November 13, 2022
Today’s gospel opens with how people around Jesus were gushing over how amazing the Temple looked. It was a spectacular architectural marvel, really. The Temple was over 150 feet tall, made with stones sometimes fifteen feet long. It was decorated with the kind of fervor and splendor you’d expect from the physical location of God’s presence on Earth. All around the Temple was the Temple Mount—a huge platform bigger than the Roman Forum—and that was ringed with 100-foot-high walls. The whole thing had taken eighty years to renovate. It was, honestly, an amazing sight to behold.
But all this gawking and fawning of the Temple happened right after Jesus had spent several chapters teaching about God’s gracious provision for the poor; about the justice of God that lifts the oppressed; about the call God gives to serve faithfully, not just to go through the motions of sacrifices. As soon as he heard the crowds complimenting the Temple, he issued the warning that it was all going to come crashing down. Not a stone would be left on stone.
All Saints Sunday
November 6, 2022
All Saints Day is celebrated in different ways around the world. One celebration I’ve loved for a long time is the Mexican Day of the Dead. There’s something about the way the holiday turns death into this bright, flowery, multicolored experience that fascinates me. In 2017, Pixar put out a movie that talked about the Day of the Dead, Coco, which followed the story of a boy named Miguel who magically finds himself in the land of the dead as he pursues his dream of becoming a musician like his great-great-grandfather.
The whole movie is a phantasmagoria of colors and songs that gives this particular view of the afterlife where the dead are sustained by the offerings of their living relatives and friends. Famous people like Miguel’s purported great-great grandfather, a famous musician, had a giant mansion on a hill and enough offerings from his adoring living fans to throw a massive party. Meanwhile, a guy named Hector who agrees to help Miguel lives with his friends, half-forgotten, in shacks and shanties on the edges of the land of the dead. And it’s an interesting take, because in so many ways, the land of the dead looks remarkably like the world of the living, once you take away the fact that they’re all talking skeletons.
October 30, 2022
Zacchaeus is an interesting character in the gospel story. He is only mentioned this one time, in this one chapter, only in Luke’s gospel—and yet, we all know about him! It’s crazy what a simple song can do to make something or someone easy to remember. Like the smell of lutefisk, a catchy tune lingers. And when we learn it in our childhood, it really sticks! But here we are, hearing the story of Zacchaeus—what do we know about him?
Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector of the region in and around Jericho. Now, obviously that meant he was in charge of collecting taxes—but not like some regional IRS agent. Instead, Roman taxes were “farmed out.” Rome would invite the richest men of the region to bid on how much money they could raise in taxes, and whoever could raise the most was given the contract—and Roman power—to collect those taxes. They put down the cash to cover the whole tax bill for a region, and in return they were given the legal right to collect that tax money from the population and pocket it. Plus, they could collect whatever more they could get away with on top of that. Zacchaeus was the guy in charge of that racket.
October 23, 2022
I was reading a story the other day about a situation at an airport. There was a flight that was cancelled, and so everyone was asked to come to the ticket desk to reschedule their flight. People formed up a line, but then this one guy in a business suit pushed his way to the front, slammed his ticket down on the desk, and demanded that the ticket agent book him before anyone else. He insisted he was very important, and besides, he had a first class ticket! When the ticket agent politely reminded him he had to get in line like everyone else, the man responded:
“Do you know who I am?!”
Without missing a beat, the ticket agent turned on the microphone and announced to the airport, “We have a gentleman here who does not know who he is. If you are missing someone, please come to the desk to retrieve him!”
October 16, 2022
When I first got up here, one of the things that y’all told me about Ellsworth was how proud y’all are of your wrestling team. And it’s no wonder—y’all have been state champions at least a half dozen times in the last twenty years. There are many in this congregation who either were once in wrestling, are in wrestling now, or have kids or grandkids in wrestling. So I imagine this scene we read about in Genesis drew your attention, because of what it says about Jacob and his night of anxiety with God.
Now, I am—surprise surprise—not a wrestler. However, even I know that there is something over the top about the description of how Jacob wrestled with the man by the Jabbok river “all night.” Wrestling matches last, what, a few minutes? And that is, from everything I’ve ever heard, straight-up exhausting. Like, you’re ready for a break, even a short one. So can you imagine the persistence, the sheer bullheadedness, that would be required to wrestle with someone for an entire night? From sundown to sunup?
October 2, 2022
There was a movie that came out about a year ago called Raya and the Last Dragon on Disney (because that’s my life right now). In this movie, the main character Raya is looking for pieces of this magical stone that were broken after a new friend of hers named Namaari betrayed her, unleashing these magical creatures that turned people to stone. After finding the titular “last dragon,” Raya goes on an adventure to find those pieces so that the magic can be restored and everyone turned to stone would come back—but we discover that the magic can only be restored by an act of trust. In the end, it’s only when Raya decides to trust Namaari—the same one who had betrayed her—that the magical stone works again, the evil magic is banished, and everyone who was turned to stone is restored.
