The Promise of New

Luke 5:36-39
David A. Davis
April 9, 2023
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For the last six weeks during the season of Lent here at Nassau Church, we have been listening, studying, and pondering the stories Jesus told. The parables Jesus told. So this morning, this Easter morning, let’s do one more parable. One more parable from the teaching of Jesus.

Luke 5:36-39

Jesus tells the one about the old and new wineskins in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In each gospel, Jesus brings up the wineskins in response to a question about why his disciples do not fast as frequently as the followers of John the Baptist or those who follow the other religious leaders. Only Luke refers to the teaching about not putting a new patch on an old garment and not putting new wine in an old wineskin as a parable. As parables go, this one seems straightforward at least in terms of the wineskins. As new wine ferments it expands and an old wineskin, being brittle and dry, would no longer be able to be stretched and would start to leak. What is not as straightforward about Jesus’ teaching and what makes it more parable-like is what Jesus means in terms of the old and the new.

The most common interpretation has to do with the old covenant or the law, and the new covenant Jesus brings as in “This cup is the new covenant of my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Every time you drink it, do it in remembrance of me.” But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” That doesn’t really sound like a bursting or leaking relationship of the old and the new. And that last sentence from Jesus in Luke just leaves the parable listener all the more “parabolically confused.” “No one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says ‘the old is good.’”

So the old is good or the old is bad or the old is just old. The new wine will be better after it ages? Jesus is not likely playing the role of a wine steward here. Perhaps the parable intends to point far beyond that theological tightrope Jesus walks of the old and the new covenant. What if the “new wine” Jesus refers to in the parable can be better referenced by the new commandment Jesus offers in the Gospel of John at the Last Supper. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  Or maybe “new wine” points to the “new teaching” of the apostles all through the book of Acts. A new teaching, the teaching of the gospel that lands them in prison over and over again. Or what if the “new” is the new creation the Apostle Paul announces to the Corinthian Church. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away, see everything has become new.”  It could also be that the “new” Jesus mentions in the parable of the old and new wineskins ought to come with a capital “N”. Some way for it to point all the way to the promise of the new heaven and the new earth John the Revelator sees. As the Lamb of God seated upon the throne, the victorious Christ proclaims, “Behold, I am making all things new.”  The Risen Jesus and his promise of “new”. NEW in all caps, like a received text message intended to be a shout!

And yes, in response to the gospel’s promise of “new”, in response to the Risen Jesus and his promise of “NEW”, some prefer the old wine, some opt for the old, some crave the old, some even fear the promise of new. The only thing mentioned more than the Jesus being raised from the dead in the gospel of Matthew’s recording of the empty tomb is fear. You heard it in the call to worship this morning. For fear of the stone rolling, stone sitting, earthquake announcing angel, those guards shook and became like dead men. To the women there at the now empty tomb, the angel said “Do not be afraid”. Do not fear. When they left the tomb quickly it was with fear and great joy. Suddenly Jesus met them and as they clung to his feet and fell down and worshipped him, he said, “Do not be afraid”.

“They left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy.” Fear and great joy. It is a jarring combination of emotions. It’s not something to really be explained. You don’t make sense of it. Fear and great joy. But the combination, it is part of the human experience. You can’t explain it but you’ve seen it. I’ve seen it. An 18-year-old arrives on a college campus somewhere, anywhere. She is so glad to be out of high school. She is, honestly, so happy to be away from home. But her chief goal that first week is to not let her roommates know how wicked scared she is. Fear and great joy. Ask any first-time parents who have just brought a baby home from the hospital, they’ve just arrived home with their adopted newborn, ask any first-time parents and without using the exact words, I assure you they will describe fear and great joy to you. When both dads take the morning off from work because their son is getting on the bus for the first time and heading off to first grade? That moment when the bus drives away, it is fear and great joy. The saint of the church, with a fullness of life far beyond what the psalmist describes, four score by reason of strength, that pillar of faith and strength who is both ready to go to glory and anxious about getting there. That’s fear and great joy. You can’t really describe it but you’ve seen it. You’ve tasted it. You know it.

Some translations, some commentators, some preachers, they try to soften the fear; opting for the word “awe” or “wonder”. They try to go with that old biblical use of the word “fear” as in “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111). Fear as in worship and reverence. “Filled with awe and a lot of excitement” the women left the tomb quickly. No, they were scared to death, scared by death, sacred of the mystery that life might somehow be rising out of death, scared of the new. Otherwise, the Risen Jesus would not have said to them, “Do not be afraid.” It was great joy and fear. “Do not be afraid; go and tell them to go to Galilee, there they will see me.” Do not be afraid of the promise of new.

One of the most influential preachers in my life once said this in a sermon on Easter morning:

Ours is a religion of the dawn. Creation begins in the morning. The women come to the tomb in the morning. The morning is when it happens. Lose the morning and you have lost the day. Resurrection is an event of the morning, and when Jesus is raised from the dead it is always morning, always daytime, always the new day….The theme of Easter is that you and I become something new. We are given a second chance to get it right.


With all due respect to a mentor now gone to glory, if the theme of Easter is just a second chance to get it right, if Easter is just one big mulligan, one big do-over for humankind, that’s not enough. Because you and I, humankind, the world, we will never get it right. Before the resurrection is an event of the morning, it is a death-vanquishing, life-restoring, tomb-stomping event in the dark. It’s a light breaking, night shattering, overcoming of the dark. It is something new alright. Something “NEW”

Easter better be about more than a second chance. Second chances aren’t enough when you are stopped in your tracks by the magnitude of all that is opposite to the mighty works of God. All the powers and principalities that work to destroy life; the promise of life in all its fullness and abundance. When the fear of God’s new thing stokes the sinful desire to cling to power and sew division and spread lies. A fear of God’s promise of a new day that can result in demonizing, silencing, expelling others who yearn for a better way. Second chance isn’t enough when it comes to the symbol, the sum, the prototype, the theme, the weight, the rallying cry for all that works against God’s way, God’s reign, God’s new thing. God’s kingdom to come now. When confronted over and over again by such utter darkness, it’s not a second chance I need, but rather, the hope, the promise, the God-given Word of a victory. The promise of God’s new heaven and new earth. The promise of the Risen Savior who proclaims “Behold, I am making all things new.

            Don’t misunderstand, I have no allusions when it comes to death. I’ve stood next to far too many open graves in the cemetery. Back in January, I stood in this pulpit looking out at 600 people who were here for a memorial serve for a friend and neighbor who was my age who was diagnosed with lung cancer just 7 months before. Jeff never smoked a day in his life. An overflowing sanctuary, half of which were young people my kid’s age, my kid’s friends. In the midst of my own very real grief, I had to stand here with something to say. Death and darkness abound and are very, very real. And when it comes to the blasted world around us, I have lived long enough to agree with John Calvin and the other Reformers who wrote about the total depravity of humankind.

But you and I, we dare to cling to the promise of new! The new of everlasting life, yes. The new that death and darkness will be no more, yes. The new that there will be no need of light there, for God alone shall be our light. Yes. The promise of the new kingdom that comes here on earth as it is in heaven, a newness where gun violence, and bitterness, and the evils of fear and hate and bitterness will be no more, yes. The new that the city of Jerusalem and all that is the land of Jesus’ birth would have a future of peace, yes. The new that the earth could thrive forever with swords turned in plowshares and threats of war be no more, yes. The new that all of the “isms” that threaten the common good could be vanquished and poverty and hunger and homelessness gone forever, yes. The new that creation could be restored, redeemed from humanity’s destructive touch to that which God proclaimed as good, yes. The new that abundant life can rise out of the shambles of broken relationships, and a flourishing career can come after the depth of job loss, and youthful vitality can rise from weak knees and tired bones and weary souls, yes. The new that in the confidence of resurrection hope, you and I are called even now to be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord, in the Risen Lord, our labor is not, shall not, will never be in vain.

For on Easter Day, the people of God rise not just to celebrate a second chance, but we rise to stare down the world’s darkness, proclaiming together that the victory over death was his, the victory is ours. For Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed! And today our Easter shout is to the Risen Savior who from the very throne of God proclaims again, “Behold, I am making all things NEW!”




The Believeable and the Unbelievable

Matthew 21:33-46
David A. Davis
April 2, 2023
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In early January just a few months ago my wife Cathy and I were sitting poolside in a warm place somewhere with a view of the ocean. I find something restorative in long gazes out over the ocean. One morning I was lost in a book with my body and spirit somewhere between relaxation and exhaustion. I was reading one of my favorite authors; a very well-known one at that. This particular new book does not fall into the author’s typical genre. I will describe my experience of the book only in vague terms in case someone is reading it right now. This piece of fiction could easily have been lifted from real life and a few times I had to stop and think again about whether it may have been just with names and places changed. I had the paperback book in my hands and with nothing but free time for a few days, I was plowing through it at quite a pace. That’s because I was enjoying it. It was a feel-good story headed for what was going to be an uplifting if not tear-jerker, happy ending. I turned a page at the end of the chapter to read the first paragraph of the next one. Seconds later, much to Cathy’s surprise, I threw the book toward the pool and shouted something akin to “You have got to be kidding me!” The first sentence of the new chapter was this: “They found him dead in the bathroom at 6:30 the next morning.” Him being the protagonist of the feel-good, sure to be a happy ending tale. I told Cathy I was so mad at the author I might never read any of their work again. That was not how that calming, enjoyable, poolside read was supposed to end.

