First Presbyterian Church, Marietta, Ohio
April 29, 20178
Jonah 3: 1-5, 10
By Rev. Marc van Bulck
Our Scripture reading is one of the most familiar stories in Scripture. Sunday School curriculums have been made about it. Veggie Tales made a movie about it. I’ve met people who have told me that they’ve never heard of Jonah in the Bible, but upon hearing “He’s the guy who got swallowed up in the belly of a fish,” they’ve said, “Oh, yeah. I know that story.” It’s also a great story for seminarians and Bible snobs who love to correct people and say, “You know, the Bible doesn’t actually say it was a whale. It says it was a ‘large fish.’” Whatever.
Jonah is one of the most beloved Bible stories that we tell to children, but when I read it today, it reads a lot more like a religious, political satire. The business with the fish only takes up about a fourth of the story, and in my opinion this narrative feels like something much closer to Mark Twain than Mr. Rogers.
God has had it up to here with Nineveh’s shenanigans and warns Jonah that they’re goose is cooked if they don’t get their act together. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria whom the writers of the Hebrew Bible largely looked down their nose at. They were foreigners. Outsiders. They didn’t exactly believe what we believe. They didn’t go to our church. They behaved differently. They were sinners!
So, God tells Jonah to get his butt over to Nineveh and warn them that a can of you-know-what is about to be opened if they don’t start to straighten up and fly right. So, naturally, Jonah hops on the first boat for the exact opposite direction instead as you do when you’re a Biblical prophet.
This makes Yahweh very grumpy who sends a storm over the water that threatens to break the boat to pieces out on the open ocean, and in a rare moment of self-awareness Jonah recognizes that maybe the problem is him! So, he has the crew to toss him overboard.
As Jonah is sinking into the depths of the water, Jonah begins to drown and begins to die. And so the large fish that God sends to swallow him up is not there to seal his fate; it saves his life. Jonah is vomited back onto dry land, and our Scripture reading catches up to him:
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you. ’So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”
I relate to Jonah a little bit more than I like to admit. I used to like this story back in seminary when I thought that relating to him was a good thing. I’m not so sure I feel that way now. Jonah is the very definition of privilege. He’s got all the right religious beliefs. He’s the good, well-behaved church-going boy. He can recite the B-sides to the Psalms even when he’s swimming in fish guts. When his life is in danger, God swings in and saves him and makes sure he’s okay. When Jonah gets uncomfortable, God plants a nice, shady tree just for him. Isn’t that nice?
Jonah has everything he could possibly want, and yet throughout this entire story, all he ever does is whine about it. Jonah whines all the time. He is spoken to by the very voice of God (a privilege afforded to very few), and the first thing he does is slam the door like a moody teenager and run in the other direction. God saves the lives of every living person in Nineveh, and Jonah still manages to find a way to make it all about him. One minute he’s all, “Thank you, O Lord, for saving my life!” and the next minute: “I’d be better off if I was dead!”
And why? “Because a worm was eating my shady little tree! Boo, hoo, hoo!” God says to Jonah, “Is it really right for you to be angry about this?” and Jonah says, “Yes, it is! Angry enough to die!”
You know what the real irony here is? The way this story sets up how horrible, evil, sinful, and depraved these Ninevites are, we might expect this kind of behavior from them. The irony, though, is that when God asks them to do something, the text tells us they wasted no time jumping into action. Verse five tells us “the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast…everyone, great and small!”
They don’t whine. They don’t complain. They don’t ask stupid questions. They don’t try to argue with God. Their very first response is, “Holy Moses! Thanks for letting us know, God! Quick, come on, gang. Let’s get it together. Maybe there’s still a chance we can turn this ship around before it’s too late.”
The supposedly horrible, sinful people who we’re not supposed to like are the ones who come out looking like the heroes in this story, and it is the supposedly good, faithful, religious-type who is portrayed as a selfish, entitled hypocrite who has everything he could possibly need but can’t seem to do anything but complain like he’s being persecuted all the time. It’s just the saddest commentary on our religious institutions you’re ever going to find in a story like this. It would be a pretty biting piece of satire even by today’s standards, and this was written over two thousand years ago.
I’ve never been to Nineveh. I’ve never traveled to that part of the world, but I’ve seen plenty of Ninevites in my own life – or at least people that I was raised being told were Ninevites. People who were outcasts in my neighborhood but not because they were from some old country from the Old Testament.
They were outcasts because they were gays and lesbians. They talked about things like “gender identity” that we didn’t understand and rolled our eyes at. Maybe they were Ninevites because they lived over on the other side of town, or maybe they were atheists and agnostics. Maybe they were Ninevites because they went to that other school, and heaven forefend one of them actually muster up the courage to wander into our church on Sunday morning. Most of the time, however, we never really saw them that much. They lived over in Nineveh. They kept over there. We kept over here, and that was just the way we liked it.
I also remember many people I knew who were supposedly good, faithful, church-going Christians who had everything they could possibly want. People…well, like me! We grew up in beautiful homes in beautiful, safe neighborhoods. We knew the lyrics to every single hymn in the hymn book. We had beautiful families who often had plenty of money to send kids to good schools.
Yet sometimes it seemed like all we were able to do was complain. “Oh, my God, can you believe what so-and-so is wearing to the Christmas Eve service?” “Here comes that horrible person from the committee. Can you believe she wants to change the colors of the drapes in the fellowship hall to chartreuse?” “He’s an alcoholic, you know.” “I heard they’re getting a divorce.” “Christianity is under attack! Why can’t these poor people just get a job?! It just makes me so angry! It makes me angry enough to die!”
