Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Sunday January 16 – Epiphany 2 – Martin Luther King Remembered

My Delight

          For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.  2 The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.  3 You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.  4 You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, [Hephizbah] and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. [Beulah]  5 For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. – Isaiah 62:1-5  

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

          Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds.  6 Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgments are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike, O LORD.  7 How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.  8 They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.  9 For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.  10 O continue your steadfast love to those who know you, and your salvation to the upright of heart! – Psalm 36:5-10   

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

          On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.  2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.  3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”  4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”  5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.  7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim.  8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it.  9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom  10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”  11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. – John 2:1-11  

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

christmas cards

I don’t know about you, but at our house there are still a lot of Christmas decorations up. We’re really not that far from Christmas yet – just a few weeks out. But our scripture readings skip over Jesus’ childhood and youth, and in today’s Gospel lesson we see Jesus at 30 years old, working his first miracle! I wish we had a little more time to spend with the young Jesus; but instead this morning we’ll take a look back at some of the prophecies Jesus was born to fulfill.

In the process of doing that I’d also like to touch on our remembrance of Martin Luther King Jr. which will be on Monday. Most people today remember Martin Luther King Jr. for his marches and speeches, but he was above all a man of God. Martin Luther King Jr., like his father and grandfather before him – who were also pastors – knew God’s word: and he understood, from the Bible, why inequality and injustice of any kind were contrary to the teaching of scripture. Without the Bible and without Jesus there would have been no Martin Luther King Jr.

MLK Preaching

So today we will look at a combination of prophecy in the Old Testament – and prophetic action in America – and my hope is to tie these two together without touching on politics! (Y’all can keep score on me on that one!)

When I became a pastor I gave up membership in any political party because I don’t ever want my political beliefs to come between anyone and God. This church is God’s church, and this church is a place to worship God and to hear God’s word and to meet with God. It is my hope and my purpose that nothing I say or do will ever interfere with that.

That said, I’d like to start with our passage from Isaiah. Isaiah 62 gives us a breathtaking look into God’s heart. If anyone here today has ever wondered if God really loves you, let this passage be your assurance. These words are meant for you – and for anyone who has come to take shelter under the wings of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If you know and love Jesus these words are for you.

Isaiah writes:

“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn…” He also says: “You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD…”

And in the chapter before this one – Isaiah 61 – we hear more encouraging words. Isaiah writes:

“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor…” (Isaiah 61:1-2)

Jesus read this passage in synagogue one morning, and then put away the scroll, and sat down to teach. And he said, “today these words have been fulfilled in your hearing.” These words are as much for us as they were for Israel back then.

I’d like to ask you to stick a mental bookmark in the sermon right here because I’m going to come back to these sayings of Jesus and Isaiah.

Turning now to look at the world live in today: in spite of Isaiah’s words, things are still far from perfect. Jesus IS the answer, and God’s word IS true, but the story’s not over yet. We live in an in-between time, the now-and-not-yet. There is still a lot wrong in the world; and injustice of any kind can create barriers between God and God’s people and make it very difficult for people to hear God’s message.

Israel slavery

One of the greatest injustices in human history is slavery. Slavery has been around almost as long as human history itself: the people of Israel were slaves in Egypt; many people were slaves under the Roman Empire; there was slavery on our continent from the 1600s until 1865 – and it continued in all but name under Jim Crow. Slavery that continues today, around the world, under the name ‘human trafficking’ – which often involves the sale of children as sex slaves, and also includes illegal exploitation of workers. My husband the carpenter has told me stories of being underbid on jobs where the competing business is forcing its workers to live in the very houses they’re building – without heat, without electricity, without plumbing.

Slavery is devastating in whatever form it takes.  Slavery produces an emotional trauma that often carries through generations. We see this in the Old Testament: before the nation of Israel went into Egypt – back while they were still in Canaan – Abraham’s relationship with God was open and trusting. Abraham negotiated with God for the salvation of any good people left in Sodom and Gomorrah; and when God told him to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham trusted that God would provide an alternative. All this happened before Egypt.

After Egypt – after generations of slavery – with rare exceptions that trust had been broken. It was almost like the entire nation of Israel was suffering from PTSD – which might not be far from the truth. Israel had lived through massive trauma: being physically abused by their taskmasters, being forced to work under inhuman conditions, and finally being forced to kill any male children that were born.

The nation of Israel needed time to heal. But the trip through the desert to the Promised Land was difficult, and the people begin to accuse Moses (and God) of bringing them out of Egypt to kill them with thirst or to starve them to death. God provided water and quail and manna; yet when God told the people he would provide manna every day and not to keep any of the manna overnight because it would go bad, they didn’t believe him. They stored it anyway and it went rotten and stunk up their tents. Time and again the people were not able to trust God, and the sad thing is they wanted to. It took a lot of time, a lot of sharing, and a lot of prayer to rebuild trust between the people and God.

Here in our own nation we had about 200 years of legalized slavery, and after slavery we had many more years of second-class treatment of various groups of people: Native Americans, women (who have only been able to vote for about 100 years), Jewish people, Muslims, the Irish, eastern Europeans, Japanese-Americans during WWII… the list goes on…

All of these groups have suffered after-effects similar to ancient Israel: emotional and psychological trauma resulting in a lack of ability to trust, until they’re sure they’ve been heard and are cared for and are safe.

For people like me, who have never wondered where the next meal was coming from or where a safe place to sleep might be found, I’m not always fully aware of the suffering others have gone through. I confess I am still learning.  This week I attended a Zoom conference called The Afghan Refugee: Trauma Healing Awareness – because honestly I’m not fully aware of what people have lived  through. Even though I’ve heard the news and I know ‘what happened’ over there, I have not heard the stories of the individual people escaping Afghanistan. Even if I did know the stories of a few people, would I know how to help? (Our conference taught us the #1 thing to do for anyone who has suffered trauma is to listen and to ask three questions: “Tell me what happened,” “How do you feel?” and “What was the hardest part for you?”)

Where From

In the past few years I have been making a conscious effort to listen and to ask questions and to understand. Where it comes to African-American friends, I have one observation I want to share, and one story to share. My observation, which has been confirmed by the TV show Finding Your Roots on PBS, is that one of the greatest losses caused by slavery is the loss of personal family history. How many of us here today can say, for example, “my family came from Scotland” or “my family came from Poland”? And we can tell stories about the “old country”.  But it’s rare that our African-American friends know which country their family came from –  or even what their family name was. It’s a loss that can never be recovered.

As to the story: Many of you have met my good friend Denise who is here today. You may have met her at the Mardi Gras, which she absolutely loves (we are so looking forward to this year’s!)  Denise and I have been neighbors and friends for around 15 years. She is a special ed teacher, and we met because we discovered one day that we were both feeding the same stray cat! (Does that surprise you?)

As I have gotten to know Denise I have learned a great deal from her about how difficult life can still be – even in the 21st century – for an African-American in our society. Denise has been harassed and called names by strangers in supermarkets, in Wal-Mart, even driving down the street. And that’s just scratching the surface.

After Denise and I had been friends for a few years I noticed that she didn’t like to go to the doctor. Denise and I both have had a number of medical issues, and we compare notes. More than once I’ve said  “hey, have you seen the doctor yet?” and she would dance around the subject. One day I finally asked her, “what’s up with you and doctors?”

I was completely ignorant of the history of medical care in this country where African-Americans are concerned. I had no idea the inequality that continues to this day. I believe most medical professionals do the very best they can for each patient; but there’s a lot that remains hidden somehow.

HeLa

Instead of answering my question Denise handed me a book called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. For those of you who, like me, have never heard of Henrietta Lacks: Henrietta was a poor African-American woman, who was born in Virginia and lived in Maryland, who died of cervical cancer in the early 1950s. Just before she passed, her surgeons took a sample of her cancer cells and her cervical cells to study, to see if they could figure out how they might have cured her. They discovered, much to their surprise, that Henrietta’s cells were extremely vigorous. They multiplied rapidly: so fast, in fact, that they shared the cells with other researchers… and they shared them, and they shared them… and over 70 years later, the descendants of those cells are still alive today. They have been shared around the world, and have been used to help create vaccines for diseases including polio and COVID.

Henrietta’s family – until relatively recently – had no knowledge of this. They never gave permission for the use of the cells; and they never received any acknowledgement let alone any assistance from the people who made profits from these cells.

The same year I was reading this book, Allegheny County released a study showing that mortality rates for African-American babies in Western PA are often three times higher than for Caucasian babies.

I was absolutely stunned by all this.

Finally I said to Denise: “Let me go with you to your next doctor’s appointment.”  So I did. As we left the doctor’s office, after what I considered an extremely routine appointment, Denise said to me, “that was like night and day. I’ve never had an appointment like that before.”

This is just one of the legacies of racial prejudice we still live with today.

I want to encourage each one of us to think of creative ways of pushing back against this, and bearing witness, and creating safe spaces where people can begin to heal.

Backing up now to the larger picture: In a world where people are literally addicted to sin, where trauma happens in life even under the best of circumstances – where we experience loss, hardship, betrayals, stone walls – all of us suffer deep emotional injuries. The best thing we can do for each other is listen to each other.

And when we’ve been heard – and when the pain has begun to subside – then, to complete the healing, we share the words God has said:

“I will not keep silent. I will not rest – until your vindication shines like the dawn… You will be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord. For the Lord delights in you and God will rejoice over you!”

crown of splendor

For every person who has known pain and suffering: Jesus says, “today these words have been fulfilled in your hearing.”  You are loved. God is always with you. God will not rest until the nations see your glory, and until you have been given a new name: no longer Forsaken, no longer Desolate, but a crown of beauty in the hand of God.

This is the message, and the promise, and the healing, that Jesus was born into our world to bring to each one of us. This is what Christmas is all about. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven UMC and Spencer UMC, January 16, 2022

“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.  2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.  3 Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.  4 Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.  5 Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.  6 A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.” – Isaiah 60:1-6

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,  2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”  3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;  4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.  5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:  6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

“Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.  8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”  9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.  10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.  11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. –  Matthew 2:1-12

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Happy New Year! And may this year be better than the last one!

Our Close to Home Advent journey wraps up today, and I like that it extends to the end of the Christmas season and includes the Wise Men and the Twelve Days of Christmas. So many times our seasonal studies just kind of leave us in that time of ‘Advent waiting’ but the story goes on! So I’m glad we’re continuing this week.

Sabbath

On the Sabbath

I’m going to get to the Wise Men in just a moment. But before I do, there’s one thing in the Close to Home series that we haven’t mentioned yet: the Saturday pages. Did you all notice them? Every Saturday Close to Home recommended that we observe the Sabbath in some way. They suggested making a commitment to do at least one of the following: “Go for a walk outside – Sit quietly and meditate – Plant something – Spend time with a friend or loved one – Explore a new area of your town or city – Cook or bake something – Do yoga or exercise in a way that feels good for your body – Write and mail a letter to someone you haven’t talked to in a while – Organize or redesign an area in your home – Draw or create something – Dance or play music – Write a poem or a song – Watch a movie – Take a nap – Read a book.”

Just out of curiosity: how many people here today actually tried doing one of these on at least one Saturday during Advent? [Author’s note: there were no hands raised at either service.]

To be honest I wasn’t expecting to see a whole lot of hands, because keeping Sabbath is something we’ve kind of forgotten about in our culture. It used to be, a long time ago, that Sunday was everybody’s day off – but that changed around 50 years ago or so. And I’m not saying I want the “blue laws” back.

But for the faithful, Sabbath-keeping is one of the Ten Commandments, right up there with respecting parents, and not killing, and not stealing, and not lying. So if it’s that serious to God, why do we think this one commandment can be ignored?

The thing is, when we keep Sabbath, we begin to become – from the inside – the kind of people who wouldn’t dream of breaking any of the other nine commandments. We become people more in tune with God’s kingdom.

When God gave us the Sabbath God knew we needed it. God knew we needed rest, relaxation, and time for pure enjoyment of God’s creation. God knew if we deprived ourselves of these things, we would end up with a warped view of the world and our place in it, which is the first step in the direction of injustice and violence.

sabb2

Christians don’t necessarily observe Sabbath the same way Jewish people do, but I think we can learn from and borrow some ideas from Jewish practices. In Judaism, Sabbath is observed for 24 hours every week: from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Sabbath begins with lighting candles, and praying a prayer that begins “Blessed art thou O Lord our God, King of the universe…” and then goes on to ask blessing on each member of the family at the dinner table. Those of you who have seen the movie Fiddler on the Roof have seen what the Sabbath meal looks like. It is traditionally the best meal of the week, made with the finest ingredients. And then after dinner the family has time to spend together, catching up with each other, playing games together, playing music if they choose to.

There are long lists of things Jewish believers can’t do on the Sabbath, and as a Christian I don’t get tangled up in these regulations, but I do sometimes use them as guidelines. For example: one rule says you may not carry anything across the threshold of the house on the Sabbath. This is meant to prevent people doing work on the Sabbath; I personally interpret this to mean something along the lines of: don’t go grocery shopping on the Sabbath. (In fact I find it helpful not to shop at all, or do anything involving money, on the Sabbath.)

Another rule says ‘don’t turn anything on or off during the Sabbath’. For Jewish people who observe strictly this includes TVs, cell phones, computers…! Personally I can’t go that far, but I do say “no work may be done on the computer or on the cell phone on the Sabbath”.

All this may sound a little strange… and I’ll admit it’s different. But I can also tell you it is such a joy! I look forward to the Sabbath every week, like it’s a mini-vacation. And why should Sabbath feel strange if God commands it? Jewish theology tells us the Sabbath is meant to be a foretaste of heaven – a hint of what our eternal rest will be like. Is there anything more important in this life than preparing for eternity?

So I cannot recommend strongly enough keeping the Sabbath, as the Lord leads us to. It’s a blessing that shouldn’t be missed!

wise men

On The Wise Men

Having said all of that, our theme for today is “Home By Another Way” and it focuses on the Wise Men.

Isaiah predicted that “Nations shall come to your light [that is, Israel’s light] and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (Is 60:3) And a few verses later Isaiah says, “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.” (v 6) This prophecy is fulfilled in the actions of these travelers from the east.

So who were these men? Were they royalty? What did they know and how did they learn about Jesus?

Out of all the Gospel writers, only Matthew mentions the Wise Men. Matthew doesn’t say anything about there being three kings – the number three is guessed at from the number of gifts given. And Matthew also doesn’t say anything about kings – the concept of royalty comes from the Isaiah prophecy. Most likely the wise men were traveling with a fairly large entourage; they were most likely leaders in their society; and most likely they were from their country’s priestly caste than the royal caste. They were specialists in astrology and other works that we today might call “magic”. What’s cool is that God reached out to them in a way that they would understand. They knew astrology: so God gave them a message in the stars. God met them where they were, and brought them to where God was; and that’s exactly what God does for each of us.

We also know the Wise Men did not arrive at the manger on the same night as the shepherds. Assuming the Wise Men saw the star when Jesus was born, they would have talked about it, planned a trip, packed, and traveled on camel-back for 1000 miles. This probably took months, possibly years.

It’s believed that Mary and Joseph stayed in Bethlehem after Jesus was born, at least until He was presented in the Temple and until the time of Mary’s purification was complete, which makes a lot of sense because it was a long journey from Bethlehem to Nazareth and back. Scripture tells us that when the Wise Men arrived, they found Mary and Jesus in a house – which also makes sense, because people who had been there for the census would have gone home and now there were places to stay.

