Born of God

Sermon on 1 John 4:7-21 – Born of God

A revelation washed over me Friday.  Not a new revelation, but a reminder from God.

My grumpiness defined last week.  Poor communication and my desire to achieve “Super-Pastor” status came to a vicious head when Alan asked me to lead communion at presbytery and gave me two days to prepare the liturgy.

If you spent any time in the church this last week, I need to apologize to you.  I complained way more than the situation warranted.  I allowed that one request to define and ruin my week.  I felt angry, frustrated, and miserable; every day I wanted to scream at nothing in particular while I worked in my office.

Despite me and my drama, the Spirit use my labors to give me God’s reminder.  As I put together the liturgy, a verse jumped out at me and reminded me of why we do this, why I do this, and the wonder communion should give us: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8a NIV) I knew immediately that verse need to lead the liturgy because it reminded me something.

That first Sunday we worshiped without Sue, nothing quite went to script but the Holy Spirit made her presence loudly known.  Tamara and Cathy played wonderfully, I remember giving a good message, we laughed with joy, a wonderful service just appeared from our struggles, and I, for the first time, fully felt the awe of leading communion.  I remember I could not stop smiling.  I worried smiling did not fit into proper communion decorum, but that worry could not stop my smiling.

I still have the new-pastor shine on me, but I know that communion will remain one of my most joyful; I truly felt like I lead our meal with Christ that day.

We over-complicate faith and church.  Good Presbyterians will rip anything apart to its smallest piece so we worry greatly about what bread we use and which kind of bread matches best with our intent when we gather around the table and how big the pieces should be cut or if we should cut them at all before the service because are we taking or giving and does it feel natural or manufactured and continue ad nauseam until the pastor bashes in head into the brick wall.

Like I said, we over-complicated faith, and frankly, I might as well stop using the plural pronoun.  Over-heady and borderline-insane Presbyterianism defines me.  Wanting perfection and high-gloss shine on my pastoral ministry defines me.  Tearing apart every action, complicating every decision, and second-guessing every step I take defines me.

I forget that God, first and foremost, called me as “Loving Pastor.”  Not “Super Pastor,” not “Perfect Pastor,” not even “‘Acts Like an Adult Over 50% of the Time’ Pastor.”

God calls me as “Loving Pastor” above all else, and I correctly and fully respond to that call 27.6% of the time.

If someone sees and recognizes a Christian, what do they recognize?  Do we—or should we—wear signs around our necks labeling us “Christian”?  Do they know our God by the ichthyses on the back of our cars and Christian radio blaring on our speakers?  Do we show ourselves as Christians by knowing what words to say in worship and what times the stand?

Do those things define a Christian?

Bubble-bursting time.  I know people who wear the label of Christian like badge of honor, have all the paraphernalia, only have the right music coming out of their speakers, and attend church every week that drive people away from God.  I have examples in my mind, but we do not need my examples; I have confidence each and every person who reads knows that person, and we each have numerous examples.

The label means nothing without love.  If someone recognizes you as a true Christian—a true follower of Christ—they recognize your love.  Your theology and ichthys means nothing without love.

I realized—or remembered—we should define Christianity by love.  Christianity as a label requires a few other things—those things often dependent on who currently fills the pulpit—but without love, those other means nothing.

We have misplaced our concern with making sure we believe the right thing and aligning our belief with the doctrines of the particular church.  Yes, belief itself gives life, absolutely—believing God in the form of Jesus Christ walked amongst us and willingly gave his life for us gives me hope in the midst of this dark and frightening world—but without love, it means nothing.

Love with doubt—even profound doubt leading to unbelief—still has God present and means something; faith without love means nothing and does not have God.

What is God?  God is love.  Period.

You cannot be Christian—even if you proclaim faith and do the proper things and know the words and have the appearance of righteousness—if you do not love.

Interestingly—and really, really obviously—the letter says nothing about theology beyond basically believing in Jesus, and absolutely nothing about orthodoxy or proper denomination or church attendance.  It does not say God requires absolute and rock-solid faith.

It does say, “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.”

God gave birth to all who love.  Read through the rest of the passage.  It literally defines true faith as believing in Jesus and, almost more importantly to my eyes, showing love.  The author really wanted to drive that point about love home.

