Sunday, March 29, 2020

God Holds Hope for Us

March 29, 2020
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-45

This has been a hard week. I have been trying to reach out to church members, family, friends, as well as manage the needs of my children and our household. Mundane, everyday things seem to take more effort, simple errands aren’t simple any more, and trying to stay informed only makes me more sad and anxious.

I am grieving. You are too, I’m sure. We are all mourning losses, the loss of connection, the loss of normality, the loss of events and plans. Many of us are losing jobs. I have a friend who is a factory manager, and has been furloughed for a week. That’s better than the rest of the workers there who were laid off. Other people I know are faced with the daily trauma of what is happening as hospitals struggle to cope with too many patients and not enough equipment.

This pandemic reminds us that we are fragile. We like to think we’re self-sufficient, until the underlying systems we rarely think about start to fall apart. Our health, our lives, are at risk in new ways, and we worry about our loved ones who may be even more fragile than us. It is helpful for me to recognize my experience in this as grief. And it may be helpful for you to take time to name the losses that you are facing in this time.

I have also found it helpful to remember that God is familiar with loss, grief, and the fragility of life. God is with us in this moment, hearing our cries, receiving our fears, and soothing our hearts and minds. In the valley of dry bones, in front of the tomb of Lazarus, God holds hope for us who have no hope. God gives life, and God renews life even when death seems to have won. We fragile humans were created in the image of God, and even the hairs on our heads are counted. Each of us, every one, is loved by God.

I think it is important to remember that we are loved by God, each one of us. I also think it is important to remember that even though God will love us after we die, and has prepared a place for us beyond the veil, God loves us now, in this life, and each life is precious. There is talk from some politicians about lifting quarantines, sending people to work despite the risk of spreading infection, and allowing some people to die in order to save the economy. I know that there are many who are already struggling to put food on the table, and it would be great for us all to be able to get back to work. But this kind of talk puts a price on human life, trading the image of God for the almighty dollar.

I read an article published on Thursday in the New York Times entitled “God Doesn’t Want Us to Sacrifice the Old.”[1] The author, Russel Moore, is the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Now, under normal circumstances, Moore and I would probably disagree on a lot of issues; but these are not normal times. Moore writes, “It’s true that a depression would cause untold suffering for people around the world, hitting the poor the hardest. Still, each human life is more significant than a trillion-dollar gross national product.” When we start to think of people in terms of dollar signs, we diminish the humanity of everyone. Moore goes on to say:
A life in a nursing home is a life worth living. A life in a hospital quarantine ward is a life worth living. The lives of our grandparents, the lives of the disabled, the lives of the terminally ill, these are all lives worth living. We will not be able to save every life. Many will die, not only of the obviously vulnerable but also of those who are seemingly young and strong. But every life lost must grip us with a sense of lament.
We depend on jobs, work, and money to make it day by day, and I understand the value of a good economy. We will return to work, things will get better, and we will be able to gather in large groups, shake hands, and hug our friends again. But we can’t do that until doing so will not result in preventable deaths, hospitals overrun with sick patients, and medical professionals dying because of a lack of protective equipment.

We can make it through this crisis. It will be difficult, particularly for people who are already struggling. As the days pass, the losses build, and our future seems less certain, we may feel like our bones are drying up. We may feel like we have lost hope, that we can’t make it through this to the other side.

God brought Ezekiel to the valley of dry bones to give him a message of hope. “Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.”[2] This is not the end, not for Israel, and not for us. Even as we cry out, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely”[3] God reassures us that we will rise again, that death does not have the last word. “‘O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,’ says the Lord.”[4]

God asks, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel answers, “O Lord God, you know.”[5] God knows because this is the God of Israel, the God who created the world and all that lives, who gave children to Abraham and Sarah who was thought to be barren, who set free the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt and made the covenant to be their God, who called on them through the prophets to seek the way of life. This is God who gave Ezekiel a vision of dry bones coming to life in order to give hope to the people in exile, to revive their spirits and breathe life back into them. This is God who in the midst of a global pandemic can breathe life into us as we gasp for breath, and raise us to newness of life.

