Words from Our Pastor

Monday, December 16, 2019

Consider the Evidence: An Advent Sermon

Matthew 11:2-11

I've recently gotten obsessed with True Crime podcasts.  
It’s gotten so bad that when I participate in our Roadside Cleanup, I’m convinced that every piece of trash is evidence that’s been discarded while leaving the scene of a crime.
They are so fascinating and so interesting!
There is one in particular called Crime Junkies, which has quickly become my favorite.
Each episode takes a high-profile case- some of which are solved and some of which are still unsolved-and investigates.
They have all the intrigue of a good old-fashioned mystery, except these are true.
They provide an overview of the case to set the stage.
Then, they introduce the suspects, exploring motives and alibis.
Then, and this is oftentimes my favorite, they review trial records and examine how certain things were presented.  They review how certain witnesses performed- what they said and what they didn't say. They dramatically highlight key turning points in the case and how they impacted the outcomes.
But what is almost always the most intriguing and what, almost always, is the "clincher" is evidence.
More often than not, it's the evidence which seems to make or break the trial.
But evidence isn't always a slam dunk. 
There are many, many cases where the interpretation of the evidence can unexpectedly shift the outcome.
Remember the OJ Trial?  The gloves?
The prosecution was convinced that this evidence was going to seal the deal.
In fact, in the trial they dramatically requested OJ try on the gloves, hoping for a theatrical denouement that would reveal him to be the killer.
But it backfired.
The gloves didn't fit.
And as Johnnie Cochrane famously repeated,   "If they don't fit, you must acquit!"  
It didn't matter that the leather of the gloves likely shrunk from heat over the course of the trial.
Evidence- all evidence- has to be interpreted.

Evidence seems to play a key role in today's Gospel reading.

In the passage, John the Baptist, whose mission from the beginning was to pave the way for the Messiah, now finds himself  in prison.
While in prison, John's heard stories about all these things suggesting Jesus is indeed the Messiah.  But for some reason, John isn't quite convinced.
We don't know exactly why, but he seems to need confirmation.  So he sends his folks out to ask Jesus, point-blank-
"are you the one? or should we keep looking?"
And Jesus, of course, doesn't answer the question directly.
and let's talk about that- I love the Lord.  Love the Lord.  
But throughout the Bible this man never, ever, ever seems to answer a question directly!
In some ways I feel like it would have made things way easier if he had.  But of course, that's not the point. 
I know this is Jesus' style.
Jesus- ever the teacher- wants his followers to answer the questions for themselves.
So Jesus responds to John by asking him to, basically, to discern the evidence.
The blind receive their sight
the lame walk
the lepers are healed
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised
and the poor have the good news brought to them.
All of these are actual prophecies pointing to life after the arrival of the Messiah.

So instead of answering John's question directly, Jesus cites this evidence and leaves it for him to decide. 

He leaves it for John and his followers to discern.
There's wisdom in this approach.
Because especially in matters of faith,  discernment is critical.
If you base your faith decisions- or really any decision--solely on the experience or advice of someone else, its most likely won't take root.
Because the conclusions aren't authentically yours at all.
You're just parroting someone else's views.
Any meaningful decision requires some level of discernment. 
When you discern, the outcomes become authentically your own.

We see this process most fully lived out in Confirmation.
In Confirmation we stress the importance of the youth discerning what THEY believe to be true.
At their baptism, if they were baptized as babies, the promises and faith statements were made on their behalf by adults, usually their parents.
But at Confirmation, we provide the instruction and create a space for question and debate, but they ultimately decide the trajectory of their faith on their own.
We present the evidence, and they render the verdict. 
And in doing so, it becomes theirs. 
Faith requires discernment.

Thankfully, there is a lot of material to help.  
Hundreds of years of traditions.
Lots of "evidence"--
Key witnesses-
We have an entire library of documented experiences of God ranging over thousands of years and in various forms- history, poetry, myths-
all of them speaking to the truth about God and the incredible power that comes from embracing a life of faith.
Collectively, they make a compelling case. 

