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 “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him,  7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.  8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.  9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,  10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.  11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ,  12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.  13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,  14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.  15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.  17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.  18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind,  19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.” – Colossians 2:6-19

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As some of you know, I just back from England a few weeks ago.  And as most of you know, a few weeks before that, I threw a disc in my back.  When that happened I almost canceled the trip, but my friend and I really wanted to go, so I gritted my teeth and got packing.

So… in the do-as-I-say-and-not-as-I-do department… I don’t recommend traveling with a bad back, let alone overseas!  But I also have to say I’m grateful for the people who, back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, fought for the rights of handicapped people to access public places.  Because of them, the airports and hotels we visited were well-equipped to deal with my physical issues, and they made us as comfortable as possible.

My friend and I made this effort to get to England because we had signed up to take a class at Oxford under one of the leading theologians of our day: the retired Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright. He’s not as well known in the States yet as in the U.K., but he spoke at Duke when Pastor Matt was there, and both he and I are familiar with Wright and we like his teaching.  So given the chance to take a class with him, my friend and I jumped at the opportunity.  And we were not disappointed.  I’ll be sharing with you the things we learned… probably for the next year!

One of the things I came away with was N.T. Wright has this big-picture view of Scripture: a view that says everything from Old Testament, to the Psalms, to the Gospels, to the New Testament, all works together to tell a story – which is a refreshing point of view when I hear people say things like “the Old Testament so old it’s not relevant any more”.  The big-picture story makes the Old Testament relevant. And the big-picture story is the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Our scripture reading for today from Colossians is a great example of a small excerpt of scripture fitting into the big picture, because it points to Jesus’ death and resurrection and how, through it, we can enter into the Kingdom of God.

So… if Pastor Matt preached the sermon he was hoping to preach last week, he talked about Colossae, an ancient city that was in the country we now know as Turkey. It was on a major road used for trade and military travel, so there was a real mix of people who lived and worked there. And Colossae was famous for its wool trade. But it was also famous for the way its people came up with new and different ways of mixing and combining the religions of the people who lived there.  They took bits and pieces of the Jewish faith, Greek philosophy, and the Greek and Roman gods, and mixed it all together.

This mixing of religions is called syncretism.  Most religions believe syncretism is not a good thing because it waters down the message of their faith, whatever faith it may be.  In fact it tends to lead people into a kind of agnosticism, a ‘not-knowing’, because if every faith has the truth how can one be sure of any faith?  Comedian Michael Palin of Monty Python put it this way: when asked about his religious beliefs, and he said, “I’m an agnostic, but I’m not sure about that.”  This is often the result of living in a syncretistic culture – which we live in, just as the Colossians did.

The church at Colossae, however, managed to avoid this syncretism. They stayed true to Jesus and to the Gospel message. And Paul praises them for this, and he says he thanks God for the Colossians’ faith and for their love for each other.

So that’s how the book of Colossians begins.  Today we move on to the next section of Paul’s letter, in which he warns the Colossians about spiritual dangers. He points out (1) the Colossians were living in a prosperous society. They had money, and their culture was becoming powerful and worldly; and (2) because of its religious experimentation, the Colossian culture was losing its sense of direction. And Paul wanted to spare the Colossian church the troubles that might come from these things.

Paul says a lot in this chapter… far more than we can cover this morning. For now I’d like to focus on just three things:

  1. Paul warns the Colossians against being taken captive
  2. Paul lists some dangers facing the Colossian church
  3. Paul explains how the Cross sets them free in Christ

The warning against being taken captive is found in Colossians 2:8. Paul says, “see to it that no one takes you captive”.

This probably surprised the Colossians, because they probably didn’t think of themselves as in danger of being taken captive. It would probably surprise us too, if someone said to us “don’t let anybody take you captive.” We think of ourselves as living in “the land of the free and the home of the brave” – how could we be taken captive?

Truth is captivity happens every day. People fall captive to addiction, for example: alcohol, drugs, sex, pornography – they can’t break free from these things. Then there’s human trafficking – the sale of human beings – which has become the second fastest growing crime, second only to the drug trade.

When people hear ‘human trafficking’ they usually think ‘prostitution’ but that’s always not the case. I remember a few years ago when I was working at another church in Pittsburgh area, a stranger came into the church and asked to talk to the pastor. He said he’d taken a job building houses and he said the construction crew was being forced to sleep on the floor of the house they were building, without electricity, without water, without heat. He managed to escape and found our church and he was asking for help so he wouldn’t have to go back. Turns out the man came to the right place, because our pastor, in his first career, had been a lawyer, so he knew exactly what to do.

