Check Yourself

by Rev. Jason Radmacher
Text: Mark: 7

Striving to know and experience the substance of true religion was one of John Wesley’s animating principles, and, therefore, one of the defining characteristics of the Methodist revival that he led. Wesley sought to instill among his followers an honest desire for holiness. He wanted them, and us, to know in the depth of our being that we can drink so deeply from the fountain of God’s love, that our thoughts, actions, and attitudes can overflow with love for others. Practicing the disciplines of self-awareness and introspection were part of Wesley’s prescribed “method” for reaching this lofty goal.

Wesley wanted Methodists to love, and then to think and pray, and then to love better. In order to facilitate that kind of spiritual growth, he often prepared lists of questions or rules with which he expected Methodists to check themselves.

1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?

That’s the first question in a list that John published numerous times in his ministry.

Here are some others.

2. Can I be trusted?

3. Am I enjoying prayer?

4. Do I pray about the money I spend?

5. Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?

6. How do I spend my spare time?

7. Do I grumble or complain constantly?

8. Is Christ real to me?

It’s a probing list of loaded questions, isn’t it, ranging from topics whose importance seems obvious to us—Can I be trusted?/Am I constantly complaining?—to those whose association with holiness might seem more tangential—Am I getting enough sleep?/How do I spend my spare time?

But it’s that first question, isn’t it, that sets the tone?

1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?

Jesus had a lot to say about hypocrisy, especially when it came to matters of faith. For all the religious barriers that he broke down, Jesus had no tolerance for the person who could go through the motions of piety without engaging their hearts. Hypocrites were the targets of some of Jesus’ most pointed invective.

“Hypocrites! You tithe to the penny but you ignore the important things like justice, mercy, and faith.”

“Hypocrites! You are so careful to clean the outside of a cup, but inside you are filthy.”

“Hypocrites! You’re like whitewashed tombs. Beautiful to look at, but filled with death.”

“Hypocrites! Why don’t you try taking the 2 by 4 out of your own eye, before pointing out the speck of dust in your neighbor’s?”

These examples are all found in Matthew’s Gospel, but in the seventh chapter of Mark we find Jesus at it once again.

The exchange recorded in this morning’s Gospel lesson speaks of an encounter Jesus and his disciples had with some local religious leaders who took exception to the fact that Jesus’ crew didn’t follow their traditions regarding washing their hands before eating.

Now, keep in mind, the group’s concern wasn’t for public health, like the signs in restaurants reminding all employees to wash their hands. Their concern was religious and the implication of their question was that Jesus and his disciples were behaving in a manner that was displeasing to God.

“You hypocrites!” Jesus began. “The old prophet Isaiah was talking about you when he wrote about people who honor God with their lips, but whose hearts are far away.
You’ve ignored God’s Law and substituted your own traditions.”

Jesus then weighed in on one of the hot button topics of his day.

“You tell people that it’s all right for them to tell their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you because I vowed to give to God what I could have given you.”

The practice Jesus refers to here was called corban and, at first glance it looks like a pretty good thing. To make something corban was simply to offer it or to pledge it as a gift to God.

According to Jesus, though, this tradition was being abused. Community leaders were teaching people that they would be absolved of their obligations to care for the needy, in this case their needy parents, if they made their gifts corban—kind of like a spiritual version of an offshore tax shelter.

“Sorry mom and dad. I wish I could help pay for your prescription medicine, but I already gave my money to God, and you wouldn’t want me to cheat God would you?”

The practice Jesus condemned, therefore, was a clear-cut example of trying to maintain a façade of holiness without cultivating the necessary habits of prayer, devotion, and love.

It was the form of religion without the substance.

“Check yourself,” Jesus said, “and try to understand. You are not defiled by what you eat; you are defiled by what you say and do!”

I once heard a personal trainer say, “You can look good without being healthy, but if you’re healthy you will look good.”

I’m sure we could quibble with this statement, but I think it’s on point. It also resonates with the truth of scripture.

We can look like pious people without loving God or our neighbors. We can do a whole bunch of religious looking stuff and say a whole lot of religious sounding things, but without love, as Saint Paul says, we are empty; we are nothing.

However, if we are growing in our love for God and our neighbors, then we will not only look and sound pious, we will be pious, holy, and righteous.

So, friends, can you be trusted?
Is Christ real to you?

Are you consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that you are better than you really are?

Yes? No? Maybe?

Check yourself.

Love, think and pray on questions like these, then love better.

And above everything else, know that you are loved—with a love that will not let you go—the steadfast love of the Holy One who calls you by name and promises to meet you at the Table of Grace.

Thanks be to God for this Good News.

Amen.

Sharp Minds and Tender Hearts

by Rev. Jason Radmacher
Text: 1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14

The opening chapters of the book called First Kings describe a chaotic scramble that decided who would follow David as Israel’s king. These chapters tell us how one of David’s sons, Prince Adonijah, declared himself king while his father was still alive, only to have his plans undone by the prophet Nathan, Bathsheba, and Solomon, Bathsheba’s son. Then, in a chapter that reads as though it could’ve been the inspiration for the iconic baptism scene in The Godfather, we see how Solomon eliminated his rivals, settled some old scores, and consolidated his power. He even ordered the death of Shimei, the dirt throwing curser of David we met last week. These were the troubling circumstances of Solomon’s elevation.

After these things, Solomon went on to become a mighty king. He established numerous alliances that brought Israel and its leader unprecedented wealth. He built a fleet of trading ships, an army of chariots, and, most famously, the Temple in Jerusalem. Solomon truly put his father’s old kingdom on the map.

According to the historian Michael Grant, with Solomon on the throne “for the first time Israel had been brought fully into the mainstream of near-eastern big business and diplomacy, as the accounts (even if exaggerated) of his 700 wives and 300 concubines, many of the foreign, effectively confirm.” (p. 88)

Students of the Bible will also recall that Solomon’s name became synonymous with wisdom. Three books of the Bible’s wisdom library are linked to him—Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs—as is another ancient book of popular sayings known simply as The Wisdom of Solomon. Stories of Solomon’s thoughtful and prudent judgments abound.

