Monday, January 1, 2018

Goodbye


Goodbye
Rev. Dr. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
December 31, 2017

Scripture: Micah 6:6-8; Romans 8:31-39

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Well, the day some of you have longed for and some of you have dreaded has arrived. Today is my last day as your pastor. As of midnight tonight I’ll be off the payroll and will no longer be your pastor. The decision to resign as your pastor was entirely mine, and before I go on I want to say just a bit about that decision. It was prompted by what I experienced as a crisis in my pastoral leadership here and my awareness that some of you just don’t like the job I was doing as your pastor. That’s partly because I see the Christian faith differently than some of you do. It’s partly because you wanted me to do things that I don’t think it’s the pastor’s job to do or that it is possible for a pastor, or at least for me, to do. We needn’t go into all that now. There is no longer any point, but there is one thing I do want to say. Since I made the decision to resign I have had quite an unexpected reaction to it. I have not regretted it for a minute. That’s not because I don’t like you. I do. It’s rather because I have discovered that it took that crisis to get me to do what I probably should have done quite some time ago. Maybe that crisis was a blessing in disguise for me and perhaps for some of you. See, I’m not just leaving this church. I am retiring from parish ministry, and I am really looking forward in ways I didn’t expect to being retired. About the only downside of it for Jane and me is financial, but we’ll manage the finances. I am quite looking forward to being out of the need of doing a bulletin and writing a sermon every week. I am looking forward to more of my time being mine. Not that you made great demands on me. You didn’t. Still, I will be happy to have my time less scheduled. I will, in short, be happy to be retired, or at least I expect to be. I didn’t anticipate that when I resigned, and I wanted you to know it.
So what can I say about my time as your pastor? It’s been quite a ride I must say. We’ve had high highs and low lows. We’ve had fun, and we’ve had troubles. We have celebrated, and we have mourned. We have agreed, and we’ve disagreed. We have communicated, we have miscommunicated, and we have failed to communicate at all. We have had successes, and we have had failures. Some new people have come to the church, and some people have left the church. We have worshiped, sung, and prayed together. I have been in the homes of a few of you—very few actually. I have visited some of you in the hospital. Some of you have shared intimate aspects of your life with me. Most of you haven’t. All pastorates end, for all pastors and all church folk are human beings—wise and foolish, involved and distant, committed and indifferent, healthy and ill, alive and dead. Churches have their eyes on heaven, or at least they should; but they also have their feet on the ground, or at least they should. Churches may be inspired by the Holy Spirit, but they are very human institutions. They do good and they do bad. They succeed, and they fail. People come, and people go. That’s just how it is, and it cannot be otherwise. That’s how it has been with us. That’s how it will be with you once I’m gone.
We’ve had our troubles, but I don’t want to leave you with a litany of problems and challenges. You know what your problems and challenges are. I don’t want to leave you discouraged or depressed. See, for all our agreements and disagreements we are all people of faith, and people of faith can never be discouraged or depressed for long. That’s because we believe in God. We may see God differently. We may think God expects different things from us, but we are all people of faith. The one word I want to leave you with is hope, and I want to do that by talking a little bit about those two scripture passages we just heard. They are my two favorite passages in the Bible, or at least two of my favorite passages among a few others. For me they sum up both the foundational truth of our Christian faith and what God wants from as as we seek to live as Christians. I’ll start with Paul’s words from Romans.
If I could keep only one sentence from the Bible I would keep Romans 8:38-39. Let me read it to you in my preferred translation, the New Revised Standard Version: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” There’s Christianity in a nutshell. There’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a nutshell. Nothing, absolutely nothing, nothing we do or don’t do, nothing we say or don’t say, nothing we believe or don’t believe can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Do you get that? Nothing, nothing whatsoever, can separate you or me or anyone else from the love of God. We have that assurance in Christ Jesus. Do you think you’ve done something God can’t forgive? I hope not, but if you do you’re wrong. There is nothing God can’t and doesn’t forgive. There is nothing God hasn’t already forgiven. Our problem isn’t that we aren’t forgiven. Our problem, if we have one, is that don’t really know and feel deep in our bones