Faith 101: A lesson from a tax collector


Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon

Luke 18:9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:

 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’

 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast, and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

 It is good to be with you again this morning, brothers and sister in Christ. I am delighted that Pastor Donna asked me to preach and lead worship with you over the next two weeks.

I am particularly excited to have been invited into this ongoing conversation with you about faith and what faith looks like as we observe Jesus’ teachings in Scripture.

And today we’re using the lens of Luke 18 as we observe a Pharisee and a tax collector praying in the temple.

I already know what you’re thinking.

The Pharisee is such a jerk, right?

Even if you only have a limited knowledge of the Bible, you can be pretty sure you know everything you need to know when a Pharisee shows up.

The Pharisees almost always serve as a nemesis to Jesus, a literary foil, a first century Lex Luther.

So when we see the Pharisee in this parable, we can confidently predict that the writer of Luke has cast the Pharisee in the role that Pharisees almost always play — the self- righteous, religious blowhard.

When we have that bad guy stereotype safely stuck in our mind, we think we already know the moral of Jesus’ parable –

The moral is: don’t be THAT guy. Don’t be a jerk. Don’t think you’re better than other people.

And just a few weeks out from the presidential election, it’s just so easy to hear a political candidate praying just like the Pharisee.

“God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like that Hilary Clinton.”

 God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like that Donald Trump.”

 And that’s exactly what a lot of voters are saying, “I’m voting for Donald Trump because I can’t stand Hilary Clinton.” Or vice-versa. They are voting for one candidate because they feel like the other is simply too wretched.

But here’s the thing, in ancient Palestine, the Pharisee was probably not considered to be wretched.  Or a villain. In fact, a Pharisee was likely seen as a trustworthy and honorable man by many if not most people around him.

The Pharisees were faithful interpreters of the prophetic tradition and guardians of Mosaic law.

One commentator defends the Pharisees like this: “(They) longed for what we long for:  God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven and all nations streaming into Zion to enjoy God’s just and compassionate rule.” [1]

They Pharisees were guys struggling to keep a religious institution going in the face of considerable odds against them.

Judaism had not only survived, but was flourishing., at least at the moment when we see the Pharisee in the praying. No wonder he feels particular blessed this day.

The Pharisee’s prayer in the temple is factually true.

The Pharisee is just being honest.

He doesn’t steal.

He doesn’t commit adultery.

He fasts twice a week. He tithes. He prays.

He serves his faith community with great energy.

He does all the things,

all the religious things,

all the time.

In fact, the Pharisee is the kind of guy you’d love to have in your church.

He’s the kind of guy you’d love to have serving on Council.

In no time at all, he’d be elected to be clerk of session.

In his own eyes, and in the eyes of his community, the Pharisee is a good and faithful servant of God, doing what his father did, and his grandfather did, and all of his ancestors before that.

So in 1st century eyes, the Pharisee is not a bad guy at all.

So what about the tax collector?

Tax collectors seem to have a slightly better, or at least more nuanced image in Scripture. Jesus ate with tax collectors, hung out with them, and forgave them. So it is certainly easy to read the tax collector as the humble hero of the parable.

But again, we need to consider how tax collectors were considered in their own time and culture.

1st Century tax collectors were not mild-mannered accountants working as IRS agents, upholding the tax law.

Tax collectors were not like the nice lady down at Jordan Tax Service who collects your sewage tax.

The tax collector in this parable was probably more like a not-so-nice guy whose job it is to throw a family out on the street when the rent is late.

I always picture the tax collector as someone like a character in “The Godfather,” or an employee of Tony Sopranopqrmfw3

1st century tax collectors often operated like Paulie Walnuts who collects money at gunpoint, beats up strippers and drug dealers, and once famously said,

“When someone owes you money, even if you gotta crawl, you get it.”

In other words, the tax collector should probably exist in our imagination as a scumbag.

If the Pharisee commanded respect in Jesus’ time, the tax collector received scorn.

People probably never passed up a chance to let the tax collector know how much they hated him.

There’s absolutely nothing in this parable to suggest the tax collector changes his evil ways after he prays in the temple.

He doesn’t repent. He doesn’t promise to leave the temple and lead a spotless, sinless life.

It is possible the tax collector leaves the temple and proceeds to shake down the next poor widow he meets for her last nickel.

Despite being a nasty character,

this guy, this tax collector…

This is the man Jesus says will leave the temple justified.

And the Pharisee, who is doing all the things,

all the religious things,

according to Jesus, this is the one who leaves unjustfied

Doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t even really make sense if you think about it. It’s baffling. And, frankly, a little annoying.

In some ways, I think this parable is a trap.

The bait is that we want to find a moral to the story.

We think the moral is, oh, ok. I need to be like the tax collector. I need to be humble.

And before we know it, we’re trapped into praying: “Thank you God that I am not like the Pharisee. Thank goodness I am not self-righteous or hypocritical or hold others in contempt.  Thank goodness I am humble like Paulie Walnuts…I mean…like the tax collector.”


Yeah, Jesus. You got us again.

I think at the end of the day, this is not a story about becoming more humble, although Scripture says we should strive to clothe ourselves with humility, compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (Colossians 3:12).

And we should.

This isn’t a story of how we how we should or should not pray, although Jesus tells us to pray with humility, in secret, and avoid heaping up words to make ourselves look good in front of other people.

And we should.

This isn’t even a story of how we can become good people or better people, although all of us seek to faithful and decent lives.

And we should.

This is a story about how easy it is to have more faith in ourselves and our own goodness, than faith in God’s goodness.

I think this is a story of how easy it is to think we are the ones in control of our righteousness before God.

I think this is a story about a Pharisee who is so busy being religious, so busy keeping the religious institutions going, he forgot the love and grace of God is more powerful than anything any of us can do under our own steam.

And it is a story about a tax collector who realizes the love and grace of God is about all he has going for him.

Which is something we Presbyterians need to remember as we struggle to figure out how to be church in a culture that is rapidly shifting.We need to remember that our hope is built not on our own strength and goodness or good ideas. Our hope is built on Jesus’ blood and righteousness, and the confidence that the Holy Spirit is at work among us.

Over the past three years, I have been working with a very small Presbyterian congregation who owns a very large building they could no longer afford, so the congregation decided to put the building up for sale.

A few months later, the ruling elders of the church were approached by and decided to rent out the building to a non-denominational church who was wanted to establish a new ministry in the area, but couldn’t afford to buy the building.

Although in good condition, the building is surrounded by mostly dilapidated rental houses owned by mostly absentee landlords. The neighborhood, perched on a hilltop overlooking downtown Pittsburgh, is one of the city’s most neglected and under-resourced areas, plagued by frequent gun violence. Just this past August, a 6-year old girl was shot while standing on a porch of a house very near the church building. She died a few days later.

In other words, the church building is not particularly attractive to potential buyers. To date, there have been no offers.

The leadership of the new ministry renting the space, however, sees the neighborhood as exactly the place God has called them to be.