Like his walking contradiction of a father, however, Solomon had a knack for pursuing his own desires, rather than God’s purposes. His wealth became disorienting; his alliances a distraction; and, even in the age of polygamy, his sexual escapades a sign of embarrassing excess. Although exceedingly wise, the king often acted very foolishly and his most foolish decisions set the stage for his nation to fall apart when he died.

In all the chapters written about Solomon, no passage depicts his tragic flaw as succinctly as words we’ve read this morning.

Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places.

 

This is a reference to Solomon’s worship of other gods and idols, a practice frowned upon in the Bible, to say the least.

It’s literally the thing forbidden in the First Commandment, isn’t it?

“You shall have no other gods before me.”

Saying that Solomon loved the LORD, but worshiped other gods, therefore, makes as much sense as saying to your best friend “Sure, I lied straight to your face, but think of all the times I was honest.”

The break from virtue sort of colors our impression of the whole relationship and, in the case of Solomon, colors our impression of wisdom itself.

Given the circumstances of the wise king’s reign, then, a few questions come to mind.

If Solomon was so wise, how did he get something so basic so wrong?

If wisdom didn’t offer its greatest practitioner protection from such a colossal error of judgment, then what purpose does wisdom serve?

Questions like these lead us to a deeper exploration of the biblical story where we discover that the bonds between wisdom and virtue aren’t as strong as we might think—as we might hope.

Ever since they heard the Word of God in a story about the crafty serpent who used his insights into Adam and Eve’s weaknesses to lead them into temptation, our ancestors knew that to be wise was to understand what made people tick, but understanding what makes people tick is no guarantee that one has their best interests in mind.

Think about it. Think about all the energy given to understanding human behavior, all the parties that have an interest in understanding you.

A potential suitor wants to understand you so that he or she can woo you.

A marketing department wants to understand you so that they can sale you something.

I want to understand you so that I can communicate the Gospel to you more clearly.

Others might want to understand you so that they can tune you in or turn you off to a cause or a way of thinking.

In this way, wisdom is simply a tool and it’s up to the wise person to employ that tool to do good or to cause harm; to inspire others to do works of justice and mercy, to convince us that we really need to buy a new product, to distract us from important matters with a never ending parade of click-bait.

Wisdom is quite a weapon in the hands of a fool.

King Solomon falls into this camp. He absolutely knew what made people tick and was incredibly adept at motivating them to do his bidding. In many ways, that made him a successful, popular, and rich head of state. He was wise, but when his virtue wore thin, his judgment suffered and he “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD.”

Wise until the end, nevertheless, the Bible says Solomon’s “heart had turned away” from God.

For those who truly aspire to live righteously and honorably before God, Solomon’s story is a sobering reminder of wisdom’s limitations. However, this isn’t to say that Christians should be mindless and ignorant fools. Far from it!

Rather, the news of wisdom’s limitations calls us to recognize that a catalyst—an active ingredient—must be added to life’s wisdom in order to unleash its true potential and give direction to our labor, our judgments, our lives.

That catalyst is love.

When Jesus commissioned the apostles he said, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Sharpen your mind and soften your heart for work in God’s kingdom, the Savior seemed to say.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

That’s how Saint Paul began the passage destined to become the most quoted thing he ever wrote.

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

 

But when we pursue love, when love is present—the All-Excelling Love of God—we gain life in the fullest, Good News to proclaim, and a mission of service to a hurting and exploited world.

Solomon had a gift, of this there can be no doubt, but his gift—his wisdom—like any gift we’ve ever given or received— was subject to abuse, misuse, and being taken for granted.

His gift, just as it is with all that we possess, needed a catalyst—an active ingredient—to unleash its true potential and give direction to his labor, his judgments, his life.

That catalyst is love—Holy Love, perfectly revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the love that abides, the love that will not let us go.

So let us be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.

Let us be sharp-minded and tenderhearted.

And let us always give thanks for the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Waging Peace with the Armor of God

by Rev. Jason Radmacher
Text: Ephesians 6

When you were younger, who represented the epitome of power in your mind?  Was it a teacher, a parent, a grumpy neighbor warning you to get off his lawn?

One of the powerful people of my youth was the principal of my elementary school.

In my five-year-old eyes, he was a giant.

Easily eight or nine feet tall with a voice that could bend the trees on the playground, he could snatch a line jumper from the lunch line without looking up from his Salisbury steak.

And he was mean—at least that’s what my older brothers and their friends on the bus wanted me to believe.

“Get him angry and he’ll go all “Incredible Hulk” on you,” they said.

And then there was the paddle—the Hammer of Thor of grade school justice.  It hung on a nail behind his desk—perfectly placed so that any visitor to the office could see it hanging there, waiting, condemning, judging.

Legend had it that the principal had the paddle customized to maximize its speed and clout, and you couldn’t help but to feel pity for even the biggest bully who felt its sting.

That was power!

Perhaps you have a vivid memory of an early encounter with power, too.

And what about now?

Who holds the cards of power in your life today?

Your boss? Your parents? Your significant other? A former significant other? “The Media”, “Wall Street”, “The Man”?

What about the power of diseases like cancer and HIV?

The power of ignorance?

The power of hate?

While we know that there are forces for good at work in the world, it’s examples of powers like these that remind us of our weakness. Abuses of power, power unleashed destructively—sometimes the first blow from forces like these not only knocks us to the ground, but also convinces us that we’re destined for certain defeat.

History has seen many more tyrants than revolutions, in part, because it’s easier to be convinced that one is powerless rather than to identify the power one has to bring about change.

Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians aims to help believers recognize that God endows them with a power greater than that which is in the world—and that was a tough row to hoe in Ephesus, a city in which the world’s power was on full display.

Ephesus was a city in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, that rose to great heights in the Roman Era as the region’s First City. Almost half a million people called Ephesus home, and its commercial and religious points of interest insured a steady stream of immigrants and pilgrims, too.

One of the Seven Wonder of the Ancient World was there—the Temple to the Goddess Artemis—which could hold 25, 000 worshipers.

There was also a great theater in the city where classic works of drama were staged and gladiatorial death matches fought. In fact, the theater is still standing. I have a DVD of Elton John playing a concert there, which is a bit insane when you stop to think about it.

As a prominent city, Ephesus also had a prominent church. The Church in Ephesus had ties to several New Testament books and to sainted luminaries like the Apostles Paul and John, and Mary the Mother of Jesus.

