Sunday, March 1, 2015

Teaching Steadfast Love

Mark 8:31-38
31Then he began to teach them that the son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”34He called the crowd with this disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes int he Glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Psalm 25
1Of David.
To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
2O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me.
3Do not let those who wait for you to be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
4Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. 
5Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.
6Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.
7Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness sake, O LORD!
8Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
9He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.
10All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
11For your name’s sake, O LORD, pardon my guilt, for it is great.
12Who are they that fear the LORD? He will teach them the way that they should choose.
13They will abide in prosperity, and their children shall possess the land.
14The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him, and he makes his covenant known to them.
15My eyes are ever toward the LORD for he will pluck my feet out of the net.
16Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.
17Relieve the troubles of my heart, and bring me out of my distress.
18Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins.
19Consider how many are my foes, and with what violent hatred they hate me.
20O guard my life, and deliver me; do not let me be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.
21May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for you.
22Redeem Israel, O God, out of all its troubles.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

This Psalm is more confession than lament. At first glance, it seems to tilt more towards a statement of faith, or maybe a prayer of relief from enemies. David wrote a bunch of those. This Psalm, however doesn't quite fit those categories. 

Elements of psalms of lament are a little tough to find. I was expecting the kind of anguish we saw last week in Psalm 77, "My soul refuses to be comforted." Lament and grief, to me, are closely linked. Psalm 25 isn't dripping with dark emotions the way some of the more famous laments are. It's not filled with counter testimony. There's no challenge to the LORD, or a wrestling with deep troubles of the world. Except the personal ones.

At the core of Psalm 25, we find David's grieving his own sinfulness. "For your name’s sake, O LORD, pardon my guilt, for it is great." We hold David up as a hero of the faith, he's the anointed Shepherd boy, who defeated the Philistine Giant. He conquered neighboring tribes and expanded Israel's territory. In our search for a hero, we sometimes overlook his imperfections. 

Caught in adultery, David sent a Uriah the Hittite to his death so that David could marry Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife. That's just the famous one though. We don't talk about it much, but what David allows to happen to his daughter Tamar is tragic and reprehensible. David was a good king and a mighty warrior, but he was as fallen a person as the rest of us. In Psalm 25, he laments his sinfulness.

Here in worship, we acknowledge every Sunday that we are sinners who need God's grace, echoing David's plea of "Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness sake, O LORD!” Worship is one of the few places in our culture where it’s safe, even expected, to acknowledge our weaknesses, failures, mistakes. Imagine trying to make those claims in a job interview or on a college admissions application, or while you’re trying to get out of a traffic ticket, or while you’re ruling over the kingdom of Israel…

I wonder if perhaps David was stuck on his sinfulness. David returns again and again to his sinfulness, and he both praises and pleads with God. “[David] does pray for a change in circumstances, but also that God will act within, enabling patience and integrity.” Perhaps David is struggling to see God’s action, because all he can see is his failure as a king, as a father, as a servant of God. Perhaps the despair is behind this lament, instead of in the midst of it. 

Now we see the lament. David, despairing over his sin, takes up his lyre and writes a psalm, confessing both his sins and his faith through the poetry, trying to remind himself of the God who loves him even when he is overwhelmed and stuck in grief for his sin.

Getting stuck in that mindset happens to all of us, from time to time. I know I sometimes struggle with it. The “sins of my youth” to which David refers are not that long ago for me, and I think all of us sometimes look back on some of the dumb things we’ve done and overlook the grace we’ve been given.. I think we sometimes look at ourselves so long that all we see is the sinner in the mirror, rather than the image of our creator. I think David, in writing this psalm, has lost sight of what God is doing through him, and I think we sometimes find ourselves there too.

So David turns to the promise, I think to remind himself of the promise as much as to call for God’s intervention. Though we might sometimes get stuck in seeing only our own brokenness, David reminds us that we are not judged by our abilities, but by God’s steadfast love. “according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness sake, O LORD!”

The good news is that God loves us sinners, and wraps us up in the promise of love, and tells us the sacred stories that carry us through the times when all we see are darkness. Because those stories, of heroes who are also sinners, of slaves who become a nation, of crucifixion giving way to resurrection, remind us of the promise that God, who is involved in this world, loves us.

Even though sometimes we lose sight of the promise. In those moments we have to reach back to those shared stories, and express our lament in a sinful and unsettled world. Even so,“This, at least, we ought to regard as a fixed and settled point, that although the goodness of God may sometimes be hidden…it can never be extinguished.”

As David pleas with and praises God in Psalm 25, we see his view that “Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way” God is teaching us what steadfast love looks like, so that we will not be slaves to our sin, but servants of Christ.

Doing those instructions is much more difficult that reading them in the Bible. David acknowledges the reality of our struggles, but also reminds us that God “will pluck my feet out of the net.”

For we will still get stuck in despair, we will still sin, we will still fail. That’s part of life, in this lenten wilderness. That’s part of life in this world that still has not fully realized its redemption. Sin is still our habit, and though its power to define us is already broken, the habit is not yet our of our system.

And so we return, with David, to Psalm 25, a confession of our sin and a praise to the God who rescues us. “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.”

Sometimes our loneliness is the hardest part, but Psalms like this one show us that we are not alone. Heroes of our faith, like David, have been stuck on their own sinfulness. Yet God holds us all together.

This is the good news, that God loves us sinners, and will not let us go.

