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Turning Tables – Washing Feet

posted May 18, 2019, 9:09 AM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated May 18, 2019, 9:10 AM ]

12 May 2019

John 13:1-16

Turning Tables – Washing Feet


I had a fairly routine medical procedure last Wednesday afternoon that necessitated spending 20 minutes up close with a young technician – someone about half my age, I’m sure – in a small examining room the kind of which you’ve all experienced.  The examination process didn’t allow much chit-chat, but when we were finished she politely inquired about the rest of my day.  Inwardly I grimaced a little and reported that I’d be spending the rest of the afternoon teaching a confirmation class.  She got this interesting expression on her face – certainly not an expression of pleasure, but not exactly a grimace, either, and responded, “Oh…I remember my confirmation class.”  


It was neither the time nor the place for an extended conversation on religious rites of passage, but I left the room pretty sure that her confirmation experience was mostly “something to be tolerated” – much more than it was something she remembered as life-enriching.


I wish I could stand here and report that our confirmands – Andrew, Ethan, Justin and Seth – had an utterly different kind of experience, but that probably wouldn’t be true.  I hope they experienced moments of insight and wonder – I’d like to think that in the coming months and years they might engage faith in ways slightly different than they would if they – we – hadn’t had all these Wednesday afternoon hours together.  Only time will tell about that.


Years ago – perhaps when those of you my age and older were confirmands – the process probably involved a lot of memorization – right?  Often there was a creed to be memorized, scripture to be memorized, answers to catechetical questions to be memorized.  The underlying assumption seemed to be that memorization would alter the course of a life.  I’m not here today to dismiss that notion – I think there’s something to be said for memorization, but in the age of Google, memorization does not strike most as nearly so compelling as it once did.  During our year together, this class of confirmands and I (and Lee) read a lot of Bible stories, and I did my best to help them get a handle on the big themes of the Bible, but on the whole, I didn’t work very hard to deliver answers – instead I tried to encourage thinking and questioning and curiosity.  In my life, at least, curiosity and the willingness to ask sometimes uncomfortable questions has enriched my life more than have someone else’s answers.  


You see, if there’s anything clear from the stories of the Gospels – these interesting books named after Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – it’s that the life of faith is less about answers and more about love and service.  


Our “Big Story of the Bible” for today is a bit out of order.  This story is from the day of the Last Supper – so it takes make to the day before the crucifixion.  You’ll understand, of course, that I chose it specifically for Confirmation Day.  It’s a story that on its face makes no sense in 2019.  After all, how often do you wash feet – other than your own?  Not very often, is my guess.  Yes, parents of young children do some foot washing, and those who care for persons who can’t care for themselves may wash feet, but the rest of us would never wash someone’s feet.  


But we mustn’t get distracted by the fact that foot-washing feels weirdly alien to us.  In Jesus’ time, foot-washing was about as common as greeting someone with a handshake or a friendly embrace would be today.  Well, except for one thing:  If you were the head of the household, you wouldn’t be the one washing the feet of your guests.   Instead, if you had domestic help (servants) they would do the foot-washing for you – otherwise your wife or your children would do it.  Foot-washing, you see, was something ordinary and unremarkable – but it wasn’t something that the boss of the house would do!  In a day when people walked everywhere they went and in a day of unpaved streets and open sandals, no matter how well you had bathed before you left home, by time you’d reach your destination, your feet would be dusty.  The sign of a gracious host was that he or she made arrangements to clean your feet.  


The point of this story isn’t the foot-washing itself – that was ordinary and unremarkable.  What would seem radical to the ancients wasn’t the washing, it was WHO DID the washing.  And who did the washing?  Well, we all know:  Jesus did.  Jesus turned the tables of what we expect from the master – the teacher – the head of the household.  Jesus deliberately took on the role of the servant to demonstrate that the way of leadership in the economy of God is service.  


That, in a nutshell, is my confirmation message today.  There are values and presumptions that prevail in 21st Century America – but many of them are not the values of Jesus.  And let us not think that our times are so much different from the times of Jesus!  No chief priest, or temple scribe, or conniving tax-collector would have dreamed of washing the feet of his guests – that was work for lower folk.  But Jesus – the teacher and master – takes the towel and fills the basin and exalts the work of the little person – makes it the most important work of all.   


As much as there are days that we prefer to put a suit on Jesus and make him into a respectable businessman, the fact is, Jesus is a table-turner and he invites us to be something of the same.  It isn’t that he invites us to make trouble just to be obnoxious – no, Jesus invites us to understand the principle that the well don’t need a doctor, but the sick do.  The wealthy can take care of themselves (or at least they think they can), but the poor know they are living on a shoestring.  The powerful make the rules, but the powerless know they are at the mercy of those who have no idea what their lives are like.  


Jesus invites us – our confirmands, yes – but everyone of us to also be table-turners.  Jesus says – if you don’t have much, well come to me and I’ll care for you.  And if you DO have a bit (and most of us do!), then do like me, and use it for others who aren’t so powerful, wealthy, privileged, healthy, whatever, as are you.  Be foot-washers!!


Confirmation, you see, is just another way to talk about following Jesus – another way to talk about being like Jesus.  So, put your Jesus glasses on and choose to see your neighbors like he did.  When we do, folk we otherwise fail to see, start showing up everywhere we look, and we begin to think differently about the poor and immigrants and the mentally ill, and prisoners and so on.  These, of course, are the people whose feet Jesus washed.  These are folk Jesus invites us to serve.  Perhaps this is what confirmation is really all about.  


My goodness.  Or perhaps to put it as Jesus might, this is our chance to be actors in the kingdom – the realm – of God.


Amen!  God, give us courage.  Amen!


Right Before Our Eyes!!

posted May 8, 2019, 11:06 AM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated May 8, 2019, 11:06 AM ]

5 May 2019

Luke 24:13-35


Right Before Our Eyes!!


Cleopas and his companion are returning home.  


And after all, why shouldn’t they?  After all the hope and expectation, it turns out (apparently) to have been nothing but hype.  They had been convinced – as sure as can be – that Jesus was the one: THE ONE!!  The Messiah…. the one who would restore to Israel its freedom and destiny.  


They had left home to follow him.  Perhaps they’d given up a lot.  We don’t know for sure.  The story only gives us the barest of detail.  But after a raucous week of triumphal entry and temple clearing and healing and teaching and we don’t know what-all-else – it all came to a jarring, traumatic, utterly depressing end.  Jesus was arrested and swiftly convicted and executed – all in a matter of hours.  Their heads were still spinning – and stomachs churning, for that matter.  Whereas only a few days ago it had felt exhilarating to be with Jesus, now it felt slightly dangerous to be associated with him.  How committed were the local leaders to erasing the influence of this troubling man?  Would they be content now that the leader himself was no more?  Or might the authorities be worried that other troublemakers might still stir up trouble?  Perhaps it was dangerous to remain in Jerusalem?  Perhaps it was time to go home and see if their old jobs were still available and pick up the pieces and get on with life.


We don’t know any of this for sure – the storyteller Luke just gives us the skeleton of the story and leaves it to us to fill in the spaces – to put muscle on the bone, as it were.


In any case, we know this for sure.  Even while the 12 (well, now the 11) were still gathered back in the city, probably debating among themselves what to do next, these two decided to leave.  


Even if, however, they are heading home to get on with life, the story of which they’ve been a part has crept into the crevices of their existences.  They can’t escape it quite that easily.  This business of having been with Jesus couldn’t be casually laid aside like some old shirt.  Even in the midst of their confusion and disappointment and fear, the story still burned within them.  


And so, as they walked along, when they were joined by a stranger, they couldn’t help but reprocess what happened.  We’re told clearly that they did not recognize this man.  Could he be trusted with their story?  Remember, on the night of betrayal just three days earlier, Peter – brave, strong, impetuous Peter – when asked if he were one of the man’s followers, protested that he’d never heard of him.  We mustn’t misunderstand the gravity of the situation.  To be associated with Jesus at this point could be dangerous.  But the story was like glue.  Even if they were running away, the story was still with them.  It had crept into the crevices of their minds and into the tiny cracks of their hearts.  Even while they walked away, they carried the story in their bodies and souls.  It had become part of who they were.  And so, quite in spite of potential danger, when the stranger (pun weakly intended!) asked what they were talking about – it all spilled out.  