When the Wise Men came to Herod, Herod questioned them closely about when the star appeared. King Herod was famous in the ancient world for being paranoid and brutal: he had even had some of his own children killed because he was afraid they would steal his throne. So when Herod “inquired” about when the star appeared, and when and where the Messiah was to be born, he was trying to “ascertain exactly” – and not with the purpose of worshiping Jesus.

So when the Wise Men followed God’s instructions to go home by another road, Herod – in his paranoia and fury – ordered all the male babies in the Bethlehem region two years old and under to be killed. Can you imagine being a parent in Bethlehem in those days? Can you imagine being one of Herod’s soldiers, and having to carry out that order? Matthew only mentions the children very briefly; but they have been remembered by the church ever since. Their ‘saint day’ is December 28, the day of the Holy Innocents, and they are considered to be the first Christian martyrs.

So Jesus might have been a year old, maybe as old as two, when the Wise Men arrived.  He survived because God warned Joseph to take his family to Egypt before Herod gave his horrible order.

Before we leave this scene let me point out a contrast between the people who should have been welcoming the Messiah and the foreigners who found him. God’s people – Herod, the scribes, the Pharisees – should have been thrilled to hear that the Messiah was finally coming in their lifetime. They had been watching and waiting for hundreds of years! But instead they focused on fear, oppression, and murder. Meanwhile, people who had never read the Old Testament, who knew little about the God of Israel, came to see Jesus with an attitude of acceptance, love, justice, and worship. Jesus’ whole life would be like this: he would be loved by foreigners – Samaritans and Syrophoenicians and others; and he would be killed by the leaders of his own people.

Regarding the gifts the Wise Men brought: First I found it interesting that the Greek Bible mentions the Wise Men having huge treasure chests containing all kinds of gifts fit for both a king and God. These chests in Greek are called thesauri – which is the word we get thesaurus from (a ‘treasure chest of words’ so to speak). And out of these thesauri the Wise Men presented to Jesus:

  • Gold – for a King
  • Incense – representing prayer, for a God
  • Myrrh – a perfume often used in embalming or at funerals

gifts

Having presented these gifts to Jesus, and having greeted Mary and Joseph, and having shared the story of their journey, the Wise Men headed home. But having been warned in a dream, they did not go back by way of Jerusalem or Herod. They went home another way, by another road. Which other road is (looking at a map) a little puzzling, and it’s a question Google can’t answer; but one thing becomes clear: obeying God’s command made their long journey considerably longer.

So coming back to the close of our Close to Home journey: Where does this leave us? Do we need, or want, to go home by another way?

Quite honestly in this day and age it’s a challenge just to get home. It’s easy to lose sight of which direction our heavenly home is. So as far as heading home by another way, I would say we might do this under the following conditions:

  • We are certain that God is God: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God and Father of Jesus. There is no other God, and Jesus is the only way.
  • If God tells us to go another way. The Wise Men were “warned by a dream to go home another way”. If we receive heavenly direction: a clear, unmistakable message from God, then we need to follow it.
    • If God does tell us to travel a different road, this new road might easily:
      1. add mileage
      2. not make sense to us at the time
      3. be a matter of life and death
  • We do not, however, want to go home another way if:
    1. God isn’t directing it, or if we’re not clear on God’s direction
    2. If we’re just craving novelty – we’re getting bored and want to try something new
    3. If a course change would lead us away from God or into breaking God’s commandments

The wisdom of the Wise Men is that they chose to obey God rather than human authority – which is something the early disciples also did in the book of Acts (Acts 5:29). The story of the Wise Men teaches us that Jesus is THE true King. The Wise Men could have conspired with King Herod; they could have enriched themselves by betraying Jesus; but they knew Jesus was the greater King and deserved the greater loyalty. It was worth more to the Wise Men to know the baby Jesus than to know King Herod.

Think for a moment: if we were given a choice between going to dinner at the White House or presenting a gift to a poor woman’s baby – which would we choose? The Wise Men chose wisely.

The wisdom of the Wise Men is also found in that they studied together, traveled together, worshipped together, and interpreted God’s signs and God’s dreams together. They were moving together. They were of one heart and mind.

The Wise Men traveled over 1000 miles to meet Jesus. They risked their lives to meet Jesus. And when they finally met Jesus, they were full of joy. They had found what the one they were looking for. They had found the one whose birth the stars announced. They were overjoyed “with exceeding great joy” Matthew says.

The Wise Men challenge us to be willing to risk much; to be willing to make this baby king more important than all the kings and rulers of this world. The Wise Men challenge us to put Jesus first in every way and over every thing. Let’s take this wisdom into the New Year. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven UMC and Spencer UMC, January 2, 2022

          “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness– on them light has shined.  3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.  4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.  5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.  6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” – Isaiah 9:2-7

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

          In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  3 All went to their own towns to be registered.  4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

             8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,  14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

              15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”  16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.  17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;  18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.  19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.  20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. – Luke 2:1-20

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Merry Christmas!!!  On Christmas Eve I always feel like I’m skidding in, breathless, like a baseball player sliding into home plate. But we made it!

For those who are visiting tonight: for the past month we as a congregation have been working our way through an Advent/Christmas series called Close to Home.  This evening the theme of the lesson is “Invited Home” – so even if this isn’t your usual church home, you are most welcome here.

We gather again on Christmas Eve to hear the familiar and much-loved story of the birth of Jesus: to hear about Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds and the angels, and the fact that there was no room for them in the inn, so Jesus had to be laid in a manger.

Our scripture reading tonight from Isaiah tells us who this baby really is. Isaiah says:

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.” (Is. 9:6-7)

That’s a pretty tall order for a newborn baby! But in case we should doubt it, the angels appear to the shepherds and enhance Isaiah’s words with their own words. They say: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)

This isn’t just one more cute little baby in a world full of cute babies. This is God Himself!

It’s a lot to take in – but the shepherds got it. They caught on right away and ran to where Mary and Joseph were, to see for themselves. And Mary pondered everything in her heart, as she nursed her baby boy.

We also are invited to enter in, to gaze at this amazing sight and take it all in. This is Christmas!

Just out of curiosity, as I was getting ready for tonight’s service, I decided to Google “Christmas Eve” to find out what non-churchgoing people are talking about regarding Christmas – what’s the buzz?

The most-asked question about Christmas on Google was: “what should I wear on Christmas Eve?” When I entered that question into Google, Google gave me 270 million web pages as a result. More than that actually: Google basically said “here’s the first 270 million, click here if you want more…”

What should I wear on Christmas Eve?

Here’s what I decided to wear. This is one of those things that… you know how you go shopping for somebody else and you end up buying something for yourself? This is one of those things. I got these for my sister-in-law and I got two for me. Check it out.

Socks

“Master has given Dobby a sock. Dobby is free.”

Any Harry Potter fans here tonight will know what this means. And for the rest of you (who are probably tired of hearing about Harry Potter) I promise I will move on quickly.  But this line in the movie is one of those moments. It gets you *right here*. In short, the story is this:

In the wizarding world, rich and powerful wizards sometimes have “house elves” who are basically slaves and are very badly treated. One house elf named Dobby becomes friends with Harry Potter, and one day Harry asks him why he always wears the same filthy outfit. And Dobby explains that it is the mark of the house elf – the slave. If his master ever gives him clean clothes, he will be free.

So Harry arranges to have Dobby’s master – without knowing it – hand Dobby a sock hidden in a book. When Harry whispers “open it”, Dobby sees the sock and says, “Master has given Dobby a sock. Master has presented Dobby with clothes. Dobby is free!” (I once saw this in a movie house filled with 5,000 people – and at that moment in the film all 5,000 people leaped to their feet and started cheering. The slave has been set free!)

Watch the scene here.

That’s what we’re seeing tonight in the manger. All of us, human beings, who are slaves to sin, who cannot be perfect no matter how hard we try, have just been set free.  Tonight is our moment! This is the night when we can, spiritually speaking, take off the filthy rags we’ve been wearing and put on clean clothes. This is the night when we are welcomed home – not as visitors but as family.

So going back to the question of what to wear on Christmas Eve: for those who are into fashion, the question is actually not “what are you wearing?” but “Who are you wearing?” (“I’m wearing Gucci, I’m wearing Prada, I’m wearing Stella McCartney…”)

Speaking as someone who has no fashion sense at all, and who was raised on science fiction, the question “who are you wearing?” sounds a little weird. It reminds me of the movie Men In Black, where an alien spends most of the movie wearing an Edgar suit. But what the question really means is “Who is the designer?”

On this holy night, Jesus might have said, “I’m wearing humanity.”  Jesus, who was fully God, co-creator of the universe, King of kings and Lord of lords, put all that aside in order to put on – and become – a human being: limited as we are, except without sin.

Why would Jesus do this? To make it possible for us to wear God.

The apostle Paul explains in Romans chapter 13. In this chapter Paul looks around at the world (which was as much a mess back then as it is now) and he says:

“You know what time it is, that now is the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ… (Romans 13:11-14)

So who are we wearing this Christmas? Are we wearing something the boss said this past week? Are we wearing an argument with a family member? Wouldn’t it be better to put away the filthy rags of a house elf and put on clean clothes and be free?

Some people tonight may be wearing sadness or grief in this holy season. If this is the case, know you are not alone; Jesus has an outfit a lot like yours.

The fact that God has put on humanity and come to the manger makes it possible for us, by faith, to put on Christ and become children of God.

Glory

So who do we want to wear this Christmas and into the coming year?

Why not wear the best?  AMEN

Preached at Carnegie UMC and Fairhaven UMC, Christmas Eve 2021

          “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.  3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel.  4 And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth;  5 and he shall be the one of peace.” – Micah 5:25
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country,  40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.  41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit  42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.  45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

          46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,  47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,  48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;  49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;  53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.  54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,  55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” – Luke 1:39-55

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

We have arrived at the last and final week of Advent! This morning our Advent candle is the candle of Love, and our Close to Home series focuses on “Seeking Sanctuary”. These two things are related, but a person could easily speak for a half-hour on each subject, and I hope to cover both in less time – so hold onto your hats!

Advent 4

I’m going to start with Love today because I’ve preached on love before so we just need a brief overview. First Corinthians 13 – that great chapter on love – tells us what God’s love is like, and gives us something to aim for in our own relationships. The apostle Paul writes those unforgettable words: “love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; love is not irritable or resentful; love does not rejoice in the wrong but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails… In the end only three things remain: faith, hope, and love: and the greatest of these is love.”

I believe if we could live out this one chapter – put these words into practice for an entire lifetime – we would fulfill all the requirements of God’s law and then some. Of course this is impossible for imperfect people, but it’s a goal to shoot for. Besides, it’s a lot easier to memorize I Corinthians 13 than the entire book of Deuteronomy!

This morning we want to remember that God loves each one of us like that. And that’s where our faith really begins.

As we turn to look at sanctuary, we immediately see that sanctuary is – or can be – an expression of love. The Close to Home devotional invites us to think of sanctuary as a form of love: sanctuary defined as a place of quiet, of safety, of rest, a safe haven. And as the devotional says, “Sanctuary is not only a place, it is also people who say “here I am – I’m here for you.””

Taking these two words, then – love and sanctuary – let’s turn to our scripture readings. In Luke’s gospel we see Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, welcoming her relative Mary into her home. Luke tells us that Elizabeth was “filled with the Holy Spirit” – which was a rare thing before the coming of the Holy Spirit in the second chapter of Acts. This puts Elizabeth in the ranks of the prophets.

As we listen to what Elizabeth is saying, bear in mind she is speaking before Mary speaks, and Mary did not call ahead ­or email ahead to tell Elizabeth she was coming. Elizabeth didn’t even know Mary was pregnant. But in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth calls Mary blessed, the mother of our Lord, and says her own baby John is leaping for joy in her womb at hearing the voice of the Mother of the Messiah. And she blesses Mary for believing and trusting what God told her would happen. Then Elizabeth, who loves Mary dearly, gives sanctuary to her young, unmarried, pregnant relative.

Eliz and Mary

As we listen to this story, we may ask “what can we be doing?” The answer to that varies from person to person. But Mary gives us some suggestions when she says: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” In any time and in any place we have faith in God, we can praise God, and we can rejoice in all that God has done.

Moving now into the concept of sanctuary: where it comes to sanctuary, in the words of CS Lewis, this morning I’d like to take us “further up and further in” – starting with a solid definition of the word ‘sanctuary’ and a short history of how it has been used.

The dictionary offers four definitions of the word ‘sanctuary’:  (1) a place of refuge or safety… (2) a place where one is protected (3) a holy place (4) the… holiest part of a church; the altar or high altar. The word ‘sanctuary’ comes from the Latin word sanctus which means holy… or from the Latin word sanctuariam which means sacred place. So the original meaning of the word sanctuary is deeply rooted in the holiness of God.

Seeking sanctuary is something people have done almost for as long as we have written history. Back in the Middle Ages a church’s sanctuary – just like the room we’re sitting in now – was a sacred place where someone accused of breaking the law could go to request sanctuary and mercy.

This practice had its roots in the book of Leviticus [chapter 26]. Back in ancient Israel, when the Israelites moved into the Promised Land and divided the land up between the twelve tribes, God commanded the Israelites to give the Levites – the priestly tribe – six cities to use as cities of refuge – where, if a person accidentally killed someone, they could run to a city of refuge and be safe from capital punishment (which was the law of the land at the time). Even in ancient Israel, as today, the courts recognized a difference between murder (which is deliberate) and manslaughter (which is accidental).

So God created cities of refuge. And in the Middle Ages the churches picked up on this. The Merriam-Webster dictionary says: “Historically, churches have been places where fugitives could seek at least temporary protection from the law. In Anglo-Saxon England [925AD and earlier] churches and churchyards provided 40 days of immunity, and neither the sheriffs nor the army would enter…”

The United States traditionally has had similar practices, not written into law, but respected as tradition. If someone claims sanctuary in a church, most government authorities in America will not challenge the church’s jurisdiction. For this reason, in the 1800s churches were often stops on the Underground Railroad. In the 1980s churches gave sanctuary to people from Central America who were fleeing the wars there.

And in recent years many churches have given sanctuary to people whose lives are in danger and are seeking asylum but have not yet been legally recognized. Just a few of the churches who provided sanctuary in this year of 2021 – and this list comes from the Washington Post and/or Christianity Today (I only had time to check two sources – there were more available):

  • Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in Charlottesville
  • The First Unitarian Church of Denver
  • Unitarian Society of Northampton (Mass)
  • Umstead Park United Church of Christ in Raleigh
  • First English Lutheran Church in Columbus, Ohio
  • New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia

Flores Sanctuary 1st UMC PHilly.jpg

(and here’s another: First United Methodist Church, Arch St., Philadelphia – credit WHYY)

Please understand: when I talk about churches giving sanctuary, this is not about politics. This is about obeying God’s word to take care of strangers and people in need. The church’s practice of giving sanctuary is ancient and time-honored and has its roots in the Old Testament.

By way of illustration I wanted to share with you something that happened a few years ago not far from here. In fact some of you may be aware of it. [Church member] KS was involved, and I’m sharing this with her knowledge and permission.

There was a family who worked and went to school locally: a mom, dad, and three kids, with a fourth one on the way. They were from Central America, and they were here in the country legally. They were in the process of becoming permanent residents and were working to become citizens. The Dad was self-employed, and the mom worked in the family business, and the kids were doing great in school – the older kids often got their pictures in the local school magazine for their schoolwork. One of the younger kids was in K’s preschool class, and the mother was in my English as a Second Language class, and that’s how we all got to know each other. And the mom used to say to me – she’d point to her belly – and she would say “I have an American citizen!” She was so proud to know that her baby, the child who would be born here, would be American (which by the way is one of my favorite laws in our country: anybody who exits the womb on American soil is automatically an American citizen).