Since moving in, they have started a free daily after school program for neighborhood children, which includes tutoring, enrichment activities, field trips, and a hot dinner every evening.

In response to some of well-publicized police shootings, the pastor of the new ministry invited police officers from the zone office to come in and meet the children in the afterschool program. The officers now frequently come in to serve dinner and hang out with the kids and their families.

The transformation happening on the hilltop is only happening because God showed up and gave the Presbyterians the opportunity to say yes to a ministry run by people who don’t look like them or worship like them.

But, let’s be honest.

Did they say “yes” out of desperation because they were running out of money and people?

If we’re being honest here, the answer is, “Absolutely.”

Is a non-denominational ministry renting their building the outcome they would have preferred?

If we’re being honest here, the answer is, “Nope.”

Here’s the truth I have learned through this experience and others: often it is only when we feel like we’ve hit a brick wall that we finally make space for the Holy Spirit to do its work and realize that God’s love and mercy is all we have going for us. And God doesn’t wait for us to get it together or come up with grand schemes.

God will work through the most imperfect people. Including you and me.

I imagine that behind the pious mask worn by the Pharisee, there is a tired, anxious soul yearning to admit that he does not have all the answers.

How heavy such a burden must be for him at the end of his rope.

The anxiety he must feel in trying to hold it all together,

always comparing himself to others to figure out if he’s good enough for God to love him.

The tax collector is not a better person than the Pharisee. They are both beloved children of God, as we all are, just trying to make it through each day.

But despite all the awful things the tax collector knows he has done, all the awful things people say about him, the tax collector’s faith allows him to admit he is entirely dependent on God’s mercy.

And that is enough.

Brothers and sisters, the grace of God is a free gift.

I will never get my life right on my own.

You will never get your life right on your own.

And that is okay.

Because we are not required to be perfect.  We don’t even have to be good, as scandalous as that may seem.

We just have to have to open our hands and receive God’s free gift of grace. And that grace is sufficient. More than sufficient.

Nothing we do can make God love us less.

Nothing we do can make God love us more.

And we cannot save ourselves. It is not our own doing. It is pure gift from God.

For Donald Trump. For Hilary Clinton.

For the Pharisee. For the tax collector.

It is amazing. It is God’s grace.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.




















[1] Accessed on October 21, 2016

At the End of Our Rope

My latest blog post for Presbyterians Today is up. in it, I talk about a church with whom I am working who ran out of money to take care of their large building, moved out, and rented out the space to a new non-denominational ministry that is blooming in one of the most violent neighborhoods in Pittsburgh.This experience has taught me that sometimes you have to run out of ideas and be at the end of your rope before God can get in and make something new. Thanks be to God!


Not Funny.


I thought I was doing really well.

A few months ago, I made it through Trump’s careless mocking of a disabled reporter, although as the mother of a child with autism, I know full well the damage a bully can do.unknown

After the Democratic convention, I made it through Trump’s cruel attack on a family whose son died in combat, although as a mother, I know full well that losing a child is unimaginable suffering. unknown-1I would willingly give up my own life to save the life of my kids. As I’m sure the Khans would.

After the first debate, I made it through Trump’s disgusting comments on a woman’s weight, although as a woman who’s struggled with weight and body image my whole life, I know full well the self-loathing that comes when you feel like you will never, ever, ever be thin enough.aliciacontrump

But the story by the People Magazine reporter, Natasha Stoynoff, hit me like a ton of bricks when I read it last night.

Let me be clear. I have never been raped. I know I am fortunate when so many women have been victimized by physical sexual assault.

Last night, however, I read these words from Stoynoff:

I tried to act normal. I had a job to do, and I was determined to do it. I sat in a chair that faced Trump, who waited for his wife on a loveseat. The butler left us, and I fumbled with my tape recorder. Trump smiled and leaned forward.

 “You know we’re going to have an affair, don’t you?” he declared, in the same confident tone he uses when he says he’s going to make America great again. “Have you ever been to Peter Luger’s for steaks? I’ll take you. We’re going to have an affair, I’m telling you.”

All of a sudden, I was in that room with Ms. Stoynoff. But I didn’t hear Donald Trump. Instead, I heard the voice of a client from 30 years ago saying,

Do you like sex, Susan? I bet you like it doggie style. Have you ever had an affair? I could help you in your career, you know. I could do that.

 And I remembered every comment from that client and other colleagues who commented on my legs, my clothes, my breasts, my hair, what I was like in bed and any number of attributes that had absolutely nothing to do with my professional competency.

I wish I could tell you why I never confronted those men or reported them to my employer. I was young. I was insecure about everything, including my physical appearance and my ability to do the work I was hired to do. I wanted to be a “good sport.” I needed to keep my job and that meant keeping clients happy. Most of the people I knew in advertising suffered a certain level of emotional abuse at the hands of our more bullying clients and it seemed the price we had to pay in order to satisfy the people who paid our salaries.

And as you can imagine, where there was misogyny, there was also racism which, if anything, was more blatant and unapologetic.

I’ve heard similarly horrific stories from my female colleagues in ministry. So, you know, it’s not just the business world where this happens, y’all.

Until last night, these memories seemed to be in a very distant past, safely put away. These were not things I cared to dwell on or think about or even revisit.  Until that damn People Magazine stirred it all up again in my mind and kept me awake most of the night.

Just words, right? Sticks and stones. Boys will be boys. Don’t be a spoilsport. Don’t be so sensitive. He was just kidding. Can’t you take a joke?

I’m done.

The best I can do is to continue to talk to my son what it means to be a good man.

The best I can do is be thankful for a husband, as well as the wonderful male friends and colleagues, who respect women and are not afraid to call out misogyny (with special gratitude to my husband because the medical world seems nearly as bad as the advertising world).

The best I can do is be supportive of women by listening to them and, most importantly, believing them.

The best I can do is listen to marginalized voices and use my privilege to amplify them.

The best I can do is try to walk like Jesus, who protected the weak and unwanted, and challenged the bullies of his time.

But I’m done with toxic political conversation. I am staying off social media for the duration. And I’m praying for every woman who has been triggered or harmed in this election campaign.

It’s not funny anymore. It’s just not. Words are hurting the people I love and, I admit it, it’s hurting me.

All In


Back before I left for vacation in late July, I received an email from the pastor of Whitehall Presbyterian Church, where I preached this sermon. The pastor needed to know the scripture on which I would preach. I was literally walking out the door for an international flight, so I made a snap decision that I would preach on the Gospel text in the lectionary on September 4.  Luke 14:25-33. I didn’t look at the passage until last week and realized I picked a terribly difficult text to preach, particularly as a substitute preacher in a congregation I do not know well. It was too late to make a change, the bulletins and liturgy were done, so I took a deep breath and dove in.

Because the Holy Spirit is reliable, I realized around Thursday or Friday that it was a gift to receive this text to ponder and pray over. It gave me the opportunity to think about my friend, Rev. Eugene “Freedom” Blackwell and his faithfulness in answering God’s call despite every trial, tribulation, and risk.

