Not Abandoned

Monday, 17 April 2023

Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

16 April 2023

I. A Pentecost Sermon

  • The setting for this text is Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost – after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the friends and followers of Jesus gathered together, the group goes out into the streets of Jerusalem proclaiming their praise of God
  • You remember the story – there are Jews from all over the Diaspora in the city to celebrate the festival of Pentecost, and as the Jesus people flow out into the city streets proclaiming the good news, all the people hear the proclamation in their own languages
  • This creates no little confusion among the hearers – rather than assume the problem is theirs, the hearers instead blame the speakers, saying that the speakers are filled with new wine
  • This prompts Peter to speak up – ever ready with something to say in the Gospels, in this case, his speech becomes the first sermon of a new era, the era of the Spirit
  • In the first part of the sermon, Peter the preacher disputes the idea that the Jesus people are drunk – he informs the people of Jerusalem who are listening that these followers of Jesus are not drunk on wine but filled with God’s Holy Spirit
  • Our part of the sermon deals with the gift of the Spirit, the coming of whom is all part of God’s plan for the Good News
  • Peter begins with Jesus, of course, but we have to be careful about taking him too literally – he appears to blame the Jews and Romans for Jesus’ death – but let us not forget that Peter and all the disciples were Jews, too, and if he is blaming the Jews and the Romans, at least some of that blame has to fall on himself and his companions
  • He also says that all of what he blames Jews and Romans for is part of God’s plan, that it all happened with God’s foreknowledge
  • I do not want to go too far into the weeds with this, but I have said many times before that God did not require Jesus’ death – I would add that I do not think that God wanted Jesus to die as he did – Jesus’ death was the work of the religious and political powers of his day – human beings required Jesus’ death
  • We should not be surprised at this – this is the way of nations and empires – when there is a dissenting voice, nations and empires act to silence that voice – in the case of Jesus, the religious leaders agreed that it was better for them that one man should die than lose the nation (John 11.50) – they all make the assumption that getting rid of Jesus would get rid of their Jesus problem
  • The wonder and miracle of Easter is that God took that horrible thing that humans perpetrated and turned it around, undid it, by means of the resurrection – the resurrection is God saying “No” to the ways of nations and empires – the nation and the empire said to kill Jesus, and God says, “no” – among the wonders that God works in and through Jesus is the wonder of overcoming death – death is not the last word in God’s plan – the last word is life
  • Peter uses some slippery logic and questionable interpretation to try to demonstrate that the crucifixion and resurrection had been part of God’s plan, maybe from the beginning – Peter refers to several of the psalms, which he assumes that David composed, to show that God did not abandon Jesus – to show that leaving Jesus in the tomb was simply not an option
  • I would agree that leaving Jesus in the tomb was not an option, but I think that rather than it being God’s plan all along, it was God at work to demonstrate, once again, the meaning of Emanuel – God is with us – God would not leave Jesus in the tomb because God never abandoned Jesus
  • Raising Jesus from death then becomes the path through which the Holy Spirit comes into the world, showing, once again, that God does not abandon Jesus
  • Of this, indeed, all of us are witnesses

II. Not Abandoned

  • Just as God has not abandoned Jesus, either on the cross or in the tomb, by the presence of the Holy Spirit we can know that God does not abandon us, either
  • In the resurrection, God affirms Jesus’ life and teaching, and commends it to all who follow Jesus – in the resurrection, God shows that Jesus is truly Lord and Messiah – he may have died an ignominious death, a criminal’s death, but he is no criminal – he is and remains a sign that God is with us, come what may
  • There are many times in our lives when we feel alone, when we might feel that God has abandoned us – but always remember that Jesus felt that way, too – on the cross, he cried out his question to God, “Why have you forsaken me?” – but, as I have said many times, God had not forsaken Jesus – Jesus felt alone, but God was with him, every moment on the cross and in the tomb
  • There is nothing that can happen in our lives that will cause God to abandon us – in times of distress, we may feel that we are alone, but God is with us – in times of grief, we may feel that God has left us, but God grieves along with us – when we see people, our brothers and sisters, suffering under the weight of injustice and oppression, we may feel that God has abandoned us
  • In those moments, we can turn to Peter’s sermon, and find the assertion that God has not abandoned us – we are not abandoned – we are not alone

III. Conclusion

  • Let us go out into the world and let everyone know the good news – God did not abandon Jesus to the death – God raised him from death to life – and God loves us enough that God does not abandon us – Emmanuel – God is with us, now and always
  • Of this we are witnesses

This Is Jesus

Tuesday, 4 April 2023

Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

2 April 2023

Palm/Passion Sunday

I. The Passion of Jesus

  • That we would talk about the Passion of Jesus on Palm Sunday may seem odd, but the fact is that not many of us will come to the Maundy Thursday service or the community Good Friday service, so we will move from the exuberance of Palm Sunday to the joy of Easter without the recognition of what happens between the two celebrations – so we need to talk about the Passion
  • Our portion of the story is simply the ending part, the climax of the story, if you will – the story begins with the meal in the upper room in chapter 26, but that it too much to try to deal with it all in a single sermon
  • We pick up the story with Jesus’ appearance before Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, which includes Jerusalem – we begin our part of the story after both Judas and Peter betray Jesus, each in their own way – we do not know Judas’s motivation in his betrayal – maybe it was simple greed, but given what happened that seems unlikely – Judas hands Jesus over to the religious authorities who have been trying to find a way to capture Jesus without drawing too much attention from the people – they settle on taking him while he is in the Garden of Gethsemane with his friends – when Jesus is in the custody of the religious authorities, Judas has a change of heart – he regrets having given Jesus to the authorities and he returns the money, the thirty pieces of silver, that he had gotten for his treachery – he throws the money onto the floor of the temple and then goes out and completes a suicide
  • Peter’s betrayal of Jesus is perhaps less momentous – he simply denies even knowing Jesus – and when he realizes what he has done, which Jesus has told him he would do, he weeps bitterly – we do not usually think of Peter’s action as a betrayal, but that is what it is at its heart – he betrays the trust, confidence, and love that Jesus has given him
  • The religious leaders take Jesus to see Pilate so that he can complete the task of ridding the religious leaders of the thorn in their side that Jesus has been – to his credit, Pilate finds no cause in Jesus’ words or actions that would warrant the ultimate sentence – he tries, somewhat halfheartedly, to convince the leaders not to try to kill Jesus, but they will not be dissuaded – they have prepared the crowd for such a moment
  • Pilate offers the people a choice – he says that he will release one prisoner, either Jesus or another – I can only imagine that Pilate offers a person he thinks that the crowd will consider to be an unacceptable candidate for freedom, a person who is a notorious criminal – he must have been surprised that the crowd chooses the criminal
  • This is not a choice that Pilate wants to make on his own – he does not want to upset either the religious leaders or the crowd, but neither does he see any reason to kill Jesus – his wife has even told him to have nothing to do with Jesus because she has had a dream that has brought her no little anguish – of course, Pilate is not eager to give the people and leaders what they want
  • And yet he does – he washes his hands, symbolically trying to free himself of the matter, but he is still culpable – he is still the chief civil authority and ultimately the one who condemns Jesus to die
  • The Roman guards ridicule Jesus and torture him before leading him out to the place of execution – the two bandits who are crucified along with Jesus also mock him and taunt him – in Matthew, there is no repentant thief of the cross, only two unrepentant bandits
  • Beginning at around noon, the sky above Jerusalem turns dark and remains dark for about three hours as Jesus hangs on the cross – in the darkness he cries out to God, asking why God has abandoned him – the tragedy of that is, in my mind, that God has not abandoned him – God is still right there with him, feeling what he feels, sharing his agony – but Jesus, being human, does not sense God’s presence with him
  • Finally, Jesus cries out again and dies
  • The only witnesses that the story mentions are a Roman centurion and the soldiers accompanying him, who recognize Jesus as God’s Son and some of Jesus’ women supporters, who watch from a distance – the Evangelist names none of the disciples or any other of Jesus’ friends as being present at the execution