Given the presence of so many Christians in this center of Rome’s power, it shouldn’t surprise us that our faithful ancestors experienced a great deal of tension and uncertainty in Ephesus.

Christians needed to know if there were Roman systems and institutions in Ephesus in which they could participate with a clean conscience? Were their others that should be avoided at all cost? And how could one discern the difference between the two?

These were pressing ethical, theological, and social questions for our ancestors, who desperately needed to know what to do when keeping Rome happy and keeping faith with God were incompatible with one another.

Questions like these placed members of the Church on the front line of the battle for their hearts and minds.

And when you’re staring across the battle lines at Rome’s might and influence even the prayers of the righteous can seem puny and ineffective.

In Ephesians chapter 6, though, Paul turns that reality upside town, invoking the very symbol of Rome’s power—the Roman solider—to write a parable about the provisions God offered the faithful to withstand any attack on their souls, the Parable of the Whole Armor of God.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.

“Look, people of Ephesus,” Paul seemed to say, “you know how Rome’s soldiers are prepared and provisioned for battle, how they train to overcome every foe.  You must train your souls for battle, too, but not with weapons.  Your greatest foes are the unseen forces at work in this world, forces that God will give you exactly what you need to overcome.”

What comes next is Paul’s famous line item inventory of the blessings with which God blessed the Church.

Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

When the Empire tempted the faithful to acknowledge its power as the greatest force in town, the Apostle pointed them in a new direction.

Compelled to bend their knee and give their heart to those who would reign with violence and intimidation, Paul called the Church to find itself in God’s promise to provide grace for the journey and strength to achieve their God-given purpose.

Truth, righteousness, faith, salvation, the word of God, whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace—God would give the faithful these gifts, and they would not be disappointed.

The Church in Ephesus drew strength from Paul’s teaching, finding in these words wisdom and power. Other Christians found strength here, too. That’s why the letter came to be part of the New Testament and how it is that we who have only seen Roman soldiers in movies can still hear God’s voice speaking through the text.

Haven’t we all seen power used in ways that intimidate, oppress, belittle, and frighten?

We’ve seen it happen in homes, offices, halls of government, and in the board rooms of business.

We’ve all seen power abused and sometimes it makes us feel powerless to do anything about it.

Of course, there are also moments when we’re tempted to grab power for ourselves and turn the screws on someone else.

In every time and place, however, the message to the Ephesians charts another course, steering us back to Christ, back to the essence of Paul’s great parable.

Truth, righteousness, faith, salvation, the word of God, whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace—the heart that knows these will not be overcome.

The heart that knows these belongs to Christ.

And that is why we call Paul’s words about the Whole Armor of God Good New for all people.

Thanks be to God. Amen

Curse Hurlers and Dirt Throwers

by Rev. Jason Radmacher
Text: 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33

Stories of kings and war heroes fill the Old Testament. David is both, but that’s doesn’t explain his relevance for people of faith today. No, what’s so compelling about David is that he embodies the truths on which our faith stands.

It’s the truth that God’s love, and not our circumstances, define us and tell us who we are.

It’s the truth that mercy and grace aren’t just reserved for the perfectly pious and piously perfect.

It’s the truth that, through it all, God never let go of David, and God will never let go of you.

David is a lot of things.

He’s a poet, he’s a picker,

He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher,

He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned.

He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction,

Taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.

David is a lot of things—and many of them are not admirable—but he shows us that a heart that is broken is a heart that is open—a heart ready to receive and share mercy.

The Great Week

by Rev. Jason Radmacher
Text: Mark 11:1-11

Palm Sunday

With its familiar chorus of “Hosanna” sung by green branch waving congregations, Palm Sunday is one of the most dramatic Sundays in the life of the Church.

It’s been since ancient times.

We know about Palm Sunday’s historic significance, in part, because of the diary kept by a Christian pilgrim named Egeria who travelled from her home in western Europe to Jerusalem in the late fourth century.

In her diary, Egeria describes a journey she made around the year 380AD. Her descriptions of the rituals, traditions, and worship services she experienced make her diary one of the most important source documents for people who want to know where some of our most beloved rituals, traditions, and worship services come from.
Her description of what happened on the Sunday before Easter, for example, is one of the first recorded instances of some of the traditions being repeated around the world today.

On Palm Sunday, Egeria and her fellow pilgrims went to church services in the morning as they would on any Sunday in Jerusalem. Afterward, however, everyone rushed home to eat lunch so that they could meet up again at the Mount of Olives at 1:00.

At 1:00, the people and their bishop began an afternoon of worship. They sang, prayed, and read scripture together.

At 3:00, they moved to the nearby spot that marked the site of the Lord’s Ascension, where they’d continue to worship until 5:00.

Egeria recorded what happened next.

[At 5:00], the passage from the Gospel is read, where the children, carrying branches and palms, met the Lord, saying; Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord, and the bishop immediately rises, and all the people with him, and they all go on foot from the top of the Mount of Olives, all the people going before him with hymns and antiphons, answering one to another: Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord.

 

And all the children in the neighbourhood, even those who are too young to walk, are carried by their parents on their shoulders, all of them bearing branches, some of palms and some of olives, and thus the bishop is escorted in the same manner as the Lord was of old.

 

For all, even those of rank, both matrons and men, accompany the bishop all the way on foot in this manner, making these responses, from the top of the mount to the city, and thence through the whole city…going very slowly lest the people should be wearied.

It was a long day of worship, yet a suitable beginning for what Egeria and others called The Great Week.

The pilgrim’s journal helps us more clearly understand our own traditions for this day and unites us in worship with the Holy Communion of Saints. It’s true that there are tremendous differences between what she experienced and our time together this morning, but I believe that if Egeria walked into this church this morning, heard us singing “Hosanna” and saw the children with their branches, she’s recognize what we are doing.

She’s understand that this is Palm Sunday and that we’re on the verge of Easter, and as quickly as so many things change, as fleeting as so many moments are, I think that kind of stability and continuity through the centuries is a beautiful things.
On the Sunday before his death, a crowd greeted Jesus as he entered Jerusalem with shouts of “Hosanna” and by waving branches along his path. It happened then, so ancient pilgrims repeated the scene, and so do we.

These are very old traditions, and I love them.