Love or you do not follow Jesus and do not believe in God.  Period.

Do you see Jesus as call to love, or as a weapon and path to power?  Do you see God as love, or as vengeance against those you hate?

Did God give birth to you, or did the Earthly desires of greed, power, and hatred?

You answer this with what you worry about.  Do you worry most about looking righteous or showing love?

You know the correct answer.  You know your actual answer.  Do they match?

Show love; mark yourself as born of God.  Amen.

I’m a Thomas Apologist

Sermon on John 20:18-29: I’m a Thomas Apologist

It fascinates me when I notice something new in passages I preach on regularly.  Every year I preach Thomas’s understandable response to his friends telling him Jesus rose from the dead and understand his doubt a bit more.

I noticed something I cannot believe I missed before.  I seriously questioned if I had ever actually read the passage critically before, it jumps out that obviously:

I saw this.  Read verse 20 again:

20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy.
– John 20:20 CEB

 Now read verse 25:

25The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”
But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”
– John 20:25 CEB

See something similar?  The disciples did not rejoice when Jesus said, “Peace be with you!”  They rejoiced after Jesus showed them his wounds.  They needed the same proof Thomas demanded, and yet we remember Thomas’s doubt vividly and gloss over the other ten disciples not fully believing Mary Magdalene.

Listen to the story in a slightly less flattering light for “The Beloved Disciple.”

When Mary came to find Peter and the author, they ran to the tomb to verify what she said, concluded that Jesus had gone missing, and then ran and hid like cowards.

No judgement – I would run, too, and hide like the coward I am – but the author glosses over his cowardice, instead saying they “went back to their homes.”

After Jesus reveals himself to Mary Magdalene, she tells the disciples the amazing news and yet Jesus still has to show them the wounds for them to rejoice what Mary had told them.  No mention of why they paused and did not immediately start rejoicing.  Mary only needed to hear Jesus say her name to believe; the disciples need to see the wounds to believe.

Again, I cannot judge.  I cannot grasp their level of fear.  An unrecognized man appeared behind the locked door they hid behind from people who wanted to kill them.  They should have screamed like children.  They get a pass for not recognizing Jesus in that moment, but author glossed right over the fact that they needed to see the wounds while making sure we know Thomas needed the same thing.

Verse 25 paints the image of “Doubting Thomas” as written, but read it again, only with some transliteration by me:

 Unless [I get literally what you all needed to believe, even though Mary Magdalene had already told you he was alive], I will [continue to doubt the same way you all doubted].
– John 20:25, Pastor Rob’s Transliteration

Then Jesus appears, encounters Thomas where he stood, and Thomas responds to Jesus exactly as anyone would: “My Lord and my God!”  A recognition, a celebration, an acknowledgement of the truth of Jesus.

How I wish I could experience Jesus responding to my doubt as he did for Thomas.

I have more sympathy for Thomas than a significant portion of the church.  Some of the western church loves to make verse 29 the judgmental lesson of this passage:

29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me?  Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
– John 20:29 CEB

They make verse 29 into this lesson: do not doubt; just believe.

Some like to condemn doubt as proof of weak faith and weak relationship with God.  Some call doubting the work of the devil and struggling with faith the devil making us weak.  If we simply had stronger, most wholesome faith, we would not doubt.

I do not believe that in the slightest.  If the devil causes doubt and wrestling, the devil has written more than a couple of my sermons.  If the devil makes people wrestle with scripture, the devil made seminaries.  If the devil causes doubt and makes us wrestle with scripture, the devil is giving us all the deeper meaning we find in scripture beyond cursory reading.

Me personally, I give credit to the Holy Spirit for my doubt and wrestling because it makes me a better student of scripture.  I refuse to believe the devil makes me think about scripture critically, and I find that thought process fascinating because Jesus does not respond to Thomas like that.  Jesus does not scold Thomas – or the other 10 – for doubting

What he gives speaks to a reality: faith without doubt can be a blessing.

He tells them to desire the faith of a child, the faith of innocence without doubt, but he does not condemn them because they cannot have that faith anymore.

I miss the faith of my youth.  I have three years of academic study basically in faith, I have written hundreds of sermons, and I pray multiple times a day, and yet I have a much more fragile faith than I did in my youth.  How wonderful does believing without seeing feel?  How much blessing and comfort does it provide?

