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.

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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

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.

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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

May the Force Be With You – a sermon

Sunday, December 20th, 2015 – 4th Sunday of Advent
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Luke 2:1-14
Hymns: “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”, “O Come, All Ye Faithful”, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”, “Here I Am to Worship”, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, “What Child Is This?”, “Go, Tell It On the Mountain!”, “Joy to the World!”
Special Music: “Away in a Manger”, “Mary’s Boy Child”, “Still, Still, Still”

starwars-banner-poster-final-700x459

May the Force Be With You
As I’m sure most if not all of you are by now aware, I spent eighteen and a half hours in a movie theater on Thursday. I arrived at the Cinetopia Prairie Fire in Overland Park at 3:15 on Thursday morning and left at 9:45 that evening. From the time that I got there to the time that I left, I watched seven movies – all of them Star Wars. The first prequel, from 1999, began at 4:00 AM. The original Star Wars, from 1977 started at 11:30. The new movie, The Force Awakens, kicked off at 7:00 PM. And by the time it finished, I was as happy as a pig in slop. Now, I don’t know whether that was just from being in nerd heaven or the fact that I was deliriously tired from spending an entire day watching Star Wars movies on less than five hours of sleep – bear in mind, it was an hour’s drive down to Overland Park, and there was an executive board meeting on Wednesday night that didn’t let out until 8:30.
Here’s the thing about it all, though: at some point in that epic marathon of lunacy, I had a though that should probably be chalked up to sleep deprivation, but still made sense to me the following day, so I decided to run with it. It seems to me that the Star Wars saga can be seen as a parallel to the church. And I don’t necessarily mean that thematically. I mean, yes, there’s obvious allegories all throughout the story – the Force is the stand-in for God; there are light and dark sides to human nature, and it is up to you to decide what you will embrace; there are wise people in our lives that point the way to God. Not saying that pastors are necessarily a one-to-one corollary for Jedi knights, but I’m not saying that they AREN’T, either.
So here’s what I mean by all of this: Star Wars first came out in 1977, to the amazement and delight of millions of people around the world. It wasn’t anything particularly new – it borrowed elements from space stories like Buck Rogers, from John Ford westerns, from Akira Kurosawa samurai movies. But there was just something to it, some sort of spark that took all of these old elements and made them new again. The franchise would ride high on the crest of the wave for the next twenty-two years, releasing two more movies, and then subsequently re-releasing the whole trilogy twice, in 1995 and 1998.
It was around this same time that Star Wars came out that the evangelical Christian movement was really first getting into full swing. The sexual revolution of the 1960s had been countered by the rise of churches like the Calvary Chapel, which capitalized on the anarchistic, freedom-of-self nature of the sexual revolution, adding to its concept of love for all the One who, in the Christian tradition, had been behind that idea of love for all: Jesus Christ. Churches following the model of Calvary Chapel began to pop up across the nation, with high-octane fuel being dumped on this fire from coast to coast by the prime years of the Billy Graham crusades. And of course, though the Mainline Protestant churches – of which we are one – looked with some suspicion upon the evangelical movement, they nonetheless reaped the benefits. They were aided in this endeavor by the rise of 1970s and 1980s praise music.
Ah, yes, the original generation of praise music. Simple, inoffensive, guitar driven choruses that were easily slotted in where an organ-based hymn had been the week before, and easily taken back out for the next week. The music spread like wildfire throughout churches evangelical and Protestant alike, and soon enough, this more modern form of worship had grown so popular that even the stodgiest of stodgy old churches were setting aside an hour before Sunday School for a “contemporary worship service.”
But around 1990 or so, something curious began to happen – the rise of Christian rock. There had been early attempts, to be sure, bands such as Petra and Stryper, but it didn’t really catch on until the early 1990s, when bands with names like dc Talk, Audio Adrenaline, the Newsboys, Jars of Clay, Third Day, and more burst onto the scene. Coming from California, the Midwest, the South, these bands provided a new soundtrack that was quickly embraced in the contemporary services of the evangelical world.
Right around the same time that dc Talk was hitting it big with arguably their most famous song, if not one of the most well-known songs in the history of contemporary Christian music, “Jesus Freak”, a science fiction movie came out that revolutionized the way such movies were made. This movie was called Independence Day. Released on July 4th, 1996, it abandoned the concept of retelling a western, or a samurai film, or a mystery in space, instead embracing the idea of aliens that wanted nothing more than to come to Earth and just lay waste to the whole place. The special effects required to make the movie were mind-boggling for 1996, and the movie truly changed the face of cinema.
From that point forward, science fiction movies were never quite the same. Everybody wanted to do something newer and flashier, relying heavily on special effects to tell their story. Star Trek, The Matrix, Men in Black – all science fiction franchises that had to be bigger, better, stronger, and faster with every subsequent episode, until in 1999, the franchise that had, in a way, kickstarted pop-culture sci-fi 22 years earlier decided to get in on the act.
That was the year that Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released, and it was absolutely terrible. Yes, it was a commercial success, because a nation full of insane 17 year olds decided it would be a good idea to camp out overnight to see the first movie. Granted, there are worse things than camping out overnight in Phoenix in May.
The problem was that the movie crammed itself full of unbelievably gaudy special effects and big-name stars such as Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor while not bothering to actually have a story. Lucasfilm seemed to think that they could ride it out on the Star Wars name and the overwhelming visuals without having to actually come up with anything original or new.
Right around this same time, the Christian rock that had sprung up in the early and mid 90s was beginning to make its way into churches. It found its way into the evangelical contemporary services first, and then began to filter into the Protestant services, but there was a problem: the evangelical churches had been purpose built to be flexible, to change as the years went on, and they were able to embrace this new form without much issue, but the older Protestant churches were built on decades if not centuries of tradition. Changing something would mean upsetting people, and too many congregations weren’t willing to actually take that risk.
And so, the churches embraced the changes in style half-heartedly – they were willing to let the music come in, but they weren’t willing to actually adapt themselves to a new way of thinking. Thus it was that after a brief resurgence in the late 1990s, mainline Protestant churches began to experience a decline that has not only not stopped in the last fifteen years, but has grown more and more precipitous with each passing year. Mainline Protestant churches at this point command a smaller percentage of American involvement than at any other time since the 1790s.
So it seemed strange, then, when a few years ago another new movement began to find a foothold within the old Protestant churches. Called the emergent church, it reached back centuries to VERY early styles of worship, using old music, old liturgies, engaging in ancient practices of contemplation and meditative prayer. Indeed, very little that made its way into the emergent church was in any way new, but the success that the movement has found I attribute to something I like to think of as a year-round celebration of Christmas.
Now what, you might ask, does that mean?
If you think about the story of Christmas, there is very little that was NEW to be found in it. The entire story was about the fulfillment of prophecies and stories that had been known to the Jewish people for centuries. The savior born in the little town of Bethlehem. The Messiah borne of the lineage of King David. “For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given,” Handel’s Messiah has proclaimed time and again since 1741, echoing the words of Isaiah 9, itself written some thousand plus years before the birth of Christ.
All of these old things, the hopes and fears of all the years, as it were, met together on that one Bethlehem night. Nothing new was to be found in that story, AND YET, on that fateful night, when the shepherds looked up to see the spirit in the sky proclaiming, “GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST, AND ON EARTH, PEACE, GOODWILL TOWARD MEN,” there was just something DIFFERENT. There was someBODY different – the one we now know as Jesus Christ had come to dwell among the people of God that night.
So what I mean by a year-round celebration of Christmas is this: think to yourself, when do you usually see a sudden uptick in church attendance, swelling to an apex? Usually somewhere around December 25th, right? Sure, I realize that there are many who would look cynically upon that fact and say to themselves, oh, that’s when their families want them to go, or that’s when they feel obligations, but I don’t think that’s what it is at all. I think that’s when we take the old, familiar church service that we see from week to week, from month to month, from year to year, and we inject into it something exciting: the birth of Jesus Christ.
And sure, as the Christian church, we do look to Christ all year long, but throughout so much of the rest of the year, we get caught up in one thing or another that distracts us from Jesus: church officers, or budgets, or VBS, or youth programs, or mission trips, or camp, or you name it, it’s happening, and somehow that excitement about the birth of Jesus Christ gets shuffled lower and lower in the deck until we barely remember it’s still there.
That’s what celebrating Christmas all year long is about: keeping Christ front and center in the life of our church. When we worry about who’s going to be upset by change, when we worry about whether or not we’re keeping up with the contemporary trends, when we worry about whether our worship styles are too old, we are worrying about OURSELVES instead of looking to the One whom we worship and serve. The emergent church has proven that no worship style is too old or new, as long as you remember to keep Christ at the forefront.
And you know, that’s sort of what the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, did. No, obviously, it wasn’t about Christ, but it didn’t worry about THINGS as much. It didn’t try to be a grand visual spectacle, or have every big-name actor it could get its hands on. In fact, there was hardly anything new about it at all. It was just a very respectful re-telling of the original Star Wars story, given new life by breathing into it the old spark of adventure and fun that had made the original movie so amazing and wonderful in the first place.
We as the church would be well-served to follow that example and look to the past to find our future, and when I say the past, I mean all the way back to Luke chapter 2, verse 7: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, for there was no room for them in the inn.”
Jesus is the reason not just for the season, but for our entire being as the Christian church. Let us, therefore, endeavor to take the spirit of Christmas forward, and celebrate it all the year long.
Merry Christmas, and may the Force be with you.
Amen.

