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the sermon for

Ash Wednesday

14 February 2018

Matthew 6:1-6 , Matthew 6:16-21
The church is called to be loved and, then, to love!

02142018Well, it's here, again. That time for self-examination and repentance, for prayer and fasting, for sacrificial giving and works of love. That's what we call "The Discipline of Lent." It's the "spiritual" counterpart of giving up chocolate and soft drinks, of eating at Long John Silver's on Fridays. And it begins here, tonight. It's all an echo, a reflection, of what we read in Matthew, just a few moments ago. "Whenever you give alms, don't sound a trumpet before you... Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door... Whenever you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face..." The advice is short, sweet, to the point. And if you fallow that advice, Matthew tells us, god will see and hear and reward!

Now, today, tonight, it's Ash Wednesday. The season of Lent begins. I love Lent. I love Ash Wednesday. The simplicity, the plainness, of it all. But, by now, with all the ghosts of Ash Wednesdays past we share, you should know that in spite of that, I have a problem with this passage from Matthew. And for the life of me, I can't understand why it's there!

First of all, it's all that "stuff" about being rewarded. God doesn't work like that. God loves because god loves! Period! Not because of our prayers or our fasting or our almsgiving, but simply because god loves us! The cross and the resurrection isn't there because we happened to buy a winning lottery ticket. It's there because god gives it to us.

Second, all this piety? The almsgiving? The praying? The fasting? This is pretty much the only place – the only place – in Matthew's gospel that Jesus ever talks about it! The only place Jesus ever talks about it let alone does it! Matthew never pictures Jesus giving alms. Matthew never pictures Jesus fasting. And only once does he show Jesus actually down on his knees, praying. In the garden, the night in which he was betrayed. Otherwise, he's only talking about prayers. What would Jesus do? What did Jesus do? It wasn't giving alms, saying prayers, or fasting.

But the third thing about his passage that rubs me the wrong way is that it makes it sound like faith, like believing, is an individual effort. Something we can do alone, all by ourselves, behind closed doors, with no one else around. But I guess that's the whole point of the passage. Make sure no one hears what you're saying! Make sure no one sees what you're doing! Make sure no one notices! No one, that is, but god! No one, that is, but the Father! Unfortunately, faith isn't an individual venture. It's not the one; it's the two or the three. It's not an "I, me, my" sort of thing. It's a "we, us, our" kind.

Think about it. Except for the short time Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted, or walking, that morning, across the sea, Jesus was never alone! He was always in the middle of the disciples, always surrounded by the crowd. Always, at the very least, two or three! So that when one person was talking, another was listening. When one person was giving, another person was receiving. And that's the way it works, here, in this place. We don't baptize ourselves; we are baptized! We don't forgive ourselves, we are forgiven! And tonight, we don't sear a cross on your own forehead, all by ourselves. It is done for us. It is done to us. There is always, always, at the very least one OTHER person!

There is the hungry and the one feeding! There is the thirsty and the one giving them something to drink. The stranger and the welcomer. The sick and the caregiver. The naked and the one providing clothes. We, simply, can't do what Jesus did... We can't do what Jesus continues doing... until and unless there are other people around. We can't do it alone. We can't do it all by ourselves. Jesus doesn't want us to be religious, doing religious things. Jesus wants us to love! To love just like him!
That's the whole point, the purpose for believing! It's being loved and it's loving!

But Ash Wednesday comes along and we retreat back into our shell. Self-examination and repentance. Prayer and fasting. Sacrificial giving and works of love. And for some reason, we forget about the people! We forget about all the people! The ones sitting around us, here, tonight. The ones beyond these walls, outside these windows, waiting for us to see and to hear, to notice and to care!