Sometimes, the preacher receives a sermon he or she needs to preach. I needed this one.

Of all the faithful people I’ve known in my life, Freedom is one of the very few who I considered “all in” for Jesus. Well done, good and faithful servant.

Luke 14:25-3325Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them,26“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem in this text.  He has been teaching.  He has been preaching. He has been healing.

And, by all accounts, Jesus has been pretty successful — so successful that large crowds of people are traveling with him. on his journey toward Jerusalem.

But ever since Jesus made the turn toward Jerusalem back in Chapter 9 of Luke, he has been warning his followers and his disciples about the final destination of this journey.

To the cross. To death.

Throughout these chapters in Luke, Jesus does his best  to challenge would-be followers about the depth of their commitment.

In fact, by modern church standards in which we fret all the time about how many people decide to become church members and how many people show up on Sunday morning, I think it’s safe to say Jesus is the worst evangelist ever.

Think I am exaggerating? Well, let’s look at Luke.

First, in Luke Chapter 9:

When a couple of potential followers attempt to connect with Jesus, he immediately warns them that being a disciple means having nowhere to lay their head.  Homeless.

Jesus also says if they want to become followers, they can’t go back and bury a parent or say goodbye to family. Sorry folks, the time to go is now, not later when it’s more convenient.

Jesus also says that following him means leaving behind everything and everyone in your past and moving into the future with him.

That’s just Chapter 9.

In Luke Chapter 10, Jesus sends some people out ahead of him, telling them to take nothing with them.

No purse, no bag, no sandals.

Jesus sends them out in pairs, but warns them not to expect very much in the way of welcome. In fact, these disciples will be like lambs among wolves, according to Jesus.

In Luke Chapter 12, Jesus says he has not come to bring peace to the earth, but division.

To set father against son, mother against daughter.

Yet, despite these harsh warnings, Jesus has attracted a crowd of people by the time we get to Luke 14.

Perhaps the crowd is motivated to follow Jesus by the promise of healing. Perhaps they’re hoping Jesus will do for them what he has done for others.

Perhaps the crowd heard how Jesus is able to feed thousands and thousands of people with just a few loaves and fishes. Perhaps they figure following Jesus ensures a regular meal.

Perhaps the people are curious.

Perhaps they are lonely.

Perhaps they are bored.

And yes, perhaps a few in the crowd are true believers.

Here in Luke 14, Jesus is challenging the people again, ramping up on the requirements for discipleship.

Jesus says, if we want to follow him, we have to hate our family.

That’s a demand which certainly sounded just as difficult in 1st Century Palestine as in 21st Century America. Maybe more difficult.  Family ties were everything in Jesus’ time. To dissolve family ties and leave the protection and structure of family would be almost unthinkable.

Jesus says to the crowd that if they want to follow him, they have to carry a cross. Not the kind of cross we imagine – a shiny piece of jewelry around our necks or the beautiful crosses at the front of our sanctuaries – but a 1st Century instrument of terror, and the purest expression of brutality ever built by the Romans.  Jesus might as well ask us carry a guillotine or electric chair.

Finally, Jesus says, give up our possessions.

Compared to the stuff we stuff into our homes now, the average 1st century person didn’t own all that much.  What they did own was essential for survival. So this demand is not about giving away your excess stuff.

This is a demand to give up the stuff that keeps you and your family alive. And depend entirely upon Jesus.

Small wonder that Jesus also says that becoming his disciple is not something one does on a whim.

Jesus says becoming a disciple comes only after taking an honest account of ourselves.  Becoming a disciple is something to do only after counting the costs. And Jesus says, discipleship may cost us everything.

This is difficult stuff.

This is an unreasonable Jesus.

But if you think about the direction in which Jesus is heading, toward Jerusalem, toward crucifixion. That’s also unreasonable.  The Son of God, God in the flesh, moving toward death.

This is the kind of Jesus talk that helps us begin to understand why the Samaritans and the Pharisees and a lot of other people in the scriptures don’t want Jesus around when he shows up in their town or their synagogue or their temple.

And maybe at this point, you’re wishing I’d picked another piece of scripture. Frankly, I do too.

I preached at another church last week on a different text, a much easier text than this. After worship, a few congregation members told me they really liked my sermon and I told them I always know I’ve done well with a text when, by Sunday morning, I’ve fallen so deeply in love with the Scripture, I can’t wait to share it.  I always hope a congregation will fall in love with a text so much that they want to go home and read it themselves.

Today’s scripture passage is a hard text to love. This is a hard text to hear. And yes, it is a hard text to preach.

Every time I’ve heard these challenging texts from Luke preached, the pastor tries to smooth out the sharp edges of Jesus’ demands so Jesus doesn’t seem so…well…demanding.

But I think the writer of the gospel includes these sharp edged words from Jesus in the text for a very particular reason.  And I think we need to pay attention.

I wonder if we need to take what Jesus says seriously instead of trying to wiggle out of it.

If Jesus really means what he says here, the question is no longer whether or not Jesus means what he says or if we can wiggle out of these heavy costs of discipleship.

The question becomes: is this a Jesus we are willing to follow?

The kind of Jesus who tells us to love our families less than we love him?

The kind of Jesus who tells us we have to give up our comfort and safety?

The kind of Jesus who will lead us headlong into rejection and controversy?

Are we willing to follow this Jesus all the way to Jerusalem? Even all the way to the cross?

All of these nagging questions have led me to the uncomfortable realization that having Jesus Christ as the head of our church means it might be hard to find anyone to stick around for very long.  And perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised that so few do.

If we take this passage from Luke seriously, I think we come to the conclusion that Jesus doesn’t fit our image of a successful evangelist or a church growth consultant when it comes to number of people who decide to stick around with him.

In this text, Jesus is demanding.  Jesus is bordering on being downright offensive.

But he’s not saying these things to make us feel guilty or that we’re bad Christians.

Remember where Jesus is heading and where this journey will end.  Jesus is on a mission for the sake of the world.

The mission to Jerusalem is what matters to Jesus.  He is leading his disciples on a mission that will lead, not to glory or comfort, but to the cross.

I think all of us in the church do a fair amount of trying to shape Jesus according to our needs and our wants and our need to look successful.

We create the Jesus we want instead of allowing Jesus to shape us into the people God has created us to be.

In this text, Jesus will have none of it. Because he’s set his face toward Jerusalem. And his journey to Jerusalem is serious business.

His purpose in turning toward Jerusalem is to embrace the pain of the cross for the sake of the world.

His purpose in turning toward Jerusalem is driven by nothing less than love,

God’s profound love for all humanity and all the world.

A pouring out of God’s love that is the very essence of what it means to be “all in.” Jesus is “all in” for God’s purpose of redemption and grace.

Nothing will interfere with Jesus’ single minded purpose of sacrificial love.

Nothing, on heaven or on earth, will stop Jesus.

Not family. Not ridicule. Not rejection.

Not even us.

