Fancy Food

Matthew 4:1-11, Genesis 2:15-17,

Nate Hosler

[Think of the style of the “Tall Man” and the “Middle Man” children’s books]

There is a man named Bill Cox. Bill Cox—in addition to being well versed in the Brethren and assorted Anabaptist genealogies of Lancaster Pennsylvania and in addition to being quite conversant in the various styles of prayer coverings of the same region—in addition to all this Bill Cox made glorious cinnamon rolls. Bill Cox was a baker and Bill Cox had compassion—we were high schoolers going to non-mandatory school on Sunday morning (commonly called Sunday School) and Bill Cox made us glorious cinnamon rolls. If you were being cynical in a very unjustified way you could have claimed, Bill Cox was bribing us—or buying votes (since the class nominated and voted in the teachers). Of course, these votes didn’t mean much since wasn’t really anything in it for him expect more work. More baking—which was his job and not simply a fun hobby. And more preparation of a lesson. Bill Cox could have used his power of the glorious cinnamon roll to gain followers. Bill Cox was not that sort of guy. Bill Cox had compassion and Bill Cox had glorious cinnamon rolls which proved it.

Jesus is tempted. He is tempted by a Bible quoting Devil. He is tempted to misuse his power to make a scene, to gain power, and to provide food for reasons other than compassion. In the face of great pressure and dire circumstances Jesus stood firm.

He fasted for 40 days and 40 nights in the desert and then was tempted.

It says he was led into the desert to be tempted.

And then after 40 days the actual tempting began.

Commentators note that these temptations parallel those experienced by Israel while wondering in the wilderness (Hare, Matthew, 24). 40 days in the wilderness echoes 40 years in the wilderness. Not only are the literary similarities with forty but the location and the type of testing. The temptation to create bread in the desert closely resembles the provision of manna—heaven bread—for the people exiled and wondering in the wilderness. Jesus’ response to this suggestion—“one cannot live by bread alone”—closely resembles the description of this in Deuteronomy 8:3. This is in the middle of an extended teaching by Moses. After leading the Israelites from Egypt and then around in the wilderness for 40 years Moses is told that he is not able to enter the land with them. He then recounts God’s commandments and teaches concerning the years in the desert.

Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

Though we are now in Lent and more likely to be thinking about spiritual practices which prepare us for Holy Week and Easter. This passage is read on the first Sunday of lent which includes, traditionally, 40 days of fasting. However, the going into the desert is more likely related to being a parallel experience to Israel’s 40 years in the desert than to particular spiritual practices. (Twelftree, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 825). Though through the history of Christianity people went to the desert for reasons of spiritual purification.

Laura Swan in The Forgotten Desert Mothers writes, “Desert spirituality is characterized by the pursuit of abundant simplicity—simplicity grounded in the possession of little—and the abundance of God’s presence. Yearning for complete union with God, desert ascetics sought to remove all obstacles to the deepening of this relationship…The desert ascetics’ relationships were non-possessive: They cared for others while leaving them free…Desert spirituality was expressed in compassion…was nonconformist: Ammas passed on their living example. ” (Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers: sayings, lives, and stories of early Christian women, 21-22).

Simplicity, not being focused on possessions, non-conformity—Other than the desert part this sounds pretty much like traditional Brethren. Though I don’t do much on Facebook I happened to see an article posted by Dana Cassel from a website called “The Daily Bonnet.” The website seems to be dedicated to spoof articles, a bit like the Onion, but based on Mennonite culture. This particular article essentially makes a joke of my observation that the description of the ascetics sounds like claimed Brethren ideals. The article was called “Reverse Lent.”

On Ash Wednesday, Mennonites across the world cease their regular practice of abstaining from anything pleasurable and instead take up a wide variety of unhealthy habits. Local woman Patricia Voth, 65, of the small Mennonite town of Dallas, Oregon, has been practicing Reverse Lent for almost fifty years.

“The rest of the year we’re told to dress modestly, never to smile or laugh, not to dance or drink and so on,” explained Voth, “but for these 40 days of Reverse Lent we can finally let loose a little. This year for Reverse Lent, I’m going to start smoking a hookah.”

Reverse Lent is part of a long-standing Anabaptist tradition of doing the opposite of whatever the Catholic Church does, and this includes breaking all the rules in the days before Easter.

Mennonites are also encouraged to get tattoos and body piercings during these forty days, provided that they get them reversed or removed as soon as the lenten period is over.

“‘Reverse Lent’ is the favourite time of year for most Mennonites,” explained Voth. “For those who aren’t already participating, I strongly encourage you to join us in this sacred time.”

There is already talk of expanding Reverse Lent to last 100, 200, or maybe even 365 days sometime in the future.

http://dailybonnet.com/reverse-lent-begins-today-devout-mennonites/

While there is not full correspondence between Jesus’ testing and our Lent it has provided rich material for reflection.

Point #1 Lent is a time where we intentionally focus toward God—this has often taken the form of abstaining from something or perhaps engaging in a new spiritual practice.

The first temptation of Jesus—very appropriately after such fasting—is food.It is suggested that he make himself something to eat—fancy food (fancy because it would have been made from stone by a miracle—and not because bread is particularly fancy).

It might be merely incidental that the first temptation was food or it may simply be the logical thing since one would be hungry in such an ordeal. (Of course, as we are all quite aware one doesn’t even need to be hungry to be tempted by food. For many of us many occasions of eating are not particularly tied to being hungry—and what we eat often exceeds what we need to address this hunger and survive, which is why this is so relevant for Lent and as a spiritual practice). Additionally, to be tempted by food literarily points back to the first instance in the Bible of temptation. In the 3rd chapter of our Bible we read of the one who tempts coming to the first people and tempting with food. (Which is notably more notable than Jesus’ bread—fruit which is exotic and can induce wisdom!)

Whereas sin is to have arrived via one person and food; redemption was brought by one person who was also tested by the lure of food.

Romans 5:12-19

12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— 13 sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. 14 Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.

Sin came through one person and redemption also comes through one person—Jesus. Through the sin of Adam all are affected. Because all are touched by one negative event all are also touched by Jesus.