But I wonder if there’s a key aspect of the Gospel lesson for this day that our traditions have allowed us to miss.

Is it possible that Jesus did something else on that day that was just as important as taking his place in the procession?

Is it possible that the loudest “Hosanna” and most vigorously waved branches could still leave our Palm Sunday experience wanting?

I think it is possible, because I think we’ve placed so much emphasis on the way Jesus got to Jerusalem that we’ve neglected to pay attention to what he did when he arrived, at least as far as Mark is concerned.

Listen again to the Gospel.

Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

 

“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

 

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

Upon entering the Jerusalem, Jesus went into the temple and “looked around at everything.”

Now I suppose that someone could argue that Jesus was just playing the part of the tourist.

“Hey Peter, get a shot of me and James over by the money changers.”

Someone could argue that point, but I think there’s something more to this scene.

Instead of envisioning Jesus as playing the part of a sightseer, I believe the time he spent in the Temple has more in common with a performer walking out to center stage while the house is still empty, just to get a feel for the room, or an athlete standing alone at midcourt or home plate, just to still her nerves so that she can do what she’s prepared and trained to do.

They’ve worked for this chance.

They’ve prepared for this opportunity.

They’ve poured themselves into being ready for this moment so that they can seize it, reach it, and grasp it in their hands.

I think that’s what was happening in the Temple courts on that Sunday afternoon so long ago.

This was the moment to which everything led. Being baptized in the Jordan, calling disciples, preaching in parables, serving the lonely, last, and lost among God’s people—it all led Jesus to this moment—to this day when crowds would receive him as King David’s rightful heir, this week when he would ascend his cruciform throne.
This was his moment and if he would seize it, then nothing would ever be the same again.

In the Temple, Jesus looked around at everything.

He took the measure of the city’s pulse, beheld its glorious architecture, saw the pilgrims, and reminders of Rome’s Imperial might.

He saw sick people there who needed to be healed.

He saw greedy people who needed to be corrected.

He saw the aimless ones who needed a new direction and a better path to follow, sinners who needed salvation.

And he saw us, too.

He saw our brokenness. He saw our children marching for safe schools and freedom for fear. He saw our anger, pain, and grief. He saw us as we really are.

Jesus saw all of this, then he gathered his disciples and went home to rest.

It was going to be a very busy week.

Thanks be to God, then, for the Great Week and for this Good News. Amen.

Revealer of Reality 

by Rev. Jason Radmacher
Text: Jeremiah 31:31-34

Fifth Sunday of Lent

The current issue of National Geographic is devoted to the topic of race. As usual, the print and online editions of the issue include several thought provoking articles and incredible photos. The cover story focuses on fraternal twins—one is black, one is white. Another piece tells the story of Hazelton, Pennsylvania and the convergence there of a new generation of immigrants with the descendants of persons who immigrated two or three generations ago. There’s also a story about the genetic basis of race—(There isn’t one!)—and another one about the role racial bias plays in shaping how communities organize, govern, and police themselves. The issue is an important work of journalism.

Susan Goldberg, National Geographic’s Editor-in-Chief, contributed a piece to the issue on race that truly stands out. With a level of humility and self-awareness rarely displayed publicly by leaders of esteemed cultural institutions, Goldberg shined a light on National Geographic’s complicity in shaping and perpetuating racist assumptions throughout its history. The editor’s column carries a justifiably striking headline, “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It.”

Goldberg acknowledges that National Geographic did little to challenge cultural assumptions and privileges that made its brand possible. Quoting historian John Edwin Mason, she writes,
Americans got ideas about the world from Tarzan movies and crude racist caricatures…Segregation was the way it was. National Geographic wasn’t teaching as much as reinforcing messages they already received and doing so in a magazine that had tremendous authority.

 

The magazine covered the American South for decades without addressing Jim Crowe.

The magazine covered South Africa for decades without addressing apartheid.

The magazine perpetuated clichés about ignorant native, “nobles savages,” and exotic beauties.

“It hurts to share the appalling stories from the magazine’s past,” writes Goldberg, “but when we decided to devote [a magazine] to the topic of race, we thought we should examine our own history before turning our reportorial gaze to others.”

This is a remarkable statement—remarkable for its candor, remarkable for the wisdom it displays, remarkable, I believe, for what it can teach us about living faithfully and authentically before God.

“To rise above our past, we must acknowledge it.”

Call it what you will—soul searching, being held accountable, letting go of privilege—Goldberg’s column displays the skills that the scripture say lead to confession, and confession puts us in a position to receive and embrace the blessed future secured for us by God’s grace.

This is the insight that becomes our touchstone with the ministry of one of God’s great prophets—the Prophet Jeremiah.

The First Lesson from scripture we read this morning conveys one of the Bible’s most cherished promises.

“I will put my law within them,” said the Lord through the prophet, “and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

With this, we catch a glimpse of the intimacy God desires. This is not a deity who extracts conformity through compulsion. This is the Lord who desires faithfulness through transformation, the Holy One revealed to God’s people in just and righteous actions.

They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

What we’ve read this morning goes hand-in-hand with another promise conveyed by Jeremiah and other actions he took.

Jeremiah said,
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not to harm, to given you a future with hope.

For heaven’s sake, Jeremiah invested in real estate in the middle of a war zone.

Taken together, these would seem to characterize Jeremiah as a great optimist—someone who was able to stay positive when everything seemed to be falling apart.

It might seem like that, but such a reading of Jeremiah is far to simplistic. It leads us to think of the prophet as naïve, in denial of his circumstances, one who would gaslight his neighbors’ real and legitimate concerns.

“Oh, don’t worry about that Babylonian army that’s raging its way over our countryside and will soon destroy our capital city. Everything’s going to be fine.”

“Oh, don’t worry about loosing your job and that terrible diagnosis. Everything will work out.”

That’s not Jeremiah’s message. That’s not what Jeremiah calls hope.

No, Jeremiah is a revealer of reality—a reality capable of bringing pain and hurt to us in horrific measure. The prophet refused to sugar coat or deny even the most difficult truths.

