This is probably a bit odd, but despite the sermon title, I never did make a connection between the temptations Jesus faced in chapter 4 of Matthew’s* gospel and any of the recent TV shows that play on that theme. Boy howdy, did I make a slew of other references and winks, though. ‘Cause, you know, gotta be me.
My thesis was Jesus used his power to care for others and lift them up. We’re called to do the same. As always, I’m interested in knowing how what I intended to say compares to what you hear. All the visuals I used (plus a bonus one or two) are below, after the audio.
The many faces of the Devil/devil/tempter/tester…or could it be…Satan??
Maps! We’ve got maps. I know I struggle to remember where to find all the places mentioned in the story, so these help me.
Bonus image! I didn’t think of this in time, but I should have shown the congregation what Spider-Gwen looks like. (I couldn’t re-find the devil image that reminded me of her.)
Obviously didn’t show this during worship. But still. Seriously, see. this. movie. “It’s amazing. You could even say it is spectacular.”
*Fun aside…thanks to the absolutely fantastic Marvel/Neflix series, Daredevil and its tantalizing and fun companion, The Defenders, every time I say or write “Matthew,” I hear Elodie Yung’s Elektra Natchios distinctively intoning that name. Every. time. You can get a sense of it in this video. But, seriously, watch those shows. Luke Cage too. I’m really ticked they are all cancelled.
I know it’s New Year’s Eve, but let’s get in the WABAC Machine and set it for…one week ago. Way back when it was Christmas Eve. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Christmas Eve is kind of a big deal in (most) Christian churches. It certainly is in our congregation.
Christmas Eve at Woodridge United Methodist Church is full of candlelight and carols — even at our early worship gathering (this year at 5pm, so after dark). That service usually has plenty of children too. It feels like a momentous night: expectations of a good-sized crowd; a desire for everything to go just right — but trying to convince myself that no matter what happens, no matter what goes wrong, we will worship as faithfully as we are able. Plenty of potential too: for seeing people and families who have drifted away; for welcoming first-time guests; for surprises along the way. (All of which moved out of the realm of potential and into the actual!)
Even though I know better, some part of me thinks that if the evening can just be perfect enough, people will be impressed, will see that ours is a down-to-earth congregation doing our best to be faithful disciples of Jesus in the real world as it as even as we work to bring about the world as it should be where all people experience love and justice. If they can see and feel that, perhaps they will join us on this journey.
All of that combines to make for an exciting and nerve-wracking night. Not unlike when company comes over or taking a final exam. I’m nervous and excited because I know it is important and a lot can be riding on the result. I feel it as the college student bores holes into me with his stare. I feel it when the 11 year old pays no attention whatsoever. I feel it when the grandmother laughs. I feel it when the long-time member gives me the slightest nod or smirk. I feel it when a different long-time member drops his gaze into his lap. What does that all mean? Am I simply projecting import and reaction? I can’t say for certain.
How does one approach preparing a sermon for such a night? It’s a bit of a conceit for me to post that question in that way. As if there is a universal answer. All I can tell you is how it went for me.
Our texts for the evening were the usual ones for Christmas Eve: portions of Isaiah 9 and Luke 2.
During my preparations, my wife requested, “Teach us something.” Our kids implored me, “Don’t be boring!” Me, being me, desired to be funny, to get a reaction or five. As with all sermons, I want the hearer to learn something, to feel something, and to have a way to respond, to carry the message on into their life. The hard truth is that not all sermons live up to that. But I think this one was pretty good. Of course, it is ultimately not up to me to say to what degree I was successful.
I can tell you without doubt or reservation that I had fun writing and giving this sermon. I hope that comes through. Let me know what you hear* and what you think.
Singing and praying and working until all people are treated like the image-bearers of God that they are? That’s good news. God calls us to start with those our society shoves to the bottom. That’s the extra good news. That’s the extra love God births into the world through you and through me and through us.That’s what Christmas is all about, friends.
*If you want to play Dave’s Sermon Bingo, here are a few things for which you can listen:
References/homages to (or at least slight nods toward):
Monty Python (as one parishioner suggested, what I really needed was a giant animated foot to drop)
Home Alone (actually this is a sight gag, so you might not be able to catch it in the audio)
The fourth and final Sunday of Advent happened the day before Christmas Eve.* So it was already a challenge to separate Sunday’s message from one to give the next day. Add on the bonus level challenge of the same scripture reading as Christmas Eve (Luke 2:8-20)…and the result is one confused preacher. Fortunately, I had the African-American spiritual, “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” to pull me out of my own mucked up mind.