It has also been rightly noted that though this passage often shows up in Lent in the lectionary because of thinking about fasting and overcoming temptation. Though this makes sense it feels rather hard to fully see ourselves in this story. Jesus is whisked here and there by the Devil in person who suggests ruling nations, stunts with God functioning as a safety net, and a sort of divine catering service. Most of my challenges are much more mundane. (When I fall it is usually while trail running with no one to see and I just hit the ground. When I’m hungry I just am hungry or I find something to eat.) This is the sort of stuff that Jesus teaches about a few chapters later and we just preached a sermon series on. Being angry and speaking harshly, not being perfect like God, worrying about tomorrow, thinking too much about this or not enough about that.

Point #2 In Jesus’ temptation and the surrounding scriptures we see an intentional rejection of forms of power and seeking fame that are not in line with the way of God—the Kingdom of God. In this we not only begin to learn what sort of king Jesus will become but start to see the redemption he will bring.

There is an interesting relationship between doing things as spiritual practices which impose a restriction and needing to live in that restriction. When Jesus is led into the desert and fasts, this is in some way chosen and an act for spiritual focus or reflection. There have been throughout history communities who have either fled to and hid in the desert or who have been driven there. I visited a Navajo community in New Mexico in the fall. While this was actually their traditional area they are now quite isolated and there are many other tribes surrounding them. Desert, or isolation generally, can both be imposed as oppression or taken on as an intentional practice. Think of the desert mothers (and more commonly referred to desert fathers) I mentioned briefly earlier.

The same also with food. While some people fast as a spiritual practice many have an imposed lack of food because of war, environmental destruction, particular economic or trade structures, and any number of other travesties. The taking on of fasting then becomes a spiritual practice in part because it reminds us of those who lack food while also reminding us of our dependence on God. Somewhere in scripture it even links fasting with having more food to be able to give to others.

The temptation of Jesus is not solely, however, with getting him in the right frame of mind. His turning away was an act of not gaining followers or power through improper means. Jesus could buy loyalty with bread. Jesus could demonstrate his relationship to God by a public stunt which he forces God’s hand to save him from a gruesome death from jumping. Jesus could gain power over nations by worshipping the wrong thing.

It is interesting that Jesus seems to do variations of these acts later in his ministry. He feeds many in a miraculous way. He declares himself king by riding into the city on a donkey, and demonstrates radical trust in God throughout (though never by jumping off tall building). Lent is a time to examine and clarify purposes. However, a call to introspection might not be entirely on point. If we feed people for wrong reasons is it better to stop or to purify our reasons?

KING JESUS AND THE DEEDS OF POWER

 Luke 19:28-40

Jennifer Hosler

I like Palm Sunday, because I like waving palms. Tactile worship is a lot of fun and we should probably figure out more ways to include props in worship. But Palm Sunday is about more than just fun worship props. Palm Sunday is important, not just because it marks the last Sunday of Lent and the entry into Holy Week. Palm Sunday is crucial because the Triumphal Entry teaches us a lot about who Jesus is and what his ministry was all about—and therefore framing the context for how we follow him.

The Triumphal Entry does two things: first, it points us back to Jesus’ “deeds of power” that defined his ministry. I was struck by the phrasing in v. 37: “the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen.” These deeds of power show us what Jesus was concerned with—and what we as his followers should be concerned with too. Second, the Triumphal Entry points us to Jesus’ role as King—a provocative notion in both his day and our own. For followers of Jesus, calling Jesus “King” turns the world’s understanding of allegiance and citizenship upside down, causing us to question our relationship to the society that we live in. Really, what the Triumphal Entry shows us is that the gospel has spiritual, political, and social implications.

Jesus and the Deeds of Power

In the first book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we meet young Harry when he has no clue that he is a wizard. He lives a miserable life with his aunt, uncle, and ghastly cousin Dudley, sleeping in a cupboard under the stairs. On his 11th birthday, Harry learns that he—and his dead parents—were wizards and he has been given admission to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The magical world knows very well who Harry is and what he has done, but Harry and the extended family around him have no clue that he is famous.

The infant Harry is believed to have done a deed of power, temporarily vanquishing the evil wizard you-know-who, I mean, Voldemort. Though he’s been ridiculed as a no-good loser by his family, Harry quickly learns of this deed of power and begins to have an important role in the battle between the forces of good and evil.

There are some surprising parallels (but definitely also contrasts) between Harry’s story and Jesus’, in how they understand their identity and purpose in relation to their deeds of power. For Jesus, there is a miraculous conception and a virgin birth; we see angels, shepherds, Magi, and an angry murderous King out to kill an infant. Jesus’ family learn early on how special he is—Jesus Immanuel, God with Us—but they learn this before he actually does anything special. As Jesus grows up, those outside of his immediate family seem generally clueless about who Jesus really is.

In fact, most people around Jesus think that he is so ordinary that when he starts his ministry, they scoff. “Is this really Joseph’s son, from Galilee?” Or, “Nazareth, can anything good really come from there?” But then the power of Jesus’ ministry becomes apparent: “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” Jesus enacts deeds of power that draw crowds and disciples to his side, and eventually convince his disciples so much that they proclaim him King while marching down to Jerusalem.

On the journey to Jerusalem, in the sections immediately before the Triumphal Entry, we see several of these deeds of power that define what Jesus’ message and ministry are about. Going back a chapter in Luke, we see Jesus and his disciples walking toward a city called Jericho, amidst the crowds of pilgrims. A blind man is sitting by the side of the road panhandling. He hears a commotion, and lots of people going by, and asks, “What’s going on?” A person replies, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” Clearly, word about Jesus has spread around. The blind man starts yelling, “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!” People grumble and try to shush him but the blind man keeps yelling, “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!” Jesus stops in his tracks, and asks those around him to bring the man over. Jesus asks the blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the man says, “Lord, let me see again.” Jesus heals the man, and the man joins the crowd of disciples, praising God. Luke says that everyone around them sees what happens, and they praise God! And continue on the journey to Jerusalem.

Jesus and his disciples arrive at Jericho, and as they are passing through the city, word gets out that Jesus is coming through with all the other pilgrims. A man named Zacchaeus, not tall in stature, really wants to see this person that everyone has been talking about but the crowds are too deep around Jesus. Zacchaeus improvises, runs ahead, and climbs up a sycamore tree.

As Jesus walks by, he looks up, calls out to Zacchaeus, saying, “I want to eat at your house today.” Zacchaeus is delighted to host Jesus and comes down from the tree but people complain and grumble because Zacchaeus is rich and his wealth is ill-gotten gain. As a chief tax collector, he’s been taking money on behalf of the enemy and likely was also forcing his fellow Jews to give him money beyond their taxes. Zacchaeus was involved in oppression and economic injustice—and was even doing it to his own people.