Love holds us close, not our loneliness or sin. Our troubles and distress will fade, God’s love, on the other hand, is all-consuming, and judges us by God’s own steadfast love. We may be sinners, but we are redeemed anyway. We may get stuck, but God moves through us anyway. We may not be able to see what God is doing, but God is our refuge anyway.

“O guard my life, and deliver me; do not let me be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.” David’s plea follows his admission that it is only God’s forgiveness that can bring him through his struggles. “God’s uncanny forgiveness is what gives us a future in the midst of our jeopardy.” God is our refuge, and promised us a future that not even the cross could break.

Views may change, our own abilities may fail, but God’s integrity and uprightness do not, neither does God’s goodness and love shift away from us.


Even in our darkest moments, God loves us sinners, and teaches us how to respond. When we cannot respond, or see, or reach out, God is still holding us in a covenant of love and grace, and is bringing us out of the wilderness of sin and death into the promise of Easter.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Lenten Lament



Mark 1:9-15
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Psalm 77
1to the leader: according to Jeduthun, of Asaph. A Psalm
I cry aloud to God, aloud to God that he may hear me.
2In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.
3I think of God, and I moan; I meditate, and my spirit faints. Selah
4You keep my eyelids from closing; I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
5I consider the days of old, and remember the years of long ago.
6I commune with my heart in the night; I meditate and search my spirit:
7”Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable?
8Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end for all time?
9Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” Selah
10And I say, “ It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed.”
11I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD; I will remember your wonders of old.
12I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds.
13Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God?
14You are the God who works wonders; you have displayed your might among the peoples.
15With your strong arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah
16When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled.
17The clouds poured our water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side.
18The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook.
19Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.
20You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

"I consider the days of old, and remember the years of long ago.”

We've stood on the banks of the Jordan and watched our Lord come up out of the water. We've heard the words of John the Baptist. We've felt the presence of God as Jesus "saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.'”

I consider the days of old, and remember the years of long ago.”

We've followed Jesus as he goes on the move following John's arrest. We've joined him as he proclaims “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

“I consider the days of old, and remember the years of long ago.”

But between "You are my Son, the Beloved;" and "believe in the good news" is something new. The Spirit who, like a dove, descended on Jesus immediately drives him out into the wilderness. There's no time for a luncheon after the baptism, no time for pictures to commemorate the holy moment. The immediately of the Spirit makes us wonder if Jesus even stayed for the closing hymn, or if right after his experience of God the Father he was driven out.

“I consider the days of old, and remember the years of long ago.” This passage starts with baptism and ends with proclaiming the good news. But for now, we are living in the middle, in the wilderness with the wild beasts.

Why would a father drive his beloved son into the Wilderness? Maybe God wants us to know that struggle and pain are part of our existence. We are not in the garden, we’re lost in the wilderness.

The season of Lent is a time in the church year when we remember what it’s like to be out in the wilderness, mirroring the temptation of Jesus, the Babylonian exile, and the wandering of the Israelites on the way to the promised land. Lent is a time of reflection, penitence, and lament.

The Lenten Lament lies in the shadow of the cross. We walk for a time in darkness so that we can be blinded by the light of Easter morning. As we walk through the wilderness of Lenten Lament, we know the empty tomb is just over the horizon. “I consider the days of old, and remember the years of long ago.” We know how the story ends. But we're living in the middle of the story now, in the wilderness for forty days. The only horizon we can see is the place called the skull, where in fewer than 40 days Christ our Lord will die. We cannot see what is coming, and at some points in our Lenten Lament, we cannot see what God is doing around us right now.

So we join the Psalmist in raising our lament to God. “I cry aloud to God, aloud to God that he may hear me.In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted. I think of God, and I moan; I meditate, and my spirit faints. Selah.”

Psalms of Lament, like the ones we’ll be studying this Lent, are a powerful gift. They give us the freedom to challenge God when our expectation of God and our experience of the world do not match up. Lament gives us the permission to “cry aloud to God, aloud to God that he may hear me.” For we know that "...true believers, when overwhelmed with sorrow, do not continue in a state of unvarying uniformity, but sometimes give vent to sighs and complaints, while, at other times, they are silent as if their mouths were stopped.” Psalms of lament let us speak to and about God when our hearts are broken. They express the heartache we feel, but cannot express in “polite” settings. 

“You keep my eyelids from closing; I am so troubled that I cannot speak. I consider the days of old, and remember the years of long ago. I commune with my heart in the night; I meditate and search my spirit: ”Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” Selah

The words of Psalm 77 challenge God, and challenge us. They are for those who struggle with God and with the state of the world. These are not expressions for a stoic, polite, church. “…in proper religion the expression should not be expressed. But it is also the case the these experiences should not be experienced." Yet we experience them anyway. We go through trauma and heartache and despair and violence. Even though that's not how it should be, it's how it is, and we can't ignore it without transforming the church of Christ's crucifixion into a vapid hallmark card. We look into the darkness of our experience and our "soul refuses to be comforted." So we direct the full force of our lament to God, who rules over all our experience, not just the happy fun parts. “I consider the days of old, and remember the years of long ago.”

But Lenten Lament is more than wilderness weeping.

And I say, ‘It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed.’ I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD; I will remember your wonders of old. I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds. Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God? You are the God who works wonders; you have displayed your might among the peoples. With your strong arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah"

The whole of creation is subject to God’s sovereignty, including our grief. God takes our wilderness weeping and gives us the hope to affirm our faith even through clenched jaws and bitter tears. God does not abandon us to our grieving, rather, “It is my grief that the hand of the Most High has changed.” We are able to walk through Lent together, and also times when our heartache doesn’t fit on a liturgical calendar, because we remember who our God is, and that even when we are driven into the wilderness, God does not leave us there forever. “I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD; I will remember your wonders of old.”