One day K called me to say that the Dad of the family had been arrested and taken away by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). They had cuffed him and perp-walked him out of the house into their car in front of all the children – who were understandably distraught – and they took him to a facility for foreign prisoners four hours away.

I could hardly believe what K was telling me. This family are such good people, and they are better at being citizens than a lot of citizens I know! Of course I asked what happened and what we could do.

As the facts became known over the course of a few days, it became clear that the family’s immigration attorney had dropped a ball. I don’t know if it was criminal or just stupidity, but the bottom line was he had failed to file some required paperwork by a given deadline, and as a result the family – literally overnight – had gone from being here in the country legally to being here illegally. Just like that.

K and I kept asking: What can we do? And the answer came back: write letters to the judge – who would be meeting with the Dad in a few days – asking the judge for leniency, asking for a second chance, explaining what good citizens this family would make, asking to let this family stay in the country, and explaining why.  So K and I got as many people to write letters as we possibly could, saying how much we were hoping this family would become citizens, and how hard-working they were, and how amazingly well the children were doing in school, and asking for the father’s release. Which we did. And then we waited.

I’m pleased to say everything worked out in the family’s favor. The Dad was released, things were straightened out, and the young family is still in America working towards citizenship. I haven’t seen them for a while, but K tells me they visited her last Valentine’s Day and brought her some of the kids’ artwork.

I’m glad things worked out this way. But if they hadn’t, this family could have become one more family seeking sanctuary in a church. In fact Pastor M and I talked about which churches the family might approach if it came to that – it was that close.

Taking sanctuary in churches is not something people plan on doing. It happens because people have nowhere else to turn.

When a church offers sanctuary, we bear witness to the world that God’s law is higher than human laws; that God’s mercy is higher than human justice. And this is just one example out of thousands.

Of course the ultimate sanctuary – the holiest of holies – is the Kingdom of God itself. This is the home God creates for all who love him. This is the mansion Jesus said he was going to prepare for us, and that he would come back to take us to. This is the promise that Mary and Elizabeth were so excited about: that Mary’s baby would turn the power structures of this world on their heads, lift up the lowly, and fill the poor and hungry with good things.

Kingdom

It has already started: Mary’s song is both ‘now’ and ‘future’. We live our lives in Advent time, between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’.

But we can be sure of this: our God is a God who not only stands for justice, but whose character defines justice. Our God acts with compassion. Our God not only wipes away our tears but collects every tear in a bottle. Therefore we who love God and follow God are called to go and do the same: to welcome the stranger, and the neighbor, and to say to anyone who needs sanctuary: “in the name of Jesus, I am here for you.” AMEN.

(preached at Fairhaven UMC and Spencer UMC, December 19, 2021

It’s the season for giving! And I want to encourage everyone’s generosity.

I also want to make sure people’s gifts go where people intend them to go.

Holiday cash

During the holiday season, when everyone is celebrating and buying gifts, it’s a fundraiser’s favorite time of year. People want to give at the holidays, especially to their favorite nonprofit organizations.

Unfortunately scammers know this too, and con artists crawl out of the woodwork this time of year.

A few tips to avoid charity scams:

  • Don’t let anyone pressure you into giving. Any legitimate organization will still be there tomorrow
  • Watch out for phony caller ID’s
  • Watch out for misspellings of the charity’s name
  • Don’t give gift cards as donations (unless to a food bank or church)
  • Don’t give via Western Union or other wire transfers

All this is fairly common information.

What I wanted to add to the usual advice are some proactive giving tips gathered from watching how foundations work.

Foundations are organizations created to give away large amounts of money. They are often sponsored by large corporations and sometimes by very wealthy individuals or families.

A foundation is directed by its founder(s) to give money in areas the founder values. For example, the goal of Microsoft Philanthropies is to enhance peoples’ lives through technology.

So think of yourself as a very small foundation. Like the larger foundations, you have a certain amount of money you can budget to give away each year. You also have causes that you believe in. And like a foundation, it helps to set goals. For example, “I would like to support the arts in a 50-mile radius of my home” or “I would like to help give children an education.” (It’s OK to have more than one goal – many foundations do!)

decor3

Then it’s a matter of matching your goals to organizations requesting funds. With a foundation, organizations send in a grant proposal asking for money. Everyday people usually just receive a letter in the mail requesting money and an envelope to send it in.

Take a look at which letters describe charities that match your goals and priorities. Maybe run some Google searches in your area(s) of interest. There may be only a few charities that match your goals, or there may be dozens and you’ll need to whittle down the list. Decide how you want to spread out your donation budget among the different envelopes, then write your checks. And you may want to set aside a little bit of cash for “mad money” donations later in the year.

The benefit to this process is that (like foundations) you’ll find you’re able to give more than you usually do, and your money accomplishes more because it’s better targeted.

Something to think about, and maybe to try. If you do let me know how you like this approach!

Advent 3 * Joy: A Home for All

          “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!  15 The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.  16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.  17 The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing  18 as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it.  19 I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.  20 At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.”Zephaniah 3:14-20 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

          “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,  2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,  4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;  6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”

7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”  11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?”  13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”  14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,  16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” – Luke 3:1-18 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Welcome to Week Three of our Advent series Close to Home!  This week’s focus in our series is “A Home for All” and the theme for the week is Joy. But as we listen to the two scripture readings for today, they almost seem to be saying opposite things: The Old Testament lesson in Zephaniah is full of joy; but John the Baptist’s message in Luke sounds harsh.

John the Baptist

Which of these scriptures is pointing to the truth? And which is more truly “A Home for All”? The answer is… both.  As the British theologian George MacDonald once said, God’s mercy and God’s justice are not opposites, but one and the same. If God’s kingdom, our home, is going to come, then we need to hear John the Baptists’ warnings, because his job is to “prepare the way” for the coming of the King. At the same time, when people are struggling, when day-to-day life isn’t easy, Zephaniah’s words of God’s favor are encouraging and we need to hear them.

Let’s take a closer look. In fact, actually, let me start at the end and work backwards, historically speaking, and start with Luke.

Luke’s gospel gives information on where and when John the Baptist’s ministry and prophecy takes place. (By contrast Matthew’s gospel would seem more peaceful and homelike.) Luke’s gospel almost sounds like we’re hearing the evening news.

As we enter into John the Baptist’s story, Luke begins by telling us this is the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberias, which puts us somewhere around the year 29AD. (John the Baptist was preaching and teaching for a few years before Jesus began his public ministry at the age of thirty, which was somewhere in the early 30’s AD.)

Tiberius

The rest of the historical information Luke gives us is like a shorthand that people of the time would have understood. It’s kind of like saying “back when Nixon was President” – which for us would immediately bring to mind Vietnam, Watergate, and so forth. When Luke says “Tiberius was emperor, in the 15th year of his reign” people back then would automatically have thought of a leader who was in trouble. Tiberius had problems with the Senate, and he was paranoid about the possibility of being assassinated, and shortly before John the Baptist came on the scene, Tiberius basically walked away from Rome, leaving a few managers of controversial character in his place. So the political scene in Rome was unstable at best – and it certainly was not a good time to be announcing the coming of a rival king!

Meanwhile, Luke says, Pontius Pilate was the Roman praefect ruling Judea, and Herod Antipas was a puppet king in Galilee. (Just to be clear – because the scriptures mention the various members of the Herod family in the next few chapters and verses, and it gets confusing because the Gospel writers assume we know who they’re talking about.) The Herod who was king when Jesus was born, and who killed all the babies in an attempt to get rid of the Messiah, was ‘Herod the Great’. He died shortly after Jesus was born. When he passed, his kingdom was divided between his four children into what they called a “tetrarchy” (tetra = ‘four’, archy = ‘kingdom’) and we will meet these children in various scripture passages. They were: Herod Antipas in Galilee; Herod Archelaus in Samaria; Philip to the northeast, whose wife Herod Antipas took; and their sister Salome in what is today the West Bank and Gaza.

All that information is packed into – or at least assumed – in the first few verses in Luke!

Then Luke starts telling the story: John the Baptist came into the wilderness, and was preaching to the people about their need to repent and get ready for the coming of the Lord. As always, the word ‘repent’ doesn’t mean ‘you sinner you’ – it means ‘change course’ or ‘change direction’. Turn away from selfish actions and motives, and turn toward God, and be baptized as a symbol of repentance and the washing away of sins.

So the people came from all areas around: Galilee, Judea, the coastal regions; and they would come and confess their sins to John and be baptized in the Jordan River.

Jordan Baptisms today

(photo: Baptisms in the Jordan today)

John also did some preaching in between the baptisms. I have to confess I have never heard any preacher begin a sermon with the words “you brood of vipers”! I’m not sure how that would go over on a Sunday – but somehow John got away with it. It got peoples’ attention.

John was preaching that (a) the Lord is coming, and the Lord is not happy with the way people are running things here on earth; (b) God’s people need to bear spiritual fruit; and (c) we need to not rest on our religious laurels. Just because the people of Israel were descendants of Abraham did not mean they were automatically on God’s good side – any more than, today, going to church makes a person a Christian. We need to bear fruit that shows who we belong to.

When John talks about ‘bearing good fruit’ he isn’t necessarily talking about being successful or accomplishing things. Spiritual fruit can come with success or accomplishments; but the fruit of the Spirit has little to do with the things of this world. The fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and so forth – are not material things. In fact they’re not even necessarily practical. They won’t get you anywhere, they won’t land you a job, or get you a house, or win friends or influence people. But to bear good fruit is to do what we were created to do, and to be who God created us to be.

As John preaches these things the crowds begin to ask him, “what should we do then?” and John gives them some examples: if you have two of something – like a coat or a sweater – give one to someone who doesn’t have any. If you have more food than someone else, share it. He said to the tax collectors (and, I assume, anybody else whose job it is to collect money) – collect no more than what’s owed. Don’t charge extras. And John said to the soldiers (and, I assume, any others in power such as police, lawyers, judges) don’t take money from people by false accusation or by threats; be content with your wages. Bottom line, whoever we are, and wherever we are, we’re not to grasp for “more” at the expense of others. This includes even those who might say “but I’m not rich” – the point is, no matter what we have, we need to share what we have.

The Close to Home study for this week takes this teaching a little further. It says: “Instead of accumulating, share with others what you have. Instead of being indifferent or selfish, show consideration and compassion. Instead of taking advantage or preying on the vulnerable, be satisfied with what you have and treat others fairly and with dignity. . . even if you work for the empire.” (Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri)

So pretty much across the board, John the Baptist is saying share as much as possible of whatever we have that’s extra. And when we get down to it, God has blessed us very richly. If we do all these things, we are helping to create a place that feels like home for all: a place that is a reflection of, and has the nature of, our heavenly home that is to come.

When John taught all these things, it filled the people who were listening with a sense of expectation. They felt in their hearts something BIG was about to happen. In spite of the fact that John’s words sounded a little  rough and his camel-hair outfit was rough, the people received his words as Good News.

And John gives the people even more good news. He tells the people about the coming of the Holy Spirit. Most likely most of the people listening to John would not have heard of the Holy Spirit, or would not have thought much about the Holy Spirit, because at that point in time the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost hadn’t yet happened. In order for God’s Spirit to be poured out on all God’s people, Jesus would have to go through the crucifixion and resurrection. So we’re pre-Pentecost here. In Old Testament times only certain people were ‘filled with God’s Spirit’ – usually prophets – but John is prophesying that the Holy Spirit will now come to all of God’s people – that we would all know the Spirit, and we would all be able to commune with God directly and hear God’s voice directly.

Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is often symbolized by a dove

The Holy Spirit would work in us, John said, just like fire – purging and cleaning out all the old stuff and making room where God could work in us and live with us.

The apostle Peter gives more detail about this in his letter to the early believers. He says in I Peter 1:7 that as we pass through various difficulties in life, our faith, combined with the Holy Spirit, will be “refined as if by fire” and “will result in praise, and glory, and honor when Jesus is revealed”. When he says this, Peter means praise and glory and honor for us when Jesus is revealed. God will use every difficulty, every negative thing in our lives, to get all the gunk out of our souls so we can shine in glory.  Our job is to trust and to encourage each other with these words.

As the folks from Close to Home say: “John the Baptist’s good news sounds harsh, but… ultimately John’s message is one of joy.”

Which brings us to Zephaniah’s prophecy. This prophecy is a message of total joy!  “Rejoice and exult” he says “with all your heart – the Lord has taken away the judgements against you. Fear disaster no more.”

“Fear disaster no more.” – imagine the effect those words would have on the women of Afghanistan… on the people of Myanmar… on the people of Haiti… or the Ukraine… or the peoples of Africa… or the peoples of color in our own country… or even the people downcast and deeply saddened by this pandemic.

Zephaniah says: “The Lord has turned away your enemies… the Lord gives you victory… the Lord exults over you with singing!” This kind of joy is not quiet or dignified – it is heartfelt and free.

How often do we think of God as rejoicing? How often do we picture God singing? (Leonard Bernstein, the late great conductor, once said he didn’t believe that God said ‘let there be light’ – he believes God sang it.)

He rejoices

God is not, as the old song says, “watching us from a distance”. God is, as the old prophet says, “rejoicing over us the way a bridegroom rejoices over his bride.” And we rejoice together in our God.

This is our home – and it truly is a home for all, a home where all are invited and all are welcome.

God doesn’t stop there. As Zephaniah continues, God says to us: “I will make you renowned” – that is famous! – and I will make you praised among all the peoples of the earth… and I will restore your fortunes,” says the Lord.

For all of God’s people everywhere, Zephaniah says: “God will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love.” Picture that, imagine that. God will rejoice over you. God will lavish his love all over you. Can you think of anything better than that?

This is our joy. This is our forever-home. It’s a home for everyone who says ‘yes’ to God. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 12/12/21

       “I thank my God every time I remember you,  4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you,  5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.  6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.  7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.  8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.  9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight  10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless,  11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” – Philippians 1:3-11

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son.  58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.  59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father.  60 But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.”  61 They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.”  62 Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him.  63 He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed.  64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.  65 Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea.  66 All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:  68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.  69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,  70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,  71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.  72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant,  73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us  74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear,  75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.  76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,  77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.  78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,  79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”  80 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.”Luke 1:57-80

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Today begins the second week of Advent (already!) and we are well on our way to Christmas. In case you missed last week, we have started an Advent series called Close To Home that features a collection of home-related texts, artwork, and songs for the Advent season.

Advent

Last week the focus was on Homesickness, which talked about the feeling of being homesick on a number of different levels, and the fact that there are so many people in our world today who are far from home in one way or another – people we can reach out to with the welcome of Christ. There are also people who are home who feel homesick in other ways, like missing loved ones or missing family get-togethers.

Last week I shared with the other churches my own feelings of homesickness that I experienced a few years ago, after Mom passed and Dad came down with what would be his final illness. I’ve lived in Pittsburgh since 1976 but I was born and raised in Philadelphia, and about five years ago I was feeling homesick for Philadelphia in the worst way. I wanted to be part of the sights and sounds and smells of that noisy, crowded city just one more time. But when I went there I found the city quiet. The stores were almost deserted, Reading Terminal (the old train station) was gone, and there wasn’t much traffic either in cars or on foot. It was a little spooky. So I bought a cheese-steak from a street vendor (thank God the street vendors were still there!) and sat down to wonder what on earth had happened to my hometown.

