Sermon Based on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

     I love Jesus’ disciples; they’re so full of bluster and bombast, but generally are clueless boneheads. Today and the two previous Sundays, our gospel lessons have come from Matthew 13, in which Teacher Jesus tells parables about the Kingdom of heaven, what it’s like to live when God truly is in charge of our lives and creation. At the end, he asks his disciples, “Have you understood all this?” And they nod their heads, “Yes!” I imagine them saying, “Sure, Jesus, got it! Of course we understand; totally, no problem!” And then, as they move out toward toward the next town, I see them in clusters of two or three whispering, “Do you really understand?” and one or another confesses, “Not a clue; I have no idea.  Maybe, but I’m not sure.”
     If they understand, I’m envious.  I’m not sure I always do. Even if they do have a clue, there’s always more to understand, another thing to see; which is like going deeper into Christ. I was in a discipleship accountability group in which we agreed to particular practices, one of which was to be kind and considerate to everyone we met. That was easy, except when driving my car. Then I saw there was more to learn and new challenges to face in that arena.  Jesus says to love your neighbor; I’m good with that but then there’s my rude neighbor, my neighbor of color, my gay neighbor, that immigrant, those Muslims, that nutcase who doesn’t share my politics, my enemy. That’s when discipleship is more than we first thought, right?
     Jesus’ parables are like that; they open up new worlds, offer new insights and always challenge what we think we understand. In Emily Dickinson’s words, parables “tell the truth, but tell it slant.” They’re like a diamond that reflects light differently from different angles; no one by itself is enough, but each one points to a different aspect of what it means to live in God; each is a creative sketch of life that really is life.
So Jesus tells us that God’s Realm is a treasure that is both found unexpectedly, and a pearl to be sought after fiercely. It’s an unexpected and surprising gift, stumbled upon: the light comes on and we realize, oh, this is what it looks like.
     At a downtown church, both homeless folks and church members with suburban homes gather at a wintry midweek evening worship service when a guy comes in off the street without shoes. Nice folks scurry around the building looking for, but not finding any shoes for the poor guy, until another homeless guy comes in, sees the situation, gives away his shoes, and simply says, “I’ve got another pair at the shelter.” All those folks with so many shoes in their walk-in closets; and suddenly the blind see.
     And it’s something to seek fiercely. If I want to run a 10K, I can’t just think about it; if I want to lose weight, I have to change my eating habits. Both quests are good; a greater one is to find life in Christ, and that also takes more than wishful thinking:  constant and regular disciplines of prayer, silence, worship, serving the poor, feasting on God’s Word regularly and faithfully, cultivating the fruits of the Spirit: these are markers on the Way to where the priceless treasure of Christ can be found. Life in God: surprising gift?  wholehearted quest? Yes.
     Truth be told, I’d like my faith more cut and dry, simple and undemanding with less mystery, offered by a laid back Jesus who doesn’t ask much or cause any trouble or indigestion. But Jesus wasn’t put on a cross because he was nice, but because he was a threat and a challenge. If we listen to his parables and don’t think, “This guy needs killing,” we probably don’t understand them. In reality they’re subversive, scandalous, outrageous, and call into question things we take for granted and cherish a lot, because that’s how we survive in the world. So we think.
     So with the parables we hear today. We tame the mustard seed parable with pithy phrases, “From tiny acorns mighty oaks grow;” “Good things come in small packages.” That’s true, for sure. But what if Jesus said God’s Realm is like Kudzu? Kudzu: that awful weed we thought would help us control erosion, but took on a life of its own and is beyond our control; a pain, not a blessing. That was mustard in Jesus’ world; a tiny seed growing to take over a field.
     But here’s a mystery: we think Kudzu’s terrible, but the Chinese treasure it as an essential herb good for food and for healing. And that’s God’s Realm: beyond our control. No matter how hard we try it won’t go away; at times it’s unsettling but also the essential source of healing we need and crave. Jesus says that Realm runs wild with mercy and love, forgiveness and compassion, justice or peace, and he promises it will overrun the landscape of all creation for good: even us.
     Now here’s the odd thing in Jesus’ parable: mustard doesn’t grow into something all that great. Birds do nest in it; it grows to six or eight feet, but that’s no tree; it’s a bush. Elsewhere in the Bible cedar trees symbolize mighty and powerful empires where birds come to make nests. Compared to a cedar, a mustard bush is a joke.
     But maybe it’s God’s last laugh about what we think matters. Maybe God’s Kingdom is marked by great humility and service; the truly powerful and mighty kneel down to wash feet and forgive, or show mercy and offer compassion. What an odd Realm Jesus invites us to inhabit as our true home, now and always.
     Then there’s that baker woman.  She seems safe, friendly, homey. But think again: bread rises and is transformed into something marvelous by being pummeled and kneaded. My life isn’t easy when God’s strong hands lay hold; new life arises as I surrender, am worked on and pounded, humbled and formed and shaped crosswise into the image and likeness of Christ. But it’s a joyful thing to be touched by God’s hands to rise anew full of life, delightful to behold. And the result is nothing short of spectacular.
     Three measures of leaven would produce an enormous amount of bread, enough to feed 100 or more people. It’s beyond expectations, extravagant, more than enough; apparently God is an open-handed, generous host, holding nothing back and ready to provide for all who are hungry for something real and eternal. God’s banquet serves up heaping helpings of that bread of life that changes everything: mercy and kindness and grace and acceptance and forgiveness.  God welcomes us to sit and be at home there even here, even now. People hunger for such things.
     William and Mary students are very competitive, the brightest and best; and that can be a heavy burden if you think you’re loved for your achievements and not yourself. I often shared with them words from Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest who left a teaching position at Harvard to live as a companion for a special needs adult in the L’Arche community. He’d written, “There is that voice, the voice that speaks from above and from within and that whispers softly or declares loudly: ‘You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests'” (Life of the Beloved). Nouwen had heard that voice, rising up against the many voices that tell us otherwise; it transformed him as he went a new Way with Christ. William and Mary students who heard those words also heard that voice with wonder and joy on their faces as they realized God offered them such a gift, too.
     I’m comforted by Jesus’ word that that life-bringing leaven is often hidden, doing its work unnoticed, mysteriously, quietly and not in plain view. But I saw it here a few weeks when a solitary woman at this church noticed I was a stranger in the crowd, sought me out spoke and acted with true hospitality that is not seen nearly enough in congregations; and I was grateful.
     Could such Kingdom-leaven hospitality work a different miracle? Next month in Charlottesville, white surpremacists will again gather. My bishop has asked United Methodist clergy to join in non-violent protest, and I think a colleague has a crazy wise way to go one more step. She suggests that Kingdom-bold clergy offer free food and drink to the Unite the Right group, to engage in conversation with them, to listen deeply, to humbly challenge in love when possible, and offer to pray with and for them. In that heated place of controversy and conflict, who knows what might arise from such leaven hidden among Christ’s followers that day; and wouldn’t it be worth everything to glimpse God’s Kingdom there?
-David M. Hindman, 2017, soli Deo gloria.