I attended a couple of funerals this week, and in those sermons I got to hear beautiful melding of lament and hope. “I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD; I will remember your wonders of old.” One funeral followed a brief and sudden illness, and the preacher brought up the problem of God's providence in the face of sudden and tragic death. She pointed out that when God's providence doesn't look like what we want, God can take our choice words, our disbelief, our lament. In fact, God wants to take them. Lament is not a lack of faith, but a confirmation of faith in the God who is beyond our expectations, even if our experience doesn't live up to our expectations.

Most of y’all know that a few years ago, Leah and I were in a long-distance marriage. Her job in Atlanta had dried up, and she’d been offered a position at King’s Mountain National Military Park. It was a great opportunity, a promise of a permanent position in her field, doing what she loves and at which she is so brilliant. But I still had one more year of seminary, and Atlanta and Kings Mountain are several hours apart. They are, and I can tell you this from many commutes, three hours and 26 minutes apart. “I consider the days of old, and remember the years of long ago.” It was a very difficult decision, and a very difficult twelve and a half months, lots of lament over that year. But what kept us holding on was the assurance that just as God had called us to our respective careers, so we were called to be in a unique, covenantal, commitment with one another. It was a pretty awful year, and I was so grateful when my wife was once again my roommate. Our laments were also confession of faith, that God even though God had driven us out into the wilderness, God would not leave us there forever.

“I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD; I will remember your wonders of old.” Why would a father drive his beloved son into the Wilderness? Maybe the hardship of the wilderness, and learning to live with our discomfort, is an act of love. Maybe the Father drove his beloved Son into the wilderness so that we wouldn’t be out there on our own. 

“When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled. The clouds poured our water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side. The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook. Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.”


Throughout this season, we will walk through our lament together. We will wander in the wilderness as brothers and sisters in Christ. We will live in the shadow of the cross as a community of faith. “I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD; I will remember [God’s] wonders of old.” We will remember what God has already done for us, through us, and to us, and we will trust that even though God's footsteps are unseen, that God is moving us through the waters still.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Mountaintops and Tabletops


Mountaintops and Tabletops from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.


2 Kings 2:1-12

1Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.’ But Elisha said, ‘As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’ So they went down to Bethel. 3The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, ‘Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I know; keep silent.’

4 Elijah said to him, ‘Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.’ But he said, ‘As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’ So they came to Jericho. 5The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, ‘Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?’ And he answered, ‘Yes, I know; be silent.’

6 Then Elijah said to him, ‘Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.’ But he said, ‘As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’ So the two of them went on. 7Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. 8Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.

9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.’ Elisha said, ‘Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.’ 10He responded, ‘You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.’ 11As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 12Elisha kept watching and crying out, ‘Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Mark 9:2-9
2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 
5Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice. “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9As there were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God."Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John," We're not really told why this particular group is brought up the mountain. Perhaps they are special disciples, Jesus's inner circle of intimate friends. Perhaps these disciples are going to be called to special leadership within the group after Jesus's earthly ministry comes to a close. Perhaps these disciples had special needs, and this mountaintop event was a tutoring session to make sure they didn't fall behind the other disciples in their class.

My guess is that, at least from Mark's perspective, Peter, James, and John, needed a few extra study sessions. None of the disciples understand what's going on in the gospel of Mark. The law and the prophets all point to God revealed in Christ, but nobody expected God to pour his glory into a peasant from Palestine. It seems like every time Jesus does something amazing, something that identifies him as God's Son, the disciples are either terrified or confused. Peter and James and John are leaders in that group, for no one is so terrified or confused as they.

With two millennia of perspective, we know the leaders that Peter and James and John become. How they step out of their terror and confusion to become giants of the faith. In this passage though, they are still disciples with special needs, unaware of how God is going to act through them. ”The whole scene is addressed to any disciple struggling to see, hear, comprehend, and believe the gospel reality.” For Mark, that meant Peter and James and John. Any of us could find ourselves led to a high mountain. Many of us, when we feel terrified or confused, long to have the comfort and assurance of that mountaintop experience, when "Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves."

There doesn't seem to be anything special about the mountaintop. The mountain is not even named, unlike Horeb, the mountain of The Lord to which Elijah fled and encounter God in the still small voice. Neither is it Sinai, where Moses received the law and passed it on to the emerging nation of Israel. Jesus has not brought them up to a traditional shrine, or a magical stage. It's just a high mountain where the Jesus and his disciples with special needs can be apart, by themselves.

The mountain is not special, but the encounter they have is. The location isn't magical, the God who meets them there is powerful. God shows up and does something amazing. It's also one of only a few times in Mark's gospel when God doesn't do something through Jesus, but to him. Leading them up the mountain is the last action Jesus takes until the end of the passage, when he orders Peter and James and John to "tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead." Everything else in the passage happens to Jesus, a passive participant in what God is doing on that mountaintop.

Jesus "was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” It’s as if a veil has been removed, and Jesus’s divinity can shine through. Perhaps his disciples, who struggled with Jesus’s teaching about the cross and the empty tomb, in the passage immediately preceding this one, needed to see that Jesus is so much more than one who teaches with authority.