These are just some examples of how people in our society can become captives. There are other ways that don’t show as much. Some people are captive to bad habits; or captive to negative thinking; some people are captive to fear.  These things may not endanger our lives but they rob us of the joy God intends for us.

So Paul starts out by warning against captivity.  He points out that whole history of God’s relationship with God’s people is about setting God’s people free!  From the very beginning, with the ancient Israelites escaping slavery in Egypt, to the New Testament where the people of God escape slavery to sin through the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the whole Bible is about freedom… and about the power to throw off our chains, by God’s grace, and move into the Promised Land of God’s Kingdom.

Paul then goes on to warn the Colossians about specific dangers he sees in society.  Paul doesn’t list all the possible dangers but he focuses on the ones people are most likely to come up against.  And he names four specifically: philosophy; deceit; human tradition, and the elemental spirits.  Let’s take a look at each one briefly.

First, philosophy.  Most of us have not studied ancient Greek philosophy, but our modern world is more influenced by Greek philosophy than we realize. Democracy, for example, was originally a Greek idea.  And in our society, beliefs about what happens when a person dies are often more Greek than Biblical. The idea that heaven is a place up there in the sky where our spirits go after our bodies are gone is purely Greek! The Bible teaches no such thing.  Scripture teaches resurrection of the body, not separation from the body, and it teaches a new heaven and new earth. God’s Kingdom is a place where we will live in new bodies on a new earth. That’s just one example of how philosophy can change our thinking without us even being aware of it. Our hope, for this life and the next, is not found in philosophy, but in Jesus Christ.

The second thing Paul mentions is deceit. In other words, lies. Lies are a problem on a daily basis but I think Paul is talking here more about deceit on a cultural level.  Miscarriages of justice, for example. Leaders who don’t speak the truth. These things wear on our spirits, they make us angry, or sometimes afraid for the future. Paul says in Jesus Christ we have hope and we have nothing to fear.  So beware, Paul says, of being taken captive by lies and by the negative feelings that follow.

The third thing Paul mentions is human tradition.  Paul is not saying all traditions are bad – far from it. He’s just saying some traditions can get out of control sometimes, especially if we forget why the tradition is there in the first place.  Take for example the tradition of not eating meat on Fridays. Way back in the early days of Christianity, the Church taught the spiritual discipline of fasting.  Fasting can be a good thing, it can help us draw closer to God, it can help us to understand God.

And because it can be a good thing, the early Catholic Church taught people the spiritual discipline of fasting. They said to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. As time went on, this rule was relaxed and changed to just Fridays. Later still, it was relaxed again and changed to just ‘don’t eat meat on Fridays’. And so to this day some churches still teach that people shouldn’t eat meat on Fridays.

And so the original spiritual discipline of fasting – of not eating at all on a given day in order to remember the hungry – in our day has become… the tradition of having Fish Frys on Fridays!

Now don’t get me wrong – I LOVE a good fish fry! But there’s a problem (1) if eating fish on Fridays becomes a rule, something people are told God requires, because nowhere in the Bible does it say “go thou and eat fish on Friday.”  (2) Fasting in the Bible has to do with our relationship with God, not our relationship with food. It has to do with sharing the experience of the hungry, and praying for the hungry, and giving so that hungry people can eat. Fish frys don’t do this – unless we find some way to, at the same time, remember the poor and the hungry.

Bottom line, there’s a difference between human tradition and God’s commands. And we need to be careful not to get trapped by tradition and dragged off course.

The fourth thing Paul mentions is elemental spirits.  This is kind of hard to define; it has to do with the fact that there is more to the universe – and more to our world – than just what we can see and touch and measure.  The Kingdom of God, for example, is not something we can see right now, but it exists.  Generally speaking we don’t see angels, but they exist. Powers for good and powers for evil exist.  The spiritual world is real.

This is why scripture warns us not to do things like going to fortune-tellers or palm-readers, or taking part in séances or dabbling in witchcraft.  As Christians we know God is in charge.  God is who we turn to when we’re in trouble or need advice.  To turn in any other direction is to turn away from God. That’s why the First Commandment is “thou shalt have no other gods but me”.  We have one God, the true and living God, and that’s all we need.

Paul goes on to say in verse 10, “Jesus is the head of all rulers and authorities.” Jesus is not just some power or force. Jesus has disarmed the spiritual powers, Paul says, “making a show of them.” Jesus Christ is the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the Power of powers.  Paul adds, “we are together in Christ… we are made alive together with him.” “Don’t let anyone rob you of your prize!”