Unexpected Blessings: Sermon Based on John 20:19-31

Locked inside Greensville Correctional Center with 150 inmates wasn’t a place I expected to be blessed. It was a Sunday night, like those we just read about in John’s Gospel; shut up in a place where sadness and despair and fear also live. We were singing a worship song that never would’ve been on my top 40 list. But unexpected blessing came in such a place and time. I realized that the Risen Christ had broken in and was standing in our midst bringing peace and joy and love and freedom and life like I don’t always experience where there aren’t guard towers. In the midst of the full-throated and full-bodied joyful song of my brothers in Christ I realized, surely God is in this place, and I did not know it – an unexpected blessing.

That’s what we hear in this Gospel story. The disciples are locked away in fear and anxiety, prisoners of their grief and disappointment, facing an uncertain future, still shocked at the Jesus’ death, the one they truly believed was God’s man. And then suddenly, unexpectedly, Jesus stands among them bringing peace, showing them his wounds so they know it’s really him alive in a way they can’t explain. The most real things they know are that Jesus was crucified, died and buried, and now he’s alive in their midst bringing peace and joy. Surely God is in this place, and they did not know it until Jesus breaks in, bringing unexpected blessing.

Such blessings can come in many ways. Ours is not a one size fits all faith: what abundant and amazing grace. Sometimes unexpectedly, what seemed dead and lifeless breaks open with new life. Many years ago, a friend greeted me after worship after we’d had Holy Communion using the old Methodist ritual that I mostly experienced as dreary and depressing. But she was unexpectedly exuberant, glowing, joyous in a way most unlike her, especially after our usual sober “celebration.” Ecstatically she said, “Today I got it. After all these years of praying the same prayers and using the same liturgy, I heard something I’d never heard it before in the words, ‘that we may walk in newness of life. That’s what this is all about; it’s what it means to be a Christian; we get to live new life, go a different way; travel a better road!” Unexpectedly and blessedly, the Risen Christ broke through a familiar and locked down faith tradition with new presence, new joy, new life.

That’s part of the Easter promise! Christ is alive, still meeting and greeting us with life and joy and peace, especially when we think we’ve got things locked down, secure and under control; or when life seems uncertain and terrifying. A tired old hymn suddenly speaks to us in a fresh way; scripture we’ve read countless times comes alive as God speaks to us directly in a stunning way; or an ordinary conversation unexpectedly becomes holy and life changing.

At a church homecoming service I attended as an adult, I saw an older man I’d known from childhood. With joy and deep gratitude I told him that when I was in college he’d spoken words at a church meeting that had changed my life. He listened to my story but said with a wry smile, “I just don’t remember that at all.” What was ordinary and forgettable to him was an unexpected blessing to me; the Risen Christ spoke through him and the old man didn’t know it.