that we have already been forgiven. Whatever comes our way in life God is with us. When we succeed God is with us. When we fail God is with us. When we are healthy God is with us. When we are ill God is with us. When we are alive God is with us. When we die God is with us. And not just with us but for us. Holding us. Loving us. Challenging us to respond in love to God’s love. If there is anything I have said to you that you never forget let it be this: God loves you. God loves everyone. God forgives you. God forgives everyone. God calls you. God calls everyone. If you feel that God is far away, that feeling is of your making not God’s. When you start to doubt that God is with you go read Romans 8:38-39 again and take it, really take it, to heart. It is a sacred word of salvation to us and to everyone. Absolutely nothing can or ever will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Then there’s Micah 6:6-8. Those words come to us across the millennia from the eighth century BCE, but they speak powerful truth today every bit as much as they did when they were first spoken so long ago. The prophet Micah was dealing with how he saw the people of Israel misunderstanding what their God wanted from them. They thought God wanted grain and animal sacrifice. They thought God wanted worship, and it’s not that they thought God wanted the wrong kind of worship. The kind of worship wasn’t Micah’s issue. He accepted as much as those against whom he prophesied that worship meant sacrificial worship. No, what Micah says is far more radical than “you’re doing the wrong kind of worship.” He says God doesn’t want or care about your worship at all, or at least God doesn’t want or care about your worship if you worship and then go out and live the wrong kind of lives. That’s why he famously says, again in the NRSV translation: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Be just. Be kind. Be humble. That’s what God wants from you. That’s what God wanted from the ancient Israelites, and that’s what God wants from us.
And notice which requirement Micah put first: “Do justice.” The life of faith is a life of justice. That doesn’t mean a life of due process. Ancient Israel never heard of due process. It means a life of caring for those in need and of calling on those in power to rule in ways that care for those in need. Micah’s first demand is for political and economic justice. His second demand is personal. Love kindness. Be kind. Treat everyone with kindness, even (or rather especially) those toward whom you don’t want to be the least bit kind. His third demand is spiritual. Walk humbly with your God. Remember always that God is God and you’re not. Don’t claim to know what don’t know. Don’t claim to know what you cannot know. Don’t try to do what you cannot do. Don’t try to do what no mortal is ever able to do. This is God’s world not your world. You are God’s people. You are called to be God’s disciples, to be Christ’s disciples; but God always comes first. God is always so much more than you can ever see or ever know. Remember that, and walk humbly with your God. Do these things, and your lives will be pleasing to the God from Whom nothing in all creation can separate you.
And now the time nears for us to say good-bye. You shan’t hear me up here again. I shan’t see you out there again. I acknowledge those truths with some regret. I wish things had worked out better between us, but they didn’t. I go to the next stage of my life, and you go to the next stage of this church’s life. As you do I wish you nothing but the best. You will search for a new pastor, or maybe you already are searching for a new pastor. Your pastoral search is really none of my business, but I’m going to say a few words about it anyway. Please take your time. Determine what you want in a pastor before you start talking to candidates. More importantly, figure out what you need in a new pastor, then look for a person with those qualities. Don’t call someone just because he or she is available, which is essentially what you did with me and what I did with you. You are better off being a church without a pastor than you are being a church with the wrong pastor.
And one final admonition. The world in which you live and in which your church seeks to operate has changed, and the changes that we see now will broaden and deepen in the decades and maybe even centuries ahead. Discern what that change is and what it means for you as a church. Understand the context in which this church lives. Don’t assume that that context is what it used to be. It isn’t. Study. Discern. Pray. No pastoral search can end successfully unless it is done with those disciplines always in mind.
So as we go our separate ways my prayer for you is new life, new growth, a new sense of God’s call, and a new willingness to respond to God’s call with joy and enthusiasm. And remember: In whatever you do, in whatever happens, in whatever blessings or challenges come your way, God is with you. God will hold you and keep you. No matter what. Please never forget it. And as you go on your way may you go in the peace of God, the peace that is ours in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Magnificat


