Rogue One – a review

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). Rated PG-13
A Lucasfilm/Disney Production. A Gareth Edwards Film.
Starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Riz Ahmed, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Ben Mendelsohn, Mads Mikkelsen, and Alan Tudyk, with Forrest Whitaker, and James Earl Jones as Darth Vader.

rogueone

In the words of the Pointer Sisters at the beginning of their cover of Santa Claus Is Coming to Town: “Well, here we are, another year’s gone by!”
And thanks to our beneficent overlords at the House of Mouse, that means that, just like this weekend in 2015, we get a Star Wars movie!

This year, that movie is Rogue One, and its plot can be easily summarized as follows:

This is the story of the spy mission that immediately preceded 1977’s Star Wars. Let’s dive in.

ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO WISH THE PLOT NOT TO BE SPOILED.

orson-krennicOrson Krennic

So building a Death Star is a thankless task. A few years back, a group of students at Lehigh University calculated the monetary cost and necessary resources for building a Death Star, and they came up with $8.1 quadrillion dollars (13 times the GDP of every country on Earth), and 833,000 years’ worth of steel production.

That said, there’s apparently enough iron on Earth to build two billion Death Stars. That’s two BILLION armored space stations powerful enough to turn your planet into gravel.

At the end of Episode II, Attack of the Clones (a.k.a. the worst of all the Star Wars movies by a LOOOONG shot), you briefly see a projection of the plans for the Death Star on Geonosis, which are then pocketed by Count Dooku (R.I.P. Christopher Lee) as he bounces on up out of there. At the end of Episode III, Revenge of the Sith, three years later, construction on the Death Star has begun, as there is a shot at the end of Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader looking out a Star Destroyer window on its skeletal structure.

The director of the Death Star project is an Imperial science and technology officer by the name of Orson Krennic. And realistically, considering his boss is somebody who can CHOKE PEOPLE WITH HIS MIND (as Krennic finds out later, much to his discomfort), ol’ Orson has quite the mouth and attitude on him. He also has an ego the size of Mount Olympus, so there’s that.

At the end of the movie, Krennic dies.

Galen Ersogalen-erso

Now, one of Krennic’s top scientists is a guy by the name of Galen Erso. Erso is one of the galaxy’s leading experts on the use of kyber crystals, which are found at the heart of every lightsaber. He decided that if a lightsaber can use one tiny refined kyber crystal to amplify energy to create a laser sword, then maybe a WHOLE LOT of refined kyber crystal could amplify energy in a way that would create a boundless supply and would make it possible to power countries or even entire planets without using finite resources.

When the Manhattan Project began, the goal was to create a functional nuclear reactor that would provide power from a fission reaction. We know where THAT ended up. As such, you can probably figure out that it took Krennic approximately two milliseconds to go from “kyber farm” to “DEATH RAY”.

Some scientists don’t so much like their inventions raining death from the sky, so Erso bounced. Krennic hunted him down, of course, because HE HAS THE EMPIRE. Erso’s wife got shot, his daughter ran off into hiding, and he went back to work.

At the mid-point of the movie, Galen dies.

jyn-ersoJyn Erso

Not for nothing, but this is the second Star Wars movie in a row where the focal character is a woman. Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy was asked about that recently, and she basically said that she had no patience for fragile, insecure men who had a problem with female heroes, and that they were welcome to not watch Star Wars.

Jyn is Galen’s daughter. Jyn turns to a life of scavenging and crime. Unlike other scavenging juvenile delinquents who have fronted Star Wars movies recently, Jyn gets caught by the authorities and locked up. Jyn gets busted out. Jyn REBELS.

At the end of the movie, Jyn dies.

Cassian Andorcassian-andor

This dude, though. Heart of ice. Shoots Jim Keats in the back. Busts out Jyn Erso. Treats her like crap. Only cares about a droid.

And again, not for nothing, this is the second Star Wars movie in a row with a Latino male lead. And the diversity doesn’t feel forced, it just feels like the right casting. The best casting. TREMENDOUS casting.

At the end of the movie, Cassian dies.

K2-S0k2s0

Speaking of the droid, here he is. K2-S0 is a droid with C-3P0’s inability to shut up combined with Han Solo’s sarcastic streak. In other words, he may be the best character in this movie.

Don’t get too attached, though. He’s voiced by Alan Tudyk, and as Tudyk’s characters are wont to do, he wound up super-dead with a big ol’ hole in his chest. I’m honestly surprised he didn’t whisper something about being a leaf on the wind while he was shooting Stormtroopers.

Oh yeah, in case you didn’t gather it from that paragraph, at the end of the movie, K2 dies.

Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbuschirrut-baze

Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus are on the planet Jedha, guarding the Kyber Temple in the holy city. This planet is where the Jedi Order began; the Kyber Temple was their first temple before they moved to Coruscant. It remains a holy site for the followers of the Church of the Force (remember Lor San Tekka from The Force Awakens?). They are the Guardians of the Whills; Chirrut, who is blind, is a legitimate practitioner of the religion (though not Force-sensitive), while Baze is his bodyguard and friend.

These two spend the movie opening up MANY cans to whup some Imperial tail.

And then, at the end of the movie, they die.

bodhi-rookBodhi Rook

Rook is an Imperial pilot. Much like Finn, he defects from the Empire, although he has a specific purpose in mind: get a message from Galen Erso out to Jyn via the militant wing of the Rebellion, in which he tells her that he made himself indispensable to the Death Star project, so that he could build a weakness into it that nobody would notice:

A fault in the reactor that would start a chain reaction should something explode on top of it; this fault is found at the bottom of – say it with me now – a two meter exhaust port.

Oh, and at the end of the movie, Rook dies.

Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkintarkin

Oh, but we KNOW this dude, don’t we? Oh yes! This is the jackwagon who, nearly forty years ago, gave the order to do a full-scale test of the Death Star for the first time, picking the planet Alderaan as his target! Since the Death Star is still on its shakedown cruise here, his targets are a little smaller – he takes out the holy city on Jedha for funzies and then the Imperial data center on Scarif after it is compromised by the Rebels.

He also steals the Death Star out from under Orson Krennic’s nose, which sends Krennic off to cry about to Darth Vader.

Honestly, that seemed like a poor choice on Krennic’s part. “Tarkin stole my Death Star!” “Oh yeah? Obi-Wan Kenobi stole HALF MY FREAKIN’ BODY! Now choke for a minute.”

It takes Tarkin a little longer to die, but we all know quite well how he goes down.

Here’s the great thing about Tarkin. He was played originally by the late Sir Peter Cushing, OBE, who died in 1994. Rogue One‘s producers went to his family and got permission for his likeness to be recreated digitally and layered over another actor, and they did one HECK of a job. There’s a moment or two where CGI-Tarkin looks a little hinky, but overall, it was SUPER well done.

darth-vaderAnakin “Darth Vader” Skywalker

The Dark Lord of the Sith at his Darkest Lordest of the Sithiest. I mean, he’s onscreen for probably less than ten minutes in the entire movie, but there will never be anything in cinema again that’s anything like his final scene, chopping his way through Rebel troops onboard the Rebel flagship, but not getting through in time to stop the stolen plans from being passed off to the Tantive IV.

He doesn’t die for a while yet.

final-battle

So, long story short, the aforementioned characters, with the assistance of a few familiar faces that pop up here and there, go raid the Imperial Data Center. Chirrut and Baze blow some stuff up, Bodhi sets up a Doc Brown-style radio link, K2-S0 kills a battalion of Stormtroopers, and Jyn and Cassian infiltrate the data center, steal the Death Star’s data tape, and upload it to the Rebel flagship, despite Orson Krennic’s best efforts to stop them. As the upload is finishing, Tarkin decides that it will be a hot day on Hoth before the Rebels get their hands on the entire Imperial Data Center, so he blows it up real good.

death-star

Literally all of the main characters die. But their deaths are glorious and honorable. Songs will be sung about them for many generations.