And with these words Paul then proclaims our freedom in Christ.   He says we have been buried together with Jesus in baptism, raised through faith in the power of God who raised Jesus from the dead.  We, who were dead in our sins, God made alive through Jesus.  “Therefore,” Paul says, “let no one pass judgement on you” with regard to traditions or spiritual practices. Let nothing take you captive. Hold onto Jesus who is above all, the head of the body, who brings all the parts of the body together.

This is Kingdom living.  We trust God, for all that we need, for all that we do, and for the life to come, because Jesus has gone before us and opened the way.

So what does this all mean to us in practical terms?  In spite of Paul’s deep theology, his conclusion is pretty straightforward: every person has a choice.  Will we invest our lives, our time and our energy, in the kingdom of this world, or in the Kingdom of God? Will we follow the powers of this world and submit to them? Or will we follow Jesus and submit to him?

Jesus said, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  No earthly power ever said that (or if they did they were lying!)

Where it comes to citizenship in the Kingdom of God, or citizenship in the kingdom of this world, we cannot hold dual citizenships. Either we are citizens of God’s kingdom and just visiting this world; or we are citizens of this world and just catching a glimpse of God’s kingdom from a distance. We can’t be dedicated to both at the same time.  This is what Jesus meant when he said, “No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve both God and mammon.”  (Matt 6:24)

So the bottom line of Paul’s teaching for today is that we live in a place and a time where two kingdoms are in conflict. The kingdom of this world is passing away. The Kingdom of God is about to come in.  That’s why Jesus preached, through all the gospels, “the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news!” That was his message, over and over. Change direction and head for the Kingdom of God.

So which kingdom will we choose? Which power will we serve? If anyone here has not made that decision yet: don’t wait any longer. The Kingdom of God is at hand.  And Jesus is calling you.

Choose.

Today.

AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church 7/24/16

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Scripture Readings: Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities- all things were created through him and for him. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”  (Col 1:15-16, 19-20)

Sabbath Living: The Hope of Glory

I have been wanting to preach a sermon about the Sabbath for a long time. And our scriptures for today, even though they don’t mention the Sabbath directly, tie into it. So I’m going to start out talking about the Sabbath today, and then tie in the scripture readings and see where they take us.

As many of you know, before I became a pastor I directed a church choir for many years. And I loved my choir. But there was one thing they did that bugged me.  Every fall I would get calls or emails from some of my choir members saying “I can’t be there Sunday, sorry.” And if I asked “why?” they would say “Steelers game.” And I would say “But church ends at noon, and the game starts at one… what’s the problem?” (Apparently I just didn’t get it.)

Finally one day I looked at my choir and I said “God… Football… Weigh them in the scales: which is more important? God? Or football?”

(The very fact that I would ask that question is a dead giveaway that I was not born and raised in Pittsburgh!)

But it got me to thinking: how did we, as Americans, as Pittsburghers, as churchgoers, get to where we are with the Sabbath? I mean, when I was a kid the stores were all closed on Sundays. You didn’t work on Sundays (unless you worked at a hospital). You didn’t play sports on Sundays (unless you were a professional athlete).  I don’t even remember watching TV on Sundays (except for the Ed Sullivan Show, and that was on at night). Sundays were for going to church and then having dinner with your family… better still, with your extended family. Sundays were a day to relax.

These days we don’t have Sunday any more, not like that. Employers expect people to work any day of the week.  Schools and sports coaches demand our children’s time (or our grand-kids’ time) every day of the week. And stores have sales on Sundays to compete for what little time we have left on weekends.

It’s no wonder church attendance has dropped. Church has become, for many people, just one more thing to do, one more demand on our limited weekend time.

And if I sound like somebody who’s missing the good ol’ days, I’m not. I could tell stories about the ‘good ol’ days’.  But my experience with my choir made me start to re-think things.  Were we missing something back in those old days? Are we missing something now?

In looking for answers to these questions I came across a book called To Be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin. It’s standard reading for Jewish families.  And I chose a Jewish author because the Sabbath has its roots in Judaism. It started with Moses and the Ten Commandments.

You remember the Fourth Commandment.  God says:

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11)

This law comes before the laws against murder, theft, adultery, false witness and coveting! Why? Why was God so serious about keeping the Sabbath?

The Jewish people have had thousands of years to wrestle with these question. So I turned to a Jewish expert for some answers.