Preaching at a time when war and political tumult befell God’s people with devastating spiritual consequences, Jeremiah’s commitment to wrestling with and communicating these hard truths became legendary. He went into the darkness with God’s people so deeply that some called him the Weeping Prophet. Others said he was the Prophet of Doom. But through it all, Jeremiah sought God. He listened for God. He wanted to know what God was doing and he passionately pursued the answer to his questions, even if the truth was a bitter pill, even if the truth hurt.

Jeremiah stood on the truth, not an empty promise, so there’s nothing cheap or Pollyanna about the hope that lifted his spirit. Jeremiah’s hope was a gift from God.

God offers that same gift to us today.

It’s the gift of truth and authenticity, the gift of being able to lay aside pretense and pride, of being able to acknowledge the difficult and, at times, tragic realities and circumstances into which life takes us while claiming the promise that these circumstances do not define us.

We are more than what we’ve been through, more than what we’re going through, because we are beloved children of God. We are created in God’s image and the Creator is capable of writing something new and life giving on our hearts.

“I will put my law within them,” said the Lord through the prophet, “and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

The news that God would write a holy law on their hearts was really good news for Jeremiah’s community because these were a people who recognized that everything external, everything visible, everything about their everyday lives was falling to pieces.

Even still, they were not alone.

They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

If we would claim this promise, then we must be grounded in the reality about ourselves that leads to confession, too.

We must seek and stand on the truth, not empty promises.

“To rise above our past, we must acknowledge it.”

Back in National Geographic, Susan Goldberg concludes her piece with a reminder that the pursuit of truth isn’t always easy, but it’s so much better than trying to build your future on a lie.

She writes,
Sometimes these stories, like parts of our own history, are not easy to read. But as Michele Norris writes in this issue, “It’s hard for an individual—or a country—to evolve past discomfort if the source of the anxiety is only discussed in hushed tones.”

As people of faith, we might add that’s it’s hard to glory in the cross when we’re unwilling to acknowledge our need for grace.

It’s hard to sing the song of salvation when whispers of shame and regret catch our ear.

It’s hard to preach Resurrection without being honest about death.

To rise up with Jesus on Easter, we must acknowledge the agony of crucifixion.

But take heart. Even during the sober season of Lent, our story remains one of astounding joy. It’s the Good News that God perfectly loves imperfect people like you and me and empowers us to be agents of reconciliation and healing in a hurting, broken, and divided world.

In that story we find the grace that sets us free to be honest about where we’ve been, what we’ve done, and who we are. We find the gift of our true, loved, blessed, and forgiven selves.

We find God.

We find each other.

They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

Snake Bit

by: Rev. Jason Radmacher

Fourth Sunday in Lent

John 3:16 is one of the Bible’s most treasured passages. Many Christians regard it as their favorite scripture, finding in these words a beautiful summary of the Good News and a powerful source of inspiration.

Given the esteemed place John 3:16 holds in the hearts of God’s people, therefore, and the number of bumper stickers, refrigerator magnets, and religious nick-knacks it’s inspired, it’s more than a bit ironic that the verses that immediately precede it and give it its context reference one of the most mysterious and problematic objects ever mentioned in the Bible—the Brazen Serpent of the Exodus.

Hear again John’s words.

Jesus said,

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

This morning I hope to help us dig more deeply into the Good News of Jesus Christ by recounting the Brazen Serpent’s history, a story that begins in the book of the Bible called Numbers.

Numbers tells us that there came a point on the Exodus journey from Egypt to the Promised Land when God’s people became angry with Moses. Actually, the scripture says that there were many points on the journey when the people became angry with and questioned Moses. In this specific instance, the issue was a detour from what would have been the most straightforward road to their destination.

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way.

This is an imperfect analogy, but imagine if you and I left the church this afternoon to drive to Boston and as soon as we turned onto the Bronx River Parkway I told you that we were going to Boston by way of Chicago.

You’d certainly want to know why, and I’d probably have a hard time convincing you that I knew what I was doing.

Perhaps this helps us to empathize with the Israelites’ point of view just a little bit.
But even still, the Exodus wasn’t just a road trip. It was a pilgrimage, a journey with God that was filled with sites and wonders. After all, these were travelers who had walked over the Red Sea without getting their feet wet, witnesses to the thunder and lightning at Mount Sinai, and recipients of manna from heaven on a daily basis. Their journey had been filled with grace, and God had never left them wanting, so when the people grumbled, Moses took it personally, and so, it seems, did God.

Numbers 21 says that the people complained against God and Moses—rejecting the gifts they’d been given to accomplish the task at hand.

[So] the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

What a wild story, right? Of all the moments in Israel’s history Jesus could have referenced—of all the people, places, and events he could have invoked to make his point about God’s love and the gifts of salvation and new life—why did he choose the one about a shiny snake on a stick?

But wait, before you answer that. There’s even more to this story.

The scene from Numbers isn’t the only time the scripture mentions the Bronze Serpent. It actually shows up again—several centuries later—in a book called Second Kings where it’s revealed that the object made by Moses became an idol, a bronze god that corrupted the peoples’ hearts.

In Second Kings, the Brazen Serpent is such an odious thing that a good king named Hezekiah destroys it.

[Hezekiah] did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done…He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it.

And that’s the last mention in the Bible of the serpent until Saint John wrote his Gospel.

So, what do we make of this?

Let’s review.

The Brazen Serpent was a relic from the Exodus fashioned by Moses at God’s command. Initially, the people associated this object with their prayers for deliverance and God’s gift of healing. The serpent was the sign that the Lord heard their prayers and wanted them to live.

Over time, however, the object that was once a sign of God’s healing presence became an end to itself. The serpent, divorced from the story of God’s love, became an idol and King Hezekiah destroyed it.

Centuries later, Jesus said that the Son of Man would be lifted up like the serpent, “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Again, of all the moments in Israel’s history Jesus could have used to make his point, why this one?

I suppose the answer could be very simple.

Maybe Jesus is saying, “Way back then people looked up at the serpent on the stick and lived, and now, people will look up at me when I’m lifted up and live, too.”

That’s a possibility, but it leaves out a lot of the story, doesn’t it? And it seems strange that Jesus would make a one-to-one favorable comparison between himself and an object that had to be destroyed because of the ill effects it had on God’s people.

No, I think if we want to understand what Jesus says in John 3, we need to remember the ultimate fate of the Brazen Serpent in Second Kings. We need to remember that when the people forgot the connection between the serpent and God’s love, the serpent ceased to be of any benefit to them.