Finally, as mentioned above, the plans get passed off to the Tantive IV, it takes off into hyperspace, and then…

A character in white is asked what the data tape contains, and Princess Leia Organa turns around and declares, “Hope,” making this the second Star Wars movie in a row where she gets the final word.

tantive-iv

Roll credits and/or start up A New Hope, whichever you prefer, because Rogue One‘s closing scene could literally wipe-cut directly into the Tantive IV popping out of hyperspace over Tatooine.

I have mixed feelings about this movie. That is not to say I didn’t like it. I really, REALLY liked this movie. I thought it was a very GOOD movie. It was an OUTSTANDING war movie. I definitely think it was a better made, written, acted, and directed movie than The Force Awakens was.

But here’s the thing: The Force Awakens was a better Star Wars movie. I think the reason I feel that way is because it’s a continuation of the original saga. And yes, multiple installments of that saga have been dumpster fires, but there’s something about it continuing the original story that makes it special.

Rogue One, on the other hand, tells a story that, while it exists in the Star Wars universe and is in fact an indispensable catalyst for the entire original trilogy, didn’t feel like a Star Wars movie. It felt like an action/war movie that happened to take place a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

Strangely enough, though, I’m okay with that. It was a good movie, and I think that with time, as I see it again and again and it becomes more familiar to me, it will become part of the saga.

And so, unlike last year, when I closed by saying, “May the Force be with you,” I will invite you instead to say something new with me: Chirrut Imwe’s mantra.

“I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.”

May the Force be with all of us. Merry Christmas.

star-wars

Stranger Things the Eye Has Not Seen – a sermon

Sunday, November 27th, 2016 – the first Sunday of Advent
Central Christian Church, Lexington, KY
Scripture: Matthew 24:36-44
Hymns: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, “One Candle Is Lit”, “When God Is a Child”, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”, “Come, O Long Expected Jesus”

Stranger Things the Eye Has Not Seen

Do you all remember Left Behind? Not the Nicolas Cage movie of questionable quality from a few years back, but the source material – the series of books that were written in the late ‘90s and early 2000s by theologian Tim LaHaye and author Jerry Jenkins. They were a nationwide phenomenon, selling millions upon millions of copies. Taking their primary conceit from today’s Gospel passage – that some would be taken, and some would be left – the two weaved a fantastical science fiction series that spanned well over a decade, using a very particular interpretation of texts from throughout the Bible, especially Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation. While there have been a great many questions about the theological soundness of the stories crafted by Dr. LaHaye and Mr. Jenkins, there is no question that Left Behind had a significant impact on American culture, with some elements of the story having become commonplace in our literary zeitgeist.

So too have they significantly impacted our popular culture, from the least religious to the most. In the twenty-one years since Left Behind was published in 1995, popular culture has grown a seeming obsession with what it refers to as apocalyptic stories. Movies like Independence Day, Deep Impact, Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012, as well as TV shows such as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, The X-Files, 24, Homeland, and especially HBO’s The Leftovers have focused on stories that could result in the end of America, the world, or even the universe. The Leftovers even borrowed the “rapture” conceit from Left Behind, with numerous people disappearing without warning or explanation.

The idea of being on the lookout for apocalyptic events is certainly one way to interpret this text from Matthew 24. After all, at its outset, it invokes the story of Noah – “In those days… they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away.” As far as the book of Genesis was concerned, Noah’s flood was not just a world-altering event, it was a world-ending event. To the writer of Genesis, that flood covered the entire known Earth, leaving just Noah, his family, and the various animals onboard to repopulate the Earth. So it seems that when the author of Matthew, writing to what scholars believe was a largely Jewish audience, invoked the legend of the great flood, he was telling this audience that would have grown up hearing this narrative that they needed to be on the lookout, because some serious stuff was about to go down.

And indeed, seeing the examples of two men working together, or two women working together, and one of them is taken and one of them left, would have certainly made the people sit up and take notice. After all, who would those people be? Would they be the righteous, taken to the Lord? The sinners, taken to damnation? Parents? Children? Siblings? And when was it going to occur? “No one knows the date and time,” the text intones ominously. “You must be ready, for the Son is coming at an unexpected hour.”

This text had a strong influence on people throughout history long before Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins first collaborated on a sci-fi novel. All throughout history, clergymen and scholars have found themselves interpreting this text to mean that there’s going to be some sort of world-changing event that results in the sudden disappearance of millions, even billions of people, as the trumpet sounds and the world as we know it comes to a screeching halt. Indeed, a year and a half into Richard Nixon’s presidency, at the very height of the Vietnam War, Hal Lindsey loosed The Late, Great Planet Earth upon the world, predicting the Rapture and subsequent Tribulation to come beginning in 1988, and to a people who saw civilization seemingly falling apart, it seemed like a legitimate possibility.

But before we get too far afield, we may want to stop and re-examine the text in a larger context. The entire Gospel of Christ is a message not of fear and condemnation, but of the hope of our eternal fulfillment in God’s kingdom. Jesus preached blessing and healing, his works were for the good of his followers, and even when he did demonstrate anger, it was when he saw the corrupt usurping the rightful place of people who had come to the temple to worship God. And so, if we re-think through this passage with a filter of hope rather than fear, what does that get us? And indeed, has that different way of looking at this text found its way into our culture?

Enter Stranger Things. A wildly popular eight-episode mini-series that Netflix released over the summer with no fanfare and little forewarning, Stranger Things focuses on the sudden and unexpected disappearances of several persons from around the town of Hawkins, Indiana – a scientist, a teenage girl, and a grade school boy. Framed within the 1980s middle-America, with all the high notes and low notes therein, the story’s prologue features the horror-movie style disappearance of a US Department of Energy scientist, snatched away by an unknown being. Not long thereafter, the true story begins, set from the point of view of a group of eleven year old boys obsessed with the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, as well as two of their teenaged siblings. In short order, one of the boys, Will Byers, disappears, and soon thereafter, one of the teenager’s best friend disappears as well – both vanished into the night with no apparent suspect whatsoever.

Now, this being a TV show with horror-style elements to it, there is a rather macabre moment wherein the taken teenager is revealed to be quite dead, consumed by a monster. However, the boys never give up hope on their friend, working with a ragtag cast of characters including an alcoholic police chief, Will Byers’ mother – herself something of an outcast in Hawkins – his older brother, another of the boys’ older sister, and a mysterious eleven year old girl who just shows up in town one night. Eventually, it is revealed that this monster dwells in a parallel universe known as the Upside Down, where Will is hiding from it and sending signals across to our universe.

Strangely enough, this is where the show, and our interpretation of the Gospel text, takes a turn for the hopeful rather than the apocalyptic. You see, twice in this text, Jesus refers to the “coming of the Son of Man”. It is crucial to note the active word he uses here – “coming” is the translation of the Greek word parousia, which translates literally to arrival or even presence. In the apocalyptic interpretations of this text, it is always assumed that Jesus is referring to the day that the Son of Man – himself – returns, but that is not what he said. He said parousia. He was speaking of the appearance of the Son of Man. And we know that that particular event has already happened. It’s what marks the culmination of the season of Advent upon which we are about to embark.

And think about it. Jesus’ audience for this text was the disciples, who, aside from Peter, took a really long time to recognize his being as the earthly incarnation of God. The audience for the Gospel of Matthew was the Jewish people, a people who Matthew was probably trying to persuade of the divinity of Christ. Jesus was talking to them about an event that has already occurred, but they may not understand that yet. He’s trying to get them to see the truth, that being prepared for the coming of the Son of Man is not something they need to do for the future, it’s something that they need to do for the right here, right now, because the Son of Man has ALREADY appeared in the world, and He’s just waiting for them to see and believe!