But you still have to examine it for yourself 

Now to be fair, the evidence in Scripture isn't always so clear.
In the case of identifying the Messiah, for example,  much of the evidence seems counter-intuitive, at least to those in the ancient world.
Jesus, for example, would certainly not have fit the criteria at all.  The Messiah was understood to be this powerful warrior whose arrival would result in the vanquishing of all of Israel's foes.
And yet, here he is- this builder turned itinerant rabbi, born on the wrong side of the tracks, who goes around challenging the religious establishment.
It's understandable how many would not have believed him to be "the guy."
So to assist with the case, Matthew employs the ancient prophecies as evidence to "connect the dots" for the original audience.
Throughout his Gospel, Matthew frequently references the messianic prophecies so we will hopefully conclude that he is indeed "the one"

-he will be descended from David  
-from the line of Abraham and Isaac, and Jacob-- from the tribe of Judah
-he will be born in Bethlehem to a virgin
-he would be called a Nazarene
-he would speak in parables
-he would be crucified with criminals 
-but resurrected from the dead and ascend into heaven

That's a lot of evidence, right?
Persuasive evidence.
In the book "Science Speaks" Peter Stoner and Robert Newman discuss the statistical improbability of one man, whether accidentally or deliberately, fulfilling just eight of the prophecies Jesus fulfilled. The chance of this happening, they say, is 1 in 10 to the 17th power
Stoner gives an illustration that helps visualize the magnitude of such odds:
Suppose that we take 10x17 silver dollars and lay them on the face of Texas. They will cover all of the state two feet deep. Now mark one of these silver dollars and stir the whole mass thoroughly, all over the state. Then blindfold a man and tell him to pick up one silver dollar. What chance would he have of getting the right one? The same chance that eight prophecies would all come true in any one man.

Compelling evidence, for sure. 

In today's Gospel, Jesus uses the prophecies to prove to John and his followers that, against all odds, he is indeed who they suspect him to be: the Messiah.
But that's really not his ultimate point.
By referencing all the prophecies from Isaiah- the blind seeing, the deaf hearing and so on, Jesus yes, is confirming he's the Messiah.
But more importantly, he's announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God.
That a radical new way of living and being has arrived.
All that they're witnessing- the healing and restoration- are the evidence to this truth.
All the promises they've read about and heard from the prophets are now taking place!
So when you bring it all together, it's a giant WAKE UP CALL that the Kingdom of God is at hand!
Here, now, among us!
In his very being, Jesus is
Inviting us, beckoning us
to live into this reality of God's Kingdom on earth.

A new reality where:
we are liberated and reconciled
we are fully restored and made whole-
all those things which oppressed us and held us back no longer have any power over us.
Restoration is available to us
true restoration!

We live in a culture that too often tells us that it's all up to us.  We've sort of shoved God to the corner, leaving us to shoulder it all.
That our joy ....is up to us
That our worth .... is up to us
That our futures ....are up to us.

But friends, that's not the Kingdom of God!

In God's Kingdom, we are liberated from all of that.  
In God's Kingdom
Our joy... is in CHRIST
Our worth... is in CHRIST
and most definitely our futures-- our eternal futures--
are in CHRIST.

This was the truth John the Baptist had been preparing us for.
John knew that all of these things would occur upon the arrival of the Messiah.
He had spent his entire life spreading this message-
- preparing the way.
And with Jesus confirming that he was indeed the one, 
John could, in a sense, rest his case.
He could now safely pass on this mission to others.
As a result, we are now transitioning from prophecy to fulfillment.
The world would be forever changed.
The Kingdom of God had indeed arrived.

So what does this mean for us today?
How do we honor this?
In this season of Advent, how do we faithfully observe it?
Well, I suppose that's up to you.
But if you ask me, I think the evidence is clear:
It's really, really good news.
So let's celebrate.
Come Lord Jesus, Come.

Amen.




Monday, July 1, 2019

SERMON NOTES: Righteous Anger


Luke 9:51-62

ANGER AS OVERREACTIVE
Road rage is unquestionably a complete overreaction to anger 
Sometimes anger makes us lose our minds 
But we often feel at least justified 
Anger is a complicated emotion

Passage- James and John- fire from heaven? 
A touch overboard don’t you think?
Jesus rebukes them
Jesus is not necessarily upset about the emotion , but its expression
Violence and aggression are often the default option for anger
We disagree? We belittle
Challenged?  We lash out
Entirely unproductive 
No one wins.

ANGER AS PRODUCTIVE 
Anger in and of itself isn't bad-- Jesus expresses anger.  Remember the tables?
But it is a different kind of anger
Not just anger for anger's sake  
It’s righteous anger
It's anger against injustice
Jesus seems to be ok with this type of anger to a point.
When used properly, anger can be a productive emotion.

What do you get angry about?