Rabbi Donin writes that the Jewish people have a great love for the Sabbath. They sometimes call it ‘the Sabbath Bride’ because they love it so much.

He says looking at it from the outside, Sabbath rules (like no working) may seem restrictive – ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that’ – but in reality it’s just the opposite.  The Sabbath is, in his words, “a glorious release from weekday concerns, routine pressures, and even secular recreation. It is a day of peaceful tranquility, inner joy, and spiritual uplift.” And after a week like the one we’ve had this week – with everything that has happened in the news — couldn’t we use a bit of peace, joy, and spiritual uplift?

The author also says the Sabbath speaks to us of  “…the eternal Paradise, of the world to come, [which will be] one long extended, unending, eternal Sabbath day.”

In other words, the Sabbath is meant to be a small picture, a taste, of eternity with God – a living picture of God’s Promised Land – where all earthly concerns will be behind us.  A world in which the powers and obligations of this world will be things of the past.

The Sabbath is one day out of seven when we can, with God’s blessing, tell the world to knock it off. It speaks to us of God’s justice, because God says all workers get time off. And it speaks to us of God’s joy and love, because it’s family time for the family of God.

For Jewish people, the Sabbath begins on Friday night at sundown. Friday dinner is served as if an honored guest were coming to visit: the best dishes are laid out, and the family dresses as if for company. Candles are lit. Prayers are said. Parents lay hands on their children and bless them in God’s name. And as dinner is eaten, songs are sung and celebration is in the air. Saturday morning the family goes to synagogue, and then the rest of the day is free to enjoy: to spend time with friends, visit neighbors, or enjoy some rest or a good meal. The Sabbath day continues all day until the stars come out on Saturday night.

Doesn’t that sound like a soothing break from our crazy pace of life? Doesn’t it make you hungry for something our society is missing? It does for me. It is a taste of the future, it’s a taste of God’s kingdom.

The apostle Paul knew all of this: knew it better than most of us, because he was a Pharisee. He was trained in Jewish law.  But he says in Galatians that Christians don’t have to keep Jewish law any more. Did he mean to include the Sabbath in that? Did he mean the Ten Commandments aren’t law for us any more? Yes, basically.  But does that mean we should disobey the Ten Commandments? Are we allowed to go around killing and stealing and lying? Of course not.

The Ten Commandments are still a good thing, guidelines for living. So we ignore the Sabbath at our own risk. Not because salvation is about keeping the law… but because if we miss it, we are missing someing really important. We miss out on rest that our bodies and minds and hearts and souls need. And we miss out on catching a glimpse of the coming kingdom of God. Sabbath points us in the direction of our future with Jesus in Paradise.

Listen to what Paul says in our reading from Colossians today:

“He (that is Jesus) is the image of the invisible God.” The word image in Greek is icon, and it has the same meaning as the word ‘icon’ in our day: it’s a picture that represents or stands in for something.  Jesus is the icon of God. And just like Jesus is the icon of God, the Sabbath is the icon of eternal life: a picture of what eternity looks like.

Paul says: “By him (that is, Jesus) all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible; thrones, dominions, rulers, authorities – all things were created through him and for him.”

And if Jesus was there in creation, as Paul says he was, then Jesus was also there on the seventh day when God rested.  Creation and the Sabbath are linked together, in such a way that they can’t be torn apart.

Paul goes on to say: Jesus is “the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead… in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” And Jesus has reconciled us to God in his body by his death. Paul says this is “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.” The mystery is: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

This is Kingdom-talk.  In the book of Colossians Paul is teaching the Colossians about the Kingdom of God, about the rule of Christ. He is teaching them that, because Jesus is King and because Jesus is in us… he is in us, and he is in the Kingdom, and we are in Him, so we are in the Kingdom. Christ in us, the hope of glory.

The Kingdom will be a place where Jesus will rest from all he has done for us; and we with him, and in him, and he in us.  The kingdom and the Sabbath are related. Intertwined. That’s why the Sabbath is so holy, and why it’s so important.

So having heard what Paul has to say, we turn to the story of Mary and Martha.  And we see Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening, while Martha is rushing around, preparing food, serving guests, trying her best to be the ‘hostess with the mostess’.

It’s clear from the story that Jesus honors Mary’s choice over Martha’s… but why? Is Jesus saying it’s better to sit and learn than it is to be busy working? No! Disciples of Jesus are called to work just as much as we are called to learn.