During the meal with Jesus, Zacchaeus repents. He says, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (Luke 19:9). This was more than beyond the restitution required by the Mosaic Law. Jesus responds, “Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man has come to find and restore the lost” (vv. 9-10, the Message).

Two people, one poor and one rich, encounter Jesus on his way into Jerusalem, and both have their lives changed. You could say that Jesus transforms two blind people—the physically blind man and the spiritually blind man, Zacchaeus—enabling them to see by the power of God. These were two deeds of power that would have been on the minds of Jesus’ disciples and the crowds of pilgrims walking with them. Jesus’ deeds of power gave sight (and therefore power) to a marginalized man and released a man enslaved with materialistic greed. Both men are described as “saved.”  Jesus’ deeds of power are not just something having to do with individual beliefs or spiritual healing: salvation that comes through Jesus is spiritual, and also social, economic, and physical.

Donkey-riding, coat-throwing, palm-waving king making

Beyond reminding us about Jesus’ deeds of power, the Triumphal Entry also, especially, emphasizes Jesus’ role as King—a provocative notion in both his day and our own. To understand why it was provocative, it’s helpful to get an overview of the sociohistorical context. Pilgrims are journeying from all over the land and making their way to Jerusalem for the Passover. Like all of what was called Judea, the area is occupied by the Roman Empire. Whenever there were Jewish feast days, the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, would come to Jerusalem from his outpost at Caesarea and bring with him extra military reinforcements.

So while Jesus and his disciples are making their way toward the city, Roman soldiers are also piling into the city, just “in case national fervor and religious fanaticism threaten the Roman peace” (Craddock, p. 223). The Jewish people, after all, had a history of uprisings and rebellions against their previous Greek and current Roman occupiers. In Jesus’ day, there were nationalist movements—zealots—who wanted to kick out Roman rule once and for all.

Jesus and the disciples pass through the last few towns before Jerusalem, Bethphage and Bethany, and they arrive at the Mount of Olives, the final stop before they would descend into the city itself. Jesus gives instructions for his disciples: “Go into the village ahead and bring back a donkey, a colt that had not been ridden before. If anyone asks what you are doing, just tell them, ‘The Lord needs it.’” This seems really strange to us, but this donkey request actually fits into a “common procedure of a ruler (or a rabbi) procuring transportation, using the royal right of impressment,” or the act of borrowing something for a specific purpose for an important person (Losie, p. 859). It also fulfills a prophecy in Zechariah 9:9.

The disciples go about their way, find a colt, give the appropriate response to the questioning owner, and make their way back to Jesus. Cloaks are placed on the donkey and then the disciples set Jesus on the donkey. The journey into Jerusalem then proceeds, down from the Mount of Olives. People place their cloaks along the road for the donkey bearing Jesus to walk upon. In other gospel passages, they’re also throwing palms on the road and waving palms in the air. Luke describes that “The whole multitude of disciples” start praising God joyfully and loudly, “for all the deeds of power that they had seen” Jesus do (v. 37). They don’t say, “What a wonderful teacher!” and they don’t say, “What a great and kind prophet!” Instead, the multitude cries out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” (v. 38). Jesus is no longer just a rabbi or a teacher, not just a prophet—but a king.

This makes the Pharisees nervous and they cry, “Teacher, get your disciples under control!” Jesus answers back, “If they were quiet, the rocks themselves would shout out what they are saying.” Why exactly were the Pharisees nervous? What exactly does the donkey-riding and coat-throwing and palm-waving mean?

The processional entry had cultural significance for people in Jesus’ day. Roman and Jewish history each had a background of emperors or rebel military leaders entering cities in triumph. After they’d completed victories in battle, they’d come into the city on horseback, together with their soldiers.

With this history in mind, the Triumphal Entry procession would have been seen as subversive, as a challenge to the existing rule and authority of Rome—potentially as one of those scenarios that Pontius Pilate was in town to subdue. If someone’s followers are declaring them to be King and all the signs and symbols point to kingship, thoughts of a coup or a revolt are inevitable. And yet at the same time, Jesus is not a military ruler returning after a military victory; the animal he rides is not a war horse but a donkey, a symbol of a ruler coming in peace. He’s not coming to lord things over subdued inhabitants, but offering his message of God’s Kingdom for people to either accept or reject.

The cloaks on the road also serve as important symbols – harkening back to another King-making time in the Old Testament. In 2 Kings 9, a man named Jehu is anointed King of Israel by a prophet under Elisha’s orders. When Jehu’s followers hear about the anointing, they enthusiastically proclaim him King, blow trumpets, and spread their cloaks down before him.

While there are parallels, Jesus’ story actually differs from Jehu’s. After Jehu is celebrated as King, Jehu and his followers go and kill the existing king and wipe out his whole family line. Jesus doesn’t head into the city to slaughter the existing ruler; instead, Jesus himself is the one who is sentenced to death and dies, without a fight, after coming in peace to heal the sick and save the lost.

While it’s called Jesus’ Triumphal Entry, Jesus’ triumph actually comes after the procession. The victory involves nonviolence and self-sacrifice. While Jesus’ followers declare him King on the way into Jerusalem, they don’t fully understand that it is only after Jesus is willing to die—and dies a real physical death—that God vindicates Jesus and raises him to life in victory.

Salvation and Allegiance

I said at the beginning that the Triumphal Entry does two things: first, it points us back to Jesus’ “deeds of power” that defined his ministry. This shows us what he was concerned with—and what we as his followers should be concerned with too. The Good News that Jesus preached was sight for the blind, repentance for the rich, freedom from the captive, healing for the sick. The salvation that Jesus brought affected peoples’ hearts, brought them freedom from sin, and it brought them physical, social, and economic transformation.

The gospel that we celebrate in Holy Week is one that permeates our economic choices, our relationships with our friends, family, and neighbors, and all the ways that we interact with this world. What we preach and teach here is that Jesus came to deliver our souls and our bodies and our society and our earth.

I also said that the Triumphal Entry does a second thing: it points us to Jesus’ role as King, and I said it was a provocative notion in both his day and our own. In Jesus’ day, Jesus being King meant that his followers stood apart of the allegiances, protections, and statuses in their society. The early church was loyal to Jesus, instead of Caesar, and by saying that Jesus was Lord instead of Caesar is Lord, they were persecuted and marginalized. For followers of Jesus today, calling Jesus Lord or King should turn our understanding allegiance, citizenship, privilege, and status upside down, causing us to question our relationship and roles to the society that we live in.