I think their response is a sign of grief.  Grief, you see, will have its way.  Loss cannot just be walked away from.  Death is powerful and the human temptation to think that on the day after a loved one dies, I’ll be able to get up and resume life just like nothing has happened is absurd and dangerous.  Grief will have its way, and if we don’t give it space to work itself out in tears and anger and passing depression, then it may eventually work itself out in ways more insidious and destructive – in addictive behaviors and in choices that turn out to destroy rather than to heal.  


Even if these two characters (are they two men?  Is this perhaps a man and his wife?  We don’t know.) – even as these two are high-tailing it out of town to save their own skins, we must give them some credit for the honesty of their grief.  When asked what’s wrong, they don’t lie and say, “Oh, nothing.”  No, these two spill the beans.  And as it turns out, the honesty of their grief turns into their salvation!


The stranger – we know him to be Jesus, but they don’t – hears them out.  Don’t you suppose Jesus might have judged them?  If it had been you or me in Jesus’ place, don’t you think there’s a chance we might get on our high horse and denounce the two as fair-weather friends who can’t be trusted to hang in there on the day when a friend is truly needed the most badly.  


Yes, Jesus does start his part of the conversation with these bracing words, “Oh, how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe!”  But to my ears, at least, especially given what he goes on to say and do, these words don’t seem to carry implications of condemnation – they are affectionate and honest and caring – I think they are sad, but still hopeful.  


And so, we are told, Jesus walks with them and gives them an impromptu course in Old Testament Prophecy of the Messiah.  Can you imagine that conversation?  I hardly can, but I’d give most anything to have been along for the walk!  


I have a friend from my Platteville days – a superb educator – who began speaking of “teachable moments” back in the 1980’s before the phrase become so widely known.  When something would go unexpectedly – often unexpectedly wrong – Dave wasn’t inclined to cry over spilled milk.  Instead Dave was inclined to wonder what might be learned.  


Jesus seems to have mastered the skill of using teachable moments centuries ago.  In the face of loss and seeming hopelessness, Jesus would teach.  He was a practitioner of the “teachable moment.”


As we know, of course, Jesus ended his time with these two disciples at a meal table.  As he broke bread – which so far as we know he hadn’t done since his Passover meal with the 12 the prior Thursday evening – the two “had their eyes opened” and they realized they were in the presence of in – in the company of – Jesus.  At the same instant, Jesus was no longer with them, but their lives were instantly changed.  Whatever it was that had seemed so important back in Emmaus no longer mattered – now what mattered was getting back to Jerusalem and back to the other disciples so that the astounding message of Jesus’ resurrection could be shared.


There is so much that could be said about this story.  I want to emphasize just two things – the first is probably obvious – the 2nd is probably not so obvious, and maybe even more astounding than the first.


The first observation is that meeting the resurrected Jesus changes things.  It reorders the direction of life.  Lots of people know things about Jesus but have never really come into life-changing relationship with Jesus.  Knowing about Jesus is certainly not bad, but it isn’t the same as a relationship.  I would hazard that up to this day, these two really only knew about Jesus – but that in the encounter at the meal table, they met Jesus – seemingly for the first time – and it changed everything.  


Secondly, we mustn’t miss the significance of those to whom Jesus reveals himself.  The resurrection appearances of Jesus are a little hard to sort out – given the varying accounts of the 4 Gospels – but the following scenario for Easter Sunday day seems very likely.  Jesus appears:


  1. First, to the women.  Remember, women in Jesus’ day were even more depreciated and disvalued than is the case today.  Women couldn’t testify in court, they couldn’t enter the temple, they couldn’t officially own property (though in reality, they sometimes did).  Women didn’t matter – and it was to women to whom Jesus first appeared.  Their testimony to his appearance wouldn’t have held up in court – and God says, “Tough to human ideas of propriety and value.  I value things differently.”  This should cause all of us to sit up and wonder, “Do I value people and things the way God does?”
  2. Secondly, Jesus appears to the couple on the way to Emmaus.  As I’ve already said, we don’t know much about these two, but it doesn’t stretch imagination much to suppose they were frightened and running away – in the parlance of some, they were quitters.  Jesus goes out of his way to appear to a couple quitters.  Hmmm.  I wonder at the lesson that this should teach us.
  3. Finally (that is, lastly), Jesus appears to the 12 (well, to the 10 – 12 minus Judas and Thomas!).  These are the Apostles – the leaders – the men – the ones who matter (by human valuations!).  And Jesus DOES eventually appear to them – they do matter to Jesus – but first he appears to the ones who seemingly DON’T matter so much!


In the economy of God – the first are last, the last are first!  In the economy of God, those are humanly devalued, are revalued and those who are overvalued, are taken down just a notch or two.  In the economy of God things that “are not” are made supremely important, and things that humans regard as worth dying for, are put in the corner for further examination…. later on.


In a moment we’ll share at this table.  It’s a mystical table – sometimes it’s just a little bit of bread and juice.  But other times, it’s almighty God – and on those occasions our world might just be turned upside down.  I pray that my world gets turned upside down.  I pray that yours does, too!


Christ in risen!  Christ is risen, indeed!  Amen.

We Have Seen Strange Things Today!

posted May 2, 2019, 1:45 PM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated May 2, 2019, 1:45 PM ]

28 April 2019

Luke 5:17-26


We Have Seen Strange Things Today!


Mark Twain – not generally considered a theologian of note – once made an observation about the Bible that seems spot on.  He is reported to have said, “It’s not the parts of the Bible that I CAN’T understand that bother me, it’s the parts I do!”  Well, actually, he used the word “ain’t”!


Twain is right.  The Bible is filled with content that is next to impossible to understand.  After all, it was written by an odd assortment of both sophisticated and unsophisticated writers over a period of perhaps 2000 years in cultures extraordinarily different from our own.  There’s no reason we should expect all of it to be easy to understand.


To be honest, I’d go one step further than Twain and suggest that the surprising thing isn’t that parts of the Bible are hard to grasp…. what I find remarkable is that so much of it is not at all hard to grasp.  It’s just so often not what we’d prefer to hear.


In our journey through the Big Stories of the Bible, the folk who compiled the list necessarily made decisions to omit various stories that a different curator might have included.  There’s a Genesis story that I’d have included that they didn’t – the story of the Tower of Babel.


Without getting into much detail, the story of the Tower of Babel is an ancient account of human hubris.  It’s a story about the fundamental instinct of humankind to think more highly of ourselves than what we ought to think.  To put it differently, Babel is an account of the human inclination to make ourselves into gods – to imagine that we don’t really need any god other than ourselves.  In the Babel story, “sophisticated” humankind jointly aspires to build a tower into heaven.  The symbolism here is so obvious as almost to be insulting.  The remarkable aspiration of the tower builders was to accomplish by their own effort that which God suggests is impossible for humanity – to save ourselves.  The Babel story illustrates a depressingly recurrent feature of human delusion – we are often unable (or unwilling) to acknowledge or recognize our truest need.


At Babel, God intervened to stop the remarkable engineering project of building a tower to heaven.  Not because it was somehow “naughty” but because if left unchallenged it would doom humankind to wallow in its (our!) error of delusion and self-grandiosity.  


Sin, you see, is not in its essence being bad – sin in its essence is imaging that all by myself I’m competent to determine good and wrong.  Sin mustn’t be thought of fundamentally as naughtiness – sin is the arrogance of imagining that I don’t need God – that all by myself I can sufficiently manage my life.  Or, to put it differently and more bluntly – sin is the arrogance of making myself into God.  Sin isn’t so much saying bad words or doing naughty things – sin is self-idolatry.  Sin is imagining that life is really all about me, thank you.  


This, I suspect, is what annoyed Twain.  You see, in the midst of all the difficult trivia to be found in the Bible, there is this bedrock and divine assertion:  “You, humankind, are not the creator.  You are the creation.  You are a good creation – a VERY GOOD creation, but life isn’t fundamentally about you – life is about joy and justice – it’s about grace and forgiveness – it’s about love and service – it’s about humility and peace.”


And so it was that untold generations after Babel, a band of 4 friends brought a needy man to Jesus.  So focused was their intention to present their needy friend to Jesus that mere inconvenience would be no impediment to their project.  The house where Jesus was teaching that day was jam-packed with folk with a variety of agendas.  There were certainly many who were flabbergasted by and drawn to the way this teacher upset the status quo and interpreted the law to be about service and doing good and ensuring justice for the weak and powerless.  But there were others in the house whose motivations were more selfish.  There were influential men who found Jesus’ message to be dangerously provocative.  The keepers of the status quo were alert to anything that might upset the apple cart that they so carefully tended.  Jesus showed signs that he might be trouble – they kept their eyes on him.