Of course we all know it’s the passage of time. Things don’t stay the same. I don’t think what I was feeling was nostalgia, so much as it was just wanting to go home again, and coming to the realization that home isn’t there any more. Not the way I remember it anyway.

People here in Pittsburgh feel the same way about Kaufmann’s clock and Jenkins Arcade. It’s not that we want to go back to living in the 1960s. It’s just that home – as we remember it – isn’t there any more.

The thing is, for those of us who know and love Jesus, home does not lie behind us but in front of us. Back 1500 years ago, St. Augustine said “we are restless until we find our rest in thee” – and that’s really what it boils down to. As Christians we are not going back home, we are going forward home. That’s what Advent is all about. That’s the foundation.

Speaking of foundations, this week our Advent focus is on Laying the Foundation. My husband the carpenter could tell us all about the importance of laying a solid foundation.

Foundation

A good foundation takes time and thought and planning. In this week’s readings we see God, the master builder, laying the foundation for our salvation and for our forever-home. And now, finally, the building has begun and progress is being made!

Our heavenly home – the Kingdom of God – has been in the process of being built for some time. The building began when God created the heavens and the earth; but in a metaphorical sense, the first chapters of Genesis were more like getting the deed to the land. The actual building begins with the people of Israel, as Zechariah says in our passage from Luke today:

“[God] has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old…” (Luke 1:69-70)

This foundation has been in the process of being laid for four thousand years if not longer. Like any master builder, God takes time. God builds a family from the descendants of Abraham; God defines how to be the family of God by giving the laws of Moses. (The Greek word for this BTW is oikonomos – literally the “law of the house” – which is where we get our word economy from.)

God also includes plans for a redeemer who will come from the house of David; and God sends prophets to let God’s people know what the plans are and what to expect. For example in Micah 5:2 the prophet says:

“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”

Here in our reading from Luke for today, Zechariah is saying the time has come.  The home God is building will be a place where God’s people are redeemed. It will be a place where God’s people will be saved from enemies and anyone who hates us. It will be a place where God’s mercy can be found, where God’s people can serve God without fear, where God’s people will be holy and righteous and above all, saved from sin. It will be a place of light and peace and love.

When Zechariah says all these things, his neighbors’ jaws hit the floor. It’s important to hear what Luke is saying here about the neighborhood: when Luke says John and Elizabeth’s neighbors and relatives were witnesses to these events, he’s pointing out that these things didn’t happen in a vacuum. They didn’t happen in the privacy of someone’s house. The whole community is present. The whole community is witness. The word Luke uses in Greek is perioikoi which literally translates “anybody who had houses nearby”! Nothing was done quietly or in secret. The events of John the Baptist’s birth were very public, and the prophecy was talked about through the whole neighborhood. Luke says people were “amazed” and “fear came over all their neighbors” and news of these events spread – using whatever the people of those days used instead of Facebook – and reached all the way “to the hill country of Judea”.  Everyone who heard it asked “what will this child become?”

Neighborhood

What will this child become? His father, Zechariah, said John would become “the prophet of the Most High” who would “go before the Lord to prepare his ways and to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sins.”

This was talked about all around the region. What I wonder – and what the Bible doesn’t tell us – is how much of all this people remembered 25 or 30 years later when John began his public ministry. Did they remember the miracles that took place at his birth? Did they remember the miracle of Zechariah being able to speak again? Were people still watching to see what this child would become? Or had all that cycled out of the news by then and been forgotten? I’ve often wondered the same thing about Jesus: after all the angels and shepherds and wise men had gone home, how many people remembered these events 30 years later?

I raise these questions because often times things that happened in our lives 20, 30, 40 years ago – things having to do with God – should be remembered and talked about.  For some of us maybe it was a trip to a church camp, maybe it was a time that we went forward to say “yes” to God, or maybe it was a time in nature when we sensed God’s presence, maybe it was something we read that changed how we see things. Whatever it was, these things are important – they are part of the foundation God builds in our lives, and they should be remembered.

But back to Luke’s gospel. This is where the Christmas story begins: with the fulfillment of prophecy, with the fulfillment of God’s promises, and with work progressing on God’s blueprint.

But… all these things in Luke’s gospel happened 2000 years ago. When we look around at our world right now, and what a mess it is, and how much the churches and people of faith are struggling, people are starting to wonder what happened to that blueprint? Where are the heavenly construction workers? Why does it seem that progress on our heavenly home has slowed to a crawl?

This is where the rubber meets the road with our Christian faith. Two thousand years ago Jesus came to earth. Two thousand years ago Jesus lived and died for us to open the door to God’s kingdom – as Zechariah said: “God has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them…”. Two thousand years ago Jesus died on the cross, fulfilling the words of John the Baptist, who “[gave] us knowledge of salvation… by the forgiveness of sins.”

And ever since then we’ve been waiting. Empires have come and gone… kings have been born and died… wars have been fought… thousands of years have passed… and still we wait.

Waiting

As one theologian recently pointed out, our faith in God’s promises – our trust in God’s promises – is what makes us Christian. Even though 2000 years later the world is still a mess, and the quest for greed and power still rules history and human life, and tragedies still happen all too frequently.

Luke’s gospel can too easily be read or heard with a sentimental holiday glow about them. It’s important to keep his words in context. Zechariah’s prophecy was spoken to a people whose nation was occupied by a foreign army, and was ruled over by a family of collaborators (the Herod family), where everyday life was a struggle just to find food and to stay healthy.

It is into this world that Zechariah speaks God’s promises. Into our world.

In Luke’s gospel, God’s promises are accompanied by miracles. Zechariah and Elizabeth, like many prophets before them, had been unable to have a child after trying for decades. And when they finally are told by God they will have a baby, Zechariah doesn’t believe it! So God tells him “you won’t speak again until you give this child his name” – and it happens exactly that way. All the circumstances around John’s birth are so extraordinary that the neighborhoods are buzzing for miles around.

The words Zechariah speaks will remind everyone who listens what God has done: God has sent prophets over the centuries; God has raised up David as king, and David’s family as the royal line; God has saved the people from enemies; God has shown mercy even in times of rebellion; God has given his people a covenant of love and faithfulness. And then Zechariah adds what God will do: God will save the people from their sins, God will show mercy, God will bring light to those in darkness, God will guide us into peace.

Those of us who have been attending the Zoom Bible study have been sharing insights about the meanings of names in the Bible. Zechariah is another to add to the list. His name means “God remembers.” And isn’t that really what we want to know? We want to be assured that God remembers us and sees what’s going on around us, and is still working.

the-god-who-remembers 2

One of the great mysteries of God’s plan is that salvation comes to us not by power but by forgiveness of sins. Jesus never promised to give us military or political victory – as another prophet by the name of Zechariah once said, “not by might, not by power, but by My Spirit, says the Lord.” Forgiveness opens the door of our hearts to God’s Spirit.

God’s plan is not just to save us: it’s to save us from and to save us to.  We are to be saved from sin, and death, and hate, and enemies. We are to be saved to mercy, and holiness, and righteousness, and peace.

In God’s kingdom these aren’t just words, they’re actions. The Holy Spirit makes these things real in our lives. And then, as we begin to find each other, and share, and gather into communities and into congregations, all of a sudden there’s a different way of “being” in the world. It’s not the kingdom come just yet, but it’s a sign of the kingdom, a sign of the kingdom that is most certainly coming.

In the meantime we still live in this dark world. We live in the “valley of the shadow of death” as King David put it – but we fear no evil, for God is with us. Emmanuel, God with us. God’s Son our Saviour Jesus is making the way and speaking hope into our dark world. The light of Advent has entered in. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 12/5/21

Advent 1: Homesick/Close to Home

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?  10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you.  12 And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.  13 And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

Luke 21:25-36

[Jesus said:] “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.  28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29 Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees;  30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.  31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.  32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.  33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34 “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.  36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The leadership of the South Hills Partnership have come up with something a little different for Advent and Christmas this year. Our Advent series is not the usual book study or thematic teaching, but rather rests on an overarching concept: Close To Home.

Close to Home is a an appropriate concept for this time of year because so many people think about home over the Christmas holidays.  For some of us ‘home’ brings warm thoughts and memories; but for others ‘home’ brings painful memories. And for some, the holidays might mean being alone when we would rather not be. Advent and Christmas bring us into times and traditions that can be tender and vulnerable.

Home

Advent and Christmas also touch on the “already-but-not-yet-ness” of our faith. We believe that Jesus has come; we believe that God’s kingdom is here; but this earth is not yet what God has designed it to be.

With all these things in mind, the authors of Close to Home have come up with some house-related and home-related discussion topics for the next few Sundays. This week we start with the concept of Homesickness. It’s a dark place to start a holiday season, but it’s appropriate for the season and for the scriptures of the day.

The season of Advent begins in darkness: we have the darkness of the shortest days of the year; and we have the darkness of the world before the Light of Christ comes. You know the old saying: it’s always darkest just before dawn. That’s where we’re starting this week.

As we head into Advent, we do so in a world that is not as it should be.  So when we feel homesick, what are we longing for? Isn’t it the hope of what Jesus’ return will bring? Isn’t it the love that the apostle Paul describes in the reading from Thessalonians, when he says “how can we thank God enough for you”?  Isn’t it God that we’re longing for – because where God is, is home?

It may not seem like that to us though, at least not at first. It might seem like home is a place we miss; or home may be a person or a group of people we miss. But we come from God – we were created by God – and we are restless until we are with God, because God knows us and loves us. As St. Augustine said around 1600 years ago, “Lord, Thou hast made us for thyself, and our heart is restless till it finds its rest in Thee.”

But it may not seem like that to us here on this earth right this very minute. We may still feel homesick for any number of reasons and for any number of things.

Personally I was feeling homesick around five or six years ago. I came down with a really bad case of homesickness for my hometown of Philadelphia. Mind you, I am a Pittsburgher. I moved to Pittsburgh in 1976 and I am a native in all the ways that matter. But I was remembering my childhood back in the 1960s, when Mom used to take us kids to downtown Philly. We would get dressed up – because one never wore jeans into the city back then – and we would take a train into Reading Terminal.

The Old Reading Terminal

Mom would hold our hands really tight because there were so many people around: it was shoulder-to-shoulder, packed, noisy, grimy, smelly, exciting! We might go shopping at Wanamaker’s (Philly’s answer to Kaufmann’s) or get food from a street vendor. And the city was just buzzing: wall-to-wall people, wall-to-wall traffic!

And I wanted so badly to be in that crowd just one more time.

So I took a train into the city from Dad’s place out in the suburbs. I discovered the trains don’t go to Reading Terminal anymore – Reading Terminal has been made into a convention center with an open-air market on the street level. So I took a taxi to Wanamaker’s – and the store was almost empty. There was, thank goodness, a street vendor outside the store who was selling cheesesteaks, and I bought one.

Philly Cheesesteak

I walked east to the old Reading Terminal building – stunned at how easily miles of train tracks could be made to disappear. I walked a little further, down to the old Lit Brothers (Philly’s answer to Horne’s) and like Horne’s the building was still there, designated a historic landmark, but with other tenants now. And like Horne’s, the store’s original brass signs were still on the outside walls. One of them over the door (which I had never noticed before) read “Hats Trimmed Free of Charge” – which made me ponder: how does one “trim” a hat?  (One of the great mysteries of life, I suppose.)

Hats Trimmed

As I was thinking about this, I suddenly noticed I was only one of maybe three or four people on the entire city block. And the blocks around me weren’t any busier. In fact the street was quiet. And even though I knew I was only a few blocks away from the groups of tourists around the Liberty Bell, I got nervous and turned around and walked back to the Reading Terminal Market as fast as I could, and found a safe place to sit down and eat my cheesesteak.

Reading Term Market

The cheesesteak was good. But what on earth had happened to my city?

Time.

I don’t think of this as nostalgia. I wasn’t looking for a ‘blast from the past’. What I wanted was a touch of home – and I discovered that home as I remember it isn’t there any more. (Except for the cheesesteaks.)

When people here in Pittsburgh talk about “meeting under the Kaufmann’s clock”… or the wooden escalators in the department stores… or Jenkins Arcade and all the wonderful people who used to work there… it’s not that we want to turn the clock back, it’s that we would like, just for a moment, to go home.

The thing is, as Christians, as people of God, home doesn’t lie behind us. Home lies ahead of us.

I do hope God in His mercy will allow us to carry a few memories of our earthly homes with us. But ultimately we are not ‘going back home,’ we are going forward home.

In the meantime we live our lives in a season of Advent. We wait together: sometimes in silence, sometimes in prayer, sometimes in sharing, sometimes in working. We walk together through life’s storms and we share life’s joys. We watch children grow; we watch the pages on the calendar flip by faster with every passing year. And we remark to each other how fast time is flying.

My old pastor used to say that the fact that we’re amazed at how fast the years go by is proof that we were created for eternity. I believe that.

Jesus’ prophecy that we read in Luke’s gospel has the effect of making us homesick for heaven. We already see people in our world fainting from fear; we already see signs in the heavens and distresses on the earth. We wonder if the time might be drawing near. We wonder just how close eternity is.

Jesus tells us it’s like watching a fig tree sprout leaves. When the leaves appear you know summer is near! And every gardener knows the joy of that sight because it means fresh fruit won’t be far behind.

In the same way, when we see Jesus’ words coming true, we lift up our heads because redemption is near.

Jesus tells us: stay awake, stay alert. Don’t get weighed down by the cares of this life.

Homesickness for things of this earth can weigh us down if we let them. They can leave us depressed, sad, and worried; and they can lower our defenses, both emotionally and physically. When I was wandering around Philadelphia that day, by myself, with no place to go and nobody knowing where I was, that was not safe.

In the same way, wandering through life with no particular goal in mind is not a safe thing. We need to stay focused. Like the people Paul was writing to, we need to stay close to others who are heading in the same direction. We need the fellowship, we need the support, we need love from fellow believers. We need what Paul is talking about. We need people who encourage us to be our best, to do our best, to keep on keeping on with God.

As God’s people, we have a home. We have a future.

Going Home 2

I want to close with this hopeful quotation from a pastor in Minnesota (David Lose, Senior Pastor, Mount Olivet Lutheran Church, Minn MN) He wrote:

“From Moses to Martin Luther King, Jr., history is full of examples of those who, because they had been to the mountaintop, had peered into the promised land, and had heard and believed the promise of a better future, found the challenges of the present not only endurable, but hopeful. We, too, amid the very real setbacks, disappointments, or worries of this life, can “stand up and raise [our] heads” because we have heard Jesus’ promise that our “redemption draws near.”

Advent is here… and we are on our way home.

AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 11/28/21

Who’s In Charge Here?

“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne,  5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood,  6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.  7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.  8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” – Revelation 1:4-8

“Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”  35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”  36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”  37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”” – John 18:33-37

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Do you ever look around you and wonder who’s in charge on this planet? Who exactly is running this show?

Our immediate reaction might be to say “God is of course!” If we look around at nature – at the fall colors in the trees, at the creeks and the seas, and feel the crisp air that we know will carry snowflakes very soon – it seems clear that God is in charge. No human being could ever duplicate the beauty of nature. Only God could have created a planet where everything works so well together: crops and animals and ecosystems and human beings all supporting each other and all interdependent on each other.

On the other hand, if we walk into our cities, our towns, our neighborhoods, we often see people who are homeless or hungry, lonely or lost, sick or in pain. And we know that people are hurting because something has gone wrong in this world – things have gone wrong with the world of work (or the lack of it), with health and wellness (or lack of it), with integrity in businesses (or the lack of it), even with help from our government (or the lack of it). And watching the news – which is something I recommend only in moderation – reminds me of the old Pink Floyd song from Dark Side of the Moon:

“The lunatics are in the hall
The lunatics are in my hall
The paper holds their folded faces to the floor
And every day the paperboy brings more…”  (Brain Damage, Pink Floyd, 1973)

…and they wrote that nearly 50 years ago! Things haven’t changed much.