ANGER AS INDICATOR OF PASSION
Often, the things that trigger our anger belie something we are passionate about.
At Campfirmation this past week, we discussed anger in our small groups.  Most kids shared an anger about bullying.
When unpacked, it revealed passion about the equality and dignity of all
When someone is bullied, their dignity is compromised, and that evokes anger.

Glennon Doyle, a famous blogger, noted,
"anger is like compassion--
It can point us directly toward to the place in the world
we were born to help heal"

So Where do you get angry?

CALL TO ERADICATE INJUSTICE 
As Christians, we are called to seek to eradicate injustice in the world.
In fact, our sole purpose is not to be happy, comfortable, and accumulate things--of course,  those are nice
but our purpose
is to collaborate with God to usher in the kingdom
to continue the transformative work of Jesus
A kingdom of JUSTICE
Jesus himself told us what this means:
  • good news to the poor
  • release to the captives
  • freedom to the oppressed

If you notice in Scripture, the folks Jesus gets angry at are the RELIGIOUS! Because they are - we are- often working against these efforts  
And they—
We—
should know better!
As people of faith, our task is to work toward justice.

JEWISH UNDERSTANDING OF JUSTICE
The Jewish understanding of justice is very rich--
The Hebrew word often used for justice is tzedakah which is usually translated as "Charity"
But it’s nuanced 
 tzedakah is a mitzvah, a commandment, so it is seen as an obligatory act of justice,  not a voluntary act of caritas, love, as the Latin root of charity suggests.
**In other words, giving to the poor isn't an optional offering out of the goodness of one's heart, but a claim that the poor have on general resources to live a life of dignity. 
It is the legal duty for all to share the wealth and abundance with which they have been blessed.

we are to be people of justice.

CHANNEL ANGER 
As people of Justice, We are to channel anger into fighting for justice
dismantling systems that perpetuate injustice
promoting a life of liberation for all.
Just getting angry?  
Lashing out?
Frankly, that's just lazy.

Jesus calls us to work to fix the problems.
But it won't be easy
We are warned of that!

It will be difficult
It won't be comfortable
You must be willing to give up our self-interest

But it's not only worth it, but it's expected

JUSTICE TODAY 
So what does this look like today?
What is justice?

What is GOOD NEWS TO THE POOR?
WHO are those in captivity?  How can we offer release?
WHO are the oppressed?  And HOW can we grant them freedom?

SOCIAL JUSTICE 
At least in my circles, this work is often referred to broadly as "social justice"
By definition, this makes sense- JUSTICE for SOCIETY.  Right?
Sadly, it's been co-opted.
Many have used it to substantiate their own political agenda.
In doing so, its been lost to the world of divisive politics.
Don't get me wrong- government and the political sphere are often important arenas for enacting social justice
But it's not the only way
As the church, we have a responsibility to participate as well
We can't simply cede our responsibilities to the government.
Because as the body of Christ, we, too can channel our anger to eradicate justice.
  • We can channel our anger about racism by
    • intentional accompaniment; teaching what it means for ALL to be in the image of God
  • We can channel our anger about child abuse by
    • providing support to struggling individuals and families; support local nonprofits working with those in need
  • We can channel our anger about food insecurity by
    • support our local food banks, perhaps creating our own garden
There are so many ways we as the church can work toward justice in the world

CLOSE
It's ok to be angry.  In fact, it's often helpful.
But God wants us to channel that anger for productive good
God wants us to channel our anger to enact justice in the world-
NOT lash out, yell, and argue
But do the work.

Because if we are truly committed to a world of PEACE, JOY, LOVE, & EQUALITY...

THIS IS OUR PART
THIS IS OUR TASK
THIS IS OUR CALL.

Let's get to work.

Amen.





Tuesday, June 11, 2019

It's Not About You!


This morning I awoke early and could not fall back asleep.  So I got up, poured myself a cup of coffee, and went into the kitchen for some quiet, devotional time.  (With 5 kids, it goes without saying that “quiet” isn’t something I get a lot, so I cherish it.)

For personal devotion, I often use the “The Message Devotional Bible”, which is a terrific resource developed by the late Biblical scholar, theologian, and pastor Eugene Peterson.  This Bible uses his translation, which is the Bible in contemporary language, as well as his personal insights and devotional prompts based on years of scholarship and ministry. And this is what I opened this morning.

While reading, I stumbled on a quote that grabbed me.  In explaining the importance of seeing God at work in the Biblical narrative Peterson wrote, “For it is, after all, His story; none of us is the leading character in the story of our life.”