And thanks be to God for that.

If we are to believe our text today, survival was the last thing on Jesus’ mind. He knew there was a cost in participating in God’s mission of reconciliation and grace.

It may mean giving up one thing or many things or all the things.

It may mean risking relationships with people we care about.

It may mean carrying a burden on a long road for a long time.

And at first, we may be surrounded by many people willing to help carry that burden.

By the end, there may be very few of us left. Just as it was for Jesus.

This week, one of my dearest colleagues in ministry, who was also my mentor, died after a long struggle with a rare form of bone cancer. He was just 43, and left behind an incredible wife, amazing children, and a fledgling ministry which had just begun to gain important spiritual ground in the challenging city neighborhood of Homewood.

Every time I saw my friend Freedom Blackwell during his illness, I never once heard him question the providence and goodness of God. You can ask anyone who knew him, anyone fortunate enough to come into contact with Freedom in these last years. The injustice of it all, the fact that cancer threatened everything he cared about and held dear, none of it was enough to stop him from praising and serving the Lord he loved so dearly.

I don’t know how my friend could hold onto his faith in Jesus so tightly and continue to preach the Gospel even as he suffered great pain and faced the near certainty that the family and the church community he so cherished would soon lose him.

I don’t know how he did it. But he did.  Freedom was the epitome of an “all in” disciple.

Another important thing to know about Freedom is he was a visionary, gifted African American Presbyterian minister.

He could have taken a call to a very large church, anywhere in the country. He could have opted for a safe, comfortable, well paying position.

Instead, Pastor Freedom followed the call of Jesus to Homewood, where he started a new church called House of Manna, a church for “everyday people” whom Freedom knew needed to hear a message of Jesus’ love.

It was also a call which offered very little in terms of economic and physical security for Freedom and his family.

But Freedom knew where God wanted him.

In that neighborhood. Right there.

Freedom turned his back on prosperity.

He turned his back on security.

He turned his back on certainty.

He turned his back on comfort.

Freedom was as true a disciple of Jesus Christ as I’ve ever met.

Christ was first in his life in every possible way.

Before family, whom he loved dearly.

Before possessions.  Before anything.  He loved and followed Jesus Christ.

And he loved God’s people in Homewood. And he knew how to invite all kinds of people from all over Pittsburgh to share his love for Homewood.

Freedom gave up much to follow Jesus.  But if you asked him, Freedom would say that by letting go, he and his family were blessed abundantly by God.

But there was a cost. For him to do the ministry to which God had called him.  There was a cost.

There is always a cost to doing justice, to loving mercy, to walking humbly…

There is a cost to living into the demands of the gospel.

That cost may look different for you than for me. It will look different for each follower of Jesus Christ. And we are free to follow or not.

But if we are to believe the promises of the Gospel, following Jesus also leads to freedom.

There is a freedom that comes when we are willing to risk no matter the cost.

In the last paragraph of his great book entitled Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis has these important lines: “The principle runs all through life, from top to bottom.  Give up yourself and you will find your real self.  Lose life and it will be saved.  Submit to death – the death of ambitions and secret wishes.  Keep nothing back.  Nothing in us that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.  Look for Christ and you will find him, and with him, everything else thrown in.”

We are resurrection people, brothers and sisters. The hope in our calling is the promise that death does not win and love has the final word.

We are resurrection people.  Let us turn our face toward Jesus.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.







No One Left Behind


 One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched.

When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

My husband, Mitchell is a doctor and I am a minister, so we move in very different worlds during our workweeks and have friends with very different backgrounds.

We do not entertain in our home very often – only a couple times a year — so when we invite people over it’s impossible to limit the guest list to only “my friends” or “your friends” or even “our friends.”  Our parties usually end up being a mishmash of guests, most of whom have very little if anything in common other than being friends with one of us.

We’ve hosted stockbrokers, bagpipe players, college professors, seminary students, teachers, attorneys, stay at home moms, physicians assistants, secretaries, ministers, doctors, rich people, poor people, white people, black people, hipsters, vegans, vegetarians, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, kids, babies, teenagers, college kids, little old ladies, gay people, straight people, atheists, Hindu, Christian, Jew – often all at the same time, in the same house, occasionally watching Steelers football which is the great social equalizer and spiritual unifier on Sundays in Pittsburgh.

But it’s always risky business to throw different people together as haphazardly as we do.

UnknownThere’s always the risk that the Emily Post dinner party we envisioned can devolve into a fiasco.

Like when the attorney for a school district got into a heated debate with a high school teacher who just happened to be the head of the local teachers’ union.  That was fun.

Or when the president of a synagogue met up over the buffet table with a pro-Palestinian seminary student who had just returned from Israel.

Those are the sort of evenings when I wish I could stand at the front door as guests enter the house to pass out a list of conversation topics that won’t lead to mayhem over the Buffalo wings.

But you know whom I really would think about leaving off the guest list?  Jesus, that’s who.

Because Jesus doesn’t seem to be the kind of guy who reads etiquette books.

Jesus doesn’t innocently wander into uncomfortable conversations.

Jesus creates uncomfortable conversations.

In fact, you can’t invite Jesus anywhere in the gospel of Luke.  He always manages to make a scene when he shows up for dinner.

For example, in chapter 5, Jesus goes to the home of Levi for a big party with a guest list including tax collectors and other offensive sinners.  This sketchy gathering stirs up all kinds of issues for the Pharisees who end up calling Jesus and his friends a bunch of drunks and gluttons.  Good times.

In Luke chapter 7, Jesus is at another dinner party and an uninvited crazy lady shows up.  Most people would send such an unwelcome guest out the door, but Jesus lets her cry all over his feet and it’s all so embarrassing and weird that the Pharisees end up madder than hornets.

Martha and Mary? They practically get into a fistfight when they invite Jesus to dinner.

And of course, in Luke 22, the last dinner party Jesus hosts ends with him getting betrayed, arrested, and dragged off to prison.

We have another dinner party story in our text today.

Even though he has proven himself to be just about the worst guest ever, Jesus has been invited – again — to a Sabbath dinner at the home of a Pharisee and from the get go Jesus is not behaving as the sort of guest who hopes to be invited back.

Jesus does not really care much for polite dinner conversation.  He does not bite his lip or hold back on offering an opinion, especially an opinion that is apt to tick off his host.

Instead Jesus quickly hones in on the dining customs of his hosts and Jesus decides he doesn’t much like what he sees.

Because what Jesus sees is a social hierarchy in which everyone knows their place based upon the seat they are assigned at dinner.  The most important people are seated on the right and left of the host, the seats of honor.

And Jesus begins innocently enough by saying that nobody should come into a dinner party assuming they’ll receive the seats of honor.  That would be sort of show-offy and nobody likes a show-off, even Pharisees. It is sort of show-offy to just assume you belong at the head table.

No, Jesus says – better to be humble and head for the cheap seats rather than to go to the head of the table and risk being embarrassed when somebody asks you to move.