In any case, the 4 friends of this man – in our language a paraplegic – had heard stories which led them to believe that Jesus might be exactly what their paralyzed friend most needed.  When they saw that it would be impossible to carry their stretcher into the house, they were undeterred.  They made their way to the roof (most houses in those days in that place had flat roofs that were actually an extension of the house’s living space).  Once over the spot where Jesus below was teaching, they dug through the roof (what was to the diggers, of course, the floor) and lowered their friend to Jesus.  


And just as they had hoped, Jesus took compassion.  But I suspect that the words that came from his mouth were not what the friends had anticipated – nor were they the words the friends desired.  Jesus did not speak words of physical healing – Jesus spoke words of forgiveness.


Like most stories – there are any number of ways to understand what’s going on here.  Stories don’t have just one meaning – they frequently are multilayered and teach a variety of lessons.  In this story, the lesson we usually gravitate to is the confrontation that ensues between the religious teachers and Jesus.  They take offense to his suggestion that he might be competent and authorized to forgive sin.  This is a no-brainer for them.  The only authority competent to forgive sin is God, and to achieve that forgiveness, the sinner must travel to the temple with a sacrifice and thereby seek God’s mercy.  This is an important point – but I want us to consider the story from a different angle.  What I hope we might take away with us this morning is the way Jesus presumes to know what the man really needs – needs even more than what he and his friends had imagined was his need.


Yes, Jesus does eventually restore the use of the man’s legs.  It is a remarkable thing.  


But make no mistake, Jesus first did something that the man needed even more – he forgave his sin.  


What Jesus did in this story can easily be misunderstood.  The ancients (not unlike many folk in 21st century America) were inclined to imagine that bad things happened to people as a direct consequence of their sin.  We might imagine that this kind of punitive thinking no longer holds sway, but think for a moment.  Have you in recent years ever heard any well-known figure suggest that a hurricane might visit a particular city because of the sin of that city?  A couple decades ago do you recall similar comments about AIDS being God’s judgment on people living a certain so-called lifestyle?  


There is no hint in this story that Jesus viewed the man’s disability as related to any particular sin that the man himself might have committed.  No, Jesus forgives the man to make a different point.  Everyone in the house that day “knew” what the man needed: to be healed of disability.  But Jesus first healed him of that which the man himself may have been only vaguely aware – that he was a sinner who needed a new and freer relationship with God and with others.  


And I’m certain that Jesus wasn’t just saying this about the paralyzed man, he was saying it about every man, woman and child who was within earshot that day.  Jesus claims to know human need better than humans know it themselves – better than we know it ourselves!


Did the man need his physical disability cured?  Of course.  But before offering that kind of healing, Jesus announces that this man isn’t much different from every other human in the house.  And Jesus proceeded to address the more universal need before moving on to the man’s particular need.  


Like the paraplegic, we may imagine that we know what we need.  And in a sense, we may be right.  But at the same time we may be wrong – desperately wrong.  Just as the men and women of Babel figured they could save themselves by building a tower into heaven, and just as the well-meaning friends of the paraplegic imagined their friend could be “fixed” if only they could get him to Jesus, so we often imagine that our lives would be just about perfect if only this, that, or the other thing was remedied.  


And in the face of such human certitude, Jesus asks us that we lay aside our certainties and allow him to give us whatever it is that he knows we need most.  For in Jesus, we encounter the assessment of God.


In a sense, today’s sermon is about humility.  Today’s sermon is about the willingness to swallow our certainties about ourselves (and about others) and instead acknowledge our limitations and ask God to do for us whatever God knows is ultimately best for us.  


That might include a physical healing – and it might not.  It might entail the removal of a vexing situation – and it might not.  


Letting God be God and resolving to follow God with humility and openness takes an awful lot of grace and determination.  In the end, however, it is the way to that which we could never provide for ourselves – true healing, true life, true hope.


In fact, it is the Gospel!  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

EMPTY!!

posted Apr 25, 2019, 3:28 PM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated Apr 25, 2019, 3:28 PM ]

21 April 2019 – EASTER

Luke 24:1-12


EMPTY!!


There is very little of life-changing significance that comes from the expected.  When life unfolds pretty much as anticipated, it is easy – indeed almost inevitable – that we remain entrenched in existing assumptions and convictions.


But when the unexpected intrudes, doors are opened to new insight and growth.


Following Jesus had been a remarkable trip for those first men and women who encountered him in the Galilean hillsides.  Jesus brought new light to the ancient faith that they and their ancestors had followed for countless generations.  The rules, rituals and presumptions of that ancient faith were deeply ingrained.  The scholars and teachers could argue endlessly over arcane details of the Mosaic law, but the overarching story and practice was not in dispute:  Offer the required sacrifices, obey the rules, participate in the rituals – these were the disciplines God required.  


Into this (quite small, to be honest) world of settled religious conviction and faith came a teacher who taught and interpreted the faith in ways that both fascinated and for some, infuriated.  Jesus NEVER contradicted the revelation of Moses and the teachings of the prophets, but he frequently interpreted them in ways the people had never before encountered.


Over and over in the Gospel record we find these kinds of assertions, “You have heard it said…. but I say to you.”  This sort of implied authority was novel and stunning and certainly disconcerting.  The teachers of the day rarely claimed innovative insight into the law, instead they reiterated that which had been taught for centuries.  


Again and again Jesus challenged prevailing assumptions.  “Indeed,” he would say, “the law DOES prescribe this or that rule and ritual, but it’s the spirit of the thing that matters, not the letter.”  


This approach to the faith was novel and exhilarating but it was probably not unprecedented.  There were likely other innovative souls who dared challenge the prevailing interpretation of the ancient faith.  We are right to attend carefully to the ways in which Jesus diminishes faith as a matter of rule-keeping and exalts a kind of faith that is heart & spirit-based.  


But ultimately, that isn’t why we are here today.  Our brand of faith – this thing we call Christianity – ultimately was birthed because of the stunning unexpectedness of a thing that WASN’T, rather than a thing that was!


After a head-spinning three years of teaching and miracles, Jesus sufficiently offended and threatened the existing powers-that-were that they successfully conspired together to eliminate him.  Jesus was convicted of political sedition on charges that were mostly contrived and trumped up.  He died the death of a common criminal and his followers scattered for fear of their own lives.


But never underestimate the power of love!  Even though it had to be risky to venture to the tomb of this convicted traitor, there were women who could not stay away (we’ll not belabor the observation, gentlemen, that the first visitors to the tomb were not the disciples – who ordinarily get all the press).  These faithful women could not stay away because of love.  His body had not been properly prepared for burial – there hadn’t been time for that – and consequently after the Sabbath was ended – just as soon as was practically feasible, a group of mourning women gathered the necessary supplies and made their mournful way to a rich man’s tomb in which, ironically, a poor man who preached hope to other poor folk – had been laid.


I do not think there is any way to reproduce the emotional impact of the stunning discovery they made.  The tomb was empty.  We’re heard this story all our lives and are consequently unsurprised by their discovery.  But what if you went to the fresh grave of a recently deceased loved one and found it empty?  What would you think?  What would you do?


The power and surprise of resurrection is sometimes to be experienced in emptiness.  Emptiness is often presumed to be bad.  Who wants to go the cupboard and find it bare?  None of us do.  Who wants to take pen to write a check and find no balance against which the check might be drawn?   Who wants to face a physical challenge and find insufficient physical vitality for the challenge of the day?  Indeed, emptiness is often a tragedy.


But sometimes emptiness can work the other way around.  Sometimes life deals us bad hand after bad hand.  Sometimes we accumulate experiences and memories that abuse us and disappoint us and cheat us and wear us down.  The cupboard of our hearts and minds and spirits can sometimes be filled to overflowing with that which teaches us that we are nothing, that the good life is only for others, that health and vitality can never be experienced, that life only dishes injustice and disappointment and abuse and death.


What if the cupboard of disappointment and injustice and death were suddenly and unexpectedly emptied?  What would that be like?  Could it change a life?  Could it change your life?  


It may seem magical that such an emptying could occur…. but did it not seem preposterous that the grave of Jesus might be empty?  Of course it seemed preposterous, because it WAS preposterous.  Such things DO NOT happen.  The dead do not come to life.