Magnificat
Rev. Dr. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
December 24, 2017

Scripture: Luke 1: 46-55

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

One of the wonderful things about Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth is that it contains three songs, ancient Christian hymns actually. Luke gives one to Zechariah, in his story the father of John the Baptist, one to Mary Jesus’ mother, and one to Simeon, someone the Holy Family meets in the temple when they take baby Jesus there for the first time. One of sort odd thing about these songs in the Christian tradition is that we usually refer to them by the Latin version of their first word or words. Zechariah’s song is known as the Benedictus, the first word of the song that in English is “Praise.” Simeon’s song is known as the Nunc Dimittis, Latin for “Now you are dismissing.” Mary’s song is known as “the Magnificat,” Magnificat being the first word of her song in Latin where the song begins “Magnificat anima mea Dominum.” The NIV translation that we just heard translates that word as “glorifies.” It is more traditionally translated as “magnifies,” I suppose because magnifies is an English word that derives from the Latin “Magnificat.” These translations presumably understand magnifies to mean glorifies. The Magnificat has been set to music so often that sometimes many of us want to sing it rather than just read it. Be that as it may, the Magnificat is a wonderful song that tells us a lot about how the earliest Christians understood the faith and about how the Gospel of Luke is going to relate Jesus’ story. I want to talk with you about the Magnificat this morning. To many of us Christians the words of the Magnificat are so familiar that I think we miss their meaning; and that’s a shame, for the Magnificat really is full of really important meaning.
Mary starts her song by saying that she glorifies the Lord and she rejoices in God her savior because “he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.” Mary knows that God has chosen her for the sacred work of bearing the Christ child not because she is rich, not because she is powerful, not because the world holds her in high esteem, but precisely because none of those things is true about her. God has chosen a virtuous young woman of no special account in the world to bring God’s Son into the world. We see in her words here how the good news of Jesus Christ comes first and foremost to the humble, to the poor, to ordinary folk whom God esteems but the world does not. It is precisely because Mary is humble that she becomes the mother of Jesus.
Mary says that God’s “mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.” Her use of the word “fear” here shows that she lives and thinks entirely within the ancient traditions of her Jewish faith. Hebrew scripture frequently uses the phrase “the fear of God” to mean to believe in God, to love God, and to stand in awe of God. Mary doesn’t see what is happening with her and Jesus as standing outside the Jewish tradition but rather entirely within it. We see the same thing in the way her song ends. She closes her song saying that God “has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendant forever, even as he said to our fathers.” I’ll have a bit ore to say about that closing line shortly. God is doing anew thing in Mary, but it is a new thing entirely within a faith tradition that was already ancient in Mary’s time.
Those things about the Magnificat are important. Really important, but it’s what she says in the middle of her song that I think is the most important thing about it. It is part of her song, and part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that many Christians prefer to overlook. To ignore or to spiritualize out of its original meaning. In the middle of her song Mary says: “He [God] has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” Luke 1:51-53 There are several things to say about this passage, and some of you aren’t going to like some of them. But then I’m only with you for another week, so I’m going to give it to you straight.
First, these words seem a bit odd because they say that God has done things that it sure looks like God hasn’t done. It sure doesn’t look like all the proud people of the world have had their inmost thoughts scattered. They’re still strutting around being proud for all the wrong reasons. It sure doesn’t look like God has brought down mighty rulers from their thrones. I mean, mighty and mightily unjust rulers do get overthrown from time to time; but it sure seems like they often get replaced by other mighty and mightily unjust rulers. Mighty rulers sitting on thrones and acting unjustly, which are the rulers the Magnificat has in mind, haven’t exactly gone away. They’re still very much with us.
Then, has God lifted up the humble like Mary says God has done? Well, in God’s eyes maybe, but hardly in the world’s. Has God filled the hungry with good things but sent the rich away empty? Hardly. The world is full of people who are still hungry, and the rich are hardly empty. Oh, they may be spiritually empty. Many (not all) of them are, but they’re still very much full materially.
So what’s going on here? Well, what’s going on is what theologians call “already and not yet eschatology.” Don’t worry about what eschatology means. Ask me about it afterwards if you’re curious. The idea behind this obscure phrase is that God has already accomplished what God wants to accomplish in the world, it’s just that what God has accomplished hasn’t come to full fruition yet. The mighty rulers have been brought down, it’s just that they don’t know it yet. In a spiritual, cosmic sense God has done all these things Mary sings about. It’s just that those things await their fulfillment on earth.
OK. I suppose that’s obscure enough, but there’s something else really important to say about these verses. They are political, and they are economic. They just are. They speak of political power and economic stratification. They speak of the powerful and the lowly, of the rich and the poor. Yet these verses don’t just speak of political power and economic stratification. They say how God relates to political power and economic stratification. They say which side of power and economic imbalances God is on, and it’s not on the side of the rich and powerful. In Mary’s hymn God sides with the humble against the powerful, bringing down the mighty and lifting up the lowly. In Mary’s song God sides with the hungry against the rich, filling the hungry and sending the rich away empty. In Mary’s song, and indeed throughout the Gospel of Luke and through the whole Bible, that’s just how God is. God may anoint rulers, as God did with David and so many others; but God is always on the side of the ruled. Mary here echoes the ancient prophets like Amos and Micah. Maybe she had recently heard or read Amos bellowing “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Her songs suggests that she saw God the same way Amos had more than seven hundred years before her, that is, as the God who demands justice for the poor and the marginalized. Yes, I know. Some of you don’t like hearing me say things like that from the pulpit, and maybe especially not on Christmas Eve. Well relax. You won’t hear me say it again.
Now Mary’s lines about political and economic justice may leave you hungering for some good news. It is Christmas Eve after all, and we all long to hear the good new of Jesus’ birth at Christmastime. Actually, that God is on the side of the poor and the powerless is good news for most of the world’s people, although that may not be the kind of good news you’re seeking today. Fortunately Mary’s song ends with some other good news, although it may take a little unpacking to hear it as good news.
Mary’s song ends by saying that God “has helped his servant, Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.” Luke 1:54-55 So just how has God helped his servant Israel and remembered to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants? Well, precisely by sending them Jesus, the child Mary is bearing as she sings her song. Jesus is God’s mercy incarnate. Jesus is God’s help to Israel and to us. Mary doesn’t use the word the way Matthew’s Gospel does, but we know that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. I’ll have a bit more to say about God With Us this evening, but God sending Jesus to us is the best news any of us has ever had or ever could have. In Jesus we know that God is with us always, no matter what. In Jesus we know that God loves God’s world despite all of the ways in which the world must disappoint God. In Jesus we know that God is here to help us through whatever we must get through in life. That’s how God has helped God’s people, by coming to us as one of us in Jesus.
So tonight as we gather for our annual Christmas Eve service and tomorrow on Christmas Day let us rejoice. Let us truly celebrate, for we celebrate the greatest gift God ever gave humanity, the gift of God’s Self, the gift of God’s son, the gift of Jesus Christ. May this Christmas truly be blessed time for all of us, a time of peace whatever the circumstances of our lives. A time of grace filling our hearts. A time of love—love of God, love of family, love of friends. Tonight at 9 we will celebrate here. Whether you join us for that service or not, may you have a blessed Christmas and a good, meaningful new year. Amen.