Anger Leads to the Dark Side – a sermon

Sunday, August 9th, 2015 – 11th Sunday after Pentecost
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scriptures: John 6:35,41-51, Ephesians 4:25-5:2
Hymns: “Sing a Song”, “Take My Life and Let It Be”, “Everlasting God”, “Be Thou My Vision”, “Eat This Bread”, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah”

Anger Leads to the Dark Side

Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.
Someday, some wise person is going to come up with a Bible study or Sunday School curriculum called the Gospel according to Master Yoda. You see, the little green Muppet from the Star Wars universe provides some of the wisest words ever heard by human ears, and many of them are directly applicable to the way we study the Gospel. Take, for example, the words he says to Anakin Skywalker – the boy who would become Darth Vader – in Episode I. Words of caution about the anger he feels, words that would fall on deaf ears as Anakin would eventually allow himself to be overtaken by his fear and his anger as he turned toward the dark side.
Words that could well have been based directly on today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
The funny thing is, though those words get quoted a great deal by a great many people, they certainly are not words that we hold to in today’s world. All one need do to see that is turn on the TV. Whether it’s a news anchor and a guest yelling at one another over some political inanity, or a Canadian pitcher intentionally throwing a baseball at a player from America’s heartland due to some perceived insult, or a racist taking out the anger instilled on him by brainwashing on innocent people, anger appears over and over again.
The truly bizarre thing is how much anger comes from people who claim to be Christian. Paul explicitly warned against such anger. “Be angry,” he allowed us, “but do not sin.” In other words, there’s nothing wrong with being angry: to be angry is to be human. Who among us has not experienced anger at a perceived injustice, whether it was the result of a promotion denied, a car scratched, or a project failed? There is nothing particularly ungodly about feeling the natural anger that comes of those things. It is the sins that we commit from that anger that Paul prohibits. “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.”
Paul’s reasoning for not wanting us to sin as a result of our anger is not just a personal thing. Sinning out of our anger has ramifications for the entire body of Christ. As we are part of one another, any sinful anger which we have will naturally infect others around us. Consider how an angry mob forms: it begins with one angry person, and that anger quickly spreads to those around them, and it grows exponentially, by leaps and bounds, until the entire gathering has been suffused with anger. The same is true of gatherings of Christians, for though we follow in the ways of Christ, we are no less human and therefore no less prone to sinful ways than any others. Most, if not all, have seen such things, where one member of a church is angry about something, they get others on board with their anger, and before you know it, the church is split over something ridiculous.
I’ve seen it before – the congregation where I grew up, for as much as I love it, is far from perfect. In 1999, after a bizarrely rainy Arizona spring, one of the buildings grew a nasty mold infestation. The proper response would’ve been to have the building tented and fumigated, but a good portion of the congregation was convinced that we could take cheaper, piecemeal steps to mitigate the problem. Conflict grew and grew, and eventually the anger between the two sides of the congregation grew to such a level that over a third of the church left. We ended up taking the proper steps in mitigating the mold, but the damage was done, and the pastor stepped down just over a year later.
Now, at seventeen, I didn’t have the grasp of nor the appreciation for church politics that I do now, but my opinion on the matter at the time still holds true now: it was stupid. The driving force behind my feeling was the fact that when a third of the church left, several of the families who had youth in the CYF group left, and our youth group crumbled and collapsed before my senior year of high school ever ended. I ended up myself being angry toward the church, toward people on both sides of the argument, and to the families who (in my hotheaded teenage opinion) were shallow enough to leave the church because of a silly argument over one of the buildings.
What Paul makes clear in his text is that it was okay for me to be angry. It was okay for everybody to be angry. What is not okay is when you start doing things that degrade the body of Christ due to that anger. It’s not okay to lie and spread rumors and gossip just because you’re angry. In fact, there’s a Gospel prohibition against that very thing – in Matthew 18, Jesus made it very clear to His followers that if you feel one of them has sinned against you, you are to confront them about it in PERSON, and in LOVE. If they don’t listen to you, or to you and a couple of friends, or to the leadership of the church, then you’re free to take it before the congregation, but speaking against them in anger, spreading rumors about them, or talking about them behind their back is strictly prohibited by Jesus Himself.
And that, to be sure, was a driving force behind what Jesus had to say in today’s Gospel reading, from John 6. The people have gone from asking for more bread to grumbling about Jesus saying that He was the Bread of Life. They don’t believe that it’s possible for somebody whose parents they know to be the bread sent from God in heaven, and so they start talking about Him behind His back. Of course, Jesus knows what’s going on, and so He tells them not to grumble among themselves.
If you go back to the Ephesians passage, you’ll see that Paul mentions several other behaviors, from not lying to not stealing to not speaking in a way that doesn’t build up the community. These, along with idolatry, had all been problems for the church at Ephesus, and Paul addresses them several times throughout the book, here tying them all back to anger. And if you consider them, each of these are things that will lead back to anger. If you lie to or about somebody, it’s inevitably going to cause somebody to be angry. If you steal from somebody, it’s inevitably going to cause them to be angry. If you speak in a way that doesn’t build up the community, it’s inevitably going to cause somebody to be angry. And idol worship above all else – idols including everything from graven images to hymnals to buildings – will inevitably cause anger.
Our response to this anger is the key to ensuring the continued well-being of the body of Christ. If we respond in the way that the people at Foothills Christian Church did sixteen years ago, you’re going to see it result in strife and dissension, recovery from which ends up taking nearly a decade. Fear of a problem led to serious anger, anger led to hatred, and hatred led to suffering. Let’s be real, it was a solid descent into the Dark Side.
On the other hand, you have the way I watched several Chi-Rho campers respond to potential situations of anger this last week. We had a sort of rough week of camp. Campers with numerous allergic restrictions, rainstorms causing serious schedule adjustments, and even moments that some campers thought were stupid at first led to situations where we could’ve had some very angry middle schoolers on our hands. And yet, these middle schoolers reacted with a strange and surprising sort of grace that you don’t really see from even the most mature adults on the world. When these situations cropped up, they would be irritated for a moment, and then sigh, say, “Oh well, what’s next?” and move on.
Perhaps, then, the key to avoiding the sin that comes of anger is to approach the situations that cause it with faith and an attitude more like that of children. And so, Paul goes on to implore us to imitate God like dearly loved children. Once we reach adulthood, we become people who are jaded and have just had enough of these situations, but sometimes, maintaining the goodness and innocence of a child is the key to staying away from sin.
That goodness and innocence stays with our children and youth for far longer than we sometimes realize. Two months ago, when the CYF group was in California, we had stopped at the world famous Randy’s Donuts, just outside of Compton, when Grayson Noll noticed a homeless man in a wheelchair on the sidewalk. Out of the goodness of her heart, she decided to buy him a donut and take it to him.
Having lived in L.A. myself for two years, I had a fairly good idea of what his reaction to the donut would be, but I decided to go on faith and let her do it. Sure enough, though, a few minutes later, she came back and informed me that he had declined the donut, and added a few rather choice words to his declination. Instead of being upset, though, Grayson said, “Oh well,” and moved on to the next thing.
It seems that Paul is telling us that we would be well advised to do the same. Far too often, we allow our fear of what’s going on right now to let to anger, hatred, and suffering, but that’s not what we need to be doing. It leads to dissension and turmoil within the body of Christ, and the body of Christ needs to be whole. Instead, be like children when you imitate God. Let go of the anger. Don’t let it lead you into sin, but move on to the next thing. In so doing, may we all stay away from the Dark Side.
Amen.