Except, of course, in the economy of God where all sort of settled things become unsettled and all sort of other unsettled things become calm and right and good.  


The empty tomb of Jesus is not just an ancient story – it is the tantalizing prospect that injustice and loss and death can still be unexpectedly and miraculously emptied from the lives of those for whom life is more like death than it is like life.  We follow Jesus today because faith teaches us that just when it seems we will drown in loss and death, God wills to take those things away – to empty our lives of them – and then invite us to become partners with God in bringing life and hope to our neighborhoods and communities – indeed a whole world that is caught in the throes of sickness and sin and death.  


The tomb was empty!  He was not there!  He was – and is! – risen!  


At the communion table we have a chance to meet the risen Christ.  Sometimes communion is a remembrance of his death and there are times that is needed.  But this morning, the table is a reminder that the tomb was empty – that he is alive and ready to feed us exactly what we need to be similarly alive.  


Come and eat, my friends.  Come and live.


He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Amen and amen!

What to Do with a Troublemaker?

posted Apr 17, 2019, 2:29 PM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated Apr 17, 2019, 2:29 PM ]

14 April 2019 – PALM SUNDAY

Mark 11:1-11, 15-18, 15:1-13

 

What to Do with a Troublemaker?

 

It’s not in our hymnbook (nor in any others that I looked at) but the title is well-known:  “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild.”

 

It’s a poem by the famous Charles Wesley – but so far as I can tell it’s not even been set to music in any Methodist hymnal.  Do you wonder why not?

 

Maybe because it’s just a little too simplified and uncomplicated to be accurately helpful.  On the one hand, I’m quite sure we are justified in understanding Jesus to be the epitome of humility and grace.  On the other hand, the connotation of “meek and mild” just doesn’t fit.  Just because someone is possessed of humility does not necessarily make them unassertive or passively subject to abuse.  Jesus, it seems, was bothhumble and assertive.  Palm Sunday and the days which immediately follow may help us better grasp the complexity of our Savior!

 

The outlines of the story are well known and beloved.  Jesus, we are taught, had set his face to Jerusalem.  He would celebrate this Passover with his followers in the shadow of the Temple.  Even if it wasn’t yet clear to his disciples (in spite of multiple and no-so-subtle hints), Jesus seems clear that this Passover will be his last in their midst. 

 

Almost everything about these several days – what we call “Holy Week” – seem to be choreographed.  And the choreography seems to belong to Jesus alone.  Certainly, the disciples show no insight into Jesus’ intentions, nor do they betray being knowing accomplices.  What happens this week is Jesus living out the intentional consequence of his mission.  

 

So, Jesus sends two of them ahead to borrow a donkey’s colt.  I can well imagine the consternation of the two: We’re just to take this animal and its owners won’t object?  It almost seems Jesus had pre-arranged the loan.  The text only hints – we can never know for sure.  

 

The symbolism of the choice of an immature donkey has been widely noticed. Kings, of course, often entered grandly into the places they ruled and conquered.  They came riding on beautiful white stallions or standing in a chariot pulled by such a grand creature.  Their subjects welcomed them with cheers and acts of submission.  In our parlance, they laid the “red carpet,” which meant waving palms and laying articles of clothing in the street.  

 

Jesus chooses to enter Jerusalem riding the colt of a donkey.  It’s absurd.  It’s deliberately absurd.  Jesus seems to be saying, “Indeed, I am a King – but not like any King you’ve ever heard of!”  

 

The oppressed people, of course, respond as they would have to any esteemed royal figure who perhaps offered liberation.  They wave the palm branches and they lay clothing in the street as an impromptu red carpet.  

 

But there’s a danger in imagining this event this way.  It’s a danger that needs to be named and then avoided.  Just because Jesus is not interested in personally claiming political power does not mean he is no threat to the existing political powers.  One of the most dangerous impulses of modern Protestantism is the suggestion that Jesus isn’t interested in the everyday commercial and political and social matters of this world.  Many suggest that faith is a matter of “Jesus and me” and that’s it.  That believing in Jesus is entirely about eternal life in some age to come, but that it is not the business of followers of Jesus to comment on social or political issues.  

 

Both the religious leaders and the political leaders of Jesus’ day knew better than that.  They weren’t stupid, you know.  None of them likely imagined that Jesus longed to be the new Roman Emperor, or Jewish High Priest – they knew that.  But even so they knew he was a threat – and they were right!

 

When we celebrate Palm Sunday and then move without break to Easter Sunday, we can hardly but miss the whole point of the resurrection.   What happened between the adulation of the crowds and the mystical rebirth on Easter Sunday?  Well, partly we know.  He died – or to be more accurate, he was crucified – lynched would be a fair way to put it.  

 

How did that come to pass?  Why would the authorities be so threatened by a guy who enters the city riding on a donkey? 

 

Well, follow with me.  Mark and historical logic both give us powerful hints.  At the end of the entry day Jesus stands within sight of the Temple but does nothing.  What is that about?  Reflection probably.  Grief almost certainly.  A mixture of anger with both, I’m sure.  What Jesus sees at the temple infuriates him and breaks his heart – both.  It is, after all, his Father’s house.  A place intended as a house of prayer – a gift for all the nations – a place where justice and peace and equity should prevail. And what does Jesus see?  He sees commerce – the buying and selling of the means of worship.  Commerce isn’t evil per se– we oughtn’t draw that conclusion, but neither can commerce be elevated to the place of ultimate importance.  That is why the Gospel cannot be made servant to any economic system – Christian faith does not ultimately endorse – or condemn – capitalism or socialism or any other economic system.  Instead Christian faith critiques all economic and political systems – how do they treat those with little power?  Are they oriented to health and equality?  How do they treat outsiders and aliens?  These are all questions of profound Godly interest.  

 

Jesus, it is quite clear, did not intend to become high priest or emperor, but it also clear that he intended to criticize both emperor and high priest.  So, after surveying the Temple and what was happening there, he left the city for the night.  But in the morning he returned and set in motion his critique. He approached the sellers of sacrificial animals and made a scene – turning over their table and making a general mess of the place.  This wasn’t, I don’t think we can imagine, a spontaneous outburst – the sort of thing that later in the week he might reflect upon and say, “I’ve no idea what came over me.”  No… this was premeditated and intentional.  Jesus did exactly what he intended to do.  He had thought about it all evening – he woke knowing exactly what he must do.

 

And remember – this wasn’t just any week – this was Passover week.  What is Passover?  Passover is the most important of the Jewish holy days.  It is the commemoration of the release of their enslaved ancestors from Egypt.  Passover is about God’s passion for the downtrodden.  It should be easy for you and me to understand that when wealthy and comfortable people celebrate Passover it’s a nice historical remembrance.  But when the poor and put-upon celebrate Passover, it might be dangerous.  Both Pilate – the political leader, Caesar’s appointee – and the priests (who hold their positions with Pilate’s consent) understand that Passover is dangerous.  And that makes Jesus dangerous.  

 

And even so, Pilate still isn’t convinced that crucifying Jesus is a good idea. We aren’t given entre into Pilate’s mind – we aren’t told why he had an impulse to release Jesus – maybe he had an inkling of what could – in fact DID – happen.  Perhaps he had an inkling that executing Jesus makes him a martyr.  But if he did, he wasn’t so set on it that he was willing to defy the priests and their supporters in the crowd.  

 

And so, Jesus was killed – lynched, in modern parlance.  Just as decades ago crowds gathered to watch the uppity negro be hung from a tree (and thereby keep others in their places), so Jesus was hung from a tree of sorts – as a sign to others who might imagine that freedom and equality might be something not entirely out of reach.  Don’t forget your place, poor people!!

 

The story doesn’t end with the lynching, of course, but for today it’s our stopping point.  We’ll need to return next week to get the next chapters in the story of God’s love for broken humankind.  This story of ours – it’s not always pretty, but it’s powerful and in the end it is full of hope.  

 

So, my friends, things may appear bleak – things may BE bleak – but God is never stymied by evil and oppression.  There is hope for reversal – there is hope for justice – there is hope for grace and love.  Come back next week and we’ll go there!  

 

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild?  No, not really.  But willing to die for a higher purpose – the purposes of salvation and love.  This is amazing!

 

Amen.  