But I cannot have that faith anymore; that faith cannot mature into deep faith.  You must wrestle and think more critically as you mature, making the innocent faith of childhood impossible in adulthood.

Look at what actually happened in the story.  Thomas doubted – with good reason as we all would do the same – and Christ encountered him where he stood and deepened his faith through that encounter.

Thomas’s doubt lead to deeper faith.

Stop ignoring and denying your doubt.  Thomas spent three years with Jesus, he saw the miracles and had 11 trusted friends tell him Jesus came back to life, and yet he doubted.  You are not somehow less broken or less human than Thomas.

And Thomas’s doubt did not violate his love of God and did not violate the love he felt for his friends; he did not sin by doubting despite what the gospel of judgement would love us to believe.

Jesus did not condemn or even scold Thomas; he responded to Thomas’s doubt and deepened his faith.

Lean into your doubt, wrestle with scripture and with God, even shout to God with what you need to deepen your faith and what you need to believe.  I can guarantee that your faith will become more fragile and you will doubt, but wrestling and doubting will also make your faith more honest, more real, and it will open you up to deepening your relationship with God.

Blind faith is shallow; faith built from wrestling and doubt is deep.  More fragile, more confused, but deeper and built with God, not dictated by humanity.

Doubt, wrestle, and build your deep faith with God.  Amen.

“And I won the footrace!”

Easter Morning Sermon: John 20:1-18 – “And I won the footrace!”

A curious thing happened at the tomb.

Obviously, we celebrate the empty tomb.  We celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, we celebrate our salvation.  We celebrate our God rising from the dead and defeating death itself.  We celebrate everything about that empty tomb.

He is risen!  Alleluia!

But this curious thing happens, and the author of John – “The Beloved Disciple” – seems to gloss over it.

Mary arrives to prepare her friend for his final resting place.  She goes to his tomb the first moment the “Law” allows so she can give her friend care and compassion one last time.  She comes in love, ready to complete this awful and yet wonderful task for her friend.

And she finds an empty tomb!  Not the curious part I mentioned, but still very curious and very important.  She arrives to find a missing body.  She assumes – quite logically – someone stole the body.  So, she runs to Peter and “the beloved disciple” for help.

The men race to the tomb, and “the beloved disciple” – again, the author of this gospel – made sure anyone who reads this gospel knows he arrived first.  “The Beloved Disciple” and Peter both see the missing body – or rather do not see it – and then they believed Jesus’ body had disappeared.

For some reason they seemed to not believe Mary Magdalene – or at least doubt her – when she told them upon arriving wherever they were staying – and most likely hiding – but when they saw, they believed he disappeared.

And then they left.

Hence forth I will call them cowards because they ran in fear.  Read ahead to Jesus revealing himself to the disciples; he appeared as they hid behind a locked door, Peter and “The Beloved Disciple” hiding right along with the rest.

Peter and “The Beloved Disciple” saw the same things Mary Magdalene saw, they the same things she experienced, and they were men with at least one sword between them, giving them much greater ability to deal with a Roman or Jewish Leadership attack.

And they just finished spending three years with Jesus and devoting their entire lives to him.  The author calls himself “The Beloved Disciple.”  They should have felt some desire – or at least obligation – to find their friend’s missing body, or at least help Mary Magdalene figure out exactly what happened.

And they left like cowards.

Honestly, though, that should not raise eyebrows.  They acted like humans, like each one of us would in their situation.  They acted like their human selves.

I would have proved myself a coward in the exact same way.  I would never stand around and wait for the Romans to arrest or murder me while I figure out what happened to the body of my dead friend, and I would never wait for the Jewish leaders to lead a crowd to stone me.

Missing body, missing Robby.  Period.  They did nothing curious.

But Mary Magdalene does something very curious at the tomb: she stayed despite having every reason to run because her compassion for her friend outweighed the real, actual, logical fear she definitely felt.  She loved Jesus greatly, and she wanted to serve him one last time by giving him the final gift she could before they sealed him away for his final rest.

That should fascinate you.  The men from Jesus’ inner circle had too much fear and cowardice to show their dead friend the same level of compassion, but this loving woman risked her safety and possibly her life to show compassion and love to their dead friend.

Then Jesus does something equally curious: he appeared to Mary Magdalene first.