That idea, that the one who has been sent for our salvation is already here, is a driving force behind the climax of Stranger Things. I’m not going to spoil the ending for any of you, because it really is a fantastically made show that I would strongly recommend to anybody, but suffice it to say that at the climax, when the monster shows up to lay waste to Hawkins and particularly the group of boys, they are saved from the beast by one who is already in their midst, one who lays down their life that their friends might live.

There it is. The one who will save us is already in their midst. Jesus has already laid down His life that we might live. Sometimes we get so focused on the troubles of this world, looking anxiously toward a future that we fear might hold the end of all things, that we forget that the parousia of the Son of Man has already occurred, that He is here among us in this world.

This season of Advent is about reminding us of Christ’s presence among us. We spend these four weeks symbolically preparing for the birth of Emmanuel, God with us, and it is a time for us to step back and remind ourselves of the presence of Emmanuel with us now and for the last two millennia. On Christmas Day, we often sing the song “Joy to the World”, the last verse of which is as follows:

He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness, and wonders of His love.

We must keep watch for the Son of Man, indeed, but not because we will be left behind if we don’t, but because He’s already here among us. We sing for praise of the wonders of God’s love, because they have been revealed to us, things that we have seen but may not yet understand – the glory of God’s grace and the mystery of God’s mercy are wonderful things that we must view through the lens of the presence of Christ, lest they be nothing more than those stranger things the eye has not seen.

Let all God’s people say, Amen.

Make America Kind Again

Well, the big day is here. With Election Day 2016 comes the end of a cycle that I think began some time in the Jurassic period…

Anyway, that’s not the point. I want to talk about a friend of mine today.

Joe and I have known each other for a very long time. We grew up together at Foothills Christian Church, going to Chi-Rho Camp and CYF Conference. We’ve stayed in pretty good touch throughout the years, every so often we find our ways to Las Vegas for a weekend of tomfoolery, and he has remained one of my best friends. He has never failed to be there for me when I was going through tough times in life, and indeed, he ponied up the cash to fly from Phoenix to North Carolina to be a groomsman in Caitie and my wedding. I know that I can count on him if I need a friend.

Later today, he and I will each go into our polling places – him in Phoenix, me in Lexington – and he will vote for Donald Trump, whereas I will vote for Hillary Clinton.

And you know what? That’s okay.

We each have our reasons why we’re voting for our candidates of choice, and why we’re not voting for the other. We’ve had some amount of argument about it, but at no point has it ever gotten out of hand, and at no point have I ever felt that our friendship was threatened by this election.

Now, granted, I realize that we’ve been friends since the early ’90s, but why on earth has so much of this country gone so sour over this election? This is the 57th time we’ve elected a President. There have been far more rancorous campaigns than this one (don’t believe me? Go look up Adams v. Jefferson, 1800). There have been elections that were far more likely to fracture the country (Lincoln v. Douglas, 1860), and which DID. The United States of America will still be here tomorrow, but it has turned into a really nasty place.

So, y’all, not to hold myself and my friends up too highly, but you need to take a page from our book. Recognize that your political opinions are not more important than years, decades, even centuries of shared history. We are a better country when we work together in spite of our differences. If you want to make America great, you must first be good. And to do that, we need to be kind to one another.

In closing, I would recommend two verses from the Gospel of Luke as a guide for today:

Luke 6:27b-28 – “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

Luke 10:27 – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

Let’s make America kind again.

The Blessing of Bethany

So I spent the last week back in Kansas City in the company of a group of the best dang ministers you will ever meet.

Yes, the best. There is no argument. If you try to argue with me, you will lose. I have spoken it.

Bethany Fellows is a clergy group that has been around since 1999 to provide mentoring and fellowship for new under-40 clergy. There are currently three groups – a dedicated group for clergy of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), an ecumenical clergy group, and a group for clergy on the West Coast. Each group meets twice per year, for a week each time. I’ve been part of the ecumenical group since April of 2015, having participated in four retreats, with four left to go.

Back in April, I attended our retreat in Orlando, three months into my unexpected sabbatical from ministry. At the time, I truthfully thought that I was in a relatively good mental and emotional space.

HOWEVER. Over the course of this last retreat, I had easily half a dozen of my colleagues tell me how much happier I seemed than back in April. No doubt, moving to Lexington and beginning my new ministry at Central helped; however, I think that the week in Orlando back in April helped steer me in the right direction.

bethanyaltar
The altar at our final night worship service

You see, the people in the Bethany ecumenical group are among the greatest blessings I have ever encountered. My small group, which includes Alex, a Disciples minister from Michigan, Karakay, a Disciples minister from here in Kentucky, and Jason, a Baptist minister from San Jose, are a group of people who are just as quirky and weird as I am, which makes it that much easier to talk to them about all the issues I deal with in ministry.

Now, everybody else in the ecumenical clergy group is definitely a blessing to me, but there’s two other people who really stood out to me at this retreat: Arthur, who has no time for pretension (and is, in fact, one of the people who I think steered me onto the right path leaving the Orlando retreat back in April); and Jackie, who I never really talked with a whole lot during the first two retreats we were both at, but on this one really managed to establish a good connection with her and got to know her better (you know, just in time for her to graduate out of the program).

And above and beyond all of that, of course, is the fact that Caitie is in the ecumenical clergy group, but let’s be real – she’s a blessing to me every hour of every day.

I have four more retreats to go, the next one of which is in my home in the midst of the Sonoran Desert – Phoenix. I have no doubt that each of them will continue to be a blessing just as the four that have gone before have been.

byejackie
Laying hands on Jackie as we bid her farewell

There Goes the Neighborhood – a sermon

Sunday, July 10th, 2016 – the ninth Sunday of Pentecost
New Song Christian Church, Liberty, MO
Scripture: Luke 10:25-37
Hymns: “My Hope Is You”, “We Can Make a Difference”, “Eagle’s Wings”, “Breathe”

At the top of the podcast, I asked the congregation at New Song to go home and listen to the new Switchfoot/Lecrae song “Looking for America” in the context of this sermon and the events of the week of July 4th, 2016. Once you’ve finished reading the sermon, I would ask that you do the same – it is embedded at the bottom of the page.

“There Goes the Neighborhood”

As Jesus was speaking to the crowd, a lawyer stood up to test him. “Teacher,” he said, “who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied, “There was a man in a city in the south. He was without a home, and he sold music to get by. One day, another homeless man called the authorities to inform on this man. When the authorities arrived, they forced the man to the ground and then they killed him.”
Jesus continued, “The next day, another man in a city in the north was stopped by the authorities. He informed them that he had a legal weapon that was registered in his name, and then when he reached for his identification, the authorities killed him.”
And then Jesus said, “The day after that, many people gathered to protest these senseless deaths. The authorities were keeping watch on them and ensuring that the protests remained peaceful. Without warning, a young man who had served in the military opened fire on the authorities, killing five of them.”
Jesus looked at the lawyer. “Now which of these, do you suppose, was a neighbor to his fellow man?”
The lawyer, astonished at Jesus’ question, replied, “None of them, for they did not love their neighbor as themselves.”