As followers of Jesus, we commit to proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is at hand, to enacting the deeds of power that transform souls and wallets and bodies and relationships. We commit to proclaiming Jesus as King over our lives and circumstances—even when some leading rulers and authorities might say, “You’d better settle down. We don’t want any trouble. We don’t want to hear your talk about justice or mercy or peace.” Yet we are called to boldly and loudly proclaim how Jesus’ deeds of power can transform our hearts and relationships and economy and society.

We don’t know what lies ahead for our country: uncertainty, hatred, unrest, bigotry, and violence. But standing here on Palm Sunday, we know we have a humble, peaceful servant king whose gospel transforms us spiritually, politically, socially, and economically, and as we’ll see this week, this King walked through injustice, beatings, and death, that we might be empowered to proclaim God’s reign of love and justice in this world.

Sisters and brothers, let us proclaim King Jesus and his deeds of power as we move into Holy Week and beyond. AMEN.

COMING HOME

Psalm 126, Isaiah 43:16-21, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8

Jeff Davidson

Two weekends ago Julia and I went back to Ohio for a few days. It was fun. We had some goals, some things to get done, but it was a good time. We stayed with friends of mine from the church youth group growing up, we visited some of my friends and Julia’s family, and we drove around and looked at the houses I grew up in, and the parsonage we lived in when we were in Dayton. It was a nice chance to re-visit the past and brush off some old memories.

I often wonder what it would be like to live in Tipp City again. That’s the little town I grew up in, and it’s about ten miles north of Dayton, Ohio. It’s a small town, about seven thousand people probably, but the interstate is right next to it and it’s easy to get to a lot of different places. Whenever I visit Tipp I like to drive around and remember who used to live in what house, and what business used to be where, and I like to look at real estate magazines and dream of living there again. That’s especially tempting when I see the prices of real estate compared to here.

So if I moved back to Tipp, would it be as good as I remember it? Probably not. Most of the people who were my best friends when I was in High School have moved away physically, and I can tell from Facebook that many of the ones that are still there have moved away emotionally or culturally or politically. The houses that are so charming on the outside? Chances are that they need a lot of work. Yes, but with the lower real estate prices I’d have plenty of money to get that work done! No, because along with lower real estate prices and lower cost of living would come a substantially lower salary. Costs are inflated out here, but salaries are higher so that we can keep up with those inflated costs.

Dayton is growing north, and Troy (the next big town up the road) is growing south, and the schools I went to all need a ton of repair and air conditioning installed and that’s only if they decide not to tear them down and build new. In a few years Tipp City could easily be this little small-town historical district surrounded by the typical suburban sprawl and strip shopping centers and big box stores. You can see it starting already.

We post all our sermons online, and I know some of my Tipp City friends read them. Let me just say for them that I am not dissing Tipp City, and that this doesn’t mean Tipp wouldn’t be a really good place to live. I think it probably would be. Especially because Tipp City still has breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches. It just means that it would not be the same as I remember it. The city isn’t the same, the people aren’t the same, and the times and the surroundings aren’t the same. I am caught between the realities of two sayings: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” and “You can’t go home again.”

That’s the theme – the idea of past, present, and future – that runs through all four of our scripture readings this morning.

Let’s start with the past. Isaiah refers to the past of the people of Israel when he talks about how the Lord made a path for the Israelites through the sea, and that Pharaoh’s chariots and horsemen who pursued them were destroyed. The first verse of Psalm 126, our call to worship, talks about “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed.” In Philippians, Paul refers to his own past, to his own sterling credentials. As the theologian Krister Stendahl put it, Paul is reminding them that he took all the honors courses. His birthright, his enthusiasm, his successes, his righteousness under the law – Paul says that no one can beat his history, his resume in any of these areas. In the beginning of the reading from John there is a quick reference to the past: “Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.” Each of these passages touch on the past.

However, none of them stay there. None of them are living in the past. Isaiah even includes a warning about that in verse eighteen: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” The past is worth visiting, but you don’t want to live there.

So we turn to the present. It’s interesting that neither of the Old Testament passages talk about the present. Isaiah skips from the past to the future, and Psalm 126 kind of alludes to the present when it says that some are sowing in tears and others are going out weeping, but that’s it. Other than those two references the Old Testament scriptures don’t really talk about the present circumstances of the writers.

Not so with Paul and Jesus. In Philippians Paul dismisses his discussion of his fantastic credentials with this statement: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” Whatever good things I did before, whatever awards I won or diplomas I got or fame I had obtained does not matter. What matters now is Jesus Christ.

Not just that, but in verse eight Paul says that everything, not just the awards and the accolades but everything is loss, everything is trash because of knowing Jesus Christ. Nothing besides Christ matters in the here and now, says Paul.

Our reading from John has a focus on the present as well. When Mary Magdalene starts to wash Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume, Judas says that she should have sold it and given the money to the poor. It says the perfume is nard.

Nard is a big deal in the Bible. The full name is spikenard, and the Asian version of it is grown in the Himalayas. There is an American spikenard, but that’s a different plant. Spikenard is mentioned a dozen or so times in the Bible, and was used as a perfume, a sedative, a flavoring for food, and as an herbal remedy. It isn’t hard to believe that nard, since it was grown so far away, would be very expensive and would require a single woman living under Roman occupation to save for quite a long while.

Judas says that Mary should have sold the perfume and given the money to the poor. John says that Judas didn’t say this because he cared about the poor, but that Judas was the treasurer, and wanted more money to go into the treasury so he could skim some off the top. Jesus says no to Judas, and Jesus shifts the discussion from the present to the future.

Jesus says that this nard, this perfume was not bought to be used here; it was to be used to anoint his body after his death. Jesus says that this present moment is one that points forward, one that looks ahead to his death, which then leads to his resurrection.

Just a quick side note. That part about the poor will be with you always? That’s not a rebuke of Judas for his saying we should help the poor. Of course we should help the poor. It’s a rebuke of Judas for his selfishness, for Judas’s wanting to sell the perfume so he can take a cut of it. It’s another way of saying that Judas does not really care about the poor.