II. This Is Jesus

  • This is Jesus – tried, mocked, tortured, bleeding, sore, and crucified – this is Jesus, both human and divine, dying on a cross – this is Jesus, giving his life as a demonstration of God’s unending and unconditional love for all God’ children – this is Jesus, wondering how God could leave him in such a difficult and soul-crushing time – this is Jesus at his most human and most vulnerable – this is Jesus
  • What are we to make of this picture of Jesus? – how are we to come to grips with what he has done for us and for all of humankind? – never before and never since have we seen such complete and unshakable love
  • This is Jesus, giving us a picture of true love, love that gives of itself even when someone betrays it – love that gives of itself even when others mock it and taunt it – love that gives of itself even when some friends abandon it and others can only watch from a distance – love that even strangers can recognize for the gift that it is
  • This is Jesus, who still loves us unconditionally and completely – who calls us, as his friends and followers and disciples, to love one another and others in the same way – this is Jesus

III. Conclusion

  • See him there in the halls of power, speaking God’s truth to the authorities – see him there, stripped and beaten not because God demands it but because flawed and fearful humans demand it – see him there, on the road to the place of execution – see him there, alone on the cross
  • This is Jesus – the sign of God’s love for you and for us all – this is Jesus

Listen to Him!

Thursday, 23 February 2023

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

19 February 2023

I. Introduction

  • Today is Transfiguration Sunday, which is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany – in other words, this is the last Sunday before the beginning of Lent
  • In keeping with the Holy Day of Epiphany, which marks the visit of the magi to the family of Jesus, the lectionary readings for the Sundays after the Epiphany tend to deal with revelation or witness – they focus on the ways in which Jesus is revealed or made manifest as Messiah

II. On the Mountain

  • Listen! – the Evangelist’s placement of this story is no accident – it comes at an important time in the overall narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry – in the verses preceding the account of the Transfiguration, Jesus and his disciples are near Caesarea Philippi, and he asks them a question: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” – when Jesus uses the title “the Son of Man” to refer to himself, he is often pointing toward his eschatological mission, including his passion, death, and resurrection
  • Clearly the disciples understand the title as Jesus’ reference to himself and his work and their answers report that some think Jesus is John the Baptist, some think he is Elijah, and some think he is Jeremiah or another one of the prophets – then Jesus turns the question to the disciples directly: “But who do you say that I am?” – Peter’s answer is one of the great moments of epiphany in all of the Bible – Peter declares simply but profoundly that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God
  • At that point, Jesus begins to tell the disciples about what is coming to him and to them, and it is not a pretty picture he shows them – he is going to Jerusalem, he tells them, and in Jerusalem he will find suffering at the hands of the leaders of God’s people – his suffering will lead to his death – he even tells them that God will raise him from death (but I have to say, I think that this last may have been a word that the Evangelist added when he wrote the Gospel – if Jesus had said that he would be raised from the dead, I would hope that the disciples heard it – but then again, they rarely get what Jesus is saying) – but Peter, the one who made the amazing and wonderful confession about Jesus, begins to rebuke Jesus, saying that they cannot allow this terrible situation to come to pass – so it is that after he complimented Peter for seeing what God has shown him, Jesus has to tell Peter to get out of the way
  • Jesus also tells his disciples about the necessity of taking up their crosses and following him – in another one of those apparent paradoxes of the Gospels, he tells them that all who would save their lives will lose them, that they have to give their lives away to save them
  • Some days later, then, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John and heads up a high mountain to pray – no one knows what happened on the mountain – was Jesus somehow changed before their eyes or did their perception of him change? – was there some sort of physical transformation or was it a spiritual thing? – who can say? – the report is that the disciples see Jesus shining like the sun, and in conversation with Moses and Elijah – I may be making more of this than I should, but I think that Moses and Elijah here represent all the law and the prophets
  • And then, of course, Peter speaks up again, saying that they should build shelters there on the mountain – maybe he is still thinking of ways to keep Jesus safe – maybe he thinks that if they build the shelters then they will be able to prevent the suffering and death that Jesus has said are coming – this time, however, Jesus does not have to tell Peter to back off – this time there is a bright light in a cloud, and out of the light and the cloud comes a voice – it comes suddenly and cuts off Peter midsentence – it is as if the voice says, “I am going to stop you right there” – the voice actually says, “This is my son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased” – of course, we have heard these exact same words once before – at Jesus’ baptism – that time, a voice from heaven spoke them as an affirmation of what had just happened – obviously this mountaintop experience is also an affirmation for Jesus and for the three disciples – the days ahead are going to be difficult, but God is with Jesus – God is not going to abandon Jesus in the midst of the trial –
  • Take note for a moment of the movement of this story – follow the path the story takes – Jesus and the three disciples go up the mountain, Jesus is transfigured, Moses and Elijah join Jesus and speak with him, Peter says something useless and silly, a voice from heaven cuts him off and declares that Jesus is the beloved son with whom God is pleased – but where is this story going? – what is the high point? – I think it is in the next words the voice says, the words that are not part of the baptism story – these words are in the form of a command – they are in the imperative mood – the voice says, “Listen to him!”
  • Naturally, the three disciples fall down (fainted?) because of their fear, but Jesus comes to them, touches them, and tells them to get up – when they look up, the vision is gone – they are alone on the mountain with Jesus – as they come down from the mountain, Jesus tells them that they cannot speak of what they have seen until he is raised from the dead
  • The transfiguration is an empowering moment both for Jesus and for the three disciples – whatever they saw on the mountain, they knew it was a powerful thing – Jesus comes down to set his feet toward Jerusalem and the trial that awaits him there – it will be the worst experience of his life, but he is assured of his standing with God – the disciples come down with a renewed sense of awe – we might wish that they could be as sure of the future as Jesus seems to be, but they are only human and they will make many mistakes before everything is accomplished – they also have one more thing: a command to listen to Jesus