The truth is that the Ninevites are dying both in our world and in Jonah’s. Like any good satire, the book of Jonah does not end with a nice little moral that spells out the lesson that we’re supposed to learn. It ends with a punch line, and in this case, it’s a real zinger. God says, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow…should I not be concerned about Nineveh…in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons…?” (4:10-11)
The painful irony, though, is that when the original audience first heard this story, Nineveh had been destroyed long ago. Was that God’s will? It didn’t sound like it in the story. Either way, humanity let it happen anyway, and the city was never rebuilt.
Many of the Ninevites in our neighborhoods today are dying, too. Dying from poverty, from hunger, from suicide, or from occupying forces. For all its wit, irony, and sarcasm, I believe there is also a vision of possibility embedded deep between the lines. A commentary from the author that says, “It doesn’t have to be this way. History doesn’t have to repeat itself. The cycle can be broken.”
However, like any good satire, it doesn’t let us off the hook either. It is also a cautionary tale. That’s the other side of the coin. The cycle can still continue. We can choose to just ignore all that stuff and imagine all of the ways that we think we have been persecuted instead and how we are the real victims here. Not these Ninevites. The thing about satire is that it doesn’t always wrap everything up in a nice, comforting reassurance that everything is going to be okay. Rather, the author uses irony and wit to simply tell it like it is. To show us both choices and say, “It’s up to you.”
Jonah may have a thing or two to learn from these Ninevites. He might learn something from their example and the way that they respond to God. It makes me wonder if we could learn a thing or two from the Ninevites in our own midst. Many of those same Ninevites I told you about that I grew up with were people who acknowledged that our society is guilty of letting things like poverty, hunger, prejudice, misogyny, and addiction become problems in our world and that they were guilty of participating in it! Even though they were not always necessarily churchgoers, it was often through their example that I learned a thing or two about the practice of repentance. To come to that realization and to respond with humility by actively taking steps to change it.
I have seen Ninevites in my own life model that example. Maybe you have, too. I have known Ninevites who volunteer in soup kitchens and homeless shelters over the weekends. I have known Ninevites who have spoken up far louder and at far greater risk to themselves than I ever have about equality, prejudice, and social injustice. Who have demanded vocally and visibly that the marginalized be treated with dignity and integrity. I’ve known people who have shared with me that they are in AA who were far more open, honest, and willing to own up to the issues in their own life than I fear I am even on my good days. These issues were of far more interest to them than the local gossip about so-and-so and what they did about such-and-such.
Not to bring Jesus up when preaching about an Old Testament story, but when we see Jesus treat the wretched, the outcasts, and the sinners as if they were royal guests of honor at his table, we remember that in the Biblical world of Jonah, God saw people like Ninevites as the real heroes in this story. They are the ones who really, truly get it. They are the ones who know what time it is. Maybe we have something to learn from these Ninevites. Will the testimony of our faith look like theirs, or will our response look more like Jonah’s? The choice is up to us. Would the real Ninevites please stand up?
To God be the glory now and forever. Amen.
In light of recent events of these past several weeks, and the ongoing six-year crisis in Syria, we of the Syria-Lebanon Partnership Network (SLPN) feel compelled to issue a response regarding the current state of affairs. The continuing loss of life and displacement of innocent people speak to the dark and destructive evil behind the use of chemical weapons and any military responses, whether by accident or by intention.
Such responses must be deemed as unacceptable going forward in the Syrian crisis. Prior to these events, negotiations were going on near Homs to begin working toward some shared resolution. After these attacks, negotiations between local parties inside Syria have ceased and a wider polarization has resulted. It appears to us that military responses such as these will always bring even more violence and quash efforts at resolution through discussion and negotiation.
The military response taken by the Trump administration has been called by some a “measured” action. This has been said even though it was one that was unilateral and immediate and took lives on the airstrip in Al Shayrat. The repercussions of that action are now emerging and show the likelihood of an escalation of hostilities and yet more carnage to be inflicted on the Syrian people.
The question of responsibility for the chemical attack remains but, as more time passes, it becomes harder and harder to find the truth. In the “fog of war” it is frequently said that “the first casualty of war is the truth.” Yet we must always be committed to understand as much of the truth as we can identify in order to help us respond truthfully going forward. Responses devoid of such truth in the end will show no effect at bringing about lasting resolution. To achieve this kind of understanding requires time and a fuller understanding of the far-reaching implications of what our actions may be.
It has seemed to us irresponsible and unjust to follow the bandwagon created by government officials and the western news media in immediately casting blame on one side or the other for such deplorable behavior. It seems any rush to judgment allows guilty parties to take refuge in the “fog” and make plans for other such uses of chemical weapons. Therefore, as the Steering Committee of the SLPN, and having spoken with our partners on the ground in the region and those who are part of our network here in the United States, we call on all parties to view and portray this crisis not as a “civil war” amongst the Syrian people, but much more a “proxy war” that admittedly involves many forces within the country, and one that has been seized upon and escalated by the outside influence of warriors from more than 90 countries. These outside combatants have been allowed open access through bordering countries in the region who have a stake in the outcome and who clearly desire a government change in Syria.