You can imagine the guests who hear this parable murmuring in polite agreement with Jesus.  After all, there’s nothing controversial in pretending to humble.

In fact, everyone thinks it’s kind of charming when someone important or famous demonstrates how very ordinary they are, really.

It’s like that section in Us Magazine: “The Stars – They’re Just Like Us!”  They go to the grocery store!  They take their kids to the playground!  They go to baseball games!  They carry their own luggage through the airport!article_large1

Everyone admires important people who pretend they’re not really as important as everyone thinks they are.  Even if nobody actually believes that Ben Affleck carries his own suitcase through LaGuardia Airport. Really, if you were Ben Affleck, would you lug your own suitcase around?

It’s all a little game for these Pharisees.  Jesus knows that it’s all an act.  Jesus knows that while he’s watching the social maneuvering of the party guests, the Pharisees are watching him – as they always are –.to see how Jesus behaves.

This text isn’t about who sits where at dinner.

This text is about the larger power structure that Jesus has been poking at since his first sermon back in Nazareth.

And the Pharisees are watching Jesus and wondering:  has Jesus finally gotten the message?  Has Jesus finally decided to play the game?  Has Jesus decided to stop coming so dangerously close to upending a carefully constructed hierarchy?

Or is Jesus going to keep making trouble for the guys who already have the game rigged in their favor?

Well, it is Jesus we’re talking about here.

Jesus is that terrible dinner guest you regret inviting because he ends up ruining everything.

Who does Jesus say should be invited to the banquet?

The poor, the blind, the crippled and the lame.

And this is where Jesus gets in trouble with the Pharisees

And if we’re being honest.  This is the part of the story where we become either defensive or…well…even more defensive.

Because who does that?  Who invites a homeless guy to their house for dinner? We might go serve dinner at a homeless shelter or give canned goods to the food pantry.  But invite a homeless person to our house?

Jesus is really asking too much of us here, isn’t he?

Then it came to me.  Jesus isn’t talking about who we should invite to our house for dinner once or twice, just to feel good about ourselves.

Jesus is talking about totally changing our view of who is worthy and who is not.

Jesus is talking about the dinner party to which we are invited – that great and crazy banquet God throws for all of us.

The Kingdom of God banquet.

Who do you think is invited to THAT dinner party?

All of us who are blind, lame, poor, insecure, frightened, broken and dysfunctional people who waste enormous amounts of energy pretending that we are not.  We are invited.

We are all invited guests at God’s table of grace, whether we like the other people at the party or not.

If you’re going to have dinner with Jesus, the food will be incredible and the wine will never run out, but you will also find yourself at the table with other people with whom you would never choose to have a meal.

That’s the great joy of the kingdom of God and also the great pain in the butt of it.  God will not leave anyone off the invitation list, which is the good news.

The bad news is that God will not leave anyone off the guest list, which means we’ll have to rub elbows with all sorts of people.  And they will rub elbows with us.

How will we accept God’s invitation? Will we insist on picking who is worthy and not worthy of our time and consideration?

Or will we find the beauty in humility and be grateful just to have been invited at all?

 The movie “Little Miss Sunshine” is the story of a lttle girl, Olive, who has been chosen as a finalist in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest.

So she and her family head off for an 800 mile road trip to the pageant in a old, beaten up, barely working Volkswagen van.

In fact, in order to get the van moving, the family has to push the van until it reaches a speed of 20 miles per hour and then they all jump in and turn on the engine.____53715bba5c1c8

Olive is a chubby little girl with big glasses. At one point early in the movie, Olive says: “I don’t want to be a loser because Daddy hates losers.”  Olive’s father is a failed motivational speaker and throughout the film, he makes a lot of comments about there being two kinds of people: winners and losers.

The irony, of course, is that it’s absolutely clear to people watching this movie that Olive’s father is a loser and by most standards, so is the rest of the family.   When Olive’s father says, “There are two kinds of people in this world: winners and losers,” the camera pans round the people in the van and the audience sees his foul-mouthed father, his suicidal brother-in-law, his son who refuses to speak, his exhausted wife who is trying to hold them all together, and himself, the failed businessman.

But there’s a great moment in the film when the family is driving down the road and discovers they’ve left Olive behind at a gas station.

We see the van moving across the screen in one direction and the whole family whisks her up into the vehicle without stopping because at this point, if they stop they won’t be able to restart the van at all. Then we hear Olive’s father’s voice: ‘No-one gets left behind, no-one gets left behind.’

And I think that’s sort of the point that Jesus is making in this parable he unloads on the dinner guests.  In the kingdom of God, there are no winners and losers and no one gets left behind.  No matter how broken.  Or poor. No matter how difficult or annoying.

Which means that we are called to reach out and grab one another in this broken down, sputtering old van called “The Church.”  That’s what Jesus tells us to do here.  To continue going out into the world to gather up God’s people. Nobody left behind. That’s what church is about.

It’s like that game people sometimes play.  You know this one.  If you were able to invite three people to have dinner with you, living or dead, who would you pick?  That’s always a hard one.  You’d probably pick Jesus as one of your guests.  Then maybe George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.  Maybe Ben Affleck.  Who knows?

But if Jesus were playing the game, you’d ask: “Jesus, if you could invite any three people to dinner, alive or dead, who would they be?”  And Jesus would reply, “That’s easy.  The poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.”

And you would say, “But Jesus, that’s four people!  The rules of the game are that you only get to choose three.”

Jesus would pause for a moment.  And then he would say,

“Oh in that case, the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, the stinky man on the bus, that kid with baggy shorts, your jag-off brother-in-law, the playground bully, that guy you can’t stand at work, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Mother Theresa, Charles Manson, Mister Rogers, Osama Bin Laden…”

Do you get it?  The guest list goes on.  And on.  And on.  No one is left behind.

That is why Jesus was so threatening to those who had a stake in keeping the higher ups high and the lowly low. That is why Jesus was so threatening to Pharisees who needed to separate the world into winners and losers, sinners and saints.  That is why those invested in a social pecking order of judgment and shame – which still exists today and includes all of us — put Jesus to death.

What all of these texts about Jesus’ attending dinner parties suggest, at least to me, is that we need to turn the tables on our usual patterns.

We need to hang out with the wrong kind of people.

We need to notice who is missing from the circles we participate in.

We need to get to know and care about some strangers.

Rearrange the familiar.

Allow the humiliated components of our lives to move up, and let our prideful, aloof parts take a back seat.

We need to stop worrying so much about repairing this broken down van, and hit the road trusting God’s grace.

We’re rehearsing for nothing less than a resurrection feast — a new kingdom that has no place for our insecurities and hang-ups and prejudices and craving for order.

The good news is that you and I serve a resurrected Lord of life and love, who lifts his hands up in eternal blessing, welcoming all of us into a new vision where there is enough for everyone,

no first or last,

no honor or shame,

just God’s crazy, messy, beautiful creation,

forgiven and loved,

bound to one another in God’s abundant grace.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.











Unbearable Lightness


John 9:1-41

 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”

 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.”