So who exactly is in charge here?

As we look at our scriptures for today – from Revelation, and especially from the Gospel of John – the question boils down to one of two options: either Jesus is in charge, or Caesar is in charge.

Christ the King1

Taking a look first at the passage from Revelation, the apostle John opens his letter by sending greetings in the name of Jesus. He then describes God the Father as “the one who is and who was and who is to come”. God is also described in verse eight as “the alpha and the omega” – the first and the last.  It should go without saying that no earthly person or power could make this claim and still be considered sane. Only God lives forever, so only God is capable of being in charge forever.

John then talks about Jesus, the Messiah, God’s Son, the faithful witness. The Greek word for ‘witness’ is martyr, and that double meaning is deliberate. Jesus is “the firstborn of the dead.” Jesus has defeated death. And again, this is something that no-one else can claim and be considered sane. Jesus is given the title “ruler of the kings of the earth,” which puts Jesus in charge.

When Jesus returns – as he is prophesied to do in Revelation – everything on earth will be set right.  Revelation says Jesus’ followers will become “a new kingdom of priests” who will serve God and be holy people in God’s new community.

So the Kingdom of God is for real. God and Jesus are ultimately in charge even though the kingdom is not entirely visible yet. We live by faith in a world of the-now-and-the-not-yet.

There’s a problem though: power is not always understood or experienced as a good thing in our world. Many people on this earth have suffered under powers that mistreat or abuse – and to understand God as being ‘in charge’ through power can be a conflicting thought. Far too many people have only known power in its corrupted forms.

For this reason ‘Christ the King Sunday’ sometimes makes people feel uncomfortable. I hope this morning to be able to set that unease to rest. Jesus does not represent an ‘alternate empire’ where the kind of power we’re used to here on earth switches from human hands to God’s hands. Just the opposite: as Revelation says, Jesus “loves us and frees us from our sins.” Jesus is the antidote to abuses of authority.

We were made by God for an eternity with God, who created us and loves us. How do we know this? Scripture tells us God is love. Love is so much a part of God’s nature that if God stopped loving, God would stop being God. Just like there’s no such thing as fire that isn’t hot, there is no such thing as God that isn’t love.

So taking this reality from Revelation and throwing its light onto the conversation between Jesus and Pilate in John’s Gospel, we begin to see how this works out in reality, in daily life.

Christ the King East

The apostle John in his Gospel describes for us the scene: the leaders of the Temple have turned Jesus over to Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, with the accusation that “he claims to be a king” – which was a half-truth at best. The Temple leaders wanted to see Jesus crucified, and they knew the only way they could do that would be to get him convicted of a crime against Rome – because only Rome had the authority to crucify.

So the Temple leaders trumped up a charge and accused Jesus of claiming to be a king. This accusation of course would have been considered treason (because Caesar was king) and treason was a crime punishable by crucifixion.

Of course the Temple leaders knew that Jesus’ claim was to be the Messiah, not a secular king. The Messiah predicted in the Old Testament would be both the son of God and the son of David: descended from both God and the royal line, which Jesus was. But many Jews in Jesus’ time expected the Messiah to be a military savior – someone who would kick the Romans out and kick the Greeks out and re-establish the nation-state of Israel.

All of these things were swirling in peoples’ minds; and none of these things had anything to do with what Jesus came to earth to accomplish – which was our salvation. With all this as backdrop, Jesus is taken to Pilate, who asks him: “are you the King of the Jews?”

This question is a bit racist BTW: a Jewish person would have asked, “are you the King of Israel?” The phrase “King of the Jews” was used only by people who looked down on Jews.

So Jesus asked Pilate: “are you asking this of your own accord or did other people tell you about me?” Jesus is giving Pilate, a man who is more pragmatic than truthful, an opportunity to be honest if he chooses to do so.

Pilate comes back with honesty, if a bit rudely. He says: “I’m not a Jew am I?” (as if that’s too low a thing for him to be.) “Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Pilate needs a charge to charge Jesus with, and he wants to get this job over with as quickly as possible.

Jesus answers, “my kingdom is not from this world. If it were my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over… but my kingdom is not from here.”  And again we catch a glimpse of two kinds of kingdoms, two different kinds of authorities: earthly kingdoms, which maintain power through force and violence; and a heavenly kingdom which has a different nature entirely.

If Pilate had been a man of intelligence or curiosity the next logical question would have been “where is your kingdom then, if it’s not from here?” But Pilate doesn’t ask that. Instead he says, “so you are a king?” – which makes a very handy charge against Jesus. Jesus answers him: “you say that I am. I was born and came into this world to testify to the truth; and everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate can’t say he never had his chance. Pilate couldn’t go home that night to his wife (who had suffered in a dream about Jesus the night before) and tell her that he had done what was right.

Pilate looked Truth in the eye and said:

“What is truth?”

That question has echoed down the centuries ever since: both in the sense of ‘what is the truth about Jesus?’ (which is a HUGE question), and in the sense of ‘what is truth?’ period. Does truth even exist? Why is it that even today our news sources can’t agree on the actual facts of events, let alone interpretations? We find ourselves today still asking what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.

And Pilate turned Jesus over to be crucified. In a final act of insult against the Temple leaders, Pilate nailed the charge above Jesus’ head reading, “The King of the Jews” – a deliberate racial slur, mocking the nation Pilate despised – and yet ironically the first truth Pilate had spoken all day.

Christ the Truth

The Cross shows us the power of God cannot be defeated by kings or governors, by jealousy or hate, by prejudice or racism, by lies or corruption or any of the things the Temple leaders AND the Roman Empire brought to bear – and that our society today still brings to bear against Jesus.

The Cross is the final word of the powers of darkness, pain, and death. The Resurrection is God’s answer and Jesus’ victory.

As theology professor Jaime Clark-Sales has said: “Pilate’s rule brings terror, even in the midst of calm; Jesus’ rule brings peace, even in the midst of terror.” That’s the difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world.

For this reason we celebrate today Christ the King, raised from the dead, the faithful witness, who loves us and sets us free, and defeats the powers of darkness “not by might, not by power” but by God’s Spirit.

We celebrate a king who requires our allegiance, who requires that we turn from any other and follow him. We celebrate a king who has compassion on the lost and the hurting, who came to serve rather than be served, who speaks truth and calls us to do the same.

Light does not destroy darkness by violence. Light destroys darkness simply by being light. In the same way Jesus, our King, defeats the powers of sin and death, not with weapons, not by political or economic power, but simply by being who Jesus is: the King of Life and Truth and Love. The darkness cannot stand in the light of Jesus.

This is our king – and today on Christ the King Sunday we look forward to his coronation. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 11/21/21

The Lord Who Hears

“There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite.  2 He had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.

3 Now this man used to go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the LORD of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the LORD.  4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters;  5 but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the LORD had closed her womb.  6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb.  7 So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the LORD, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat.  8 Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the LORD. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the LORD.  10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD, and wept bitterly.  11 She made this vow: “O LORD of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a Nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”

12  As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth.  13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk.  14 So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.”  15 But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD.  16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”  17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.”  18 And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.

19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the LORD; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the LORD remembered her.” – 1 Samuel 1:1-19

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.  2 “There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.  3 Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.  4 The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.  5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.  6 The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.  7 The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.  8 He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world.  9 “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail.  10 The LORD! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.” – 1 Samuel 2:1-10

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Today we have two readings from I Samuel: the first tells the story of Hannah, a woman who was feeling distraught and hopeless in her life circumstances; and the reading is Hannah’s song of joy and victory when God finally hears her prayer and she finds hope.

Hannah

I think these passages fit us well today, because there are a lot of things these days that can make us feel hopeless. The pandemic, for one, has us all on edge. Many of our communities are full of old structures and old institutions that need renewing if not replacing. Our society is full of violence and apathy. And our churches – all of them, of any kind – are struggling and have seen better days. We wonder how to reach out with God’s message to our communities, how to share the good news of Jesus, when people don’t seem to even want to hear it any more.

What does one do when it seems like hope is dead and the future looks bleak? Hannah was a woman in that same spot, who managed to find God and find hope. So I want to share her story this morning.

Hannah was a young woman of the people of Israel. She was married to a wealthy man who believed in God whose name was Elkanah. Hannah’s name means “favor of God” or “grace of God,” but she didn’t feel very favored by God. After many years of marriage, to a husband who loved her very much, they had no children. Back then, in a world where there were no retirement homes or supermarkets or home health aides, the only way to eat was to farm, and a person’s senior years depended on having children who would be able to take care of the farm and the parents as they aged. And things would be even worse for Hannah if Elkanah died before she did. To be a widow or an orphan in those times was pretty much the worst thing that could happen to a person – it was literally life-threatening.

So Elkanah did what many men in those days did in that situation: he took a second wife with whom to have children. We see this happen, with some variations, with Abraham and Sarah, and with Jacob and Rachel, and with other couples in the Bible. Having a second wife was not illegal back then, and it was not against the Law of Moses either. Generally speaking in those days men who had more than one wife were either wealthy (which Elkanah was) or desperate for children (which Elkanah also was). Not an ideal situation, but not unusual.

Elkanah’s second wife, Peninah, was prolific!  She had baby after baby after baby.

Every year, Elkanah, who was a devout man, took his family to Shiloh to worship. Worship back then included sacrificing animals: the fat would be burned on the altar as an offering to God, and then the meat would be shared between the family and the priests. So each member of the family would receive a slice of the roast (so to speak) – one for Peninnah, one for each child, and two portions were given to Hannah because Elkanah loved her.

Peninnah, the mother of all these children, saw that she couldn’t win Elkanah’s love, and it rankled. So she did everything she could to rub Hannah’s face in the fact she had no children.

Hannah n Other Family

There is nothing in this world more catty than women comparing their children: how many they’ve got, what gender they are, what they’ve accomplished, what they do for a living…  I have actually heard real live women say things to other women like: “oh how wonderful – another girl! Are you guys going to try for a boy next?” Or this: “Thirty-two and not married? Don’t worry, you still have lots of time.”

So I can just imagine Peninnah: “hey Hannah, I’m going to run into town to buy some clothes for the kids, wanna come?” Or at the sacrifice: “Don’t forget, Elkanah honey, I’m gonna need seven portions this year!”

The author of Samuel says that Peninnah “provoked Hannah severely”.  Translation: she really dug her claws in. Hannah’s lack of kids wasn’t for lack of trying, but nothing they tried worked. Year after year she was shamed and ridiculed and driven to tears by a woman the author of Samuel calls “her rival”.

The dictionary defines a ‘rival’ as “a person competing with another for the same objective or for superiority in the same field of activity.”  That’s exactly what Peninnah was doing. If she couldn’t win Elkanah’s love, she was going to see to it that she got his attention, and lots of it, through those kids.

Hannah meanwhile was feeling like all hope was gone and her future was grim. I’d like us to consider this question today: where in life do we feel like hope is gone? Do we have health problems? Financial problems? Family problems? As church members, do we fear for the future of our church? Do we fear for the future of our community? Whatever our minds are focused on these days, I’d like to suggest holding that thing in mind as we move into Hannah’s story.

Hannah had tried everything. Nothing worked. She felt like even God was against her. In fact the writer of Samuel says twice “the Lord had closed her womb”. I’m sure that’s how it felt to Hannah. And Jewish scholars point out that Hannah wasn’t wrong: the Lord had closed her womb.

God had put Hannah in exactly this situation at exactly this time because God wanted to do something BIG through her. God wanted to bring someone special into the world: a man who would lead his people from being scattered tribes to a united kingdom under the leadership of David.

Whatever difficulty or hard place we find ourselves in right now, consider the possibility (it’s not always the case, but it may be) we’re in these situations because God wants us to reach out to him with the passion and conviction and daring that Hannah did.

Listen to how Hannah talks to God! She says in her prayer: “Lord! If you would only look at me! If you would only see the pain in my heart! If you would only remember me! If you would give me a male child – I promise I will give him back to you as a Nazirite…”

I need to break into the story just for a moment to explain what Hannah is promising. A Nazirite was a special order of holy men back then (Samson was a Nazirite). Nazirites never touched alcohol and never cut their hair, as a sign of their lifelong commitment to God. They often had charismatic gifts; they were men in whom the Spirit of the Lord dwelled with power. And they were set aside as Nazirites by their parents at birth.

So basically what Hannah is saying is that if God will only give her a son, she will give him back to God – which will be extremely painful for Hannah as the boy grows up. But at this point Hannah is beyond caring about herself. She is not asking for a child to take care of her in old age. She is not asking for relief against her rival. She is not asking for a son she can raise. She is asking probably the hardest thing in the world: to give birth to a child so she can give him away. She would see him once a year when they sacrificed at the temple, and that would be all.

So this is her promise: “I will set him before you as a Nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”

Hannah praying

This was exactly the prayer God had been waiting for. This prayer sets God’s plan in motion. All the trouble and all the pain had been leading up to this. God had a plan, and God wanted to include Hannah in that plan.

Whatever difficulties are going on in our lives right now, in life or in the church or in the community, what would happen if we did what Hannah did? If we gave up all personal interest and simply said, “Lord please hear me. Lord please remember me. This situation right here needs to change, and I want what you want. Please hear me.”

The minute Hannah prayed this prayer – she was immediately attacked! She was so passionate in her prayer, the high priest Eli thought she was drunk! But she stood up for herself (which is not always easy when one is talking to high-ranking clergy) and she said, “no sir, I’m not drunk. I’m just very upset and deeply troubled. I have been pouring out my heart and my vexation to God.”

And Eli gave her God’s answer: “Go in peace; and may God grant your petition.”

For the first time in years, Hannah felt like she’d been heard. Her spirits rose, her heart was glad, and she went back to her family a new woman, and ate and drank and enjoying her husband’s company. Nothing had changed – yet – but she knew the change was coming.

Our reading in Samuel ends here but the story goes on. God remembered Hannah, and she became pregnant, and gave birth to Samuel, one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament. As soon as Samuel was weaned Hannah brought him to Eli for service in the temple just as she had promised God. Later on, God remembered Hannah again – and ultimately she ended up having two more sons and three daughters. God gave her what she needed as well.

But before all this happened, Hannah sang the song we read in the second reading today: a song about victory in the Lord, in a God who sees and a God who knows, who builds up the weak but destroys the mighty, who feeds the hungry and lets those who are full go without, who raises up the lowly and raises up the poor, but cuts off the wicked – a God who will judge the earth, who will give power to his anointed (and the word ‘anointed’ here means Messiah.)

If you have a moment this week, put Hannah’s song next to the Song of Mary found in Luke chapter one. It’s amazing how similar they are. Hannah, through her suffering and through her prayers, caught a glimpse of the Messiah – and she became a prophetess whose actions changed the course of history and whose words described Jesus a thousand years before he was born.

Bold Prayers

As we face into our own difficulties, whatever they may be – be courageous and bold like Hannah. Be persistent in prayer. Ask God to remember his people. And keep ears open for answers.

May God hear our prayers and, as Hannah experienced, may God send us out in the confidence and peace of knowing we have been heard. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 11/14/21

All Saints Day 2021

Psalm 24   Of David. A Psalm.