We also call for any influence of “super powers” to be used in a just manner for the cause of peace in this troubled country. Such influence clearly means the cessation of providing military resources and actual hardware that bring a continuance of this deadly conflict. The vast expansion of military force in the region provides an economic boon for countries around the world. No civilized country should be complicit in advancing the spread of this war. Violence only creates more violence and not lasting peace. All parties must use their power to help rebuild this country in the post-war period and to create an incentive for those who have fled to return to a peaceful homeland.
Today is the open window to do something new, something prophetic in the cause of peace. It must be done thoughtfully and prayerfully. In this season as we continue to celebrate the great sacrifice and resurrection of the Prince of Peace, we are committed to peace in real terms. May we too give our lives for the cause of peace in the world. To that end we offer a prayer given to us by our PCUSA General Assembly co-moderator Jan Edmiston.
“God of hope and peace, we pray for your healing of our world. We mourn for the children, women and men who have been killed by today’s swords and spears. We give thanks for those who seek to heal rather than harm. We pray for peace that seems so far away, yet that through you, we know is possible. We pray that the communities of nations will practice wisdom and restraint in this vulnerable and broken part of your creation. May we be part of a resurrection to life and peace in Syria and embrace a future where no one will learn war anymore. Amen.”Looking Ahead with Hope,
Sermon on the Good Samaritan for the Muskingum Valley Presbytery meeting on Feb. 4, 2017
1 John 4:7-21
Following Jesus into Eternal Life
by Rev. Jeffrey Bergeson
My wife and I enjoy comedy. One comedian we really like is Jim Gaffigan, and he frequently talks about food. In one set, he notices just how much food is eaten during holidays—that holidays seem to be an excuse to eat lots of extra food. He says, “I don’t usually eat a burger, a bratwurst and a steak, but…it is the 4th of July…and I’m gonna need my energy if I’m gonna be blowin’ up stuff! It’s what the Founding Fathers would have wanted…” We justify how much food we eat around the holidays. Anyone have children? Me, too. And my kids will, I admit, sometimes do something wrong…and I’ve learned to ask them “what did you do?” instead of “why did you do that?” Because the “why” question teaches them to justify their bad behavior rather than acknowledge what they’ve actually done.
In our passage this morning, a lawyer stands up to test Jesus and to justify himself. And it is my conviction that if we want to follow Jesus into eternal life, we must follow Jesus beyond our own self-righteousness. Following him out of all the ways we try to justify ourselves.
Self-righteousness is not always a ‘high and mighty’ attitude of being holier-than-thou. It’s not only when we think “I’m better than you.” Rather, self-righteousness is any attempt to justify yourself and your behavior. It’s any way that we try to make ourselves feel good about who we are and make ourselves feel justified in our behaviors and attitudes toward others: “Sure, maybe I don’t __________, but at least I’m not like __________!” or “Yes, that is how I act, but it’s my right to act this way!” In other words, it’s any way we try to tell ourselves that we’re ‘in the right,’ other than because of Jesus. It’s trying to look good without putting on Christ.
The lawyer asks two questions. One is to test Jesus, and one is to justify himself. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus turns the question back to the lawyer and he responds with the greatest command and the one like it: Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus agrees and says, “do this, and you will live,” but the lawyer, in order to justify himself, asks, “And who is my neighbor?” And we take the bait, too! “Yeah, who is my neighbor?”
The lawyer never asks about God or how to love God. Either it’s too complicated or abstract to bother asking, or somehow it doesn’t actually matter, or—more likely—he thinks that he’s got that one down pat. “Yeah, yeah, sure, whatever. Love God with blah, blah, blah… done. Check. Moving on. What about my neighbor?”
But Jesus invites the lawyer and us to see ourselves and God in a different light, because truly loving our neighbors rightly will not come until we love God rightly, and we cannot truly love God until we understand who God is and who we are and what God has done for us. Only then can we truly love God, and from that place of love, then we can love our neighbors as ourselves.
So Jesus doesn’t answer his question: he takes up the question and turns it on its head by telling a parable to redirect the lawyer’s focus. The thing about this parable is that it’s incredibly memorable and moving. It leaves a very distinct impression on our hearts, but it’s also open-ended enough to keep rattling around in our minds, causing us to keep asking questions and seeing things differently.
We all want to be the Good Samaritan. In fact we’re told to “Go and do likewise.” Maybe sometimes we justify ourselves and think that we already are! But for Jesus to say, “Go and do likewise,” “be like that guy”… means implicitly that we are not by nature already like him. We’re to be found somewhere else in the parable, in fact, anywhere else, because we’re all supposed to be like the merciful Samaritan, so by definition we’re not… and the parable unsettles us.
The lawyer asks “Who is my neighbor?” to justify himself. Under Law: Who am I obligated to love and who can I hate or ignore? We must remember that Jesus is the Son of God—the Incarnate Deity. So the lawyer is trying to justify himself to God! That just never works; that’s not a good place to be. And I think there are three characters in the parable that implicitly do the same thing and three that don’t.
The first is really a group: the robbers. They implicitly justify their violent behavior perhaps thinking, “We deserve what he has!” or maybe even “we need what he has, so we’ve got to take it to live.” They justify they’re robbery.
The 2nd and 3rd characters are the priest and Levite. The priest, the highest religious leader, is probably thinking something like, “I am holy, and that bleeding man is unclean. I can’t possibly mingle with him and jeopardize my holiness.” The Levite is more of a minor clergy, but probably thinks along the same lines as the Priest. As I said, I have children, so we sometimes watch Veggie Tales. And in the Veggie Tales version of the Good Samaritan, these two characters sing: “We’re busy, busy, horribly busy. Much, much too busy for you!” Both the priest and the Levite ignore the man, believing it’s not their responsibility to help or they’re unable or unwilling to get dirty.