In mission and service we may assume we’re the ones bringing God and help and hope; but unexpected blessing can come through those to whom we go; the Risen Christ enters our lives afresh bringing joy and peace and life. A campus ministry colleague took a group of students on a spring break mission trip to Guatemala; the team included a young man who said he was an atheist, but he wanted to do good. Of course he was welcomed because that’s what Christians do, right? The team worked in a village with only widows and children; a few years earlier the Guatemalan army had come to round the men up and lock them in the village church and blow it up. That young man worked alongside the widows who shared their lives and their faith in ordinary ways and at week’s end he humbly said, “If these women who have suffered so much and have so little can trust and believe in God, maybe I can, too.” The Risen Christ broke into his locked up beliefs and assumptions to plant a seed of faith as an unexpected blessing.

Scripture promises such blessing to all of us, not just a select few. In today’s story the Risen Christ comes to the disciples. For John that’s not just the 12; he rarely mentions them as a group. The disciples are all who follow and love Jesus; that’s to whom he comes, as they need him, meeting them where they are.

Certainly that’s Thomas’ story. We typically call him Doubting Thomas, and I like that, because that means my doubts and uncertainties and questions won’t keep Jesus from me, and Jesus won’t love me less. But when you read John’s Gospel there’s more to Thomas. He is also Brave Thomas saying to his friends let us go with Jesus even if that means dying with him. He’s Honest Thomas; the night before his arrest Jesus tells the disciples, “You know where I’m going and you know the way.” But Thomas says, “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going so how can we know the way?” There’s a beauty in owning up to how clueless you are and to trust Christ won’t give up on you; that’s when Jesus tells Thomas, “I am the Way, and the Truth and the Life.” Thanks to Thomas we have those treasured words and that blessed promise.

So it’s not surprising that when Thomas is told that the Lord is risen and has appeared to the disciples, he doesn’t believe it. Hearsay evidence isn’t good enough for him; a one-off, second-hand faith isn’t for him. He wants direct encounter, a hands on, full-bodied meet up with Jesus. We tend to criticize Thomas for that; he should just believe, right? But Thomas only asked for what the others already received – to know and see for himself, to believe up close and personal, not at a distance. Isn’t that what we all want? And the unexpected blessing is that Christ gave Thomas what he needed, in a way he needed it. He doesn’t chastise or criticize Thomas. He comes to him, again through locked doors, and invites Thomas into that direct encounter: put your finger here; put your hand there. In our English translation Thomas is a doubter; but that’s not what Jesus says in the Greek. There he calls Thomas from being an unbeliever to be a believer. And then Jesus gives us an unexpected blessing because even though we aren’t among those first disciples in that long ago place, belief and faith are gifts that are given to us, too. We are those who believe, although we have not seen. We don’t meet a dead Jesus but a living Christ in scripture and prayer and worship and service; he still comes to us with unexpected blessing and calls us to believe and trust and live, and to continue his work and mission and ministry. The Risen Christ doesn’t come to the disciples to say, ”I’m alive so now you know you can go to heaven when you die.” Not at all. What he does is breathe the Holy Spirit on them, like God breathing life into the first man in Genesis’ creation story, or like the prophet Ezekiel when he envisions God breathing breath/wind/spirit into a valley full of dry bones that are raised to new life. The Risen Christ breathes that same Holy Spirit into the disciples, birthing new creation and says, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.”   By the Holy Spirit’s power working in us and through us and for us, Christ sends us, like him, to live and heal, to love and forgive, to teach and serve, to show mercy and bring peace and abundant life. We get to be his partners and co-workers; Christ alive in us!

What a great joy, what an unexpected blessing. I have a treasured picture of my daughter and wife working alongside each other in the kitchen preparing a Thanksgiving feast. They both look at the camera, so alike, so happy, working together to make Thanksgiving real. That’s what we’re about, working alongside Christ to give the world what the hymn writer calls “a sweet foretaste of the festal joy, the Lamb’s great banquet feast of bliss and love.”

In the same way I watch our neighbor Quinn and his son Liam. Whatever Dad’s doing, Liam does. In the yard, they wear identical baseball hats; they’re partners bringing life to their yard, one working with big people tools, the other with tools his size, but side by side sharing the joyful work together. And in days to come, our Grace and little Liam will continue living in the light of lessons learned and living love will be still be near, even if in a different way.

That’s what we get to do; work alongside Christ and show the life Christ gives in our lives. In the words of blessing in our wedding liturgy, we get to “bear witness to the love of God in this world so that those to whom love is a stranger will find in us generous friends;” we get to tell the story that Christ still comes with joy and peace; we get to love as Jesus loves, and serve in his name; in the words of John’s story we get to to be signs of Christ’s life so others can judge for themselves if they want to be part of such an incredible story, and believe for themselves that this same Crucified and Risen Jesus is Lord and God, Savior and Messiah; and believing they – and we – will have life in his name, thanks be to God.

-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.