The breath of God, the Holy Spirit that brought life into the dry bones, is the same breath that filled the lungs of the crucified Jesus, raising him to life in the resurrection. That same breath filled our lungs in the moment of our birth and as we rose to newness of life in our baptism. The breath of God still blows through the world, even a world that struggles to breathe, bringing life even in the face of this terrible illness.

In the incarnation, the breath of life in the flesh, we find that God truly enters our humanity. Jesus was a fragile human like us, who knew joy and pain, friendship and grief. In this scene, as Jesus makes a risky trip to Bethany, we see him in one of his most human moments. When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”[6]

“Jesus wept”[7] is the shortest verse in the King James Version of the Bible, translated slightly differently here, and one of great significance. As one scholar writes, “This is an emotionally profound testimony to the truth of the incarnation itself, of Jesus being truly one of us to the point of sharing our human need for friendship and our grief at the loss of a friend.”[8] Jesus knows what it is to grieve. Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, and Jesus weeps for every life that ends. Even knowing that he had the power to reverse death and bring Lazarus to life, Jesus stops to mourn.

We can make it through this crisis. It will be difficult, but we can trust that God will see us through. “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live” says the Lord. “Jesus said to [Martha], ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’”[9] May the hope that God holds for us sustain us until we can gather again in health, in fellowship, and in love. Stay home! Amen.

[1] Russell Moore, “God Doesn’t Want Us to Sacrifice the Old” March 26, 2020. Posted on:
[2] Ezekiel 37:5. Unless otherwise noted, the scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.
[3] Ezekiel 37:11.
[4] Ezekiel 37:13-14.
[5] Ezekiel 37:3.
[6] John 11:33.
[7] John 11:35, King James Version.
[8] John Rollefson, Homiletical Perspective on John 11:1-45 in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 141.
[9] John 11:25-26.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Seeing Things

March 22, 2020
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

John 9:1-41, selected

My friends, we are living through a strange and difficult time. We are watching as things break down. Friendships and family relationships are broken over disagreements. Marriage and family look different than we remember. Institutions and government structures meant to support us are failing. Leaders elected to serve us are instead serving their own interests and taking what they can for themselves. People who fear not having enough are emptying the shelves of grocery stores.

We are isolated from one another. I’m not just talking about social-distancing or stay-at-home orders. We share fewer common experiences. While we may be watching more people through social media, we really only scratch the surface of what others are experiencing. I’m watching old NCIS episodes, my friends are watching Outlander, and I never did watch (or read) Game of Thrones. I mostly read the news on my phone or computer, reading short snippets from a variety of sources, while others may only watch one network on TV.

We’re probably less happy, too. Not just because of our current circumstances. Even introverts like me need connection and interaction with family, friends, church, and community. It can be tempting to look to the past, to feel nostalgia for what was. People were friendlier, more supportive, happier. At least that’s what I remember. Am I selectively remembering, leaving out the times when I was lonely, angry, mistreated? Do I forget when I left someone else behind, when I shouted at someone who didn’t deserve it, when I blamed someone else for my problems?

We forget, in our nostalgia, that even if things were great for us back then, they weren’t great for everyone. We can look through our history, if we dare, for how our society and others have brought great suffering and hardship to others, and even our own ancestors. And we can look to our scriptures, too, seeing things that have not really changed much.
The man born blind has been failed by his community, his family, and his religious leaders. 

The first thing the disciples ask when they see him is “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”[1] We might think we’ve evolved past thinking that blindness is a result of someone’s sin, but have we really? I’ve heard religious leaders in our own time blame disease, natural disasters, and even poverty on what they perceive to be the sins of others. The Pharisees, jealous of their religious power, argue that Jesus can’t have healed him. He must be lying, or Jesus must be using some evil power.

His family distances themselves from him, fearing that they will be shunned by the community. When they are asked about him, they say they don’t know how it is that he can see. “He is of age, ask him.”[2] The community fails to accept what has happened; they don’t recognize this man who used to sit and beg. It can’t be the same person, the blind beggar. We must be seeing things.

Long ago, and right now, we struggle to see beyond our preconceptions, our own view of the world. When faced with someone else’s experience of life that is different from our own, we get stuck. We stop listening. It is uncomfortable to think about the difficulties of another, and we start thinking “Well, if it was me, I would…” We choose to be blind to the experiences of others. We choose to be isolated, holding on to a worldview that makes us comfortable, even if it no longer matches with the reality we experience.