God With Us


God With Us
A Christmas Meditation
Rev. Dr. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
December 24, 2017

Scripture: Luke 2:1-20; Mark 7:25-30

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

As some of you know I serve on the Committee on Ministry of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ. That’s the committee that deals with authorization for ministry in the UCC, at least in this part of the country. One of the primary things that committee does is authorize candidates for ordination in the UCC. At our December meeting we interviewed a candidate for ordination, a really wonderful candidate by the way, not that that matters for my purposes this evening. In the course of her interview our candidate said she loves the story of Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman, a story that appears in both Mark and Matthew. Mark 7:25-30, Matthew 15:21-28. In that story Jesus learns. He first rejects the request of a Gentile woman that he heal her daughter of an evil spirit. In Mark’s version he says to her “First let the children eat all they want...for it is not right to take the children’s food and toss it to their dogs.” Mark 7:27 Sounds like he’s calling this woman and her daughter dogs just because they aren’t Jewish. Ouch! Many of us I think find it hard to believe that our Jesus would ever say such a thing to anyone, but there it is, in two of the Gospels. The woman replies to him “Yes, Lord,...but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Not perhaps how we’d reply to him, but it is how this woman replies in this story. Whereupon Jesus seems to realize his error and cures the woman’s daughter of her evil spirit.
When our ordination candidate mentioned this story one of the committee members started asking her questions like: Is Jesus human or divine? Is he like us or different from us? If he is different from us, is he more different from us than we are from one another? Those are perfectly appropriate questions for an ordination interview, and our candidate handled them well enough. Yet it occurred to me that she could have answered them all with just one word: Both. Is Jesus human or divine? Both. Is Jesus like us or different from us? Both. With the ancient Christian tradition we confess: Jesus is both fully human and fully God.
That’s why tonight we don’t just celebrate the birth of a human child. We do celebrate the birth of a human child of course. Jesus comes to us as a human baby not noticeably different from other human babies. He is a particular human baby of course. He is a boy. He is a Jew. He is born in what we now call ancient Judea. He has a human mother like we all do, or did. He also has a human father, although both Matthew and Luke say he doesn’t have a biological human father. He is fully human.
He is also fully divine. That’s what we can learn from so many of the things in Matthew’s and Luke’s stories of his birth. Annunciation by angels. A virgin conception. A miraculous star. Angels. The glory of God shining in the heavens. Matthew calling him Emmanuel, God With Us. The most profound statement of Jesus’ divinity in the New Testament of course isn’t in either birth story, it’s in the Gospel of John. That’s what we’ll end our scripture reading with tonight: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Jesus is fully human, but he is also fully divine. There’s a line in the Christmas song “Mary Did You Know?” that sums the point up perfectly. The lyric goes: “Mary did you know that when you kissed your little baby you kissed the face of God?” A little baby who is the face of God. That’s who we welcome into the world tonight.
Folks, that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine is almost incomprehensibly great good news there ever was or ever could be. At Christmas we don’t just celebrate the birth of a great man. We do so much more than that. We celebrate God coming to earth in the person of a newborn baby. We celebrate God coming to earth in the particularity of one child. We celebrate the Universal becoming particular—for us. We celebrate the Infinite becoming finite—for us. We celebrate the Immortal becoming mortal—for us. We celebrate God coming to us not in mere words in a book but in a human life, in a way we can see, in a way we can relate to because God comes in a human life not so very different from our own human lives. Many Christians believe that God’s greatest revelation to us the Bible, but really, God’s greatest revelation to us is Jesus Christ to whom the Christian New Testament testifies. God’s greatest revelation to us the Immanuel, God With Us, whose birth we celebrate tonight.
And really isn’t that Christmas by itself is that great revelation. At Christmas Jesus is just a newborn baby, helpless, voiceless, powerless. It’s what we learn from Jesus as an adult that makes him worth celebrating as an infant. In Jesus as a adult we learn a lot of things about God, but the the thing that we learn that I want to celebrate tonight is that God is love. God comes to us in Jesus because, as the Gospel of John says, God so loved the world. God comes to us in Jesus to reveal God’s love for all people. Jesus loved all people. Maybe not at first. There is the way he treated the Syro-Phoenician woman that troubles many of us. But eventually. Eventually he got it that God’s love is for everyone. God’s love is even for us.
That’s the great good news of Christmas. Gos comes to us as one of us. God reveals Godself as fully as we mere mortals are capable of understanding. God comes to us in love and calls us to love God, others—all others, and ourselves just as God does. None of us does it perfectly, but God forgives our imperfections. Jesus is God With Us, and God is love.
So as we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ this year let’s do our best to show God’s love to the whole world and everyone in it. Those it is easy to love, and more importantly those it is hard to love. If we can do that, then our Christmas celebration will truly have meaning. If we can do that we will show that we understand God With Us. We will show that we understand what Christmas is really about. May it be so. Amen.