A Lawnmower, Three Questions, and an Exam: Sermon Based on Matthew 5:38-48

     It’s a sure sign of spring when our lawnmower goes to Ace Hardware for its yearly tune-up. I did that last week and soon I’ll get a call that it’s ready and we’ll be set for the summer. I trust the mechanic so I know it will be totally perfect. That doesn’t mean my mower dropped straight out of heaven, or that it’s the only perfect one in the world, or that I’m saying anything bad about your mower. It’s much simpler. My mower’s perfect because it does what it’s supposed to do, what it’s made for. I put in gas, crank it up, it runs smoothly on all cylinders, I put it in gear and voilà, grass gets cut. It was made for grass cutting and that what it does. It’s awesome, perfect. If I described it in New Testament Greek I’d say my mower is teleios. It does completely what it was created by its maker to do, no more and no less. It is what it is: a mower, exactly perfect in every way.
     Which brings us to Jesus’ teaching today from the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew presents Jesus as the authority figure to follow him and give first place in our lives. Matthew does this in some subtle and creative ways. Again and again he calls to mind key Old Testament people and events and connects them to Jesus. Here Matthew wants to link Jesus to Moses, the most important person to Jews. Jesus is on a mountain, like Moses when he receives the 10 commandments on Mt. Sinai. But here Jesus speaks with more authority than Moses. Five times Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said…,” and follows with “But I say to you…”
     Clearly this Jesus is more important, a greater authority. His teachings on murder and anger, adultery and lust, vows and promises, revenge and enemies take us deeper – into our hearts and motives in a more radical way than a simple list of do’s and don’ts to stay on God’s good side. And the punch line comes at the end: we’re to be like God, the God Jesus shows us in his suffering love. Listen again, “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” There’s that word again: perfect, teleios: reaching your purpose and goal, aligned with God’s will and ways; grown up and mature with excellence in virtue, being all you were created to be. As another translation puts it, “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete” (Common English Bible) or as in Peterson’s The Message, “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you;” or as Luke’s Gospel puts this teaching in somewhat different words, “Be merciful and compassionate just like your Father is” (Common English Bible; Today’s English Version)
     Here’s Jesus’ call to us: we are children of God, so act like it. From the very beginning of the Bible story, that is who we are. In Genesis’ creation story God says, “Let us make humans in our image according to our likeness. So God made us that way and blessed us. And so to be perfectly who we were made to be, we are to be like God – loving, compassionate, merciful. As Leviticus says we are to be holy, like God is holy as we defend the weak and poor and watch out for those who have no one to watch out for them. When we live in the same wild and crazy way as this God who forgives enemies and is gracious and kind to both good and evil, we are perfect. We are who we are made to be: children of our Father in heaven.
     But you say, “Preacher, we can’t do that! We’re not perfect and never will be; it’s crazy even to try.” But then why would Jesus expect this of us? Is he setting us up for some cruel, practical joke, like Lucy challenging Charlie Brown and always pulling the ball away to show that we’re chumps? Or does Jesus really mean it? Does Jesus believe we can be perfect?
     John Wesley believed it. Our father in the faith often preached on Christian perfection or being made perfect in love or growing in holiness. Wesley said God would help us to become what God expected of us. Nothing is impossible for God so God can be trusted to help us become what we were created to be. Now that doesn’t mean that we’ll always do the right thing, or get every answer right on an exam or know the Pick 6 numbers. But with the Holy Spirit’s help and power at work alongside our deep desire, we can in fact be made perfect in love; our every action and desire can be driven by the engine of love for God and others. Even when we mess up, showing love to God and others will be the aim and purpose. That’s what holiness looks like; that’s being made perfect in love. Today every person seeking ordination in The United Methodist Church still answers questions asked of preachers for nearly 275 years, “Are you going on to perfection?” “Yes.” Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this lifetime?” “Yes.” “Are you earnestly striving after it?” “Yes.” In an earlier time every Methodist was asked those questions with the same expected answers. As the bishop who ordained me asked, “If you’re not going on to perfection, where are you going?”