It has been one hell of a week, and I do mean that in the sense that a little corner of hell managed to find its way to earth this past week. It seems nearly impossible to believe that it has been a mere six days since ISIS suicide bombers carried out attacks on one of Islam’s most holy sites, the Mosque of the Tomb of the Prophet in Medina, but that was, indeed, just last Monday. Since then, we’ve seen two more defenseless black men shot and killed by police, and a horrifying attempt at retribution saw the pointless and brutal deaths of five Dallas police officers.
It seems like every time something tragic happens, people respond absolutely the wrong way. Instead of reaching out to their neighbors in love, they double down on their hatred and bigotry. When forty-nine people were shot and killed and over a hundred were wounded in Orlando, the correct response was found in the presence of hundreds at blood banks across the city, lined up for hours in the summer heat to give life-saving blood. The incorrect response was found in taking to Twitter to essentially say, “I told you so.”
That happened again this week, of course, when a completely deranged former Congressman (and I use that term lightly, since he served all of one two year term) decided to take it upon himself to blame the President and the Black Lives Matter movement for the deaths of the five police officers in Dallas. Indeed, rather than expressing compassion and sympathy for the city of Dallas and for the families of the fallen officers, he stated that the President had somehow declared war on “real America”, and that he was going to pay a price.
It would’ve been remarkably difficult for him to be any further away from loving his neighbor than that.
So, when Jesus told this parable to the lawyer, he was very intentional about what individuals he used to tell the story. In making the wounded man’s benefactor a Samaritan, he was reaching out across racial and ethnic lines. Samaritans and Jews had been, if not mortal enemies, then at least holders of significant grudges against one another for centuries. An apt comparison might be to say that the Samaritans were Scotland to ancient Israel’s England, although there are no records of Samaritans dressing up in blue face paint and rampaging against the Israelites.
This divide was so intense that when Jesus is recorded as talking to the Samaritan woman at the well in the Gospel according to John, the fact that he was talking to a Samaritan was even more unacceptable than the fact that the fact that he was talking to a woman. Jesus had a tendency to turn up his nose at societal convention, instead doing his best to place everybody on a level playing field. And so, when it came time to deliver to this lawyer a lesson in who’s your neighbor and who isn’t, he decided to show two of the holiest of Israel’s holy men as being unneighborly, and have the wounded man’s benefactor be somebody thought of as the lowest of the low in Israelite society.
Here’s the thing that we have to understand about this parable, though. While Jesus was all about upending convention and tradition in order to make straight the path to the kingdom of God, in this case, that was probably not the point of his words. No, in this case, he wanted to demonstrate to somebody whose living it was to argue semantics and simple points that anybody could show love to anybody else, at any time, in any place. It didn’t matter who was showing love or who was being shown love – even the least of these had the capacity to show love to another one of God’s children.
And so, given Jesus’ insistence that anybody is capable of showing love to another, that even the least of these can act in love toward somebody toward whom he has generations of racial and ethnic antipathy, why is it so incredibly hard for people in this country to act in that way toward one another? I say that because I hear, all the time, that this is a Christian nation. I hear about how if only the heathens in this country would change their ways and follow those who are telling them a better way, then surely things would get better.
It’s funny how so often, the same people saying that are the ones looking toward grieving communities and insisting that, instead of saying “Black Lives Matter”, they say that all lives matter. Instead of showing those communities love and allowing them to speak out in their grief, they try to force an agenda on them. Really, not particularly neighborly.
And what of those who try to make a stand on the grounds of “If you’re not for us, then you’re against us”? It seems to me that in most things, a Samaritan and a Jew wouldn’t have had the same mindset, but it’s not as though the Samaritan came up to the Jew and said, “Well, you’re not one of my people, which means you’re not necessarily for me, so you must be against me.” It would’ve made for a pretty terrible parable.
But, again, that’s where many people seem to make a stand. Instead of attempting to reach out toward those who disagree with them, they act like those on the other side of an issue are the enemy. The running narrative seems to be that if you support Black Lives Matter, you can’t possibly support the police, even though that’s patently untrue – the Dallas Police Department, the very department that was viciously attacked the other day, has been one of the leaders in productive law enforcement engagement with the Black Lives Matter movement. Unless the Dallas PD has suddenly developed a particular case of self-loathing, it seems as though they were acting as neighbors, and reaching out to work side-by-side with those on the other side of the issue.
So, I guess that perhaps those people who say that this country would be better if more people would “act like Christians” are sort of right, although probably not in the way they’d like. No, if more people would be willing to reach out and embrace their neighbors in love – as Christ commanded – then this country would definitely be in better shape.
And that’s something that I’ve been taught since I was a kid. You see, back when I was young, there was a very popular minister on television, although he wasn’t what you’d think. He wasn’t a televangelist, he didn’t want your money, and he certainly didn’t want you to believe that just because you claimed to be something, that made you better than anybody else.
No, he spent decades of his life on television every weekday morning, teaching children about the value of such virtues as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control – the fruits of the spirit as given to us in Galatians 5. He spoke often of the neighborhood, and invited children each morning to be his neighbor, as he was to them.
It was a neighborhood of inclusiveness, and one where all people were expected to show love for their neighbors, just as Jesus commanded in Luke 10. Now, some of you have probably guessed where I’m going with this, but for those of you who haven’t figured it out, the minister to whom I am referring was a Presbyterian teaching elder, the Rev. Fred McFeely Rogers, who from 1963 until 2001 was the creative mind behind and host of the television show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Fred Rogers was the kind of person who exemplified, both in his public life and his private life, the ideal of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self – it was the entire conceit of his show. And he once shared words that his mother had shared with him, words that are perfect for a time such as this:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in the world.”
Sometimes, those helpers are the ones who are struck down by disasters, as we saw in Dallas. Sometimes, the ones we trust to be helpers are instead the ones who cause hurt, as the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile can testify. And in some cases, no amount of helpers are enough to help prevent horrors from being inflicted upon a group of people who have already experienced untold persecution, as the LGBT community of Orlando can testify. But in all those cases, when you clear away the grandstanding and the rancor that inevitably follows, you will see the response that Christ commands of us: there will always be people demonstrating love, helping their fellow men and women, being to them as the Samaritan to the Jew, no matter straight or gay, male or female, Muslim or Christian, black or white.
This last week has seen many dark days in our neighborhood. So it is incumbent upon each of us, as followers of Christ, to look to a hurting world, to stand up next to our fellow man, and no matter the differences between us, join with them to create a new tomorrow, and have it be a beautiful day in the neighborhood indeed.
Amen.

What Makes Tonight Different from Every Other Night? – a sermon

Sunday, March 13th, 2016 – the fifth Sunday of Lent
Foothills Christian Church, Phoenix, AZ
Scriptures: Psalm 116:1-2,12-19, Mark 14:12-26
Hymns: “Multiplied”, “Enough”, “Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ”, “Let Us Break Bread Together”

What Makes Tonight Different from Every Other Night?

Passover has been observed as a traditional part of the Jewish calendar year for thousands of years. Dating back to the Hebrew exodus from Egypt, the Jewish people have celebrated Passover every year in remembrance of their people escaping slavery under the rule of the Pharaoh. Within that celebration are certain elements that have never changed – the food served, such as the lamb and the unleavened bread, and the words spoken. The Hebrew words spoken to open the observance of Passover every
year are as follows: Ma nishtana, ha laylah ha zeh, mi kol ha leylot.