 

 

 

 

When the Wine Runs Out

posted Apr 9, 2019, 5:03 AM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated Apr 9, 2019, 5:03 AM ]

7 April 2019

John 2:1-11


When the Wine Runs Out


In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  God did this, we are taught, in 6 poetic stages referenced in the text as “days.”  To be sure, we aren’t to understand these days as literal 24-hour days – after all, the sun itself wasn’t created until the 4th day…. and without the sun, literal days would be nonsensical!


In any case, at the end of each poetic day, God makes an observation of judgment – “It was good!”  In fact, at the very end God observes that the whole creation is “very good.”


Well, it might have seemed good to God, but sometimes the objects of that creation – people like you and me – experience created life as less than good.  When sickness and unprofitable milk prices and relationship break-ups and political division and troubles that range from small to international are the stuff of everyday experience, how can any of this be imagined as “good?”


It’s possible, of course, to play the blame game here.  After all, the second creation story – the one in Genesis 2 pulls no punches in asserting that humans themselves – as represented by Adam and Eve – have no one but themselves to blame for the trials and tribulations of life.  In deciding that we would make gods of ourselves, we’ve forsaken the blessings of God and have wandered into paths of hardship and death.


There is truth in this observation, of course.  But as people of faith we are invited to a more hopeful perspective.  As people of faith we are invited to recognize that on the one hand, God acknowledges the freedom of humanity to spurn God and try to manage life on our own.


But on the other hand, we are similarly invited to open our eyes to the ongoing activity of God by which God seeks to woo us back from self-centered destruction and to enter into God’s stunning offer of grace and life.  


How do I know this?  I know this because the Bible is full of stories like the changing of water into wine at a wedding feast in a little town named Cana.  


As the Gospel writer John tells the story, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry his mother, Mary, and Jesus and Jesus’ first disciples are invited to a wedding in the town of Cana.  Almost nothing is known of this town – in the Bible only John makes mention of it.  We can surmise that it must have been near to Nazareth.  Perhaps Jesus’ (earthly) father Joseph had done carpentry work for relatives of the marrying couple and that accounts for this invitation.  In fact, John doesn’t consider it important to explain WHY Jesus was there – what was important was that he was there.


The wedding ritual itself isn’t mentioned – we move directly to the reception and what we’re told is that there’s an embarrassing disaster in the making – there’s not enough wine for all those who’ve come.  Mary seems interested in helping to avert this disaster-in-the-making.  She quietly comes to Jesus and whispers, “They are running out of wine.”  


What did she want him to do?  To take his followers away so there’d be that many fewer mouths consuming the insufficient wine?  To run down to the convenience store and buy a few boxes of Franzia?  Well, we’re not told.  What we are told is that Jesus does not respond in what seems the most helpful of ways.  Instead of jumping to helpful attention, he whispers back to his mother, “Mom, how is this any of our business?”


Like many Biblical stories, this one is filled with fascinating side-stories.  The mini-argument between Mary and Jesus is fascinating.  But it isn’t the point.  The way in which Mary takes control and tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them do – when Jesus himself hasn’t given any indication that he plans to do ANYTHING, is interesting, but also isn’t the point.  


What’s the point?  The point is what Jesus does.  He tells the servants to fill six large water jugs (they are REALLY large – maybe 25 gallons each?) with water.  The servants do as they are told.  Without further ado Jesus tells them to take a sample of the contents – which you’d assume to be water – to the emcee of the party.  The emcee tastes the “water” and exclaims to the bridegroom, “Most folk serve the better wine first and then after the guests are past the point of being able to tell the difference, they roll out the cheap stuff, but you’ve saved the very best for last!!”


Well, the bridegroom hadn’t, but that’s not the point either.  The point is simple – in the face of messed up planning, Jesus miraculously produces about 150 gallons of wine.  In the moment just before embarrassing disaster strikes, Jesus quietly conjures up an absurdly large volume of very good wine.  


It is not my point to downplay the realities of sickness and alienation and disappointment and loss and finally, death.  These are all real things that break our hearts and threaten to break our spirits.  The world into which each of us has been born seethes with trouble, and even though no one of us got it started, each one of us, in our own fumbling ways contributes to failure and disappointment and loss.  To put it metaphorically, we’re like the bride and groom in Cana who didn’t do their math to ensure that there would be enough to feed the guests they’d invited to share their happy day.  They intended no malice by their lack of planning, but they messed up, nonetheless.


And in the face of this mess-up – Jesus saves the day.  He doesn’t barely save the day, he goes over the top by producing hugely more than what they could ever need, and then doesn’t even claim credit.  


This story, of course, isn’t meant to tell us that it’s okay to plan poorly – that Jesus can be counted on to step into our self-created messes and bail us out.  That’s not the point.  The point is, Jesus is not content to watch human beings make a colossal mess of the good universe that God created by love and grace and purpose.  The point is that life was intended to be something like a wedding party – life was intended to be good and joyful and celebratory, but for a whole lot of reasons – some of which we can understand and some of which you and I will NEVER understand – things go badly.  Jobs are lost.  Relationships sour.  Health deteriorates.  The world goes to hell in a hand-basket.  


And God’s heart is broken.  This is never what God intended.  This is not what God wants for God’s children.  


This story is meant to challenge us to imagine that things can be whole again.  This story is meant to remind us that sometimes on the very day that we imagine to be our biggest celebration (maybe like a wedding?), disaster can be just around the corner and we’d never even seen it coming.  


And, this story is meant to remind us that God knows all of this and can make 150 gallons of wine (when maybe all that was really needed was a few bottles!) so that the joy that God wants for every human – young and old, black, brown and white, American and otherwise, rich and poor, privileged and struggling – that all are invited to God’s party and that at God’s party there will be enough – in fact, there will be more than enough.


Would like to attend this party?  You’re invited!  


Amen.





Getting Hooked

posted Apr 4, 2019, 6:16 AM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated Apr 4, 2019, 6:18 AM ]

31 March 2019

Matthew 4:12-23, 9:9-13


Getting Hooked


There is a very old story about truth that goes like this:


It was “Show and Tell” day at kindergarten and the little boy knew exactly what he wanted to show.  The family cat had just given birth to a litter of kittens and he wanted to take one of them to school.  I don’t know if that would be permitted today, but in this story it happened.  And the kitten was a hit!  The children – rather predictably – loved it.  They oohed and aahed and begged to hold it and pet it.  Before long one of the little girls asked the question that everyone should have known was coming – “Is it a boy or a girl?”  The little boy didn’t know, and so they took a vote and determined it was a girl by a margin of 15-9.


So…. was the kitten a boy or girl?  For the children, the vote settled the matter.  But the vote probably didn’t change any biological realities.


This story, of course, is about truth.  It pushes us to examine our assumptions about majority opinion and reality.  If a majority likes a thing, or disbelieves a thing – does that make the thing either good, or untrue?


Can we change blue into red or a wolf into a malamute by changing what we call it?   There are big words for what I’ve just asked – words like metaphysics and epistemology.  But the kindergarten story illustrates this vexing concern quite nicely.  If the children believe the kitten is female, they will treat it as female and for them it will actually be female.  But depending on the genetics of the creature, it may or may not ever be able to bear its own litter of kittens.


Beauty is similarly a concept about which people might vote.  One person might assert that the concrete pillar of footballs near Camp Randall stadium is high art and deserving of preservation in its current location.  But another person might see it only as pretentious and absurd.  Which view is right?  


Many centuries before any of us were born, a wise person observed that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  One could hardly disagree.  But that makes truth even harder to know.  While the gender of a cat, and color of the sky on a cloudless day are subject to empirical test, other matters are less easily assayed.  And many matters of truth exist somewhere in-between the empirically verifiable and the ultimately subjective.  


Already in our brief months together I’ve acknowledged the unfairness of preaching.  That is, I get to stand up here weekly and announce things that may or may not be defensible.  I fear many preachers fail to grasp the slippery distinction between opinion and truth – I trust that I am somewhat different than most of them.  But while I hope I am conscious of legitimate variation in religious perspectives, it also remains undeniable that certain often widely-held ideas about the New Testament era are either likely to be accurate, or impossibly wrong-headed.  


And if one believes (as I do) that what Jesus actually believed, taught and did merits serious and humble acceptance, then certain widely held ideas about Christianity become very hard to maintain if those ideas can’t be squared with the teaching and actions of Jesus.  


For instance – for whom did Jesus principally offer his innovative perspectives on God and life?  