     Now it’s true: on our own we can’t be perfect. We are sinners, flawed, imperfect, missing the mark no matter how hard we try. But we’re not on our own. Wesley believed God’s grace and Holy Spirit are always at work in our lives and God’s grace can and will do for us what we can’t do ourselves. So Wesley asks, “ Do you expect to be made perfect in love?” That’s God’s work, God’s promise; as St. Paul writes to the Philippians, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). Wesley believed such transformation could happen instantly but for most it was a gradual process; he was convinced he’d met Methodists who were living in a state of perfect love and holiness. I think I attended the funeral of one of those folks; for many years Millie Sunshine Cooper was the Virginia Conference staff person for youth. In the testimony of those leading her service yesterday and in my own personal experience, this humble and dedicated servant of Christ was always motivated and inspired by love for God and love for others on the job and in her daily living up to her last days. Millie may have been somewhat unusual; Wesley thought most believers would be made perfect in love at the moment of death. As I’ve been around dying folks, I’m persuaded he knew what he was talking about; I’ve seen countless folks become one with God in love and mercy at their end.
     But this morning I heard another report of someone who may be living in that state of holiness of life and perfect love. I assume Mohamed Bzeek of Los Angeles is a Muslim, and for the last 20 years he has served as a foster parent to terminally ill children. He has been by the side of nearly a dozen who have taken last breath in his presence. Who does such a thing? Perhaps someone hungry to be like God and to love others with that perfect love. (http://www.npr.org/2017/02/19/516064735/a-foster-parent-for-terminally-ill-children)
     God wants to work this mysterious miracle in our lives. God is on our side, ready to coach and encourage and equip us to become like God, to become love and live in love, to be holy as God is holy. God is not our enemy but a friend; God doesn’t believe we’re just doomed to be what we’ve always been. In high school biology, no matter how long I studied, or how hard I tried I was doomed to D grades. I think the teacher early on decided I was a D student and almost seemed to delight in giving me Ds. And after awhile, I became that D student. I saw myself as that teacher saw me and I gave up, because what was the use?
     I contrast that teacher to one I had in seminary as I studied to be a pastor. Every time I submitted a paper to that professor, there were always challenging questions, and a relentless push to do better. But each time there were also affirmations and encouragement along with new issues raised that made me think more and pulled me closer to excellence. And after awhile I became that student. I didn’t give up; in fact I worked harder, because I knew my professor was for me and saw something I did not see myself and would work tirelessly to get me there.
     That’s the God we see in Jesus, the God who calls us to be made perfect in love, to be the children of God we’re created to be, to do what we’re formed to do – to love God with all we have and to love our neighbor as ourselves with the same mercy and compassion and extravagant grace God has already shown us. It’s a lifetime adventure; we’ll need tune-ups and sharpening and regular upkeep. God will do God’s part; and we have a part, receiving and using God’s sanctifying grace to be transformed into the image and likeness of Christ. My seminary professor tirelessly worked on me week after week, and slowly but surely, with guidance and help I became what I was created to be. In the same way God will work miracles in you and me, with help and guidance along the way. God helps through the church itself with our worship and scripture and prayer and opportunities to love even our enemies and put our faith on the line and into practice. We’re helped by small groups or soul friends who speak the truth in love, and challenge us to holy excellence. Every Christian needs such groups and a soul friend; none of us can make this journey on our own or alone. I didn’t know it then, but nearly 40 years ago here I first met my soul friend who still challenges and encourages me to be better, to be who I am created to be, to be a Christian in word and deed, to be like Jesus. And help can come through the Daily Examen, an ancient form of holy self-exam in the presence of the God who wants nothing for us but life and our good.** In God’s strong and loving arms, at day’s end we can take 15-20 minutes to be still, give thanks for God’s goodness, grace and guidance during the day, look back over a day and how well we lived for Christ or where we fell short, confess our shortcomings and our need for help, and look forward to tomorrow’s opportunities and challenges. It doesn’t seem like much, about as exciting and routine as cutting the grass. But in such ways, miracles happen and sometimes we even learn holiness and perfection, thanks be to God.
-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.
** To learn more about the Daily Examen as a devotional practice, go to http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen

After worship today, where all this happened: Worship Wonderings…

communion-2

It seems so naïve, ridiculous, pitiable, retro and nostalgic, and yet I do it weekly, and sometimes oftener: I’m gathered with others, many grayheads like myself, but others drawn as well to a Table, Font and Lectern, to do what has been done for 20 centuries and more by us who claim to meet there a once executed yet living One.

It seems madly, insanely absurd. And yet nevertheless we do it; I do it. We are foolish enough to know its wisdom and wise enough to see how foolish it must seem to those who wonder why:

I have a hunger that only holiness can feed
Time and space are simply too constraining and eternity is this near and only thinly veiled
Like all things well rooted, I need to be harrowed and tended, pruned and fed, watered and aerated by the Master Gardener
I come to profess for those who doubt some days, counting on that grace to be returned in my need
I am promised that here I can meet Jesus and that makes a difference I cannot bear to be without
I need to sing of something greater than baseball, or grander than this nation
To hear and learn by heart a true Story unique and unlike the illusory and false ones I mostly hear
To confess, give thanks, be still to listen, and remember others before God, trusting they do for me the same
My ears tingle for the Word beyond all words that confronts, challenges, comforts, and changes
I get confused and lost along the way and need a compass to find the Way home
In my darkness I find light and guidance that does not fail
Life is too grand, mad, terriying, beautifully mysterious simply to live its wonder unacknowledged
I gather with those who’ve gone before me and anticipate my gathering unto them
Being and doing, contentment and peace beyond knowing are offered freely but never cheaply
I am met by love, given hope, and fed by faith

And so I come, and go, and am blessed. And I am grateful.