But when I look at this story in the Greek, what I see is Mary being with Jesus – not just physically with, but emotionally with, spiritually with Jesus: following his words, following his thoughts. She’s being a disciple. Martha, on the other hand, is drawn away from Jesus by all her worrying and fretting. She feels alone and left out. She’s feeling at the end of her rope. Martha wants her sister’s company. She wants her sister to help her. And it’s not a bad thing that Martha’s asking for… it’s just not the right way or the right time.  Mary didn’t left her sister alone; Mary made a choice. And Martha also made a choice to do what she’s doing. And Jesus hints that Martha still has time to change her choice if she wants to.

What I come away with in this story is that if we find ourselves feeling anxious, distracted, troubled, bothered… we may need to put things down for a little while and spend some time with the Lord like Mary does. In other words, Martha needed a Sabbath! And Mary was taking one.  Our picture of Mary – sitting peacefully at Jesus’ feet listening to his words – is a beautiful picture of Sabbath rest. And that’s why Jesus says she has chosen the better portion.

So what does all this mean for us today? I think three things:

  • First off it may seem strange to be talking about Christians taking a break after a week like this one. The world around us needs Jesus desperately, and we Christians need to be about God’s business, proclaiming the gospel, speaking God’s truth, bearing witness to God’s love in a world that is spinning out of control. But it’s at times like these when the Sabbath is even more We need to be rested, we need to let Jesus refresh us and teach us, so that we can go out into the world and be effective for God the other six days of the week. Otherwise we’ll just be a bunch of Marthas running around upset and distracted and wondering why nobody’s helping. Human beings were not designed to be on the go 24/7. We need rest, we need time with God, we need time when we can tell the world to go away for a little while, so that we can come at life again fresh.
  • Take some time to learn about the Sabbath and what God had in mind when God created the Sabbath. Read what Scripture has to say about the Sabbath. If you have a computer, go to biblegateway.com and run a search on the word ‘Sabbath’. Find out why the Sabbath is so important to God. Read about what happened when the ancient Israelites gave up on the Sabbath because they decided they’d rather make money on Saturdays… and how their society gave way to a culture of greed.  Are we seeing the same thing happening today?  How did God respond when this happened back then?  Take a look at these issues, and talk about them with each other.
  • As you are able, do some experimenting with the Sabbath. I have to admit I’m still experimenting myself, I’m still learning. So what I suggest here are some of the things that have worked for me, but feel free to improvise. Try setting aside one day a week when you will do no work. You might not be able to clear off one day a week at first… maybe just one day a month to start with. But make it a day when you will do absolutely nothing, from sundown one night to sundown the next. And it might not be Sunday – you might have too much to do on Sundays. Try a Saturday or a Tuesday, whenever you can clear off a day.  For that one day, be a human being, not a human doing.  Turn off the phones, turn off the computer, turn off the TV news (movies and entertainment are OK, but I recommend avoiding the news) and just live in the now. Be free of all obligations to anybody else.

I want to warn you, observing the Sabbath not easy. It’s amazing how fast distractions crop up and how hard it is to keep one day completely clear.  But it is worth the effort.  As you experiment, try different things. Try setting aside time to read scripture and pray. Try lighting a candle when the sun goes down on the first night. If you have kids or grand-kids, try pray God’s blessing over them. Listen to music… or if you play an instrument, play.  Visit a neighbor. Read a book. Go for a walk.  Sit out in the backyard with some sunscreen and a tall glass of iced tea.  And do no work for a day.

And whatever you do, do it with prayer. Ask God to guide you and teach you about this gift called Sabbath. Ask God to lead your thoughts and activities. Tell God you’re doing this because you want to know God better, and you want to know God’s Kingdom better.

And when you try this, let me know how it goes. I’d love to compare notes!

In the meantime, remember: the Sabbath is our icon, our picture, of the eternity to come. So step into the Sabbath… and enjoy!  AMEN.

 

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church 7/17/16

 

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Scripture Readings: Amos 7:7-17, Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37.  This is the Gospel reading: 

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”  Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

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As some of you know I just back from England about a week ago.  And as most of you know, a few weeks before that, I threw my back out. And when that happened I almost canceled the trip.  But my friend and I had already paid for it, and we wanted to go, so I gritted my teeth and got to packing.

Now I do not recommend traveling anywhere with a bad back, let alone overseas!  But I have to say I am very grateful for the people who, a few decades ago, fought for the rights of the handicapped to access public places.  Because of them, the airports and hotels we visited were well-equipped to deal with what I’ve got going on, and they did everything to make our trip as comfortable as possible.