Why would he choose Mary Magdalene?  I cannot know for sure, but I believe he chose her in part because she showed him compassion and acted fearlessly in this moment.

She should have run.  She should have protected herself.  By staying, she placed herself in grave danger and did the exact opposite of the rational course of action.  She showed Jesus an irrational amount of love, even after his death, and I believe he rewarded and honored her love and compassion.

I believe Mary Magdalene saw Jesus first because she chose to show love and compassion instead of listening to her fear.

Part of this scene’s curiosity comes from Jesus revealing himself to a woman, a woman no one would believe.  In the patriarchal Jewish society under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire, a poor, Jewish woman had no power and no voice.

And Jesus chose to reveal himself to this woman first.

A very curious scene has unfolded alongside the curious event of Jesus’ resurrection.  Neither Jesus nor Mary do anything proper or what a rational, logical, worldly person would have done.  The whole interaction reeks of curious madness.

And perfection.

Maybe we need to stop looking for rationale or reason or logic and just love and care for each other.  Maybe we should express the most compassion and love we can without any motive or method apart from compassion and love.

Just love and show compassion to each other.

I find myself, as I think about just doing the compassionate, loving thing despite it going against logic, reason, and worldly instruction, looking towards Fred Rogers and how he served those who needed love.  A documentary about Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood comes out in the summer, and the trailer itself has a wonderfulness that speaks to me.

In it, producer Margy Whitmer describes what Fred Rogers did to make his show:

“You take all of the elements that make good television and do the exact opposite; you have ‘Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.’  Low production values, simple set, an unlikely star, yet it worked.”

Fred Rogers did nothing right according to the standards of television, ratings, and entertainment, instead just doing what the children who watched his show needed.  Glory, honor, fame, riches, and security did not matter to Fred Rogers.  He simply desired to show compassion and love to children who needed it.

In his words, “And the greatest thing we can do is to let people know that they are loved and capable of loving.”

Logic, rationale, effectiveness, safety, security, and comfort are all important, but they must take a back seat to showing compassion and love.  Forget what the world or the church or anyone else tells you to do, forget your selfish desires, forget “the right thing.”  Literally, we need to live in the example of Jesus, and of Mary Magdalene, and of Fred Rogers: act in love and compassion, without other motive or method, and outside of fear.

Peter and “The Beloved Disciple” ran in fear; Mary Magdalene stayed in love.

Forget fear; show love.  Amen.

THE NOTE:  I don’t preach from a manuscript; it’s something I gave up in the past couple of years ago to challenge myself and open myself to interacting with the congregation more.  My effectiveness instantly grew in spite of my delivery suffering.

Effectiveness over pride.  I’m less eloquent, but the Word is preached better.

Grace has a tradition that speaks to my soul, though.  I believe that there should always be an entry point to worship for everyone, in this case those who are hard of hearing or home-bound.   They have a printed manuscript available for those who struggle to hear and they send a manuscript to those who can’t attend.

You probably see my dilemma: no manuscript, no manuscript to print and give out.  So I decided to create a written version of my sermons.  Same basic outline, but in a smoother style of writing instead of the conversational style my delivery has.  It’s a good happy-medium and, as I said, provides the entry point to worship.

I’ve had a huge uptick in subscriptions despite writing very little, and I do a lot of writing for like 10 pairs of eyes, so I decided that I would start putting my manuscripts on the blog like I have done in the past with previous blogs (including this blog’s predecessor).

If you happen upon this little corner of the internet and have strong feelings about it, let me know.

Peace,
– Robby

A Difficult Sermon

Note: When I preached on this passage, I realized I hadn’t preached on it since taking “Preaching” in seminary, and I almost quit seminary due to that course.  I never titled this sermon, and I can’t think of a title while I post some previous sermons to the archive, so the title has more to do with me than the sermon.

Sermon on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 (and 1 Samuel 2:12-25)

If we just read the 10 verses the lectionary recommends, we get a Sunday School lesson.  Now, I usually say something like that when the passage misses something huge, but this passage gets most of the story.  Samuel does not know the Lord yet, but he is attentive and ready to fulfill his duty.  Eli helps Samuel understand who called him, much the same way he has helped Samuel become the beloved prophet he has already become.