When our children entered the “go to the party at someone’s house the parents don’t know” stage of being teenagers, we tried to do all the things parents are supposed to do. Set the rules. Confirm adults will be at the party. Who’s driving, who’s picking up. One of the parts of the plan was a code word we gave to them. If they called and said the word, one of us would come immediately and pick them up no questions asked. This was before cell phones so if the party was going bad and you needed to leave, you would have to ask to borrow a phone and you wouldn’t want to risk embarrassment in front of your friends. Thus a code word. Our code word was “pickle.” If Hannah or Ben ever called and said, “Hey, I’m in a bit of a pickle” or “I think I ate a pickle, the kind I am allergic to” or “if you’re coming to the party could you bring some pickles”, I would have jumped in the car and been there in a heartbeat. Today your teenager would just text and say, “This is out of control, please come get me”.

Today as we near the conclusion of our Lenten series on the parables, the text for Palm Sunday selected by Corrie Berg is the parable of the wicked tenants. You will want to notice that the parable in Matthew’s gospel actually appears in the same chapter as Matthew’s Palm Sunday account; the reading that launched our processional palm parade. Jesus and that ride on the donkey down from the Mt. of Olives and then back up the steep hill to the city walls of Jerusalem. The parade comes with all those “hosanna shouts” and the branches and garments strewn on the path. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Here in Matthew 21 when Jesus gets to the temple, he overturns tables and tells the money changers to get out. Then Jesus heals the blind and the lame as the tension among the chief priests and scribes continues to rise. The very next day he curses a fig tree in the city and offers some confounding teaching. Then he comes back to the temple again and has an even more heated exchange with the elders and the chief priests. They confront Jesus and pretty much say, “Who the heck do you think you are?” So he tells them this parable. He told them the one about a landowner who planted a vineyard. The landowner who tried to collect the harvest. The landowner who ultimately send two sent two sets of servants to collect his produce and the tenants beat, stone, and killed them. So the landowner his son to collect the produce figuring the wicked tenants would at least respect the son. No, the tenants seized the landowner’s son, took him out of the vineyard, and killed him because they wanted to get his inheritance.

It’s the day after the Triumphal Entry in Matthew, the day after that great “hosanna” party and there in the temple Jesus is going toe to toe with those who are determined to put an end to all this, put an end to him. There had to be some followers of Jesus in the temple that morning with a stunned look on their face. As Jesus was telling this parable of violence and death, there must have been those who just about then were starting to get it, put two and two together, figure it all out. A son who was sent now being put to death. You and I, we’re sort of expected to think that the crowd surrounding Jesus was full of fickle deniers and betrayers who shout “hosanna” one week and “crucify him” the next. But there had to be some, a few, someone, some follower of Jesus there on the edge of the crowd, just within earshot of the Teacher’s voice, someone who hears the one about the death of the son, someone who right then realizes this is going to end badly. Sure, Jesus told them over and over how this was going to end. But they never really understood it. They never got it. They didn’t want to understand it. Who could possibly have wanted to “get it.” The parade for the Messiah who would save turning into a death march. No way! There had to be someone who shouted to no one in particular and to God all that the same time: “It wasn’t supposed to end this way”. There had to be someone in the temple the morning after Palm Sunday who texted a family member, “Can you come get me, this is out of control”

It’s the Palm Sunday predicament of faith. The followers of Jesus, you and I, we know where this is headed. The Son is being hailed as a king today. But he is going to be sweating drops of blood soon. The Son is going to be betrayed, and tried, and beaten, and tortured, and killed. This parade is going bad. It’s far too easy to shout “Hosanna” today and “He is Risen” next week. But some time, some moment in between there comes this awful realization that it shouldn’t be this way, it shouldn’t go this way. And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. And yet today we still shout! Hosanna in the highest! Save us! We know where this parade is headed and we still have to shout to the Son of God! Save! Save! Save!
I was invited to coffee few weeks ago by a friend of mine at the Jewish Center of Princeton. Sitting at a table at Dunkin over at the Princeton Shopping Center he told me about a recent three-generation family trip to Israel a visit to a grandson who is studying there. I asked him about his favorite spots. He knew I had been to the region several times and he asked me about my favorite spots. I mentioned a few around the Sea of Galilee and then I told him the view from the Mt of Olives across the Kidron Valley to the Old City of Jerusalem was the most meaningful. He wanted to know more about why that was important to me. I think he was genuinely interested in my Christian perspective but he is also a therapist so maybe he was doing some work.

I told him it is an incredibly beautiful view from the Mount of Olives. The Garden of Gethsemane just down the hill. The view across the valley sort of allows you to ignore the four-lane highway that runs through so full of cars and tour buses. You look over at that old wall and the iconic skyline. After you get your bearings and someone points out the various domes and steeples and rooftops, after you take the pictures, you just linger there in silence. Time and history sort of collapse. And for those of us who follow Jesus, I said, this unsettling feeling comes. This gnawing at the spirit. A sort of soulful nausea. Because the view, there from the Mt. of Olives, it’s a Palm Sunday view. I told him the Palm Sunday story. You can see where the parade starts. You can trace it down the hill and up the other side. You can see the gate in the wall where the parade passed through. And you just know, you know what’s going to happen. How the parade goes bad. How it all ends in his death. I stopped and apologized for the preaching there at the Dunkin but my friend Lew, he was just smiling and listening.

That Psalm Sunday view, when you know how the parade ends, wow he so willingly empties himself, gives himself, sheds his blood. How God so loved the world that God sent God’s only Son, Hosanna! Hosanna! The Palm Sunday shout. It is the Palm Sunday Predicament. That Palm Sunday view is so….so…….beautiful. The believable lust of humankind for vengeance, and wickedness, and violence, and greed ultimately overcome by the utterly unbelievable Savior’s dying love for the world. The parade that wasn’t supposed to end this way. With Christ on the Cross bathed in the very tears of God.

Often when you stand along a parade route, you find yourself straining to look back from when the parade is coming. And as it passed by you turn and soon find yourself leaning forward to see from where it is coming. Well, you can’t stand along this parade route very long without turning toward Jerusalem. While you are shouting Hosanna, you can’t help but find yourself shouting Hosanna with like Jesus, your face set for Jerusalem. When you know how it all is going to end the Palm Sunday shout is fraught with praise, lament, and gratitude. A shout in response to who Jesus is and all that Jesus gives. A shout that comes from deeper and deeper within the soul when you stand waist-deep in a world so full of sin and suffering. A shout through tears. A shout with a fist raised. A shout from your knees in prayers. Save! Save! Save!

Somewhere in Mississippi, somewhere in Arkansas, somewhere in Illinois, and after last night maybe somewhere not far amid a storm’s death and destruction someone is going to shout Hosanna this morning. Somewhere along a train track with a derailed train spewing chemicals in Ohio or in Minnesota, someone this morning is going to shout Hosanna. And yes, in Nashville TN, at churches all through the city and at Covenant Presbyterian Church where teachers and children were just the next people murdered by someone with a weapon made for nothing but war, the followers of Jesus are going to shout hosanna through tears there too. When I watched the children, the young people, and the families flood the statehouse in Nashville this week demanding change, demanding help from elected officials called to serve the common good rather than feed the obsession and idolatry of guns, I couldn’t help but think that at some level those young people, those children were shouting out “save us, save us”

Some of my earliest memories of church life are from singing in the choir as a very young child. Processing on Palm Sunday down the aisle in my little white choir surplus after the choir mother spit in her hand to try to calm down my cowlick. Of course, we were singing “All Glory Laud and Honor” making the “sweet hosannas ring.” Few things may be more important in a congregation’s life than creating those memories and giving our children the language and the song of faith for the life of discipleship. Giving them permission to shout in church now so they know they can shout to God later in their own life of faith hewn by all that the world surely brings. Because one day, someday, for our children, as for us, the shout becomes so much more than a sweet hosanna. A shout to Jesus that comes when you know how the parade ends. A shout from your gut and from the tips of your toes. Save! Save! Save! Save us and save your world. That same language of faith, that same song of faith, they help us to sing, and to shout, and to pray, and to live amid the uh so believable sin of the world that clings so close yet we can boldly proclaim and cling not to the world’s darkness but to his unbelievable dying love for you and for me and for the world.

Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna! Save! Save! Save!

Many, many Palm Sundays ago, the staff and I decided to change up the liturgy on Palm Sunday just a bit. There had been a growing practice in the liturgical Presbyterian world in the 90s and early 2000s of turning Palm Sunday more toward Passion Sunday. A Sunday that looks to the cross of Christ and his suffering. Liturgically speaking, it means making the hard turn in a Palm Sunday service from the Triumphal Entry to the Cross. As we were planning worship that Sunday, we were aware that such a practice, such a shift had not really made it to the worship life here at Nassau. So yes, we had a palm parade and sang “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” and after the welcome and the first lesson, the service started to turn toward the cross. The gospel lesson was from the passion. I preached on the cross. We moved through the rest of the service and the final move that was different was that I said the benediction before the final hymn. There was no postlude and the congregation was invited to leave in silence after we sang “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”

Outside on the front patio, one of the first people through the door was a professor long since retired and moved away who came up to me more than just a but irritated with me and the service of worship. The professor shook his palm at me like putting a finger in my chest and said “Don’t ever do that to me again”. And the professor, not joking in the slightest, walked away not very happily. I had only been here at Nassau a few years. I knew the professor from the seminary pretty well and I was sort of speechless as the professor walked away. Now, if it happened, today? Some 20 years later? This morning? Though the benediction is not before the final hymn and neither are we singing “when I survey the wondrous cross”. But today, my cranky old self, my own weather-worn, world-worn faith, I might just say before the professor had a chance to turn away, I might just say “You’re welcome”



At Midnight

Luke 11:5-13
David A. Davis
March 5, 2023
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Some refer to our parable this morning from the 11th chapter of Luke as “The Friend at Midnight”. As you heard, it begins at the 5th verse. In the first four verses of the 11 chapter of Luke, one finds Jesus offering the Lord’s Prayer to the disciples. Here in the NRSV: “Lord, teach us to pray….Jesus said to them, ‘When you pray, say Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” This is what comes next: “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight.” The friend at midnight. The parable comes right after the Lord’s Prayer. And the parable comes right before Jesus in Luke says “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you, search, and your find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”

When Luke tucks the parable of the friend at midnight in between Jesus teaching the disciples the Lord’s Prayer and “Ask, and it will be given you, search, and your find; knock, and the door will be opened for you”, it is pretty difficult to come to any other conclusion than the friend at midnight is a parable about persistent prayer. The parable of the friend at midnight, then, is sort of a companion or can be coupled with the parable of the persistent widow who kept demanding justice from a judge in Luke. Luke writes, “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and to not lose heart”.  That parable concludes with these words from the judge: “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming to me.” Not surprisingly, the tradition names labels this one “The Parable of the Unjust Judge.” It should, of course, be labeled the parable of the bold, courageous, persistent widow.