These three characters implicitly justify themselves and their behavior.
But there are also three characters who implicitly do not.
The first is the Samaritan. Now, if we only looked at his actions, maybe we could think of an ulterior motive, but v. 33 won’t allow us to think that. The NRSV says he was “moved with pity.” Now, I’m a nerd. I make no apologies for that. The word in Greek for “moved with pity” is spla(n)gchnizomai. The root of that word is spla(n)gchnon. Try saying that: spla(n)gchnon! Spla(n)gchnon is all the mushy organs below your lungs. It is the bowels—the seat of love and pity. It’s your gut, moved with affection to have compassion for someone in a bad situation. The Samaritan does not try to justify himself. His compassion is justification in itself.
First is the Samaritan. Second is the man robbed. He cannot justify himself. He never says or does anything. He is unable even to beg for mercy! He’s “half-dead” and that’s not an English paraphrase; that’s literally what the Greek says.
And friends, spiritually speaking, without Christ we’re all half-dead. We’re not fully alive. Yes, we may be breathing, our hearts pumping, but really, we’re helpless and hopeless and only half-living, unable to save ourselves…without receiving God’s mercy. And God’s mercy, I think, is what this parable is all about. Finding life. Which brings us back to the first question asked: What must I do…?
See, the priest and Levite were supposed to be mediators between Israel and God. On different levels, they represented God to Israel and vice-versa. But their understanding of holiness got in the way. Yes, God is holy, but Jesus says, the priest and the Levite are not what God is like. He asks, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” And it wasn’t either of the ‘religious professionals.’ It was a despised Samaritan who showed mercy. And so, we see that God’s holiness is connected to mercy!
This is important! Back in Luke 1:72, at the circumcision and naming of John the Baptist, his father Zechariah’s tongue is loosed, and prophesies, declaring that God “has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,” which includes rescue from the hands of their enemies. And later in chapter 1, verse 78 refers to the “tender mercy of our God.” That word “mercy” in verses 72 and 78 shows up three more times earlier in Luke ch. 1 always in reference to God, but not again in Luke until here in the Lawyer’s answer. “The one who showed him mercy.” This is what God does! God shows mercy. So the Samaritan—not the Priest or the Levite—truly shows who God is.
Okay, back in 1:78, where it says his “tender mercy.” The word “tender” is that spla(n)gchnon word—bowels, guts—which in Luke shows up there in 1:78, again in ch. 10 when the Samaritan sees the half-dead man, and then only two other times in Luke (7:13 and 15:20), which respectively refer to: Jesus seeing the widow of Nain with her dead son; and the father in the parable of the prodigal son when he sees his younger son returning and runs to greet him. The Samaritan, in his compassion and mercy, represents the holy God of Israel. And we are to be holy as God is holy, which includes showing mercy!
Sadly, there are probably times that we act more like the robbers or the priest and Levite—justifying our way of life and who we think we should care for or ignore, but really, without Jesus, we’re all half-dead and in need of healing. We are beaten and bruised by the world and our sin—bleeding, naked and left for dead. And the Lord God in a surprising and maybe even offensive visitation has come and shown mercy on us.
Nowadays, the phrase “Good Samaritan” is met with joy and delight. But this parable would have shocked and probably even offended many of its original audience. So how might we ‘re-cast’ this story today for the same shocking effect? How about this:
A Fox News Anchor was mobbed during a recent rally in Washington, D.C. Now it just happened that the President of the United States was passing by, but when he saw the man, he said, “You know, I’m very much a germaphobe. I don’t want to get into that bloody mess.” And he passed by on the other side. Just then, a State Representative came to the place and said, “This is horrible! I’m going to bring this before the Senate to take action,” and, likewise, passed by without helping. But a Syrian refugee, a Muslim, saw him and was moved with compassion and cared for the man.
Now…maybe you liked that version! How about this one:
A woman wearing a cat-ears knit-cap was at that same rally and was accidentally trampled. Now, a Presbyterian Teaching Elder happened, but was running late to a Social Justice and Community Responsibility Panel discussion… and so hurried away. Then a Licensed Social Worker also came to the place, but didn’t stop because she was on her way to meet with a client. But then came someone wearing a “Make America Great Again” shirt, who stopped and helped the woman.
Wherever we personally stand, if Jesus’ parable doesn’t make us uncomfortable or challenge our notion of neighbor, then we’re not hearing it as Jesus told it. We’ve justified ourselves like the lawyer.
So let me ask: Who is the Samaritan in your life? From whom would it offend you to receive help? Who is difficult for you to love? To whom do you have trouble showing mercy?
Because here’s the thing: in Christ, God has shown mercy to all! And therefore, in Christ, God is revealed to show us what it means to be holy and a neighbor by showing mercy to all!!! If God, in Christ, has made all of us his neighbors, then who isn’t our neighbor?
As much as I struggle with loving some people, this parable tells me that I don’t get the luxury of justifying to myself those whom I am to love and those I don’t have to. God is neighbor to all! Unlike the priest and the Levite who wouldn’t give their time, money, efforts or affections, God in Christ, represented as the Samaritan, is moved to compassion for us. At his own cost and effort, he cleans us up, gives up his rightful seat on his animal to carry us, brings us to a safe place and cares for us there, providing for our every need to bring us healing and new life even though we were half-dead and unable to heal or justify ourselves.