Without the Good News of God’s mercy and forgiveness, the bronze serpent was just as bronze serpent.

Jesus, then, seems to be cautioning those who would be his disciples from separating his story from the epic story of God’s love for all Creation.

In John 3, Jesus pushes us to recognize that when he welcomed the poor and outcast into his heart, when he healed the sick and cast out demons, when he died on a cross, rose from the grave, and ascended into Heaven he was bringing to life—bringing to flesh—the steadfast, all excelling love of God.

Without love the bronze serpent was just as bronze serpent.

Without love, to paraphrase Saint Paul, Christians and the story we tell is just a lot of noise.

Some Christians live with so little joy that they make people think that Good Friday is the end of our story.

Some wear a bejeweled cross over a heart filled with greed and materialism without a hint of irony.

Some seem so intent on condemning others to Hell that we have to wonder if they think that really matters is how many people they crucify, not their willingness to pick up their own cross and follow Jesus.

Think about it. One of the vilest expressions of hate in our culture is a burning cross, a symbol used by racist Christians to demean, intimidate, and terrorize their neighbors.

These are people who have forgotten their story, who have forgotten God’s story. Their sinful attitudes are Brazen Serpents that need to be smashed.

And whenever we act as though Christianity is more about putting people in their place, rather than lifting them up in Jesus name…

More about the indignation we feel at our perceived loss of privilege, than the compassion we feel for the outcast and marginalized…

More about us than anything else, then we have to confess that we’re still vulnerable to snake bites, too.

Thank God there’s a healer in our midst.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

Create in Me

by: Rev. Jason Radmacher

Text: Pslam 51

Few people capture the imagination of Old Testament readers like King David. When he first came on to the scene, he gave hope to underdogs everywhere by bringing down Goliath, the ultimate one man wreaking crew. Although he was a youngest son, God chose him to be king.  And when he ascended to the throne he proved to be an able and faithful ruler.

Under David’s authority, God’s people prospered.  Their borders grew.  David even redrew the map by establishing Jerusalem by Israel’s capital.  And along the way, he wrote and inspired some of the world’s most treasured words of hope and assurance.

Psalm 23—“The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Psalm 40—“I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined and heard my cry.”

Psalm 103—“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me.”

Psalm 141—“I call upon you, O LORD; come quickly to me; give ear to my voice when I call to you.”

David’s life is an inspiration.  His importance is undeniable.

Maybe that’s why we’re still talking about his greatest personal failure some three thousand years later.

David and Bathsheba—two lives forever joined by one man’s arrogance.

The 11th chapter of Second Samuel lays out the disturbing story. With his army at war, David was enjoying an afternoon in the sun on the palace roof when he saw Bathsheba, the beautiful wife of one of his generals, bathing nearby.

The king sent for her, he had sex with her, and Bathsheba became pregnant.

And then David used the same creative mind he used to write songs for God, to save himself—regardless of the cost.

As soon as Bathsheba told David that she was pregnant, he called her husband, Uriah, home from the front line hoping that a baby born nine month after a soldier’s homecoming would raise few eyebrows. But Uriah was so honorable that he refused to sleep under his own roof while his men were fighting. Even after David got Uriah drunk, the general still wouldn’t go home to his wife.

So David had to make a decision.  He could come clean about what he had done, or he could simply eliminate the problem.  David chose the latter.

He sent Uriah back to the front line.  He also sent orders to another general to abandon Uriah once the fighting became most fierce, and Bathsheba’s husband was killed in battle.

The scripture tells us that soon after all this took place God sent the Prophet Nathan to talk with the king.  And in that encounter with someone who had been inspired and equipped by God to speak the truth to power, to speak the truth to someone who was waist deep in a bloody conspiracy, David got called out.

He had become the man he did not want to be.

He had turned his back to God.

It’s said that Psalm 51 was David’s first step back toward the light.

Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love.

Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins.

Wash me clean from my guilt. Purify me from my sin.

For I recognize my rebellion; it haunts me day and night.

Confronted with the truth about himself, David chose to face up to reality rather than doubling down on denial. And David’s reality was that of a man who had made a complete mess of his life and caused harm and destruction in the lives of others.

“Blot out the stain of my sin,” he says.

Nathan’s ministry confronted David with the truth about what he had done, but the prophet also centered David in the truth about who God was.

The tension between David’s sin and God’s mercy, therefore, not only gives Psalm 51 its life, but extends to us an invitation to enter the space in which Good News transforms brokenness to healing and violent division into wholeness and peace.

Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow…

Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me.

Do not banish me from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you.

As we begin this season of repentance, we’d do well to consider the significance of David’s prayer.

Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me.

These are the words of one who had seen the futility of giving in to arrogance and pride, of one who had seen that when a heart is consumed by conquest and bending people to its will, rather than being in the will of God, that heart becomes broken, that life, a distortion of its God given potential.

When he heard the Word of God, David recognized that he was not where he needed to be.

It’s a basic building block of Christian faith that the Word of God—the word made flesh in Jesus—still has the power to shine a light into the darkness of our lives and reveal the ways in which we’re still bound by the chains of sin.

The Word also has the power to set us free and point us in the right direction.

That’s exactly what happened in David’s life.

David had any number of vices and pleasures at his fingertips to try and fill the void in his heart.  He could have tried to ease his conscience by trusting in his wealth to buy his way to a better life.  He could have trusted in his power to make people do what he wanted.  He could have lined up sycophants to tell him how great he was.  He could have had a lot of sex.

Basically, the same voices that clog our inbox’s spam filters were whispering in King David’s ear, but he charted a different course.

He realized that none of these things, that nothing at all in his power could make him right again. David needed God to bring about an inward change, and so do we.

We need to pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me.”

You see, every year in these weeks leading up to Easter, the Church—that is the faithful brothers and sisters who have gone before us in worship, in prayer, and in service—every year during Lent, the Church invites us to hear the great invitation of the scripture and to respond to that message with an honest confession of sin and a humble submission to God’s transforming grace.

“Repent—turn around—and prepare the way of the Lord. Get your heart, get your house ready, to receive Jesus in a new and powerful way.”

Every year in these weeks leading up to Easter, we can do one of three things with this invitation.