And with that one sentence from Jesus, “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial,” we have moved into a future orientation. Jesus is obviously referring to his death and resurrection. The Psalm, our Call to Worship, points ahead with a prayer for those who sow in tears, a prayer that they will reap in joy. Perhaps like Mary Magdalene herself, who on Easter morning went to the tomb in sorrow, found the body missing and collapsed in tears, only to be confronted by the risen Christ of whom she then joyfully told the disciples.

Paul in Philippians, having discarded his gaudy past to embrace Jesus Christ in the present, continues on towards his future; a future where he learns more about Christ and his resurrection and suffering through suffering a death like Christ’s. Paul presses on toward the future, even knowing that future may contain death, because his home is no longer in the law. It is now in Jesus. Paul keeps his eyes on the prize, and Christian tradition says that Paul was beheaded by Nero in Rome about thirty years after Jesus’s death and resurrection.

Do you remember Isaiah? The prophet who told us to forget about the past and skipped over the present to look ahead to the new thing that was about to be done? God, speaking through Isaiah, says that “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.”

That brings us full circle in a way, doesn’t it? Not to the beginning of the sermon or to the beginning of the service; that brings us full circle to the beginning of Advent back in November and December. That brings us full circle to the birth of Jesus, the little baby in the manger. “I will make a way in the wilderness.” How often did we read about John the Baptist saying that, or something like it? How often back in November were we looking ahead to Christmas, the birth of Jesus? And now here we are in March, reading a scripture that told us to forget the former things, but that points us back to Christmas, which itself points forward to Easter.

The birth of Jesus at Christmas means nothing without the death of Jesus on Good Friday, and the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday. The past, the present, and the future, all pointing at one another in a cycle of birth and death and resurrection.

I always get excited driving back to Tipp City about the time we hit Springfield. That’s when it starts to look familiar again, and I know there’s less than an hour until I’m back in my hometown. Then when I leave my hometown, I always get excited again when we get to the American Legion Bridge, and it all starts to look familiar again, and it’s less than an hour (usually) until I’m back home. You were excited heading into Christmas, weren’t you? Sure – that’s the trip into the past, into the beginning of Jesus’s story on earth. Now it’s time to get excited again because we are coming home again. Coming home soon to the risen savior. Coming home to Christ, who creates a new heaven and a new earth. Coming home to Jesus, the ruler of the kingdom of love and mercy and justice that we live in now, and that we seek to sow in all the world around us so that in the days to come the world may be able to reap with joy. Amen.

Mini-Sermon Sunday

Matthew 6:19-34

Sermon 1 – Katie Furrow

It’s been 3 years, 8 months, and 13 days since I last intentionally ate meat (approximately). After spending a week at the Church of the Brethren’s National Young Adult Conference in 2012 where I didn’t eat any meat with my meals because I thought it all looked unpleasant, I decided to see how long I could continue in a vegetarian lifestyle. And now, here we are. Admittedly, I’ve still eaten meat on more than a handful of occasions—if it’s served to me, I’d rather eat it than see it go to waste and sometimes, I just really want to try a new meat-based dish or, honestly, sneak a chicken nugget that’s been calling my name.

Here’s the thing, despite my choice to be a vegetarian, I actually really enjoy eating meat. Almost four years into it, when I’m asked about favorite foods some of the first things I think of are dishes like fried chicken or turkey club sandwiches. In spite of this, I’ve learned over the last several years that these foods often have a larger, unseen impact than me having a full tummy, and knowing this has driven me here.

By eating meat, we are living very high on the food chain, and the choice to do so often involves unsustainable and harmful production. For instance, the most populous land mammal in the Amazon and the greatest reason for deforestation there is beef cattle. Forests are being destroyed, indigenous groups are losing their autonomy and their homeland, and greenhouse gas emissions are increased so people (mostly Americans) can have constant and cheap access to beef.

The amount of water, grain, and land required to grow just one pound of meat is often exorbitant. And while one could argue otherwise, it’s hard to consider that all of these resources could be redirected to help ensure that everyone on the planet has enough to eat; while those of us who live comfortably now wouldn’t get to eat as many hamburgers, more people around the world could at least have a greater chance to access basic food staples.

According to the United Nations World Food Program, almost 1 in 9 people around the world don’t have enough food to live healthily. In today’s scripture, Jesus instructs his followers to “not worry about their lives, what they will eat or what they will drink” and to instead rely upon God, who will take care of them. Admittedly, when Nate asked me to speak on this topic in relation to this scripture, I was troubled. It’s easy for me—a person in a place of privilege who has enough access to food to be able to voluntarily cut an entire food group from her diet—to not worry about where my next meal will come from. Even as a volunteer with a limited income, there has not once been a moment when I’ve been hungry or concerned about how I will pay for food.

However, for the 795 million people who aren’t as fortunate as me and who struggle to access food, they don’t get the luxury of not worrying, and it feels almost naïve to quote such a scripture to someone in their position. Worrying, for better or for worse, is what may help keep them afloat. As I’ve continued to think on the subject for the last several days, I was pulled to the idea that, as followers of Jesus, we are called to be the body of Christ, to be actors of social change to make sure that all of God’s people are taken care of.

Perhaps it is on us to do our part to make sure that our sisters and brothers around the world will no longer have to worry about their next meal. I’m not saying that everyone needs to completely change their diets and forsake meat once and for all, but small steps to live a little more simply—like cutting out meat at some meals once a week or generally trying to eat a little lower on the food chain—can make a huge and positive impact. By taking a few small steps, those of us in places of privilege can work to make life a little easier for our neighbors who may be struggling to figure out where their next meal is coming from.

As we go forward, may we be called to make choices that ease the minds of our neighbors and that show God’s plan to take care of all our needs.

 

Sermon 2 – Emmett Eldred

“They call me the Watchdog of Oakland, because I’ve always got your back.”

This is how the most interesting person in my neighborhood first introduced himself to me, and most of the people he meets. He’s a homeless man, African American, about six feet tall. He’s got a huge smile, and bright warm eyes. I see him often outside of this little pizza shop on Craig Street called Maximum Flavor, but you can find him throughout Oakland. If you have the pleasure of meeting him, he’s one of the most charismatic and friendly people you’ll ever meet.

Oakland is one of the largest neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, and home to most of Pittsburgh’s largest universities, including the University of Pittsburgh, and my college, Carnegie Mellon University. As you’d expect, Oakland has a lot of students, even during the Summer. It’s one of the youngest neighborhoods in the United States.

As you can imagine, such a neighborhood has an active nightlife. Every night of the week, but especially Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, you will find hundreds,if not thousands, of young people walking the streets, hopping between bars and house parties, until late into the night.