Boom!  That hit me like a ton of bricks.

This understanding might be self-evident for many, but for most it is aspirational.  At least for me, it was a reminder of who I am serving with this life.

Far too often, we place an enormous amount of pressure on ourselves to construct picture-perfect lives, full of accomplishment and meaning.  We beat ourselves up for looking or not looking a certain way, for having the “right” job, the “right” house, and the “right” social circle.  We might even make a point to attend the “right” church, even impressing everyone with our participation and piety.

When this is our emphasis, we miss the vital point that it is not about us at all!

Our lives are not about satisfying our own desires, making ourselves look good. 
To God be the glory. 
To God be the gratitude. 

Our lives are in service to God, not some external version of ourselves. 

Enjoying accolades is not bad in and of itself, but we must always remind ourselves that our true purpose is to glorify God. 

So when you feel yourself putting a little too much pressure on yourself, or if you awkwardly experience being a little too proud of yourself, gently remind yourself who is the star of this production.  We are a supporting cast.

God is the star.
But it’s the greatest production of all time.

See you in church,
Pastor Brook

Monday, May 20, 2019

Change


Graduation season is among us.  If we aren’t attending the ceremonies ourselves, your Facebook feeds are most likely filled with pictures of smiling faces of families surrounding young adults donned in caps and gowns. It is an exciting time for many. 

Most are graduating from high school and moving on to college, trade school, or the military.  Some are graduating from college or professional training and moving on to either their first job or the next step in their journey.  But all, in one way or another, are experiencing change.

Change is not easy for everyone.  To some, change is exciting.  To others, it’s scary.  There is something about the unknown that understandably gives us pause.
But change is an inevitable part of life.

The good news about a life of faith is that we are never alone in these journeys. God promises to be with us through all of life’s changes- the ups and downs, the peaks and valleys; the fresh starts and the reluctant ends. Hopefully, the assurance of being accompanied in these transitions make facing them a little more manageable. 

One of my favorite verses from the Bible is from Deuteronomy 31 and speaks to this promise: “Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the LORD your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.” (NRSV)

Maybe you are a graduate moving on to adulthood; maybe you are the parent of a graduate adjusting to an empty nest; maybe you are moving on from an old relationship or beginning a new one.  Maybe you are changing careers, starting a new one, or retiring from one.  However you are experiencing change, trust that God is with you though it all and will accompany you the whole way.
You’re never alone.   Isn’t that good news?

See you in church,
Pastor Brook


Monday, May 13, 2019

Sabbath: The Antidote for Productivity Martyrdom



It doesn’t take a psychologist to realize many of us are frazzled.  These days, we are all dashing back and forth with our harried schedules, convinced it shows we are productive and “getting things done.”  In fact, our busyness has almost become this strange badge of honor.  We have somehow convinced ourselves that being busy demonstrates our worthiness.  But the reality is, we are not accomplishing as much as we think; studies consistently show our multi-tasking is actually compromising the quality of our work.  We might be “doing” more, but we are not really doing any of it well.   And what’s worse, we are passing this illusion on to our kids.

Scripture consistently lifts up the understanding of the Sabbath.  In the Ten Commandments, God explicitly states that we are to “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath day to the Lord God.” (Exodus 20). Our Creator has an intimate understanding of our needs; rest is an essential part of daily living.  It is through rest that we are able to recharge and maintain our health.  Even the land requires a Sabbath; in Leviticus God institutes the understanding of the seventh year being a time when a field is to lie fallow.  It is during this time that the soil is able to restore its nutrients and recover from the previous six years.  Any farmer will tell you this is sound agricultural practice.

So why is it that we resist the understanding of Sabbath?  Why are we so convinced that we are resistant to the need for rest?  

I’m afraid our culture is slipping into dangerous territory by ignoring the vital understanding of Sabbath.  Our technology is only exacerbating this situation.  At one point we left work at “quitting time” (whatever time that might be) and came home to our family and friends.  We resumed whatever challenges or issues or tasks awaited us once we returned to our place of work the next day.  But now, thanks to “productivity” tools as texts, emails, cell phones, and computers, it is possible for our work day to never end.  While the initial goal of these advances was to allow for more flexibility and work/life balance, the results have been quite the opposite.  We are often present, but absent.  We are on the phone at our kids’ soccer games, texting during family dinner, or emailing late at night when we need to be relaxing with a good book, or chatting with our spouse.