The friend at midnight, the persistent widow and the gospel’s call to a life of prayer and the role of prayer in the life of discipleship. Last week in the adult education session introducing our Lenten series on the parables, Professor Dale Allison said more than once that a parable can have many meanings. It is the beauty, the power, and the wonder of the parables of Jesus. A preacher could tackle the same parable for a month of Sundays and never repeat the same sermon or even give the same take on a parable. So it is with the friend at midnight. But Jesus teaching the Lord’s Prayer and dropping the iconic verse “ask, and it will be given you, search, and your find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” can sort of take all the interpretive air out of the room in the first half of Luke’s 11th chapter.

Listen to this clip of one preacher’s different take.

“Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him.” (Luke 11:5, 6)

“Although this is a parable dealing with the power of persistent prayer, there is much in it that can serve as a basis for analyzing many of the problems of the modern world and the role of the church in grappling with them. The first thing we notice in the parable is that it is midnight. It is also midnight in the world today. The darkness is so deep that we hardly see which way to turn.”

Yes, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and the beginning of his sermon entitled “A Knock at Midnight”. He preached the sermon in many places and he turned the manuscript into a chapter of his book Strength to Love published in 1963. The driving metaphor for Dr. King throughout the sermon is that amid the world’s darkness of midnight there comes a knock at the door of church. Take a look at the artwork on bulletin cover. It is a reproduction of Ned Walthall’s photograph he titled “Midnight Visitor”.

For Dr. King, it is a midnight knock at the door of church from those seeking the bread of social justice and racial equality. A knock at the door in a time of war from those seeking the bread of peace. A knock from those seeking economic justice and a fight against poverty. And then King moves from the midnight darkness of the world to the midnight darkness of people’s lives. His call is for the church to offer to the discouraged and disillusioned the bread of hope and belief that God has the power to bring good out of evil. To offer the bread of Christ’s forgiveness to those tormented by their own sinfulness, the bread of hope and proclamation of eternal life for those who find themselves in the valley of the shadow of death. In King’s words “Midnight is a confusing hour when it is difficult to be faithful. The most inspiring word that the church may speak is that no midnight long remains.”

Nowhere in the parable of the bold, courageous, persistent widow is she described as persistent. The parable simply tells how she “kept coming” to the judge and the judge complains because “she keeps bother me” and “wearing me out.” Jesus concludes the parable of the friend at midnight like this: “ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything out of friendship, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.” His persistence. His perseverance. His tenacity. His importunity. The Greek word can also be translated “shamelessness.” Because of the friend’s shamelessness in knocking at the midnight hour, the man will get up and give him whatever he needs.

The midnight hour of our lives is confusing because, in fact, God doesn’t always give us whatever it is that we need or ask for in prayer. A peace that passes all understanding doesn’t always come amid the midnight darkness in the soul. Who among us has not experienced the silence of God amid our own knocking on the door.  And yes, there will always be grieving families who sit here before in the front row at a memorial service. When it comes to our faith, the midnight hour can be confusing. God doesn’t always give the world what it needs either when it comes to peace and justice and righteousness and abundant life for all. That sermon by Dr. King was 60 years ago! If the parable of the friend at midnight is always and only about prayer, someone is always going to shout back, “Really, Jesus?!”

Years ago, the writer Anne Lamott offered her conclusion that sometimes in life, perhaps often times in life, one’s prayer life comes down to just about two prayers. “Help me, help me, help me” and “thank you, thank you, thank you.” Maybe that’s all we can expect or the best we can do when its midnight. Or maybe that’s about all we can understand when it comes to prayer and figuring it all out. Figuring God out. Because parables often leave the listener with more questions than answers. In that way parables are a lot like life. More questions than answers. Yet, the call to the church and to you and me is to shamelessly proclaim along with the psalmist that “weeping may last for the night, joy will come in the morning” Even when that night lasts a whole lot longer than 12 hours. “The most inspiring word that the church may speak is that no midnight long remains.”

Persistence in the body of Christ goes far beyond proclamation and inspiring words. Because when someone is experiencing life at midnight and a darkness that keeps them from seeing their hand in front of their face, someone else is being called to walk along in love. Embodying, if by nothing more than being present to the broken-hearted one, that the light of Christ shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it. When someone is coming to the midnight hour of exhaustion in being a caretaker for a loved one, or when someone is so concerned about their child there seems to be no tunnel let alone a light at the end of tunnel, and being worried sick doesn’t even begin to describe it, or when someone’s weariness at the sorry state of the world hangs like a fog of never-ending darkness eating away at the spirit, someone else is being called to bear witness to God’s promise of a coming dawn and live out the exhortation of the Apostle Paul “to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” Persistence in the body of Christ goes far beyond proclamation and inspiring words. For when the tyranny and reality of death never stops and brings everyone at some point in life to that gut-piercing midnight taste of loss, sorrow, and grief, the members of the body of Christ shamelessly remember that according to the Gospel of John, the women arrived at the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus “early on the first day of the week when it was still dark”. They discovered “He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed”

In parables class 101, the first move for us is usually to find our place in the parable. When the injured man is in the ditch, are we the religious folk walk by on the other side or are we the Samaritan stopping to help. Maybe we’re the one in the ditch. Are you more like a younger brother who returns after a the worst gap year ever or the older brother who resents the welcome home party, or the father who runs with open arms. Trying to play the naming game with parables usually hits a wall at some point. Who wants to believe in God as a judge who gives in to the bold courageous persistent widow to get her to stop bothering God? When the friend comes knocking at midnight, is God really going to tell the friend to go away, roll over, and put a pillow over the head?

Imagine when it comes to the parable of the friend at midnight, if that is you and I all tucked in with the kids soundly asleep and it is God who comes knocking. What if God is the friend at midnight. Knocking to ask for your help because “It is midnight in the world today. The darkness is so deep that we hardly see which way to turn.” God, the friend at midnight, the persistent, persevering, tenacious, shameless friend who even at the midnight hour, won’t go away.

The Victorious Christ in the Book of Revelation, to the church in Philadelphia: “Look, I have set before you an open door which no one is able to shut.” And to the church in Laodicea: “Behold, I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come into you and eat with you, and you with me.”

The persistent and shameless presence and promise of God in our world and in our lives…even and maybe especially, at midnight.




Without a Parable

Matthew 13:34-35
David A. Davis
February 26, 2023
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“Without a parable, Jesus told them nothing.” That seems like a stretch. “Without a parable, Jesus told them nothing.” The Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount are here in Matthew. Three chapters of Jesus telling them something but not much when it comes to parables. When Jesus sent out the disciples to proclaim the good news, Matthew writes that he sent them out with “the following instructions”. It’s a pretty long list that has no parables.  “Come to me, all you that weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” That doesn’t sound like a parable. “Without a parable, Jesus told them nothing.”

Jesus did tell many, many parables. Just in this 13th chapter, Jesus got into the boat along the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee and sat down. The crowd of listeners stood on the beach. According to Matthew, “Jesus told them many things in parables.” Three times in the same chapter, the reader comes upon this sentence: “He put before them another parable…He put before them another parable… he put before them another parable.” Just before the couplet of verses I offered for your hearing, Jesus told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” That is a whole lot of flour. 144 cups of flour one baker figures. And that would make about 52 loaves of bread. In the 13th chapter of the Book of Matthew “without a parable Jesus told them nothing.”

Indeed, there are more than enough of parables of Jesus to go around. One perhaps could conclude that in the entire corpus of the teaching of Jesus, on average, the content, style, or genre lean toward parables. Or maybe when it comes to the teaching of Jesus, the gospel reader has to know that you’re never far away from a parable. The gospels themselves have enough parables mixed in that they sort of leaven one’s encounter with Jesus. You cannot hear and experience the teaching of Jesus apart from the parables. Can there be a life of discipleship, a walk of faith, without a parable?

The parables of Jesus defy definition; certainly when it comes to a dictionary definition. Listen to a few. “A simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson, as told by Jesus in the Gospels”.  Some of them are not all that simple. “A short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson.” They are certainly not all allegories. “A succinct, didactic story, in prose or verse, that illustrates one or more instructive lessons or principles” That just makes parables sound boring. The dictionary of the bible sitting on my shelf begins with “very short stories with a double meaning.” Most parables seem to have a whole lot more meanings than just two. The definition of a parable isn’t very helpful. Because like the grace and love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ, it isn’t always something you understand. It is more often something far beyond words that you experience, you let wash over you. Parables are the same way. You don’t figure them out, crack the code, understand them, as much you experience them, you sit with them, you feel them, even the ones that gnaw at you and never get any “easier”. You allow them to do to you what they must have done to those standing there on the beach who heard them from the lips of Jesus.