We can ignore it and continue on our own way.  “No, thanks, God.  I’ve got this thing called life pretty much taken care of.”

We can accept it, but only on our terms, saying, “Sure, I’ll get my ashes.  I’ll give up something, but I’d prefer if you not go digging too deeply into my life, God.”

Or we can say, “Here I am, God, and I know that I am not where I need to be.
Change my heart, fill me with something new, move me in a new direction.  Draw me closer to you.  Make me a better friend, a better spouse, a better disciple.  Have mercy on me.  Wash me.  Restore me….Create in me a clean heart, and let the work begin today!”

I pray that we’ll choose wisely and faithfully.

I pray that God will change our hearts.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Not Free Not to Love

by: Rev. Jason Radmacher

Text: First Corinthians 8:1-13

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus… (Philippians 2:1-5)

The Apostle Paul delivered this stirring admonishment to Christians living in an ancient Greek city called Philippi in order to highlight the essential qualities of their community—a community gathered in Jesus’ name and proclaiming his Good News.

Paul indicates that these essential qualities include virtues like humility, self-sacrifice, and love; qualities, he points out, that Christians embody because we recognize them in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Paul continues,

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

These verses from Philippians chapter 2 are some of Paul’s most treasured. The exhortations found here to leave selfishness and arrogance behind still resonate with us, reminding us that humility, self-sacrifice, and love are at the heart of our identity as Christians.

Likewise, Paul’s insights into the Christ who freely chooses to empty himself are also an invaluable contribution to the New Testament faith we profess.

We worship neither a victim of circumstance nor a prophet who paid the price for ticking off the wrong people, Paul reminds us, but God in the flesh who freely and willingly took up the cross out of love for us.

And then there’s this passage’s most significant revelation—in our relationships with one another, in our attitudes and conduct toward others, we aim no lower than to be like Christ.

Be humble and loving and self-sacrificing as Christ is humble, loving, and self-sacrificing, Paul urges. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

There’s little doubt that Philippians 2 is one of Paul’s notable contributions to Christian thought. In fact, it’s such a wonderfully distilled statement of theological belief and ethical expectation that, if it lacks anything, it lacks only a case study, a practical application of this teaching to a real world situation.

I propose to you this morning that, just a few years before writing Philippians, Paul provided just such a study in a letter to Christians living in another ancient Greek called Corinth. First Corinthians 8, which we’ve read this morning, is that case study.

On the surface, the issue encountered by the Corinthians—eating food sacrificed to pagan idols—seems far removed from our daily lives.

Labels like “Grass Fed,” “Organic,” and “From Farm to Table” mean something to us, but something that reads “Sacrificed to Zeus” or “Butchered on Apollo’s Altar” would just be nonsense.

However, if we follow Paul’s line of thought on this matter, we do find something relevant to our experience. We find a method for discerning what faithfulness looks like in our relationships and interactions. We find a real world application of what it means to love one another as Christ loves us.

At issue for the Corinthian Christians was the fact that the meat available to them in the marketplace had been butchered in rituals that honored gods and goddesses like Apollo, Aphrodite, and the Imperial Cult. Some Christians believed that this association with pagan worship tainted the meat and made it unfit for them to eat. Others argued that since there was only one god—the God revealed in Jesus Christ—whatever happened in the city’s temples amounted to nothing more than elaborate food prep.

“We worship the One and Only God,” the argument goes, “so how could this meat be tainted by its association with a deity that doesn’t even exist?”

There was a difference of opinion in the Corinthian Church. Unfortunately, rather than seek a constructive way forward together, the two sides drifted apart with the pro-meat camp apparently labeling the would-be vegetarians ignorant, stupid, foolish, and all the other things people call those with whom they disagree when they’re too lazy to make a more convincing argument.

Thankfully, someone in the church eventually had the good sense to ask Paul to settle the dispute.

“Paul, are we free to eat meat sacrificed to idols?” they asked.

“Yes, you are free to do so,” he replied, “but…”

[Yes, you are at free to do so, but] some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

They were free to eat the meat, but they were bound by a greater commandment.

They were free to eat, but they were not free not to love one another.

Whatever they did, therefore, Paul insisted that it be motivated by love.

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up… But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

Haven’t we heard something like this before?

Haven’t we heard about seeking a greater calling that satisfying one’s own desires?

Doesn’t it sound a lot like the Big Idea Paul shared with the Philippians?

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…

Christians, you are not free not to love.

We are not free not to love.

Notice the radical way Paul has directed the Church forward. He doesn’t dismiss the existence of differences among the membership. He doesn’t assume that Christians will always agree and see the world in exactly the same way.

Rather, he says that when differences become apparent (and they will become apparent) Christ leads us first to ask, “How am I to love those with whom I disagree, those from whom I differ, those with whom I quarrel?”

How do I love you?

Not “How do I defeat you, prove you wrong, or win you over to my side?”

Paul wants us first to ask, “How do I love you and what does love look like here?” because Paul knows that Christ binds our wandering hearts.

We are not free not to love.

When addressing the church’s concern about food sacrificed to idols, Paul reframes the question—taking it out of the realm of who’s right and who’s wrong, of winners and losers—and steers it back toward a discussion about the loving relationships that should define what following Christ is all about.

He is far less concerned about what’s going into one’s stomach, than he is about the attitudes and actions arising from what’s in one’s heart.

Paul’s response to the Corinthian question pushes the congregation toward a more honest accounting of the way in which they’re answering the deepest, most basic question of the Faith that we share with them.

Are we loving others with the same love with which Jesus loves us, a love that brings down walls, builds up honest and genuine community, and encourages all whom it touches to live, and serve, and pray with the confidence that they, too, are children of God?

While Paul might have agreed with the logic behind the point that the people who wanted to eat the food made (and I think he did), he ultimately called the people to be righteous, not just right.

The hungry poor and the poor in spirit, the strong headed and the weak willed, the lonely and lost, the faithful and just—Paul knew that there is room for all at the table of God.

Gay and straight, the beaten down and bullied, the wanderers and the resolute—grace makes a way for all of these.

There’s even room here for you and me.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

Choose Carefully

by: Rev. Jason Radmacher

Text: Book of Jonah

Cedars of Lebanon is the final song on U2’s 2009 album No Line on the Horizon. Lyrically, the song comes from the perspective of a weary war correspondent. It speaks of homesickness and loneliness while juxtaposing images of human decency with flashes of violence. There’s an ache in Bono’s voice as he sings the thoughts of a tired man.