What is it like to be the man born blind? Can we really imagine what it would be like to live in a different reality? In a world structured around sighted people, to be blind means adapting and coping with a world filled with obstacles. It means constantly teaching others how to interact with us, how to relate to a world they don’t understand. And unless Jesus happens to be walking by, it means living in a world that cannot be changed, a world that is radically different from most others.

The experience of living in a different world is not limited to blindness. A black person in America lives in a different reality than a white person. Neither reality is right or wrong, good or bad, but they are different. As a white person, I can be blind to the many obstacles that others face, because they don’t appear in my world. It takes effort, listening and learning and looking for the things I don’t see because I don’t live in the same reality as a black person.

As a man, I don’t live in the same world, and face the same obstacles, as a woman. As a straight, cis-gender person, I perceive love and relationships differently that a person who is LGBTQ. As a person who is making enough money to get by, but struggling to pay down my debts, I live in a different world than people who buy and sell businesses, or who face eviction because the paychecks stopped coming. I climbed the stairs to stand at this lectern, but there are others I know who will never see this view.

The man born blind was transformed. He was healed, and his world changed. And we can celebrate that and be grateful for God’s healing power. But transformation happened in that community also. As the man began to tell the truth of his experience, over and over to the crowds, the Pharisees, and even his own family, slowly they began to understand.

They resisted, of course, because it is difficult and uncomfortable to understand a different world. It takes real effort to listen to the different experience of another and not overlay our own experience. To imagine what life is like for a blind man, a black person, a woman, a gay or transgender person, a differently-abled person, a different person, is hard. But it is possible. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”[3] Becoming blind, to not see for the first time, opens up a world that we never knew before. To enter the different world, the life experience of another, and seek to truly understand, is part of the gift of grace and healing that Jesus offered to that community, and that Jesus offers to us.

I have always had friends who were different. The longer I live the more different worlds I encounter. I have not always chosen to understand their worlds, to accept that their world is not bad or wrong. But I have been transformed. I have come to understand my own blindness, and, even when it is painful, to see things in the different worlds of others.

I can’t tell you how or why it happened. All I can tell you is that I was blind and now I see. Before, I saw things one way, now I see differently. I am seeing things in a new way. Before, I believed the world worked in a specific way, that my world was the only one. Now I understand things differently. Now I am seeing things I didn’t see before. And I believe it was Jesus who put mud on my eyes so that I may see. I believe that Jesus is the light of the world, and with that light I have received my sight.

[1] John 9:2. The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.
[2] John 9:23.
[3] John 9:39.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Well and the Water