The Samaritan does not need to justify himself, nor does he. He acts and speaks with compassion, mercy and authority. The man beaten and left for dead cannot justify himself. He cannot and does not say: you should help me because… and yet he is helped by the Samaritan. The Samaritan, in a way, justifies the half-dead man to the innkeeper who probably would not have taken in the beaten man and cared for him unless the Samaritan had already started to care for him and provided the resources for the innkeeper to continue to care for the man.
And so the Samaritan also justifies the innkeeper’s actions! The innkeeper may not have otherwise continued to the care for the man without the Samaritan’s resources and command. But the Samaritan, that is God, does all this at his own expense, brings the man to the inn keeper, pays the inn keeper, gives him charge to care for the man, and promises to pay him back upon return. And so the Samaritan justifies both the man robbed and the inn keeper to each other. Neither tries to or needs to justify themselves or their actions. The Samaritan does it for them, just like God in Christ, justifies all those who believe in him.
So, can you see yourself as the half-dead man and how Jesus has saved you—justified you? Good! That’s actually the first step in being able to fulfill the first commandment—it is the beginning of how we are to love God. But the parable keeps rattling around in my mind…
Before Christ saves and heals us, I think we’re the half-dead man in the parable, but after Christ gets to us, I’ve begun to think that we’re more like someone else in the parable: I think we become the innkeeper!
See, when Jesus asks who of the three was the neighbor to the man robbed, the answer is, “The one who showed him mercy,” which of course is the Samaritan moved to compassion. And Jesus commands the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.” But in the parable, the Samaritan initially takes care of the beaten man but then commands the innkeeper to do the same thing he had been doing. “Take care of the man…” The innkeeper has to trust the Samaritan, allowing the Samaritan to justify his strange behavior of caring for this stranger, and the innkeeper must obey the Samaritan in order to receive the promised compensation. But…Jesus doesn’t tell us in the parable if the innkeeper ever did it or not…which leaves us asking: would we? Will we?
Will we trust God enough to care for those he cares for, and to care for others the way he cares for them—to use the resources he gives us now and trust that he’ll provide all we need later to continue living in obedience, in giving of ourselves to fulfill the command to love our neighbors? Will we be the innkeepers of the world—which, by the way, that word “innkeeper” in the Greek means “all-receiver”; welcoming everyone, which, based on the parable, does not mean letting people remain the way they are when they’re welcomed; they must still be cared for and healed and brought to wholeness through Christ’s resources given to us—but I digress… will we be the innkeeper, letting Jesus justify our strange behavior of loving and caring for others to bring healing and wholeness to broken and hurting people? Or will we continue to justify ourselves like the priest, Levite or robbers?
Loving our neighbors isn’t about drawing a line and categorizing people who are or are not our neighbors. Loving your neighbor as yourself is about showing undeserved mercy to others, bringing them healing, just as God has shown undeserved mercy to you when you were a stranger and half-dead without Jesus. Loving your neighbor as yourself will be costly, just as it was costly to Jesus to show us love. But…we are promised that God will provide all that we need in order to care for others—material resources, yes, but also the Holy Spirit in us to show them mercy, to love them like our Heavenly Father loves us.
If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves we will do well to: first, consider how we love the Lord our God, and more importantly how Jesus loves us in such a way as to dismantle our ways of justifying ourselves to bring us wholeness. May we all follow Jesus out of our self-righteousness and into eternal life, understanding all that God has done for us in Jesus Christ at great cost to himself! Don’t ask, “who is my neighbor?” but realize that God in Christ has become your neighbor, and neighbor to all, choosing to show mercy to everyone. Do that first. Then, go and do likewise, and you will live.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Kingdom of God Among You
Sermon Preached at the November 12, 2016 Meeting
of The Presbytery of the Miami Valley
Rev. Diane Ziegler
Isaiah 12:2 – Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. (NRSV)
Luke 17:20-21; 33-35 – Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” . . . . Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it. I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left. (NRSV)
Startle us, O God, with your truth and open our hearts and our minds to your wondrous love. Speak your word to us; silence in us any voice but your own and be with us now as we turn our attention, our minds and our hearts, to you, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Rev. John Buchanan)
My husband is a car enthusiast. He would love to drive a Bugatti, or a Koenigsegg, or a Pagani. But instead he drives a grey Honda Accord that he treats like a Bugatti – – washed and shined regularly and meticulously cleaned. This morning I drove here with an open cup of coffee – – SSSHHH – – Don’t tell him!
Two grey Honda Accords ago he bumped someone in a parking lot and the “H” on the front of his Honda broke off. It was weeks before he found a replacement “H” that met his price point, but he was so glad when he did. The car was back in pristine order. For a bit anyway. At least a week. For not too long after he had that “H” back in place on his pristinely maintained Accord, he found himself headed up I-75 on a routine ride that would change him forever.
He was driving north, our younger son – – then about 5 – – with him, on the way to pick up our older son. The highway was packed. He was in the third lane from the right, vehicles all around him. Directly in front of him was a pick-up truck loaded with a household of furniture, topped with a metal bed frame, and tied up with string. As he drove in the traffic, at the speed that 75 demands, he watched, with distress, the bed frame begin to bounce and loosen and he knew it was coming off.
He could not brake. Or go right. Or left. Or catty-cornered either way. Even if they survived the frame’s impact on the car, he thought a huge accident would follow. He thought they were going to die. He said he watched his whole life run before his eyes, just like “they say”. He looked at the kid in the car for what he thought was a last time. Wondered how long the other child would be left waiting, and how I would find out what had happened to them. He thought about who he loved. What he valued. What he had done and what he had not done that he wished to do. And he wondered what life for his family and for his corner of the world would be like if he was no longer part of it. He maintained his speed, steadied his hand on the wheel and prayed a last prayer to Almighty God.
Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.
Facing death is hard. Our physical death. Communities as we grew up in them. Congregations that served generations of the same family now in steep decline or closed.
The death of life as we know it, the death of life as we remember it in a time gone by – – facing death is hard.
Remember when the pews at church were full? When you could hear the lock-step of the Elders returning the offering plates or the communion trays to the front of the sanctuary? When Presbytery meetings were the place to be? When the Establishment seemed unmovable?
When we see life lived and longed-for slipping from our very hands, our grasp, our memory, our ability to hold on, well, it is very hard. And we struggle, we struggle to hold it so tightly that we clasp and grasp, and cling, turning inward to shield ourselves from the change to come.
And that is exactly what we have done. We’ve planted our feet unwilling to move. “I’ll die before I change!” one frightened church member exclaimed.
Our faces and faith have turned inward, my friends. Maybe more so today than a week ago. Individually, in our particular churches, the Presbytery of the Miami Valley, the Synod of the Covenant, and the PC USA. And we tremble. We tremble.
We don’t want to die. We don’t our memories of full churches to fade any further. Facing death is hard.
Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid.
Seemingly quick or simple solutions are the first to surface in our minds and hearts and faiths turned inward – – we just need a charismatic pastor, or for churches to just do what they are supposed to do, or to cut out the troubled spots, to get rid of every one not like us; and then we can begin again.
These quick solutions aim to remove us from the muck and the mire and the hard work of following Jesus. They remove us from being part of the solution. Like the Left Behind messages that have for years taken people captive with a false comfort – – like those bumper stickers “in case of rapture this car will be unmanned” – – simple solutions hope for something to take us, remove us, lift us like Elijah out of this hot mess of a world in which we find ourselves.
But the solutions aren’t simple. And Christ didn’t take the easy way out. And Christ doesn’t intend to pull us from bed, or the grinding stone, or the field, or the workplace, or the school bus, or the retirement home, or the pew, and lift us to some heavenly realm where we can escape the trials of the world.
Instead, “in fact”, he says, “the kingdom of God is among you”. My friends, “in fact, the kingdom of God is among you”. In Belle Center and Huntsville; Urbana and Springfield; Huber Heights and Downtown Dayton; Eaton: Oxford; in Bellbrook; Middletown; Blue Ball; Monroe; in Reily; in Morning Sun; Sugar Creek; Fairborn and every other town great or small with the presence of the people of God. We, my friends, are to manifest the Kingdom of God in our individual lives, our congregations, and the Presbytery of the Miami Valley. “The kingdom of God is among you.”
We are called not to turn inward. We are called not to look to the skies to be drawn up in a chariot. Instead, we are called to look down upon the holy ground on which we walk. We are called to look onto the faces that we pass. We are called out into the places in which we find ourselves each moment of each day; called to live and carry and forward the kingdom of God.
For it is among you. It is among you. Brothers and sisters the kingdom of God among you! Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.
But let’s be honest. We have failed. We have fallen to fear and dusty memories and hopes unrealized; longing for a time when the world seemed less complex and divided, less violent, less apathetic. We have not done what we should do, loved as we should love, given as we should give, trusted as we should trust. We’ve embraced isolation at best, and at worst, hatred and division at times too. We are Presbyterian but not Presbyterian. Christian but not Christian. Followers of Jesus as long as Jesus doesn’t put us at any risk. Because we are afraid. And our fear is deep and wide. Our uncertainty is great. Our self-preservation high.
Lift us away, O God, and leave the others behind.
But self-preservation is not the Kingdom. It does seems much less risky, much more secure. When hear Jesus say that those who try to make their life secure will lose it, and those who lose their life will keep it – – well, it makes no sense at all – – how can that be? If we just wait a little longer, keep the doors open a little longer, keep COM and Leadership Council running a little longer, show me some signs and some indicators so that we can say, “Look, here it is!” . . . the kingdom will surely come.
All the while ignoring those words already spoken. “in fact, the kingdom of God is among you”. All the while ignoring those words that those who lose their life will keep it, those who lose their life will keep it. The Kingdom among you!
The Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.
My son started High School this year and that has brought some new phrases. One day he was telling some story about something that happened and I honestly don’t remember the story at all except for the ending statement about whoever had misfortune in it, “sucks for him” he said.
At first I was rather mortified. My younger son has the potential to make a sailor blush, but my older son, he’s like Ghandi shoved in a 14 year old’s body! What? What just spewed from your mouth, child? But then I was fascinated. Leave it to a teenager to understand how the world really is. Sucks for him. Sucks for you! It’s the descriptive phrase used among these 14, 15, 16 year olds for the person who did not have things go his/her way, for the one who was defeated, for the one who was left alone, or whatever their misfortune may be. Sucks for you.
How sadly reflective that phrase is of our world, our nation, our communities, our Presbytery, our congregations, even in our own lives.
Sucks for you.
“In case of rapture this car will be unmanned.” Sucks for you who are left behind. To heck with everyone else; I am out of here.