When, Not If: Sermon Based on Matthew 6

          Last week life pretty much slid to a halt here with the gift of God’s special snow Sabbath. But in tens of thousands of churches around the world, other Christians gathered in worship focused on the story of Jesus’ baptism. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, many United Methodists, and other Protestants who follow the lectionary’s three year cycle of Bible readings were once again told Matthew’s story of Jesus’ baptism, how John the Baptist at first didn’t want to go through with it because he thought he was worthy and Jesus told him to do it anyway because it was the right thing to do, how after it was done Jesus saw the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descend on him and everyone heard a voice saying, “This is my own dear Son and I’m pleased with him.”
          What happens next? That same Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness, “where the wild things are” and the Devil’s waiting to test him, waiting to see what Jesus’ really made of, and if he’s really able live up to God’s expectations. In that 40-day exam period Jesus fasts and prays. I think that’s so weird: Jesus needs the most strength and to be at his absolute best, and he decides to go without the one thing we count on to fuel ourselves and keep us strong. He steps away from one source of power to be sustained by a greater food and a greater power.
          If that’s good for Jesus maybe it’s good for us, too. If we want to follow the Jesus Way, it’s wise to follow Jesus’ ways. He knows specific practices that help him stay true to God and live out God’s will and purposes. So those practices are going to be helpful to us as well, unless we think we’re smarter than the Teacher. Unless we think we’re stronger and truer to God than Jesus and don’t need his help, then we should stop, listen and learn.
After Jesus comes from the Wilderness testing time he begins to call disciples to follow him and learn from him what real life looks like; in Matthew, Jesus’ first big lesson plan is the Sermon on the Mount, which brings us to today’s scripture. Jesus himself fasts and prays and helps people in need. He’s always in the business of helping others; he prays regularly and at great length; he begins ministry by fasting and praying and at the end, at his final meal with his friends he says he won’t drink again until God acts in new and powerful ways. He’ll face arrest, torture, and execution dry as a desert, trusting God to satisfy his deepest thirst.
          So it’s not surprising that Jesus teaches us pupils how to fast and pray and help others in need; he assumes we want to be closest to him and will pay attention and do as he says. So Jesus says, when you do something for someone else, when you come before God, when go without food or practice some appetite-denying discipline; as the New Revised Standard Version puts it, when you give alms, when you pray, when you fast. Did you hear that? When, not if. Jesus knows from his own experience that if you want to build a life on a lasting foundation, helping, praying and fasting are essential interlocking building blocks. In this new year, you’re digging deeper into this teaching of Jesus so you can practice walking more closely with him and following his steps on the Way of life he sets before us.
          I want to give a shout out Lynne Baab, the author of the book Fasting you’re reading and discussing. She’s provided a very readable resource with good biblical and historical background, and lots of helpful suggestions and guidance. What I especially appreciated was how she helped me to see the how important fasting is inn the global church, especially in Africa, Asia, and South America. Not surprisingly, those areas are also among the most spiritually alive. And even here in the US, congregations and small groups and individuals growing powerfully up into Christ are also deeply committed to fasting and prayer and helping others in need.
          As I prepared for today I looked back on some of my own experiences of fasting, both good and bad, the helpful and what crashed and burned. Bob was the guy who first challenged me and introduced me fasting as something more than a Bible topic to read and discuss. I was working with the youth at Centenary Church in downtown Richmond and Bob was a 20-something, working for CROP, a Church World Service-sponsored ministry committed to feeding hungry people. He’d recently graduated from college and spent his summer working at a refugee camp somewhere in Africa; now he was back home organizing CROP fasts to raise money to feed folks. He was totally passionate, and after 40 years his story that day still haunts me. In that Church World Service sponsored refugee camp, Bob and others distributed food, but sometimes there just wasn’t enough; so over a period of weeks Bob helplessly watched two parents starve one child to death so their other children would get enough to eat. Each day they received enough for four but not for five, so the death of one brought life to the rest. That’s when I decided the church youth and I could go a day without food so a child could have a life.
          As has often been happened for me, those young folks challenged me to be discontent with a C average faith and to keep moving further in and further up into Christ. For years our group fasted and raised funds to feed the hungry and support other local work in keeping with the ways of Jesus such as housing the homeless or serving those in jail or showing gratitude to first responders. Later in life other young adults inspired me to fast for 30 hours with World Vision to feed the hungry; each time I saw Bob, those wretched parents and their starving child.
There are many ways to fast faithfully: a water or juice fast for one to three days; with an Orthodox fast or Daniel fast with a diet limited to fruit, vegetables, or perhaps dairy products, fasts can last up to three weeks. The longest water only fast I ever did was for 60 hours in 2003, when we were on the cusp of war. I fasted with others, which is often helpful, and it aimed to be an act of humble and faithful repentance and sorrow and a hopeful prayer that we might turn from violence. It was one of the most spiritual experiences of my life.
          Then there’ve been the busts, the times I failed miserably. I gave up on the fast too easily or got nothing from it because I was doing it for the wrong reasons or just to lose weight. In thinking about those experiences, I had an important insight: There’s a reason Jesus teaches about helping others, praying, and fasting together. These disciplines help support each other and are especially beneficial when woven together to craft a stronger faith and discipleship. Fasting clears a space so in prayer I can listen better to God to receive guidance about best ways to help others. The fasting removes the clutter and clears the background static so I can get a truer reading on what really matters and focus more fully on where God wants me to be of help and service to my sisters and brothers in need.
          Think about this: when you go for an annual physical and the necessary tests associated with it, you fast so your doctor will get the truest and best picture of what’s going in your body. The fast allows for an uncluttered, clear picture of who you truly are, where you’re healthy, where you’re at risk, where you need help to be the best you can be. Fasting does the same thing for us spiritually. Trust me, if you fast you’ll quickly learn where your besetting sins are and where you need help to grow up into Christ.
          A year or so ago after I retired, I talked with my family physician about going off a medication I was taking to deal with anxiety. He thought it was worth a shot and I could go back on it if needed. When I asked how I would know, he said, “Oh, your wife will tell you.” And she did 🙂
          Fasting’s like that – it’s a way God tells us with love where we need help and repair for a whole and holy life. In the prayer that goes with fasting the Great Physician shows us the health of our soul and where we need change in order to spiritually healthy and whole; the Healer helps us move forward in a life focused on what really matters and where our help is most needed so this world looks more like what God intended all along.
          Last week I talked with a William and Mary Wesley alum getting ready to lead a study on the Sermon on the Mount. As we talked she wondered why the Sermon is put together the way it is. Is there a plan or purpose to the way Jesus organizes his thoughts and topics? It’s a great question at least in part because I wasn’t sure there’s a right answer. Her question stayed with me all this week as I prepared to preach on this part of the Sermon. And that’s how the Spirit spoke to me with the hint of an idea.
          You see, after Jesus speaks about helping others and praying and fasting, what follows in the rest of chapter 6 is a series of sayings focusing on trusting God and realizing what truly matters, what’s deeply and eternally important. Jesus talks about storing up heavenly treasure and not earthly riches; he describes our eyes as the body’s lamps concluding, “If the light inside you is dark, you surely are in the dark.” He tells us bluntly that we always have to make choices about whether we’re going to invest in money or God, because we can’t do both; and teaches us to stop worrying because it does no good, and ends with the challenge to make our #1 priority to be about God’s business and to serve God’s purposes, and everything else will take care of itself. My hunch is that Jesus wants us to pray and fast and help others to get clear about all of this, to see things we might otherwise miss, and to know truly and deeply what really matters and to walk that Way, thanks be to God.
-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.