March 15, 2020
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

John 4:5-30, 40-41

We are thirsty creatures. At first our thirst is for milk and water. As we develop, and that thirst is quenched, we begin to sense a deeper thirst, a longing within us that aches to be filled. Often, we don’t understand what it is that we are really thirsty for. And so we try to quench that thirst with things that may work for a time, but which generally increase our thirst in the long run.
In our society we offer an amazing array of drinks loaded with caffeine, alcohol, carbonation, and sugar. Yet these drinks actually reduce the net fluids in our bodies. Bottled water sells amazingly well, especially considering most of it is filtered tap water; but all the plastic bottles take energy to make, and energy to dispose of or recycle, and they pollute and add to our carbon footprint. And none of it has any lasting power to satisfy us.
There are so many other ways in which we try to fill the void, or to distract ourselves from the thirst we feel. Whether we look to books, film, television, or video games; sporting events, concerts, or Disney vacations; we may feel good for a time, but the thirst returns.
Our parents and grandparents were thirsty too. And they sought out ways to quench that thirst. They ventured into buildings with crosses on the roof, stars or crescents on the walls, and incense, candles, and Hebrew, Arabic, German, or Latin inside. They tried to drink from the deep waters of tradition, to sit by the well and hear the stories and sing the songs. And they made offerings and said prayers in order to bless the wells and make the waters sweet and healing and powerful. And for a time their thirst was satisfied.
We too have sought out the wells that will quench our thirst. We have gathered by candlelight on Christmas Eve, marked our foreheads with ashes, and listened as the choir sang of hope and joy. We have shared tacos and bunches of lunches, and talked over meals in Fellowship Hall. We have celebrated lives that have ended and lives just beginning. We sometimes get a taste of that living water. And it is refreshing beyond our imagining. Like a drink from Jacob’s well in the desert of Samaria, it cools us. Like an overflowing table, it nourishes us. We have tasted that living water, yet we still thirst. I know I don’t drink from the holy source every day, no matter how hard I try, and the water flows away.
One of my favorite musicians, David Wilcox, wrote a song that talks about the cup inside us that holds love. “There’s a break in the cup,”[1] he writes. No matter how much we try to fill our cups, or to fill the cups of others, “that little break’ll let it run right out.” And so “we must go to the waterfall.” We must continually seek out the source that never runs dry.
One of the most amazing things about the living water is that there are many ways to find it. You may find one source and I may find another. There are many wells, many sources for that which will sustain and nourish us at the deepest level. However, one thing I have observed is that we, as a culture, have a short attention span when it comes to our faith.
We spend a lot of time and energy moving from well to well because we feel the waters are too stale to satisfy our thirst. We dig new wells, or seek out the latest fashion, or travel to distant lands which feel exotic and exciting, but rarely do we remain long enough to drink deeply from any well. A wise person once said, “If the water is sixty feet underground, you won’t reach it by digging six ten-foot wells.” There are some of us who doubt that there is water in the depths at all. Some dig into the earth until they are sore and discouraged, sipping frantically at any bit of moisture they find, then assume that there is no more water to be found at that well and run off to dig somewhere else. The water is often deep underground, my friends, and it takes perseverance to find it.
We may also make things more difficult for ourselves if we spend a lot of time digging alone. The well must often be deep, and if we have others with whom to share the labor, our burden is lighter. When we are drawn to the well, we find that there are others there who are also thirsty. The living waters of spirit, hope, and meaning not only sustain us as individuals; coming to the well is a communal experience. The church is our “village well.” We come not only for the water but for the company. My wife has a wall-hanging called “Women at the Well.” On it is written this story:
Told that most North American women pipe water into their homes, a Nigerian woman grew somber. “How do the women speak to one another? If I didn’t talk with the women at the village well, I wouldn’t know about their lives.”
It helps to meet with others who share our journey, who thirst for the same water that we seek. Together we may find what none of us could find alone. We can be a check on one another, steering each other away from drinks that fill us up but don’t quench our thirst. We can celebrate alone when we find the water, and we can even splash and dance around. But my children will tell you, it is much more fun to splash others with the water, I mean to have others to splash with!
And so, this woman found Jesus at the well. Jesus shows up in a lot of unexpected places, and there he was clearly in a place where one would not expect to find a Jew. “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” The Jews and the Samaritans have shared ancestors, like Jacob, but they are estranged. There are many different, complicated reasons for it, but suffice it to say, there were long-standing hostilities between them.
The woman is also unexpectedly there. She picked an unusual time of day to visit – at noon when no one else is around. The other women would have visited during the cooler hours of the morning or evening. Perhaps she has reason to want to be alone, as we discern from the discussion about her husbands. She has a questionable past, and the other women may have been cruel toward her. Additionally, there were rules about how men and women should interact. The two strangers should not have been alone, and certainly they should not be talking with one another. And yet, this conversation is the longest one-on-one Jesus has with anyone.
What do they talk about? Jesus talks about the basic things of life: water and bread, salt and light. He has wandered in the desert, and he knows what it feels like to hunger and thirst, and what it means to resist temptation. He has felt pain, and he knows what it is like to be betrayed. Now, tired and thirsty, Jesus talks about water. But Jesus takes this simple, every-day, ordinary element and uses it to reach into that longing within her. He teaches her about “living water.”
At first, she thinks in concrete terms: how heavy that clay jar is each day on her way home. But she quickly grasps that he’s talking about something even more central to her well-being and more necessary for her life than water itself. The living water of which Jesus speaks will satisfy the deepest longings of her soul. She has a thirst that she had not understood before, a thirst for love and grace and acceptance. Jesus knows about her past, yet he does not scorn her or turn away. He accepts her, just as she is, and offers her “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Now, in this moment, when the water floods through her, she begins to recognize who he is. And then he invites her to go deeper. Jesus, the Jewish man, and the Samaritan woman talk theology. She asks him about a question that divides the Jews and Samaritans: where is the proper place to worship God? And Jesus gives her much more than the answer she’s looking for.
“The hour is coming,” Jesus says, “and is now here – when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter.” What matters is who you are and the way you live. You must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people God is looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before God in their worship.
Most of us already know that God accepts us and loves us and showers us with grace, no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey. We have been blessed by our encounter with God through this congregation. Worshiping God together, simply and honestly, as our true selves, can transform our lives just as surely as meeting Jesus transformed the life of that solitary woman by the well. But we must be willing to drink the water from the well.
When a person is not ready to take a close look at themselves, they will avoid the well at all costs. We all know people who do this. Jesus knows the woman at the well in all her human frailty. Somehow she is able to put aside her shame and allow him to love her just as she is. Many of us are not ready, not yet. We dabble in the shallows of spiritual life, sometimes for our entire lives. Perhaps we know that venturing into the deep waters will expose our own shame, our fears, mistakes, weaknesses, and insecurities. Deep water can be dangerous.
But there he sits. Jesus says to us “Give me a drink.” Will you come to the well with me? Will you dare to ask for living water? This water that Jesus offers will spring up into eternal life for all who drink, and share.  Amen.