Look, I’m as guilty as anyone else.  If not more so.  But we don’t have to live this way.  Together, we can heed the instructions our Lord gave us and resist the temptation to be productivity martyrs.  Let’s stop fooling ourselves that being busy, working at all hours, multi-tasking, crossing things off our to-do lists, and racing around from appointment to appointment somehow boosts our significance or increases our value.  We can:

Set clear expectations with colleagues and customers that, at a certain time, our availability is limited.
We can limit our use of electronic communication tools such as texting and emailing, establishing clear boundaries for their use.  If needed, you can enlist the help of an accountability partner to keep you on track.
We can challenge ourselves to be intentional about carving out a set amount of time each day and each week for rest; to take a nap, meditate, watch a movie, go for a walk, or have a nice meal.

These are just a few examples.  I challenge you (and myself!) to try a few of these, or maybe create your own.  But together we can revisit the power of the Sabbath.  The late theologian and pastor Eugene Peterson once said, “If you don’t take a Sabbath, something is wrong. You’re doing too much, you’re being too much in charge.  You’ve got to quit, one day a week, and just watch what God is doing when you’re not doing anything.”

I think that about sums it up.


See you in church,
Pastor Brook

Monday, May 6, 2019

The Illusion of Control



This past weekend was a big one at Cross & Crown.  Not only did we have our annual Yard Sale, which is our largest fundraiser for the year, but we also had our Youth Car Wash.  On top of all of that, it was Youth Sunday, where the youth of our church plan worship for both of our services at 8:15 and 10:45.

So much planning and hard work goes into events.  Anyone who has planned a wedding or even a kid’s birthday party (especially these days) understands this deeply.  We can prepare for every possible scenario and we can still be surprised.  Weather can complicate plans, personal conflicts can surface, and the list goes on. 

But we quickly learn (or should learn) that control is an illusion.  Do not misunderstand me; I don’t intend to diminish the importance of preparation.  But we should always remind ourselves that it’s not only us at work, but God is as work as well.

I have to admit, it was not easy to turn over the important decisions involving worship to folks who weren’t even legally allowed to drive.   But one of the key goals of that service is to trust them with the decisions so they feel ownership with the service and have “skin” in the game.  I cannot tell you how many times I wanted to step in or intervene, but I had to remind myself that it was THEIR service!

And wouldn’t you know it- they all showed up.  Each kid had worked hard and it showed.  It was clear God was working through them in powerful ways.  In fact, the service was said to be one of the best youth services in years. 

God is always at work.  I suppose it's part of the human condition to try to exert control in our lives.  And we try to control everything, don’t we?  Our relationships, our work, other’s work, our families.  But the result is usually just unneeded worry, anxiety, and stress.  When we “let go and let God” the results are often far greater than we ever could have produced on our own.

So this week, when you find yourself slipping into “control mode” take a deep breath, whisper a prayer, and give it to God.  And enjoy the blessings that result.

See you in church,
Pastor Brook


Monday, April 29, 2019

Grief, Accompanied.


I recently started leading a grief support group at the Brace YMCA.  At the moment it’s just a few folks, but the hope is that it will grow.  Creating a sacred space to safely explore our emotions—whether it’s our pain, our anger, or our sadness is vital for the health of our communities.  People grieve a number of things — sometimes it’s the loss of a spouse or loved one; sometimes it’s the loss of a job or relationship; sometimes it’s “simply” a significant change in our lives.  We grieve what was, what could have been, or what will never be.  And people grieve in different ways.  Some people withdraw and  try to avoid it by busying themselves.  Some people experience grief through sadness, anger, or numbness.  But regardless, the pain of grief is very real, and it varies from person to person.
As people of faith we are tasked with accompanying one another through whatever grief is being experienced.  Offering a loved one the space to be “real” and fully step into that pain  can be one of the greatest gifts you ever offer someone.  
The tendency to avoid grief is a cultural reality for many.  But we should avoid the tendency to try simply to “cheer someone up” (my biggest weakness) or to distract them from their grief.  These strategies might have a place at some point in the process, but overall it's usually more helpful to offer that listening ear and a loving presence over trying to “fix” the situation.
Accompanying  someone in their grief can be uncomfortable, but I encourage you to resist the temptation to avoid it or try to fix it.  Our loving presence is far more impactful than you can ever imagine.  And when we offer this to others, we are truly becoming Christ to that person, which is a powerful witness. 

See you in church,
Pastor Brook