That Awkward Moment When Your Closest Friends Think You’re a Ghost – a sermon

Sunday, April 19th, 2015 – the Third Sunday of Easter
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: I Samuel 28:3-19, Luke 24:36b-48
Hymns: “God of Wonders”, “To God Be the Glory”, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds”, “Sweet Hour of Prayer”, “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me”, “Let Us Break Bread Together”, “These Thousand Hills”, “He Lives!”

That Awkward Moment When Your Closest Friends Think You’re a Ghost
On April 15th, 2012, a man by the name of Lesane Parish Crooks appeared on stage at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts festival near Indio, California. The Coachella Festival has, since its establishment in 1999, become a widely respected showcase for both highly experienced and popular musical acts and brand new faces looking to break into show business. The appearance of Mr. Crooks, however, marked something of a first for Coachella – it was the first time that a dead man had ever performed at the festival.
You see, Lesane Crooks is better known to the world as rap artist Tupac Shakur, or simply Tupac. He died on September 13th, 1996, in Las Vegas, Nevada, after having been shot six days before. So for him to appear onstage fifteen and a half years later was somewhat of a shock. Of course, people quickly realized that it was actually just a digital hologram of him, manipulated to cause him to appear to be singing previously recorded tracks. The novelty of the appearance of dead people in the holographic medium spread quickly, with its “jumping the shark” moment perhaps being the holographic appearance of dead fictional celebrity pony Li’l Sebastian on the season 6 finale of the TV show Parks and Recreation.
But Tupac isn’t the only dead celebrity who has appeared to the people in the last few years. As a matter of fact, another one appeared to a massive worldwide audience in a far more convincing fashion just within the last couple weeks. I’m speaking, of course, of the star of the seventh Fast & Furious movie, Paul Walker.
Paul Walker died in a car accident in November of 2013 when the Porsche he was riding in crashed into a tree and caught fire. At that point, he had filmed about two-thirds of his scenes for Furious 7, but had not quite completed the role. Ordinarily, when that happens to an actor, the script is re-written to remove the part or the part is re-cast, but Walker’s character, Brian O’Conner, had been an integral part of the franchise since the first movie opened in the summer of 2001, and could not be easily written out or re-cast. And so, using the magic of digital trickery, along with utilizing Walker’s two near-doppelganger younger brothers, the director and producers of the film completed it, with Walker’s character completely intact.
So in the span of just a few years, we’ve had a dead rap artist appear on stage and perform two songs with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, and we’ve had a dead actor help drive – pun intended – a blockbuster film to one of the biggest global openings in cinema history. Given the technology we have today, entertainment industry professionals have said that it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine a few years down the road seeing a remake of, say, Casablanca… starring Humphrey Bogart and and Ingrid Bergman… or, at least, digital doppelgangers of them.
Which leads to the question – we can’t we let dead people be dead? Why can’t they be left alone? Why do we have to keep dragging them up?
Y’know, today’s Old Testament reading doesn’t make too many appearances in church, and perhaps with good reason – it’s the only ghost story in the Bible. I mean, I suppose you could potentially interpret it as King Saul seeing Samuel kind of in the same way that Luke Skywalker saw Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Anakin Skywalker at the end of Return of the Jedi. But the way I Samuel 28 tells it, the only similarity between those two stories is that they took place at locations named Endor.
Indeed, when King Saul went to see the witch at Endor, it was because he wanted her to summon the spirit of the prophet Samuel from the grave. You have to appreciate the irony here – Saul had previously outlawed all witches and mediums in Israel, stating that witchcraft was an abomination to the Lord. Those who refused to stop practicing it were executed. And yet, here he is, going to see one in the hopes of speaking to Samuel.
Now, if this account is to be believed, and it isn’t something that the author of I Samuel stuck in there to mess with generations of Biblical scholars, then the witch at Endor was indeed successful at summoning Samuel – and he was none too pleased about it. The first words out of his mouth are, “Why have you summoned me, Saul?” He then proceeds to tell Saul that the Lord has turned his back on him, the Philistines are going to sack Jerusalem, and Saul is going to die gruesomely in battle.
Honestly, it sounds like a pretty good ghost story to me.
Realistically, it’s a ghost story that those of Jesus’ apostles who were Jewish by heritage had probably heard. I don’t know if they had a first century Israelite equivalent to the Boy Scouts, but there’s always going to be that mischievous teenager who likes to scare younger kids by telling them ghost stories. And why not do that with a ghost story involving the very first king of Israel, and his horrible demise that was prophesied by the ghost of the great prophet Samuel? “Look out – there’s a Philistine behind you!”
So we’ve got these apostles. Grew up with this story. They’ve all been locked up together for days. They probably haven’t slept too much since the crucifixion. They’ve had this wild story handed to them by the women who went to the tomb, telling them that Jesus has been resurrected from the dead. Given the nature of their situation at that moment, there were probably some well-fortified beverages present wherever they were. When you put all those elements into one highly pressurized environment and give it a good shake, I have no doubt that whichever one of the apostles saw Jesus just suddenly pop into the room first either a) thought he was hallucinating, b) thought he was dying, or c) thought that a ghost had just appeared.
The fact that the other apostles saw Jesus in short order obviously put the lie to the idea that the first one was hallucinating or dying, but somehow they all thought that, rather than seeing their teacher in the flesh, the one who Peter had proclaimed to be the Messiah, the one who they had seen work numerous miracles, the one who they had actually observed walk across the Sea of Galilee, instead of believing that they were actually seeing him, this suddenly and unfortunately became for Jesus one heck of an awkward moment, with his closest friends thinking he was a ghost.
Oh ye of little faith, you disbelieving generation.
Now, before we get too holier-than-thou on the apostles, I’d like us to take a moment and put ourselves in the same situation, but in our twenty-first century context. Let’s think about what would happen if we saw Jesus show up, especially in light of the things I mentioned earlier. If we can make Tupac Shakur show up on stage at Coachella more than fifteen years after his death, and if we can see a movie where a third of Paul Walker’s scenes were filmed after his death, is it too much of a stretch to think that somebody could make a reasonable facsimile of Jesus appear to us? We’d be even less likely than the apostles to believe it was actually him!
And Jesus realized this then, and he would realize it now. So he showed the apostles that it was actually him. He showed them the open wounds in his hands, his feet, his side. That wasn’t enough for them. So you know what he did next? He ate some fish. That’s right, when his bloody wounds weren’t enough to convince the apostles that it was actually him, Jesus said, “Okay, that’s alright, I’ll just have some lunch.”
That did it for ‘em. And hey, I’m pretty sure it would do it for us too – hologram Tupac and CGI Paul Walker sure can’t do that.
But the point of Jesus appearing to the apostles in that manner wasn’t to prove to them that he could still eat food, it was to prove to them that he was actually there. It was to demonstrate the power of the resurrection to make a new creation out of something that had been dead. It was to demonstrate that God has the ability to take something that we think is unusable, unrenewable, and make it into something with new breath and new life.
Above all else, that’s the point I want all of you to take away from this message today. There’s a reason why, immediately after appearing to the apostles in this way, Jesus commissioned them in the same way he did at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, in the Great Commission. They had just seen evidence of God’s renewing power of resurrection through this new creation of the body of Jesus Christ, and he wanted them to take that good news that they had just seen with their own eyes and share it with the world.
That commission carries down to us today. We have seen the power of resurrection with our own eyes. Did we see Jesus pop into a room with us? No, we did not, but we have seen things far more powerful than a hologram of a dead rapper. We have seen people who were thought to be irredeemable turn away from their sin and walk the path of love and mercy that Jesus laid out for us. We have seen people who were emotionally dead, spiritually dead, dead in every way but physically, become new creations through the healing power of the love, the grace, the mercy that God has freely given through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We will all die some day, each one of us. Some day, the miraculous interconnected machines and systems that make up each of our unique human bodies will cease to function, and on that day, our physical bodies will die. And who knows, maybe some of us will some day be immortalized through the power of holograms or whatever far-off technological wonders will exist in the decades and centuries to come.
But in the here and now, we decide whether we want to live. And living is good, so let Jesus appear to you in the quiet of your soul and the stillness of your being. He’s not a ghost, and neither are you, and so you have the power and the calling to share the good news of the resurrection with all the world around you. Through God’s grace and mercy, you, and I, and each one of us, are a new creation.
Amen.

Perhaps Today Is a Good Day to Die – a sermon

Sunday, March 22nd, 2015 – 4th Sunday of Lent
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Psalm 51:10-12, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33
Hymns: “Lift High the Cross”, “Beneath the Cross of Jesus”, “All the Heavens”, “O Jesus, I Have Promised”, “Jesus Calls Us O’er the Tumult”, “Let Us Break Bread Together”, “God of This City”

“Perhaps Today Is a Good Day to Die”