Joyful Always


Joyful Always
Rev. Dr. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
December 17, 2017

Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

One week from tomorrow is Christmas Day. Once again we will celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ with joy in our hearts. As I was working on this sermon I wanted to say here “celebrating Christmas is easy,” but then I remembered that celebrating Christmas isn’t always easy for everyone. There are some things that can make Christmas hard. Many of them, sadly, are of our own doing. We turn Christmas into the busiest retail season of the year. We so overemphasize giving gifts that many of us spend the time before Christmas spending a great deal of time fretting about giving gifts. We worry: Have I waited too long so that silly toy little Suzie simply must have has sold out? Will Uncle Fred like the shirt I bought him? What in heaven’s name can I buy for my wife that she’ll just love? Won’t the older grandchildren just take anything I give them back to the store for a refund so they can buy themselves something they really want? Do I have to buy something for my boss, or my employees, and if so, what? Will that package get to Uncle Fritz in Germany or nephew Sam on a Navy ship out in the middle of the ocean somewhere on time? The number of things to worry about that we come up with at Christmastime is almost endless.
But there are more serious things that make Christmas hard for some folks too. Christmas is often very difficult for people who are experiencing it for the first time after the death of a loved one. Many of us have been there. One of us, Elsie, is there today. Christmas can be hard for anyone who is alone and lonely remembering happier Christmases past. Sometimes loved ones are unavoidably distant, as when they are serving in the military like Joey Carter is this Christmas season. So no, Christmas isn’t always easy.
But what Christmas is really about isn’t hard, is it? I mean, celebrating the birth of Jesus comes easily for us Christians, doesn’t it? Sure it does. We love to hear the Bible’s stories of Jesus’ birth, especially in the one in Luke with Jesus born in a stable and laid in a manger—a feeding trough for livestock—and the shepherds coming to town to adore him. Maybe we don’t so much love to hear Matthew’s story of King Herod killing all the young children in and around Bethlehem in a futile effort to kill off this new King of the Jews, but then we usually just leave that story out of our Christmas celebrations. For many, perhaps most, of us hearing the Christmas stories brings back the warmest memories of Christmases past. We sing the old carols we know and love so well. There’s nothing hard about that, is there?
We love to celebrate Jesus’ birth. I mean, what’s not to celebrate? Once again, however, as there so often is with me, there’s a “but” here. We love to celebrate Jesus’ birth, but his birth of course is hardly all there is to him. When we focus on Jesus’ birth we tend to overlook just who this baby became when he grew up and what the adult Jesus means for us. When we do pay attention to the adult part of his life and his teachings as they are recorded in the Gospels of the New Testament we find that being a Christian isn’t always as easy as it seems to be on Christmas day. For as an adult this Jesus makes demands on us. He preached the love of God made real in the world and called it the kingdom of God. He taught us the kingdom life and showed it to us in how he lived his own life. Then he says follow me. Live like me. If necessary die like me. Say what? Die like me? Yes, that can be part of the life of faith too. Following this adult Jesus isn’t nearly as easy as celebrating his birth is.
There are other passages in the Bible besides the Gospels that can kind of bring us up short too. We just heard one from Paul’s first letter to the church in ThessalonĂ­ki. In that letter back to the Christian church he had founded Paul writes: “Be joyful always; pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16 There’s a lot to say about this passage. I’ll just say a little bit about it here. First, notice that Paul says “give thanks in all circumstances” not give thanks for all circumstances. Paul knew full well that there are difficult circumstances in all of our lives that it wouldn’t make much sense to give thanks for. But he calls us to give thanks “in” all circumstances. He calls us to find in whatever the circumstances of our lives are something to be thankful for. Perhaps it’s just for the gift of life itself, or for the love of family and friends. And of course we can always give thanks for the love of God. He says “pray continuously.” Some other translations have that line as “pray without ceasing.” There is a tradition in Russian Orthodox Christianity of people, usually monks, striving to do precisely that. They will silently recite a prayer that goes “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” over and over and over every waking moment. How many of us are prepared to do that? Not me. I’m pretty sure not you.
Then there’s the one Paul opens with here. “Be joyful always” What? Joyful always? Is he kidding? How can we be joyful always? It would be a whole lot easier for me to pray without ceasing than for me to be joyful always. I mean, just look at the world! What a mess! Rampant incompetence and bad policy in government. War, famine, oppression, climate change, homelessness, etc, etc, etc. We’re supposed to be joyful in the face of all that? Then at your own life. Is everything in it cause for joy? Maybe, but if that’s true you’re one of the lucky few. It’s not true in my life. I don’t think it ever has been. We’re supposed to be joyful when loved ones become terminally ill or we do ourselves? We’re supposed to be joyful when we can’t pay the rent or the mortgage and face homelessness? We’re supposed to be joyful when our children or grandchildren struggle in life can’t seem ever to straighten things out? I mean, give me a break. Joyful always? I don’t think so.
I don’t think so, but Paul apparently did; and he didn’t exactly have it easy. He was forever being set upon by mobs made angry by his teaching and being thrown in jail for causing public disorder. He had conflict with some of the Christians back in Jerusalem that must have kept him up at night. Our tradition says he was eventually arrested and executed in Rome. Whether that really happened or not he must have spent most of his adult life being aware that it could. And he tells us to be joyful always? Really?
Well, yes. Really. Now I’ll never say being joyful is always easy, but I do believe that there is a way we Christians can do it. And one week from tomorrow we’ll again celebrate the great event that makes it possible. We will celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, that baby whose birth it is so easy to celebrate who became the adult it can be so hard to follow. But at his birth we feel nothing but joy, or at least that’s all I feel at his birth. One of my favorite Christmas carols is “Joy to the World.” It begins “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” Jesus coming into the world is a cause of great joy. Luke’s angel say to the shepherds “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:10-11 Good news of great joy. That’s what the birth of Jesus is. The angel said so, and we know in our own experience that it is true. Christmas is a time of great joy. Even when the circumstances of our life are hard we can give joyful thanks that God came to us as one of us at Christmas, came to bring us peace and salvation, ame to show us God’s unconditional love in a way we can get, in a human life.
We feel joy at the birth of Jesus at Christmas, but let me ask you something. Why can’t we feel that joy always? I mean, it’s not like Jesus is born, then goes away. He doesn’t. He never goes away. That’s what the risen Christ tells us at the end of the Gospel of Matthew. His last words to his disciples are “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:20b See, that’s how I think it can be possible for us Christians to be joyful always. Not because the circumstances of our lives are always a cause for joy. We all know they aren’t. Not that, but because in whatever our circumstances are we can know that Jesus Christ is with us. Because he suffered and died on the cross we can know that he knows what we feel when we suffer. He’s been there, and worse. He didn’t scorn our pain or our mortality. He entered fully into them and overcame them—for himself and for us.
So joyful always? Well, yes. It’s not easy. Our pain, physical, emotional, and spiritual, is often real enough. But folks, it really makes a difference when we know that Jesus Christ is with us in whatever pain we must face in life. It really makes a difference when we know that he is there holding us up, cradling us in the palm of his hand, and reassuring us that whatever happens to us we are safe. Not safe in a worldly sense perhaps, but save in a much deeper, more powerful, more important sense. Save with Christ. Safe with God. Eternally, cosmically, spiritually safe. That is the knowledge that makes it possible to obey Paul’s command to be joyful always. Joyful in the deep, peaceful knowledge that neither death nor life no anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, to quote my favorite lines from Paul.
So one week from tonight as we hold our Christmas Eve service, and one week tomorrow as you celebrate Christmas however you celebrate Christmas, be joyful. Feel the joy that comes from seeing God come to us as one of us. Feel the joy of Christmas, they remind yourself that that joy can be with you always. No matter what. God came to us at Christmas to show us that God loves each and every one of us no matter what. May that joy be ours not just at Christmas but every day of our lives. Amen.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Power for Love


Power for Love
Rev. Dr. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
December 10, 2017