The passage has a strong lesson: listen for when God calls, and willingly do what God calls you to.  The passage tells a very relevant passage for literally every moment in human existence, and we should tell it regularly.

The background does not change the message: the message remains “Answer when God calls and do what God says,” but the background makes it stronger and shows consequences of not doing God’s will.

What happens before this shows why God needs Samuel, and why God needs someone other than Eli.

Eli is worthless.

I preached on this passage last in my first Preaching class in seminary.  I said something to that effect, and the professor and class responded poorly to it.  Their struggle came from me not giving Eli any credit, how Samuel’s coming of age gave pain and sadness to Eli, how God’s message to Samuel felt like a birth pang for Eli, how he grew Samuel and now he painfully gave birth to Samuel’s ministry.

That rings of truth, but incomplete truth.  The full story tells it differently: Eli did not control his family, especially his sons, and allowed travesties to happen to those under his care.  This painful experience of Samuel coming into authority was precipitated by Eli’s inaction and ineffectiveness, and had he taken a stronger position, one of Eli’s sons would take his place.

Samuel does not become a prophet if Eli does his job.

But Eli did not do his job.  In fact, Eli grossly ignored a call I harp on every week: protect and love the vulnerable.

Eli’s sons are evil.  Wicked, despicable scoundrels, according to scripture, depending on how you translate the word.

They first abuse their power by forcing people to give the best of their sacrifices, a large, uncooked portion with fat instead of the portion of the boiled meal they should.  I think about this, and immediately I think about the number of people who came through that had spent every spare coin they had to purchase this meat for sacrifice.  Eli’s sons not only took from God, which sounds pretty darned awful in and of itself, and took from people who had to spare, but they took from every person who came to Shiloh to worship and sacrifice, including those who had nothing to spare.  The priests, those called to a live of servitude and humility, demanded the finest cuts for their own use.

It can get worse, though.  They also had sex with the servant girls at the city gates.  These are servant girls who certainly cannot say no to the powerful priests serving Shiloh.  Scripture does not tell us if they did this by physical force or through coercion or through taking advantage of vulnerabilities–probably because it does not matter.  No matter how they did it, they sexually took advantage of the women at the gate.

The sons are evil, and Eli does nothing.

Well, Eli does something.  He basically says, “You boys stop it!” and then does nothing.  His words have no teeth, he will not actually make them stop taking advantage of the vulnerable.  Under his watch, people who cannot resist suffer abuses at the hands of his sons.

This goes beyond just not being able to control his sons.  All parents have times when their children do terrible things.  We do not blame the parent for the sins of the child unless you can see that no actions were taken to correct what was happening.  Eli’s sons did not just start raping and stealing.  They did not go from perfectly mediocre priests to evil men.  They had to progress from one sin to a more painful sin to a more painful sin to get to the point they arrive at when Samuel is called by God.

And Eli effectively did nothing.  Eli is worthless to protect and help the people of Israel, especially the poor and vulnerable who could not help themselves.  This swan song comes not just because Eli painfully gives birth to Samuel’s ministry, but because Eli fail and his failure caused abuses of the vulnerable.

It sounds familiar.  Listen to the cries of the vulnerable around you today.  We are coming up on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and racial tensions have grown in recent years instead of declining.  The church has a call to protect the vulnerable yet stories come out regularly about people in about abusing those God called them to protect.  The poor, the vulnerable, the “less than” are currently, today, right now, being abused.

We can be Samuel, answering the call of God, listening to the cries of God’s people, and reacting.  God has called us to protect the weak and vulnerable, the feed the poor, to live out what Christ lived out while he walked the Earth despite his own poverty.  We can do good in the world and actually act to prevent evil in the world.

Or we can be Eli.  We can have good intentions, say, “Don’t do that!” and do nothing more.  We can allow abuses to take place under our watch, speaking the right words but taking no action, doing nothing to actually protect the vulnerable.

We can do either.  God calls us to one, but Eli clearly chose the other.

Now, we may not fully recognize God’s call at first.  Samuel needed guidance and did not recognize God’s voice at first.  But once he listened for God, he did what God needed and helped the weak and the vulnerable.

We can listen for God and help the vulnerable, or we can do what we have always done, not listening for God’s direction, and just let darkness win.

I recommend we listen for God.  Amen.