III. Listen to Him!

  • Listen! – here is the thing – we can take the command to listen in a couple of ways – given the context, we can take it to refer to Jesus’ teaching about his suffering and death – it is a message that the disciples had not wanted to hear, that they tried not to hear – they did not like to think about a future in which Jesus would not be with them in the flesh – they could not accept a future that did not include Jesus – it makes sense that the voice would tell them to listen – they have to hear the message, not so that they could change the future, but so they could move into the future with the assurance that God is still with them
  • We can also understand the command more broadly, to include both Jesus’ ethical instruction the disciples had heard throughout his ministry and his word about the coming situation – this would prepare them not only for the immediate future, but also for the longer term – they, and we, can hear the command and know that the entirety of Jesus’ teaching is pleasing to God – it is consistent with the voice of God through the prophets – the whole of Jesus’ teaching is to make complete the Vision of God – and we give the teaching currency when we obey the command to listen to him today
  • Here is where I think there is a connection between the law, the prophets, and the whole of Jesus’ teaching – the Vision of God is about the age of healing, the age of salvation, the age in which peace, justice, love, mercy, and compassion reign – Jesus says that we can sum up his ethical instruction about the Vision of God in two commands – two commands that contain everything that the law and the prophets ever said – two commands: love God, and love others, including enemies
  • No matter how difficult life gets, and it can get difficult indeed, God is with us – when life overwhelms us and pulls us down into places of loneliness and hopelessness, when it seems there is no light at all ahead of us, God is with us through the Holy Spirit and Jesus – Listen to him

IV. Conclusion

  • So, listen to him! – Jesus tells us to love – Jesus says that the law of love says everything that God has ever said about living together, about being human – everything we need to know and to do is summed up in those commands to love
  • And listen to him! – we are not alone, even when it feels as if we are – the glory of God is in the everyday things of life – in smiles, in the gentle touch on our shoulder from a friend, in kind words, in every act of generosity – these are the mountaintops of our lives
  • Listen to him! – the voice of God is speaking to us all

The Mystery of Christ

Monday, 9 January 2023

Salem United Church of Christ, Higginsville, Missouri

I. Introduction

  • When Crystal and I travel by car, we like to listen to audiobooks – not surprisingly, our favorite stories are mysteries because there is something to occupy our minds, and yet not enough to distract us from the road – we enjoy trying to figure out who committed the crime, usually a murder – the stories pass the time, but they do not require so much of our attention that we cannot drive safely –
    • You may have similar ideas about the idea of mystery, and maybe those ideas came to your mind as we read the text for today, due to the repeated references to mystery – here is the thing: the mystery of Christ is not that sort of mystery
    • The idea of mystery is obviously important in this passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, but we have to put away our usual understandings of what mystery is in the text – it is not a mystery that a reader has to solve, or a problem to which we need to find an answer – it is a mystery in the sense that there was a time when no one but God knew about it, and that God has now revealed it

II. Paul, Prisoner and Minister

  • The author starts out in one direction, but quickly takes a detour – Paul, prisoner for, or of, Jesus Christ (think about that one sometime, a prisoner of Jesus Christ), for the sake of the Gentiles – oh, and surely you know about the ministry, the apostle says to the Ephesians – the digression continues for time, and even though it is a digression, do not think it is unimportant
  • In this digression, we hear repeatedly of the mystery of Christ – God reveals it to Paul as an act of grace for the benefit of the Gentiles – and here is the mystery: the Gentiles are co-heirs with the Jews, co-members of the same body with the Jews, and co-sharers with the Jews in the promise in Jesus Christ through the good news
  • We more or less take this for granted – we followers of Jesus nearly twenty centuries after the apostle wrote understand that God in Jesus Messiah did a new thing – God took people who were not a people and made them a people – not a national or an ethnic group, but a new people – a people of trust and relationship with God and with one another
  • In the apostle’s time, however, this was an unheard of thing – few among God’s ancient people had ever thought that God would provide a way for the Gentiles to participate in the vision of God – after all, they were Gentiles – they were, by definition, not the people of God – they were the outsiders, the others, not the chosen ones – as far as many of God’s people of the day considered it, it had always been thus and would always be thus – only by God’s working through the Jewish people would there be any hope for the Gentiles – that was the way God had ordained the world to be – or at least so thought of God’s chosen people
  • But Paul, by the grace of God, had received a commission from God to minister to the Gentiles, to make known the mystery that God had revealed to him – the Gentiles no longer had to be outsiders – in Jesus Messiah, God has opened a door to them – and Paul, weak though he thought he is, the least among the saints, is to carry the message of the limitless riches of Jesus Christ – the limitless riches means that there is enough of God, enough grace, enough love, enough mercy, for everyone
  • On an even larger scale, because God has revealed the mystery to Paul, and because Paul has revealed the mystery to the Gentiles, the churches are to bear the revelation of the rich and varied wisdom of God to the world and to the principalities and authorities in the spiritual realm – and because of that revealed mystery, the Gentiles can be sure that they have access to God