Nah Mishtana

“What makes tonight different from every other night?”
Traditionally, these words are spoken by the youngest member of the family, as an acknowledgment that the one person in the family who yet has the most to learn and the longest to live should be the one to ask why the first night of Passover is different from every other night the rest of the year. And as I was preparing for this sermon, I started wondering: who spoke the words of the ma nishtana when Jesus and His followers celebrated the Passover in the upper room?
Obviously, we have no way of truly knowing. None of us were there, the Gospels do not tell us, and there are no secular historical records that contain an account of the meal that evening. However, as I think about Jesus’ apostles and the nature of the meal, my gut tells me that it was probably either Peter, James, or John.
Why one of those three? First of all, if you think about it, when Jesus called the three of them to be His followers, Peter was still working for his father, Jonah, and James and John for their father, Zebedee, on their respective fishing boats. Men did not live to be terribly old back in those days – often having a life expectancy of no more than 55 – and they tended to marry and have children fairly young. There is an oblique reference in the Gospels to Peter being married – earlier in Mark, we see Jesus heal his mother-in-law – but there are never any references to any of those three men having children. When you take all of those factors into account, chances are good that the three of them were all in their early-to-mid twenties, perhaps even as young as eighteen or nineteen. By comparison, somebody such as Matthew would have to be considerably older, seeing as when he was called by Jesus, he was working as a tax collector, a position of great importance in the Roman Empire, if one of great scorn among his own people.
So I think chances are good that either Peter, James, or John was the youngest of the apostles present at that meal. It also stands to reason that the three of them were young, because they were the ones who were constantly being impetuous and causing trouble, surely making Jesus sigh more than once, but they were also the ones who were always asking questions, eager to learn more, eager to understand how they could better take the Good News to the people Jesus came to serve.
And if you think about the way the church has progressed in the centuries and millennia since then, it is always the younger people who have a tendency to question authority and cause trouble. Martin Luther was the ripe old age of 34 when he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenburg. Alexander Campbell was only in his mid-twenties when he was expelled from the Orange Presbytery for having the audacity to question the doctrine of infant baptism. Billy Graham was 29 when he conducted his first crusade – an event which he insisted upon being fully integrated and open to persons of all colors, something virtually unheard of in 1947. Martin Luther King, Jr., was only 27 when he was arrested for the first time for protesting against discrimination.
Closer to home, think about the last three non-interim ministers that this church has called – Erin Wathen, Andrew Shepherd, and Bekah Cypert-Krevens. All three were under the age of thirty when they were called to serve this congregation. They are the continuation of a centuries-old tradition in the church of young leaders of the church being the people who stand up and ask the question, “What makes tonight different from every other night?”
And it is when those young leaders ask what makes tonight different from any other night, what makes today different from any other day, what makes this place different from any other place – THAT is when change occurs. Peter, James, and John would go on to be among the first and most influential leaders of a movement that is now two millennia old and has drawn literally billions of followers to the teachings of one humble Jewish rabbi. Martin Luther would kick off the greatest reformation in the history of the church. Alexander Campbell would become one of the founding fathers of America’s first home-grown Christian movement – the Disciples of Christ. Billy Graham and MLK went on to irreversibly change the path of not just Christianity but humanity in America. And the work of the three pastors I named of this congregation have turned it from a once dying, stagnant, old church into a vibrant, thriving place that has opened its doors to full acceptance and affirmation of ALL people who seek to follow Christ.
It would be wonderful if that was the full depth and breadth of the story, if we looked at those who dared to say, ma nishtana, ha laylah ha zeh, mi kol ha leylot, and we recognized that they are the people who have always injected new life into the church, keeping it relevant and moving forward. But we know very well that it’s not, because just as Peter, James, and John sat at that table, celebrating the Passover meal with Jesus, so too was there another apostle. An older apostle, one who had come to Jesus probably out of what was considered the financial sector of the time, one who handled Jesus’ finances and dealt with the public on his behalf. This apostle was used to a significant degree of control and power, and so for the young apostles to turn to Jesus and say, “What makes tonight different from every other night,” posed a threat to him, a threat which he sought to nullify in the only way he knew how, by turning to money and power.
We all know well what this apostle’s name was: Judas Iscariot.
Judas believed, just like every other Jew, that there was a Messiah who would come to liberate his people. He believed that that Messiah was the rabbi who he had decided to follow, Jesus of Nazareth. However, he also believed that there were very certain ways in which Jesus needed to go about so doing – ways that wouldn’t get him and his followers all killed, ways that would lift the Jewish people up and allow them to become conquerors. So never mind the fact that the younger, hot-headed apostles were asking, “What makes tonight different from every other night?” It was when Jesus started making similar inquiries, questioning authority and upsetting what Judas saw to be the rule of order, that Judas began to have qualms about the way things were going.
And we all know what happened after that. It’s in the words that are spoken at the table every Sunday in churches around the world – “On the night in which Jesus was betrayed…” When that youngest of the apostles on that first night of Passover asked, “What makes tonight different from every other night,” I sincerely doubt that they were expecting that the answer would be, “Tonight is the night that the Son of Man will be handed over to the authorities to be executed.”
As we know, though, that’s exactly what happened. Judas sold Jesus out for thirty pieces of silver. The Roman government arrested Jesus. The Sanhedrin egged Pontius Pilate on to call for Jesus to be tortured and then crucified. Judas realized the enormity of what he had done, and in his guilt and grief, killed himself. Jesus died and was buried.
What happened after that… well, that’s a story for two weeks from now.
But what we know is that IN SPITE of Judas Iscariot’s actions on that night, the movement that Peter, James, and John would go on to lead sprang up out of the ground like wildflowers in the spring, pollinating young minds the world over, and growing, and growing, and growing over the centuries to come. Unfortunately, we also know that the example of Judas is still alive and well in the church today.
Every church has their Judases. We all know who they are. They’re the ones who think that because they’ve given more money than others, they should have more control over the church, forgetting that Jesus Himself said that it’s not how much you give, it’s the intent with which you give it. They’re the ones who think that because of the positions they hold and have held in the church, they should have more control over the church, forgetting that Jesus Himself said that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. They’re the ones that look at a style of worship that has remained stagnant since the 1950s and say, “Well, it was good enough for my parents, and it was good enough for me, and it’ll darn well be good enough for the kids today,” forgetting that the way worship is done in the church has, until the last half century, never remained the same for more than ten to twenty years at a time.
They’re the ones who, when confronted by the young leaders who say, “What makes tonight different from every other night,” go to great lengths to obstruct their attempts to move the church forward and, if need be, crush them where they stand and sweep them out of leadership. Those young leaders pose a remarkable threat to the status quo, to the power and control that these modern-day Judases have held for so long.
But when they do so, when they put so much effort into maintaining their desperate grasp on a church that no longer truly exists, that is when they betray those young leaders; that is when they betray their own church; indeed, that is when they betray Christ.
Strong words, I know, but words that are true now and have been experienced by every young leader of the church in some way or another for the last two thousand years.
When the young leaders of our church – and indeed, many of the older ones, who remember and celebrate what it was like to be young leaders – ask what it is that makes tonight different from every other night, we as the body of Christ have an obligation to support them, even if perhaps we don’t fully agree with the answers they are getting to that question. It is only when we allow these leaders to ask that question and find the answers alongside them that the church can grow and evolve.
And as far as the Judases go – well, our first instinct is to protect the young leaders from them, but that’s not what we should be doing, either. Indeed, we should be engaging with them, helping them to see and appreciate the ways in which the church is growing, helping them to communicate their fears to these young leaders and in turn, receiving the reassurance and affirmation they need to overcome these fears – to understand that even as the church changes throughout time, it will still remain the same place of grace, mercy, and love that it has been throughout the centuries.
For you see, the answer to what makes tonight different from any other night can be summed up in five words: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is through that resurrection that grace, mercy, and life have been made available to all persons throughout the world. Let us, therefore, not shy away from asking what makes tonight different from every other night, but work together to empower those who are bold enough to ask the question, and stand with them to be Christ to all God’s children. Amen.

The Force Awakens – a review

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). Rated PG-13
A Lucasfilm/Disney/Bad Robot Production. A J.J. Abrams Film.
Starring Harrison Ford, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, and Adam Driver, with Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker.

starwars-banner-poster-final-700x459

Well, I didn’t have a sermon to write this week, so I decided it was high time I get around to writing a recap and review of Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens, a full month after I saw it for the first time. I have seen it for a second time since then, and I will no doubt see it at least once more while it is still in theaters.

So, let’s begin, shall we? And I think it goes without saying that there are MANY SPOILERS AHEAD.