In the just over a year that I’ve been here, I’ve made more than one geeky pop culture reference in my sermons. Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Marvel Comics have all made appearances, just to name a few. But there’s one that really has yet to make its presence known, and it really surprised me to realize it.
You see, Star Trek was sort of my entry point into geek culture, many, many years ago. It was the nerd counterpoint to my full-on commitment as a fan of the Arizona Cardinals and Phoenix Suns. And there’s one Star Trek character who has been part of more of Star Trek than any other.
I’m speaking of the first Klingon to join Starfleet, Mr. Worf Rozhenko. In the mid-1980s, when he first appeared on Star Trek: The Next Generation, he served as representation both for minority communities and for adopted children – orphaned in a space battle as a young boy, he was adopted by a pair of Russian scientists.
Worf appeared in 272 episodes across two series as well as five movies. By the third of those movies, Star Trek: First Contact, he has become the tactical officer for the space station Deep Space Nine, and regularly commands missions undertaken by the station’s battle cutter, USS Defiant. In First Contact, Defiant has been tasked with helping to defend Earth against the evil cybernetic race, the Borg. Unfortunately, Defiant is vastly outmatched and suffers severe damage. Before long, the only system still working on board the ship is her propulsion.
And so, believing that he can make a sacrifice that will put a stop to the Borg scourge once and for all, Worf sets course for their ship, growls, “Perhaps today IS a good day to die!” and orders the helm to engage ramming speed. But before Defiant can carry Worf to glory in the Klingon Valhalla, Sto’Vo’Kor, the heavy cruiser USS Enterprise comes swooping in from above, shielding Defiant and dealing a death blow to the Borg ship.
In other words, here we had a heroic figure, somebody not of this world, who had been adopted by human parents, who was ready to willingly sacrifice his life that everybody on Earth might live. Does that sound at all familiar?
Now, I’m not saying that Worf was supposed to be Jesus. But Star Trek has been chock-full of religious imagery, most of it Christian, since the first episode aired in 1966. And the Klingon language just so happens to have numerous fundamental similarities to Hebrew. And I mean, come on, he was ready to sacrifice his life to save EVERYBODY ON EARTH.
I’m almost ashamed to admit that in spite of having seen that movie at least twenty times in my life, I didn’t catch the religious symbolism of that scene until the middle of chaplain school, last October.
In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the Greeks who have come to see him that he must be “lifted up” onto the cross. Only through his death, he says, can new life be accomplished. And the hour for that death is coming soon.
This is not the only time in the Gospels that Jesus makes such a declaration. You may remember a few weeks ago, when he told his apostles that he must die – almost immediately after Peter’s confession of him as the Messiah. He also told them that if they wished to follow him, they must take up their own crosses.
Here, in this Gospel reading, Jesus goes a little bit further: you must die to yourself, he tells them. Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Much like Nicodemus puzzled over the question of what it meant to be born again, so too do we sometimes wonder just what it means to die to ourselves. What does this death of self mean?
“Those who love their life will lose it,” Jesus explains. And just what does THAT mean? It’s certainly not something that fits with the culture we know today. We’ve been taught that we are meant to love our lives. Enjoy every minute you have, we’re told. Do the most that you can. Use every second of every day to improve yourself!
By no means is Jesus saying that we shouldn’t do that. What Jesus is saying that when we allow our worldly pursuits to eclipse the heavenly pursuits that God has set before is, we risk losing ourselves. We must willingly offer up ourselves as a sacrifice to God so that we may be used to do the work of God here on this earth.
And here, we see Jesus modeling that particular part of life for us. Before this crowd of strangers and a few of his apostles, he makes it clear that he is about to sacrifice himself so that the work of God could be done on earth. In fact, if you read John as a narrative rather than a collection of teachings, you could almost look at this as the point in the story where the hero realizes the sacrifice he must make, and willingly steps toward his destiny.
But we know that Jesus would resist that label of “hero”. The hero always gets an out. Look back at all those moments in nerd history – Mr. Spock died at the end of Star Trek II; the Genesis Planet brought him back in Star Trek III. Tony Stark flew a nuclear missile into the void at the end of The Avengers, only to fall back to Earth and be rescued by Bruce Banner. In Return of the Jedi, when our trio of heroes – Luke, Leia, and Han – were all prepared to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the Rebellion, a rampaging band of teddy bears struck a death blow to the Empire.
And yes, we can certainly say that Jesus gets an out as well – the empty tomb on Easter morning stands as testament to that. But Jesus didn’t do what he did simply to save lives. Jesus didn’t do what he did because of a spur-of-the-moment decision to take on the forces of evil.
No. This was where Jesus had been heading since Day One of his ministry. He knew that he was the Son of God, the beloved, with whom God was well pleased. He knew that his human life would end in sacrifice. And so, before he got to that point, he spent three years teaching as many people as he could about what it meant to die to yourself. He didn’t just want to stop the bad thing from happening to the good people – he wanted the good people to learn how to stop the bad things from happening on their own.
“Those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life,” Jesus told the gathered Greeks. He wasn’t telling them to forsake the lives that they had, but rather to recommit their lives. Don’t commit yourself to the ways of the world, he told them. Commit yourself to living for God, to doing God’s will for the people of this world.
And what does that mean for us today?
It means that we don’t just choose to follow Christ, but we acknowledge it before all of God’s people. We choose to be baptized, whether in physical water or simply in the grace of God, and we do it so that all people can see that we are a new creation.
It means that we don’t just choose to follow Christ, but we do so on faith, and not sight. We don’t come to believe simply because we have seen the might of God, but we come to believe because we have accepted that God loves us and wishes the best for us, that God would give us his only Son to be our teacher, our guide, our Messiah.
It means that we don’t just choose to follow Christ, but we do so in spite of our doubts. When we hear the call of God in our lives, we don’t resist what we’ve been told, but we accept it. Instead of fleeing from God’s presence, we step willingly into it, no matter what our misgivings may be.
It means that we don’t just choose to follow Christ, but we accept that we can follow him no matter the sins which we have committed and will yet commit. We believe that Jesus was given the authority to forgive sin, and we accept that gift of forgiveness freely, without demanding signs and miracles.
It means that we don’t just choose to follow Christ, but we choose to follow him wherever he may lead. The church, we realize, is not just these four walls that surround us. It is the people both within and without. All persons on earth are the beloved of God, and Jesus came for each one. Just as we lose our lives that we yet may live, so too are we called to proclaim the same word to the sinners.
It means that we don’t just choose to follow Christ, but we commit to the changes that are instilled in our lives. Whether the changes that our belief in Christ lead us to ministry as pastors or to serving those driven from their homes by war and violence, when we bear fruit, we fully commit our lives to that to which God has called us.
It means that we don’t just choose to follow Christ, but in so doing, we take up the crosses of our lives. We recognize that we live in a world where being a Christian can lead to scorn, hatred, even persecution in some parts of the world. But we choose not to be ashamed of that fact. We choose to say, “I follow Jesus, and His church is my home,” and we truly mean it.
It means that we don’t just choose to follow Christ, but we accept that that choice means that some things have to change. We accept that if we are truly going to allow our grains of wheat to bear fruit, we’re going to have to drive some cows out of the sanctuary, kicking and mooing, so that that wheat can really grow.
It means that we don’t just choose to follow Christ, but we follow him with love. He came to show us love and not condemnation, and so we, when we die to the world so that we may live in Christ, show love and not condemnation to those around us.
When Jesus goes riding into the city of Jerusalem on the back of a colt, he is greeted as a king, but he comes as a teacher and a friend. He encourages us to live in the ways that he teaches, and he seeks that all should share in the eternal life of God’s glory. He offers himself to be lifted up as a sacrifice, serving as a model so that each of us may, too, look at the ways of our old lives, and say that perhaps today is a good day to die.
Amen.