But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.

 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”

 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”

 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

Today’s scripture reading is one of those texts you can read dozens of times and always find something new. It’s a long text, obviously, with many details.

When I read John 9 this week, the detail that captured my attention is one I have never noticed before. This week, I noticed:

The man born blind didn’t approach Jesus

The man born blind didn’t ask for his sight.

There’s absolutely nothing in this story to suggest that man knew who Jesus was or wanted Jesus to do anything for him.

The man born blind was just minding his own business. He couldn’t see, but he wasn’t deaf.

He probably heard the disciples ask Jesus about the sin they though caused his blindness.

The blind man didn’t say a word to defend himself or his family. The blind man said nothing. Did nothing.

All of what happens next is Jesus’ idea,

It is totally Jesus’ initiative.

It is Jesus’ idea to spit on the ground, and rub saliva and dirt onto the man’s eyes.

He could have just touched the man with his magic Jesus hands, right?  But he doesn’t.

Jesus uses spit and dirt.

Let’s just stop for a moment and think what it felt like for the blind man.Unknown

Not only is Jesus intruding into the man’s personal space doing something the man didn’t ask him to do,he is also touching the man in a way that had to have felt totally weird at best, and painful and frightening at worst.

Think about it.  Having dirt and spittle suddenly and unexpectedly rubbed into your eyes can’t feel good. If you’ve ever had an eyelash stuck in your eye, or a piece of sand, or sweat and sunscreen running into your eyes, you can imagine the physical discomfort of the blind man. You can imagine having mud and spit rubbed into your eyes by a complete and maybe crazy stranger.

The blind man didn’t ask for it. But Jesus did it. And after washing the mud out of his eyes, the man blind since birth could see. For the first time.

In the gospel of John, these miraculous actions of Jesus – turning water into wine, feeding multitudes, raising the dead, walking on water, giving sight to the blind – are not referred to as “miracles,” but as signs.

The blind man’s sight is not a miracle to marvel over, but rather a muddy, messy sign pointing us to a deeper understanding of Jesus, and who he is and who he calls us to be in the world.

And it tells us something about the way in which Jesus moves in the world, even now.

If Jesus wants our eyes opened, he will not wait for us to ask or cooperate.

And the process might sting a little.

I read an opinion piece yesterday by Peter McKay from the Post Gazette. He wrote about the virtual world of “Pokemon Go.” If you know a kid with a smart phone, you’ve probably heard of Pokemon Go.

I have a 15 year old son with a smart phone who has, indeed, caught Pokemon Go fever. In fact, we just got back from vacation and my teenager and his cousins saw most of Disney World, Savannah and Charleston, S.C. through the lens of their smart phone cameras.slim

Peter McKay described the Pokemon Go phenomena.  Players of the game use their smart phones to find virtual Pokemon characters that can be seen only by peering through the phone’s camera.  Pokemon Go has gotten so big that this month it overtook Twitter for number of daily users.

McKay says he knows he should be telling kids that Pokemon Go is a tremendous waste of time.

On the other hand, he says, spending time in the virtual world of Pokemon Go seems highly preferable to enduring the actual world of Summer 2016.

Maybe it’s better, says McKay, to withdraw from all the violence and fear and anger. Better to chase a Pokemon character at the bus stop,or turn off the television completely, or turn on old episodes of the Lawrence Welk show and hope the bubbles will drown out the sense of dread.

The virtual monsters of Pokemon seem highly preferable to the real ones that seem to be lurking under our beds or outside our door. Or in Munich, Nice, Baton Rouge, St. Paul or Orlando or any number of places that have been ripped apart by violence this summer.[1]

I get what McKay is saying. The impulse to tune out is strong. Sometimes it seems safer, saner not to look. Maybe that’s what you’ve decided to do this summer. Shut down and shut it all out.

The Pharisees in the text are blind-sided by the man whose sight has been restored. They cannot see what Jesus has accomplished.  They cannot see what Jesus is about. All they see is sin and broken rules. The Pharisees hide so deeply in their piety, they can’t perceive the possibilities of Jesus.

The man’s parents are blinded by fear. Even the neighbors cannot wrap their minds around what has happened.

“It’s too impossible.

Him? He’s been blind forever.

Are you sure it’s the same guy?

Maybe he’s faking all of us out.

Don’t ask me. Ask him.”

Nobody wants to see. Nobody wants to know. Nobody believes.

In the midst of all the commotion and controversy, stands a man who once was blind.

All he knows is that his world was turned upside down when Jesus touched him.

For better and for worse.

He will be ridiculed. Not believed.

He will be turned out and rejected by everyone he knows.

But for the first time in his life, the blind man sees what is real. What he sees is Jesus.

The man who was once blind now sees and believes. Over time, he confesses Jesus as Lord.

In the gospel of John, Jesus is introduced as the light of the world. And throughout the Gospel, the light of Jesus leads to conversion, at least for some. It leads to a moment in which the world turns upside down and nothing is ever the same again.  At least for some people.

Others in the gospels encounter the light of Jesus and miss it. They believe only what their blind eyes tell them.

Mud is mud is mud.

Water is water, and wine is wine.

A couple of pieces of bread and a few fish are only enough to feed one little boy, not thousands of hungry people.

After all, everyone knows the dead stay dead and blind people stay blind.

And if one day a man shows up and tells you a prophet gave him his sight by rubbing mud in his eyes,

you can believe or not.

You can rejoice, or question the man’s sanity.

You can hear his story and allow your eyes to open. For better or worse. It might sting a little.

I have learned how blind I am the hard way, and more than once in my life.

In fact, it happens all the time to me.

Jesus shows up and rubs mud into in my eyes.

And sometimes the light feels unbearable.

Hearing the story feels uncomfortable.

How has it felt for you, brothers and sisters? Has Jesus rubbed mud in your eyes? Have you felt unbearable lightness?

Jesus did it to me last week. While I was on vacation, a friend who is a pastor posted a testimony on Facebook.

I didn’t ask to see it. I didn’t want to read it.

In fact, my plan for vacation was to focus only on vacation. I planned to unplug everything except my family, an Alexander Hamilton biography, and perhaps learn a bit more about Pokemon Go.Unknown-1

I heard this testimony from my friend and colleague, a pastor who leads a congregation in Knoxville, a hilltop neighborhood on the South Side that has seen more than its fair share of tragic shootings and deep brokenness. In fact, a 6 year old girl was shot and killed there last week. But that wasn’t the story my friend Rev. White told on Facebook.  Here’s his testimony, edited by me but only a little:

So Saturday started like most Saturdays.

Kids up asking for cereal, wife sleeping in, and me on my way to 7eleven for coffee and a plan to finally wash my car. I was engaged in conversation with a member of my congregation about the events in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and Minnesota as I pulled into 7eleven via my hands free mode, and remained in the parking lot for about 15 minutes concluding the conversation before going in to get my coffee.

When an Ohio Township police cruiser pulls up next to me, the officer gets out his car, nods to me and he goes into the store.