Eventually I figured my best course of action was to simply admit it and lean into my confusion about both what day it was and how to differentiate that day from Christmas Eve. Baptizing a baby named Brandon during worship that day helped. You’ll hear him referenced. There’s also a slight nod toward Lord of the Rings.
I think I was trying to say that as tempting as it is to want to keep things the same, we don’t grow that way. God calls us into the present and future to increase justice in the world. Top moments, as I see them:
Today is full to the brim with potential energy. Just waiting to burst forth. But that’s also the problem. Too often we’re content with the potential. Too often we convince ourselves that staying put is for the best.
And, quoting Mary Had a Baby:
“Go Tell it on the Mountain” reminds us to tell the story about a child who faced homelessness, poverty, lack of documentation, injustice, possible imprisonment, and death.
What do you hear? How should we go and tell this gospel story?
*The day my kids would call “Christmas Eve Eve.” Because they, like so many others I’ve encountered, think “Eve” means “the day before.” I disabuse them of this notion in my Christmas Eve sermon. Ok, I had to disabuse myself of that notion too.
I was driving, listening to a podcast (my current preferred in-car entertainment) when I heard that statement. It was arresting. Almost literally. I was so struck by that thought that I had to pull over to process it for a moment.
I and we (meaning our congregation at Woodridge UMC) believe LGBTQ+ people should have all the rights available to heterosexual, cisgender people both in civil life and in the United Methodist Church.
That should just be a given: as followers of Jesus, advocating for the humanity of all people and treating people the way we want to be treated should be first and foremost how we define ourselves. And yet, especially in the UMC right now, that is anything but a given*. In fact, no matter how well the Special General Conference goes, we are unlikely to achieve equality in 2019. Worse, we may even lose some of the gains we’ve achieved toward inclusion. But if we do, it will be worth it to stand with marginalized people for justice. “Some things are worth losing for.”
We tirelessly dedicate ourselves to living the reality of our baptismal vows: resisting evil, injustice, and oppression. We do this by seeking justice for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities….
We witness the lives of many of our friends who have not felt welcome inside the doors of United Methodist churches. Their calling, their ministry, and even their baptism have been questioned. But we still believe in the best of what The United Methodist Church can be: a movement where social and personal holiness blossom in a wide variety of contexts including in communities outside of the United States.
We have much to learn together.
*Truthfully, supporting full LGBTQ+ inclusion was certainly not always a given for me either. I had a conversion experience — in seminary of all places! — after leaving the white evangelical subculture. I most recently shared that story as part of a sermon called, “Ruining Our Good Name.” You can listen to it here.
My intended thesis: True wisdom is always rooted in love. What theme did you hear?
Likely the best part of the sermon (though such a designation is ultimately up to you, dear reader/listener) :
Prof. Howard again: “This story is a startling reminder of the depths of human despair and our continual yearning for God’s presence among us.”
We don’t lack for stories of human despair, nor do we feel so satiated by God’s presence that we no longer yearn for more.
We need wise words rooted in love because hateful, violent words foment hateful, violent actions. 11 people are dead in Pittsburgh because the shooter lived into the “wisdom” of white supremacy, white nationalism, neo-Nazis. We must ask ourselves: What role does a distorted, hateful version of Christianity play in this? Let’s be like the author of Kings and be honest about our violent past. For centuries, from the beginning really, some Christians have read the gospels as if God hates Jews. That hateful, violent language fomented many tragic hateful violent actions against Jews.
Together, let’s tell better, wiser stories. Stories rooted in love for all people.
For most weeks this fall, we’re following the Narrative Lectionary. Because the best narratives — the best stories — are powerful, moving, inspiring, and endlessly fascinating. (More on that in upcoming, non-sermon posts.)
I usually chaff when the assigned readings skip over the difficult parts, so instead we read almost all of Exodus chapter 14. (We do have some time constraints, as much as I might wish it were not so.)
This sermon is a bit shorter than recent ones. You’re welcome. 😉
My intended thesis: God is still working to save people from oppression. God calls us to be agents of that liberation. But, as always, I would very much like to know what you hear as the main point.
Studies indicate roughly 50% of teens who identify as transgender have attempted suicide. BUT… Research shows that if a transgender teen has even just one supportive person in their life they can go to, it greatly reduces their risk of suicide.
Too often the church has not only not been a place of support for LGBTQ youth, but instead it has — tragically and much to its everlasting shame — led the charge to make all places unsafe for LGBTQ youth…and adults. We must repent of that and change immediately.