A More Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy – a sermon

Sunday, February 8th, 2015 – Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Psalm 147, II Corinthians 3:1-6, Mark 2:13-22
Hymns: “Blessed Assurance”, “Amazing Grace”, “Jesus, Name Above All Names”, “I Need Thee Every Hour”, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus”, “Come, Share the Lord”, “God of This City”
Special Music: “Mighty to Save”

“A More Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy”
“Mos Eisley Spaceport. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”
When Obi-Wan Kenobi says these words to Luke Skywalker near the beginning of the very first Star Wars movie, he is warning him of the dangers inherent to the spaceport ahead of them, advising him that they must be cautious. Mos Eisley, as the audience finds out in short order, is full of Imperial stormtroopers, aliens who look distinctly like Satan, and criminals who have been sentenced to death in twelve systems, not to mention a scruffy-looking nerf-herder and his Wookie co-pilot.
In short, Mos Eisley is a very unpleasant place, and is decidedly not the sort of place that any nephew of a respectable moisture farmer should be hanging out, to say nothing of a Jedi Master. The only two reasons that Obi-Wan was willing to take the risk were 1) he knew it would be guarded by stormtroopers who, with their relatively weak minds and total inability to hit the broad side of a barn with a blaster would be easy to get past, and 2) he knew that this was the type of place where he would be able to find a pilot crazy enough to do what he was asking.
Definitely not the kind of place you go looking for the better parts of society.
And yet…
I’m willing to bet that if Jesus had, instead of coming to first century Israel, found himself instead a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Mos Eisley would have been EXACTLY the sort of place he would have gone. If we really mean it when we join with Casting Crowns in singing the words, “Jesus, FRIEND OF SINNERS,” then we must acknowledge that Jesus indeed sought out the wretched hives of scum and villainy in order to reach the people whose lives he was sent to redeem.
And for many, many Christians, that is quite a problem.
Something that seems to preoccupy a lot of Christians is the question of “What would Jesus think of our church?” They ask themselves if he would be pleased if he walked in the door of the sanctuary. They ask themselves if he would be happy with the songs they sing, the sermons they preach. They ask themselves if he would feel welcome in their church.
And while that’s all well and good, and it is certainly something we should remember, I must ask us all this: would Jesus even walk into a modern Christian church for any reason other than to read a passage from one of the prophets, say, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” and then walk back out? After all, the majority of the people who are IN the churches ARE NOT THE ONES that Jesus came to save. To be sure, there are those in the churches who are still seeking, but most of us who sit in a church pew on Sunday morning ALREADY know Jesus.
No, on Sunday morning, I’m willing to bet that Jesus, having attended his own services at the local synagogue on Saturday (after all, he WAS a Jew), would be at the Mos Eisley Spaceport, ministering to those who were down on their luck, seemingly without hope. He would seek out those wretched hives of scum and villainy. That’s where Jesus did his ministry. Those were the people who needed him most, not us.
You see, that is exactly what he was trying to communicate in today’s Gospel reading, from Mark 2. It starts off with Jesus doing something UNTHINKABLE – he calls a new apostle. And while that in and of itself was not particularly remarkable – after all, he did so eleven other times; twelve, if we’re counting Paul – what WAS remarkable was that this particular call was extended to a man who was a member of the part of society that was indeed thought of as “scum and villainy”. Levi, who would come to be known as Matthew, was part of the lowest of the low in first century Israel – he was a TAX COLLECTOR.
Let’s think about that for a minute. A tax collector. We don’t see them commonly referred to by name in the Bible – the only other one is a particular wee little man named Zacchaeus who, as we all know, climbed up a sycamore tree. That’s because they were thought of as particular dirtbags by Israelite society. Consider what we think of tax collectors now. None of us – not a one – likes the Internal Revenue Service. Yes, I realize that the tax dollars which they collect from us are necessary to make sure that the country actually runs, but you still can’t help but have a strong dislike for people who are quite happy to take a chunk out of your paycheck and then help themselves to more every April 15th. And then, if you get audited – it’s never happened to me, but I can only imagine it’s pretty unpleasant.
So think about that, how much we dislike the IRS, and then multiply that by about a hundred. That’s how much tax collectors were looked down upon in first century Israel. EVERYBODY hated them. The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the regular working people. They weren’t even welcome in the wretched hives of scum and villainy, THAT’s how much they were despised.
Now there was good reason for that, in that most tax collectors of the day, in addition to collecting the taxes that were due to the Roman government, also collected a little somethin’-somethin’ extra for themselves on the side. And it’s not like you could say “No”, because if you did, they’d just have to call up a Roman guard, and suddenly, you found yourself sitting in jail for tax evasion. Tax collectors were corrupt, disproportionately powerful, and roundly hated by just about everybody.
With that understanding of the outright societal hatred of tax collectors in your mind, let me now put this in context. This story immediately follows on last week’s story, when Jesus healed the paralyzed man. Now, you may remember that the big takeaway was not the healing of the man’s paralysis, but the fact that Jesus had, in the presence of the religious powers-that-be, claimed, as God incarnate, the authority to forgive sins. They were already irritated with him, and his ministry had only just barely begun.