Scripture: Isaiah 40:1-11

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Have you ever noticed how Christians do a funny thing with language? We take a particular word that grammatically is an adjective and turn it into a noun. The word I’m thinking of is “almighty.” Almighty is an adjective. It describes something as all powerful. We speak of “the almighty dollar,” and we mean that money has the power to control everything. Almighty isn’t a noun. It isn’t a thing, it is an attribute of a thing. It is an adjective. Or at least it is an adjective except when we apply it to God. Sure, we sometimes use it as an adjective for God. There’s an old hymn that starts with the line “Come thou almighty king.” It’s an adjective there, so sometimes we use almighty as an adjective. Sometimes we use it as an attribute of God, but we do more than that with it. We turn it into a noun. We put the definite article in front of it and call God “the Almighty.” Not the almighty something or other. Just the Almighty. And actually we do more than turn the adjective almighty into a noun. We turn it into a proper noun. We turn it into God’s name. “The Almighty” is our God.
Now, I don’t deny that God is almighty. I mean, how could any reality that is truly God not be almighty? Yet I think calling God almighty raises more questions than it answers. I mean, almighty means all powerful. One on line dictionary defines it as “having absolute power over all.” Absolute power would be the power to do anything. Because we think of God as “the Almighty” we say over and over again that “nothing is impossible for God.” I suppose that’s true, but it certainly is also true that there’s an awful lot we’d like God to do that God presumably could do but to all appearances doesn’t do . I mean, wouldn’t it be great if God stepped in and ended all wars? Or ended every kind of human suffering? Wouldn’t that be great? I suppose it would, and I want God to do those things as much as the next guy; but here’s the thing. God doesn’t do it. God has never done it. So God may be “the Almighty,” but God sure doesn’t act most of the time as if God were in reality almighty the way we think some reality that is almighty should act.
So what are we to make of the paradox that God could do anything but there are are all kinds of good things that God doesn’t do? I think all we can make of it is to look at what God does do and try to figure out from there how we are to live. And we get a glimpse into what God does do (as opposed to what God doesn’t do) with God’s almighty power in our reading from Isaiah this morning. There the prophet sings of how God is going to return the Jewish exiles from Babylon to their home in Jerusalem. That’s what the opening lines of our passage are about. Israel’s punishment for her sins of faithlessness that led, in the view of the ancient prophets, to her defeat by Babylon and the exile in Babylon of her leaders is over. God will ease her way home. That’s what preparing the way in the desert, raising up the valleys and leveling the hills is all about.
And the lectionary gives us this text in Advent. I suppose the lectionary does that because of the lines near the end of our passage. There the prophet says “See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power.” It doesn’t say almighty power, but it might as well have. In the view of this ancient prophet it is God’s power even over people who have never even heard of the god of the Hebrews that is bringing the people home from exile. God comes with power. The prophet says God’s “arm rules for him.” God’s “arm” here is a symbol of God’s power mentioned in the same verse. God comes with power. With a mighty arm to rule. That’s one thing our text this morning says.
OK, but what is God going to do with all that divine power? Immediately after it established that God comes with power the text tells us what God is going to do with that power. It tells us how God is going to use that power. The text continues: “He tends his flock like a shepherd:He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” Yes, God comes with power, but God doesn’t use God’s divine power anything like how we’d probably use it if we had it. No, God comes in power to act like a humble shepherd. The shepherd imagery here is imagery of care and concern not transcendence and force. It is imagery not of God overpowering people but of God tenderly caring from them. For the prophet here we are God’s lambs, and God carries us close to God’s heart. The text says God gently leads the sheep who have young. They are most vulnerable ones, for they must stay with their lambs even in the face of mortal danger. So God cares especially for them. Yes, God comes in power, but God comes with power for love.
This text from Isaiah, written in the mid-500s BCE, isn’t about Jesus. It is about God leading the Jewish exiles home from Babylon more than 500 years before Jesus. Yet it fits very nicely with Jesus, doesn’t it? In this season of Advent we are preparing to celebrate once more the birth of Jesus Christ our Lord. We confess that in Jesus’ birth God came into the world in a special way. In the birth of Jesus God came to us as one of us. Jesus came with the power of God, but how? Did he come descending on a cloud from above. Did he come with armed force to defeat the enemies of God in the world? Did he come with the trappings of royalty? With a golden crown and columns of armed men parading behind him? No, of course he didn’t. We know that. He came as an ordinary newborn human being. A baby. Naked. Completely vulnerable. Utterly defenseless. One completely unable to tend for himself, needing nurturing care in order to survive. He came as love needing love himself.
OK, that’s how he came; but what did he do with the rest of his life? When he grew up, did he use divine power to crush his enemies by force and establish the kingdom of God on earth? No. Certainly not. When he grew up he said love your enemies and turn the other cheek. When he grew up he used divine power a few times, especially divine power over nature—to calm the storm and walk on the water for example. But he never used divine power to harm anyone. He rejected all use of force and called us instead to lives of love and caring for all of God’s people. Isaiah saw God coming with power to tend the sheep. Jesus came with power to tend the sheep too. In the Gospel of John he calls himself the Good Shepherd. He didn’t harm, he healed. He didn’t hate, he loved. With all his power he loved.
And that’s what he calls us to do too. We don’t have divine power. All we can do is appeal to divine power to solve our problems and the world’s problems. And when we appeal to divine power to solve our problems and the world’s problems what answer do we get? We get love. We get the love of God for ourselves in whatever comes our way in life. We get God’s command to love others as we love ourselves. God is the Almighty, but God expresses God’s power not through force but through love. Not through violence but through caring. When we read Isaiah, and more importantly when we worship Jesus, we find that God has power; but God’s power is power for love. It is never power for hatred. It is never power for violence. It is never power for the sake of power. It is always power for the sake of love.
Our Advent theme today of course isn’t love. That’s the Advent theme for next week. Today’s theme is peace, but with God love and peace walk hand in hand. It is in the love of God that we find peace. It is only in the love of God that we find peace. The world can never give us true peace. The world tries to maintain peace through armed might; and that way true peace never comes. All armed might can produce is a lull in the fighting. A lull in the fighting might be a good thing but the fighting always returns. God gives us peace in our hearts not by force but by love. By power for love. Power that lifts up and sustains. Power that calms and heals the soul. Power that loves all people through whatever comes their way in life. Power that suffers with us in love. Power that welcomes us home when our lives on this earth are done. God’s power is the power of the helpless infant born in Bethlehem. God’s power is power for love.
So as we once welcome Jesus into the world here two weeks from tomorrow, let’s remember what God’s power is all about. Yes, God is “the Almighty.” But God is almighty for love. Only for love. God call us to lives grounded in love too. So as we love and adore the newborn Jesus let’s remember that he is our model for loving God and all of creation just as he did. If we will remember that God’s power is power for love we will find peace, the peace of God that passes all understanding. May it be so. Amen.