More than just a teacher, Jesus is the son of Man, to whom both the law and the prophets point. “And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.” Elijah, the great prophet, and Moses, the lawgiver, appear to testify that this Jesus is the Messiah, just as Peter had confessed six days ago. The presence of the law and the prophets points all the more to Christ’s holiness.

Peter’s response to glimpsing Christ’s holiness, and the weight of the tradition which points to him, is so true to his role as as disciple who just doesn’t understand what’s going on. “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” Not knowing what to say, however, does not stop him from talking. he opens his mouth just long enough to put his foot in it. “Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

“Dwellings” may be a bit grand for the kind of structures Peter was offering to build. It could a dwelling in the sense that a pop-up tent you’d use at a tailgate party is a dwelling, just to provide some shade for folks to gather. It could be a dwelling along the lines of Lucy’s booth from Peanuts, where people come by and receive psychiatric help and wisdom for the low price of five cents. It’s not a grand home, it’s a simple shelter where people can drop by whenever they’d like to encounter God.

But God is not limited to the mountaintops, neither does God act only within the booths Peter would like to build. One theologian, facing Peter’s offer, posed the questions, ”… what if the kingdom of Christ had been confined in this way to the narrow limits of 20-30 feet? Where would have been the redemption of the whole world?” Of course we know that God’s reach extends beyond the narrow limits we might put upon God. It’s not the mountain than reaches up to God, it’s God who continually reaches down and acts on both mountains and valleys, in homes and vast open spaces. The place is not especially holy, the God who is in this this place is holy. No dwelling could contain God.

Just as Peter finishes his offer to provide some shade for the Great Prophet, the Lawgiver, and the Son of Man, God intervenes. “Then a cloud overshadowed them, God does not appear as a blinding flash of light, or as an avatar on the mountaintop. God remains hidden in the cloud, leading Peter and James and John to the identity of Christ, just as the pillar of cloud led Moses and Israel to the promised land. “…and from the cloud there came a voice.” God’s voice tells them the truth about this man they call teacher, and yet is so much more than they imagined, giving the terrified disciples with special needs comfort like the still small voice that spoke to Elijah in his moment of fear.

Even though God remains hidden in the cloud, they know where God is hiding, where God is acting. ”The life of faith is a life of becoming increasingly at home with God’s hiddenness.” Moments like the Transfiguration are when God shows us where he’s hiding, leaving us with an obvious hiddenness. We see God hidden in the midst of the cloud that overshadows us on the mountaintop, and we see God hidden in the midst of the community who gather around the tabletop.

That’s why we gather around the table, not because it’s especially well built of has a relic of a saint. It’s just a table, four legs and a top. But we gather around this tabletop because God meets us here, hidden in the community that gathers around us, but present with us in a very real and mysterious way. We gather here because we believe the voice of the LORD who says “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Just as Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves, so we are elevated by the power of the Holy Spirit to dine with our Lord. We are given the truth that sets of free to watch for God-with-us.


We gather because we have seen God in our midst, and because we have encountered the Son of Man, risen from the dead, and whenever we eat of this bread of drink of this cup, we proclaim our Lord’s saving death, and his resurrection, until God finishes, then, his new creation, and find ourselves lost in wonder, love, and praise.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Mighty Works Displayed


Mighty Works Displayed from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.


1 Kings 22:15-23
15When he had come to the king, the king said to him, “Micaiah, shall we go to Ramoth-gilead to battle, or shall we refrain?” He answered him, “Go up and triumph; the LORD will give it into the hand of the king.” 16But the king said to him, “How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the LORD?” 17then Micaiah said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the Mountain, like sheep that have no shepherd; and the LORD said, ‘These have no master; let each one go home in peace.’” 18The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy anything favorable about me, but only disaster?”

19Then Michaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing beside him to the right and to the left of him. 20And the LORD said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, so that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ Then one said one thing, and another said another, 21until a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ 22’How?’ the LORD asked him. He replied, ‘I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’  Then the LORD said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do it.’ 23So you see, the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the LORD has decreed disaster for you.”

This is the Word of the LORD

Thanks be to God.

John 9:1-7
1As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. 2Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?”

3Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents. this happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him. 4While it’s daytime, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming when no one can work. 5While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6After he said this, he spit on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and smeared the mud on the man’s eyes. 7Jesus said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (this word means sent). So the man went away and washed. When he returned, he could see.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

King Ahab of Israel has worked hard to come to this point. He's trying to entice the King of Judah, Jehoshaphat, to go to battle alongside him against some foe. The King of Judah insists on knowing that the LORD is with them as they go into battle. So Ahab gathers his court prophets, four hundred of them on the king’s salary, and each of them gives the same advice: “Go up and triumph; the LORD will give it into the hand of the king.” Jehoshaphat is unsatisfied. Are there any others? Other prophets in the land of Israel who speak the Word of the LORD?

Then Micaiah, the obnoxious prophet who never has anything good to say about Ahab, is summoned. To Ahab's surprise, Micaiah gives the same answer as the others! “Go up and triumph; the LORD will give it into the hand of the king.”

Now it is Ahab who is unsatisfied. This affirmation doesn't sound like the obnoxious prophet. So he presses him, invoking the name of the LORD to compel Micaiah to tell the truth. Micaiah reveals a vision of doom for Ahab, and a scattered Israelite army. Micaiah gives him the truth that God has decreed disaster for Ahab, but rather than letting the truth set him free from his idolatrous ambition, Ahab imprisons the only prophet who brought him the truth, and remains bound to the lies he wanted to hear. “Ahab’s victory in prying the truth our of Micaiah simply confirms his hate for the prophet, and this prejudice leads to his doom.” “The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, ‘Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy anything favorable about me, but only disaster?’”