[1] David Wilcox, “Break in the Cup” on Big Horizon, 1994.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

A Spirit of Adoption

March 8, 2020
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

John 3:1-17

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. He is perhaps afraid or embarrassed to be seen with Jesus. He is, after all, a Pharisee, a teacher of Israel, and as we learn later in John’s Gospel, a member of the Sanhedrin. These are the people most threatened by Jesus, and who will eventually put him on trial. So, Nicodemus doesn’t want to be seen with this rabble-rouser. But he is troubled, confused. He has questions for which he cannot find answers. He is no longer sure where he belongs. He comes by night to speak with Jesus.

Jesus seems to leave Nicodemus more confused than when he arrived. He talks about being born from above, born of the Spirit. “How can these things be?” asks Nicodemus. A careful reading of the law and the prophets has not revealed to him what Jesus is trying to communicate. Jesus is speaking a different language – the language of the spiritual, the heavenly. Jesus isn’t speaking the language of rules, of procedures and “how to get into heaven.” He is, rather, speaking the language of relationship, of belonging, and of love.

We, too, come with our questions, out of the night of fear and confusion, seeking the fresh perspective, the new life offered by Christ. We are pulled in a thousand directions, dragged down by the weight of temptation at every turn, trapped in living, as Paul puts it, “according to the flesh.” We know that the way of the flesh is the way of death, and we are trying to live according to the Spirit, to seek the way of life, but we are stuck somewhere in between. We’re not sure who we are, and who we are supposed to be. Like Nicodemus, we are drawn toward something that we don’t understand, the mystery that is God.

Jesus speaks of God in the language of relationship. To Jesus, God is “Abba”, literally “Daddy.” God is a parent who loves us as children, who seeks to save us from our self-absorbed lives. God is a brother, one of us, who seeks to show us the way of eternal life. God is a Spirit moving through us, empowering us, shaping us. It is the nature of God to be in relationship, and this is what we celebrate on Trinity Sunday, the one God with three identities in relationship with one another. And it is God who seeks us out to love us, to teach us that we belong to the family of God.

Belonging is a basic human need. As children we need to know who mommy and daddy are, and where our home is where we can feel safe. We need to belong to a community, a country, a school, a team, a club, a church. We need people to call family, friends, we, us. And we seek out ways to identify ourselves with where we belong. Where we feel belonging changes over time as well. Right now, right here, in St. John’s UCC in Union, in Lent, in the month of March, as members and friends of this community is where we belong in this moment. Five years ago, five years from now, things might be different.

Young people attempt to find their place, their identity, in many ways. Some dress in the latest fashions, join teams and don the colors of a school; others dye their hair, shave their heads, or get tattoos and piercings. Most will try out a sport, an instrument, a school club, the musical, or talk about favorite books, movies, and music in search of commonality with others.