III. The Mystery of Christ

  • While none of us can claim to be apostles in the same way Paul was an apostle, and while I do not believe any of us has ever been a prisoner because of our faith in Jesus Christ, and while we may think that we, too, are the least among the saints, nevertheless, we have a job to do
    • The world still needs to know the mystery of Christ – the world still needs to know that God is at work – that God is still gracious – that God still calls and heals – that God still is creating and providing – too many in the world, and perhaps too many in the churches as well, believe that God is far removed from us, that God does not care about the world in any meaningful way– they say, if there is a God and God loves us, then why is there so much suffering in the world, why is there war, why is there poverty and disease and oppression and violence? – if there is a God, a God who loves us, why does God not step in and clean up the mess?
    • These are valid questions, important questions and we cannot dismiss them or discount them – but if the world is a mess, we cannot blame God – we cannot blame Satan – there is no scapegoat – if the world is a mess, we can only blame ourselves – God, in God’s infinite wisdom and grace, gives us freedom to choose, and as human beings we have chosen poorly – so if we want to make the world a better place, it is up to us to do it, with God’s help and by God’s grace
    • And that is where we enter the picture with the mystery – God’s love is available to all through Jesus Messiah, and God wants everyone to know they are not alone in the universe – God in Jesus has provided a way for everyone to participate in God’s vision for the creation – the way the world is is not the way it has to be – it can be better, and we can make it so – but why has God given us this ministry? – why has God called us to be the messengers? – it is another mystery, maybe – who can know the mind of God? – who can comprehend the ways in which God moves? – and who can explain God’s grace? – God does as God wants to do – we may question it and try to understand it, but, ultimately, God is sovereign

IV. Conclusion

  • The hidden thing has come to light – and who has made known the mystery of God’s vision for the Gentiles and for all of creation? – who has given a child as an expression of love for all people? – who has provided a way for us to become participants in God’s Vision? – who has done all this and more? – who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine? – who loves us and trusts us enough to expect us to carry the mystery to the world? – the answer to all these questions, and to so many more is, in the words of the prophets, the Lord has done it – not only that, but the Lord continues to do it and will continue to do it
    • In the church calendar, 6 January is Epiphany, the day when we remember the visit of the Magi to the house of Mary and Joseph (Matthew 2) – “epiphany” means “manifestation” or, in a sense, “revelation” – the Christ Child made God’s presence manifest to the Magi, and they recognized him as an important figure in history
    • If we think about it, however, Epiphany is not just a single day – as with other holy days, we remember it on one day, but every day is Epiphany – every day, God reveals God’s love to us and to the world – every day, the mystery of Christ appears in our lives and calls us to reveal it all
    • Now go, you messengers of the mystery of Christ, and bear the good news of God’s love and grace to a world that needs to hear it

God Is with Us

Tuesday, 20 December 2022

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

18 December 2022

Fourth Sunday of Advent

I. A Righteous Man

  • In the seldom-read genealogy of Matthew 1.1-17, we discover that Joseph is a descendant of David – Matthew identifies him as the husband of Mary who is the mother of Jesus, who is called the Messiah (Matthew 1.16) – even at this first mention of Joseph, the Evangelist is careful about how he refers to Joseph – the key aspect of the genealogy is to establish Joseph’s bona fides as a son of David
  • When the genealogy ends and the story begins, the distinguishing characteristic of Joseph, the one thing that the Evangelist of Matthew tells us about who Joseph is, other than that he is a son of David, is that he is a righteous man – that is, he lives his life keeping covenant with God and with his fellow Jews – he is a good man who life reflects his right relationship with God
  • Following the genealogy, Matthew shifts the focus from the lineage of Jesus to relating the story of the birth of the Messiah, but, really, the focus is on Joseph As a righteous man, Joseph has become betrothed to a young woman named Mary – betrothal is a legal and binding arrangement between two families – in all likelihood, the fathers of Joseph and Mary entered into this arrangement on behalf of their children – betrothal is the first step, which the families will follow up some time later with a formal agreement between the two children, in which the man will take the woman into his home
  • Between those two events, between the betrothal and taking Mary into his family home, Joseph receives upsetting news about Mary – Joseph learns that his betrothed is pregnant…and he does not know who the father is – this is grounds for breaking the agreement
  • The news is the occasion of the declaration that Joseph is a righteous man – as a righteous man, his obligation in the situation is to his family honor – by God’s Instruction, in the extreme interpretation, Joseph is to shame Mary by going the full way to break the agreement
  • But Joseph is a righteous man and in this case his righteousness manifests in his unwillingness to shame Mary – he shows his righteousness by dealing with Mary compassionately – he resolves to divorce her, which is what he should do, and in his compassion, he chooses to divorce her quietly, not to make a public show of shaming her
  • And then he has a dream – in his dream, a messenger from God comes to him with the rest of the story, with the part of the story that he does not know
  • The angel tells the righteous man that he should not be afraid to complete the contract with Mary – the angel tells the righteous man that Mary has done nothing wrong – the angel tells the righteous man that God has acted in Mary to bring about the pregnancy
  • Not only that, but the angel tells the righteous man that God intends for the child to perform a special and specific work, which the name that the angel provides for Joseph to give to the child makes clear – Joseph is to name the child Yehoshua, which means “God saves” – we still have the name around today, in the form of Joshua – Jesus is the Greek form of the name
  • Then the Evangelist gives some further evidence for Jesus’s work by referring to a sign that the prophet Isaiah spoke to the king of Judah in a time of crisis – the prophet of old told the king that a young woman would bear a child, and before the child was very old, the trouble that beset Judah would be done – the child is a sign that God is with the people
  • The Evangelist sees the same sign in Jesus – Jesus’s life and ministry are a sign that points to the ongoing presence of God not just with one people but with all people
  • Following the dream, the righteous man Joseph does as the angel has said and takes Mary into his home – in essence, he extends his family honor to the child – he claims the child as his own, as another son of David – it is what a righteous man would do

II. God Is with Us

  • Thus, Joseph becomes an example for us to follow – so profound is his action in giving a name and a family to Mary and to Jesus, that it hardly matters that he has so little presence in the rest of the Gospel stories – he is there when it counts – he does what he needs to do to provide stability and a foundation for Jesus’s life and ministry
  • Joseph, the righteous man, takes the angel’s words to heart – in effect, he bears witness to the belief that God is with him – he trusts that God will make all things right for him and for his wife and for her child
  • In this season of Advent, as we approach once again the celebration of God’s coming into the world in a new way, we have nearly constant reminders in our lectionary Scriptures and in our lives that God is with us
  • God is with us in all the circumstances of our lives – God is with us in times of sorrow and in times of joy – God is with us in times of want and in times of plenty – God is with us in times of loss and in times of gain – the coming of the Christ child into the world is a reminder that God is always with us, even when we are not aware of the presence
  • The coming of the child into the world is also a reminder that we have a calling to let the world know that God is still with us – we are to embody the presence of God in the world in the ways that we deal with others, by being righteous people, by treating others with compassion and grace, with mercy and love, by accepting them for who they are just as God has accepted us through the Christ just as we are