“Ready or Not…” Sermon Based on Isaiah 11:1-10 and Matthew 3:1-12

TWO IMPORTANT NOTES:
1. This sermon is based on two scripture lessons for the 2nd Sunday in Advent. To more fully understand the sermon, you should read the two texts:
and
2. IN ADDITION, you should click on the link at the end of the sermon to hear a version of the song sung immediately following the sermon (the final paragraph of the sermon serves as a bridge).
          This is the best of all possible worlds. At least that’s what an 18th century German Christian philosopher thought. You’ve probably never heard of Gottfried Leibniz unless you were stuck in a required philosophy course in college, or that’s your last name, and every family reunion is an opportunity to remind folks that you have a connection to him. Leibniz’s thinking went like this: if God is all good and all loving and all knowing and all powerful, this has to be the best of all possible worlds. There is evil in the world, but no more or less than needed to inspire us to goodness. It’s like Goldilocks: not too much or too little, just right.
          But like Goldilocks, it’s a fairy tale. Most philosophers haven’t bought his argument. The best-known and funniest critique came from one of his contemporaries, French writer Voltaire. His satirical novel and its main character have the same name, Candide. As the story begins Candide’s young, innocent and optimistic, but through a crazy series of unfortunate events he moves from a sunny trust that this is the best of all possible worlds to a dark and dismal belief that all you can do is keep your head down and mind your own business.
          I suspect most of us aren’t persuaded either: this is not the best of all possible worlds. Many Americans have just come through a most trying and difficult time– celebrating Thanksgiving at a table where half the relatives think the savior has come in the president-elect and the other half think he’s the anti-Christ; I’m reminded of the woman who warned prior to the meal that if anyone brought up politics she’d personally drown them in the gravy boat. But most may agree that our political system gives breaks to the rich and powerful while the rest of us get the shaft.
          We’re not alone in feeling that the world’s gone off its tracks. This summer United Kingdom voters approved Brexit and leaving the European Union, and all sides were gobsmacked. Today in Austria a deeply contentious and close election is taking place; according to a news source half the voters are increasingly struggling to understand the other half. Many are beginning to wonder if democracy can survive our tumultuous times.
          On smaller but awful scale, last week I read about Yemeni refugees caught in the conflict between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. A mom and dad with several children had to decide: do we use our limited money for medical costs to save a sick child or to feed the others? In the end they decided one would die to save the rest; how do you live with such terrible choosing?*
          In recent weeks in Williamsburg there’s been heated debate about group homes for the mentally ill, with potential neighbors concerned about falling home values or safety. Last week a resident of one of the homes left a suicide note on her bed, went to a local playground and hanged herself.** I wonder if she would’ve done that anyway, or if her darkness grew deeper because she came to believe people like her are frightening or worth less than a piece of property. There was also a 69 year old man arrested for possessing child pornography*** and a dead woman stuffed in a dumpster****. Then there are the everyday traumas: sickness or troubling medical reports, family conflict or divorce, abuse in many forms, a rising tide of vulgarity and disrespect, and horrors we no longer notice, like 15,000 children dying each day from lack of food and basic health care, or more gun related deaths in two years than in two decades in Vietnam. This is not the best of all possible worlds, and we know it deep in our souls.
          But as people of faith, deep in our souls we also know another reality. We’ve been told another story with another vision of the world ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, made new. The Bible has many visions and images portraying that wonderful new thing: swords beaten in plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, instruments of death transformed into tools to cultivate life. Today Isaiah describes a wonderfully changed world led by an ideal ruler utterly guided by God’s Spirit. He always does what’s right; he sees clearly and seeks first and foremost to do God’s will; he judges wisely for the well-being of all, not just a few. In that best of all possible worlds not only human relations are healed and healthy; the whole creation is blessed and at peace. Leopards and baby goats, wolves and lambs are at peace; cows and bears live in harmony; innocent children play safely and unafraid; “they will not hurt or destroy” because the world is as full of the knowledge of God as the ocean is full of water.
          For us followers of Christ that new day and that better world has already begun to take shape in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. It might not look like much, like a nearly unnoticed sprig of green growing out of a tree stump. But for us the hopes and dreams of all the years are met in him; he is that leader filled with Holy Spirit Isaiah saw. Ready or not, he’s the One who comes to show us how to live truly and well, how to love one another, how to humbly serve and forgive and walk a better way. In him that best of all possible worlds has begun to take shape, both in him and in us learning his ways and living his life.
          In Isaiah’s vision the promised coming one is filled with God’s Holy Spirit; that’s how he is able to live in line with God’s will and be the standard bearer for that better way. But did you notice something really important in today’s Gospel story? John the Baptist announces that God’s Empire is taking over; it’s coming ready or not, but if we’re paying attention we’ll get our lives lined up with that new reality. It’s already knocking at the door, coming through someone bringing fire and Holy Spirit. Fire to burn away in us what’s cheap or worthless or not essential; fire to heal and make us pure and holy; and Holy Spirit to give us the strength and power to live a different way, the Jesus way, and to bear good fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. What a gift: we also have a part to play in that new creation taking shape.
          We think we can’t live the Jesus way; on our own we can’t. But Christ comes bringing Holy Spirit power beyond our own so the life that lives in him can be seen in us. That’s what John the Baptist calls us to do: to repent, to go a different way with a different set of eyes and priorities and values and actions following the better Way of the God who comes to us in Christ. Ready or not, he comes.
          The world may not be ready for this new way but I am; I hope you are, too. It’s not an easy way: it put Jesus on a cross. But it’s also a way of joy. The best of all possible worlds comes in small ways and unexpected places as we take up our cross and follow.
          That best of all possible worlds comes at this Table. I love communion because here we lay aside our differences and become one in Christ; even in the presence of our enemies God prepares a feast to give and receive Christ’s peace and love at a Table set for all.
          That best of all possible worlds comes as the Holy Spirit guides and helps us to be peacemakers in the midst of strife and harsh words and feelings, or we opt for humility and make a mockery of pride and arrogance, or we choose peace by working for justice, or we speak up and stand with any who feel threatened or at risk or afraid because they’re different or live on the margins. Ready or not, Christ comes here and now in the hungry poor, the stranger or the immigrant refugee family fleeing like Christ’s fled Herod; ready or not Christ comes in those imprisoned in mind or body or spirit; every kind word returned for meanness, every act of gentleness to tone down anger, every choice to listen instead of shout, every mercy shown, every forgiveness offered is a Holy Spirit empowered commitment to live now in Christ.
          Such things aren’t easy, but with God all things are possible. We can’t do them on our own; we need God’s fiery Holy Spirit and each other. We need the church so we can keep hearing and telling these stories and seeing these visions; we need one another to hold us accountable and challenge and help us walk that better way. These habits of the heart we learn and practice together change us, and the world. God’s Empire comes; God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. The best of all possible worlds takes shape and becomes real, here, now.
          It feels like we’re in the midst of a terrific turmoil and tumult, thunder and lightning waking us in the night. But here’s the promise and the hope we have in Christ – the great storm’s over; its power’s been broken in Christ’s coming. A better day’s already dawning: sweetness in the air, justice on the wind. Can you smell Christ’s sweetness in the Spirit’s bracing breeze? The deaf shall have music, the blind new eyes; release for the captives, an end to the wars; new streams in the desert, new hope for the poor. Like a mother the church sings to us of a love that has conquered the powers of hell, and will keep singing till the Bridegroom Christ’s final return. Sisters and brothers let go your fear; the Lord loves his own and still comes near, so lift up your wings, and fly, and live, thanks be to God.
2016, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.