To ponder the phrase “without a parable he told them nothing” may be an opportunity to ponder this audacious thought. When it comes to Jesus, his life, his teaching, his death and resurrection, maybe it is all a parable. The entire gospel as parable-like, parabolic. God’s invitation for us to sit with, experience, feel, and yes, maybe once in a while understand the steadfast love of God and God’s bottomless well of grace. It may not be popular to say in a university town with a vast theological library down the street that parables remind us that the life of faith is not always and should not always be about the life of the mind. And neither is an encounter with Jesus the Christ, the Savior of the world, the Son of God. It is the arrogance of human belief to think you can or even have to understand it all. “Without a parable he told them nothing” According to Matthew, Jesus paraphrases the psalmist, “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” Jesus the Christ, proclaiming in word, in action, in life, and in death God’s plan of salvation and promise of the kingdom of heaven come on earth.

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion the Reformer John Calvin writes about an aspect of his experience and practice of the gospel of Christ that remains a mystery to him. To be specific, Calvin was deep into a theology of the sacraments and the experience of the presence of Christ at the Lord’s Supper. Of course, he was taking on Roman Catholic understandings of the sacraments and eucharistic theology. After pages and pages and pages and pages writing about the promised and real presence of Christ in communion, Calvin offers a humble deference to the mystery of God. “Now if anyone should ask how this takes place, I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret to lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare. And, to speak more plainly, I rather experience than understand it. Therefore, I here embrace without controversy the truth of God in which a may safely rest. (IV.xvii.32).” I rather experience than understand it and safely rest in the truth of God. John Calvin on the parabolic nature of the presence of Christ. The parable of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus the Christ, proclaiming in word, in action, in life, and in death God’s plan of salvation and promise of the kingdom of heaven come on earth.

I learned a new word sometime in the last three years. The word is “proof”. It is a bit ironic in a sermon on the mystery of the parables that I would share that I have learned a new meaning when it comes to “proof”. I figure it is never a bad thing any at age to be learning new words or new meaning.  This one, “proof”, came to me in the early days of being home during pandemic when my wife Cathy started baking bread; lots and lots of bread. At the time we were also watching every baking and cooking show known to humankind. Turns out Paul Hollywood talks a lot about “proofing the dough, allowing the dough time to proof”.  Maybe I am the only one this morning who never heard that expression until I was nigh on to 60 years. Proofing is all about the yeast doing what is supposed to do to allow the dough to rise, to blossom as some say. Final proofing happens when the dough is allowed to rest, to sit, to be still for a while. I wonder how long it took to allow three measures of flour to proof.

What if Jesus telling “the crowds all these things in parables” was Jesus offering a way for the gift of faith and the call to discipleship to “proof” in the life of his followers. Giving the listeners something they would have to sit with for a while. Providing a means for faith to rest deep within the soul because there is no quick way to experience a parable, no fast answer, no quick takeaway. Parables need time. Jesus and his parables, leavening the life of discipleship in ways our minds don’t always comprehend and our words don’t always declare. Doing unto the least of these. Caring and loving and acting like the one who is a neighbor. Welcoming the stranger with bold hospitality like an embrace of lost child come home. Finding the treasure of God’s forgiveness and going in joy to tell the world. Finding the courage to pray constantly and with persistence. Coming to terms with the reality that you can’t worship God and mammon. Discovering that it is better to give someone else the seat of honor. Finding that the gift of the Holy Spirit and God’s own light can inspire you and empower you to keep your own lamp burning when the world’s darkness can be so crushing. Parables doing what they are supposed to do. Allowing the parables to do what Jesus intends them to do that our faith, in word and in deed, may blossom in our lives and our witness to him.

“Without a parable, Jesus told them nothing”

Jesus also told them “take, eat, this is my body….Drink from it all of you, this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins”.

Come to the table this morning and sit with it all for a while. The promised, the presence, the call of Jesus Christ upon your life. Come, taste and see. Come, that your faith may rest a while.






Matthew 1:18-25
David A. Davis
December 18, 2022
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“I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom”, the Apostle Paul writes to the church. “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  Proclaiming the mystery of God in weakness and fear not in words of wisdom, not with the wisdom of this age, not with human wisdom. God’s wisdom revealed through the Spirit. The very depth of God is not taught by human wisdom but by the Spirit. God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, revealed to us by the Spirit. Not the spirit of the world but the spirit that is from God. In that Spirit, according to Paul, we have the mind of Christ. No one can truly comprehend God, God’s love, God’s grace, God’s mercy except by the Spirit of God. For the Apostle Paul, the Spirit of God was pointing to Jesus Christ and him crucified. “…to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified…except Jesus Christ and him crucified…except.”

 This is my body, broken for you.

In one of her sermons on the last words of Christ from the cross, the Episcopalian priest Fleming Rutledge says that “For Jews and Gentiles alike in those days, a crucified person was a low and despised as it was possible to be” She points out that the Romans declared that a person condemned to death by crucifixion was damnatio ad bestias (condemn to the death of a beast).  She quotes the historian Peter Brown saying that the Passion narrative of the gospels, the spitting, the scorn, the crown of thorns, the purple robe, was all “a very ancient ritual of humiliation.”

Nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified. This is my body, broken for you.

The writer of Luke’s gospel labeled the crucifixion as a spectacle. “When all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts.” Earlier in Luke as Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector going up to the temple to pray, the tax collector could not even look up to even when praying. He could only beat his breast and say “God be merciful to me a sinner”.  Beating his breast as a sign of one’s own lowliness, sinfulness before God. Beating the breast can also be a sign of lament or grief. But when it comes to the crowds and the spectacle of Christ crucified, those crowds who demanded his death, who stayed to watch until his breath was gone, who left beating their breasts, it seems more to me like a crowd of drunk hooligans raucously leaving a game and celebrating that their team one.

This is my body broken for you.

I was struck by the first sentences I read in an essay penned late Friday night a week ago by an African American journalist. “The spectacle of a televised countdown to the showing of the video in which Tyre Nichols was savagely beaten by Memphis police officers doesn’t just theatricalize Black death; it is a damning indictment of American perversion.”  Spectacle. Humanity’s sinful thirst for spectacle never seems to change. “We speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom” Paul writes to the church, “taught not by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit.”

Nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified. This is my body broken for you.

The Gospel of Matthew records that at the Last Supper, Jesus said “Take, eat; this is my body.” In Mark, it is “Take; this is my body.” Luke reads, “This is my body, which is given for you.” Here in I Corinthians, the Apostle Paul offers what the tradition calls “The Words of Institution”, “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed, took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘this is my body that is for you’”. Some ancient Greek manuscripts read “This is my body that is broken for you.” Paul makes sure to include “you” Paul emphasizes and doesn’t let the church forget, won’t let all who will follow the Christ every deny his body broken for you. To come to this table, to eat of this bread and to drink of this cup is to “proclaim his death, until he comes again.” For before you sing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” you have to sing “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”. Before you go the empty tomb and shout, you have to stand beneath the cross and weep. Before you proclaim “Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!” you have to come to grips both deep down in your soul and in the Christian life you are called to profess and so live, come face to face with Jesus Christ and him crucified.

This is my body broken for you.

The Rev Dr. Brian Blount is retiring at the end of the spring term as President of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA and Charlotte, NC. Professor Blount taught New Testament for fifteen years at Princeton Theological Seminary. He and his wife Sharon raised their children in the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. I have always been struck by the remarkable way Dr. Blount’s academic work reads like his sermons sound. Just a year or two before he left Princeton Seminary for the presidency at Union, Professor Blount was working on and publishing books on the Book of Revelation. “Can I Get a Witness?” is one of those books. It’s subtitled “Reading Revelation through African American Culture.” In a chapter where he unpacks the slaughtered Lamb upon the throne in Revelation, Dr. Blount writes this: “When you throw weakness around, worlds change. Empires fall. Justice rises. People get hurt. Even, perhaps especially, the people who make the changes happen…the draconian devil believes it has found a way to return fire against God by establishing on earth the lordship it could not claim in heaven. The power of countless legions at its back, the partnership of all the kings of the earth by its side, the wealth of the world’s economy in its pocket, the rearmed adversary has ignited a conflict it is certain it has all the necessary strength to win.”

Professor Blount goes on to describe the way of the Lamb and God’s way of wreaking weakness upon the world. He unpacks Revelation’s symbolism of the defenseless wounded Lamb leading God’s response with a motley crew of unarmed, nonviolent disciples following behind. Straining all the boundaries of human wisdom, according to Blount, “God apparently believes this strategy (the way of the Lamb) will win the eternal day and transform human history into a reality in which the dragon is dead and God dwells directly and securely with God’s people.”.  The way of the Lamb. Or as Paul writes in I Corinthians, “God’s foolishness is wise than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

Nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified. This is my body broken for you.