III. Conclusion

  • God is with us – this is good news, indeed
  • Let us carry this good news into the world, as ministers, missionaries, and messengers of God – God loves us and will not leave us – God is with us, now and forever

With One Voice

Tuesday, 6 December 2022

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

4 December 2022

Second Sunday of Advent

I. Unity, Hope, Peace, and Joy

  • This reading from the Epistle to the Romans is a marvelous reading for Advent – it touches on many of the main themes of the season, and leads us toward the celebration of the coming of Jesus Christ into the world
  • One of the reasons that the text is so rich in Advent themes is its background – in the epistle, the apostle Paul is trying to cover a lot of theological territory in preparation of his visit to the capitol of the Roman Empire
  • The apostle did not establish the Jesus movement in Rome – others did that work – but as a part of his defense against the charges that had landed him in prison, Paul appealed to Caesar, which was his right as a Roman citizen – his trip to Rome, then, is not simply a missionary journey as many of his travels have been, but it is also an opportunity to take his message to the highest authorities in the empire and to make acquaintance with the Jesus followers there
  • In preparation for meeting the Jesus people in Rome, Paul writes this epistle to introduce himself and his message – the apostle spends a significant amount of space in the epistle dealing with the relationship between the Jews and Gentiles – this leads scholars to believe that the assemblies in Rome had both Jews and Gentiles in them, and that there was some tension between the two groups
  • I cannot tell you the precise nature of the tension – in other places in Paul’s letters and in the Book of Acts, tension comes from the idea that the Jesus movement is a Jewish movement running into the reality of so many Gentiles participating – too often, there seems to be some mutual mistrust, or some sort of sense of superiority in one or both of the groups – but whatever the source of the problem, the apostle states his instruction for how to resolve it, and it seems to me that he could be addressing both the Jews and the Gentiles in the Jesus community
  • We can go back to the beginning of chapter 15 and see that the apostle encourages the “strong” to be patient with the “failing” of the “weak” – in part, the strong are the ones who can eat anything without disturbing their consciences and the weak are the ones who observe some sort of dietary restrictions, perhaps referring to Jewish kosher instructions
  • While it is true that all things are acceptable to eat, the responsibility is on the so-called strong to care for the consciences of the so-called weak – the unity of the Jesus movement is more important than the assertion of individual rights to eat what one wants
  • The Roman Jesus people must not judge one another and must pursue what leads to peace and unity in the community – they must work to please their neighbor for the neighbor’s sake – whatever was written, whether in scripture or in the deeds of history, is instruction for God’s people – in this instruction is steadfastness and encouragement from the one is steadfast and encouraging
  • The aim of the instruction, steadfastness, and encouragement is harmony within the community so that together all the people may glorify God with one voice
  • The path toward unity begins with God at work in Jesus Christ and requires that all the people welcome one another just as Christ welcomed them, according to the promises God made to the patriarchs of the Jews – the promises are to God’s ancient people, but they also invite and include the Gentiles
  • As illustrations of the welcome God has extended to the Gentiles, the apostle cites four references to Gentiles in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible – these citations indicate to the apostle that the inclusion of the Gentiles was part of God’s plan for humanity all along
  • The reading ends with a prayer that the God of hope will fill the Romans with joy and peace, so that they may have abundant hope by the power of the Holy Spirit
  • That strikes me as an Advent prayer

II. With One Voice

  • Unity and peace continue to be a need and a goal for us in the service of Christ today – human history has been a long, continuous story of division, brokenness, hostility, bullying, and conflict – in the face of all the human brokenness comes the message of the apostle and of Advent – glorify God the father of our Lord Jesus Christ with one voice
  • The image I have is one of a choir singing praise to God – all the voices of the choir, all the different voices, blending together in peace and harmony to glorify God as one voice – each different voice contributes to the sound of the choir – each unique voice combines with the others to produce a sound of glory – when I choir is singing with one voice, distinguishing between singers becomes difficult – it also becomes unnecessary – that is the kind of unity that  the apostle envisions and prays for in the Romans
  • When we praise God with one voice, we learn that it is unthinkable to praise God on Sunday and be unkind to another person on Monday – it becomes unthinkable to glorify God one day and wish someone ill another day
  • Glorify the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ with one voice – whether we are singing with people who look like us or not – whether we sing with people who sing in our language or another – whether we share a history with the others or our histories are completely different – none of that matters because we welcome one another as Christ has welcomed all of us

III. Conclusion

  • During this season of Advent, let us sing and glorify God with one voice – let us live in the unity, hope, joy, and peace that God desires for all of God’s children
  • Let us live fully in the power of the Holy Spirit and follow Jesus the Christ with all our hearts as we prepare for his coming into the world each and every day – let us join our voices with all people and bring the unity of the human race fully into the world
  • Let us glorify God always with one voice

I Will Seek Your Good

Thursday, 1 December 2022

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

27 November 2022

First Sunday of Advent

I. A Song of Ascents

  • Have you ever noticed how often in the Hebrew Bible, when the text tells of people making a trip to Jerusalem, it says that they went up to Jerusalem, or up to the Temple?
  • Part of the reason for that might be that Jerusalem sits on top of a hill, Mount Zion – it is difficult to see today, or more difficult, because of the much larger city that surrounds the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem – but even now a climb to the top of Mount Zion, to the Temple Mount, is almost always uphill – so we would go up to the Temple even today, if it still stood
  • More than that, for the ancient Jews, and for some followers of Jesus today, Jerusalem is, in a sense, the center of the world, the axis around with the whole world turns – Jerusalem for many is the Holy City – it was the royal city of David – it was the place where God’s Temple stood – going up to Jerusalem was not just a matter of climbing a hill – going up to Jerusalem was in a real sense going up to meet God
  • That Psalm 122 carries the identifier of being “A Song of Ascents,” then is proper – it is a song about going up to Jerusalem
  • This is a psalm that pilgrims would sing on their way to the axis of the world – it is a song of praise for the city – even more important, it is a song of praise to the God who identified particularly with that place
  • For the Hebrew and Jewish pilgrims, going up to the house of God is cause for gladness – the city represents safety and protection from the troubles of the world outside, from invading armies, from marauding would-be conquerors
  • The city is a place of pilgrimage for the tribes of the Lord, which, strictly speaking, would be the tribes of Israel – but it is also the place where the thrones of the judges are set up to enact God’s justice, which we could take as meaning that we need to understand the term “the tribes of the Lord” as representing a larger group than the people of Judah alone – perhaps we would do better to understand that the tribes of the Lord are all the people of the world – all the world is going up to the house of God
  • In addition, the psalmist sings that all the world should pray for the peace of Jerusalem – again, peace here is shalom – shalom is not simply peace as in the absence of war – shalom is wholeness, completeness, well-being for the entire community, well-being for everyone – do not pray only for the peace of Jerusalem – pray for the healing, the wholeness, and the well-being of Jerusalem and all who go up to the house of the Lord – pray for the sake of family and friends – pray for the sake of the world – for the healing and well-being of the whole world, seek the good of all of God’s children

