Invitation

Invitation

Luke 3:1-6 I love getting wedding invitations in the mail. I can tell something’s up before I even open the card:  the paper is heavier than normal; the address is in a careful calligraphy; the titles are of an Emily-Post-approved formality.  Everything about it says, “This is no regular piece of correspondence; this is something special.” Then I slip my thumb under the seal and open the flap to find… another envelope!  This one has our first names on it, as if we made it past security and now we can let our hair down and have some fun.  And then, the details are revealed.  Oh, the details!  When and where for the ceremony, when and where for the reception, and juicy little tidbits like, “Black tie optional.” The happy couple did a lot of work to get that invitation to me.  Now that it’s in my hands, it’s my turn!  Preparations need to be made.  I need to find the right dress – if it’s not in my closet, it’s at a storefront, somewhere!  We might need hotel reservations or a babysitter; we certainly need to send a gift. An invitation to a really special event demands a response from us – not just an RSVP, but all the things we need to do to get ready. If this is true for a wedding… it’s certainly true for the coming of Christ. Jesus’ arrival was so special, it was someone’s full time job to make the announcement.  That living invitation was John the Baptist, born for the express purpose of making the path to Jesus straight and obvious. ...
One King, One People

One King, One People

“Jesus is King!” Is it just me, or does that statement sound… political? I’m not trying to be political; I’m trying to be liturgical!  Today is “Christ the King” Sunday, a day on our church calendar when we remember that Christ is our King – and if you think about it, we talk about it a lot more than just today. When we recite the Apostles’ Creed, we say we believe that Jesus “sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” In the Lord’s Prayer we ask for God’s kingdom to come. When we recite those phrases out of rote memory, and they don’t sound fighting words… partly because they’re not.  Jesus said that his disciples wouldn’t be fighting for him because his kingdom isn’t of this world (John 18:36).  Later, Paul would reinforce that by encouraging the early Christians to respect the authority of their government (Romans 13:1).  Jesus can be our king even while we’re citizens of the Roman Empire or the United States of America. It’s cool.  It’s fine.  “Jesus is King” – we say it all the time. So why does it feel a little edgy to say it this year? I’m thinking it’s the midterm elections.  They were so intense, it’s like they left a political charge on everything.  But instead of dismissing that feeling, maybe we should indulge it for a moment – because when Christ was first discussed to be King, the words had a dangerous charge. In the first-century Roman world, there was no king but Caesar.  To make a grab for that title was a capital offense; it...
Two Dollars, or Everything

Two Dollars, or Everything

Mark 12:41-44 This is my favorite kind of story – the one where the underdog comes out on top. So it’s strange that I’m not too fond of it. Jesus is in the temple, watching people put money in the treasury.  If we translate this to today, we might put Jesus in a church balcony.  From his bird’s eye view he watches the service take place:  hymns are sung, prayers are said, a sermon is preached.  Then it comes time for the offering.   He watches the plates pass from one pew to another.  He sees a few people get out over-sized checkbooks and fill in the extra-large “amount” boxes.   They place their checks in the plates, unfolded, so everyone on their pew can be impressed as all those zeros float by. But not Jesus.  He’s not impressed.  His attention has moved elsewhere. Jesus is focused on a little old lady sitting in a far back corner.  The ushers either forgot her, or assumed she had nothing to give – the plate never came to her pew.  So she gets up and goes to the back of the church where the ushers are standing.  She places two crumpled up dollar bills in a offering plate.  The ushers smile politely. Back up in the balcony, Jesus waves and points to get his disciples to see what he’s seeing.  “What?  What happened?” they ask, a bit confused; some of them were daydreaming. “Did you see that widow give two dollars into the offering?” Jesus asks, his eyes a little misty with tears. “Yeah, I saw it,” one disciple responds.  Without thinking, he...
The Sincerest Form of Flattery