A few seconds later he comes out the store and he approaches my driver’s side, and says to me, “Sir what are you doing?”

I reply, “I was talking on the phone and am about to go in and get coffee.”

Then he hits me with the words every black man dreads “Well we got a call. I’m going to need to see your license and registration.”

“For what?” I ask?

“Well the employee inside called and said you were out here in the lot for 45 minutes and she was afraid. “

How’s my sitting here in my car on my phone in full view of the stores exterior cameras threatening this woman? What gesture was I unaware of? What action off putting?

I am in my car outside the store on my phone in a place I have lived my whole life, no hoodie, no bb gun, no loud music, big rims, or gold chains.

I wasn’t selling CDs or cigarettes;

I wasn’t fresh out of a high speed chase in a stolen car

I wasn’t speeding nor did I have a busted tail light.

I was present and Black.

police_gunAnd apparently in the times we live that’s all it takes for a call to be made and for me to be talking to an officer with his hand on his gun. waiting for me to comply with his request.

To many of you this might seem like a simple request.

Just give him your license and all will be fine.

But the distance between that and the truth is as great as what seemed like the miles between my driver’s seat and my book bag on the floor of the car which contained my license,  or the universe between me and my glove compartment which contained my registration.

The truth is I did nothing wrong but I didn’t reach.

The truth is I had no evil intent towards this officer but I didn’t reach yet.

The truth is I in no way threatened anyone but I couldn’t reach yet.

Because the certain reality for me as a black man in this situation is this.

What I do next may very well determine if my children ever see me again.

That may not be your reality. It is my reality.

What I say

how I move

what I do

will determine the answer to this question:

Can I live?

“Officer my ID is there and my registration there. CAN I get them?”

“Just give me your license!”

 As he walks away to his car and I ask myself why are you nervous?

And I realized in that moment that my fear is now turning quickly to anger.

I don’t have to be guilty of anything to die here for talking on my phone in a public place in a town I have lived in all my life where we raise our kids in a county where we pay our taxes, in a city where I pastor a church and work in the community at a store I visit once a day, in a country I have served as a member of the military.

Ten seconds the officer comes back to my window, hands me my license and walks away.

“Hold up wait a minute officer What did I do wrong in the first place?”

He turns and pauses. A look comes across his face that I can only describe as an angry man trying to calm himself.

He turns and says to me:

“She was afraid and had a right to call.”

And I said to myself

I am afraid and I have a right to live.

Can I?

Can I live?



That wasn’t just a little mud in my eyes.


Rabbi, who sinned?

The fearful white employee in the 7-11?

The fearful police officer with his hand on his gun?

The fearful Reverend White who was born with black skin?

All of them. All of us. They and you and me and we have all been born blind and sinful, steeped in prejudice and privilege and fear.

The good news is we are loved despite all of it.

The good news is because we are loved, Jesus keeps showing up and opening our eyes.

The good news is God’s work might yet be revealed in us and through us, thanks to the light that is Jesus Christ in the world.

The light of Jesus Christ in our families and in our churches. In Ben Avon and in Knoxville. In our workplaces and even in 7-11 parking lots.

Sometimes, it is unbearable light that we do not want to acknowledge.

We are free to look away or deny it or even give in to fear.

Or we can let the light of Christ reach us, and teach us, and draw us ever more closely to the heart of God.

The light shines in darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Peter McKay, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, 7/23/16, “Go, Pokemon God, and take me with you.” Downloaded on 7/23/16

The Blessing of Giving Up


Luke 9:51-62

 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.

 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Today, Jesus is on the road with his disciples and they have made the turn toward Jerusalem.

This text marks the beginning of the second half of Luke’s account of Jesus’ ministry. The meandering journey of Jesus’ preaching and teaching through Galilee is over and the disciples’ journey with Jesus takes on new urgency.

Jesus warned his disciples this turn was coming.

But as usual, the disciples are entirely clueless about what the turn toward Jerusalem means. They have no idea what will happen next.Only Jesus knows what lies ahead in Jerusalem.

And Jesus is resolute.  Unwavering.  Determined. Jesus is a man with a mission and he moves forward.

He and the disciples come to a Samaritan village, where they immediately meet resistance.  We don’t know exactly why, but Luke tells us Jesus and his followers are rejected by the Samaritans.

Could it be that the people in the village don’t much like where Jesus is going or the people who live there? Maybe. There is a history of conflict between the Samaritans and the Jews, so it could be the case that any Jew would be unwelcome in Samaria.

Or maybe Jesus chose this village in order to prepare the disciples for the rejections to come,or perhaps it was just the most direct route to Jerusalem.

What we do know for sure is the way in which James and John react.  They want to call down fire from heaven and wipe the Samaritans out, just like Elijah called down fire on the prophets of Ba’al.

James and John are not “shake the dust from your feet” kind of guys.James and John are all about wiping the whole village out.

But not Jesus.

Jesus does not meet the Samaritan’s rejection with violence.Jesus doesn’t engage in an argument with the Samaritans over their lack of hospitality.

Jesus tells James and John to get over it. There’s no time to argue. There will be no vengeance today. It is as if Jesus knows that compared to the rejection ahead of them in Jerusalem, this scuffle with the Samaritans is a Sunday school picnic

Soon, Jesus and the disciples are on their way again and potential new members for the Jesus team sidle up next to them.

The first man says, “Hey, Jesus, sign me up! I will follow you wherever you go.”

Wonderful, right? A new member of the team!

But, Jesus totally messes up this evangelism opportunity.

Instead of encouraging the new recruit, Jesus says to him, “Are you sure you want to follow me?  Are you sure you want this kind of life? Foxes have holes and birds have nests. But if you follow me, you will never have a clue about what you’ll be doing or where you’ll going or where you will be sleeping.  Are you sure you’re ready for that?”

Potential follower number one decides a comfortable bed and a regular schedule is highly preferable to the life of a nomad.  Thanks but no thanks, Jesus.

Not long after, Jesus sees a second person on the road and Jesus issues an invitation to him. “Follow me,” Jesus says.

To which the man responds, “That’s a fantastic idea, Jesus.  But here’s the thing… I’ve got to go bury my father.  Give me a day or two and I’m all yours.”

And Jesus messes the whole thing up again by saying:

“Let the dead bury the dead. Forget about the past.  I’m inviting you to proclaim the kingdom of God.  That’s what matters now.  The kingdom of God can’t wait for a funeral.”

Not only is Jesus telling the man to break a pretty significant Jewish law, but he’s also being kind of a jerk about it.

So recruit number two scurries away instead of joining this heretical rabbi.

Finally, a third man comes along and says he’s very excited about this mission opportunity, but he’d like a couple hours to say goodbye to his family back in the village.

And again, Jesus completely shuts down a potential recruit.

Jesus says circling back is not an option for those who wish to follow him.If you are serious about following Jesus, you have to let go of everything that weighs you down and seriously reconsider your priorities. Your religious laws. Your attachments. Your need for comfort and security.