II. I Will Seek Your Good

  • Seeking the good of all is not an easy task – we know just as the ancient psalmist knew that all is not well – we know that there is injustice in the world – there is violence – there is destruction – there is death – this is not news for the first singer of the psalm or for us
  • Our world has always known that life is a dangerous proposition – there are always threats, struggles, trials, and difficulties – and the psalm does not ask us to forget those things – the psalm does not assume that we can pretend that the troubles do not exist – the psalm calls us to praise God even in the midst of them
  • The ancient Christian funeral rite declares that in the midst of life we are in death – the psalmist urges us to look at our lives in the opposite way – in the midst of death we are in life – that is one of the lessons that Advent teaches us
  • In one sense, the coming of Jesus into the world does not change anything – that sounds awful, I know, and I apologize, but it is true – Jesus comes into the world and the world shrugs its shoulders and goes on as if nothing is different
  • For those who follow the teachings of Jesus, however, his coming into the world changes everything – his coming changes despair into hope – his coming changes sorrow into joy – his coming changes darkness into light – his coming changes apathy and anger into love
  • Jesus’ coming into the world changes us and how we view the world – no longer do we have to live in death – we can live in life, in the life that Jesus brings – in the life that God brings through Jesus
  • Advent is a sort of a pilgrimage – we do not always see it that way now – we sort of skip over the waiting and preparation of Advent and celebrate Christmas from Thanksgiving through New Year – that is our loss – we do not need to sing about going up to God because we begin the journey at the top of the hill
  • Let us hold onto the sense of expectation, of waiting – let us take the time we need to make the journey – let us learn on this journey to pray for all of the tribes of the Lord – let us use this journey to pray for the healing and well-being of the nations and of the world – let us go through this Advent season seeking the good of all people

III. Conclusion

  • I will seek your good, the psalmist sings – let us do just that – let us seek the good of the people who are outcast in our world – let us seek the good of all who suffer under the weight of injustice and prejudice – let us seek the good of all who dislike us or who wish us ill – let us seek God’s good for all

The Gift of Shalom

Tuesday, 8 November 2022

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

6 November 2022

I. Introduction

  • Haggai is a fascinating little collection of exhortations – we know almost nothing about the prophet, but we know almost exactly when he preached these sermons – between August and December of the year 520 BCE, which is the second year of the reign of Darius, ruler of the Persian Empire, the prophet Haggai preached to the Exiles who have returned from Babylon and to the remnant who had stayed in Jerusalem to encourage them to build the Temple of God in Jerusalem
  • The prophet’s message is one of encouragement toward the future, and, even though we are not building a literal temple today, the message still speaks to us

II. Be Strong, Take Courage, and Work

  • The return from the Exile is a hard time for God’s people – about fifty years earlier, the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed the walls and the Temple of Jerusalem, and carried most of the leaders of the people of Judah away to Babylon
  • The time in Babylon was hard for those who were there – they felt cut off from God, from the land, from their heritage – but they learned to adapt – the time in Exile is a significant reason for the compiling of the Hebrew Bible – the Exile also laid the foundation for what would become Rabbinic Judaism – and it is only after the Exile that we can genuinely refer to God’s people as the Jews
  • The Exile was also a hard time for the ones who had been left behind in the rubble and destruction of Jerusalem – they were the poor, the laborers, the farmers, and they struggled to survive without the city and the Temple – even so, they, too, built a life for themselves among the ruins
  • When the Babylonian Empire fell to the Persians, under Cyrus, the Persian king released all the captives that the Babylonians had taken – Cyrus sent them to their various homes, along with some money, and encouraged them all to rebuild their temples and pray to their gods for him – the various peoples, including the people of Judah, lived under Persian rule and with Persian-appointed governors, but they had some degree of freedom in everyday matters
  • Many of the Jews returned to Jerusalem, but a large number also remained in Babylon – it was the only home that they had ever known – that community became a significant center of Jewish life and learning
  • Meanwhile, back in Judah, the returning Exiles try to reintegrate with the ones who had been left there, and it does not all go as smoothly as we might think – there are resentments and disagreements and old wounds and prejudices that they all have to face – rebuilding the Temple seems like a good way to bring them all together – it turns out to be more complicated than anyone expects
  • We read in Ezra 3 about the laying of the foundation for the new Temple – it happens not long after the return – when the people see the new foundation, there is a great shout of praise to God – at the same time, the ones who could remember Solomon’s Temple, which the Babylonians destroyed, wailed and wept because, in their minds, there is no way that the new Temple will be able to compare with the former one – the noise of both the weepers and the shouters is so great that no one can distinguish the sounds from one another (Ezra 3.11ff.)
  • After laying the foundation, however, not much happens – there is no work, no new construction, and when Haggai begins to preach about fifteen years later, there still is no Temple – some of the people live in fine, paneled houses, but there is no house for God
  • The prophet’s first sermon tells the people that it is time to build God’s house – we cannot know if the people heed the prophet’s words, but his next sermon is our reading for today – if construction had resumed, it has already stalled again a month later
  • The prophet tells the people of Judah that they cannot look back to the Temple that was – looking back is not at all helpful – looking back is discouraging – looking back is disheartening
  • If they are going to look back, the people should not look at the former Temple – they should look back farther than that – they should look back to the Exodus from Egypt, when God acted to bring the people out of slavery – during the Exodus, God made many promises, among them, God promised to be with the people – in those days, the Hebrew people carried with them a visible representation of God’s presence – it was a tent, which they called the Tabernacle
  • Just as the Tabernacle represented God’s presence, so will the new Temple represent God’s presence – so they should be strong, take courage, and work to get the Temple built
  • When that happens, then God will give them shalom – God’s gift will not be a reward for their work, but it will be another expression of God’s presence with them
  • We usually translate “shalom” as peace – the pew Bible translates it in this text as “prosperity” – but we all know that it means so much more than either peace or prosperity – shalom is wholeness, completion, communal wellbeing, wellness, security – shalom is an expression of the presence of God in the people of God – and according to Haggai, it is God’s gift – and it is God’s gift to us even now