Truth is, you don't have to be a Christian to do any of the things Jesus talks about, this night. You don't have to be a Christian to say prayers. And you don't have to belong to the church to fast. And you don't have to believe in Jesus to give alms. Other religions do that, as well. Other religions, in fact, might, very well, do it better. But... But you do have to be a Christian, you do have to be a part of the church, and you do need to believe in Christ, in order to love! Love just like Jesus! Believe that Jesus loves you! Believe that Jesus suffered and was crucified and died, that Jesus was buried, descended, and rose, so that you can go and do the same!

That's what makes the church church! That's what makes a Christian Christian! And that's what makes this night, this season, so special! By grace, for Christ's sake, through faith! "In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us and for his sake, God forgives us all!" It's not the almsgiving. It's not saying prayers. It's not the fasting. It's not, even, the repenting that makes us who we are, that makes us what we are. It's not the guilt or the shame, the regret or the remorse. It's the grace, the charity, the love! It's Jesus!

That's the whole reason why there was a reformation, to begin with. At least, as far as we're concerned. The church-at-the-time said it was confession, contrition, doing penance, that was important. Admitting we sinned. Saying we're sorry. Making things right. The church-then-and-there said it was up to us, that it was all up to us. Luther said, "No it isn't! It's up to god! Ash Wednesday isn't about the things we do for god. Ash Wednesday's about the sacrifice god makes, god offers, for us! Like everything else in this place, it's all about Jesus! Jesus and the cross! That's why, on this night, it's his mark we smudge onto our foreheads. "Remember you are dust," for sure! But even more, "You are marked with the cross of Christ, forever!"

It's all about love! Being loved and, then, just like god, loving! And it requires, it demands, at the very least, two persons! The one loving and the one loved! Never just one! There's God the Father, and there's God the Son! There's Jesus and there's the church! There's the church and there's the world! We don't pay it forward. We love it out! Love it out and beyond! In ever widening ripples of compassion and concern. Loved so we can do the same. Faith isn't, just, a matter of getting through the pearly gates. Faith is the ever-expanding embrace that begins with Christ and continues through us! Faith, believing, begins at the cross and spreads out from there! It's not giving alms or saying prayers or fasting.

It's the love! Always the love! Like when John's disciples ask Jesus if he's the one. Jesus tells them to let John know what they see and hear... the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed... the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them... That's what Jesus would do! That's what Jesus did! And that's our mission, our ministry, as well! Not saying prayers or reading the bible or singing songs or filling the offering plate. It's loving people, just like Jesus! That is our discipline! A discipline not just of Lent, but of the entire year! And my friends, that is the invitation god extends, this night!

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the sermon for

the Transfiguration of Our Lord

11 February 2018

2 Kings 2:1-12
Love is needed on earth, not in heaven!

02112018This is where it all began, the passage that gave rise to the spiritual, to the song. Second Kings. Chapter two. Verse eleven. "As they[ - Elijah and Elisha, Teacher and Disciple - ]continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven." Swing low, sweet chariot, comin' for to carry me home...

But there's another passage, a lot like this one – I don't think we ever read on a Sunday morning. It's at the end of Deuteronomy. Chapter thirty-four. Verses five and six. "Then Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, at the LORD's command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day." Legend had it, later, that "o one knows his burial place" because Moses never died! But like Elijah, he had, instead, been taken up into heaven!

Two persons – Moses and Elijah, Elijah and Moses – who had never died! Two persons – Elijah and Moses, Moses and Elijah – who live forever with god! And two persons, this morning, who just so happen to appear on the mountaintop talking with Jesus! But we get so distracted by the bright light, we forget about them. We don't' give them a second thought. The two immortals! The two humans who never died! The two humans who live forever! Living there in heaven, up high and far away!

But this morning, they meet Jesus, there on the mountaintop, with Peter and James and John looking on. Jesus' clothes become dazzling white. He's transfigured. Elijah with Moses appear and they talk. Peter, we're told, is terrified. They all are. The cloud – the sign of god's presence – overshadows everything. Then the voice. And suddenly, as quickly as it began, it all vanishes! It all disappears! Moses! Elijah! The cloud! And they see only Jesus! Only Jesus! Confused. Uncertain. And probably more than a little disappointed. Because, you see, they thought this was Jesus' time! Jesus' turn! Not simply to shine brightly, but to be assumed! To be taken up! Just like Moses! Just like Elijah!