For centuries Christianity has been used (or, I might suggest, been abused) as a tool by which to establish which people are morally superior and (by implication) to diminish those who are morally inferior.  To put it slightly differently, Christianity has often become a system by which to bless those who are powerful and dominant and to diminish those who are not.  From the beginning and for almost 300 years Christianity was undeniably a movement of and for the powerless and the have-nots.  That isn’t to say that no wealthy and powerful folk followed Jesus during those first three centuries, but mostly the faithful were poorer and mostly without social and political influence.  Then, in 312 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian and from that day on Christianity acquired something it had never before possessed – it became a religion for the powerful and the influential.  And when the powerful and influential started to embrace the faith they often used it as a tool by which to enhance their own power and entrench their own influence.  


I think Jesus weeps at this development.  Why do I think so?


In our texts for this morning we find Jesus making plans for the future of the movement he was starting.  All social movements are led – there are no examples of influential and enduring social movements that are leaderless.  Yes, there are moments when social power erupts with the support of a huge mass of spontaneous conviction and emotion, but none of these social eruptions persist without ongoing leadership.  From the beginning the Christian movement was led by Jesus, but Jesus’ tenure as leader was short and from early in his ministry Jesus paid careful attention to the recruitment of those who would lead after his death and ascension.  


If you were founding a movement that you knew would soon need ongoing leadership, where would you seek those who would succeed you?  


If it were a religious movement, I might go to the megachurches, or to the seminaries, or perhaps to monasteries.  In fact, Jesus could have gone to places like that.  There were schools of religion in his days, there were priests at the temple in Jerusalem and rabbis in all the influential synagogues.  If Jesus was looking for people formed in places a bit less institutional than the Temple, there were small religious communities to which he might have turned.  But Jesus turned to none of them.  As our texts this morning remind us, Jesus turned to the workplace to find those who would carry on his work.  He called fisherman.  Now fisherman were certainly NOT viewed as important people in Jesus’ day, but at least their work was viewed as honorable.  But Jesus didn’t stop when he had called a contingent of fishermen, later he called Matthew – a tax-collector.  


I suspect some of us may not care much for the IRS, but we need to understand that tax-collectors in the time of Jesus were not much like those who work for the IRS today.  In the time of Jesus, tax-collectors were contractors who agreed to render to the politicians whatever the politicians demanded, and in return the politicians paid no attention to how the contractors did their work.  You can easily guess how that worked out – the contractors squeezed everyday folk for more and more – far more than what would eventually be rendered to the politicians.  Consequently, the tax-collector became a symbol of wealth and corruption – and they were universally despised (except, perhaps, by others who made their livings in ways corrupt and dishonest).  


I think it likely that if Jesus were seeking leaders today, he would seek out the kind of ordinary folk he might find in a dairy barn or the migrant workers who labor in a California vegetable field.  But not only would Jesus call a few farmers and laborers, he’d also call some crooks.  He might go the storefront payday loan office and invite the owner to follow him.  


Please don’t misunderstand me.  When Jesus called the tax-collector Matthew, he insisted that Matthew change his ways – but that doesn’t come up in today’s text – all that comes up is that Jesus calls ordinary folk and disreputable folk to follow him – and at least some of them did.  And eventually these rag-tag, ordinary and sometimes disreputable folk turned the world upside down – for good!


There are all kinds of ways to think about this text – here’s just one:  the Jesus who called wishy-washy Peter (his name is apparently a bit of a joke – “Rock”), and who called crooked Matthew, is still calling people today.  And he’s probably not going to the Vatican, or to big megachurch, or to the monastery to call his next batch of followers, instead he may be camped out somewhere here in Paoli waiting to see who might come by and be hooked by his call to love and service.  


You see, Jesus wasn’t kidding when the Pharisees raised objections to the way he picked leaders.  Clearly they thought he should be picking folk like them.  Instead, turned the tables on them and said some of the most powerful words I’ve ever heard.  “The well (or the rich, or the powerful) have no need of a doctor (or a financial advisor or a leadership degree) – but those who are sick (or poor, or powerless) do.  And I’ve come for them.”  And then he added, “I’m asking for mercy – not for sacrifice.”  Is sacrifice bad?  It is not bad.  But without mercy it’s worthless.  


Jesus came and comes over and over and over again to invite those with needs to follow him.  Do you have needs?  I know I do.  If you do, too, then Jesus’ call is for you as well as for me.  


Might you be hooked by Jesus?  Peter and Matthew got hooked.  We can also be hooked by Jesus.  We just, I suppose, need to “bite.”


Amen.  Amen.

Baptizing Jesus

posted Mar 18, 2019, 2:43 PM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated Mar 18, 2019, 2:44 PM ]


Mark 1:1-11

 

Baptizing Jesus

 

I sometimes wonder whether John was angry.  His message is certainly forceful – it’s an “in-your-face” kind of message. “Repent!!”  When the religious leaders came out to check out what he was up to, his response to them certainly isn’t mild – “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee the coming wrath?”  It sounds to me like John’s message may have been tinged with anger – or maybe even filled with it.

 

Good church folk like us are often conflicted about anger.  Even though the apostle Paul could famously suggest that we could (and should!) be “angry, but sin not,” we’re not so sure.  Anger is a powerful emotion – and when it runs amok it’s capable to great damage – both to those on the receiving end of the anger and in the life of the one who is angry.  For the most part, we’d prefer not to think about and not to talk about anger.

 

But not thinking about something won’t make it go away.  We all know the impossibility of not thinking about pink elephants.  We can go years without the image of a pink elephant coming into our mind, but as soon as someone orders us not to think about that notion – well, there it is: Pink elephants in every corner of our imagination.

 

In fact, anger can be good and it can be bad – and in both forms it has a life of its own.  Just because I try not to think about it, or just because I’m not conscious of it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.  My life was changed many years ago when at a very hard time in my life I invested some very serious time and work with a very insightful and skilled therapist. Early in our work together he asked me what I was so angry about.  I was stunned!  I kid you not when I report that I had no idea what he was asking about.  So far as I knew myself, anger was not a significant part of my life.

 

But I was wrong.  Just because I wasn’t conscious of it didn’t mean it wasn’t there.  And in fact, it was there in spades.

 

Without getting into unnecessary detail, this point needs to be understood – we are not all equally angry.  But if we do harbor anger, it is FAR better to know it’s there and know how to constructively manage it then it is to deny its there, or (perhaps even worse) be unaware that it’s there.

 

I think John was probably angry….and I also think John had a pretty good sense of how to manage his anger.  So far as we can tell, John was never given to violence, but he was given to remarkable honesty.  

 

I’m sure John pretty much heard it all during his days out by the Jordan River. I’m sure as he counselled repentance and preparation, the folk he baptized told him stunning and uncomfortable stories before and after he dipped them into the river.  I’m sure he heard stories of guile and betrayal and violence. I’m sure he was party to accounts of alienation and deceit that broke his heart and drove him to reliance on God. 

 

John was obviously no shrinking violet – after all this was the man (maybe the only man?) who had the courage to challenge King Herod about the sinfulness of his marital relationship.  Surely John knew it was dangerous to speak so bluntly!  He did it anyway.  Ultimately, he died for his courage.

 

Certainly, John was not shy.  Certainly, John did not lack for passion and conviction and chutzpah (to use a uniquely Yiddish/Jewish expression).  

 

Consequently, it surprises me that when Jesus comes to him with a request that doesn’t on its face seem so ridiculous – that John baptize Jesus – it surprises me that John is reluctant.  John is the guy who dresses down religious leaders to their faces – John is the guy who dresses oddly and eats oddly – he’s clearly willing to do and say things that other wouldn’t.  

 

So…. why not hear Jesus out and say, “Sure!  Let’s do this.”?

 

In fact, we are given some hints about this – and they are powerful hints. For all his confidence and assertion, John is no blow-hard.  Many people who display apparent confidence in public are actually covering for deep-seated insecurities.  This is no great insight – overcompensation for insecurity is very common.  But these kinds of people are rarely able to freely and comfortably say “I don’t know” and publicly to admit their limitations. 

 

And so, when Jesus comes to John asking for baptism, I’m pretty sure that if John were compensating for a poorly developed sense of self-esteem and latent insecurity, he would have immediately said, “Sure!  Let’s get to it.”  After all, what’s more flattering to a poorly developed ego than a request like this: “I’m the Son of God.  Please baptize me!”

 

But John is adamant.  “This is not right.  You should be baptizing me.”