Apart from it’s main thoroughfares, Oakland can pretty rough. Many of the streets are narrow, cramped, and poorly lit. Crime rates are above average. On top of all this, college campuses across the country are engaged in dialogues and interventions regarding rampant sexual assault on campus, which hinges around the social scenes on those campus. By any standards, on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, many students are unsafe.

And that’s where the watchdog comes in.

Every night, the Watchdog goes out into the streets of Oakland, where he finds students that might be in danger, and he offers to walk them home, no questions asked, no strings attached. He’s been doing this for over a decade, during which he has escorted thousands of young people home safely.

This is the story he tells on the streets of Pittsburgh during the day. But when he tells it, he doesn’t ask for money, the way you’d possibly expect a homeless person with such a remarkable story to do. So why tell the story? I asked him once, and he said, “because it’s not about money. It’s about giving back to the community.” To the watchdog, if he used his story as a platform to ask for money, then it would contaminate what he sees as an act of public service, an act of love.

And that’s why I thought about him when I read the scripture for today.

Jesus tells us, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The Watchdog of Oakland treasures his community, he treasures his call, he treasures the people that he has served, and he treasures the reputation he has gained for being a protector. And that’s where his heart is.

The Watchdog of Oakland didn’t give himself that name. It’s a name given to him by the students that he serves every night. But now he wears that name with great pride.

Likewise, as Christians, we should strive to earn that name from the people we serve, rather than labeling ourselves that way. If we want to be known as Christians, than our reputations should precede us as people who live like Christ.

Where our treasure is, our hearts are there also. As disciples of Christ, we should strive to treasure our communities, our call, the people we serve, and most of all Jesus, who taught us to show our love for him through acts of love towards others.

Like I said earlier, the Watchdog introduces himself by saying, “They call me the watchdog of Oakland, because I’ve always got your back.” This reminds me of one of my favorite hymns, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”

Chances are, the people in your life know about your faith. Chances are, they call you a Christian. I hope this week, that you will ask yourself why? This week, try to fill in this phrase: “They call me a Christian because…” and if you aren’t satisfied with what comes after “because,” try to change it! My goal is to be able to answer that question “They call me a Christian because I love.”

SPARROWS, ROCKS, AND SHINING GLORY

Psalm 84; Psalm 27; Luke 9:28-36

Jennifer Hosler

Wait for the Lord, whose day is near. Wait for the Lord, be strong, take heart. Waiting. It’s hard to wait, at least in the manner we mean in the song. There are a few ways to define “waiting.” According to one definition, to wait is to “stay where one is or delay action until a particular time or until something else happens” (google). In this sense, waiting is not the part with any meaning or any value. I think this is the common understanding of waiting. Waiting today involves just finding ways to amuse oneself, to get through the in-between part, to distract oneself, or to not have to make chitchat with those around you. This waiting is flipping mindlessly through Facebook or Instagram or the news while you wait for the train, or the metro, or in a line. This waiting tides you over until the good thing, the thing you are waiting for, arrives.

There’s another definition that, I believe, fits better with the song we sang about waiting on the Lord. To wait in this sense is “to remain in readiness for some purpose.” To remain in readiness for some purpose. Waiting on the Lord, then, is not a passive experience but something active; it’s being ready to encounter the presence of God.

Today we have three scriptures and each of these passages describes waiting on the Lord—dwelling, sitting, meditating in God’s presence. We see in each of them that waiting on the Lord is active, involving a readiness to encounter God’s presence in our hearts and lives.

Sparrows (nourishment)

Food is a necessity for life, a basic need. When it comes down to the bare essentials, we need food, water, clothing, and shelter to survive. There are other needs—social needs, personal growth—but these are difficult to work on when our basic needs aren’t met. It’s hard to support a friend or learn a new skill when you’re hungry.

It’s a bit puzzling to me, then, how often I forget to eat. Whether I’m working at home on my studies or I’m in class or doing research work, time ticks by. 11, 12, 1, 2, 2:30 and somehow I still haven’t eaten my sandwich or carrots or apple. I forget to do what nourishes me and sustains me—and my strength becomes sapped. Sometimes, I even get faint or a little woozy. I’m trying to get better at this, because I realize that my work suffers and I get less productive. Our bodies and minds are designed to be fueled.

Hunger. Yearning. Nourishment. These are themes that we see in one of today’s passages, but the focus isn’t on food. Our call to worship today came from Psalm 84. The psalm writer begins by singing about the beauty of God’s temple, then starts describing a yearning, a hunger within the soul. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God” (vv. 1-2, NRSV). The implication here is that, beyond our basic needs, we have an inner need to commune with God. The psalmist continues, saying, even the birds recognize how wonderful God’s presence is. The sparrows are lucky, because they can build their nests in the Temple, making the place where God dwells their own dwelling place.

The psalmist also expresses that being in God’s presence is matchless in its worth. We sang these words: “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere” (v. 10). Why is God’s presence so valuable? Because the psalmist understands the LORD to be the source of life and strength—you can see this in the names that are used for God. God is called “the living God” and “a sun and shield,” the source of life, nourishment, warmth, and protection. Going up to God’s presence—spending even a moment is valuable, because the LORD’s presence is precious nourishment that the soul needs.

Lent is a time of focusing on God, encountering Christ in new ways as we head towards the triumphal entry, the last supper, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. During Lent, some people fast, limiting their food or temporarily cutting out other things like television or some other activity. Fasting (intentional fasting, not silly forgetting to eat like what I do) creates a longing. We long for what we cut out, whether food or sweets or meat or Netflix. The goal is to reorient that longing into a yearning for the presence of God.

In the sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel, we read, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” How can we cultivate a yearning, a hunger for God’s presence during Lent this year? What can we do to remind ourselves that our souls need to be nourished by God’s presence, just as much as our bodies need nutrients to function? Waiting on the Lord is active, it involves a readiness to encounter God’s presence in our hearts and lives. Are you ready to wait on the LORD?

Rocks (resting in the steadfastness of God)

Some of you have been to our house before and have met our cats. Yes, this is a cat illustration. We have two cats, Scruff and Ursula. Scruff is all black and Ursula is all white. Scruff was in our family for more than two years when we realized his lonely heart needed a friend to play with. He’s pretty needy kitty, even getting mopey when we’re home but just haven’t held him enough. Scruff likes to be held by sitting like a baby facing outwards, in a slouchy way, with his back on our lap. He’ll often sigh a sigh of contentment and stretch out a little bit and close his eyes. I find human-animal relationships to be so marvelous and curious—this little furry being wants to be held by me. I’m not sure if he feels safe, likes the warmth, just loves being close to us, or all three. Whatever the reason, Scruff just wants to be held.