It’s the song’s final lines that capture my imagination this morning, however, for in the end, inspiration strikes and the writer shares his wisdom.

Choose your enemies carefully, ’cause they will define you
Make them interesting ’cause in some ways they will mind you
They’re not there in the beginning but when your story ends
Gonna last with you longer than your friends.

“Choose your enemies carefully, ‘cause they will define you.”

The fights that we fight, the people at whom we direct our anger—even if our cause is just and our motivation is righteous—these take a toll.

And let’s be honest, even if our cause is just and our motivation is righteous, we easily succumb to temptation.

Hatred takes root in our hearts.

Inflicting pain becomes an end in itself.

Words dehumanize, self-awareness is lost, and attitudes calcify.

“Choose your enemies carefully, ‘cause they will define you.”

The ancient Israelites told a story about a reluctant prophet named Jonah to guard their hearts against hatred’s temptation and to encourage each other to embody God’s love for all people. It’s a story that speaks a timeless and fundamental truth that challenges arrogant and bigoted attitudes in every generation, including our own.

Like so many of the Bible’s stories, Jonah begins with a calling, an invitation, from God.

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah…saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”

 

Unlike others who responded eagerly to their calling, Jonah wanted nothing to do with his assignment, that city, or the God who would send him there.

The prophet Isaiah’s iconic response to God was “Hear I am, Lord. Send me.”

Peter and Andrew dropped their nets to go with Jesus.

Jonah’s reply was just as clear.

“Not a chance, God. There’s no way I’m going to those people.”

Ninevah, you see, was the capital of Assyria, one of ancient Israel’s fiercest enemies. It was a place from which war and devastation had rained down on Jonah’s homeland and the prophet hated the city and its people.

Therefore, when God called Jonah to go to Ninevah, which happened to be east of Israel, the prophet bought a ticket on a west bound ship, intending to put as much distance as possible between Assyria, God, and himself.

His plan failed miserably.

When the sea rose up against the boat, its crew rose up against Jonah and they threw him overboard.

But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights…

Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.

There can be no doubt that this is Jonah’s claim to fame. If you spent any time at all in Sunday School as a child, odds are you heard this part of the story.

I remember well the coloring pages and felt board fish of my youth.

I’m not sure any of those lessons went to teach me about God’s desire to see enemies become friends and the prejudice uprooted from my heart and community, but I was crystal clear that Jonah was the guy who spent three days in a fish’s belly.

I don’t want to belabor the point now, but it’s worth noting that if our take away from Jonah’s story is a strong opinion about the likelihood of somebody surviving inside a fish, yet we remain wishy-washy on our commitment to barrier-breaking reconciliation, then we’re probably telling the story the wrong way.

Or maybe the point is that we often act as though we’d rather be thrown overboard than to do the hard work of giving up our prejudices.

Regardless, Jonah’s is so much more than a big fish tale.

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying,

“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

And this time, “Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.”

The prophet preached, the people responded, and God forgave.

But Jonah became furious.

There are plenty of examples in the Bible of people becoming angry because others ignored their message, but I think Jonah is the only one who became upset when people listened.

And why was that?

Because Jonah’s hatred of his enemies had become intrinsic to his identity, and the realization that God wanted to take these things away from him was disorienting.

Listen to this incredible exchange.

[Jonah] became angry…[and he] prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

 

A misunderstanding isn’t the cause of Jonah’s anger.

He’s angry because he knows the truth too well.

He’s angry because God loves and blesses the people Jonah judged to be unworthy and unlovable. God shows mercy to those he would deny mercy.

And Jonah knows that if he’s going to worship a God of patience, love, and mercy, then he’ll need to find room in his own heart for these qualities, too.

But letting go of his prejudice is a price Jonah doesn’t want to pay.

“O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live…[without these enemies I love to hate].”

 

“Choose your enemies carefully, ‘cause they will define you.”

Called by God, pulled by God from the raging sea, empowered by God to be a channel of peace in a foreign land—all these things are accurate descriptions of Jonah’s life and experience, but, by his own admission, he sees his hatred of Ninevah, not these signs of God’s grace, as intrinsic to his identity.

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry…?” And [Jonah] said, “Yes, angry enough to die.”

One of the most important elements of Jonah’s story is that this is the note on which it ends.

There’s no clear resolution of the prophet’s inner turmoil, no teary-eyed redemption scene, no Come-to-Jesus-Moment.

Reading the book, it feels as though there must be a missing chapter in which Jonah admits his error, rushes back to Ninevah, and professes his love for the people living there.

But that chapter doesn’t exist.

In the end, there’s Jonah’s bitterness and the radical truth about God’s love.

And then, ultimately, there’s our response.

Which example will we follow?

Will we open ourselves to the truth about love and the realization that there’s divine mercy for even those we would deny mercy, or will we double down on anger and prejudice?

Will we faithfully worship the One who causes the sun to shine on the righteous and unrighteous alike, or will we act as though grace is a sucker’s bet, and that the love and blessings in our lives are the obvious results of our own greatness?

Today we pray that the Spirit will keep our hearts so tender that we would overcome temptation and choose wisely.

Today we pray that, even as we pursue justice with passion, we must rise above the lie that our opponents are less human than us, farther beyond redemption’s reach than us.

Today we pray that, even when we walk through the valley of death’s shadow, we would always stay in the light, that never in the name of fighting a monster, would we become monstrous.

“Choose your enemies carefully, ‘cause they will define you.”

Choose carefully.

Called by God, pulled by God from the raging sea, empowered by God to be a channel of peace in a foreign land—all these things are accurate descriptions of Jonah’s life and experience, but, by his own admission, hatred of Ninevah, not these signs of God’s grace, was intrinsic to his identity.

So where are the signs of grace in your life?

What lesser loves would ask you to deny them?

Today we pray and worship and give of ourselves so that we might truthfully answer these questions and walk on in the light Christ shines on our way.
Let’s do so with joy and a renewed desire to see the walls around our hearts come crashing down.

Let’s say “Yes” to God’s barrier-breaking gospel and move forward with thanks.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.