III. The Gift of Shalom

  • We are fortunate and blessed, and sometimes cursed, I suppose, to have this fine place in which to worship and gather – we do not have to build a new place at all, but simply take care of the place that others have handed down to us – so the literal aspect of raising a building is not ours to undertake
  • Even so, the encouragement to be strong, to take courage, and to work matters now as much as it ever did – our work is to build a temple of justice, a temple of wellbeing, a temple of shalom in which all people may find shelter and welcome
  • As we labor diligently on the temple of God’s shalom, God is always with us to give us that same shalom – we labor not alone, but with our sisters and our brothers and our friends to be an expression of God’s shalom in a hurting and divided world – we work to make the gift of shalom a reality for all people
  • This work is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching, when he tells us not to judge others – when he tells us to treat others the way we want them to treat us – when he tells us to love God – when he tells us to love others as we love ourselves – these are all expressions of the gift of God’s shalom to us

IV. Conclusion

  • We do not and cannot revel in what was or what has been – we find hope in the present by the gift of shalom
  • God has always been with us – God is always with us – God will always be with us – we can be strong, take courage, and work, because God never lets go of us
  • And by God’s presence and power, the gift of shalom is ours to share freely with everyone we meet, no matter who they are

Going Up to the Temple

Monday, 24 October 2022

Salem United Church of Christ, Higginsville, Missouri

I. Introduction

  • Immediately following a very difficult story about a vengeful widow and a judge, in which Jesus tells about two unlikeable characters who will do whatever is necessary to get what they want – it is a story that does not recommend either character as an example for Jesus’ disciples to follow, Luke’s interpretation of the story notwithstanding – as with many of Jesus’ stories, we have to struggle with that difficult story in order to find its meaning in our lives
  • When we come to the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, we might think that we are on firmer ground about how we interpret the meaning of the story – once again, however, the story is more challenging that we might imagine
  • Listen…

II. Another Familiar Story

  • To begin, notice the reason that the Evangelist gives for Jesus to tell this story – Luke says that Jesus tells the story to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (v.19) – these are not Jesus’ words – they provide a context for Jesus’ story, but we should take care when we think we know who the audience might be – given the ways we usually interpret the story, our tendency is to think that the ones who trust in themselves are the Pharisees, but there is no reason to think that – just as likely, and perhaps more likely, is that Jesus is speaking directly to his followers
  • Again, the story is familiar to us, and its lines fit into our thoughts so easily that we can assume for a moment that we have got it, that we have fully understood it
  • Two men go to the temple to pray – the first is a Pharisee – in the Gospels, but especially in Luke, the Pharisees are so often the bad guys – Luke frequently makes them the targets of criticism, lifting them up as examples of officiousness, self-righteousness, and hypocrisy – the Evangelist sees them as obsessively scrupulous about the letter of God’s Instruction to the degree that they appear to care more for obeying the Instruction than they do about serving God or God’s people – Jesus’ audience, however, would not have thought that way
  • For the Jewish people of Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were wonderful examples of how to live in covenant with God – they were not excessively proud men – they were teachers and guides – they were not usually rich because they devoted themselves to study and prayer – they were good men living good lives and providing good examples for others – when Jesus says that one of the men going up to the Temple to pray is a Pharisee, his audience is inclined to think that here is a man they can trust – he is doing what he should be doing in an appropriate place for doing it
  • By contrast, the other man going up to the Temple to pray is a tax collector, and his presence there is unsettling – the problem has nothing to do with money or with ritual purity – anyone in the Temple is presumed to be there for good cause – the problem with the tax collector is that he is a sinner, which Jesus’ audience would know all too well
  • Luke and our millennia of interpretation have turned those table around – for most of us, the Pharisee is a bad man and the tax collector a good one – we point to their prayers as demonstration of those designations
  • The Pharisee’s prayer, we think, is simply full of himself, enumerating his many virtues and good deeds – he even exceeds the requirements of the Instruction – there is no expectation in the Instruction that anyone tithe everything and there is no demand for fasting every week, let alone twice a week – the Pharisee is something of an exaggeration of how a Pharisee would act – he is a sort of a super-Pharisee – he is a saint
  • There is nothing wrong with the Pharisee’s prayer – he is praying as he ought, giving thanks to God for the covenant and for the ability to keep it, just as God’s Instruction teaches him to pray – there are many examples of such prayers in the Jewish tradition, and even the apostle Paul makes similar statements about himself (cf., Philippians 2.4-6; II Corinthians 11.22f.)
  • The unexpected part of the Pharisee’s prayer is that he has contempt for other people, including a tax collector – the people would have expected that such an uber-Pharisee would have had nothing but concern for one who is so obviously a sinner and would do whatever he could to assist that sinner to a better relationship with God
  • The tax collector’s prayer, by contrast, simply recognizes his brokenness and pleads for mercy, a prayer that we call the Jesus Prayer, and people use it to this day: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner
  • The words of explanation for the story may be Jesus’ words or they may be Luke’s – either way, our English translations take them as a means of distinguishing between the two praying men – one is justified and one is not – and the one who is justified is not the one that Jesus’ audience might have expected
  • The end of the reading is one of those reversals of conventional wisdom so common in Jesus’ teachings, but Luke possibly places it there rather than Jesus having done it – all who exalt themselves will be humbled; and all who humble themselves will be exalted

III. Going Up to the Temple

  • What we might be missing is that the word that translators say means “rather than” more typically means “alongside of,” or “because of” – I think Jesus is not saying that the two men are contrasts so much as they are intertwined – Jesus is saying, “this man went down to his home justified along with the other” or, more startlingly, “because of the other”
  • The story is also a sort of a trap – when we read it as we usually do, with the “bad” Pharisee and the “good” tax collector, our next thought is probably that we are thankful that we are not like others, even like this Pharisee – and then we are exactly like this Pharisee – and if we think that the tax collector is bad, then we are still like the Pharisee
  • Two men are going up to the Temple – one of them is righteous according to the covenant, and one of them is a self-proclaimed sinner – and by the grace of God they both go down to their homes justified because God’s grace is always greater than our brokenness
  • Just as the lives of the Pharisee and the tax collector are intertwined, so are the two types of people intertwined in us – we all of us are simultaneously righteous and broken – the righteous and the broken aspects of us are intertwined and as we are going up to the Temple to pray and to meet God, God welcomes us
  • We are also intertwined with other people, and Jesus cautions us not to fall into the trap of dealing with others with contempt – that way is a trap and there is no life in it