Continue reading The Force Awakens – a review

The Three Kings – a sermon

Sunday, January 10th, 2016 – First Sunday of Epiphany
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12
Hymns: “Blessed Be Your Name”, “Look, Ye Saints!”, “Holy, Holy”, “We Three Kings”, “I Love to Tell the Story”, “Let Us Break Bread Together”, “These Thousand Hills”, “Joy to the World”

The Three Kings
It was an unusually cold spring that year in Ulaanbaatar. The snows had stayed late, which was itself a mixed blessing. The hordes of the Xiongnu dynasty had not been sent off to battle the Qin dynasty until well after the spring equinox – not that they were having much success, now that the Great Wall had been built.
Melchior did not mind. Seeing young men go off to die over a pointless border dispute was distasteful to him, as an academic and a scientist. But he had learned long before to keep his head down and his mouth shut – too many of his colleagues had met their end by speaking out against the emperor.
As it was, Melchior had little time for the geopolitics of Mongolia and the whims of the emperor. He was a scholar of ancient religious texts. His favorite was the Bhagavad Gita, but as of late, he had begun studying the prophetic texts of the Hebrew people. Brought overland by merchants from the west, they intrigued him with their specificity regarding the ends of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Even more intriguing, though, were the prophecies of a chosen one, a Messiah. One of the earliest prophecies came from a book in the Hebrew Torah. Said book was a dull read, mostly full of a census of the people and redundant laws, but there was one prophecy given by a man named Balaam that intrigued Melchior.
He found Balaam himself amusing – after all, his donkey had cursed him up one side and down the other at one point – but the prophecy was most interesting. It spoke of a star that would rise in the sky when the Hebrew Messiah was born. Melchior assumed that, were this to come to pass, the star would appear in the west and stay there.
A star like the one that had appeared a few nights before. It burned brightly and was visible from sunset until sunrise. At first, he had taken it to be a shooting star – something falling from the heavens to earth and burning up as it descended. But when it stayed in one place, and continued to blaze throughout the night, Melchior had wondered – might this be the star?
If so, then it indicated the birth of the King of the Jews. And so, after several days of preparation, Melchior was ready to set off for the far off land of Israel. His students had tried to dissuade him, telling him the journey would take a year or more, that he would risk the winter, that he shouldn’t take this sort of trip at his age, but he would have none of it.
Melchior collected all the gold he could lay his hands on – not much, but certainly a worthy offering for one who had been prophesied to be a king. And realistically, Melchior wasn’t sure he even believed this prophecy, but what would it hurt to find out? After all, as a scholar, he had an obligation to search out all possibilities – and this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Thus it was that, late in the springtime but before the solstice, Melchior set out on his quest. Riding his yak, he headed northwest, into the wilds of the Siberian steppe. Through warm days and cold nights, his journey carried him across the vastness of Asia, the star burning brightly in the western sky each night.
As he climbed over mountains and traversed the valleys, Melchior would stop in each town he came to, seeking out those like him – the scholars who had read the Hebrew prophecies, had seen the star appear in the western sky, and were curious to see what it truly meant. But no one he encountered was familiar.
The further he traveled from Mongolia, the harder it was for Melchior to communicate. The fluid, almost musical language of his people gave way to a guttural, harsh language. The appearance of the people changed, with skin, hair, and eyes growing lighter. Finally, as the leaves began to change, Melchior reached a village with a sign that declared its name in both his language and the language of this part of Asia: Moskha.
Given that the days were growing shorter and the nights colder, Melchior decided that it might be wise for him to stop in this village for the winter. He had picked up enough of the language of these people to rent a room for the season. It cost him his yak, but Melchior reasoned that he could figure out further transportation come the spring.
At night, Melchior would go out to look upon the star, now to his southwest. It was still there, burning brightly every night. He wondered what city the star hung over, where his quest would take him.
One night, he noticed a young man looking up at the star and taking notes. Pale skin, reddened cheeks, yellow – almost white – hair and blue eyes marked him as a native. Melchior approached him and attempted to ask if he was studying the star, but his grasp of the local language was insufficient, and so the young man just looked at him, puzzled.
Then, Melchior had a thought. If indeed the young man was studying the star because of the prophecies, then he would know the language of the ancient texts. And so, in ancient Hebrew, Melchior asked him, “Do you believe that to be the star of the Hebrew Messiah?”
To his amazement and delight, the young man replied, “Indeed! I was given the ancient texts by a trader who passed through here some years ago. He spoke of having brought them from Jerusalem.”
“I am Melchior,” he told the young man. “I come from Mongolia, and I am traveling to Israel to seek whether this star indeed represents the Hebrew Messiah.”
“Gaspar,” the young man replied. “I intend to set out in the spring, seeking the same. May I join you?”
“I would be honored,” Melchior said.
And so, when winter had passed and Moskha had thawed, Melchior and Gaspar set out, taking horses from Gaspar’s father’s stable. Gaspar brought along frankincense to present to the Messiah – a gift he believed worthy of one of such divine provenance.
The old man and the young man traveled together, down through the barbarian lands and into the Roman Empire. When they reached the Mediterranean Sea, the two had to board a boat – an experience neither had ever had before. It was a journey of a full day to reach Libya, and they did not disembark until nightfall.
As they sought lodging for the night, they saw a man, darker than any man either had ever seen before, studying the star. Approaching him, Melchior asked him in Hebrew if he sought the Messiah. “I do!” the man replied enthusiastically. “I am Balthasar. I saw the star, and I believe it is the star of the Messiah of the Hebrews.” He smiled, and then leaned in closer, as if sharing a secret with Melchior and Gaspar. “My people believe that he is Ibn Allah – the Son of God.”
Melchior nodded. “I have seen him called this, and Emmanuel – God with us.”
“He is meant to be the King of the Jews,” Gaspar added.
Balthasar smiled wider. “Then in the morning, let us go and seek this King of the Jews!”
And so, the next day, the three set off, following the star. It grew brighter and closer with each night, until one day, they reached Jerusalem. Upon arriving, they requested an audience with King Herod, the ruler of Israel.
When they entered his courts, Melchior spoke to him: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
A fleeting look of terror crossed King Herod’s face, but he quickly composed himself. “I am unfamiliar with that of which you speak,” he told them. “I will consult with my priests and scribes, and we will speak of this further.”
Several days passed, and then the three men were summoned to Herod’s presence. “I have been told that he is to be born in Bethlehem,” he informed them. “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out for Bethlehem, and when they arrived there, the star stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar were overwhelmed with joy.
Upon entering the house, they saw the child with Mary, his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, they offered him their gifts – Melchior’s gold, Gaspar’s frankincense, and Balthasar’s myrrh – a gift that he had felt compelled to bring for reasons that he did not entirely understand.
They planned to return to Jerusalem the next morning, to inform King Herod, but that night, Melchior had a dream. An angel appeared to him and said, “I am Gabriel. I speak for the Lord God. You must not tell King Herod of the child’s presence here, for he means to do him harm.”
And so the three men departed Bethlehem by a different road, going their separate ways to return to their home countries.
Most of what you have just heard, I made up this last week. Going solely by the Biblical account, we don’t know what the names of the wise men were. We don’t know what countries they came from. Indeed, we don’t even know how many there were – the Bible simply says that wise men came from the East.
And yet, that story probably seemed very familiar to many of you. It is part of our Christmas tradition, the story of the three wise men coming to worship Jesus on the day of the Epiphany. And no matter its basis in Scripture or in fact, it is an important story. For you see, when the shepherds came to visit Jesus, they were of his own people – they were Jewish shepherds, from Israel, who were told of his birth by the heavenly host. But when the wise men came before him, they were outsiders – people not of Israel, but drawn to the Son of God nonetheless.
In essence, the wise men are a stand in for us in the Christmas story. We too are the outsiders, the Gentiles, the people not of Israel. But just as the wise men before us, we are drawn to Jesus. Though he was sent to be the King of the Jews and the redeemer of Israel, he became so much more than that – he became the source of hope and salvation for all the world.
As Christians, we hold the stories of our faith in high esteem and great importance. The stories of the life of Jesus are how we were introduced to him in Sunday School. They are what formed the very foundations of our faith. Indeed, so important are they to us that we have even written hymns about them – I love to tell the story. Tell me the old, old stories.
The story of Jesus’ encounter with all the world begins with the wise men, and it continues to breadths and depths that, even two thousand years later, have just barely begun to explore. And with this story, so we begin to tell the story of Jesus for another year.
Indeed, we love to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory and his love. We love to tell the story, because we know it’s true. It satisfies the longings of our hearts like nothing else, for it is the theme of our glory as the people of Christ.
Just as Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar before us – no matter whether they were real or legendary – let us tell the story of Christ, as a witness to all the world.
Amen.