Money quote from me (if I may say so):
Imagine that. In an era where belligerence and bellicosity are rewarded with…the presidency or a seat on the Supreme Court, the Academy of Pediatricians breaks through with a simple truth and we too often seem to forget: to those whom society excludes and oppresses, we need to offer understanding, respect, and unconditional love.
As I always say, sermons are not just academic papers to be submitted. Inflection, tone, audience reaction, etc. all matter. Sermons are meant to be heard. (Heard and seen would be even better, but audio is what I’m able to share.)
Our Ruth trilogy comes to an end this week as we look at the last two chapters of this fantastic and, as it turns out, fantastically relevant story. I feel like there is still so much to be said about the book of Ruth. Which, I suppose, is part of what makes it so great — you can’t possibly find all this story can teach us in three weeks.
In part 3 here, I reference a terrific one-off graphic novel called, Nightwing: The New Order which has this to say about present day USA fictional Gotham 30ish years from now (emphasis mine):
We grow up getting glimpses of who our parents were before we knew them. We look at photographs, we watch videos, we listen to stories. We try to learn about them so we can learn more about ourselves. In 2028 my dad saved the world, but…it was complicated.
Eventually I learned how even good people can come to believe in really terrible things.
I think the book of Ruth tries to answer the same question from the post-exilic era. Ezra and Nehemiah came to believe really terrible things about Moabites. The book of Ruth serves as a polemic against the violent, hateful, exclusionary policies of Ezra and Nehemiah.
In the spirit of Ruth (The Good Moabite) — and contra the Trump administration — let’s tell a different story this week. Let’s tell a better story than one that calls for separating families and sending women and children out into the wilderness to die. A story that echoes the saving work of God, one that echoes Ruth and Naomi and Boaz, one that echoes Jesus — tell a story that demands all people be treated as neighbors.
We know this. Almost instinctively, we know this. Genre helps determine what we expect from a story and how we understand that story. We read and react much differently to, say, an issue of National Geographic than we do to an issue of a superhero comic.
Sometimes it only takes a few words for us to instantly know with what type of story we are dealing:
“Dateline Chicago, August 31, 2018”
“Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away”
“Once upon a time…”
We have vastly different expectations for news stories and fairy tales. Yet, many different kinds of stories — that is, many different genres — can interest us, excite us, teach us, or inspire us.
The bible is no different. Biblical stories contain a multitude of genres. Sometimes we forget that. Or worse, sometimes some of us feel we aren’t even allowed to admit that. But it remains true.
In Part 1 of this sermon series on Ruth, I tried to look at the macro view. Here in Part 2, I focus in close, suggesting that the type of story Chapter 2 most resembles is a Romantic Comedy. That sounds a bit ridiculous, I know. But give it a listen and see what you think. My intended point: Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi show us love, kindness, and generosity are how we embody God’s way in the world.
Money quote from Katharine Doob Sakenfeld again: “The story illustrates how loyal action, kindness, and good will produce a surplus that can both break down dividing walls of hostility and open new horizons to shattered lives.”
Some day I will post something other than a sermon here. Really I will. I have a whole host of drafts and otherwise unfinished ideas. You’ll see them…as soon as I access my inner Rocky Supinger.
This past Sunday we kicked off a new sermon series on the book of Ruth — by necessity, much shorter than the previous Acts of the Apostles series as Ruth consists of a mere four chapters. I have three weeks to play with, so we’ll read almost the whole book during this series.
I haven’t often listed sources consulted as I prepare sermons. They are usually just nuggets I read, see, or hear throughout the week from books, blogs, videos, radio, TV, and podcasts. But this week I relied more heavily on two books:
Boy, that title, right? Whatever you may think of Bell, there is no denying he has a high view of what scripture can do.
My intended thesis: “Optimism is rebellion.” Ruth is a rebel. We need to be rebels too.
Oh, as I say in the sermon, that brilliant, beautiful “Optimism is rebellion” line comes from Laurence Holmes’ excellent podcast, “The House of L.”
Moab plays quite the significant role in this story, so I used this map to help visualize where the story’s action (or, you know, lack thereof) takes place:
The sermon is a little long for our standards — but still shorter than many of the “teaching’ models I see employed by churches in our area. So I won’t apologize for that. I spent a decent amount of time trying to set the macro view. It is up to you, dear listener, to decide if I succeed in that effort. What do you think?
“There is plenty in our city, in our country, in our world to be pessimistic about. But rebellions are built on hope. No matter what horrible thing our president does or says next, we can be rebels of hope and optimism by standing along side those on the margins of society. The vulnerable ones among us. We need to be this kind of rebel.”