And so what does he do next? Well, he goes and finds this tax collector named Levi, and he says to him, “Follow me.” He doesn’t condemn him for his corruption and abuse of power, doesn’t tell him what a bad person he is, doesn’t call him unworthy. No, he calls Levi to join him in his ministry. And then, it just gets better.
Mark 2:15 says that Jesus went to have dinner at Levi’s house, where “many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples”. Many tax collectors and sinners. Levi’s house has become a hive of scum and villainy, and Jesus has voluntarily gone there, taking his disciples with him, to share a meal with these people. Again, he’s not there to condemn them, not there to preach to them – he’s there to sit around a common table and break bread with them.
Needless to say, the Pharisees were not pleased. Here was this so-called rabbi, this supposed fisher of men, speaking not with THEM, not sharing a meal with THEM, but with these horrible people, these low-down, dirty filth of society, these sinners, these TAX COLLECTORS. If he was such a high and mighty holy man of God, how on EARTH could he stoop to the level of these worthless scum and villains?
And of course, Jesus, being the master of the quick-comeback one-liner, says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners.” In other words, Pharisees, you already know what’s what. Jesus doesn’t need to explain things to you. These tax collectors and sinners who have fallen so far in life – they’re the ones who need a hand up, the ones who need the Word of God spelled out for and explained to them. They are sick, you are not, and if Jesus is the great physician doing spiritual triage, who do you think he’s going to see to first?
So here’s the problem:
We’re the Pharisees.
Oh yeah. We’re TOTALLY the Pharisees. And when I say “we”, I’m referring to American Christians as a greater whole. We have no room or time for the sinners or the dregs of society. All we seem to be concerned with is what WE do, if WE make Jesus happy, and look at us, aren’t WE great compared to those tax collectors. A more wretched hive of scum and villainy we would never even cast a second glance at, let alone enter.
Over the last century, American Christians in their many, many iterations have, at different times and in different places, taken great pains to exclude people who are DIFFERENT, people who are regarded as sinners. We’re talking people being excluded on account of having a checkered past. We’re talking people being excluded because they’re homeless. We’re talking people being excluded because they have AIDS.
Yeah, that one totally happened in the ‘80s. But that’s not where it stops. People have been excluded because they didn’t have the same skin color or ethnic background. People have been excluded because they were gay. People have been excluded because they were from a different country. People have been excluded because they weren’t the same flavor of Christian. People have been excluded because they were women.
And in every single one of those groups of people that American Christians have excluded you will find the sinners. You will find the tax collectors. You will find the scum, you will find the villains, and I am telling you right now, THAT is where you would find Jesus. You would not find Jesus standing at the front of the Church of the Resurrection in Overland Park, smiling beatifically upon his followers and telling them what a good job they’ve done. No, you would find him walking down Troost Avenue, talking to the people he encountered, sharing in their lives, and maybe, just maybe, telling them to follow him so that he might make them fishers of men.
Being a Pharisee isn’t a good thing, y’all. Their rigidity, their unbending adherence to a certain code, their unwavering commitment to the things THEY thought were right, even if it meant the exclusion of MANY people, was one of the things that Jesus came to undo. And that’s why he went to the sinners and the tax collectors. That’s why he took his ministry to the poor and unwashed of first century Israel. And that’s exactly why we should be doing the same.
Nearly one hundred twenty years ago, Charles Sheldon – who, though not a Disciple, was a minister in one of the Congregationalist churches that came out of the Stone-Campbell movement – wrote a little book that you may have heard of, In His Steps. In it, the main character, a minister, asks his congregation to ponder the question: “What would Jesus do?”
The book and its primary question experienced something of a pop culture revival twenty years ago, with “What Would Jesus Do?” appearing in mass media, on clothing, in music, on TV, you name it – but the problem was, it was a pop culture revival. It wasn’t really very deep, it didn’t burrow its way into the consciousness of American Christianity. We paid lip service to it, and then carried on in our Pharisaical ways.
But in spite of that… there’s good news. You see, for as much as Jesus associated with the sinners and the tax collectors, and upbraided the religious elite for their unyielding ways, he didn’t exclude them. Just ask Nicodemus. Just ask Joseph of Arimathea. Just ask Saul of Tarsus, the man who would become Paul, perhaps the greatest of the Apostles. Jesus offered the path to righteousness to EVERYBODY, from the most corrupt tax collector to the most sanctified priest. All he asked was that we follow in his steps, and live our lives ALWAYS considering that question: “What would Jesus do?”
We know what Jesus would do. Jesus would embrace the excluded. Jesus would reach out to the downtrodden. Jesus would go to the wretched hives of scum and villainy.
So don’t be afraid of Mos Eisley Spaceport. Who knows what disciples of Christ may await therein. And as you go, remember: Jesus has not called us to be fishers of the righteous. Jesus has called us to be fishers of men and women.
All of them.
Amen.