Adults try to find their way as well. “What do you do?” is a question that usually puts a vocational identity on a person. Where you live and what car you drive sends a message of your “place” in the world. Whether we belong to the Harley club, the Lions, or the church softball team, we surround ourselves with the symbols of where we belong. I have a certificate from my college fraternity on my wall at home, I wear a UCC lapel pin on my suit jacket, and I fly the flag from the front of my house. In high school I wore a letter jacket, or a camp sweatshirt, and (briefly) a calculator watch. And who I am has a lot to do with those who I associate with.

One of the ways that Christians often identify where others fit in is to ask something like “Are you saved?” or “Are you born again?” From an insider perspective, it can function as a way to determine if a person is a believer, an insider, or an outsider in need of evangelization. From the perspective of an outsider, it can serve as a convenient way to label a religious fanatic. Neither of these perspectives is especially accurate or helpful, since they rely on stereotypes of what it means to be a Christian. Not all Christians identify as “born again” or understand salvation in the same way.

Jesus was a traveler, and did not have a permanent home. One of the first things he did was gather a group of people around him. The disciples derived identity as followers of Jesus, and some of them even had nicknames – James and John were the “Sons of Thunder,” Simon was called Peter, “the Rock.” This group became Jesus’ friends, his family even. We read in Mark that “A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’”[1] Jesus invited the disciples into that intimate familial relationship he had with his brothers and sisters, his mother, and with Abba.

Jesus offers an identity that goes beyond what the world offers. Clothing and cars, haircuts, sports teams, friends, and even churches change, but the identity that Christ offers is based on a relationship with God that does not end. Clayton Schmit, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary explains it this way: “The intimate relationship of faith is richer than others because it is established by the Spirit of God and will not fail. And even if it leads us into threatening or challenging circumstances as we share in Christ’s suffering, we have the assurance of God’s parental love, the Spirit’s power, and presence of our brother Christ.”[2] No matter what happens, no matter where you go, God goes with you.

There is a touching scene in John’s Gospel at the foot of the cross. “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.”[3] The disciple is adopted, literally, into the family of Jesus, just as we have become, through Christ, adopted members of the family of God.

Paul says that we have been adopted as God’s children. I heard a story once that grasps the feeling of what Paul is talking about. In Native American culture the blanket makes a statement of belonging in the community. Blankets were woven with patterns unique to a particular community and family. A Pueblo woman might wear a simple dress at home. “But before she goes out to join the group dancing in the plaza of the pueblo, she wraps herself in a fringed shawl – a symbol of her belonging to the community. At the moment she wraps herself in the shawl, she is transformed. She’s wrapped in a different identity.”[4]

A similar thing happens when orphaned children are adopted by another Native American family. They are wrapped in the family blanket and walked through the village. This is a statement that these children now belong to my community; they are adopted children of my family. When Paul talks about our relationship with God he says: “you have received a spirit of adoption.” We are wrapped in the blanket of Christ’s love and walked through the village of humanity. God says these are my children, the adopted ones, “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” Those who are led by the Spirit of God belong to the family of God.

Belonging to the family of God gives us an identity, but it also challenges us. God has adopted the people around us as well. We are in this together. We are joining a large family, and we must learn how to love all of our sisters and brothers. One of the mottoes of the United Church of Christ is “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.” The relationship with God is a gift of the Spirit, open to all, for the blanket of God is big enough for every one of us. The people with whom we share this community, this country, and this world are our family. Our brothers and sisters in Christ are our partners in this community; they seek with us the realm of God. The challenge for us is to open our blanket, to wrap it around the shoulders of those around us, and to walk together to the dancing in the plaza of the pueblo. Amen.

[1] Mark 3:32-34. The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, Copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[2] Clayton J. Schmit, “Homiletical Perspective on Romans 8:12-17” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 43.
[3] John 19:26-27.
[4] Robert W. Kapoun and Charles J. Lohrmann, Language of the Robe: American Indian Trade Blankets (Gibbs Smith, 2006), p. 17.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Saying 'No' and Saying 'Yes'

March 1, 2020
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Matthew 4:1-11

One of the first words we learn to speak as small children is “No.” It is a powerful word, giving a growing person agency, control over their life. It is also a source of considerable frustration for parents.