The Light of the World – a sermon

Sunday, January 3rd, 2016 – Second Sunday of Christmas
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:7-14, John 1:1-18
Hymns: “Everlasting God”, “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne”, “How Great Our Joy”, “Emmanuel”, “Be Thou My Vision”, “Come Share the Lord”, “They’ll Know We Are Christians”, “Joy to the World”

The Light of the World

“In the beginning was the Word…”
The first words of the Gospel according to John seem appropriate for the first Sunday of the year. It’s the beginning of a new year. A fresh calendar, a blank slate. New opportunities, new chances, a time to start everything anew.
And yet, even as we look at this blank slate, all of the events of 2015 loom behind us, staring over our shoulders. Personally, I am acutely aware of the fact that four major components on my Chevy failed in the month of December, leading me to question the reliability of a car that is less than four years old. As a community here at this church, we have with us a debt that has been with this congregation every first of the year since 2007. As a larger community in northwest Missouri, we are all no doubt aware that 13 weeks from today is opening day for the Royals, and we wonder if they’ll live up to the expectations the last two years have produced. And of course, as a country, we are about to begin the oh-so-painful process of electing a new President.
We think about all these things that carry over with us from 2015. Never mind the fact that I’ll probably be trading the Chevy in within the next couple of months. Never mind the fact that our debt on the AFC will probably be gone by mid-summer. Never mind the fact that, as of right now, the Royals have zero wins and zero losses, the same as every other club in Major League Baseball. Never mind the fact that, no matter who we elect as President, they will have the support of the majority of those who vote, and the transfer of power will be peaceful – a claim that very few countries in the world can make.
In the beginning, there was nothing. Genesis 1:1 tells us that the universe was a void of nothingness before God set into motion the spark of creation. But John 1:1 tells us that Christ was there. The One who would come to earth, incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, was present from the very beginning. He witnessed the formation of the world, watched from eternity as the Earth became the life-giving planet we now know, and observed with delight and pain as mankind grew, rose, fell, and rose again.
“The Word was with God, and the Word was God…”
One of the great mysteries of the Christian Church and the faith we find therein is that of the Trinitarian God. Some theologians decry it as heresy. Some grassroots Disciples of Christ thinkers have discounted it because it is not a Scriptural idea, and as we are a church that has long championed the practice of sola scriptura, it is hard to justify the Trinity within our context. And yet, at the same time, it is the most logical and reasonable way of explaining the mystery of Christ.
When John says that the Word was with God and the Word was God, he presents us with a paradox. The Word in this context is Christ, but how can Christ both be with God and BE God? There is no other concept that can truly relate to the idea of the Trinity, that our God should be a unique Creator, a Christ, and an Advocate, and yet all three should be the same being – God manifested in three different representations.
But here we run into one of the most divisive elements within Christian belief – the Trinity itself, and how it works. So much of the Church’s history has involved the debate over Trinitarianism, and whether or not it’s either A) a reasonable explanation of the unique and divine nature of God, or B) heresy. Indeed, it can be such an inflammatory topic that it has led to full-on schisms within the Church.
However, such debate and schism in no uncertain terms miss the point. John doesn’t give us this statement of Christ’s presence with and in God to promote understanding of the divine nature of God. John gives us this statement to promote understanding that the One who came to earth as the person of Jesus had been always present. Even though we are made in the image of God, we are NOT OURSELVES God – we are but reflections of God. It is not given to us to understand the full nature and being of God, for such understanding would require us to ourselves be God.
Instead, we are given this mystery to be a part of our faith. Faith is not a matter of fully understanding the nature and being of God; instead, faith is a matter of believing in spite of mystery. Christ was in the beginning with God – we should embrace this mystery as we engage our own belief.
“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
About a decade ago, the Christian rock band Third Day released an album entitled “Christmas Offerings”. Obviously a Christmas record, it contained nine classic carols and four original songs. One of the original songs was entitled “Jesus, Light of the World”, with the words to the chorus being “Jesus, light of the world, shine through the darkness, bright as the day; shine in our hearts, show us the way tonight.” Jesus has long been regarded as the light of the world, and that concept is given to us time and time again by John and the writers who he inspired, both in the Gospel and in the letters attributed to him.
And yet, if we look to the fifth chapter of Matthew, during the Sermon on the Mount, we see Jesus himself say that WE are the light of the world, the salt of the earth, the city on the hill. It is another curious contradiction, another mystery, in that the One who is so frequently referred to as the light of the world turns around and Himself calls US, those who follow Him, the light of the world. If Jesus is the one who gives light to all people, how then are we also the light of the world?
Again, we must look to Genesis, to the creation story – in the beginning. When God made the first human beings, they were created to be in God’s image. Then the breath of God was breathed into them – the divine spark, giving them their souls. A few months ago, when discussing this with Alexis Livingston during her preparation for baptism, I told her to think of us, human beings, as mirrors. No mirror is perfectly made – every sheet of glass that forms a mirror has imperfections, however tiny. And so, no matter how seemingly perfectly they reflect an image, it will never be exact. So too is it with us – we reflect the image and being of God, but because we are ourselves imperfect, we can never perfectly reflect God’s being.
However, if you shine a light on a mirror, it will shine it back and magnify it, making it even brighter than it was before. And so, we, the imperfect mirrors who reflect God’s image, also reflect the brilliant light of Christ, receiving it and magnifying it ten, a hundred, a thousand-fold upon the world. Thus, though Christ, God come to earth, is indeed the true light that was sent into the world, we who were made in God’s own image reflect God’s light and are ourselves the light of the world.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
Two weeks ago, I preached a sermon on how the dying church needs to find its way back to its roots if it is to survive, to remember the events of Luke 2:7 – “She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.” In that moment, the Word became flesh and lived among us, fulfilling the prophecies of Micah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, among others.
A couple of years ago, the Christian rock band Switchfoot put out a song called “Back to the Beginning Again”. When the song came out, they had been going for nearly twenty years, had become a major commercial success, had gone to a major record label and left again, and had decided to return their music to its surf-rock roots. The song itself talks about how we get lost in the concerns of life and need, sometimes, to go back to the beginning again.
And so it is that sometimes, when we look at the concerns of life, we need to set them aside. There’s going to be a lot on our plates over the next year – for me, personally, it’ll be a matter of a new car, of working on the progression of my military career, of beginning the application process for my doctorate, a degree which each and every one of you will end up playing a significant role in. For this congregation, we’ll be looking forward to paying off the AFC, but then figuring out what do we do next? What do we, as a congregation, do to continue to move forward the mission of Christ and serve as the light of the world to the Gower community?
In all that, even as we look forward, we still have to remember to look back, ALWAYS look back – back to the beginning again. The Word became flesh and lived among us on the day that we now call Christmas, and in everything we do, we must remember that we do it BECAUSE the Word became flesh and lived among us.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
So, as we begin 2016, I issue a challenge to each of you: in everything you do, look back to the beginning. Remember the birth of Christ, and be the reflection of the true light come into the world, that we might be the light of the world. As theologian Howard Thurman said in 1973,
“When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among the people, to make music in the heart.”
Christmas may be over, and our trees may be down (or, at least, will be soon), but the Word has become flesh and lives among us. Let us remember always when our church began, and be the light of the world to all God’s people.
Amen.