Our second psalm this morning is Psalm 27. The author, King David, begins by declaring who the LORD is: “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?” (v. 1). In other words, David is saying, “God is safety and deliverance, the One who shows me the way and drives away the darkness. When God is my stronghold, the place where I find my solace and safety. I don’t need to fear” (paraphrase). David continues his song, saying that those who come up against him will fall. The reason? Because the LORD is his protection and deliverer.

Like Psalm 84, David also talks about spending time in the presence of the LORD. “This is what I ask, the only thing I’m seeking: to be able to spend time in God’s dwelling place for all of my life, to see the beauty of God’s presence, to learn from God. I know that when trouble comes, God will be my refuge and keep me safe; I’ll be hidden from view or set up high upon a rock” (paraphrase). David sings about immersing himself in God’s presence, being held by God, seeking the wisdom, safety, and strength that come from God.

When I sent in my sermon title to Care, a lot of things were still undefined (i.e. my sermon wasn’t written). But several images had stood out to me from the scriptures: sparrows nesting in God’s presence, rocks up high where no bad things can reach you, and the shining glory of the Transfiguration, which we’ll get to in a few moments. “Set me high upon a rock.” David seeks to be in God’s presence. He trusts that resting in God’s presence will be like a high rock, a place where no one and nothing can touch him. The psalm closes with words we sang for our prayer song this morning. David writes, “I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD” (vv. 13-14).

David was intentional about encountering God. Whether it was seeking God in the barren wilderness on the run from Saul, or listening to the words of a prophet Nathan and hearing about his sin, David’s heart was ready to meet God. In 1 Samuel and the book of Acts (13:22), David is referred to a person “after God’s own heart.” He sang, danced before God, asked the LORD for wisdom and protection, found quiet places in solitude, and prayed—as we read in Psalm 27—to dwell in the presence of God all the days of his life. In times of turmoil and doubt, David sought the LORD as his rock, the steadfast immovable force to cling to, that would give him hope even when it seemed like his enemies surrounded him.

When things are overwhelming and we feel like our legs will give out under us, whether spiritually or physically, whom do we cling to? Do we try to muddle through on our own strength? Or do we seek solace, wisdom, and strength from our Creator, the One who can give us a firm place to stand, who can hide us in the shelter of his tent and set us high upon a rock? Do we come to God in prayer, resting in God’s arms and trusting in God’s steadfastness? Waiting on the Lord is active, it involves a readiness to seek God’s presence, protection, and strength. Are you ready to wait for the LORD?

Shining Glory (God’s presence)

Our third and final passage this morning comes from the gospel of Luke. It’s a passage of mystery, of dazzling clothes and shining glory. Throughout the gospels, we see that Jesus likes to go up mountains and pray. He usually goes by himself but, this time, he picks three of the disciples to come with him. This prayer hike, however, doesn’t stay within the bounds of the expected.

Jesus’ disciples journey with him up a mountain, watching, waiting, and praying, and then getting pretty sleepy as Jesus continues praying. Peter, James, and John wake up from their sleepy prayers and, suddenly, they see a shiny face and white clothes; two guys long dead (Moses and Elijah?) are chatting with the teacher. A bright shiny cloud gets way too close for comfort and out of the cloud comes the voice of God. This is no ordinary prayer hike in the mountains. During this journey up a mountainside (referred to as the Transfiguration) an encounter with Jesus starts out ordinary but ends up extraordinary and a bit terrifying, with shining glory and the voice of God. In the transfiguration, the disciples encounter the holiness and presence of God—startling, breathtaking, and a little scary.

At times, I’ve noticed a hesitance in myself—and in others—to sit in the silence of God’s presence. It can be unnerving, coming before God in silence: you realize that you can’t hide from the One who made you and knows you. You don’t know what voice you’re going to hear out of the cloud. Yet as scary as silence can be, the disciplines of solitude and silence are ones that have brought some of the most depth to my inner life. Richard Foster writes that “It is in solitude that we come to experience the ‘silence of God’ and so receive the inner silence that is the craving of our hearts” (Foster, p. 102).

It is in the silence that I recognize that I am fully known, fully loved, fully cared for. It is in the silence when my hard heart starts to have its layers peeled back, when I start to see others’ good intentions and my own selfishness, when I feel the Spirit’s leading to pray or to act. It is in the silence and the solitude that I see I’ve been relying on myself, that I haven’t been so loving, that I’ve been consumed with frivolous things instead of yearning after God’s presence, which nourishes me and sustains me for love and action.

When we spend time in silence and solitude, when we go up the mountainside—whether it’s a quiet place in our apartment or our house, whether it’s a time we’re quiet on the train or in the car, or a few moments standing outside and staring at the trees during a busy day—when we do this, we open ourselves up to being transformed and seeing God work in our lives and the world around us. When we enter into silence and solitude, we can encounter the glory of God.

Sisters and brothers, how can we find ways to cultivate our souls during this Lent? How can we start yearning for God’s presence? Can we implement a fast to hunger and thirst for righteousness? How can we look to Christ for strength and solace amidst the turmoil of each day? What strategies can we find that center us, point us to the One who can hide us in the shelter of his tent and set us high upon a rock? How can we journey with Jesus up the mountainside, encountering God’s shining glory in silence and solitude? Waiting on the Lord is active, it is a readiness to encounter God’s presence and be transformed. Wait for the Lord, friends, be strong, take heart, and wait for the Lord. Amen.

References

Foster, R. (1998). A celebration of discipline. New York: HarperSanFrancisco.

BAD NEWS: GOOD NEWS

Romans 10:5-13

The First Sunday in Lent

Jeff Davidson

 

Does anyone here besides me remember watching the TV show Hee Haw in its original run? It ran on CBS from 1969 through 1971, and then ran in syndication for over 20 years. It was a good show, and it introduced us to a lot of talented musicians and comedians that had spent much of their careers in the Nashville country-music circuit. Let me just tell you – whatever kind of music you like, you have got to watch Roy Clark play either guitar or banjo. It’s worth finding him on YouTube. You could make the case that he’s the greatest guitarist of his generation.