My friend and I made this extra effort to get to England because we had signed up to take a class at Oxford under one of the leading theologians of our time: the retired Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright. He’s not as well known in the States as in the UK yet, but he spoke at Duke when Pastor Matt was there, and both he and I are familiar with Wright and we like his teaching.  So given the chance to take a class with him, my friend and I jumped at the opportunity.  And we were not disappointed.  I will be sharing what we learned with you probably for the next year or so!

One of the big things I came away with from that class was this: N.T. Wright has a huge big-picture view of Scripture: a view that says everything from Old Testament to the Psalms to the Gospels to the New Testament all work together to tell the same story – which is a refreshing point of view when I hear so many people saying things like “the Old Testament so old it isn’t relevant any more”.  According to Wright, the big-picture story the entire scriptures tell is a two-faceted story of (1) the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and (2) the coming of the kingdom of God.

The scripture readings for today are a great example of this.  We’re going to look mostly at the story of the Good Samaritan; but our readings from Amos in the Old Testament and Colossians in the New Testament lend support and direction and illustration to what Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel.  They build on one another. So follow with me as we look at today’s readings as a series of building blocks building to the main point.

The first building block is our passage from the prophet Amos.  By way of background (Amos being a little-known prophet): Amos preached God’s word in the northern kingdom of Israel around 700 BC (give or take a couple decades) after the kingdom of Israel had divided into two, north and south.  The south kingdom, called Judah, remained faithful to the descendants of King David (for a while). But the northern kingdom was in rebellion – not only against David’s royal line, but against God as well. Its priests and its kings were about as corrupt as you can get. They lived only for themselves; they indulged every whim; they were famous for exploiting the poor; taking advantage of widows and orphans; bribing judges; and completely corrupting the legal system.

This is what God called Amos to preach against. And here’s the message God gave Amos to preach: the Lord said, “I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by… I will rise against the house of Jeroboam (the king at the time) with the sword.”

A ‘plumb line’: I’ve never actually used one, but my husband the carpenter has.  A plumb line is a string with a weight on the end that uses the force of gravity to show a perfectly straight vertical line. And it’s used to make sure things like walls are built straight up.  God is saying to King Jeroboam and the religious leaders of Israel: ‘I am holding you up to a straight line… and it shows that you are not straight. You are crooked. You are bent.’

Of course when a carpenter is building, if a wall is not straight, it has to be torn down and rebuilt, because you can’t build on a foundation or on a wall that’s crooked. The whole building would fall over.  And that’s the implication here: God wants to build his Kingdom through Israel, but the nation has become crooked and God can’t build on that.  And God is saying through Amos: if the leadership of the nation can’t be straightened out, it needs to be removed and replaced.

The plumb line – that perfect plumb line that God sets in Israel – in a way is a prophecy about Jesus.  Note: this is not the only meaning in the passage; the Old Testament means what it means within its own context.  But many passages in the Old Testament have a double meaning and this is one of them.  Jesus is the plumb line against which all humanity is measured, and against which none of us comes up perfectly straight.  I’ll come back to that thought in a moment.

But there are a few other parallels to observe in this passage between Amos’ message and Jesus’ life:

  1. In our passage from Amos, Amaziah the priest tells the king “Amos is conspiring against you.” And in Jesus’ story, the priests go to Pilate and say “Jesus is stirring up a rebellion” – in other words, “he’s conspiring against you”. Same accusation against both men of God. Coincidence?
  2. In the reading from Amos, Amaziah the priest says to Amos: ‘get out of here. Go somewhere else. We don’t want to hear you’. His exact words in verse 13 are: “Never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

The irony of these words is that the name ‘Bethel’ in Hebrew means ‘house of God’ – in other words, this temple is the sanctuary of the true king, the heavenly king – not the corrupt earthly king.  And Amos replies: judgement will fall, and the people will be exiled… just like Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden.

So the plumb line is the first building block of the story: Israel didn’t measure up. And none of us measures up perfectly either.  But the good news is Jesus, the Messiah, did for us what we – and what Israel – could not do for ourselves.

The second building block is found in Colossians. In this passage Paul is talking about the gospel of the kingdom of God, whose arrival has begun in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. In Paul’s words kingdom living is characterized by faith, hope, and love (vss 4 & 5), and results in spiritual wisdom and understanding (v 9) and also results in bearing fruit for the kingdom in the form of good works. (Note: good works are the fruit of salvation, the result, not the means of getting there.)