 

Sometimes, I think, God’s hardest requests don’t entail the suggestion that we leap tall buildings or demonstrate moral perfection – things none of us can actually do.  Instead, God’s hardest requests are that we humbly listen to God and believe that God will be with us as we accept a mandate that feels dangerous, or far over our heads.  

 

On the whole, it doesn’t appear that God is much interested in having us do the impossible – instead God mainly asks that we do the uncomfortable.  God doesn’t ask that we singlehandedly end climate change – but God might suggest that we speak against bigotry and prejudice among our family members and friends. 

 

After all, Jesus was family to John.  I bet it took genuine moral and relational courage for John to say to Jesus, “I can’t – I shouldn’t do this.”    And I bet Jesus loved John for that courageous honesty and it made him desire John’s baptism even more.

 

Two days ago the entire world was again confronted with the horror and obscenity of hate-filled violence at two mosques in New Zealand.  None of us yet knows much about the perpetrator and his accomplices, but we DO know all too much about others who in recent years have committed acts of horrific and obscene violence.  The odds are high that when we do know more about these latest killers, they will fit a sad and far too common pattern:  They will be people who were themselves shown little unconditional love and acceptance.  They are fearful people and ill-equipped to know what to do with their fear.  

 

In popular thought the opposite of love is hate.  And in some ways, I suppose it is.  But in the Bible the opposite of love is NOT hate – it is fear. 

 

The world has always, to a greater or lesser degree, been a place of fear. And fear begets violence – it is as predictable as night following day.  In the first of the other John’s New Testament letters he writes, “Perfect love casts out all fear.”  This is, I believe, one of the most powerful and perhaps neglected assertions of the Bible. 

 

A lot of effort and energy is spent in chiding folk into being kind and tolerant and accepting (that is, not fearful) – and God knows I’m in favor of kindness and tolerance and acceptance.  But people cannot be badgered into being good – they can, I am convinced – only be loved into being good.  

 

Down at the Jordan River a couple thousand years ago, Jesus asked John to do a thing that seemed outrageous to John – “Baptize me,” insisted Jesus.  I’m sure it felt audacious and wrong for John to do this (“I should be baptized by YOU!” he insisted).  But Jesus persisted, and John agreed.  And it was right.

 

Today, I think God asks each of us to baptize Jesus in a slightly different way. The hard thing we are asked to do is to love those around us – love our families and our neighbors and our co-workers – so that slowly and inexorably fear is driven out of our families and workplaces and neighborhoods.  It is especially important to love the unlovely.  They are the most vulnerable and the most at risk of acting out.  A part of love, of course, is to have Godly wisdom to know when it is unloving to let something go unchallenged.  When someone around us speaks in prejudicial ways or uses hateful language or makes bigoted or misogynistic jokes, we must be possessed of sufficient love to clearly and graciously object.  

 

I am convinced that John is not the only person who gets asked to do the awkward act of baptizing Jesus – we are ALL asked to baptize Jesus.  And one way God asks us to baptize Jesus is by graciously but clearly speaking up when what is said around us is unworthy of Jesus. Undoubtedly, we will not and cannot scold people into abandoning their fear and hate, but perhaps we can love them out of their fear and hate.  Just as God’s love is working to free US from our own fear and hate.  

 

God help us.  By your love drive out our fear and hate.  Make us instruments of love and peace.  This we pray hopefully.

 

Amen.

PREPARE!!

posted Mar 11, 2019, 4:05 PM by Cameron Hubanks

Matthew 3:1-18


PREPARE!!


Most of you know that I’m a baseball fan.  I’m not an over-the-top kind of fan.  I can’t recite the batting averages and earned run averages of my favorite players the way some fans can.  But If I’m free, I enjoy listening to a game on the radio – maybe even more so than I do watching it on TV.


All 30 major league teams are now in Spring Training.  Spring training is as deeply ingrained a part of baseball ritual and tradition as is the culmination of the season in October (or sometimes even November) – the World Series.  


But there are obvious differences.  Spring training is about hope.  Before the season officially begins on Thursday, March 28, it is mathematically inarguable that every single one of those 30 teams has precisely the same statistical chance to win the World Series.  Naturally, as the season progresses, the chances for post-season play will diminish for more and more of the teams.  Eventually, only two will persist into the final series of the season, and only one of those will win, but today, all 30 are hopeful!  


So, what is Spring Training about?  Well, two things, I suppose.  It’s a time for management to decide what 25 players will make the opening day roster.  Even on those teams with seemingly set line-ups and established veterans, there will always be one or two young players who perform so stunningly in the spring that they almost literally force their way onto the roster.  Those surprises are delightful and especially so when no one saw them coming.  The other purpose is more prosaic, I suppose.  Spring training isn’t just about preparing the roster, it’s also about individual preparation – it’s about one’s physical and mental state of readiness.  


More so than any other professional sport, the baseball season is a grind.  I’m well aware how many people disparage baseball.  It’s criticized as being slow and boring – and sometimes it is, I suppose.  From that perspective, of course, I conceive of it being not just a sport of physical skill and execution, but also a sport of mental strategy and psychological stamina.  All sport, of course, requires mental and psychological strength, but none, I would argue, more than baseball.  


There is, I think, a bit of a similarity between baseball and the life of faith.  There are things one can do without much preparation.  Eating and drinking are essential to the sustenance of life, but neither requires much preparation.  We are born with an instinct to suckle and usually without too much difficultly we make the transition to solid food and from there the challenge for more and more of us isn’t how to keep on doing it…. it’s how to keep from doing it too much!  Yes, there is a real discipline involved in learning to appreciate some foods more than others (oysters on the half shell, for instance), but almost no one starves for mere reason of not being able to find a dish they really like.  


Almost absurdly, it is also true that it takes no preparation to know to breathe.  It is natural to breathe, and we are wired to prioritize breathing over almost any other activity.  When you were a child, you may have dared one of your siblings to hold his/her breath longer than you.  Even though the will to win this odd bet may be very strong, there comes a point where something deeper in your brain than even your will says, “No more.”  You can’t hold your breath to death.  You might (quite extraordinarily) be able to hold your breath until you pass out (and then start breathing, of course), but almost no one can even do that.  It’s physiologically required that we breathe.  


Is faith like that?  


Well, I’d say yes and no.  I think curiosity about faith may be natural in many, many people, but mature exercise of faith is assuredly not natural.


There are deeply valued human accomplishments that cannot be attained without deep, persistent and even painful preparation.  


One cannot become a masterful concert pianist without countless hours of practice.  It just can’t be done.  One cannot hit a baseball out of the park 60 times in a season without years of preparation.  A skilled surgeon doesn’t excise a cancerous lesion without countless hours of study and practice and mentoring.  


I would argue that the things that most enrich life are the things that require the most exacting and grueling preparations.  What does it mean to waste a life?  Some imagine that a wasted life consists of bad choices.  Perhaps.  But another way to conceive of a wasted life is to imagine it as a life lived without purposeful and faithful discipline.  


This is, I think, what John the Baptist was driving at in his preaching down by the Jordan River.  “Repent! The kingdom of heaven has come near.  Prepare!  The Lord wants to come to you.”  


I think John is saying that life becomes truncated and devalued when we fail to practice the disciplines of faith.  And interestingly, these disciplines are not mostly the personalized and spiritualized practices that some imagine.  


Christianity (like all religions) has always been subject to distortion and misuse.  In our day the most common distortion of Christianity is to imagine that it is mostly about a personal relationship between God and me and not so much about everyday life and decisions in the world of business choices and economic choices and social choices.  John (and Jesus, I’m sure) would be baffled by the prevalence of “Jesus and me” religion that is so dominate in 21st Century America.  


Notice for whom John saved his harshest words in this morning’s text – the religious professionals.  There is, I fear, a tendency to dismiss the Pharisees and Sadducees as blatant hypocrites who brazenly and hard-heartedly used faith to justify and enrich themselves.  But all the evidence is to the contrary.  It seems indisputable that the Pharisees and Sadducees really and honestly thought that by keeping a long and exhaustive set of rules, they would please God and find ultimate reward.  John brushes this all aside in a stunning moment of criticism.  Do you imagine you will please God because of your ancestry?  What good is it to be descended from Abraham if you don’t care for your neighbor and heal the sick and find ways to empower the poor?