Practicing Our Hope


Practicing Our Hope
Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
December 3, 2017


Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is a time of preparation and anticipation. We prepare to welcome Jesus into the world once again. We anticipate the joy that we know will come. Traditionally, we mark the four Sundays of Advent by lighting a candle for each of the four. As the number of lit candles increases, our anticipation and excitement increase. The increasing light of the candles reflects the coming of the light of the world at Christmas. Each of the four Sundays of Advent has a traditional theme. Today’s theme is hope. We lit the candle of hope, the first candle of the Advent wreath, a few minutes ago. It burns among us now, bringing us the light of hope.
Now, that’s lovely, isn’t it? I mean, who doesn’t like hope? Hope is a good thing, right? We use the absence of hope as a synonym for bad, like when we say a situation is “hopeless.” A “hopeless situation” is one out of which nothing good can come. A “hopeful” situation is one that looks promising, one out of which something good might very well come. So why, then, when I saw once again that today is hope Sunday did I very nearly panic? I’m here to tell you I did. Hope, I thought. How in heaven’s name can I preach on something most of the time I find it impossible to discover in this world? I know that not all of you share my bleak assessment of the condition of our world, but just take a look around. What do you see? War, famine, pandemics, political oppression, massive economic injustice, bigotry and discrimination on all sorts of bases, major world religions (including most of the manifestations of ours) that dehumanize women, and on and on and on. How, I thought, can I preach on something I don’t have? That was the question I couldn’t get around.
But I knew I had to preach today, so I set about trying to overcome my preacher’s block on the subject. I started by looking up hope in the dictionary. After all, if we’re going to talk about hope, we’d better have some idea of what it is. One dictionary I looked in defines hope as “a feeling that what is wanted will happen” or “desire accompanied by anticipation or expectation.” Well, OK. But the problem is that most of the time I don’t have the feeling that what I want to have happen will happen, at least not on the global scale. So I went back to the drawing board, and here’s what I came up with.
Hope, it seems to me, is an attitude not a feeling. It is a way of approaching life; and one way to get at an understanding of that attitude is to talk about what it is not. It does not require us to be unrealistic optimists. Hope does not require us to be Pollyannas, rosily and unrealistically thinking that nothing bad will ever happen. It isn’t an attitude that refuses to look at all the evil and suffering in the world and looks only at what is good. Hope does not mean skipping the front pages of the newspaper and skipping straight to the comics and the heart-warming human interest stories. Hope does not require us to be unrealistic.
Rather, hope is the attitude that looks reality in the eye and says: Nevertheless. Yes, I know I said recently here that that’s what faith is. But the theologian from whom I took that notion also says that hope is faith applied to the future. Hope, as faith applied to the future, takes in all of the suffering, all of the injustice, all of the violence and says: Nevertheless, I will live as though something good could come out of all this evil. I will not deny the evil. I will not run from it. I will stare it in the eye and say: I will live as though you do not have the last word. Hope is a decision. It is a decision to live as though peace, freedom, and justice for all people were an attainable reality in the world.
Now, you may be asking, or maybe it’s just me who’s asking: How is it possible to make that decision? How can we not be so overwhelmed by the violence and injustice in the world that we give in to despair and hopelessness? Well, I submit that there is only one way that it is possible, and that is the way of faith. Without faith in God, it seems to me, despair is unavoidable. Without God, there is no hope; but we are people of faith. We have already made the decision to live in the reality of God. We have made the decision to say yes to God; and in saying yes to God we have said yes to God’s world. The temptation to say no is strong, indeed sometimes nearly overwhelming; but as people of faith we have said yes. Hope is a form of that yes. Hope is the attitude that says: I know that this is God’s world, and I will live as though it were obvious that God will cause the good to prevail. In worldly terms, that isn’t obvious. In faith we say: Nevertheless.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow expressed this nevertheless beautifully and powerfully in the words we know as the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Perhaps you know it. We’re going to sing it here momentarily. It says: I heard the bells on Christmas Day their old familiar carols play….” In Longfellow’s poem he hears the church bells ringing on Christmas Day, and he is at first overcome with despair:
And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
But in faith he overcomes that despair, for his words continue:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Wordsworth wrote these words in 1864, during the carnage of the American Civil War. In the midst of that unimaginable nightmare Wordsworth somehow found the faith to say: Nevertheless. Despite everything, I choose to believe that God is in charge and will prevail. That is the attitude of hope.
Advent is about that nevertheless, about that attitude of hope. Advent is a time for us to practice our hope. In Advent, liturgically speaking, Christ hasn’t come yet. We hope that God will come to us, but all we have is hope. That situation mirrors our life in the world generally. We live in a world from which God seems much of the time to be absent. We hope that God will come to us, will bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. We hope it, but that’s all. That means that we choose to live as though that were possible, as though that were indeed going to happen. We are able to make that choice because of our faith in God. Indeed, our faith in God requires us to make that choice.
I can’t speak for you, but I know that God is real and is part of my life. I know it because I have experienced it. I have experienced God’s gracious, healing presence in my life, sustaining me in grief and leading me to new life. When I remember that reality, then I find that I cannot remain in that despair over the state of the world that so often threatens to overwhelm me. When I remember the reality of God in my life I have hope. When I remember the reality of God in my life I am able to say “Nevertheless.” I am able to live as though the good were not just possible but inevitable. I don’t know how it is possible, and it sure doesn’t feel inevitable; but when I hold onto my faith then I know that it is.
So, this Advent, season, let’s practice our hope. Let’s look all the world’s horror in the eye and say: Nevertheless. Let’s live in the anticipation of God coming to us in Jesus Christ at Christmas, and let us understand that anticipation as the model of hope, of living as though God’s triumph in the world were inevitable. In faith, we can believe that it is. Amen.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Trouble with Goats


The Trouble with Goats
Rev. Dr. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
November 26, 2017