Over the years, I've heard so many sermons explain this moment. And I've written, I've preached, what I heard. A mountaintop experience, we said! A moment above, beyond! Nothing more! We can't stay here! We have to return! Go back down the mountain! Live in the valley! Back to the real world! But when I thought about that message, this week, it sounded hollow, empty. Trivial and trite. Especially when you think about Moses! And Elijah! As the disciples saw them! As eternals! Immortals! What if...

What if, this time, the story reveals something else? Like that faith, that believing, isn't meant for heaven, but for right here and for right now! Consider this... What if faith isn't meant for heaven, but for this side of forever? Moses and Elijah were considered too holy to die just like everyone else! So god took them up into heaven! The fiery chariot and horses! The assumption! Later, the church would do the same thing for Mary, the mother of our Lord, the mother of god! She, too, would escape the grave and ascend into heaven!

But not Jesus! "Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more... but only Jesus!" Why was he left behind? Why didn't he, too, ascend into heaven? Could it be... could it be... the moment Jesus is taken away... the moment Jesus leaves this earth... he stops being Jesus? Could it be that the moment Jesus leaves this world, he stops being who, what he is? Yes, it's true that Jesus has to go back down the mountain. He has to go on to Jerusalem. To suffer under Pilate. To be crucified! To die! To be buried! To descend to the dead! But not for the reason we usually think of. Not because he has to fulfill this verse or that, one prophecy or another. He has to do it because that's who he is! A savior! And that's what he does! He saves! And in heaven, no one needs saving! Only here, on this side of the grave, do people need redeemed! Only on this side of eternity do people need rescued and delivered! This is where we need Jesus! Not "up there!"

If there is one thing Jesus is, that one thing is love. Pure. Unbounded. And it's here on earth that love is necessary! This is where it's essential! In this fallen world! In this broken creation! Think about it, for a moment! Popular religion has it that heaven is the place where people life happily-ever-after! Heaven's where everyone has everything they need! Has everything they dream of! Death swallowed up! Tears are wiped away! But what happens to love? What happens when no one has to turn the other cheek or go the extra mile? What happens when there is no one hungry, no one thirsty? When no one's a naked or a stranger or sick? What happens when no one is wearied by the changes and chances of life? When there are no sins and griefs to bear? In heaven, there's no need to carry someone else's cross! In heaven, no one needs a savior! No one needs saving! Only here! Only now!

This is where the poor need to hear gospel! This is where the captives need releasing! This is where the blind can't see! Where the oppressed can be set free! In heaven – at least, in the heaven we imagine – that's all obsolete! That's all unnecessary! Love is no longer vital, no longer crucial, no longer indispensable! And neither is Jesus! At least, not the Jesus we've come to believe in!

The kingdom of god – at least, for us – isn't a paradise, a utopia. The kingdom of god is a sacrifice, a cross! But when that sacrifice, when that cross, no longer serves a purpose, well... It's "down here," in the valley of the shadow... It's "down here," in this vale of tears... that Jesus lives and moves and has his being! Not up high! Not far, far away! But down-to-earth and very, very close at hand!

The word became flesh, we're told. Became flesh and lived among us. Truth be told, that word never left us! That word never went away! It became flesh and lives among us still! Not locked behind gates of pearl, sitting on a golden throne. But here, in a mouthful of words spoken on any given Sunday morning! Here in a palm-ful of tap water! Here in a thimble of sweet red wine and a pinch of warm bread! Here! In front of us! Behind us! Beside us! Between us! And it's here! Here that word will remain!

Yes, there's the mountaintop. And sure, there's Moses and Elijah, the cloud and the voice! But my friends, when all that disappears... when all of that vanishes... There's one thing that will remain... one thing that will always remain... only Jesus! Only Jesus!

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