred toward him—but also for his goodness. Jesus saw the goodness in Zacchaeus that no one else had noticed. No one else had believed it existed or had cared to even look for it. No one, not even Zacchaeus himself! But Jesus, this seeming stranger and famous teacher from another town, could see all of this in just one instant. He looked at Zacchaeus, peering through those sycamore branches, and he loved him. And seeing short, despised, Zacchaeus hiding in that tree, Jesus said to him, “Come down at once. I must stay in your home today!” (v. 5). What a shock that must have been!

This is where everything changes. Zacchaeus had planned to stay hidden, but now he was the center of attention. He had planned just to watch, but now he was being called to action. He had assumed that he was unqualified to do anything related to Jesus’ visit, but now he was being asked to contribute in a way that he could certainly manage. He had expected to be despised, but now he was given the greatest honor of all: being the one person chosen to host this renowned rabbi during his one-night stay in Jericho.

And it’s amazing the transformation that happened within Zacchaeus in that moment. Immediately, he jumped down from his branch and welcomed Jesus. The love and respect Jesus had for Zacchaeus instantly extinguished Zacchaeus’s nerves about being seen in the tree. But even more miraculously, Jesus’ loving treatment awakens a desire in Zacchaeus to be a better man. Without any prompting whatsoever—without judgment, knowing glances, demands, or even requests—Zacchaeus decides that it is time to change his life. He declares right then and there that he will change his ways. He will give half of his belongings to the poor, and he will repay anyone that he has cheated with four times as much. Wow! That is not the same man who until this day was cheating his neighbors in order to store up extravagant wealth for himself.

The text doesn’t say so, but I have no doubt in my mind that upon hearing this, Jesus burst into a huge smile. This kind of transformation is exactly what his ministry is about; it’s exactly what God’s love does and what God intends for the world. Turning from bad choices to good ones, from broken relationships to life-giving kinship, from greed to generosity, and from scarcity to abundance. On that day, through Jesus’ invitation, Zacchaeus discovered his God-given potential to do good in the world, embraced it, and was welcomed into this new life with celebration. As the crowds around him grumbled with jealousy at this sinful tax collector receiving such high honor, Jesus ignored the negativity and proclaimed with joy, “Today, salvation has come to his household” (v. 9). This man whom others looked down upon for his sinful lifestyle, and who was self-aware enough to know his own failings and hide from the hostile eyes of the crowd, was never too sinful or too hated or too invisible for Jesus not to see and love him. The love of God emanating from Jesus penetrated through the leafy branches of the sycamore tree and directly into Zacchaeus’s heart, opening him up to his inherent goodness as it pushed away the selfish desires of sin. God’s love is not just for the righteous, or the well-put-together. It is for sinners. It is for us.

And when we allow God’s love in, astonishing things happen. Like the spouse whose love and presence drives you to be a better person when you’re around them, like the coach who knows just how to teach and motivate you to constantly improve, the Holy Spirit works within us to bring out the very best in us and works alongside us to multiply our efforts beyond what we could achieve ourselves. We need not let our guilt and shame burden us any longer; Jesus knows all about it and does not judge us for it. His love for us is not an ignorant love; it is all-knowing but also powerful beyond measure. He loves us because he knows exactly who we are, our very best and our very worst. And he chooses to shower us with that love in the hope that we can embrace our own best and live into the amazing potential that God has created us for. Zacchaeus was not meant to live out his days as a hated tax collector. Instead, he through his transformation has become an inspiration for countless Christians over two millennia and counting. We have our failings, and will continue to fall short, but that is not all we are. We are also beloved children, created by God out of love and precious in God’s sight.

So when we have those days, or those moments, when we wallow in our own sin—when we feel sorry for ourselves, think that we don’t deserve love, or feel hopelessly lost—we can take heart. Jesus says specifically that he came “to seek and save the lost” (v. 10). Jesus doesn’t love us for our perfection, because that’s not who we are. He loves us for our broken, but beloved, selves—for the goodness in our hearts even when shadowed by guilt and sin, and for the powerful potential we each have within us to be his hands and feet spreading love in this world that he came to save. And when we accept that love and allow ourselves to believe and relish in its goodness, we are transformed. We can take a stand for what’s right. We can give more than we thought we could afford. We can reach out to the people who are different from us. We can make a positive difference in spreading the good news of God’s love.

Like Zacchaeus, sometimes we feel so ashamed that we want to hide from God’s love, but the good news is that Jesus will not hold our past against us. Out of love, he died on the cross and freed us from the bondage of sin so we can face the future with hope. Like Zacchaeus, sometimes we worry that we’re not talented enough or experienced enough to be able to do the work God has set in front of us, but the good news is that we don’t do it alone! The Holy Spirit is empowering our every breath, guiding our steps and our hands to serve the needs of the world.

So let us take those steps, accept that love in our hearts, and look ahead with courage and confidence into a future brimming with possibility. Jesus, our Savior, has seen us as we are and loves us, and he is reaching out with a hand and a smile to allow us to experience something new. We, the lost, have been found, and the burdens of our old life need no longer weigh us down. With Jesus inviting us and the Holy Spirit empowering us, we can experience the incomparable life of faith made even more abundant as we learn to share and spread Christ’s love near and far. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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