Scripture: Matthew 25:31-46

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

The passage we just heard from the Gospel of Matthew is known as the “judgment of the nations.” Notice that it says that the “nations” appear before the risen, returned Christ. Hence the “judgment of the nations. “ It’s always been one of my favorite Bible passages. True, I don’t much care for the way it ends where it says that “then they will go away to eternal punishment….” That doesn’t sound like Jesus to me. It sounds like Matthew but not like Jesus. But that’s not what I want to spend our time talking about this morning. Rather, I want to talk about something I’ve always joked about in this passage. I used to say “I wonder what Jesus, or at least Matthew, has against goats?” I mean, this passage starts with the risen and returned Christ separating the nations “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” He puts the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. That, by the way, is a clue that the goats are in big trouble. In the ancient Jewish world of this story the left hand was considered unclean. That the goats are on Christ’s left side means this isn’t going to turn out well for them, and indeed it doesn’t. The sheep, on Christ’s good side, turn out to be the ones he blesses for having done what is right. They took care of people in need, people Jesus here calls “the least of these brothers of mine.” We have to add “the least of these sisters of mine too,” but the text makes the point. We are all called to care for people in need. The goats on his left, unclean side, turn out to be the ones he condemns for not having done what is right. They did not care for the least of these who are in need. The goats turn out to be the villains of the piece, which has always made me wonder what Jesus, or at least Matthew, has against goats.
I mean, I quite like goats, not that I’ve ever really known one. But they’re cute. They act silly. They eat blackberry bushes. More importantly, in the agrarian economy of Jesus’ time and place and in many parts of the world today goats are valuable animals. Some car dealer around here is even running a promotion that goes “Buy a car, get a goat.” Not that you’ll really get the goat, but if you buy a car from this outfit they’ll give money to Heifer Project so a needy family somewhere in the world gets a goat. A goat could really help out a family in need. Goats give milk. When they die they can give meat and leather. There really is nothing wrong with goats. So why in this story do the bad people get equated with goats? I’ve always thought that was kind of funny, but I’d never really thought about it having an important meaning before this last week when I began to prepare this service. I think I have idea about a lesson for us in the way in this story good, useful goats turn out to be the villains, and that’s what I want to share with you now.
The goats in this passage are creatures that appear to be good, useful, beneficial animals but turn out not to be that at all. They turn out to be bad, neglectful at best and perhaps worse then that. And I think there’s a lesson there for us. The way the superficially good goats turn out to the bad points to a profound truth about human life. Evil is never a problem when it is apparent that it is evil. But evil is immensely creative in finding ways to make itself not look evil at all but to look good, to appear to be the opposite of what it really is. I’ll start with an obvious example. I’m sure we all agree that German Nazism was one of the most evil political ideologies the world has ever known. It killed tens of millions of people in its wars and its death camps. It was an ideology that dehumanized people who weren’t pure German and made them disposable. The symbols of Nazism are for us symbols of unmitigated evil.
Yet Hitler did not take power by force. The German people chose him and his Nazi parties to lead the country. Do you think all those Germans who voted for Hitler and the Nazis in 1933 and made Hitler Chancellor of their country thought they were voting for evil? No. They didn’t think that. They thought they were voting for something good. Something noble. Something true. Something that would make life better not worse. Were they blind to the reality of Nazism? Sure they were, but that’s because the Nazis were geniuses at making their evil appear as a good. You can say the same thing about Soviet Communism. It was pure evil, but there are lots and lots of Russians today who long to return to it because they see it has having been good. Evil can and does do harm when it is obviously evil. I don’t think anyone who wasn’t deranged ever thought Charles Manson was good. But evil does far, far more harm when it presents itself as good, which it nearly always does.
So a lesson that I take from Matthew’s judgment of the nations passage is that we must always be careful not to fall for what may look like a good thing when in fact it is an evil thing. We need to learn to see through the slick looking exterior of a thing and see what the thing really is underneath. Jesus does that with the goats in our passage. Sure, he knew that goats are good, useful animals, especially in an agrarian economy like the one he lived in. But he saw beneath the surface. He saw who his goats really were, not useful, decent people who cared for neighbors in need but people failed in that primary duty of the life of faith, failed to care for those in need.
Which of course raises a serious question for us Christians. Jesus could see beneath the surface of people and institutions, but none of us is Jesus. Jesus was at the very least a man with extraordinary powers of discernment. We say he had divine powers of discernment, which none of us does. So how do we undertake the task of telling the sheep from the goats? How do we get beneath the surface of things the way Jesus did with the goats in this story?
Well, we start by being aware of the issue, of how surfaces may not be telling the truth about what’ underneath. We start by never being satisfied with the superficial appearance of any person or any thing. Here’s another example. When a politician, any politician of whatever political party, makes a promise, don’t take that promise at face value. Look at the realities of the context in which the promise is made. All politicians who are running for President from either major political party, for example, promise that they will revise the federal tax code. That’s the superficial promise. When we look below the surface we see, however, that the President doesn’t make tax law. Congress does. The most any President can do is make proposals about the tax code to Congress, which may or may not accept the President’s proposal. So look below the surface of any political promise. See what the realities are. Only then make a decision about how to vote.
Yet there is another issue here, isn’t there. When we see beneath the surface of a thing and discern the realities around it we still have to evaluate it. We still have to make a judgment about it. How are we to do that? Well, we do it the way Christians are called to make any decision. We are called to ask: What does this thing look like in the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ? What light to the values Jesus taught, lived, and died for shed on this thing we’re trying to evaluate? Is the thing good for “the least of these”? Is it grounded in love for the lonely and the lost? Does it work toward a world of peace and justice for all people? If it does, accept it. Vote for it. Work for it. But although a thing may look on the surface like it does those things, when we see below the surface we may see that it does not do those things. If it doesn’t, reject it the way Jesus rejects the goats in our passage from Matthew.
When we do that work of discernment we won’t all arrive at the same answer. That’s OK. Jesus rarely if ever dictates answers to us. What he calls us to do is the work of discernment. The work of looking below the surface of things. And the work of making decisions about those things in the light of his teachings. He calls is to see if a goat is really a goat or a wolf in goat’s clothing. That work isn’t easy. Evil is immensely creative in finding ways to make itself look good. It is immensely clever in playing to our fears and weaknesses to get us to do something we really oughtn’t do. It is really easy to fall into evil’s trap. We all do it from time to time. But Matthew’s great story of the judgment of the nations gives us a warning: Make sure that goat you want to buy is really a goat and not something else masquerading as a goat. We’ll all make mistakes when we try to do that, and Jesus always forgives our mistakes. Still, look beneath the surface of things. Make sure a goat really is a goat. Amen.