In verse 13 Paul describes God’s kingdom this way: “God has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”  It is God’s forgiveness that opens the doors of the Kingdom to us; it is God’s forgiveness that makes it possible for us to see what the plumb line is telling us, to hear and understand and turn to God for the forgiveness we need in faith, in confidence; and therefore to enter God’s kingdom and live lives that bear Kingdom fruit.

God’s Kingdom is a change in leadership, a change in sovereignty. In God’s Kingdom we are ruled by the power of love and mercy, not by the power of violence and force like the world around us.  This is the good news that overcomes the world!

So the second building block is the preaching of the good news of God’s Kingdom.

And the story of the Good Samaritan is our third building block. It illustrates for us what reality is like in God’s Kingdom… what Kingdom values are.  Let’s take a look.

So a lawyer comes to Jesus to test him, and he says, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  It’s an odd conversation opener, and Jesus bounces it back to him.  He says, “What’s in the law? How do you read?”  And the lawyer answers, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul and all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself.”

And Jesus says basically, “That’s right.  Now go do it.”

“But wanting to justify himself” the scripture says, the lawyer asks ‘and who is my neighbor?’

I find it interesting that the lawyer doesn’t quibble with the first part, the part about loving God with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength. Does he think he’s got that nailed down already?  But I digress.

So Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan – how a Jewish man, traveling the dangerous desert road from Jerusalem to Jericho, falls among thieves and is beaten and left by the roadside for dead.  He is passed by, first by a priest and then by a Levite.  But a man from Samaria – a foreigner, someone who was considered an enemy of the Jewish people – has compassion on him, and rescues him, and cares for him, and pays an innkeeper to take care of him.

And the lawyer questioning Jesus has to admit that the Samaritan was the one who was the true neighbor.  And Jesus tells him, “go and do likewise.”

This story is SO well-known and has been preached so many times, I feel a need to back up for a minute and lay down a few disclaimers.  There are a number of things the Good Samaritan story is not about:

  • It is not (primarily) about which group of people is right and which group of people is wrong
  • It is not (primarily) about avoiding self-righteousness… although it does confront self-righteousness
  • It is not a blanket condemnation of lawyers (this is not history’s first lawyer joke)
  • It is not a blanket condemnation of priests, Levites, or any other clergy (however it does point out that not everyone practices what they preach)
  • It is not a blanket commendation of Samaritans: Jesus is not saying that all Samaritans are good. The choice of a Samaritan as the hero of the story does speak to the issue of prejudice, but only to make a larger point.

So what IS this story about?

As the old English theologian Charles Simeon once said: “The distinctions [that is, our differences] of religion or politics should be forgotten whenever [someone] stands in need of our assistance; we should sympathize as truly with our bitterest enemy, as with our dearest friend.” THAT is the point of this story.

The Samaritan’s kindness and mercy to an enemy is like Jesus.  It’s Christlike, because Jesus showed us kindness and mercy by dying for us when we were enemies of God.

This is the ‘gold standard’ of God’s kingdom.  This is the plumb line against which we will be measured.  And knowing we don’t measure up perfectly, this is the forgiveness Jesus gives us so that we can enter the Kingdom.

When Jesus says “go and do likewise” he is inviting us to let God’s heart of compassion take root in us and grow in us.  It’s not just “be like the Samaritan”.  To really grasp the point I had to go back to the Greek. Verse 33 says “and when [the Samaritan] saw him, he had compassion”…

The Greek word translated compassion is a word that’s only used five other times in the whole Bible, and in all five times it describes the heart of God:

  • Three of the five times describe Jesus’ compassion for the crowds. For example, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were…like sheep without a shepherd.”
  • The fourth time describes Jesus’ compassion for the widow whose son had died. (Luke 7:13) Jesus had compassion and raised the young man from the dead.
  • The fifth and final time describes the compassion of the father for the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:20) “while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”

The story of the Good Samaritan invites us to do more than just have sympathy for others.  We are invited to have empathy with God.  That’s what Paul is talking about in Colossians when he prays the Colossians will be “filled with… spiritual wisdom and understanding…”  It means to know God better, to know God’s heart, to let our hearts move with God’s heart

God is inviting us to feel as God feels, to be moved by what moves God, and to be moved to action by the things that move God to action.  This is Kingdom living!  It’s what the people in Amos’ day were missing, and it’s what the Colossians were being praised for as they began their faith journey

And for us here today – will we live into God’s kingdom?  Not just trusting God for our salvation – which is a beginning – but more than this, believing God’s promises are true for all people in all times and places.