A Good Old-Fashioned Whuppin’ – a sermon

Sunday, December 27th, 2015 – First Sunday of Christmas
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scriptures: Colossians 3:12-17, Luke 2:41-52
Hymns: “O Come, All Ye Faithful”, “Angels We Have Heard on High”, “The First Noel”, “What Child Is This?”, “Angels from the Realms of Glory”, “Away in a Manger”, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, “Joy to the World”

A Good Old-Fashioned Whuppin’

How many of you have ever had a teenager?
Better question, how many of you have ever BEEN a teenager?
Follow-up: how many of you, as a teenager, ever did something that got you subjected to a good old-fashioned whuppin’? I mean, a “go pick yourself a switch and meet me behind the woodshed in five minutes” good old-fashioned whuppin’?
Now, I can’t honestly say that I ever got taken out behind the woodshed. After all, I grew up in Phoenix. Not only is it a city, but it’s really never cold enough to justify fireplaces, let alone woodsheds (although that doesn’t stop something like forty percent of the houses in the city from HAVING fireplaces). But mind you, I certainly got my hide tanned but good once or twice, and boy did I have it coming. One of the times I can think of was the time I carved something into the lid of my Steinway piano (which, if you go to my house and look, you’ll see it’s STILL THERE, twenty-five years later). I got it good for that one.
Another more serious time that I probably SHOULD have gotten it good occurred when I was seventeen, and I’m guessing the reason it didn’t was because at that point, I was almost as big as I am today, which is to say taller than either of my parents and bulky enough to throw my weight around with some damage. What happened was this: I had left after school on a Friday afternoon in April with some friends to go to another friend’s birthday party at his house in west Phoenix. I thought I had communicated this fact to my parents, but it turns out that the thoughts and the actions of seventeen year-olds are not always connected in reality. This being 1999, there were no cell phones, meaning that my parents had no way of getting in touch with me, and thus, when my mom got to the school to pick me up and I was not there in any way, shape, or form, she freaked out.
Eventually, my parents figured out where I was, called my friend’s house, and let me know in no uncertain terms that they were on their way to retrieve me. I, of course, threw a teenage temper tantrum over the phone, to no avail. And at the end of it all, the only reason I not only got out of getting it good but ended up getting to stay was the fact that when my parents got to the house where I was (a half hour drive from their house, by the way), all of my friends came outside and guilt-tripped them into letting me stay.
Of course, after I DID finally get home that night, I ended up being grounded for the next month, until the time came for me to go do my crazy nerd things for the release of Star Wars: Episode I. But that was last week’s story.
You see, teenagers are prone to do some stupid things. I did ‘em, you did ‘em, and I have no doubt that the kids who currently populate are CYF and Chi-Rho groups, good kids though they are, will almost all do at least one stupid thing in 2016. It’s something that’s almost hard-wired into the DNA of a teenager, foolish rebellion and pointless tomfoolery. Generations of getting taken out behind the woodshed haven’t whupped it out of them, and I sincerely doubt that’s going to change anytime soon.
And the reality is, this is an age-old problem. You think my parents were the only ones freaking out about where their teenage son had disappeared to? Let’s travel back two millennia and talk to Mary and Joseph for a minute.
You see, I can’t help but think that they were pretty protective of Jesus when he was growing up. They knew EXACTLY who he was. Mary had been told by Gabriel before she even became pregnant that Jesus was going to be Emmanuel, God with us, and Joseph had been told the same in a dream (following which a little Gorilla Glue was needed to put his head back together). There was a star over the house in which they lived, shepherds were sent to them by angels, wise men found their way via the ancient Hebrew prophets, and in the end, they bailed on Israel and took refuge in Egypt when King Herod got a little crazy and stabby out of his paranoia.
You have to think that their hearts kind of sank a little bit every time Jesus banged himself up as little kids are wont to do. You know, he falls off his donkey and skins a knee, he goes on an unsupervised tear through Joseph’s workshop and bangs his head on a workbench, he climbs up a sycamore tree with that no-good neighbor boy Zacchaeus and falls out and breaks his arm. The kinds of things that make you wonder if Mary and Joseph thought that God was about to smite them for really not taking the best care of his only Son.
Given that there are no Biblical accounts of Jesus burying his parents following an unfortunate accident, I think we can safely say that God was a patient and kind Almighty parent, but there’s still that idea that Mary and Joseph had to have been paranoid about what would happen if something went wrong.
And so, when they made the annual pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem when Jesus was a young teenager, I’m sure that they laid down the law, probably something along the lines of, “You STAY with your cousin, John! He’s apparently unfit to tie your sandals, so I’m sure he’ll make darned sure you don’t go wandering off into the desert to be tempted by Satan!”
On second thought…
Anyway, so the pilgrimage happens, and then, on the way back, they realize that Jesus isn’t with them. Bear in mind, they didn’t realize this until the end of their first DAY traveling back to Nazareth. Now, according to Google Maps, the most direct road from Jerusalem to Nazareth is about a ninety mile trip. Given that most modern roads in Israel follow the ancient roads that were carved out by Rome thousands of years ago, there’s a very good chance that the route Google Maps gave me is the same road that Mary and Joseph would’ve taken to get back. If we assume they were traveling ten hours a day, at an average pace of three miles an hour, that’s a three day journey. That’s three days in either direction, plus the Passover festival for this pilgrimage. We’re talking a total of nine or ten days that they’re away from Nazareth, meaning Joseph isn’t making any money as a carpenter during that time.
Now, that’s fine. That was part of their religious heritage. What WASN’T fine was the fact that once they were thirty miles out, they realized that Jesus wasn’t with them. I’m pretty sure that if any one of you who are parents go thirty miles down the road and realized you’d left your kid behind, you’d probably freak out just a little bit – and you have cars that can get you back to where you came from in half an hour! Mary and Joseph, on the other hand, suddenly found themselves having to turn around, travel a day back to Jerusalem, spend who knew how long looking for Jesus, and then having to make that day back toward Nazareth up on the return trip. At least two extra days on the journey, and probably more!
Mary was probably worried sick, and Joseph was probably muttering things about how that boy was gonna get the whuppin’ of a lifetime when they got back to Nazareth, only to pause and remember that this boy was the Son of God and that any whuppins administered might not be conducive to Joseph’s future health and well-being. But imagine their surprise when they got back to Jerusalem.
Jesus was still in the temple. He hadn’t wandered off, hadn’t gone off on some inane snipe hunt with other kids his age, wasn’t getting into trouble with a girl somewhere. He was in the temple, talking to the clergy. It’d be like if the Mumfords had gone to Kansas City, thinking that Maverick was in the back seat, only to get there and realize he wasn’t there, then come back here and found him in my office having an in-depth discussion on the eschatological meaning of the prophecies found in the book of Ezekiel.
I mean, really, how do you stay mad at a teenager after that?
Well, I’m sure you can. I don’t know. I don’t have a teenager. I don’t plan to have a teenager for MANY years to come. I have to have a kid first to even expect to have a teenager, and I don’t even know when THAT’s going to happen – and thank you all for not asking.
Of course, Jesus had to go and ruin it all by smarting off to his parents: “Where were you expecting me to be? Of course I’m in my Father’s house!”
Although… I don’t know. If you really think about it, he wasn’t smarting off at all. It made sense. Jesus was going about his Father’s business, even if it meant upsetting the people he was responsible to on earth.
And you know, we have that same responsibility. We are called to be about our Father’s business on this earth, even if it means upsetting the people to whom we are responsible. Sometimes that means the government, sometimes the powers-that-be in the church, sometimes professors, sometimes the police. When we are presented with a situation where we can go along with those in power, but it means forsaking the radical call which we have been given to show God’s love to all people regardless of social station or situation, then we have to upset the people to whom we are responsible. We are to be in our Father’s house, about our Father’s business.
Last week, I talked about how, if the church as we know it wishes to survive, it must turn its focus to Christmas and celebrate the incarnation of Christ all year long. That’s what this is all about. Celebrating the incarnation of Christ means living as Jesus did, putting the work of God over our own fears and desires, and hewing to our Father’s business even if it means defying conventional authority.
Being a Christian who truly lives out the commands of Christ can be a tough row to hoe sometimes, but it is our calling. We are, at all times, to be about our Father’s business, even if it means being on the receiving end of a good old-fashioned whuppin’.
Amen.