“Please eat your green beans.” “No!”
“It’s time to get ready for bed.” “No!”
“Did you knock over the lamp?” “No!”
“Please get off the computer” “No!”

We start out making great use of “No!” even if it doesn’t always get the result we seek. As we grow older, however, it can get harder to say “No.” We learn that we more often get what we want if we say “Yes.” People like us more when we say “Yes.” We take on more responsibility and we learn to feel guilty when we say “No,” so we say “Yes” more often.

“I know you worked all day, made dinner, and have a meeting tonight, but would you help me with my homework?” “Yes.”

“I know you’re already working on the update for the client, but would you prepare the PowerPoint for the budget meeting at 4:00?” “Yes.”

“I know you’re already singing in the choir this morning, and reading scripture, but we need someone to run teach Sunday School. Would you please do that?” “Yes.”

We become so good at saying “Yes” and so hesitant to say “No” that we are exhausted, overworked, burned-out, and spiritually depleted. God is still speaking, but how can I listen when there is already so much to do? Who really has time for prayer and reflection, let alone studying scripture? But I feel so guilty saying no to God.

Maybe what we need is to regain the ability to say “No,” not selfishly like we did as a child, not saying “No” to everything, but thoughtfully and intentionally. Perhaps I wouldn’t feel so guilty saying “No” if I’ve already committed to something else. I shouldn’t say “No” just because I don’t want to do something hard, or new, or out of my comfort zone, but I should practice saying “No” to this because I have already said “Yes” to that.

In this story from Matthew’s Gospel, the focus is usually on temptation. Jesus is tempted to use his power in selfish ways, to feed his hunger, to show off, to gain power. But we can also look at how Jesus says “No” to one thing because he has said “Yes” to another.

“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down” off the pinnacle of the temple.
“All these [kingdoms] I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

Each time Jesus says “No” because he has already said “Yes!” to God.

“Yes, I will trust God to provide what I really need.”
“Yes, I will trust God to care for me.”
“Yes, I will serve and worship God alone.”

In Matthew’s Gospel, the conflict between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God is the major emphasis. The temptations that are presented to Jesus in the wilderness are about having power and authority in this world. If he uses his divine power selfishly, he can gain all that he might desire. He could rule in place of the Roman emperor, he could enforce peace and pronounce judgment from the throne, but it would be the throne of this world. Instead, Jesus stays true to the kingdom of God, to trust and serve God alone, to pray for God’s kingdom to come. In a sense, he has said “Yes” to God and stays true to that commitment.

Now, I doubt any of us will be asked to rule the kingdoms of this world, or be tempted to test God’s ability to provide for us. We will, however, be faced with choices and temptations of our own. We will have to choose how to best use our limited resources of time, money, and energy. We will have to choose when to say “No,” because we have already made other commitments. As followers of Jesus, I hope that we are able to say “Yes” to love of God, love of our neighbors, and love for ourselves before we have to say “No” to something else.

As we journey through Lent, we can practice saying “Yes” to what matters most. Jesus said “Yes” to trusting the word of God, to trusting in the care of God, and to serve and worship God alone. Perhaps we can say “Yes” to faithfulness, kindness, and generosity. Maybe we can say “Yes” to family, friends, and time alone.

Having already said “Yes” to the kingdom of God, Jesus was strengthened when he had to say “No” to the kingdom of the world. By choosing to hunger for God’s word, Jesus was able to resist filling the emptiness with anything less. By seeking to serve God with humility, Jesus was able to resist being lifted up until he was lifted up onto the cross. By accepting his role in God’s kingdom of grace and peace, Jesus was able to resist the lure of ruling through force, and rule instead through the power of love.

When we have already said “Yes” to those commitments that really matter, we will have the power to say “No” when temptation pulls at us. When we have said “Yes” to God we are able to say “No” to all that is not God. When we follow Jesus, we will be tempted to turn aside, yet we will be able to keep walking, even if it means taking up our own cross, because we are headed for the kingdom of God.  Amen.