Sucks for you Syria and Yemen and Iraq where violence and starvation take life after life, for the women and girls who suffered under Boko Haram and then again under those in the camps where they sought refuge. Sucks for you. For Italy and the earthquakes, for Haiti battered and beaten by water walls and storms, for Chicago with over 600 homicides. Sucks for you. For Democrats and Republicans and everyone in between, our national division deep and wide. Sucks for you. Hungry child killed not too far from where we worship today for seeking something to ease the pain of a stomach that was empty too long. And child’s mother who took her child’s life in mental illness, poverty, adrenaline, anger or whatever evil it may have been. Sucks for you. The list goes on and on. Sucks, sucks for you.
O God, pull us from here!
Churches who leave.
Churches who stay.
Churches we’d like to see leave.
Sucks for you.
For Presbytery meetings we skip rather than endure. Committees and networks we do not want to take the time to help staff. Support dollars we withhold. People we “minister” alongside for years and never say much more than hi.
For pecking orders among pastors, and congregations, and members. For people we don’t like. For the “crazy” people who take all of our time.
For good pastors and faithful congregations, large and small, seeking to do the work and will of God who seem to get lost, or ignored.
All the while we wait to be beamed up, lifted, removed.
Our outdated understandings of our roles, our congregations, of what effective and faithful means. Our seeking to be members of the Church of Comfort rather than disciples of the Crucified God.
What we know and cling to is so much easier than what the Spirit of God says.
No worries. It doesn’t matter anyway.
Sucks for you world. We’ll be gone and you’ll be left behind.
But that isn’t what Jesus says at all, is it? “In fact,” he says, “the kingdom of God is among you”.
Something does happen to us when we think we, or what we know, or what we love, or what we remember may die. But Jesus isn’t much for hunkering down and hoping things will pass. He’s not a “sucks for you” guy at all. In sharp contrast, to proclaim that “sucks for you” does not have the last word, he stretched out his arms on the cross and he died.
Jesus doesn’t leave the mess. He’s smack in the middle of it. With tax collectors and prostitutes and lepers and fishermen!
Jesus is in the mess, in the midst, with the sick and the sinners JUST LIKE US! Because he knows where the Kingdom of God is. It is among you. It is among you! The kingdom of God among you! Look around! It is right here!
If we’ve had bad theology, or unfaithful service, or poor performance, it is not the end. Looking death in the eye, facing the prospect of a loss, is sometimes is cleansing. It gives us an opportunity to think hard about what matters to us and where we have been faithful and where we have failed miserably.
And if we are graced to see Death’s face but still live, that is a gift. In that gift we see our lives are resurrected. In that gift we do not seek to be lifted out, but to be faithful and intentional with every single second of every single day.
Yes, the prospect of death, the prospect of loss, can be a gift if we choose to see it as such, and if we choose to rise from that prospect, from the waters of baptism, and live. Live. For the kingdom of God is among you! The Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.
Death is right before us. And we can choose to hunker down and hide until our last breath. Or we can live. And if we choose to live, then we’ve got some work to do. Work to let go of our preferences, our pretenses, our certainties. Work to release our judgements of one another, of this Presbytery, of what we are called into. Work to discern a future of collective, connected, covenantal ministry that isn’t based on a longed-for past, or ease, or our preferences, or who we like and don’t like, but on the true realization of the words of Christ Jesus.
The kingdom is not coming with things that can be observed. For in fact, the kingdom of God is among you. It is among you. It is among you. It is among you! The Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.
Our time today is sacred. The ground on which we gather holy. The community to which we belong redeemed and saved. Knowing that, may we take on this task with sincerity and integrity, with dedication and faithfulness. May we allow ourselves to be startled by the Living God who called the church into being for the sake of the world and called each of us to be a part of that church – – particular and Presbytery. Pray, discern, be faithful, my friends. Not to what you want. Not to what is easy. Not to what is comfortable or familiar. But to the future to which the Spirit calls us. For the Kingdom of God is among us. It is among us.
The world desperately needs us to stop seeking to get out, stop trying to save ourselves, stop being okay with sucks-for-you. And instead, to proclaim salvation and justice and mercy and peace to the ends of the earth. To preach and live and proclaim the kingdom! This is our calling, our charge, our task, our life, my friends. Surely God is our salvation; we will trust, and will not be afraid.
We have no reason to fear. We are baptized – – we have already died and risen again in new life.
Our physical death is now just a detail.
Our old selves, old lives, old ways, those are the things Christ calls us to leave behind. And rise, and be, and live into the Kingdom among you!
My husband maintained his speed, steadied his hand on the wheel and prayed. The frame flew off the back of the truck, smacked in to the front of the car, and bounced in a perfect arc over the car in the far left lane, landing with a single bounce in the grass between highway north and highway south. Traffic moved forward as if nothing had happened at all. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. When he got to where he was going, he got out of the car, gasping for the air that had been squeezed from his lungs and legs shaking in fear. He walked to the front to see what damage was done. The car was not scratched. Except the “H”; it was gone. Sucks for you.
Let us not be afraid, my friends. Let us not turn inward. May we not seek what is easy or familiar. Instead, with courage and hope may we receive the presence and power of the Holy Spirit who seeks to guide us as we work and discern and covenant with one another over how to faithfully live out the Kingdom of God that is among us.
For the Lord God is our strength and our might. He has become our salvation.
Trust. And do not be afraid. The Kingdom of God – – it is, my friends – – among you. Among you. Among you.
All glory be to you, O Lord. Amen.