Our Old Testament passage today is disquieting. It puts a grumbling murmur in my soul.. Our Old Testament passage shows God tearing down a nation, the Northern Kingdom of Israel, by leading their ruler to his doom with bad advice. Out Old Testament passage bothers me because God sends a lying spirit to speak through the prophets, to entice Ahab to his doom. Our Old Testament passage is disquieting, and does not bring me the heart-warmed peace where I can be still and know that the LORD is God.

And yet, it’s in the book, so I can’t pretend it doesn’t matter.

I want a God on whom I can rely. That’s part of why Presbyterian theology, with its emphasis of God’s sovereignty, is so appealing to me. Micaiah’s vision of the Divine Council puts God in the place of the trickster, or at least in the place or ordering and equipping a trickster, who entices rulers and empires to their doom. “Then the LORD said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do it.’” When God makes use of a lying spirit, when God uses cunning and trickery to entice humans into his will, that leaves me in a uncomfortable place.

Scripture has a lot of places that leave us uncomfortable, that don't fit our preferred view of God. It's much easier to ignore them than to admit that perhaps we have tried to make God in our own image, rather than let God shape our lives with the truth. Beware the voice that tells you exactly what you want to hear. The truth of the LORD challenges us, breaks down our expectations.

Though I’d be more comfortable with confirmation of what I want to hear, God’s Word gives us what we need to hear so that God’s mighty works may be displayed through us.

The Bible is a library full of stories about God's relationship with God's people. It’s essential to confront the disquieting, uncomfortable passages in scripture because they show that God works in ways we do not expect. People sometimes wander away from God and get into pretty deep trouble before God acts in unexpected ways to bring them home again.

But God will stop at nothing to bring them home anyway. In the face of the wickedness of King Ahab, God sends a lying spirit to bring down a dynasty. This lying spirit is akin to the hardening of Pharoah’s heart. This passage is a picture of God toppling empires as a reminder that God rules heaven and earth, even when we’d prefer the comfort of what we’ve come to expect, what we’ve settled for.

Jesus and his disciples are traveling throughout the region, and Jesus has been teaching for most of the previous couple of chapters. When the disciples see a man who was blind from birth, they see an opportunity to clarify some questions about why God creates some people with disadvantages in this world. In their minds disabilities are clearly punishments for some sin. “Jesus’ disciples asked, ‘Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?’” They’re asking for another lesson from their teaching, to clarify why God acts the way he does.

Jesus is not satisfied with leaving this man to only be an object lesson. Where the disciples see a question, Jesus sees a child of God. So he redirects the question away from human influence and back toward God, where it belongs. “Jesus answered, ‘Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him’”

Where the disciples expected a new teaching, Jesus provides a miracle, rubbing spit-mud in the man’s eyes and sending him to bathe. The man who was blind from birth comes back clean, and he can see.

This isn’t just a healing, restoring to a former state of vision. God creates vision where there had only been darkness before. God does something unexpected, just to show once again who’s in charge around here. 

God’s the one who is in charge, and the mighty works of God will be displayed in ways we would never expect. God’s will is even done through false prophets, and through a man who was blind from birth. God is greater than we expect. The walk of Christian discipleship is not a matter of self-congratulation, where we celebrate how we’re always right. The walk of Christian discipleship is a testament to God’s mighty works displayed in us, poor broken sinners though we are. As Christians we celebrate that God chooses to act through us anyway, simply because God loves us, and wants to shine through us in a dark world.

Whether our question “Why did this evil thing happen?” or “Why has this good been delayed for so long?” All of us struggle with the freedom of God, who chooses to act in ways we do not expect. God creates a man who is blind from birth, God sends a lying spirits to the prophets and royal advisors, God goes willingly to die on a cross, none of these make sense.

And yet they happen so that God’s mighty works may be displayed in this world. Sometimes God’s voice is in the rule of the majority, enacting with confidence the will of the LORD as they understand it. Other times, we have Micaiah, “…a man who was willing to stand alone against a multitude of other prophets and against the king, because he stood with God. The majority is not always right.” It is not our expectation, or our deserving that determines God’s action. God’s works are unexpected, and are always a gift, a self-sharing act of love for God’s people.

We will not always be comfortable wight he ways God acts, but the truth we have in Christ Jesus sets us free of our own expectations by wrapping us up in the God who’s mighty works are displayed in obnoxious prophets, in a man who was blind from birth, even, and maybe especially, in sinners like us.

God works in ways we do not expect, but we have hope in a God who is not satisfied with merely meeting out expectations. We are loved by a God who doesn’t want to settle for making us comfortable where we are. God challenges us to move forward into a dark world, to bear Christ’s light to them, even as we ourselves are nourished by Christ’s presence and action within us.

So we respond to the God who uses even unexpected people like obnoxious prophets, lying spirits, men who have been blind from birth, stubborn disciples, and churches full of sinners. We praise God’s name not because of our own righteousness, but because we are constantly surprised by God’s gracious intervention in the world. We celebrate that God is “unresting, unhasting, and silent as light, not wanting nor wasting, God rulest in might; God’s justice like mountains high soaring above God’s clouds, which are fountains of goodness and love.


God’s might works are displayed here, through us, in ways we would never expect. And Thanks be to God for that. Amen.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Astounding Authority

Astounding Authority from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.