This is what John means when he articulates the puzzling “ax” image.  In essence John asserts that God views creation as an orchard and he expects the orchard to bear fruit.  And if it doesn’t bear fruit, God will move on.  And what is the fruit for which God longs?  Well, it isn’t the fruit of prim and prissy rule-keeping – the fruit for which God longs is the hard and demanding fruit of bringing real-to-life grace and justice and equity into everyday life.


How do we do this?  Well, I’d start by suggesting that it’s hard – it’s very hard!  


I doubt anyone of us has illusions about how hard it is to hit a 98-mph fastball out of the park.  We recognize that it’s too late (for most of us) to become a world-renowned concert pianist.  To do those things takes practice and practice and practice some more.  It takes years and years of practice.  


The life of faith also takes that kind of practice.  It is not easy – it never was easy and it never will be easy.  But here’s good news!!  Even though it’s not easy, unlike with baseball and music, it’s never too late.  God is tricky about the life of faith.  It’s hard.  So hard as to be nearly impossible, but at the same time we are assured that it can be done – not just by some super-religious saints like Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr. but it is doable by everyone who is sufficiently courageous and willing to ask God for the grace to be that saint to which God is calling us.   Which is a nice way of saying that it is possible for every single one of us.


This is precisely the mystery of faith – it’s absurdly difficult, and yet God assures us that every single one of us can do it – not by ourselves, mind you, but with God’s help.  


For the next few months, we’ll be hearing the stories of Jesus.  These stories show us the way to live.  We are invited to be changed by these stories.  For that to happen, we must be prepared.  We must be prepared to give up old habits and old ways of thinking.   We must be prepared to admit our failings and ask God’s forgiveness.  We must be willing to believe that God loves us and is rooting for us to succeed.  We must believe that God is calling us to be God’s agents in our everyday lives.


It’s a big calling!!  And it’s possible.  Let’s do it together.


Amen.

Whose Business Do We Care About?

posted Mar 5, 2019, 5:50 AM by Cameron Hubanks   [ updated Mar 5, 2019, 5:51 AM ]

Luke 2:41-52


I don’t suppose there is any common parenting experience more alarming than the momentary loss of one’s child.  


Often the loss lasts only a few seconds.  It turns out the child is in the next room or is out of eyesight but under the living room table.  The parent gratefully exhales, and the moment of panic is soon forgotten.


Sometimes the process of discovery is more protracted.  I am the oldest of 5 kids.  My youngest sibling – Paul – was born a week or so before I began high school.  Not surprisingly given the age differential, my siblings and I were often left in charge of the toddler Paul.  And also, not surprisingly, we were not always diligent in keeping track of him.  Even though we technically lived in town, we lived at the very edge of town – in the last house on a dead-end street.  It felt pretty safe and we rarely took significant precautions to ensure actual safety.  Consequently, brother Paul was not infrequently “lost.”  Almost always we found him quickly.  He was in the backyard when we expected him to be in the front.  He was asleep on the living room sofa when the rest of us were occupied outside.  These momentary loses of connection were common.


I remember (with some chagrin) a time when it felt like we really had lost him.  He wasn’t in any of the usual places – not in the room he shared with several of us, not asleep in the living room, not playing by himself in the backyard.  As you can imagine, the radius of search expanded and expanded.  We scoured the so-called “woods” at the end of the dead-end street.  He wasn’t there.  We walked the edge of the pasture that was across the street.  So far as we could see (it was a big pasture), he wasn’t there.  


In memory this search went on a long time – but this was roughly 50 years ago, and memory distorts over time.  In any case, somehow one of us happened to take a look in the amazing appliance that resided in our basement – a front-loading Westinghouse clothes dryer.  This appliance was amazing because our family never had extra cash and my mother particularly would never have agreed to such a purchase, but it came to us as result of some sort of community raffle.  We probably didn’t look in it because it occupied an out of the way corner of the basement – not by the washing machine (a Maytag wringer, mind you) and laundry tubs – but by the electrical panel.  It was there, I suppose because it didn’t require much extra wiring to install it there.  And besides, Mom rarely used it.  Winter and summer, the clothes were almost always hung outside on the lines strung between the ancient apple trees, chokecherries and box elders.  Anyway, Paul was sound asleep in the mostly unused dryer.  He was safe and sound.  


Our story this morning is not about losing a toddler – it’s about losing a 12-year-old.  That feels a bit more significant.  Without rehearsing the details, it turns out that Jesus was only lost from the perspective of his family.  Jesus had chosen to stay behind when his family finished their worship experience in Jerusalem and headed back home north to Nazareth.  


We could, I suppose, lose ourselves in perfectly sensible questions about this story:  Why didn’t Jesus tell his parents he intended to stay behind?  Why didn’t Mary and Joseph ensure he was in the entourage as they were leaving?  Why did it take them a full day to notice his absence?  


Good questions – all of them, but they are not the point.  Luke is making a different kind of point and if we get hung up on these other questions we run the risk of missing Luke’s lesson.  The Gospels, you see, are not like video cameras strung up in a busy location mindlessly capturing all movement that happens in front of them.  No, the Gospels are stories told with a purpose.  They are not meant as historical verbatims, they are accounts told years after the fact – in order to teach important and purposeful lessons.  


There may be several lessons here – but for this morning we will focus on just one of those lessons.  After Mary and Joseph realize the child is missing and after – with rising panic – they realize he is not with other friends and family, they head back to Jerusalem and find him (a 12-year-old, mind you) at the temple.  He’s not just anywhere at the temple – no, he’s sitting with the religious teachers and scholars engaged in theological inquiry.  If that seems slightly preposterous – good!  It’s supposed to be preposterous, I think.  The reader is intended to first shake her head a little and mutter – that’s ridiculous!  No child of 12 would choose the company of stuffy old theologians and even if the child was odd enough to want to keep that company, the stuffy old theologians certainly wouldn’t abide a child crashing their company.  


But that’s the story. We aren’t required to believe it literally happened precisely this way, the point is that Luke choose to tell it this way to make a very important point.  Just who is this Jesus?


Who is Jesus?  Mary scolds him:  Why have you done this to us?  Your father and I have been worried sick.  


Notice carefully what Mary said and how Jesus answers!  Mary says, “Your father and I have been worried sick.”  And how does Jesus respond?  Does he say, “I’m sorry.”  He doesn’t - not at first, at least.


No – the point in this text is Jesus’ response – “Didn’t you know that I would naturally be about my Father’s affairs.”


Do you catch this?  It’s stunning.  Jesus’ father is referenced twice here – but it’s not the same “father.”  Mary is speaking of Joseph – Jesus is speaking of God Almighty.  


Jesus already has a growing awareness of who he is and what his work will be.  


Theologians have debated for centuries when and how Jesus grew into awareness of his divine relationship with God – his own divine identity.  I’m not able to confidently assert how Jesus came to be aware of his identity – but it’s clear to me that at age 12, Jesus is already possessed of a growing awareness of his calling – his destiny – his business.  


As he puts it, “I must be about my Father’s business.”


I must.  There is nothing like clarity of identity to assist in making life choices.  When we have no idea who we are – it can be hard to know how to order our lives.  But when we know our identity, choices about many other matters often become clearer.  


There is a similar question all of us in this room should ask ourselves every day:  Who are we and what is our business?  Believing in God is not really enough.  Plenty of people believe in God, but rely on themselves, or their families, or their neighbors, or some celebrity, or – who knows – their horoscope? – to shape the direction of their life.  As Christians, God invites us every day to decide:  Is God optional in my life or is God so central that all my choices – my family choices, my work choices, my financial choices, my social and political choices – all of my choices are made with a mind to be about the Father’s business?


In preparation for this morning’s sermon, I came across a helpfully telling question.  One commentator took the imperative here – Jesus’ must – and turned it on each of us.  He skewered the nonsensical idea that being a Christian is mostly about what we don’t do.   He dismissed the idea that the life of faith can or should be boiled down to lists of prohibitions.  


I am sure he is right.  The must of this text is nothing like a “must not.”  The must is positive.  It is active and forward looking.  It is focused on love of God and the welfare of neighbor.  This is why we follow Jesus – not so we can be burdened with lists of things NOT to do, but to be liberated into a kind of life that is focused on kindness and grace and tolerance and justice and peace and joy and hope.  


Jesus saw from childhood that he must be about God’s business.  We are also called to be about God’s business.  We are not called to dreariness and denial and drudgery – we are called to life. 


Let us follow Jesus – even if it means risking that some will fear we are lost.  We must be about God’s business.  We must.


Amen.




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