While the election season has finally ended, for now, political campaigning will nonetheless continue as usual. It is not surprising that in year or so professional politicians and their party machines will gear up to sway the public by manufacturing trivial crises and prioritizing a handful of superficial controversial issues that suit their billionaire/millionaire donors. Relying on armies of professionals, political pundits will wage wars with well-crafted speeches and repeat magic phrases and themes. Voters are often tempted to fall for dooms-day warnings, character assassinations, and empty promises for change. No wonder many simply do not exercise the right to vote regardless who is running.
With very few exceptions, candidates and politicians intentionally ignore major issues. Those brave and serious candidates however often fail to garner fair attention and support, or perhaps voters fail to give them the attention they deserve or fail to place such important issues before politicians.
Democracies rely on elections because democracy relies on the voices of the citizens, but self-serving politicians will rely on corrupting the political system even if that system is codifies in the constitution as a tool for democracy. A true democracy will respond to the needs of the people and accentuate hidden real issues even when voters are misinformed. Unlike Lady Justice, democracy has eyes that see the needs of the people, ears that listen to their cries, hands to deliver justice, and feet to move forward. Democracy’s eyes are capable of seeing and can make better determination as who and what the magistrate sword cuts, and whether the scale of justice is balanced. Nevertheless, democracy is as fair and compassionate as its voting citizens and their representatives.
We The People are often so distracted by the numerous cycles of elections and lost in our gerrymandered voting districts that we miss colossal realities. We often ignore such neglected but evil realities including waging 5 wars (some argue 7 wars) concurrently, incarcerating the world largest prison population per capita, boasting 750-800 disclosed military bases around the globe while neglecting and dehumanizing veterans. Not to mention drastic cuts in assistance to the very poor and inflating the national debt to slaughter innocent civilians and impoverish sovereign countries in order to profit from sale of weapons.
The Church must speak truth to this empire. The Church must denounce the unjust status quo. The Church must resist the corruption of this political system. The Church must preach less and serve more. The Church must repent and practice genuine love, charity, and compassion.
“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved.” – (Psalm 127:1-2)
COVENANT, GRACE, GRATITUDE,
My mother was a smoker. Like many of her generation, she started smoking as a teenager, unaware of the health risks she was inviting. Once the dangers of smoking were publicized, she tried to quit, but a lifetime of habits is hard to break. She finally did quit, though, but it was too late, and cancer was already taking her life at the age of 61. Change – even life-saving change – is hard.
Earlier this year, I wrote a series of columns in this space about the challenges facing American Presbyterians in our day. I discussed the reasons for our chronic membership decline, the increasing marginalization of churches in a post-modern, post-Christendom America, and the need to develop a new way of being the church to adapt to this changing landscape.
I call that new way becoming an “inside-out” church. By “inside-out,” I mean a church which is not content to sit inside the church building trying to attract those who are outside to come join them to encounter God. Instead, an inside-out church is one which recognizes that we are called out from our churches to engage our neighbors in the world where Christ is already present in mission. The church building is no longer the destination for our mission but its base.
This is a tidal change in how the church has operated over most of its history in North America. It recognizes that our situation is more like the church of the mid-first century than the church of the mid-20th century. But change is hard, especially the kind of change that forces us to adapt our ways of being the church to a new and different set of challenges.
You might be familiar with the parable of the frog in the kettle. The parable points out two ways of trying to boil a live frog (don’t try this at home). The one way is to boil a kettle of water and then throw the frog in. That doesn’t work because the frog will detect the hostile environment and jump right out. The second way is to put the frog in a kettle of cold water and raise the heat so slowly that the frog doesn’t even know it. The frog will simply stay in the kettle until it is boiled to death.
The world is changing around us, but if we do not recognize the change and get out of our comfort zone, we will end up like the frog. Change consultant Robert Quinn calls this “the normal state” that leads to “slow death”:
The failure to change is a process of closing down, of ceasing to respond to the changing signals from the world around us. As we become increasingly closed, we lose energy and hope. We experience negative emotions such as fear, insecurity, doubt, and denial that lead us to shut out the signals being sent by evolving external realities. We thus become increasingly disconnected and lose still more energy.
In [churches], the same dynamics come into play. We all spend most of our time unconsciously colluding in our own diminishment and the diminishment of the [church]. We collectively lose hope, turn to self-interest, and experience increasing conflict. The [church] becomes more disconnected and loses more energy. At both individual and [congregational] levels, we tend to choose slow death over deep change. (Building the Bridge as You Walk on It, p. 19)
The work of transformation isn’t easy. We are creatures of inertia. We settle into routines and expectations that create a comfort zone in which we operate. Whenever we try to break out of those comfort zones and change those routines and expectations, hidden forces of inertia within the organization rise up to return us to the normal state of terminal comfort.
Change consultants call these adaptive challenges. They are different than the kind of problem solving we are used to doing that merely require applying some technical skill or launching some new program. Using a medical analogy, technical challenges are like broken bones: the physician resets the bone, puts the limb in a cast, and the healing will happen. Little is expected or required of the patient. But adaptive challenges are stopping smoking or maintaining long-term weight loss. They require the full participation of the patient to change behaviors and a larger community, typically, to assist in resisting the physical, social, and emotional pressures to return to the former condition. 12-step programs are examples of adaptive change (Heifitz & Linsky, Leadership Without Easy Answers).
Adaptive challenges require new ways of thinking and acting. Real transformation can’t happen by technical fixes like changing the worship service or starting a new program. It only happens when we change our way of thinking, and our desire for change is greater than our natural preference for the safe and familiar.
Changes are happening around us. The heat is on and no one will turn it off. We can recognize the change and get moving, or sit and boil.
Dan Saperstein, Executive Presbyter