This passage from Luke is not exactly a problem text, but I think we can safely say we have a problematic Jesus on our hands this morning.

This is a Jesus who has no patience with stalling tactics or excuses, even really legitimate, reasonable excuses.

This is the kind of Jesus talk that helps us begin to understand why the Samaritans and a lot of other people in the scriptures don’t want Jesus around when he shows up in their town or their synagogue or their temple.Following Jesus

Every time I’ve heard this text preached, the pastor tries to smooth out the sharp edges of Jesus’ demands so Jesus doesn’t seem so…well…demanding.

But I think the writer of the gospel includes these sharp edged words from Jesus in the text for a very particular reason.

I wonder if we need to take what Jesus says seriously instead of trying to wiggle out of it. If Jesus really means what he says here, the question becomes: is this a Jesus we are willing to follow?

The kind of Jesus who tells us we can’t depend on comfort and predictability?

The kind of Jesus who says following him is more important than religious rules and tradition?

The kind of Jesus who will lead us headlong into rejection and controversy?

Are we willing to follow this Jesus all the way to Jerusalem? Even all the way to the cross?

All of these nagging questions have led me to the uncomfortable realization that having Jesus Christ as the head of our church means it might be hard to find anyone to stick around for very long.  And perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised that so few do.

In fact, if Jesus were running a Billy Graham kind of crusade, he wouldn’t be the kind of evangelist who begs people to come forward after the service and dedicate their lives to him.

I think Jesus would say to those who answer the alter call, “Are you sure?  Have you really thought this through? Because you are really in for a rude awakening if you imagine your life will be any easier if you follow me. In fact, your life as my disciple will probably get harder.”

At the end of a Jesus crusade, I think the number of new followers Jesus would pick up would probably be around the number he attracts in this passage today.

Which, in case you haven’t noticed, is exactly 0.

If we take this passage from Luke seriously, I think we come to the conclusion that Jesus doesn’t fit our notions of a successful evangelist or a church growth consultant when it comes to number of people who decide to stick around with him.

In this text, Jesus is demanding.  Jesus is bordering on being downright offensive. The mission to Jerusalem is what matters. A mission that will lead, not to glory or comfort, but to the cross.

One of the problems we have as Presbyterians is that we want to be entirely non-offensive.  3417817301_501ff5ce4f_bWe do not often demand too much of ourselves or each other.  I have met very few pastors who don’t have a hidden or not-so-hidden need to be liked.  I have met very few church people who would respond positively to the kind of challenge Jesus throws down in this text.

I think all of us in the church do a fair amount of trying to shape Jesus according to our needs and our wants and our need to look successful.

We create the Jesus we want instead of allowing Jesus to shape us into the people God has created us to be.

In this text, Jesus will have none of it. Because he’s set his face toward Jerusalem. And it’s serious business.

His purpose in turning toward Jerusalem is to embrace the pain of the cross for the sake of the world.

Nothing will stop Jesus.

His purpose in turning toward Jerusalem is driven by nothing less than love, God’s profound love for all humanity and all the world.

Nothing will stop Jesus.

Nothing will interfere with Jesus’ single minded purpose of sacrificial and deeply radical love.

Nothing, on heaven or on earth, will stop Jesus. Not even a bunch of people pleasing, non-offensive Presbyterians like us.  And thanks be to God for that.

The would-be followers in this text are reluctant to follow Jesus because they know it means losing something dear to them. The kind of compassion Jesus calls us to demonstrate to the world is costly.

What stops us from making the turn with Jesus? What is holding us back?

Over the past four years, I have been working with colleagues in Pittsburgh Presbytery on a project we call, “The Unglued Church.” In fact, next Sunday, your guest preacher will be the Rev. Sarah Robbins who is my partner in crime in our Unglued Church effort.

When Sarah and I met, we soon discovered that we had something in common.Both of us served congregations that were holding on so tightly to survival at any cost that they had lost sight of the mission of Jesus Christ.

In working with churches over the past four years, Sarah and I and my other Unglued colleagues have observed that “survival at all costs” is a pervasive attitude in many congregations.

Given the continuing decline in membership and money, it’s not hard to understand the anxiety in our congregations.

My colleagues and I have spent the better part of the last 4 years helping churches stop clutching at those things they think they need to survive, and instead open up their hands and focus on following Jesus.

Such conversations are hard, much harder than we ever imagined when we began the Unglued work. The conversations are difficult because they are conversations about letting go and breaking open in ways that feel like death.  And Jesus might tell us that’s exactly how it is supposed to feel when we turn our face to Jerusalem.

My colleagues and I believe these faithful conversations are the first steps on the road to new life for tired and stuck congregations. These conversations lead us away from “survival at all costs” and back to the holy logic of death and resurrection.

The conversations at General Assembly in Portland this past week also were hard. Leslie Kaplan will, no doubt, brief you all on what she heard and experienced as she served as a ruling elder commissioner on behalf of Sixth Church and Pittsburgh Presbytery.

Presbyterians made many good steps forward at GA last week, not the least of which is the fact that the top leadership of our denomination now includes an African American man, an African American woman, a white woman and a gay, married Latino man. We also added the Belhar Confession to our constitution, the first confession to emerge from the global south, out of the experience of apartheid in South Africa.

(l to r) Tony De La Rosa, Interim Executive Director/Presbyterian Mission Agency, Rev. Denise Anderson and Rev. Jan Edmiston, Co-Moderators of 222nd General Assembly, Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Stated Clerk of the PCUSA

But I watched a good bit of the live feed from Portland this week. And what I often heard in the debates and reports from committees was fear and anxiety rooted in a scarcity mindset.

A fear that if we open up our hands to fully commit to racial justice or divestment from fossil fuels, or generous parental leave for our mission agency employees or genuine reconciliation with our GLBTQ brothers and sisters, we’ll continue to bleed money and members.

It’s too costly, the commissioners seemed to think. If we open our hands, there may not be enough. If we give up our resources and our comfort and follow Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, the PCUSA might not survive.

But the General Assembly was challenged on Friday morning by our new Stated Clerk, The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, who said this in his opening remarks that,

Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Stated Clerk PCUSA

“To focus on the survival of the church is to set our aim too low…it’s time to take our eyes off the church and place them on the Kingdom of God.”

If we are to believe our text today, survival at any cost was the last thing on Jesus’ mind as he makes the turn toward Jerusalem. He knew there was a cost in following God’s mission of reconciliation and grace.

There is a cost to doing justice, to loving mercy, to walking humbly…

There is a cost to living into the demands of the gospel.

But if we are to believe the promises of the Gospel, there is also freedom.

There is a freedom that comes when we are willing to risk no matter the cost.

There is a freedom that comes when we are willing to speak truth to power.

Before the disciples and Jesus began their journey toward Jerusalem, Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (Lk.9.24)

We are resurrection people, brothers and sisters. The hope in our calling is the promise that death does not win and love has the final word.

We are resurrection people.  Let us turn our face toward Jesus.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.