1 The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it;
2 for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.
3 Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?
4 Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.
5 They will receive blessing from the LORD, and vindication from the God of their salvation.
6 Such is the company of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob.
7 Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.
8 Who is the King of glory? The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle.
9 Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.
10 Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.  7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations;  8 he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.

9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”Isaiah 25:6-9 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;  4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” – Revelation 21:1-6 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

In our readings for today, Psalm 24 talks about God as the King of Glory, and it talks about the people who will ascend with God to the holy place. Isaiah talks about a mountain also, where the Lord of Hosts will make a feast for his people of rich food and well-aged wine, in a place where death is a thing of the past. And the author of Revelation describes a new heaven and a new earth where death and tears and pain are no more.

Holy Mountain

It is appropriate and fitting for Scriptures like these to be read on All Saints Day, as we remember our loved ones who have passed this past year.

This year has been a very hard year. It’s been hard because we have lost so many, and it’s been hard because many of us haven’t been able to be with our loved ones as much as we would have liked. For those who have lost loved ones, there is nothing that can be said to ease the pain of loss. But it does matter to know that friends are close, standing in sympathy today.

At times of grief we may feel a confusing jumble of emotions, from sorrow to anger to longing to questioning to doubt to hope. And some days we may feel nothing at all, which can be even more upsetting. We may wish we could have just one more conversation with our loved one. We may have questions for God.

And then when the loss is no longer quite so immediate, it’s not unusual to find ourselves asking questions like: Do I really believe in life after death? What will heaven be like? How can I be sure we’ll get there? How can bodies that have died be reassembled? Will we really see our loved ones again? Will we see our pets again? What will it be like to meet God face to face? Will God really be able to forgive everything I’ve ever done wrong?

If Scripture teaches us anything, it’s that in order to live – or die – with confidence, we need to keep our eyes on God. God is the one who knows the way. God is the one with the power over and sin and death. God holds the key and knows the answers. And God loves us.

I don’t want to sugar-coat things. Life is tough. Death is tougher. It is hard to face mortality. It’s hard to keep on keeping on in a world where someone we love is missing and isn’t coming back.

For those of us who love Jesus, we believe that death is like a doorway: a portal we pass through. Or we may think of death as people did long ago, like a river that needs to be crossed – a river that’s so wide and so cold that we need help to get across it. We may remember the words of the old song:

Swing low, sweet chariot,
Comin’ for to carry me home…

 I look over Jordan and what do I see? …
A band of angels comin’ after me…
Comin’ for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot…

Or maybe this song:

Michael, row the boat ashore…
River Jordan is deep and wide – alleluia
Milk and honey on the other side – alleluia
River Jordan is chilly and cold – alleluia
Chills the body but not the soul – alleluia
Michael, row the boat ashore – alleluia!

I like the analogy of the river. It’s like a river of time that sweeps everything away. Cold waters indeed. We don’t dare try to swim them because we don’t have the strength. We need a vessel, or an angel, or something, to guide us.

For those of us who love Jesus, we have promises from God that this life is not all there is. That we have a forever home and a future.

Our psalm today says: “The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it…” (Psalm 24:1) And the psalmist goes on to say:

3 Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?  4 Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.

What God requires is easy to understand but very difficult to do. How do we know if we’ve done enough? If we’ve been holy enough? Or if we have missed a few marks, how do we know if we’ve confessed enough?

This was the dilemma Martin Luther got himself caught on when he was a monk back in the 1600s. He was trying to say enough prayers and do enough penance to satisfy a perfect God – and he realized what he was trying to do was impossible. No level of perfection, no amount of indulgences, no amount of praying, would be able to assure him of a place in God’s heaven. And then he tripped over Romans 1:17 that speaks of “… a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”” Salvation by faith alone – God accepting us if we will only trust – believing in a God who can and does forgive – this became the foundational teaching of all the Protestant churches.

So it’s not about what we do or how much we do. Anything we do that is good, we do out of love and thanksgiving to God. What saves us is that Jesus has already done all that is necessary.

The reading in Isaiah echoes and confirms this thought: “It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” (ital. mine) (Isaiah 25:9)

The salvation God provides is the foundation for our hope.

And with that foundation in place, we turn to our reading from Revelation. Revelation is a book that is rarely preached and often misinterpreted. Revelation is not a game plan or a strategy or a playbook for the end times. I know people who have spent hours trying to figure out which nations and which world leaders are being hinted at in Revelation. I’ve known people who have spent hours looking at Revelation as if it’s a timeline: “1000 years till this happens, and 500 years till that happens…”

Revelation

“Misunderstood Revelation is really a story of hope.” — the Catholic Register

Revelation isn’t meant to be read this way. Revelation was written for the believers in the early church as an encouragement. The early church, after the initial explosion of people coming to faith by the thousands, went through some very difficult times. In the year 70AD the political leaders of Jerusalem rebelled against Rome and Jerusalem was crushed – burned to the ground. So the center of the Christian faith – the believers in and around Jerusalem – were scattered throughout the Roman empire: Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. As they were scattered, they started to face persecution – partly because they were foreigners and refugees, and partly because they preached a religion that did not acknowledge the deity of Caesar. Caesar thought he was a god. Caesar thought he was the ‘king of kings’ – but Christians knew better. And they were persecuted for saying so.

So Revelation was written to comfort and encourage people who were suffering great losses. Which makes it appropriate for us, especially on All Saints Sunday, and especially during this time of social and economic and political upheaval. These words are for us.

God tells us in Revelation there will be a new heaven and a new earth, that the old heaven and the old earth will pass away. Does this mean that all of our efforts at conservation and mitigating climate change are in vain? NO. This creation, this earth we live in, was given to human beings by God, and we were commanded to take care of it – and that is still our job.

But Revelation is talking about something different. The writer says in verse one “and the sea was no more”. In Bible times the Sea was a metaphor for whatever brings evil into the world. The sea is where storms come from, and there were mysterious creatures in the deep, and it was a place where ships sank and people died… it was a dangerous place to be. It was a metaphor for tragedy. So Revelation is saying that the powers of evil and all of the hardships in this world will be done away with. The earth will be remade in such a way that the effects of sin and death will be gone.

And then we see the New Jerusalem, the holy city, coming out of heaven ‘prepared as a bride’. This echoes back to Psalm 45 which we read earlier this year, which was written for the wedding of Solomon but also foretells the wedding of the Messiah – the heavenly wedding we now see in Revelation.

And the groom, God, loves us. In verse three, where it talks about God ‘dwelling’ with us, the Greek actually says he ‘pitches his tent with us’ (and as I read this, I’m imagining the kind of tents they had in the Harry Potter movies, the ones that grow to fit all the people, and have all the modern conveniences). God will be with us, living with us. God will wipe away every tear from every eye. God will make us whole. God will make us holy – because God is able to do so. And death will be a thing of the past. Pain and grief will never come again, because “the first things have passed away”.

No Death

This world we live in now belongs to the ‘first things’. The life we know, the grief we experience, the fears we know, the insecurities we know – these all belong to the ‘first things’. And the first things are passing away. In this life we still deal with all these things. But Revelation means suffering is a temporary thing, so we don’t have to compromise with the wrongs of this world just to try to make life a little easier.

A new world is coming. God says, “I am making all things new.”

And then he says “It is done!”

At the crucifixion, we heard Jesus say “it is finished” but this is not the same thing. The Cross was about salvation. The word Jesus cried out then – tetelstai – basically means ‘paid in full’.

Here in Revelation the Greek word translates into ‘it is created’ or ‘it is made’. The creation is complete. Something totally new is here: “the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”

When the new things come, what was in the past will pass away. It’s difficult for us to try to imagine something we’ve never seen before, because this life is all we know.  But maybe this will help make some sense: I think it might be similar to being born. When our mothers were pregnant with us, if we had been able to verbalize our experience in the womb, we might have said: “this is a nice place. It’s always warm, and I feel safe, and I have as much to eat as I want, and I can hear pleasant sounds around me. I think I’ll stay.”

But at the end of nine months, ‘staying’ is no longer an option. We are born into a world we had no idea existed – something we could never have imagined – and yet it’s the same world we were always in. We just didn’t know it. We couldn’t perceive it from inside the womb. When we passed through the portal, all of a sudden we could see what we couldn’t see before, and the womb became a thing of the past, at least as far as we were concerned. We all know where we came from, but in terms of everyday life our prior existence in the womb is gone and forgotten.

I think entering God’s kingdom will be something like that. It’s not that we’re going to leave earth and go somewhere else. Scripture says “in Him (in God) we live and move and have our being.” So God’s world is with us already – surrounding us, nurturing us, womb-like. But we can’t fully perceive it yet. There are realities – spiritual realities, physical realities, God-realities – all around us that we can’t see just yet. When we pass through death’s portal we will be able to see and know God’s world, where death and sorrow and tears don’t happen any more. The reality we knew – what we know now – will be completely a thing of the past, like a womb that we no longer live in.

And somehow we will know – or God will point out to us – our loved ones: our ancestors, our ‘tribe’, who have been waiting for us.  We will be home in every sense of the word.

It really is beyond our imagining. But God promises it will be good, and safe, and free of danger, and free of sin, and free of tears. We will enjoy God. And God will enjoy our enjoyment and be pleased with our pleasure.

So we call to mind all these promises of God as we remember our loved ones today. And let us also share these promises and this hope with others as God gives us opportunity.

May God bless to us and to others a deep and lasting knowledge of God’s word and God’s promises. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, November 7, 2021

The House of Bread

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons.  2 The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there.  3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons.  4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years,  5 both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. 

6 Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the LORD had considered his people and given them food.  7 So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah.  8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.  9 The LORD grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud.  10 They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.”  11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?  12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons,  13 would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the LORD has turned against me.”  14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 

15 So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.”  16 But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  17 Where you die, I will die– there will I be buried. May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”  18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. 

19 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?”  20 She said to them, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.  21 I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the LORD has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” 

22 So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.Ruth 1:1-22

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ruth

The book of Ruth is somewhat unique among the books of the Bible in that the central story involves two women, and it focuses on how those two women responded to a series of tragedies.

Because the issues are so human, their story is easy for people in all times and places to relate to. As we make our way through our world – in a time where it seems like we see tragedy after tragedy, between pandemic and earthquake and fire and flood – we may find ourselves saying (as Naomi says), “God has dealt bitterly with me.”

Like Ruth and Naomi, we have no idea where the currents of history are carrying us. We have no idea what’s coming around the next bend. But God had plans for Ruth and Naomi, and God has plans for us. However these plans will only see the light if we choose (like them) to be faithful to God even in the difficult times. The book of Ruth gives us a picture of two people living faithfully even when they feel like they can’t put one more foot in front of the other.

Today’s reading only includes the first chapter of Ruth, chapter one out of four chapters. I wish we could make a four-week mini-series out of this book! But with the upcoming holidays we won’t have room, so for today I will focus on chapter one, but I will mention important points in the other chapters in order to round out the story.

Starting off with chapter one verse one: “In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons.”

This first sentence is packed with information! Let me unpack it a bit. “In the days when the judges ruled” – this would be in the nation of Israel after the exodus but before any king was chosen. For a period of a few hundred years in between Exodus and monarchy, Israel had a unique form of government: a loose coalition of the twelve tribes of Israel, each one led by a Judge who was appointed by God to settle any disputes in the tribe and to help muster an army in case any of the twelve tribes was attacked. It was a form of government that allowed for a great deal of personal freedom – which could either be good or bad, depending on how committed the people were to doing things God’s way.

bethlehem-rooftops

During this time, there was a famine in the land, and the famine was so severe people felt they needed to leave their homes in order to find food. This was particularly ironic in the city of Bethlehem, a city whose name translates “house of bread”.

As an important side-note: Pastor Dylan mentioned at Bible Study this past week that there are certain Hebrew words that keep popping up in the Old Testament, and it adds meaning to our reading of the Bible if we notice them and keep a list of them. Here’s one for your list: the prefix “Beth-” means ‘house’ in Hebrew. So we have many place names like Bethlehem (house of bread), Bethel (house of God), Bethsaida (house of fish), Bethany (house of figs) and so on. So whenever you see “Beth” at the beginning of a name in the Bible, be sure to ask for a translation!

So back to the story.  There was a famine in Israel that included Bethlehem, and a family who lived in Bethlehem moved to Moab to find food.

Anyone living back in those days would have immediately said, “that must have been some famine!” because the people of Israel had nothing to do with the Moabites. The Moabites were an enemy nation who had attacked Israel in the past. They were ‘pagans’. They tried to discourage people from worshipping God. Israelites considered Moabites ‘unclean,’ and they were looked down on.  We see this in the book of Ruth, where Ruth is referred to not by name but as “Ruth the Moabitess” – over and over. It’s a mark of prejudice.

But things had gotten so bad in Bethlehem that this family felt they had no choice but to move to Moab and live with their enemies. They became refugees in a foreign land. There’s a saying today among refugee communities that “one does not put a child in a boat unless the land has become too dangerous”.  This was certainly was true for Elimelech and his family. They had no choice.

And again, as is so often true in the Old Testament, the family names have meaning. “Elimelech” translates “my God is king”. And “Naomi” means “pleasant”. If we put those together it fits nicely: how pleasant it is when God is king!  But there’s also something wrong: because the sons are named “Mahlon” and “Chilion” which mean “sickly” and “pining”. Was this because they didn’t have enough food to eat? Possibly. Were the children just not thriving? The Bible doesn’t tell us; but whatever was wrong apparently stayed with them throughout their lives.

This refugee family then moves to Moab and makes a home there. They have to learn the language; they have to learn the customs; they have to learn to fit in. We can guess that they were farmers in Moab as they were in Bethlehem, but they probably had to farm someone’s else’s land, at least until they could earn enough to buy some land of their own. But they managed to stay alive and make a home in that foreign land.

While they were there, sadly, Elimelech died. But Naomi still had two sons to help keep food on the table. The boys grew up and married Moabite women, local women. And things seem to have worked out pretty well except… after ten years of their marriages there were no grandchildren. And then tragedy struck again, and both Mahlon and Chilion died.

No parent expects to bury their children. And to make matters worse, the death of the young men left the three women widows with no means of support. In the ancient world, where there was no social security or welfare, childless widows were extremely vulnerable. The best the women could hope for – the best they could hope for – would be a life of begging. And it could get worse.

It seemed the best course of action for all three of them was to try to find new husbands.  So the women are faced with an agonizing decision. Naomi and her daughters-in-law have grown to love each other: they are family in a very real sense. When Naomi receives word that there is food again in Bethlehem, she decides to go home; and the young women decide to go with her.

But Naomi thinks it over and decides that what’s in the best interests of the young women is to return to their own homes and find new husbands and start new families. Naomi points out they have no hope of any new husbands through her. They will do better in their own neighborhoods. It’s also possible Naomi thought about how much prejudice the Moabite women might face in Israel – which was a great risk.

Bottom line, Naomi’s heart is broken. People who struggle with anger and grief, even today, can relate to Naomi’s story.

So Naomi blesses her daughters-in-law. In verse eight she says: “May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.” The word ‘kindly’ is the Hebrew word hesed which is often translated ‘loving-kindness’ and is often used to describe how deeply God loves us. So she is saying, in other words, “God has loved me through you.”

These words break the young women’s hearts, and they weep. They don’t want to go. Eventually Orpah is persuaded to go home; but Ruth won’t let go. There is nowhere she wants to be other than with Naomi. And somehow it seems over the years Ruth has learned about Naomi’s God – the God of Israel – and she wants to be a part of God’s family. We hear from Ruth those beautiful words, spoken in halting Hebrew:

“where you go, I go; where you lodge, I lodge; your people be my people; your God be my God; where you die, I die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more if even death parts me from you!”