Just a few years ago, Calvin University Professor Kristen Du Mez published a compelling, provocative, troubling book titled “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation”. The author does not offer a theological or biblical treatise that focuses on Jesus. It is more of a cultural study of how evangelicals embraced the tough, kick butt masculinity of John Wayne in the 1950’s and how that started a decades long development of view of Jesus contrary to the gospel; a kind of hyper masculinity preaching and teaching that portrays a tough guy Jesus who embodies a militant, conquering, victorious, dominating, even threatening masculinity. In the introduction to the book, Du Mez writes, “Evangelicals claim to uphold the bible as the highest authority in the Christian life…when evangelicals define themselves in terms of Christ’s atonement or as disciples of a risen Christ, what sort of Jesus are they imagining? Is their savior a conquering warrior, a man’s man who takes no prisoners and wages a holy war? Or is he a sacrificial lamb who offers himself up for the restoration of all things” How one answers these questions will determine what it looks like to follow Jesus.”

To know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified, one cannot quickly brush off that “ancient ritual of humiliation” that the Savior of the world willingly endured. To know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified, one cannot unsee in the sacred imagination that spectacle where humanity’s never-ending lust for power, domination, violence, and the brutal killing of another person, a child of God, God’s own Son. A killing sanctioned by the empire. To know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified is to honestly tell the sordid, truth-filled history of the Christian Church all around the world when the Christ of the gospels and his teaching is twisted and distorted beyond recognition and then used for political gain or to promulgate a dangerous Christian nationalism that demonizes other faiths or to enforce worldly power or to denigrate and subjugate and abuse another person, a child of God, a child of God’s own making. To know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified, is to have the hymn from Philippians forever etched in your heart: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, assuming human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.”

This is my body broken for you.

Some yearn to worship a Jesus of of their own mind’s making. Except…except according to Paul, the promise of God in the power of God’s Spirit and as a gift of God’s grace, the promise s not that we would have a Savior, a messiah, a Jesus of our mind’s making. No. The promise is much more profound than that.  Not we would have the Christ of our mind’s making. The promise of God is that we havewould have the mind of Christ.

Nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

This is my body broken…for you.







Christmas Unadorned

Matthew 1:18-25
David A. Davis
December 18, 2022
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The annual Nassau Presbyterian Church Christmas Pageant is this afternoon at 4:00pm. If that Christmas pageant was based solely on the Gospel of Matthew, it would have few characters and not last very long. The director of a Matthean Christmas pageant seeking to have folks strike a lovely pose with the Christ Child would not have much to work with. The story of the birth of Jesus in Matthew is rather unadorned.

The birth of Jesus the Messiah took place this way. Mary and Joseph were engaged. She discovered that she was pregnant. Joseph was trying to figure out the right thing to do. One night he had a dream. God told him not be afraid. The child in Mary’s womb is of the Holy Spirit. Marry her. She will have a baby boy. Name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins. This all is taking place, God said to Joseph in the dream to fulfill what the prophet proclaimed: a virgin will bear a son and they will name him Emmanuel- God is with us. Joseph woke up with a clear plan. They got married. Mary bore a son and Joseph named him Jesus. That’s it.

No Zechariah. No Elizabeth. No baby John the Baptist. No annunciation. No Magnificat. No manger. No barn. No animals. No shepherds. No choir of angels. The only angel was only in a dream. I’m not even sure that counts as far as angel sightings go. No Mary pondering and treasuring all these things told to her. No Magi…yet. No Herod…yet. Who would invite him to a birth story anyway. No light that the darkness will never conquer. No Word made flesh. Christmas unadorned. They got married. She had a son. He named him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins. They shall name him Emmanuel-God is with us.

When the Christmas story comes unadorned there is little to capture one’s attention other than the Child Jesus. The Christmas story unadorned is not quite a one person play but it does play out on the bible’s stage with a barren set and not a lot of dialogue. Not a lot of lines to memorize. Name him Jesus for he will save his people from their sins. Emmanuel-God with us. To say that the birth of Jesus told in all of its pageantry is full of distraction is really unfair to the gospels. For all those other characters provide a unique lens by which the reader/listener encounters and thus interprets the Child Jesus. Elizabeth’s devotion and care. Mary’s bold faithfulness. The shepherds wonder. The adoration of the Magi. The divine proclamation of the heavenly host. When it comes to interpreting or understanding or preaching the birth of the Christ Child. Matthew just has fewer conversation partners for the reader, the listener, the preacher. The lens is narrow. Not much is said. Jesus will save his people from their sins. Emmanuel-God with us.

A few weeks ago, I came upon an article in the New York Times Magazine that I found a bit strange. It was long form essay about the writer’s visit to “the quietest place on earth”. You might think it was some remote place in creation. No, it was a story about an echoless chamber in an old recording study in Minneapolis that people travel to just for the experience. A scientist named Stephen Orfield has built an anechoic chamber that removes as much noise as possible. According to the writer, a library reading room might be at 40 decibels. The anechoic room is close to 0. The point of the article was that the only sound one hears is the sounds of one’s own body; like the heart beat, breathing, even blood flowing. I stopped reading when the writer became a bit self-absorbed in their own experience of 15 minutes in the room. It was an early quote from the scientist that struck me as he described hearing the noises of one’s own body. “In the anechoic chamber” he said, “you become the sound.”

When Christmas comes unadorned, you and I become the sound. When the gospel conversation partners about this Child Jesus are nowhere to found, the lens, the interpretive work is left to the followers of Jesus. The gospel reader, the gospel listener, those who attend to the story of the birth of Jesus in Matthew become the sound of Christmas. Yes, with words. Yes, with song and praise. But even more, even more important, more compelling, is that you and I are called to be the sound of Christmas with the faithfulness of our lives. Providing a lens, providing an interpretive angle on Christ Jesus, offering a live Nativity that tells of the birth of the Messiah who saves his people from their sin. Emmanuel-God with us. The Gospel of Matthew and the timeless call for you to tell of the Messiah with the pageantry of your life.

Years ago in seminary I had a part in Thornton Wilder’s play The Long Christmas Dinner. It is a one act play that is set at the Christmas dinner table of the Bayard family. The play spans 90 years and multiple generations of the family’s life in the early 20th century. Children who are born enter stage right, family members exit stage left, some to move away, some to die. Throughout the play members of the family age right there on stage before the audience. While there are some funny parts, the play is hardly a comedy. Where there are some very sad parts, the play is not a tragedy either. It tells of real life and every member of the family had a part to play.

A long Christmas with everyone having a part to play. That’s sort how I have come to view celebrating the birth of Jesus in the Body of Christ. A long Christmas where over the decades disciples come and disciples go, children are born and saints go on to join the great cloud of witnesses. God help us if it is more like a comedy, our witness to the birth of Jesus. We certainly know it is not a tragedy when on the 4th Sunday of Advent we can proclaim “Christ is Risen”. But it is real life and when it comes to the birth of Jesus, who saves his people from their sins, Emmanuel-God with us, we all have a part to play.

Each Sunday in Advent, I have turned to Howard Thurman for my own inspiration, some content to offer in the sermon, and one of his poems to conclude. Howard Thurman, who died in 1981, has been described as an American author, philosopher, theologian, mystic, educator, and civil rights leader. He was on the faculty and Dean of the Chapel at the distinguished HBCU Howard University in Washington DC and later a faculty member and Dean of the Chapel at Boston University. In 1944, Thurman started an intentionally integrated congregation in San Francisco called “The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples.” It has been said the Dr. Martin Luther King carried Thurman’s book “Jesus and Disinherited” with him during the struggle for Civil Rights. Some friends and colleagues of mine today wonder if that might be a bit apocryphal.

In his book The Mood of Christmas asks about the symbol of Christmas and then offers an answer. “It is the rainbow arched over the roof of the sky when the clouds are heavy with foreboding. It is the cry of life in the newborn when, forced from its mother’s nest, it claims its right to live. It is the brooding Presence of the Eternal Spirit making crooked paths straight, rough places smooth, tired hearts refreshed, dead hopes stir with newness of life. It is the promise of tomorrow at the close of every day, the movement of life in defiance of death, and the assurance that love is sturdier than hate, that right is more confident than wrong, that good is more permanent than evil.”

Howard Thurman on Christmas unadorned. Christmas and real life when folks like you and me have a part to play. Where godly devotion and care is found in the aide at the bedside who lovingly watches over one of the saints soon to go to glory. Where bold faithfulness comes in young people who dare to believe God still calls people to a life of servanthood and giving back where hearts are set on making difference in this world God has made. Where the wonder of shepherds arises in the broken soul who rediscovers the grace of God in life and affirms through tears that God’s grace never left in the first place. Where adoration and love of the Christ Child inspires those whose gift to him is to tirelessly work for justice and to believe his righteousness is an ever-flowing stream. Where the divine proclamation of God’s glory comes not from the host of angels but from those who refuse to let death have the last word, and cling to the assurance that love is sturdier than hate, and rise each day knowing that right is more confident than wrong, and go to bed each night reminded of the promise that God’s goodness is more permanent than evil and God’s light will never be conquered by darkness.

Christmas unadorned. Christmas and real life when folks like you and me have a part to play in the very nativity of the Christ Child in the world today. 

The Work of Christmas

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.



What’s to See

Matthew 11:2-11
David A. Davis
December 11, 2022
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When John the Baptist heard in prison what Jesus was doing, when he heard what the Messiah had been up to do, when word came to John in prison about the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, John sends his own followers back out to find Jesus. He sends them with a question. John’s disciples ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? Are you the one we are waiting for or should we still keep looking? Are you it, or are we still waiting? Are you the one?”

Jesus says to them, “Go and tell John, you go back and tell him, you tell John what you hear and see…the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poorest of the earth received good news. You tell John what you hear and see.” John’s followers, they turn to head away, to start back, to go back to see John in prison. Jesus calls out to them, “and tell him this too, blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me; blessed are those who don’t’ stumble because of this, because of me..blessed are any who find no scandal when it comes to life in the kingdom of God.”