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Psalm 146 “Praise the LORD!  Praise the LORD, O my soul! I will praise the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have being” (Psalm 146:1-2). Let me tell you about this “praise” that the psalmist is talking about. For the most part, it means about what you’d think it means: praising like saying good things, bragging on someone.  But the Hebrew word halal has another meaning that interests me, something like “to act the fool.”  That struck me as odd; what do praise and foolishness have to do with each other? Then I thought of the exaggerated way that infatuated lovers brag on each other, multiplying their new boo’s good points to the extreme.  That kind of “praise” is wonderfully foolish. That’s what we’re supposed to do for God, for our whole lives long:  praise to the point of acting the fool. We do this because God is better than any lover we’ve ever been infatuated with.  God breathed us into life; God has saved us from our last breath.  From beginning to end and without our deserving it, God is at work for us. We praise God because God is good (all the time; and all the time, God is good!). And we also praise God because the alternative is so bad. “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish” (146:3-4). What we praise is what we value.  When I praise my children or my husband...
When Bad Things Happen to Someone Else

When Bad Things Happen to Someone Else

Previously, in Job:  bad things happened to a good person.  Job was a really good guy with a really good life. Then Satan suggested to God that Job might only be so good because he had it so good. So God gave Satan permission to test that theory.  Satan destroyed Job’s good life: no more wealth, no more children, and no more health. And when the dust from all that destruction settled, Job is left sitting in the dirt, scratching his painful sores with a piece of broken pottery. With that bleak setup, we’re almost ready for Job’s friends to enter the scene.  But before we read their story, stop and put yourself in their shoes.  Imagine you had a friend like Job.  What would you do for him?  What would you say?     I bet you’ve dealt with this question before, because if you have any friends at all (and I hope you do!) then odds are, they’ve had bad things happen.  Maybe you’ve had a friend who lost their retirement plan in a sickening stock market drop… or grieved the death of a child… or suffered with a debilitating illness. When that bad thing happened, did you know how to respond? Some people have a natural instinct for comforting others, but many of us do not.  It wasn’t a trait I was born with.  I remember two times in my teenage years when someone from our church youth group got sick in a scary way – stuck in the hospital or bedridden at home.  And my natural-born instinct was… nothing.  Either out of self-centeredness of lack of...
When Bad Things Happen and God Feels Distant

When Bad Things Happen and God Feels Distant

Job 23:1-9, 16-17 Previously, in Job:  bad things happened to a good guy. Job was a really good guy with a really good life.  He was rich; he had a big, loving family; and he was exceptionally devoted to God. But then! God had a chat with Satan (aka, “The Adversary,” aka, “The Accuser”).  Satan pointed out that Job’s good behavior might be inextricably linked to his good life situation.  To prove that wasn’t the case, God gave Satan the go-ahead to take away Job’s good life.  Then Job lost everything, rapid-fire:  livestock, servants, children, and finally, his health. Our story resumes with Job sitting on the ground and covered in sores.  Job is accompanied by a few friends; they’re debating the causes of and solutions to his problems. Job’s friend, Eliphaz, has just told him to repent – a frequent solution presented by the friends.  “You did something wrong, so stop whatever bad thing you’re doing and apologize to God!”  But Job knows better, and so do we.  Job hasn’t done anything wrong.  In fact, Job was doing everything right; his suffering came out of nowhere.  Job would like the chance to take his case before God and defend himself.  There’s just one problem: “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him” (Job 23:8-9). In other words:  Job can’t find God. Logically, this makes sense.  The test of Job’s goodness wouldn’t work if God showed back up too quickly.  God needs to step...
Bad Things Happen to Good People

Bad Things Happen to Good People

Job 1:1, 2:1-10 This is the story of a good guy named Job. And Job was a super good guy.  He wasn’t a Christian – Job lived long before Christ was born – but he sounds an awful lot like the kind of Christian I aspire to be.  He turned away from anything evil and turned toward God with all his respect and devotion.  He told the truth and did the right thing.  He got up early so he could make offerings to God.  He wanted his kids to not only do and say the right things, but even think the right things. I’d like to be more like Job. I have a feeling everyone wanted to be more like Job. Job was a really good guy. And why wouldn’t he be?  Look at his very good life! Job was straight-up rich.  He had 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 1,000 oxen, and 500 donkeys.  We’re also told that he had “many” servants.  Considering all those eating, pooping, and wandering animals – well, I’d dare say that necessitated a very many servants, indeed. Now, money can’t buy you love – but maybe 11,500 livestock can.  Job had 10 children – 7 sons and 3 daughters – and they all got along.  They were like best friends, constantly having each other over for dinner.  Oh the infinite parental joy, to sit at a meal with all your adult children around the table, laughing and enjoying each other! So, yes:  Job was a really good guy.  But he also had a super-good life.  And when you have it so good… then maybe being...
Where’s God?