The Call: Looking – a sermon

Sunday, May 4th, 2014 – Third Sunday of Easter
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1-6, Luke 24:13-35
Hymns: “Come, Christians, Join to Sing”, “Open My Eyes, That I May See”, “Just As I Am”, “He Lives!”
Special Music: “Spirit Wind”, by Casting Crowns

There’s a sneaky little Star Wars reference right in the middle of the sermon, in honor of Star Wars Day. Who can find it?!

“The Call: Looking”

So there’s this video going around the Internet right now. It’s a video of a bunch of guys in their late teens and early twenties. They’re taking a break from work, and during this break, they’re watching last winter’s über-popular Disney movie, Frozen.
Oh, but they’re not just watching it. No, this group of guys is joyously singing along with the movie. The particular video shows them singing along with the movie’s big hit song, “Let It Go”. As the song progresses, they get rowdier and rowdier, and finally, as the song reaches its climax, the guys hit their feet, throwing their hands in the air and singing the lyrics of the song at the top of their lungs.
Did I mention that this group of guys is entirely composed of United States Marines… some of them in uniform, no less?
Seriously, if you haven’t seen this video, it’s absolutely worth the two and a half minutes of your time that the video runs. Just Google “Marines Let It Go”, and you’ll find it.
Sometimes, you find joy in the most unexpected places… you just have to open your eyes.

For many of Jesus’ disciples, joy was simply not an option after the Passover the year that Jesus was crucified. This rabbi that they had followed – some of them for three years – had been murdered by the Roman government at the behest of fundamentalist religious leaders. His closest followers had scattered and were in hiding, afraid that they might be next. And even though Jesus had, by now, been resurrected from the grave, we have to remember that in Luke’s account, he hadn’t actually appeared to anybody as yet. The women had spoken with the angels, and Peter had seen the grave cloths, but that was it.
And so on Sunday afternoon, just a few hours after Mary Magdalene was informed that Jesus had been resurrected, two of Jesus’ followers were traveling to a town called Emmaus. They had heard the story that the women who went to the tomb had told, but they were decidedly skeptical. As to why they were leaving Jerusalem, no doubt they were traveling to Emmaus for no less a reason than simply getting out of Dodge before it was them hanging from a roughly hewn pair of cedar beams. As they walked, a stranger approached and wanted to know what they were talking about.
I don’t know about you, but if I were in their shoes, and a stranger came up to me and asked that, given the circumstances, I don’t know that I would’ve said a word, because my first thought would’ve been, “IT’S A TRAP!” But one of them – Cleopas, Luke tells us – asked, “Are you the only person in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what’s been going on?”
What’s been going on.

It’s been a year and a day, now. 366 days.
Yes, a year ago yesterday, May 3rd, 2013, was the day that I turned in my final research project for my master’s degree in divinity. History 790 was the class, Food Culture in the African-American Church, but a year later, I’ll be darned if I can remember the topic of the paper.
That day was a milestone in my life. It was the culmination of over a decade’s worth of work. From that point forward, unless I decided I wanted to get a doctorate, or unless I decided to go into the command track of the Navy Chaplain Corps, I would never again have to take an academic class for a grade. It made me shout hallelujahs to the western North Carolina sky.
Two weeks later, I graduated, and a week after that, I was ordained at Foothills Christian Church back in Phoenix. Riding high, I headed back to North Carolina, expecting that I would be receiving that inevitable call to interview and move on to pastor a church any day now.
Except I didn’t.
Days passed. Weeks. Months.
In late August, I got an email from somebody I had never heard of before – one Rev. William Rose-Heim. He had reviewed my ministry profile, he said, and there was a church in northwest Missouri he wanted me to look into. A link to the church’s profile was included in the email, so, naturally curious, I clicked on it.
Gower Christian Church, the profile said.
My first thought was, what’s a Gower?
My second though was, oh, hey, I lived on Gower Street in Hollywood once upon a time.
My third thought – after pulling it up on Google Maps – was, oh dear, that’s in the middle of nowhere.
But nonetheless, I wrote back to Rev. Rose-Heim and said, sure, I’m interested!
And, well, we all know how THAT turned out.
Sometimes, you find life in the most unexpected places… you just have to open your eyes.