Deuteronomy 18:15-20 (218)
15The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. 16This is what you requested of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the LORD my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” 17Then the LORD replied to me: “they are right in what they have said. 18I will raise you up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. 19anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. 20But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak - that prophet shall die.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Mark 1:21-28 (43)
21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, He entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching - with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

For Mark, evil is a historical reality, and it's personified in demons and unclean spirits. Now that's a little outside most of our experience, few if any of us have encountered someone with an unclean spirit. It's an exotic part of the Gospel of Mark, and our God-given curiosity draws us to it. We want to know more details about this "unclean spirit:" where did it come from? was it really something supernatural or was it just a mental illness?

I don’t know how helpful those questions really are. I think they only help us to diagnose this man in the synagogue. Understanding what the unclean spirit “really” was gives us an excuse to push him farther away from ourselves. It gives us an out to not be changed by the teaching of Christ, because we’re too busy trying to translate this unclean spirit concept into what we want it to be.

A couple of weeks ago, the youth got together to learn about Christology - that is, theology about Jesus. I posted various pictures of Jesus around the room and had them each choose their favorite. Naturally they didn't have camera phones or Polaroids in the New Testament, so each image was an artist's rending of what they though Jesus may have looked like.

One of the images was an image of Jesus wearing boxing gloves and squaring off against an obvious devil figure. Presumably they were fighting over our souls or something. It's easy, I think, to get caught up in watching the cosmic struggle between God and the powers of evil. That's partly because that image makes us spectators, with nothing required of us but to cheer when our guy is winning.

But the kingdom of God is much more than just stadium seating. Christ's authority cannot be contained in a ring. Christ's humanity means that all of human life is claimed by God, and humanity is expected to respond in faith, to live as ones who are saved by God. When the forces of evil do show up, it's important to recognize that "the New Testament does not show direct interest in these forces in themselves. Its interest is in the clash between Jesus and these powers, and the victory of Jesus when the confrontations take place." The forces of evil are not the focus of the Gospel, Jesus's actions in our world, in our lives, are the center. So as we tell how Christ is active in our history and in our lives right now, it’s up to us to keep the focus on Christ, and on how we respond to Christ’s teachings, both in word and action.

Right now, Mark is telling the story. He tells it from his perspective, focusing on how, through Jesus, the kingdom of God breaks into the world around him. What he sees in the world around him is evil, personified in demons and unclean spirits. God’s good news is both words and action, and the actions oppose the evil mark sees in the world around him.

By the time the unclean spirit speaks through this man, Jesus has already amazed people in the synagogue with his teaching. He’s arrived on the scene, as we read in last Sunday’s gospel lesson, with a compelling message that the Kingdom of God is at hand. He steps into the synagogue and begins to teach, and the people were “were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” Jesus is obviously teaching on a different level than the scribes. 

Just look at the way this possessed man challenges Jesus: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

It’s into this setting that the man with an unclean spirit steps, corrupting individuals and destabilizing the same communities Jesus is redeeming. The unclean spirit invades Jesus’s teaching with his cries of “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” At first read-through, I thought the “us” to which the unclean spirit refers was the host of evil forces against which Jesus is confronted during his ministry. But the more I read, the more convinced I became that this unclean spirit was referring to the congregation.

The man with the unclean spirit is trying to sabotage Jesus’s ministry. He’s trying to destabilize this community of faith by undermining Jesus’s astounding new teaching. “What have you to do with [these people], Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy [this synagogue]? I know who you are, the Holy One of God!”

For the disciplined among us, it would be tempting to just point to the man and tell him to get out. That his actions were inappropriate for a worship space and he was not welcome there until he could act right. For the rational among us, it would be tempting to try to reason with and correct him, saying that no, Jesus’s teaching that the Kingdom of God is at hand are not the end of God’s people, but a transformation of them. For the patient and non-confrontational among us, it would be tempting to roll our eyes and ignore him until he went away.

Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy One of God, takes a different action. He carries his lesson from the wordy discussion of synagogues to an action, intervening in the life of this man with an unclean spirit. This man is more than his affliction to Jesus, he’s a child of God, and his place is in the synagogue, worshipping with the community. But he is trapped by this unclean spirit, which dominates him and forcibly speaks through his mouth. ”Jesus’s gospel is a healing word and action. The Jesus of Mark's gospel has offered, inside the very synagogue, his teaching of freedom, a word and act that heals the human being.” Jesus looks at the man with an unclean spirit and enacts his teaching of God’s kingdom with us, saying, “‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.” God’s good news is both word and action, and Jesus brings both to the people he meets in Mark’s Gospel with an authority that leaves them astounded.

If at the word and action of Jesus, unclean spirits are compelled to act, how much more, then, are we, his disciples, compelled to act? We are astounded, to be sure, but rather than be paralyzed with shock, God calls us to enact our amazement by responding in faith to Christ’s teaching about the good news of God.

God’s good news is both words and action. Which leaves us with the question: how can we do faith in the same sense as Jesus does his teaching? I’ve not met enough people with unclean spirits to try my hand at exorcisms, and I don’t have the same kind of authority as Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy One of God.

But we do have the Holy Spirit, who guides our every action. We do have our experience of God-With-Us in our lives. We do have our own testimony of what Christ means to us. We do have the opportunity to share love with one another in both words and actions.

We can build up the kingdom of God, which is already at hand, in so many ways. God’s good news is both words and action, so we can proclaim God’s glory by what we do and what we say. Worship attendance is a great way to enact God’s call on us. You’re all already here, so good job there. 