And Naomi and Ruth embrace each other. They made room for one another in their hearts. Two women from different countries, different cultures, different religious backgrounds… embracing… this is an example the whole world needs to see.

And so they travel together to Bethlehem. When they arrive, the people of the town are stunned at what has become of Naomi. She answers them “don’t call me Naomi (‘pleasant’) any more; call me Mara (which means ‘bitter’) because God has dealt bitterly with me. When I left here I had everything, but now I have nothing…” she says.

And yet, they’ve arrived at the beginning of the barley harvest… which means there will be food. And in spite of what Naomi says, she’s not alone. She has Ruth, who – by the end of the book – the people of the town will say to Naomi “she is worth more to you than seven sons”.

There is one more scene from the book of Ruth that I want to mention, and that’s what Ruth does after she and Naomi return to Bethlehem. In chapter two, Ruth has learned the law of God concerning the harvest: that farmers in Israel are not to harvest all the way to the edge of their land – they are to leave some grain on the edges of the fields for the poor and the homeless. So Ruth takes her place as a refugee among the poor and the homeless, and gleans the edges.

See here the wisdom of God! The Bible is clear that those who have, are to leave some of what we have behind for others. Not in hopes of getting a note of thanks, or to impress our neighbors, but simply to open our hands and let some of what we have go; and trust God that it will land where it’s needed, and we will still have enough.

This is what the farmers are doing in chapter two. Ruth goes out and works behind them all day long, literally from sunup to sundown, picking up the grain that is left behind, and then at the end of the day she threshes it. We’re told in verse 17 she ended up with about an ephah of barley which is about 30 pounds, which she then carries a few miles back to town to where Naomi is. And she does this every day until the barley and wheat harvests are finished.

Ruth n Bo

While this is going on, Ruth’s work is noticed by a God-fearing man named Boaz, the owner of one of the farms – who gives us a wonderful example of how to welcome newly-arrived immigrants. He sees Ruth working hard, and he asks the neighbors: “who is she?” And he is told:

“she’s the Moabite who came back from Moab with Naomi.”

(Notice how the neighbors talk about her – not by name, but by nationality. She’s one of ‘them’. And yet they’ve noticed how hard she’s been working.)

Boaz understands, and he encourages her. He makes her feel welcome. He says to her: “Don’t go to anyone else’s field. Stay in my fields; stay with my women. I’ve told my men not to touch you. And when you’re thirsty, get a drink from the water jars my men have filled.”

Boaz isn’t giving her handouts. He doesn’t coddle her. But he gives her protection, and provision, and a safe space in which to flourish. And isn’t that really what all of us need? Because we are all in some way strangers in a strange land. That’s why God has so much to say in scripture about kindness to strangers and foreigners.

Ruth reacts by bowing down to the ground and asking how it is that a foreigner has found so much favor in his sight?  He answers, “I have been told what you have done for your mother-in-law.” He says in verse 12, “May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” (Ruth 2:12)

How sweet is that to a foreigner’s ears?

Ruth n Naomi

Later that night when Ruth takes home her 30 pounds of grain, she tells Naomi about her experience in the fields of Boaz, and Naomi says Boaz is a relative of hers. “He’s one of our kinsman-redeemers” she says. Which sets up the rest of the story, in which Boaz and Ruth grow to love each other, and at Naomi’s nudging, Boaz takes the part of kinsman-redeemer for Ruth and marries her. And Naomi takes care of their first-born son, who will be both their future and hers.

More than that, little baby Obed becomes the future of Israel, because he will be the grandfather of King David and the ancestor of Jesus.

Our salvation rests on the decisions these women made – and on their faithfulness. When all seemed hopeless they were faithful to God and faithful to each other, and even though they didn’t live to see it, their faithfulness changed the history of the world.

So be encouraged, brothers and sisters, in these dark days. Pray daily; bring God your pain, your fears, your doubts, your hard places, and your hopes. And trust that a place has already been prepared for you and for your loved ones, by a God who works in ways that will astound us. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 10/31/21

The Order of Melchizedek

Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.  2 He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness;  3 and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people.  4 And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.  5 So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”;  6 as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”

7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.  8 Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered;  9 and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him,  10 having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. – Hebrews 5:1-10

23 Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office;  24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever.  25 Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

26 For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.  27 Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself.  28 For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever. – Hebrews 7:23-28

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Today we pick up essentially where we left off a couple of weeks ago. Even though we’ve skipped a couple chapters, the author of Hebrews is still on the same subject. He has been explaining to the first generation of Christians why faith in Jesus is better than the Old Testament system of high priests and temple sacrifices.

Today the writer basically focuses on the difference between clergy back then and clergy now.  And as he builds his case, he also works in the Good News of salvation through Jesus – which we will find in chapter seven – and because the Gospel is a part of this passage, what starts out as yet another history lesson ends up being exactly what people in every time and every place need to hear, including our own.

high-priest

Hebrews 5 starts out talking about what priests in the Old Testament were to do: they were to offer sacrifices for sins and make other goodwill offerings to God from the people.  The high priests in the Old Testament were chosen from among people, so they were no different than anyone else. (BTW the same is true for pastors today.) The priests in the Old Testament were “put in charge of the things pertaining to God” (verse 1) – not because they were better people but because they were called to do the job. In the Old Testament the descendants of Aaron were born to be priests: and this was the same Aaron who made the golden calf after the Exodus! So it’s entirely possible for priests in the Old Testament to make huge mistakes and even fall from the faith at times. And the same thing is true of clergy throughout history.

The priesthood, then as now, was a position of great responsibility. The job of a priest was not to be a ruler but in a sense to be an ambassador between God and God’s people: to bring God’s word to the people and to bring the people’s prayers and sacrifices to God.

Today, we pastors also bring God’s word to the congregation but we are no longer the only place the congregation can find God’s word. Every person now has direct access to God’s word. We have the amazing privilege of holding the words of the King of Heaven and Earth in our hands and reading it to our hearts’ content.  Most of the people who have lived on this planet before us didn’t have that privilege. Men and women down through the centuries have given their lives so that we could read God’s word, in our hands, in our own language. Praise God for this!

We no longer need a go-between to read God’s word to us or to pray for us.  And whenever we do feel a need for a go-between, Jesus has become our go-between. Jesus has become the ambassador between God and God’s people.

The key point the writer of Hebrews is making is that being a priest back in the old days meant making sacrifices in the temple for the sins of the people. But we no longer need to make sacrifices. When we give offerings, or when we serve the church in some way, we do it out of love for God, not because we’re required to, and not because we need to make sacrifices.

Today, repentance and forgiveness are offered to us freely by Jesus. When we hear Jesus’ word and trust in him, when we look at the cross and see that by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, we become part of God’s family. We remember what Jesus did for us in our sacraments of communion and baptism, but we don’t re-create the sacrifice. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was once for all, and no further sacrifice is needed.

In addition, the writer of Hebrews shows us that Jesus sets an example for priests and pastors under this new covenant. In verse two, he says pastors are “able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward since we ourselves are subject to weakness.” In other words, clergy are sinners too. We need forgiveness just as much as anybody else. Any minister or church leader who claims to have reached perfect holiness is a liar. We’re all human.

I stress this because too often today (and back in Bible days as well) pastors and priests sometimes forget that God gives us gifts for the sake of God’s people. Too often we see clergy lining their pockets, or using their position to gain power, or betraying the innocent – any number of evil things – and the stories in the news come far too often.

This is NEVER what God intended when God created priesthood. Priests back in Bible days had to offer sacrifices for their own sins as well as the sins of the people. Today, we clergy need to say prayers of confession right along with our congregations. We need to confess our sins to God daily just like everybody else.  The difference is that now, you and I have a high priest, Jesus, who lives forever and always prays on our behalf.

Verse four adds, speaking of the priesthood: “one does not presume to take this honor”. Have you ever wondered how people get to be pastors? For the most part, God’s service is kind of like being drafted. It’s similar for many of you who have been ‘drafted’ to serve on church boards. Essentially we are all called by God, just as Aaron was, and just as other spiritual leaders are.

The writer of Hebrews goes on to say that Jesus also was chosen – appointed by God, but in a different way. God said to Jesus, “You are my son, today have I begotten you.”

And then in verse six God says something about Jesus being “a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” For those of you who were at Bible Study this past Wednesday, we read about Melchizedek. He is one of my favorite characters in the Old Testament – he is both great and a bit mysterious.  Melchizedek was a different kind of priest. He wasn’t a descendant of Aaron. He shows up in the Bible long before Aaron and Moses appear: he shows up in the days of Abraham.

Melchizedek

Melchizedek was both a priest and a king. His name is Hebrew for “king of righteousness” or “king of justice”.  He just sort of pops up out of nowhere after Abraham rescues his nephew Lot from captivity in Sodom. (This is also long before Sodom got rained on by burning sulfur.)

Melchizedek was the king of a country called Salem, which in Hebrew means “peace” (related to the word “shalom”). Melchizedek blesses Abraham, and prophecies over him, and Abraham gives Melchizedek ten percent of all the spoils – which is a tithe, but again this is long before the tithe is ever mentioned in the Bible. So here’s this scene described in detail in the middle of Genesis, and then Melchizedek disappears – leaving the reader to wonder “what was that all about??”

Then, just as mysteriously, Melchizedek’s name pops up almost a thousand years later in a Psalm that predicts the coming of the Messiah. In Psalm 110, a psalm written by King David, God says to the Messiah: “you are priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

In other words, Jesus is our high priest but he doesn’t come from the priestly tribe of Aaron. He does not descend from professional clergy. Jesus is not, and never was, part of the religious establishment. Jesus comes from an order of priests that is both eternal and royal. He descends from – and has become – the King of Righteousness, the Prince of Peace.

And just in case any of Jesus’ disciples, or the Pharisees for that matter, missed the reference, Jesus quotes Psalm 110 in Matthew 22:44 when he says, “The Lord said to my Lord ‘sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” When Jesus quoted this, Matthew comments, “the Pharisees didn’t dare to ask him any more questions.” They clearly made the connection: Jesus fulfills in every way the promises God gave to Abraham through Melchizedek.

For us, as Christians in the 21st century, we also are called to follow the Prince of Peace, the King of Righteousness, the high priest after the order of Melchizedek. We are called to give our loyalty to a country – not the one we were born in, but a country still in the making, where Jesus is king and where peace reigns.

Jesus has entered into this kingdom and is already our high priest. And having also been human, Jesus can identify with us. Jesus has been where we are. Jesus has been tempted the same way we have. Jesus has lived through what we live through, so Jesus is able to save anyone who comes to him. Jesus isn’t sitting around heaven eating bonbons and waiting for us to show up! Jesus is at this very moment praying for us, interceding for us, forgiving every mistake we make and every sin we commit. Jesus does for us what no human priest or clergy could ever do.

Jesus sacrificed himself for us, once for all, on the cross. As the writer of Hebrews says in verse eight, he ‘learned obedience’ by his death on the cross for us. Jesus didn’t need to die – because he didn’t sin. But Jesus made us his brothers and sisters, and gave his life for us: which was what God asked of him, and Jesus loved us enough to say ‘yes’.

Which brings us to Hebrews 7:27 and 28. We human pastors are subject to weakness like everyone else.  But Jesus the Son has been made perfect forever. And believing in him, and trusting him, is the one and only way to enter the kingdom.

When we are honest with ourselves, we realize that even if we’re good people, we are still sinners, and we will die someday. Nobody can save us from that. Nobody can change it. Going to church doesn’t change things, giving money to good causes doesn’t change things, not even giving our lives in service to other people will change things. No matter what we do we don’t have the power to control sin or death. And this makes life crazy; it makes the world unmanageable.

But Jesus has power over both sin and death because he is our great high priest. Jesus gives us the ability to believe in something greater than ourselves and the powers of this world: and that is the undying love of God. Therefore when we trust in Jesus and choose to follow and obey him, our lives change, our vision clears, and we begin to learn how to live as God intended.

The apostle Paul says in Romans 3:10: “there is no one righteous, no, not one.” But the apostle John reminds us in John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that all who believe in him will not perish but have everlasting life.” And in John 14:15, Jesus says: “if you love me, keep my commandments.”

So what does obedience to Jesus look like? I think that’s something we all need to work out between ourselves and God. For me, the best answer I’ve been able to come up with is I Corinthians 13:

“love is patient, love is kind, love is not jealous or boastful or arrogant or rude; love does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful, does not rejoice in the wrong but rejoices in the truth; love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. And in the end only three things remain: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest is love.”

That’s the essence of the message of Hebrews. For this reason we need to keep on keeping on with Jesus. Sometimes the best we can manage is to say “Lord I believe – help my unbelief.” If that’s the case we wouldn’t be the first people to say it. But in God’s kingdom, it’s enough.  AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven UMC and Spencer UMC, October 24 2021

Hebrews 1

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets,  2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.  3 He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,  4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. 

5 For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you”? Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”?  6 And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.”  7 Of the angels he says, “He makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.” 

8 But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom.  9 You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”  10 And, “In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands;  11 they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like clothing;  12 like a cloak you will roll them up, and like clothing they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will never end.”  13 But to which of the angels has he ever said, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”?  14 Are not all angels spirits in the divine service, sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?

Hebrews 2

Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.  2 For if the message declared through angels was valid, and every transgression or disobedience received a just penalty,  3 how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? It was declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him,  4 while God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will. 

5 Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels.  6 But someone has testified somewhere, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them?  7 You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor,  8 subjecting all things under their feet.” Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them,  9 but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. 

10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.  11 For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters,  12 saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”  13 And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Here am I and the children whom God has given me.” 

14 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,  15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.  16 For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.  17 Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.  18 Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Hebrews

Today we’ll be looking at our reading from Hebrews. The book of Hebrews needs a little bit of background, mostly because (at least in my experience) we hardly ever hear it preached – which is unfortunate because the book is beautifully written. Our lectionary for October includes bits and pieces of Hebrews, scattered throughout the month, and I’m not sure how much of it we’ll be hearing over the next few weeks, but I wanted to lay a solid foundation for the book just in case.

Hebrews is probably one of the oldest books in the New Testament. It’s hard to know an exact date because the book is so old, but the context and the language of the letter seem to place it somewhere around 60AD –around 20-40 years after Jesus’ resurrection. This is extremely old by New Testament standards. And we don’t know who wrote Hebrews, although there have been many educated guesses. Whoever it was, was well educated and had a deep knowledge of both the Greek language and the Jewish faith.

The reason I’m going into all this detail is because, when reading Hebrews, we need to understand where the writer is coming from and why he is writing. The reason for the letter was to encourage the early believers – who were mostly Jewish – to keep on hanging in there with the faith.

In the first century after Jesus’ life, most believers in Jesus were Jewish; and becoming a believer in Jesus didn’t change the fact that they were Jewish. Today, Jewish believers in Jesus are called ‘Messianic Jews’; but back then there was no such thing as ‘messianic Judaism’. There was just the Jewish faith, and some members of the synagogue believed Jesus was the Messiah and some didn’t.

What happened, though, later in the century, was that the Jewish people who believed in Jesus began being persecuted: from the Romans on one side; and on the other side, to a lesser degree, by their Jewish neighbors who wanted to see them return to ‘good old-fashioned Judaism’.

So the author of Hebrews is writing to encourage the believers in Jesus, and he does it by showing them how the Old Testament – which was the Bible of the Jewish people – supports faith in Jesus: in other words, how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Messiah in the Old Testament.