“Are you the one” John asks. This is John the Baptist. The one who said of Jesus, “I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” The Baptist is the one who in the Gospel of John announced, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And now, now John sends word from prison, “Are you the one?” It’s a head scratcher for the reader, the listener, paying a bit of attention to the gospel. Which is it, John? You are the One! Or, are you the One?

Perhaps John now in the confines of prison is expressing a bit of hesitation or doubt. “This is how its going to be?” Are you sure, you’re the one?” John, the one who had proclaimed a Messiah’s ministry of fire and judgment; winnowing fork and threshing floor and chaff burning with unquenchable fire. He is in prison now. John has received word of Jesus preaching “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” and turning the other cheek, and beware of practicing your piety before others, and he has heard of a leper cleansed and Peter’s mother-in-law healed, and a paralyzed man walking. John, who had a passion for fire and brimstone, now maybe sitting in prison with second thoughts.  “Are you the one?”

Perhaps John’s question doesn’t come from an influx of doubt at all. Rather, John is on a persistent search for the Messiah, and even there from within the prison walls, his faith journey, his quest, his longing to know of the Messiah is a fresh as it was that day in the wilderness when the shout went out; “Prepare the way of the Lord.” John’s question isn’t one of doubt it is part of his spiritual discipline. John the Baptist still rocks the announcement of the Messiah. From prison, it just takes a different rhetorical form.

Are you the one? Doubt, spiritual discipline, or something else altogether? Not just a nod to the Baptist’s faithful search and not quite evidence of the Baptist’s backsliding on Jesus. No, what if it has more to do with John’s own death?  Here in Matthew, John’s death is only a few chapters away. What if the question in Matthew’s drama is to be heard as John’s last act, the last line from John? “Are you the one who is to come?” A ritualized question that leaps from the page and echoes in the gospel drama that is salvation’s story.

You are the One! Or are you the One? You will remember that old courtroom adage, “never ask a question when you don’t already know the answer.” I don’t think John the Baptist expected to receive a response (verbal or written) when he sent that word to Jesus. He already knew the answer! It was an awkward rhetorical question intended to drive home the vision of the kingdom of heaven revealed in their relationship. Prophet and Savior. They both knew the answer. Jesus and John both knew the answer. The question was for everyone else. Even more, Jesus and John both knew the answer really couldn’t come with words. The disciples of John the Baptist come to see Jesus. “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?”. Jesus stops them in their tracks and holds up the hand, “Go and tell what you hear and see”. Jesus holds up the kingdom of God to show them. They came to see Jesus and asked that question, “Are you the one?” and Jesus tells them to look for signs of his unending love for them, for the children of God, for the world. The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news. The list, that list; it isn’t a to-do list, it isn’t a checklist, it is a gathering of signs. Signs of the kingdom of God drawing near. “And blessed is anyone”, Jesus says, “who takes no offense at this!”

It is Wee Christmas Sunday this morning. Our annual pop up, interactive, Christmas Pageant with the youngest among us. I have lost track of how many years I have told the story here in the chancel surrounded by a wonderful gaggle of 3, 4, 5 and 6 year olds. Each year I tell the story of Jesus birth while the children follow my instructions and act it out. I remember one particular year of chaos. At one point (actually at several points), I was losing pretty much everyone’s attention. So in a flutter of what I thought was educator, pastoral, fatherly wisdom, I said to members of the manger scene, “now you have to listen to me with your eyes.” To which one of the shepherds, who never really enjoyed saying hi to me in the church halls, looked right back at me with a big smile and blurted out “you can’t listen with your eyes!” Fair enough. But when Jesus gave his answer to the followers of John, he was saying, “You have to listen with your eyes.”  Listening, looking for God’s unending love.

When I am traveling by car on a lengthy trip and it’s time to find something to eat, I know longer trust those blue highway signs that come a mile or two before the exit. The ones that have the image of specific fast food place, restaurants, gas, hotels. Too many times, I find myself getting off at the exit and having to drive a whole lot longer than I wanted looking for the intended stop. The destination of choice wasn’t right there plain as day at the end of the exit ramp. No, now in cranky old age, I look for the huge, larger than signs way up in the air on a pole near the exit. Because I know that fast food place, that restaurant, that gas station, it is right there below that sign on the other end of the pole. Don’t lose time. Don’t have to look much at all. It’s right there staring me in the face.

For the followers of John being sent by Jesus to see and hear, for Jesus’ own disciples and the crowds gathered, I don’t want to say they had it easy, but Jesus was pointing them to one of those huge, larger than life gaggle of signs. A collection of signs fit for biblical times: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news. You and I have to keep driving along this journey of life and faith having look harder, to listen harder, and yes, work harder when it comes to signs of the kingdom of God drawing near.

Still, in the wonder of his love, and in the beauty of his grace upon grace, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus invites us to look. Jesus calls us to have not just eyes to hear but ears to see the promise of his presence among us. Even on the nights when his presence seems further away, or the days when looking is like seeing through a mirror dimly, or the moments when listening is challenged by the roar of the voices clamoring for your devotion, Jesus still pronounces the blessing upon all those who take no offense at the kingdom he brings. Take no offense and work toward the kingdom he brings. No offense and work toward the reign of the Christ Child where forgiveness meets our sinfulness, where the powerful and the mighty are brought low as the poor are lifted up and the widows and orphans are cared for and the grieving find comfort. A kingdom led by the Christ Child where the wisdom of his death on the cross proves folly to a world of achievement and merit and bootstraps, where love refuses to cede to hate, hope rises out of despair, and where the call to follow him is a call to servanthood in his name. Take no offense at him and work toward the world he intends. And remember, along the way, as you yearn to hear and to see that kingdom of the Christ Child draw near, as you seek to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God,  never forget that God, in God’s mercy, may just anoint your faithfulness so that you might just be a glimmer or a whisper of God’s unending love for someone desperately want to see and to hear.

It is an Advent prayer. Give me the ears to hear and the eyes to see, the ears to see and the eyes to hear. And come Lord, Jesus, Quickly come.


 Lord, Lord, Open Unto Me

Open unto me, light for my darkness

Open unto me, courage for my fear

Open unto me, hope for my despair

Open unto me, peace for my turmoil

Open unto me, joy for my sorrow

Open unto me, strength for my weakness

Open unto me, wisdom for my confusion

Open unto me, forgiveness for my sins

Open unto me, tenderness for my toughness

Open unto me, love for my hates

Open unto me, Thy Self for myself Lord,

Lord, Lord, open unto me!

Howard Thurman



Sacramental Christmas

Matthew 3:1-13
David A. Davis
December 4, 2022
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If Advent was a family reunion, John the Baptist would be something like that loud, rather quirky and eccentric relative whose voice comes bellowing down the hall announcing their own arrival. The volume alone cuts through the polite greetings and the ritualized catching up on the routines of life. Most years in Advent, the cry of the Baptist can be heard cutting through the ritualized preparations of our worship life. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”  Preparations like lighting candles on the wreath and singing a familiar Advent hymn, interrupted by John’s shout. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” John the fiery preacher disturbing the beauty of the season and leaving others longing for a night when “all is calm and all is bright”.  John the Baptist and his message; nowhere close to “Do not be afraid.” John the Baptist, that relative that leaves you asking yourself if you are going to come back next year.

In the Gospel of Mark, John the Baptist is something like the fancy, gold-guilded, calligraphy-like capital letter at the beginning of the chapter of an old rare book. Mark’s gospel begins with the Baptist. In Luke, John the Baptist shows up after the Christmas Pageant is over. With a history reference to the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius in Luke, John’s proclamation announces the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus. In the prologue to the Gospel of John, the Baptist is something of a philosophical instrument. A directional tool. “There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the Light.”

Here in the Gospel text for today from Matthew, John the Baptist makes his appearance “in those days”. “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near”. “Those days.” Most would assume that Matthew is simply referring to the early days of Jesus’ ministry. Others would offer a kind of macro-cosmic perspective. “Those days” could be a reference to the first days of new kingdom era ushered in by the Messiah, the Son of God, born of Mary’s womb. THOSE days. In the paragraphs of the first few chapters of Matthew, John arrives long after the birth of Jesus. John’s voice is heard after the Magi have come from the East. Mary and Joseph have taken the child with them in their flight to find sanctuary in Egypt. King Herod, threatened by the word of the birth of child who would be king, ordered the killing of all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old. Matthew writes of the voice of Ramah and tells of Rachel weeping. Only after the death of Herod, the holy family then returns to settle in Nazareth.

All of that happens before John the Baptist. In the plot of Matthew’s gospel, it is “in those days” that John comes to preaching about preparation, repentance, bearing fruit, and the dangers of presumption, birthright, and family coattails when it comes to a relationship with God. In those days…when the birth of Jesus seems less about heavenly choirs rejoicing and more about God’s promise, God’s faithfulness, and God’s fulfillment. In those days…when the wise and worldly search for meaning and the powerful are threatened by the hope of a messianic kingdom where the hungry are fed, the poor are lifted up, and the oppressed are set free. In those days….when the journeys of life take the faithful to places unknown and the lament is of biblical proportions. In those days….when the earthly songs of heartache seem louder than the heavenly songs of praise, and fear, warnings, and disconcerting dreams motivate the people of God. In those days….when divine angels with the fluttering words, “Do not be afraid” are just a little harder to find. In those days….came John the Baptist. In those days. In…these days.