March 2, 2014 115

It was life that concerned the two disciples on the Emmaus road that Sunday afternoon. Sure, they were likely concerned about their own lives, but after deciding that this stranger they had encountered on the road was, in fact, not a Roman wolf in sheep’s clothing, they decided to open up to him. Jesus’ own life was the topic that most concerned them on that afternoon. As they followed him, they had come to have great expectations of him – expectations that he would be the one to redeem Israel, and free them from Rome. Of course, we already know that it’s not the expectations of man that Jesus came to fulfill, but we’ve already done that sermon.
Unfortunately for their expectations, Jesus had, of course, been crucified by Rome, and for them, it was now the third day since that had happened. To make matters worse – at least, to make matters worse in their minds – Jesus’ body was gone. As they explained to this man walking the road with them, some of the women among Jesus’ disciples had gone to prepare the body for embalming that morning, only to discover it gone, and then they came back with the claim that an angel had said Jesus was alive. However, men since time immemorial have, for whatever reason, had difficulty trusting the words of women, even though women have been scientifically proven to generally be more rational and more logical than men. These men were no different, and so expressed their doubts to their traveling companion. What he said to them next was probably not what they were expecting.
Just not what you’d expect.

There’s a driver in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup, by the name of Kurt Busch. To say that Mr. Busch has had a rough time of it in his career would be putting it kindly. He has more talent in his pinky finger than most NASCAR drivers have in their entire careers, but he also has a temper that’s approximately as stable as hundred year old dynamite and burns at about the operating temperature of a nuclear reactor. His talent has landed him rides with some of the most well-known names in racing – Jack Roush, Roger Penske, Mario Andretti just to name a few – as well as winning him a Sprint Cup championship in 2004, but his temper has led him to run afoul of a wide variety of people, including Roush and Penske, the Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff’s Department, and the NASCAR powers-that-be.
In late 2011, Kurt was at the lowest point of his career. He had been given the boot by Roger Penske, his wife had divorced him, and he was now driving for a team that ran on a shoestring budget and was owned by James Finch, who is widely considered to be one of the more, shall we say, eccentric owners in NASCAR history. But at the same time, things were beginning to occur in his life to turn it around.
Not long after his divorce, Kurt had started dating Patricia Driscoll, the executive director of the Armed Forces Foundation, a charity dedicated to helping wounded veterans and their families. She has a son, Houston, from a previous relationship, and it seems that having Houston in his life caused Kurt’s heart to, in the words of Dr. Seuss, “grow three sizes”. Over the course of two years, Kurt’s temper began to cool, he began to think and live more rationally, and in late 2013, Gene Haas, the billionaire owner of the Haas CNC Machine Tool Company and part-owner of the Stewart-Haas racing team, offered Kurt a ride in one of his cars. It would be top-tier equipment, and with sponsorship coming solely from Haas CNC, Kurt wouldn’t have to worry about keeping anybody happy but his boss.
So it was that a few weeks ago, in Martinsville, Virginia, Kurt won his first race in two and a half years, beating defending champion Jimmie Johnson on a track where Johnson is normally unbeatable. There are a multitude of inspirational pictures of Kurt, seemingly the happiest man alive, following his victory, but perhaps one of the most enduring images is a picture that was captured of him with his now-fiancée, Patricia, and his soon-to-be-stepson, Houston. In it, there is no anger in Kurt’s face, no rage in his eyes, as there had been for so long. Instead, there is just happiness, and joy.
Sometimes, you find redemption in the most unexpected places… you just have to open your eyes.

kubu

As we know, the traveling companion of the two men on the Emmaus road was indeed Jesus himself, and it was redemption that was on his mind as he traveled with these men. Redemption of the story, redemption of the Scriptures – they needed to have their eyes opened. “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter his glory?” Jesus asked them, reminding them that he himself had taught on more than one occasion that he would have to be handed over to the authorities and suffer at the hands of human beings before he could be glorified by God.
Now, like any good preacher, Jesus then took his thesis and expounded upon it. Indeed, he did with those two disciples as they walked to Emmaus what we mere mortal preachers have to take several hours to do each week – he provided the two disciples with an exegesis of his own words, using passages from the Old Testament to back up his claims, going all the way back to Moses and running through all of the prophetic Scriptures about him.
As they reached Emmaus, Jesus was going to keep going – these two men still didn’t know who he was. But since it was getting late, they convinced him to stay and have dinner with them. And as they were about to learn, breaking bread with somebody you don’t know can make all the difference in the world.

Not quite three years ago, I was at a party prior to the beginning of my second year of classes at the Divinity School at Wake Forest University. A sort of informal beginning-of-the-year party for the Div School, a good number of students were present – including some of the incoming first year class, jokingly called “fresh meat”, “new victims”, etc.
It was an enjoyable evening. I had made a number of friends at Wake Div during my first year there, so I bounced from small group of people to small group of people, catching up with people I hadn’t seen in three months, hearing about their summers, mingling in general. I even ran into a fellow Disciple seminarian from Vanderbilt, one whom I had just seen at General Assembly a few weeks before – it turned out that he was dating the sister of the Wake Div student at whose house the party was being held!
Small world, right?
Anyway, after a few conversations, I decided to break bread myself, and momentarily retreated to a table near the house’s door, where snacks and drinks were kept. Picking out a few items to munch on, I was standing there when one of the incoming first years approached. Remembering that I was now a returning student and I had a certain responsibility to make these new students feel welcome, I struck up a conversation with this student. It turned out that we had a few classes in common, which I’m still to this day not sure if that put relief or trepidation in the new student’s heart.
Anyway, as the conversation naturally wrapped itself up, I decided that I should probably get the name of the first member of the Wake Div Class of 2014 I had ever talked to, and so I asked her.
“Caitie,” she said. “Caitie Smith.”
That night, I broke bread with somebody I didn’t know at all, and as luck would have it, I’m marrying her in twenty-seven days.
Sometimes, you find love in the most unexpected places… you just have to open your eyes.

drseussbooks

And so, as the two disciples and Jesus sat down to eat, it was love that was now Jesus’ concern – his love for these followers, for all the children of God. And as they prepared to eat, he finally revealed himself to them. He blessed the meal that they were about to eat, and broke the bread – and instantly, they recognized him. It was the resurrected Jesus, sitting with them at the table – the first disciples who saw him after his return from the grave.
As soon as they recognized him, though, he disappeared. You see, now that they knew that it was him, that he was indeed resurrected, he had other places to go, other people to see. They now knew, and it was up to them to spread the word.
And spread the word they did. Leaving AT THAT MOMENT, even though it was dark, they made the trip back to Jerusalem. They sought out the apostles, and told them what had happened. Jesus is indeed alive, they said. He has been resurrected in glory!
To think, they almost missed it. These disciples, traveling to Emmaus, almost missed that they had traveled the road with Jesus. They didn’t know for sure that he was resurrected. All they knew was that he had been crucified, and they certainly weren’t expecting to see him. But as soon as they welcomed him into their community, indeed, into their home, their eyes were opened, and they recognized him for who he truly was – Jesus Christ, God incarnate.
And as those two disciples might attest, sometimes, you find God in the most unexpected places… you just have to open your eyes.
Amen.