On this Souper Bowl Sunday we can share God’s good news by reaching out to those in need, knowing that God reaches us in our need as well. We contribute financially to the church and its missions and we bring food to the hungry through the Lowell Food Bank.

We can spread God’s Word by growing as a community of faith, bearing one another’s burdens through prayer and sharing meals with someone who might be struggling or lonely. We can show the world that this is a tightly knit community of faith, even in the face of potential division, our love for one another reaches across aisles, between pews, and around tables.

We can live the good news of God by changing our hearts and lives, and choosing to see a beloved child of God where others might only see an unclean spirit. We can connect with those who are not like us, or who look broken, because we too, were once broken and now God is reforming us day by day until we are whole again in Christ.

Jesus teaches as one with authority, and his message is that the time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand. He embodies the arrival of God’s kingdom, and its fulfillment will not be understood until he reaches the crucifixion and resurrection. Until then, we have his teaching, both with his words and his action. He sets us free and restores us to who God has created us to be.

We all have a little bit of the man with the unclean spirit in us. ”We must trust and believe that Jesus has come not to destroy us but to restore, heal, and save, so that we may obey his loving authority. God’s good news is both word and action, and whatever picture of Christ we may have in our heads, we know that he comes as the redeemer. He comes as the Holy one of God. He comes to restore us to ourselves, and to God. He comes with authority to call us to action.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Unity (Dialogue Sermon with Rev. James Holeman)



John 13:31-35
31When Judas was gone, Jesus said, "Now the Human One has been glorified, and  God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify  the Human One in himself and will glorify him immediately. 33Little children, I'm with you for a little while longer. You will look for me--but, just as I  told the Jewish leaders, I also tell you now--'Where I'm going, you can't come.' 34"I give  you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must  love each other. 35This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other."

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Philippians 2:1-13
1Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in  the Spirit, any sympathy, 2complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same  love, being united, and agreeing with each other. 3Don't do anything for selfish purposes but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. 5Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

6Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. 7But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human  beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, 8he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, 10so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

12Therefore, my loved ones, just as you always obey me, not just when I am present but now even more while I am away, carry out your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his  good purposes.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

Both: The Church does not always speak with one voice.

Joseph: There’s a measure of the absurd in what we’re doing.

James:  We have been tasked by GAP to use a passage and give a sermon on “Unity.” 

Joseph: We’ve been partnered together because of how much we are alike

James: We’re both young pastors (in Presbyterian terms that means we’re under 50).

Joseph: But James and I are by no means interchangeable. 

James: For example…

Joseph: I grew up in the 90’s, 

James: Child of 80’s. 

Joseph: East Coast,

James: West Coast

Joseph: Southern 

James: Northwest, 

Joseph: Bow ties are cool. 

James: thinks it’s hilarious that he likes bow ties, Joseph and I are not unified, and the items we are voting on in Presbytery today highlight how un-unified we are as a denomination….”

Joseph: We are voting on some tough things later today. We each have come to this meeting with our own biases. I have every confidence that those biases are drawn first and foremost from a place of faith, rooted in scripture, and abounding in love of God and neighbor. 

James: None of us are here to ruin the church. We are not, however, of one mind with regard to what God’s will looks like.

Joseph: We are here to discern God’s will for our Presbytery. We are not unbiased, we all have a specific mind of what it means to build up the Body of Christ.

James: Today’s passage, particularly verses 3 and 4 remind us just how hard it is for us to actually be humble in our motives. In the NIV the verses read: “3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

“In humility value others above yourselves…” For us to really be united we need humility. We need to choose our sisters and brothers in Christ before ourselves. Eugene Peterson in the Message puts it like this- “Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead.” AND “Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.”

Joseph: The easiest way to get to unity would be to foster some sort of spiritual copy and paste. Wouldn't it be great if everybody thought and acted just like me? Then we could all be correct together! If we want unity, then everyone can just change to be exactly like me!

Doing things the easy way, where everyone else changes, is an exercise in selfishness. Choosing humility enacts our much more difficult calling to love one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. We struggle to “[not] do anything for selfish purposes but with humility think of others as better than yourselves.”

By we, I mean me. 

James: Me too! Choosing humility… easier said than done right? My guess is a lot of people came to today’s Presbytery meeting a lot like me. In some of the controversial areas we are voting on later today (like Marriage), we may not be sure how the vote will go. But we are fairly convinced that during the discussion at least one person will be right most of the time. ourselves….

Joseph: My guess is that very few of us are willing to have our minds changed as we discuss those controversial issues. It’s rare to come in with one bias and to leave with another.

James: But how many of us are coming to this meeting ready to vote against our own conscience, because we feel led by God to put the interests of others… unity first? How many of us have even had a conversation with God about that as a possibility?

Joseph: Verses 3 and 4 challenge us. "Don't do anything for selfish purposes but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others." Ultimately, the problem is that we are too selfish to accomplish unity by ourselves.

James:  All it takes is looking at verses 5-11 to see how far Paul is challenging us to go in terms in humility. Jesus… JESUS… is the example Paul is calling us to follow. Jesus who was in heaven, glorified with God and the Spirit… choosing to empty himself to come to our mess of a world. And then choosing to allow himself to die by cross… understood at the time to be the absolute most degrading, demeaning, terrible way to die… and Jesus does it all for others… for you and me. He goes from the ABSOLUTE highest place you can imagine- to the ABSOLUTE lowest one for us. That’s the kind of humility we are called to have.