IV. Conclusion

  • Whether we know it or not, we are all going up to the Temple – let us go there alongside one another and because of one another – and together may we live into the lives that Jesus teaches us to live and that God desires for all people to live

[The content of this sermon is deeply influenced by the work of Amy-Jill Levine in Short Stories by Jesus (HarperCollins, 2014). For a much more thorough, in-depth, engaging, and, honestly, entertaining study of the story, and of several of the parables, look there.]

Troubling and Troubled

Monday, 17 October 2022

A Sermon Preached at Salem United Church of Christ

Higginsville, Missouri

16 October 2022

I. A Difficult Story

  • This is a strange and difficult story that Jesus tells his friends – we have heard it and read it so often, however, that we may not even see the difficulty – let us look at the story in a couple of ways, and see where it takes us
  • You may recall that I do not like to read Jesus’ parables as allegories, in which each aspect of the story is in place of something else – the temptation in this story might be to see the judge as representing God, even though Luke tells us explicitly not to do that – here, we have to lay aside any desire to see the story as an allegory – trying to us an allegory would force the story to fit into a particular interpretation rather than allowing understanding to proceed from the story itself – so let us allow the story to be just that: a story
  • In this story, there are only two characters: a judge and a widow – the widow comes constantly to the judge asking for a decision in her favor regarding something, but we do not know what the something is or even what it might be – what we can know is that the widow’s case is not a matter of justice
  • This is the point at which some of our difficulty begins – in most English-language Bibles, justice is what the woman comes to the judge asking for – in our pew Bibles, the widow says, “Grant me justice against my opponent” – the word so often translated as “justice,” however, actually means “vengeance” – the widow is not asking for justice – she wants the judge to avenge her against an adversary – this makes the widow a difficult character because she defies the stereotype of the widow as vulnerable and weak – this particular widow seems to be neither vulnerable nor weak
  • For his part, the judge is also a difficult character – Jesus tells his audience that the judge has no respect for God or for people – whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is not clear – we read in Psalm 111 and Proverbs 1 that respect and reverence for God is the beginning of wisdom – thus, not respecting God may be unwise, but it does not mean that he is corrupt or unjust – and not respecting people may actually make him a good judge, one who will not allow anyone to sway his decisions, not even wealthy and powerful people
  • So we have a widow acting against stereotype by constantly coming to a judge demanding vengeance and a judge acting against stereotype by appearing to avoid making a decision about the widow’s demand
  • When the judge finally decides to act, his decision has nothing to do with what is right or just – he is simply tired of the widow coming around with her demand for vengeance – he decides to give in to her demand, whether it is right or not, just so she will go away
  • Most translations say that the judge gives in so that the widow “will not wear him out,” but a better translation is “so she will not slap my face until it is bruised” – the judge gives in because he does not want to get a black eye, either literally or figuratively – the end
  • And that is the whole story – two unlikeable characters act in ways that Jesus does not necessarily recommend – the story is so difficult that Luke adds an introduction that explains that the story is about being persistent in prayer, and a closing statement that God will give God’s people justice even if a judge will not
  • Here is the thing: Storytellers do not explain their stories, at least the good ones do not – storytellers tell stories and let their audiences decide what the meanings are – Luke takes a shortcut – instead of letting his readers wrestle with this troubling and troubled story, he gives his own interpretation

II. Troubling and Troubled

  • There is nothing wrong with what Luke does – he does what we all do when we read stories – we often tell other people what we think stories mean – but we do not necessarily expect that everyone will agree with our understandings of stories – but because of where we read this interpretation, it literally becomes “gospel” for us, and we hesitate to question it
  • Still, what Luke says has merit – there is good reason to be persistent in prayer – that reason is not so that we can change God’s mind about things – we do not have that sort of power over God – praying persistently about things and situations is a way of trying to align our thinking and acting with the thinking and acting of God – as we pray, God changes us, which may be why we do not pray more, and more earnestly, than we do
  • And God will certainly work in us and through us to bring justice into the world – we are the agents through which God chooses to act – for better or worse, we are the hands and the feet and the voice of God in the world – if, then, God desires justice, and the prophets clearly believe that God does desire justice, then God will work with us to bring justice – again, prayer can help us to align our thinking with God’s thinking in matters of justice, among many other matters
  • But what if we were to deal with Jesus’ story without Luke’s commentary? – where would that lead us? – if we read only Jesus’ story, we read a troubling and troubled story about two people, both of whom are also troubling and trouble themselves – the widow demanding vengeance may be a troubled soul, and she certainly keeps troubling the judge – the judge may also be troubled, both by the widow and by a concern for his reputation in a certain city, and his willingness to let give in to the widow so that he does not get a “black eye” in town is also troubling
  • In what ways are our lives troubling and troubled? – do we find ourselves wanting vengeance against a person or a group of people? – are we willing to injure other people or their reputations in our quest for vengeance?
  • Maybe Jesus’ story calls us to wrestle with ourselves, with our self-perceptions, with our conscience, with our calling to be followers of Jesus and servants of God, in ways that we would rather avoid – maybe God is at work in us to transform us, and Jesus uses this story to encourage that transformation
  • Maybe this troubling and troubled story should upset us, as a grain of sand upsets an oyster, leading the oyster to create a pearl in order to ease the irritation – maybe there is a pearl, even, dare we hope, a pearl of great price, that will come out of us as we struggle to come to terms with Jesus’ story

III. Conclusion

  • There is a saying, which we usually credit to J.R.R. Tolkien, that says that not all those who wander are lost – for us to wander through Jesus’ stories and wonder what they might mean for us does not mean that we are moving away from Jesus or from his teaching – wandering and wondering what we should do with such troubling and troubled stories as this story of a widow and a judge can be a very good thing for us
  • Let us never fear to ask questions – let us never be afraid to go where Jesus’ stories take us – may God continue to trouble us always with difficult stories, because like the widow and the judge, we have a good deal to learn.