Anyway, Hee Haw is where I got my first exposure to “good news/bad news” jokes. Archie Campbell had a recurring sketch as a barber, and as he cut hair he would tell stories. One of those stories is an extended version of a good news/bad news joke.

“Hey I guess you heard about my terrible misfortune.” “No, what happened?” “Yeah, my great uncle died.” “Oh that’s bad!” “No that’s good!” “How’s come?” “Well, when he died, he left me 50,000 dollars.” “Oh that’s good!” “No that’s bad!” “How come?” “When the Internal Revenue got through with it, all I had left was 25,000 dollars.” “Oh that’s bad.” “No that’s good.” “How come?” “Well, it was enough that I bought me an airplane and learned to fly.” “Well that’s good.” “No that’s bad. I was flying upside down the other day and I fell out of the thing.” “Well that’s bad.” “No that’s good. When I looked down under me and there was a great big old haystack.” “Well that’s good.” “No that’s bad. I got a little closer and I saw a pitchfork aimed right at me.” “Well that’s bad.” “No that’s good. I missed the pitchfork.” “Well that’s good.” ”No that’s bad.” “How come?” “I missed the haystack too.”

That’s not the whole skit, but I’ll stop there. Usually it’s a little bit shorter than that. There’s a whole genre of good news/bad news jokes, and several different variations on that whole theme.

There’s a couple of good news/bad news ideas here in our New Testament reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Look again at chapter 10 verse 8: “”The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim.)” That’s good! Well, maybe. On the other hand, if the word of faith is inside me, if as Jeremiah said it’s written on my heart, then I don’t really have any reason for not remembering it, do I. It’s not like I can claim that I don’t remember because I forgot my Bible, or because I’m too far from the church building or something. If it’s on my lips and in my heart then I don’t have any excuses.”

Verses 9 and 10: “Because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.” That’s good! Well, maybe. That means that the things that I say have to reflect Christ. I can’t just say whatever I feel like saying. I have to ask if it’s what Christ wants me to say. And if that’s what I need to do with my words, I probably have to do that with my actions too. I can’t just go wherever I want to go or do whatever I want to do. If I believe in my heart that God raised Jesus from the dead then I need to confess it with my lips and live it with my life. Boy.

Verses 11 through 13: “The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” That’s good! Right?

Wait. You mean that one guy at work – you know who I mean – that one guy who’s a real extremist about politics is going to be saved? You mean that cop who gave me a ticket and yelled at me last week – there’s no distinction between him and me? You mean the Iraqis, the Iranians, the North Koreans, the Israelis, the Venezuelans – we’re all the same in God’s eyes?

So is it good news? Are we prepared to love our enemies? Are we ready to do good to those who persecute us? Are we up for acting justly towards everyone, to loving mercy even for those we cannot stand, and for walking humbly with God, even when we’re right and everyone else is wrong?

In addition to the first Sunday in Lent, today is Valentine’s Day. I saw a card that someone had put on line; it had a picture of someone identified as Saint Valentine and said, “Roses are red. Violets are blue. I was beaten with clubs, beheaded, buried under the cover of darkness, disinterred by my followers, and you commemorate my martyrdom by sending each other chocolates.”

We don’t know a lot about Valentine. There are some stories that he secretly married couples so that the young men wouldn’t have to go to war. The pacifist in me likes that one. Most of the stories about Valentine say that he was a bishop and was under house arrest. Valentine was discussing his faith with the judge, and particularly the truth of Jesus Christ. The judge brought his blind daughter to Valentine, and said that if Valentine could restore her sight that the judge would do anything Valentine asked. Valentine put his hands on her eyes and her sight was restored.

The judge asked Valentine what he should do, and Valentine said that the judge should destroy all of the idols in the house, fast for three days, and be baptized. The judge did these things, and later the judge was led to free all of the Christian prisoners under his control. That’s good news. There’s no “bad news” part of it; that’s good news.

Valentine was later arrested again for continuing to preach about Jesus. This time he was sent to the Roman Emperor, Claudius II, or as some presidential candidates might say, Claudius Two. Claudius liked Valentine (that’s good) until Valentine tried to convince Claudius to convert to Christianity. Claudius refused, and said that either Valentine would renounce his faith or he would be beaten with clubs and beheaded. (That’s bad.)

As I’m sure you can guess, Valentine refused, and tradition says that Valentine was executed on February 14 in the year 269 AD. There is another tradition that says on his death he left behind a note for the daughter of the judge that we mentioned earlier, and signed it “Your Valentine.” (That’s sweet.)

The word “gospel” literally means “good news.” When I was in Sunday School in 4th grade or so, my church gave us kids Bibles that were called “Good News Bibles.” They were in Today’s English Version, and it was a much more accessible Bible for a child than the King James or the Revised Standard versions. I didn’t know back then that “gospel” meant “good news,” or if I did know it I promptly forgot it. But ever since then I have always associated the story of Jesus with good news for the world. I have thought of it ever since then as good news that was meant to be lived and meant to be shared.

But even in the good news, there is bad news. We are approaching the part of the Christian calendar where Jesus will be rejected, and tortured, and killed. We don’t think about that part of the story too much during the rest of the year. It’s more fun to think about baby Jesus, or Jesus healing people, or doing miracles. It’s not fun to think about Jesus suffering, bleeding, or dying.

It’s part of the story though. Just as Paul calls us to embrace all those people who we would rather not deal with, just as we are to love those that we think are unlovable and pray for those who treat us badly, we are to recognize and celebrate this part of the Gospel as well. Even in the midst of the good news, we must deal with the bad news.

“God’s going to come to earth!” “That’s good.” “No, he’s going to come as a little tiny baby.” “That’s bad.” “No, that’s good. He’s going to grow up into a man who does great miracles.” “That’s good” “No, that’s bad. Not everyone’s going to believe him and he’s going to make some enemies.” “That’s bad.” “No that’s good, because he’ll be doing God’s work and he’ll ride a donkey into Jerusalem while the people praise him.” “That’s good.” “No, that’s bad. Once he gets there he’s going to be arrested and put on trial before Pilate.” “That’s bad.” “No, that’s good because Pilate won’t find any fault with him.” “That’s good.” “No, that’s bad. Pilate will go ahead and crucify him anyway.” “That’s bad.” “No, that’s good. After he’s dead he’ll be in the tomb for three days and God will raise him back to life.” “That’s good.” “Yes, that’s good.”   Amen.