Where’s God?

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10 and 9:20-22 If you think the Bible is boring, you need to read Esther.  It’s an action-packed story of drama and betrayal and heroes and villains.  It’s so good, it’s worth recapping the whole book.  But as I do, you have a job:  I want you to listen carefully for when God shows up. Ready? It starts with a King who has a huge kingdom, stretching from India to Ethiopia.  This King holds a 180 day banquet (yes, 1-8-0).  When it was supposed to be over, they invited more people and kept on partying for 7 more days.  Festivities like that are fun but they don’t always encourage good decision-making.  Like what the King decides to do after his 187-day banquet:  call for his Queen so he can parade her around like a pet in a dog show.  The Queen doesn’t want to be a dog on parade.  She refuses. The King is outraged.  So are his consultants.  “All the women are going to start standing up to their men!” they say.  “You better make an example of your Queen!” they say. The King takes the crown from his Queen as punishment.  And so begins a sort of first season of The Bachelor, as young women are gathered from all over the kingdom for a year’s worth of spa treatments that will make one of them King-worthy.  A Jew named Mordecai encourages his adopted daughter to play the game… and as soon as I tell you her name, you’ll know who won. Esther.  Make that:  Queen Esther! Right around the same time, Mordecai overhears a plan...
You Should Laugh

You Should Laugh

Genesis 18:1-15 Andrews United Methodist Church, what is God calling us to be? If you’re a regular attender of Andrews UMC, I bet you know the answer:  “A welcoming congregation of grace and growth through Jesus Christ.”   Every Sunday we repeat that call and response to remind us of our mission.  We are radically welcoming, and we are uniquely Wesleyan in our community (Wesleyans being about an abundance of grace and a lifetime of spiritual growth).  That’s who God has called us to be! But that clear mission is still open-ended.  We can be welcoming, full of grace, and intentional about growth in a lot of different ways.  How is God calling us to live into that mission? I believe that God will tell us.  Our job is to listen, and listen we have. Earlier this month we hosted 4 “Listening Sessions” at our church.  Each of these was attended by 15 or so church members who were prompted by questions to talk for 90 minutes about their loves and concerns and hopes for our church.  Meanwhile, I sat in the room and (mostly) resisted the urge to chime in. If you’re keeping score, that’s 6 hours of material from about 60 different people in our church.  Throughout, some themes began to emerge around what we value most, what could threaten those values, and where we hope to be in 3-5 years. What is God calling us to be? Let’s listen, and find out. What we value most:  Being a welcoming and caring community of faith. We’re a loving, friendly place for everyone – with a special place in...
Words & Rudders & Bridles

Words & Rudders & Bridles

James 3:1-12 I love words. My days revolve around words. When I wake up, I read the Word and then journal some of my own words in response. Then I spend much of my day using words to talk to people, and when there aren’t any people around, I’m prone to talk to myself. I have fun playing with word choice when I write sermons and blogs and articles. I’m even using words right now! I love words! And boy – do I hate words. Maybe “hate” is too strong – but words are dangerous, aren’t they? They fly out of our mouths with far too little regulation. They show our hands, betray our poker faces. They get misinterpreted. We go to bed at night or wake up in the morning thinking, “Why did I say that?” Words: So good; so harmful. James knows that the danger is real. He says it like this: “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire” (James 3:5-6). And if that doesn’t convince you of the imminent danger, listen to Smokey Bear. There’s a reason Smokey wants us to be so concerned about just a little spark: it can turn into an out-of-control blaze. Only YOU can prevent wildfires; only YOU can prevent gossip or slander or a betrayed confidence. We have to be constantly vigilant, dousing our campfires and holding our tongues. But that’s not all. A “wildfire” implies damage done out there – outside of ourselves. But words do inward damage, too. What we say shapes who we are and how we...