One of my professors at Princeton Seminary now long retired told me a long time ago of a Christmas Eve even longer ago when that professor was a pastor serving a congregation. The pastor/future professor had become overly frustrated with all of the shallow celebrations of Christmas, the “Hallmark-ness” of it all. So the pastor rose to preach on Christmas Eve on the Gospel of Matthew and what the tradition labels Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents”.  The sermon addressed Matthew’s truthful edge, a certain other side of the story, and the light that illumines the gut-wrenching darkness of the world. The professor described to me the look on people’s faces as they left the sanctuary that Christmas Eve. They were so speechless they couldn’t even get out “Merry Christmas” at the church door. I remember thinking back then that my professor’s decision about what to preach on Christmas Even might have been a strong indication of the wisdom of the decision  to teach full time.

Church members will never forget that particular Christmas Eve in a little Presbyterian Church somewhere years ago when the preacher stood up to proclaim the truthful edge of John the Baptist. That amid the darkness of “those days” the light of the Christ Child shines even brighter. For John stands in the midst of those days, in the midst of these days, and points to the One who will baptize with Holy Spirit and with fire. The One whose winnowing fork bends toward righteousness and justice. John appeared in the wilderness only to point to the Messiah. His voice booms among us to call us to an encounter with the Savior, who is Christ the Lord. The One who is more powerful than John. The One who is surely coming. We are not worthy to carry his sandals but he empowers us to be his people. By his love we know ourselves to be his friends. By God’s grace, we are molded in his body for the world. But that same Spirit, you and I bear witness to his light, a light that shines all the brighter when the darkness seems darker.

The most remarkable, the most mysterious, the most wondrous part of this gospel account of John the Baptist in Matthew comes at the very end of what I read to you this morning from Matthew. “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordon to be baptized by him.” It wasn’t just John who came preaching “in those days”. “In those days”….Jesus came to John to be baptized by him. Jesus came to John, to that itinerant preacher shouting for repentance. Jesus came to the voice crying in the wilderness, the one proclaiming “prepare the way of the Lord”. Just like the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, Jesus came to John  to be baptized. Jesus, the One who is more powerful, the One who will baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire, Jesus come to John. Jesus, the One who was, according to scripture, tempted in every way, yet was without sin. The One who was fully God and fully human, Jesus comes to John to be baptized. In those days….the Messiah, the Savior of the World, the One who will save his people from their sin, came to John at the Jordon to be baptized by him.

Howard Thurman was an African American theologian who was born in 1899 and died in 1981. Through his work, his writing, his leadership, Thurman  was a mentor and inspiration to generation of Civil Rights leaders in the mid-twentieth century. In his work Thurman often wrote about the humanity of Jesus. That he came from humble beginnings, was poor, and had no privilege. Even and especially in the birth of Jesus, Thurman was drawn to the humanity of it all. In “The Mood of Christmas”, Thurman writes, “the important thing is that to the mother of Jesus he was a baby boy who grew hungry, who had to be fed, bathed, nurtured, who had to be given tender loving care, one who pulled at her heartstrings and who became so much a part of her sense of worth and meaning that she was sure, in a sense, that this was the first baby in the world.”.

Of course, Mary pondered and treasured all that had been told of her about this child. But yes, to the mother of Jesus he was her baby boy. It’s the only way to wrap your head around  Jesus coming to John to be baptized at the Jordan. That was Mary’s baby boy coming to be baptized. Mary’s baby boy was bringing all of his humanity. Bringing all of his humanity, in those days, all his humanity and ours to the river to be baptized for repentance. As Thurman puts it: “Stripped bare of art forms and liturgy, the literal substance of the story remains, Jesus Christ was born in a stable, he was born of humble parentage in surroundings that are the common lot of those who earn their living by the sweat of their brows… [W]hen a [person] beholds Jesus, [one] see in him the possibilities of life even for the humblest and a dramatic resolution of the meaning of God.”

There at the Jordon River, amid the gathering gloom of the world’s darkness, Jesus presents his extraordinarily ordinary human-ness to be baptized. Jesus in his being, in his person there at the river, offering only a glimpse, but an incredible one, of the very meaning God. God taking on our flesh. The incarnation of God’s love first in Mary’s arms and then here in the arms of John. It is the sacramental nature of Christmas. Mary’s baby boy. God taking what we know to be the extraordinarily ordinary human-ness of life and revealing the extraordinarily holy grace of God. It is God’s soul-sustaining promise of sacramental grace. That in and through Christ, his presence, his light, his love, and his peace, you and I can see glimpses of the meaning of God in the world around us, in each other, in our own lives. And even more, in those days, in these days, it is the promise that the light of the Christ Child, by the power of the Holy Spirit, will shine even brighter. And because of Mary’s baby boy, his light, that light, God’s light will shine ever bright  in and through the likes of you and me. Even so, come Lord Jesus, quickly come.

The Sacrament of Christmas 

I make an act of faith toward all mankind (sic),

Where doubts would linger and suspicions brood.

I make an act of joy toward all sad hearts,

Where laughter pales and tears abound.

I make an act of strength toward feeble things,

Where life grows dim and death draws near.

I make an act of trust toward all of life,

Where fears preside and distrusts keep watch.

I make an act of love toward friend and foe,

Where trust is weak and hate burns bright.

I make a deed to God of all my days –

And look out on life with quiet eyes.

Howard Thurman



A Murmuration of Starlings

Acts 2:41-47
Lauren J. McFeaters
November 20, 2022
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By the time we get to Acts 2:41, Peter has finished his Pentecost sermon and he gives us a snapshot of communal life in the early church. Community. The Community of early believers.

Community. A word we toss around a lot. The idea of Christian community, attracts and repels most of us. We long for the life-affirming benefits of community, but we resist the demands that community makes. To be committed to Community, we realize just how much independence and autonomy we might have to lose. We’re tempted to dismiss the whole notion of early church community as quaint and charming, even as we yearn for the very same kind of faith-filled living, connected and attached.[i]

But when we’re faced with another day of fear, filled with unending violence against LBGTQ+ folks including last night’s massacre in Colorado Springs. Another day of fear, filled with mass shooting madness, unending pandemics, an exodus of teachers from our schools, and a tipping point in climate change, we cannot dismiss a passage that represents the best of what God’s people are capable of.

Each generation of faith is fed by this passage about those first believers, because we are in the end, just like them: not quaint, not charming, but flawed and broken, another generation of faith, seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance and hope.

Tucked in the first chapters of Acts are seven small verses that give us everything we need to know about what the Holy Spirit can do.

For these past five weeks, Heath Carter has taken us on an adventure in history. Have you been a part of Adult Education, a Small group, listened to a sermon? Heath has given us an honest look at our Presbyterian past, our present, and today – our future. He’s touched on a lot of fear we have about what’s ahead for the church. Fear of change. Fear of the other. Fear of a world moving too quickly. Fear of a nation intent on dividing itself.

This week, Heath has asked us to take a breath and face the fear of an unknown future. He quotes Martin Marty, who says, while it’s easy to become overwhelmed by stories of decline, and worries of the church, of cascading crises, we have not been given a spirit of fear. [ii]

And this is the crux of the matter. We have not been given a spirit of fear. We have not. We absolutely have not.

In the midst of our fear, the Spirit rummages around our hearts, plucks us out of our hiding places, and releases us from our dread. Thank goodness. Thank you Spirit for being relentless, steadfast, and unyielding, because fear, our fear of what we cannot control, is the very thing that freezes our hearts and makes us bitter. So the Spirit of God lays this at our feet:

  • Fear about the future has no place in our lives of faith.
  • This soul-sickness only demoralizes; it weakens our capacity for generosity; it keeps us immature and under-developed,
  • It damages our joy;
  • It harms all the things we’ve learned from our text, that awe is a spiritual discipline, that communion and baptism are grace-alive, and that prayer is ours to revel in;
  • We believe together, hope together, give our possessions and goods together, distribute together the proceeds to all.
  • What would we do without each other.

There is a perfect sound and image of this. It sounds like a whisper. It turns into a Murmur. A Murmuration. A Murmuration of Birds. (Stay with me here). It’s a Murmuration of Starlings.

Do you know what I’m talking about? It’s the name that’s given to animal groupings. The collective noun that describes a gathering of creatures. You know: a Colony of Bees; a School of Fish. The names of animal groupings are fascinating:

  • A Coalition of Cheetahs.
  • A Pandemonium of Parrots.
  • A Coterie of Prairie Dogs.
  • And Crows. What’s for crows? Do you know? A Murder of Crows.
  • A Conspiracy of Lemurs.
  • A Parliament of Owls.
  • And for those preparing for Advent, a Crèche of Penguins.

The most interesting to me, is the one about Starlings. The small, iridescent birds that fly all over the globe. A group of them is called a “Murmuration of Starlings,” because, when  in flight, they whisper to each other by the flapping of their wings, and that murmuring whisper provides guidance as they seek food and avoid predators.

But they also do something amazing:  when flying, starlings do so in complete synchronicity. Individual birds flock together as one.

It’s an aerial ballet. In one coordinated movement thousands of starlings swoop, plunge, climb, plummet, and twist, and then disappear altogether back to earth. Give yourself a gift and Google it: A Murmuration of Starlings.

It’s like watching:

  • a shape-shifting cloud,
  • a single being moving and twisting in unpredictable formations in the sky,
  • one swirling liquid mass –
  • as thousands, sometimes millions of individual birds act as one. [iii]

The flock’s movement is based on staying healthy as a whole.