Why is this important to us in the 21st century? First, because Hebrews gives us a rock-solid foundation for our faith, using the Old Testament as a resource – which is what the Old Testament is meant to be and to do. Second, Hebrews gives us a fresh approach to our own faith. It doesn’t approach Christianity the way most 21st century preachers do, so it sounds very new to us in a lot of ways. And third, it adds richness and meaning to a faith we’ve kind of ‘gotten used to’ over the years.

One other thing I need to mention: in our lectionary, Hebrews gets chopped up a bit. Today’s reading, for example, is actually in two separate pieces: one from chapter 1 and one from chapter 2. I’m going to be putting the missing parts back in (both chapters are quoted in full at the top of this article).

So starting in verse 1, the author of Hebrews begins by saying: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors…”

When I hear these words I can almost hear in my mind some wise old man saying “ah yes… the old ones… the wise ones… the ones who brought us here… yess, God spoke to them also…” It almost sounds like something out of Star Wars!

How often do we think about God in terms of “talking to our ancestors”? Some of us have memories of grandparents who loved God and brought us to church; some of us didn’t. But have we ever stopped to think that our grandparents had grandparents who took them to church? And on and on back into history. The Christian faith has been around for over 2000 years. Most of our family names haven’t been around that long, but we have ancestors that stretch back to that time, otherwise we wouldn’t be here.

If we ever find any way of finding information about the faith of our ancestors, I think it’s time well spent to do so. I know for example, I have been to the grave of my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather over in Europe. I have been inside the church he attended. The church is still there, and the people in his old neighborhood today still worship the same God in the same place. It strengthens my faith to know that hundreds of years ago my ancestors loved and worshiped God. So I encourage learning whatever we can about the faith histories of our families.

The writer of Hebrews continues: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets…” In this case, the author of Hebrews can remember his ancestors listening to the words of the Old Testament prophets. Maybe his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather knew a prophet or two! God’s word has been with God’s people for as far back as anyone can remember: for thousands and thousands of years, God has been communicating with God’s people.

“But” – the writer of Hebrews says – “in these last days [God] has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, [and] through whom he also created the worlds.”

The author of Hebrews is taking us back to when the universe was created. Not just our world, but all the worlds. All the stars, all the galaxies, created through Jesus, the Son of God. “Without him was not anything made that was made.” Apart from Jesus, nothing exists. Without Jesus, Genesis never happened. Hebrews is written, in part, to tell us a little bit about what Jesus was doing before he came to earth to be one of us.

In verse 3, it says Jesus is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” Like a face on a coin, Jesus shows us God exactly. When we listen to Jesus’ words, we hear the word of God. If we want to know God, we need to know Jesus. And Hebrews says, “Jesus sustains all things by his powerful word”.  Everything exists – and continues to exist – by the command of Jesus.

This kind of power can be a bit overwhelming. We live in a world where power is frequently misused: political power, media power, celebrity power, corporate power. We tend to be a little suspicious of too much power, and for good reason. If it were not for the fact that Jesus is gentle and good, and on our side, we’d be in trouble. But Jesus gave himself for us. As Hebrews says, “When he had made purification for sins…”  Jesus gave his life for us, before we even knew who he was. And then “he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” (vss 3-4)

guardian angels

OK, so… why is the writer of Hebrews bringing up angels? In order to help us out with the history.

In the beginning Jesus was with God the Father. As John says at the beginning of his gospel: “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and Word was God.” So in the beginning, God says to Jesus (vss 8 & 9 of ch 1):

“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom.  You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”

Some of you may recognize these words as coming from Psalm 45, which was read here in church a few weeks ago. Psalm 45 was written for the royal wedding of King Solomon but it is also a Messianic prophecy.

The writer of Hebrews quotes this to explain who Jesus was before He came to earth.

Then in Hebrews ch 2 vss 5-7 we hear a piece of Psalm 8 that says:

“what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor…”

This speaks of Jesus coming to earth and being made “a little lower than the heavenly beings” (that is, the angels). But when Jesus had done all he came to do, Hebrews says in ch 2 v 9 – Jesus was then raised and is “now crowned with glory and honor” because he was willing to suffer death for all of us. Verse 10 says: “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation (that is, Jesus) perfect through sufferings.”

Then in the end of chapter 1, verse 14 explains that angels have been given a job to do. It says: “Are not all angels spirits in the divine service, sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” In other words, the angels are sent by God to serve for our sakes, because we are the ones who will inherit salvation!  The angels are in God’s service, looking after us. ‘Guardian angels’ are not a myth, they’re for real – though I can guarantee you angels are not cute little things that pin to your clothing. People who meet angels in the Bible usually pass out – it’s not wise to mess with an angel! But God sends angels into our world to look after us. Isn’t that good news?

So what does all this talk of angels and ancient history mean to us today?

Hebrews answers that question in chapter 2, verse 1: “Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard.”  We need to be on our toes!  We need to be careful not to drift away from the truth – as the ancient Hebrews were tempted to do, and as many people in our time are doing. If a message given by angels is true, how much more true is a message given by God’s own Son?

The good news of Jesus Christ – and the proof that he is the Messiah – has been given to us first by God, and then by the prophets, and then by Jesus, then by the angels, then by the miracles Jesus performed, then by the Holy Spirit. How many more witnesses do we need?

Then we come to chapter 2 verse 10 –

“It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.”  Why is this? Why did Jesus have to leave heaven to suffer on earth?

Because God is Jesus’ Father, and God is also our Father (as we’ve been taught to pray, “Our Father…”). Therefore we are Jesus’ brothers and sisters. The miracle of Jesus’ birth makes this real. Jesus, the Son of God, through whom the universe was made, is our brother.

Hebrews 2:11-13: “For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”  And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Here am I and the children whom God has given me.”

We are so loved! And we are so secure in Jesus’ love!

But Hebrews doesn’t end there. Jumping to v 14:

“Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, [Jesus] himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:14-15)

This verse calls all of us slaves – did you catch that? We are held captive by the fear of death. We are slaves, not to death itself, but to fear – the fear of dying. Otherwise we could look at death as merely a passage, or a transformation. But because the evil one makes us doubt God, we fall into fear and we become afraid of death. Once we know God – once we know Jesus – we know the one who has power over death; and we are set free, not from death (because all living beings die once) but we are set free from the FEAR of death.

Safe

We can now live fearlessly.  Jesus has become like us so that we can become like him. Our destiny is to be higher than the angels one day – did you know that? Paul says in I Corinthians 6:3: “Do you not know that we will judge angels?”

All of this good news leads us beautifully to the communion table today.  For now I’d like to close with something C.S. Lewis wrote, which I think helps give a vision of this gospel reality:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest, most uninteresting person you can talk to… may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship… or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities… that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” – C.S. Lewis

As children of Jesus, it’s up to us to share these truths, and live these truths, in every way we can. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 10/3/21

Prayers in a Caring Community

“Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.  14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.  15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.  16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.  17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.  18 Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another,  20 you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. – James 5:13-20

~~~~~~~~~~~~

One of the things I love about our Partnership churches is that we truly do make up a caring community (1).  We share prayer requests; we maintain prayer lists; we pray for each other on a regular basis. Hardly a week goes by that we don’t see prayer requests in our inboxes.

It’s good that we do this. In Philippians 4:6 the apostle Paul says:

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

Let me ask a question though: when we pray, are we watching for God’s answers? I know we do sometimes. But when we put someone on the prayer list, do we follow up with that person to see how they’re doing? When God brings something good into someone’s life, do we share that by email – sharing our joys as well as our concerns?

prayer1

Where it comes to prayer, it’s important to remember that we are God’s children and God loves us no matter what. We may not always get what we ask for in prayer, but we can be assured when we pray, God hears us and will answer.

This is a lot of what James is talking about in his letter. To give some background to our reading: the book of James was most likely written by the literal brother of Jesus whose name was James. This in itself is a miracle, because in Jesus’ lifetime, his brothers didn’t believe in him. In John chapter 7 they accused Jesus of ‘wanting to be famous’ and told him to go to Jerusalem (because that’s where people go who want to be famous). They weren’t aware that Jerusalem was where Jesus was going to die.

But now, as James is writing this book, the crucifixion and the resurrection are behind them; Jesus has accomplished what he came to earth to do, and has returned to God; and James is now a believer. So he writes to the churches to encourage them (and us) and to share some of the things he learned from his older brother Jesus.

Just before the passage we read today, James advises his fellow believers to be patient until the Lord returns –– patient like a farmer waiting for the harvest. (How appropriate for this time of year!)

prayer2

And then as we start into today’s reading, James encourages us to pray with confidence because prayer is a powerful thing (2).  James begins by asking if any members of the church are going through hard times. Being a Christian does not mean our lives will be trouble-free – in fact it can make things worse sometimes. What we are promised is that God will walk with us through this life, no matter what happens.  So if anyone is experiencing hard times, James says, pray. Not just once, but again and again. Be persistent in prayer.

And for those of us who worry a lot – you know how thoughts can get stuck in the mind sometimes, and turn over and over and over? James says we should bring all that tangle of thoughts and feelings to God – just as they are. Even if it’s a mess, God will help us untangle. Whenever I think “I just can’t make sense of this” – I know someone who can.

James doesn’t tell us how to pray: he doesn’t offer us a prayer like Jesus did in the Lord’s Prayer. But James says that it’s good to pray physical healing, emotional well-being, and spiritual discernment, as well as for day-to-day practical needs. Nothing is too big or too small for God.

On the flip side, when things are going well… when our hearts are joyful… when the sun is shining… when God’s blessings overflow – James says “sing!” Sing God’s praises. The Greek word here is psallo, spelled almost like psalm. So grab a hymn-book and sing! I think this is one of those times when the old familiar songs really do mean the most, because if we sing a song we learned in childhood or when we were younger, the happiness of that time spills into the joy of today – and then the joy just multiplies.

sing to God

So no matter how life is going – whether great or not so great – the point is, share it with God. Share it with Jesus.

Then James asks if anyone is sick, and he says if a person is sick they should call for the elders to pray and anoint them with oil.

Let me break that down just a little bit. First off, where it comes to healing, not everyone has the gift of healing. Jesus had it. Paul had it. Some of the other apostles had it. When they prayed, people were healed, just like that. We have no reason to believe that the gift of healing does not still exist today; but I personally don’t have the gift, and I don’t currently know anyone who does. I do believe it still exists. But for the most part, when we pray for the sick, we are asking for God’s help: both for the person and for whatever is wrong.

The first thing James says is the person who is sick should call for the elders. It’s interesting that James doesn’t say somebody else should call for the elders. The sick person should be the one to choose whether or not to have visitors. There are times when sick people want to be left alone, in which case that should be respected. But if a sick person wants to be prayed for, this request should be brought to the elders right away.

Second, James says the person who is sick should call for the elders.  The word elder does not have the same meaning in the New Testament that it does in the United Methodist Church: that is, someone who is ordained. The Greek word here is presbuteros, which is the word we get Presbyterian from (and that does not mean we need to call the Presbyterians!) Basically it just means anyone who has been walking with God for a long time. In the UMC, pretty much anyone who’s on Council would count as an elder, as would other lay leaders, in addition to the ordained clergy.

Third, James says to “anoint [the sick person] with oil”.  Back in Jesus’ day, olive oil was often used because it was inexpensive and it was known to have healing qualities. Today, when oil is used, any kind will do. Pass the Del Monte!

I should mention some churches today anoint the sick with oil and some don’t. In the United Methodist Church, anointing with oil usually symbolizes the presence of the Holy Spirit, and it’s considered a blessing, which can be given whether or not the person is ill. In my Anglican background, oil is used mostly for baptism or anointing the sick. Either way – however we understand it – I always have a small bottle of oil with me, and I offer anointing to people when I visit them in the hospital. So if any member of the congregation ever feels the need to be prayed for, just grab a couple of the elders and come see me! I have the goods!

[It takes a village (3)[1]
The last thing I wanted to point out about James’ instructions is that they are meant to be carried out in community. We don’t see anyone in this passage in James acting alone! God calls all believers into community, and that’s no accident.

community_0

I believe this is hugely important in our time. In contemporary America, especially among the unchurched, an experience of community has been all but lost. Think about it: people come together to go to school or to play sports, or occasionally for family events; but other than that, people don’t do things together much. Porch-sitting is pretty much a thing of the past. So are scouting, 4-H, the Lions, the Rotary Club, the Variety club, even neighborhood block parties. When was the last time you saw any of these things? The sense of community in our society is almost gone – especially among the younger generations.

I believe – from a standpoint of both scripture and faith – that this is one of the greatest needs of our time, and one of the greatest potentials for outreach and ministry. A lack of community leads to loneliness and alienation, and it’s become worse since the pandemic.

Sharing a sense of community is a ministry our churches are well-equipped to do. It doesn’t take a lot of people and it doesn’t take a lot of money. For example, look at the $1 Clothing Sale Stormie and her mother organized a little bit ago. Or the Baby Shower for Jesus. Or whenever we have a church dinner, and invite the public. These are things our churches do for the community – and when we do, we demonstrate why community is important, and we offer people the opportunity to become part of a community: to know what it feels like to not be so alone.

Then in verses 15-16, James says something that is a little troubling. He says, “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”

At first glance, James seems to be saying that sickness is the result of unconfessed sin. This would be the wrong conclusion to draw. The translation should read more like, “if a person is sick they’ll be raised up, if a person has sinned they’ll be forgiven.” The word heal in verse 15, in Greek, is sozo – which can be translated either healed or saved.

So I think James’ point is that sin can be handled in much the same way as illness: if anyone has said or done something that has hurt someone, they should confess it to that person (and if necessary, to the elders) and then pray for one another.

James then gives us an illustration of the power of prayer from the life of Elijah – which reminds us and encourages us that God does answer prayer, and that God is more than powerful enough to do what is asked.

We serve a God who, in Genesis chapter one, said “light, be made!” and light was made. God’s word created everything that we see. Therefore our prayer of faith might simply be: “speak, Lord, for your creation hears.”

James then encourages us to watch over our brothers and sisters in the faith. Not being nebby; but if someone falls into temptation, pray and restore them to the community of faith. If someone wanders off like a lost sheep (and any shepherd can tell you, sheep can be really stubborn) – anyone who brings them back to the Lord will not only save that person but wipe out a multitude of their own sins.

BTW the word in Greek for ‘brought back’ is epistrepho, which we get the word apostrophe from.

apostrophe

Just like the apostrophe turns back on itself, if someone strays from the faith, they need to be guided back. That is our duty as Christian brothers and sisters, to help people make that turn. One theologian put it this way:

“The promise is that, when people stray from the faith and we help them to find their way back to faith, we will have helped to save their souls from death.  While this could refer to physical death (because some sins put a person’s… life in jeopardy), the more significant salvation is spiritual and eternal.”[2]

We are ultimately our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. (…as our Wednesday night Bible Study just read recently in Genesis, where Cain asks “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer is yes – yes we are.)  We are called to watch out for each other, care for each other, and pray for each other.

James ends his letter here. I think letting these be his final words, is his way of telling us how important they are.

So we start out as a caring community. We have confidence in the power of prayer (because we know the God we’re talking to). And it takes a village to care for all of us and for our communities around us.

This really is the heart and pulse of the church. So keep on praying: for the sick, for the recovered, for our communities, for our pastors, for our elders, and for each one of us as we walk with God. And then watch how God will answer. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 9/26/21

[1] The three sub-topics are not part of the sermon but are suggested by this article by James Boice: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-26-2/commentary-on-james-513-20-4

[2] Sermon Writerhttps://sermonwriter.com/biblical-commentary-old/james-513-20/