And I don’t know about you. But when I use that mirror (Christ) to examine my own motives on just about anything, I have to admit that I come up severely lacking. Even when I am at my best- I am not sure that my motives are completely pure. 

Joseph: We’ve got to use Christ as a mirror to examine our own our motives, even when we know we’ll come up short. God’s love and Christ’s saving actions on our behalf are the foundation of Christian Identity. We Presbyterians have long affirmed that we are not our own, that we belong to God. But sometimes we forget who we are, and act out of our selfish nature. We lose sight of the Christ-centered purpose Paul lifts up for us, and fall victim to our own impure motives. Then we try and justify ourselves, and the mental gymnastics begin. We selfishly look for the right reason for having done the wrong thing.

When I was in Seminary, I recall looking around at my fellow students and judging them: “Really? You think God called you to ministry?” I told myself that I was focused on the health of the Church, that we as a denomination need strong leaders and preachers to reclaim our identity as the Body of Christ. “Really? you think God called you to ministry?”

One day, as I sat in judgement over my fellow seminarians, a thought occurred to me as through the Holy Spirit had whispered it in my ear. “You know that some of them would say the same thing about you right?” I had set myself up as judge over what a true call to ministry looked like, and told myself I had the best interests of the Church at heart. But my selfish nature had taken my right reasons and accomplished a wrong deed with them. Selfishness can be finding the right reason for doing the wrong thing.

James: But that is not all- selfishness can also be doing the right thing for wrong reason.

Doing the right thing for the wrong reason… for myself this can be best described as those moments when I look at the choice I’m making and notice all the conjunctions… the “ands” that are a part of the decision….

Yes I want to come alongside and comfort my friend who’s grieving in this restaurant with me. I feel bad for them and help them AND look at how other people in this restaurant are looking at us AND I’m sure my friend is embarrassed she is making a scene AND isn’t this an inappropriate place for this…

Joseph: Someone asks me for cash. Of course I want to help them out, that’s the proper Christian response. AND I also have other things to do, AND I’m getting kind of a weird feeling from them.

James: So It’s time for me to visit some of my congregation members. It will be great to see how they are doing and help them feel cared and loved AND it’s been a while since I’ve done this AND I don’t want anyone to critique me AND wouldn’t it be great if the congregation REALLY noticed how much time I put into caring for them AND

Joseph: Pastor’s and church members alike, we’re all a mess. We do the right thing for the wrong reasons, we find righteous reasons for doing the wrong thing. We forget our Christian identity as servants of God and instead try and puff ourselves up, choosing arrogance over humility because we’ve forgotten who we are, and whose we are.

James: It seems we need to face facts. Humility and therefore unity are unachievable goals for us as humans. That’s what makes verse 13 SO INCREDIBLE…. SUCH GOOD NEWS!!  “God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his  good purposes.” We can’t do humility and unity alone. But we are reminded that God is at work in us anyway. That God desires to give us the willingness, and energy, and ability to work outside our selfish nature. 

Joseph: Our nature, depraved, sinful, and selfish, is repurposed into our Christian identity only through the intervention of the LORD. "God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes." God's claim on our identity leads us right back to the beginning of the passage. God's presence and work in us and through us turn "ifs" into assurances. "Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ," and there is, 

James: ”any comfort in love," and there is

Joseph: ”any sharing in the Spirit," and there is, 

James:”any sympathy," and there is.

Joseph:Our selfish nature does not rule our Christian Identity, God does. God has already taken care of our redemption, so we don't need to hold on to selfishness. God is already holding on to us. All of us, even the ones who disagree with us when the church does not speak with one voice.

James: The unity, described in verses 1 and 2 are NOT humanly possible. It only happens if and when we allow God in…  to mold us in a way completely contrary to our sinful/selfish nature. And if you are like me, we need to allow God into our hearts to do this work over and over and over and over and over again.

Joseph: Allowing God into our hearts over and over again does doesn't solve all our problems. Unity based on our Christian identity always leads to the cross, because it doesn't make sense in a world so shaped by selfishness. But it's not our problems or division that define us: God's love defines us. Unity through humility and Christian identity doesn't erase all our problems, it's a living testimony that even though we go to the cross, we go there because we are united by Christ's love for us, and our love for one another.

James: If we're not letting God help us to choose humility and unity, it's just lip-service. Our "Love one another" becomes just a farce.

Joseph: So let's come together to "carry out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling." We know that we do not save ourselves through selfishness, we are saved by God's mighty hand. Let's act like we believe it, and carry that truth out into the world, knowing that God's salvation is stronger than our fear, stronger than our trembling, stronger than our selfishness, stronger than our disunity. Let's claim our Christian identity and show the world that even if we are going to the cross, we are going there united in Christ. "God is the one who enables [us] both to want and to actually live out his good purposes.”

James: Our Identity is centered around Christ, who ”humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Our unity is grounded in what God has done for us. When we fall victim to the disunity of our selfish nature, we are not being who God has created us to be, who God has called us to become.

Both: The church does not always speak with one voice.

James: And we don’t always agree with one another.

Joseph: Sometimes we’re selfish

James: Sometimes we forget humility.

Joseph: Yet God works through us anyway.

James: God keeps us united anyway.

Joseph: Therefore, we come together, diverse, disagreeing, and drenched in grace.

James: Around one table.

Joseph: In remembrance of Christ

James: To proclaim with one voice


Both: Jesus Christ is Lord. Alleluia, Amen.