No bird is left for the taking. There is protection in numbers, so the individual starlings do not scatter, but rather are able to move, thousands of birds changing direction simultaneously.

It’s the church isn’t it:

  • A Murmuration of the Church.
  • An Assembly Called Church.
  • Flapping our wings in glorious praise to God.
  • Swirling, shape shifting, twisting as we look out for each and every one.
  • Murmurs of everyday devotion as we plunge into teaching, fellowship, breaking bread and prayer. [iv]
  • Eagerly swooping into commitments of selflessness and sacrifice for the one in trouble.
  • It is then, I think, from the perspective of heaven that we look like a Flock Called Church, moving and swaying in such exquisite harmony it takes away the very breath of God.

A gift.

Not from Peter, no matter how courageous his sermons;

Not from Martha, no matter how intense her devotion;

Not from Paul, no matter how deep and wide-reaching

his missionary work.[v]

A gift. A gift with the power to wipe out fear.

A swooping, shape-shifting gift, that reminds us of who we are.

A swirling liquid mass, heart-rending,

unpredictable, mesmerizing, gift of the Holy Spirit.

Given in love and given to you.

I pray we never, ever, forget it.


[i]  Matt Skinner. “Commentary on Acts 2:42-47.” Working Preacher,, April 13, 2008.

[ii] Martin E. Marty. “From Declinism to Discovery,” The Christian Century,, August 21, 2013.

[iii] See a YouTube video of a “Murmuration of Starlings” filmed by Dylan Winter at, November 13, 2010.

[iv] Lori Anne. “An Unkindness of Ravens, A Murmuration of Souls.”, December 2, 2011.

[v] Laura Truman. “The Church This Side of Heaven:  Acts 2:42-47.”  Day 1, Alliance for Christian Media Inc., Atlanta, GA,, May 11, 2014.



Putting God to the Test

Acts 15:1-11
David A. Davis
November 13, 2022
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When I was an undergraduate, all final exams were given in a huge hall with long tables that stretched the width of the room lined up in row after row the entire length of the room. Chairs were spaced out at the tables not for health and safety but to discourage wandering eyes. An exam for one class was given on one side of the table and on the other side someone was taking an exam for another class. There must have been  half dozen or more classes taking exams at the same time. All the students taking exams were writing answers in the notorious “blue books” and writing in long hand. Proctors roaming the room were graduate students. There was one person semester after semester, year after year, at a table in the middle along the side with a microphone. He was in charge of pretty much everything including the clock. He was affectionately known by all students as Mr. Test.

There was an apocryphal story that hung aground for years of an encounter between Mr. Test and student. Mr. Test had called time, exam over, pencils down. Most students had long since left the room when a student appeared before Mr. Test and asked which pike of blue books was for his class. Mr. Test pointed to a large stack in front of him but said “I can’t accept your exam. It is now too late.” The student, with all the attitude one can imagine, blurted out to Mr. Test, “Don’t you know who I am?” Mr. Test, with an equal among of attitude quickly responded to the student, “I have no idea who you are but I can assure you if I did, it would not make a difference.” The student smiled, said “Okay then” and quickly shoved is blue book into the middle of the pile and ran away.

The only reason that story probably still lingers, the only reason that story is funny at all, is that it hits kind of close to home. How power and privilege and access so often plays out in the world, in our lives, and even when it comes to living out faith. In the biblical text offered for your hearing this morning, Paul, Barnabas, Peter, and later James are engaged in an argument for what is, what became, what remains at the very heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ; salvation by grace. The reading from last week that told of Paul and Barnabas “shaking dust” and setting out to bring the gospel to the Gentiles establishes the context for this scene we read this morning of the profound theological discernment in the earliest days of the church. Despite ongoing persecution and imprisonment, Paul and Barnabas traveled the region making many disciples. Just at the end of chapter 14. Luke reports that Barnabas and Paul returned to Antioch and told the church “all that God had done with them, and he God had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles.” (14:27). Shortly thereafter, a group of Jewish preachers and teachers came down from Judea and proclaimed to anyone who would listen, “Hey, don’t you know who we are?”

The “no small dissension and debate” between Paul and Barnabas and the other itinerant teachers about circumcision was an argument about whether one had to become Jewish in order to become Christian. As a professor of mine said a long time ago in reference to “opened door of faith for the Gentiles” that it was a matter of whether one had to go through the door of the synagogue to get to the door of the church. The sign of circumcision, the custom of Moses, the law of Moses, it sat at the very core of one’s faith, one’s identity as a child of God for the people of Israel. So, yes, the travelers from Judea were arguing with Paul and Barnabas. “Don’t you remember who we are?”

Notice that Barnabas and Paul were “sent on their way by the church” to go back up to Jerusalem to continue the debate. The elders and apostles of the Jerusalem church welcomed them and were filled with joy as the report of the conversion of the Gentiles was received. The requirement to keep the law was brought up again. After much debate, Peter, the Rock upon which Christ would build his church, stood up to speak. He reminded them God had chosen him from among them to spread the message of the good news to the Gentiles. “And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as God did to us”, Peter proclaimed. “In cleansing their hearts by faith God has made no distinction between them and us.”  Why put God to the test by imposing law after law that hangs like a yoke around the neck when our ancestors were never able to pull it off. It’s too much, too difficult to bear. “We believe that we will be saved through the grace of Lord Jesus, just as they will.” We will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will. Saved through grace. And “the whole assembly kept silent”.

It wasn’t the kind of silence in Luke that the disciples demanded from the blind man by the side of the road who kept shouting “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.: It wasn’t the kind of silence in Luke kept by Peter, James and John after coming down from the Mt. of Transfiguration when they held their tongue and didn’t tell what had happened. This was more like the silence Luke describes after the scribes and chief priests sent spies to try to entrap Jesus with questions. Jesus answer left them amazed yet silent most likely because they didn’t like his answer and they knew they were not going to be able to trap him.

“We believe that we will be saved through the grace of Lord Jesus, just as they will. The whole assembly kept silence.” One has to wonder what was the greater cause of the silence of the assembly when it came to that last sentence, that exclamation point, that fine point at the heart of the gospel of Jesus etched on the sacred page proclaiming salvation by grace. “We believe that we will be saved through the grace of Lord Jesus, just as they will.” What was more disconcerting to the crowd; the first part or the last part. What was more upsetting, that the Gentiles would be included in salvation or the testimony that even those in the crowd will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus. The easier choice is to assume that the listeners were upset about the inclusion of the Gentiles. But you can’t have the latter without the former. The door of faith can’t be opened to the Gentiles unless, at the end of the day, salvation for everyone is only by grace.

The biggest threat to the sign of circumcision, the custom of Moses, and the keeping of the law of Moses had to have been salvation by grace alone “We believe we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus.”  It was the biggest hurdle then and it is the biggest hurdle now in the life of faith. Because it is completely contrary to pretty much everything thing else in the world, contrary to pretty much everything else related to religion and faith, contrary to pretty much everything it means to be human, contrary pretty much to everything you and I have ever been taught anywhere and anytime, and contrary to pretty much everything that bombards us all the time. Salvation by grace. Biggest hurdle then, biggest hurdle now. Unfortunately, it is pretty much contrary to so much of the church’s history, the church’s behavior, the church’s actions from then until now.

I was listening to a blog on a morning walk this week that included audio from the oral arguments before the Supreme Court recently on two affirmative action cases that are before the court. As a kid from a public school in a suburb outside of Pittsburgh who got into Harvard in 1980 because some football coach put a check by my name, I am a product of admissions preference. On the surface, the goal of the lawsuit is to establish college admission as a fully merit based process. I learned in listening to the journalist being interviewed that 25 years ago the court, in an opinion written by Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, believed that the need for consideration of race and ethnicity in college admission would eventually fade as the society became more and more equal and just. That if the process was working, it would put itself out of business and admissions could return to being solely merit based (which of course, it never was).

Perhaps it need not be said, but with or without affirmative action, the college admissions process could not be further from Paul and Barnabas’ teaching on salvation by grace. Yes, I know college admission and the life of faith are not the same. But the threat of a merit-based theology that embraces an individualism, a pull yourself up by your bootstraps, a good old protestant work ethic when it comes to God, salvation, the life of faith, the merit-based theology and spirituality and piety in the life of the church never goes away. It’s not that every now and then in history the church’s begins to lean back toward salvation earned/salvation deserved because the church was so good at grace and the spread of the boundary-less gospel both in word and deed. That the church did so well within and without that equality and justice thrived for a season. No, not 25 years. Not for 25 days. Not for 2000 years. It is more like the church and those in it, have this innate yearning to horde God’s grace and shout “what’s in it for me”.  Hording God’s grace rather than sharing it and all the while living like others who are labeled as different or other or worse don’t deserve it and have to earn it. “Don’t you know who we are?”

“We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”  You can’t have the latter without the former. Any celebration and joy found in the boundless reach of the gospel of Jesus Christ and his grace has to include the knowledge and pretty much the daily discovery that you have been saved by grace alone. You weren’t born into it. You didn’t earn it. You don’t deserve it There’s nothing you can do because it is a gift of God through the faith of Jesus Christ. It’s not because you are religious enough. It’s not because you’re smart enough or humble enough. Not because you go to church. Not because you thank God that you are not like a Pharisee. Not because your grandmother raised you right. Salvation is by grace and yes, God’s love is that great.

The church of Jesus Christ and those in it will never fully embrace, welcome, celebrate “the other”, will never loosen the death grip on God’s grace, will never stop putting God to the test without the fullest, life changing, transforming acceptant of salvation by grace alone; heart by heart. Because you can’t have the latter without the former.