It can be hard to trust others. We get messages from every angle about how no one can really be trusted, how we have to look out for manipulation and cruelty and evil around every corner. We’re told never to trust someone who asks us to watch their bags for a moment at the airport. We’re told not to trust our neighbors with Halloween candy that might be laced with drugs or poison. We’re told not to trust those we disagree with, those that don’t look like us, those that come from a different place than us. And with all that messaging of not trusting others, how can we be expected to hear Jesus’s words commanding forgiveness for the one who repents seven times a day and not be put off?
September 25, 2022
One of the helpful things about Jesus’s parables is that, so much of the time, they are pretty open to interpretation. We can imagine and reimagine the scenarios to look at them from different angles. We can ask questions of who the characters represent, and how we fit into the story. And when we can mix up the elements of the parable each time we hear it, it makes it so that one parable can have dozens of possible lessons for us to learn. And then there are parables like the one this morning.
Jesus paints a stark picture of a rich man, living it up with feasts and parties; and a poor man, silently suffering by the rich man’s gate. When they both eventually die, the poor man Lazarus is carried off to heaven to rest on Abraham; and the rich man goes to hell. There is not a lot of wiggle room as to what this parable means. There aren’t enough characters to take away a lot of different lessons. And much like when Jesus says hard things we have historically not wanted to hear, there is a tendency to either soften Jesus’s words, turn them into such a broad allegory that they are meaningless, or ignore them. But the parable is still here. And any time we get confronted with challenging lessons from Jesus, I think it’s our duty to come at them head-on. Jesus calls us to nothing less. So let’s talk about Lazarus and the rich man.
September 18, 2022
Annie and I love watching a show with a good mystery. It makes it really fun to try to piece out a whodunit or put the clues together before the show tells you the answer. But sometimes, we end up watching a show where, rather than a mystery being the thing that needs figuring out, it’s the sheer complexity of the plot. There’s always a character (or characters) who are so clever and forward-thinking that we’ll have to pause it from time to time to review and make sure we’re tracking what’s going on. Shows like House of Cards, or Game of Thrones, or Peaky Blinders often give the impression of their main characters being so smart and so clever that no one watching can really predict where things are going.
Now, most of the time people aren’t that clever in real life. Very few people have the ability to pull strings and arrange events so well that no one catches on until the trap is sprung. But there are some really clever, really smart people out there. People like Jonas Salk who discovered the polio vaccine was a really smart guy. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson were able to calculate—by hand—the trajectories of the rockets that took us to the moon. Very smart people come up with amazingly smart solutions to things all the time, and most of the rest of us just have to sit back in awe at how clever they are.
September 11, 2022
Several years ago when my grandma on my mom’s side was still around, she had a medical scare that sent her to the hospital. Now, one thing that’s true of my mom’s entire family is that when someone ends up the hospital, the whole extended family somehow finds its way into the waiting room for them. In this hospital waiting room, there were my grandma’s family, and my pawpaw’s side of the family. And the difference in how these two families acted was really something to see. My pawpaw's side were loud and boisterous and joking about things, swapping stories; and meanwhile my grandma's side were trying to one-up each other on who had the worst medical condition—while my grandma was in the hospital, mind you.
Complaints, for some people and in some situations, come very easily. It might be that the anonymous nature of a survey really brings out the griper in all of us. Or maybe we see no purpose for the customer service line except to complain about a product not working the way we want it to. If we took the time to think about it, how often do we find ourselves complaining about political leaders, the weather being too hot or too cold, “kids these days,” or the price of cheese in the grocery store? I’ll admit, I’m very guilty of being quick to complain, even if no one is going to listen.
September 4, 2022
I was reading recently about the interesting ways our brains will sometimes process the world. One of those things was that we tend to understand things in time the same way we understand them in space—basically, we process some event far off in the future as small and manageable in the same way that a mountain or a plane looks small when it’s really far away. It makes it so that we overestimate the importance of stuff that will happen soon, and underestimate the importance of things that happen far the future. It’s why making a good decision that is hard now, but will definitely pay off later, is so much harder than making an easy decision now that will come back to bite us later. Our brains understand the future as less important than the present.
Which is probably why Jesus’s words today come across as even more shocking. We don’t often talk about the cost of discipleship, but Jesus is making it abundantly clear that this faith we take on is going to change things, radically, and forever. And some of that change can be pretty challenging, and pretty painful. The harshness of what he’s saying is just to emphasize the point that following Jesus means everything else—even family and possessions—has to come second. Following Jesus looks like leaving behind everything that was once important. The hard part is that the reward, the good stuff, the thing that makes it worth it, is really far off in time. And we get a glimpse of what that struggle looks like in the second reading from today, from the letter to Philemon.