Do we have the courage to hold up a plumb line to the world we live in, and call people to mercy and forgiveness?  Do we have the courage to say ‘yes Lord’ where it comes to getting to know the heart of God? Will we live into this ourselves, showing mercy even to our enemies? This is kingdom living, and whenever we do these things, the light of God’s kingdom advances further into the darkness of our world. Let’s go for it! AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 7/10/16

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The Great and the Small

Readings for June 12: Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36 – 8:3

In our reading from Galatians this morning, the apostle Paul speaks to the Galatians very passionately about salvation by faith alone through grace alone – words which, 1500 years later, became the cornerstone of the Protestant reformation.

Paul speaks in sort of legal-sounding language – which makes sense because Paul was essentially a lawyer – but the point he’s making is that it’s not what we do that saves us.  It’s who we believe in.

When Paul first brought the gospel to the Galatians, they received the good news with joy and were blessed by the Holy Spirit with spiritual gifts.  But a few years later, other religious teachers came, teaching that Christians must obey Jewish law as set out in the Old Testament.  After all, they said, Christians follow a Jewish Messiah; and Jesus said he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. So all these non-Jewish people in Greece and Rome and elsewhere who were coming to faith through Paul’s teaching needed to observe the Jewish laws and feasts and traditions.

Paul is very passionate about putting these teachers in their places, because they were dividing the church as well as negating the Gospel message. And that’s most of what the book of Galatians is about.  I recommend it to your reading. But for this morning I want to call attention to this quotation from Galatians 2:16. Paul writes:

“…we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.”

John Wesley, in one of his sermons, said this:

“To be justified is to have all of our sins completely blotted out, as if they had never been. […] It is the sinner, not the saint, who is forgiven. The good shepherd came “to seek and to save the lost”, to pardon those in need of mercy, to rescue us from the guilt and the power of sin. […] On what terms are they justified? On only one – faith.”  (http://theconnexion.net/wp/?p=3142#ixzz4BCzKEW7A )

So this teaching about salvation by faith has been the foundation of the Methodist Church from the very beginning until now. We are not saved by things we do; we are saved by trusting Jesus.

Our reading from Luke’s gospel today gives a wonderful illustration of this teaching: what it means, and what it looks like in real life.  So let’s turn our attention to this story.

One day a Pharisee invited Jesus to dinner. This was not unusual; it’s a common practice even in our day for clergy to invite guest speakers out to lunch after church. Most likely this was an after-synagogue invitation after Jesus had been a guest speaker.

I’ve been to a number of after-church dinners like this, and usually it involves the senior pastor and family, the junior pastor (if there is one) and family, maybe the head of church council… and the conversation is usually friendly, sharing stories and so on.

But this particular dinner Jesus was invited to was not like that.  First off the families weren’t there.  This group was all men.  The dinner was at the Pharisee’s house – his name was Simon – and the other people there were Simon’s friends.  Luke doesn’t say exactly who they were but my guess is they were probably other Pharisees, maybe a few scribes… religious types, mostly. Maybe one or two of the disciples.

Now (speaking as a recent seminarian) it’s not unusual for theology geeks to bunch together at the dinner table and debate minute details of theological teachings… but that’s not what’s happening here either. Simon the Pharisee has too many friends to qualify as a theology geek.

So why did Simon invite Jesus to dinner? Was he trying to ride the wave of Jesus’ popularity?  I doubt it.  Was he hoping to see a miracle? Luke doesn’t mention that. Was he seeking the truth, like the Pharisee Nicodemus did – was he coming to Jesus with questions? No – he doesn’t ask Jesus any questions.

Luke doesn’t say why Jesus was invited to this dinner. But he does say that Simon did not treat Jesus with proper hospitality. Simon failed to greet Jesus with a kiss.  Even today, on the news, you see European and Middle Eastern politicians greet each other with kisses, even if they can’t stand each other.  It’s the polite thing to do. But Simon didn’t. Simon didn’t offer Jesus water to wash his feet, or oil to clean his hair… both of which were common courtesy. So Jesus started out the dinner party with his host trying to make him feel like the odd man out.  This was not a friendly invitation.

This undercurrent of hostility becomes even clearer when we look at the previous few chapters of Luke, where we see Jesus coming under scrutiny of the Pharisees.  Jesus has been scolded by various Pharisees for things like (1) healing a paralyzed man and then forgiving his sins; (2) attending a feast with Tax Collector Matthew and all his tax collector buddies – ‘eating with sinners’ they called it; (3) not teaching his disciples to fast; (4) harvesting grain on the Sabbath; and (5) healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath.  After that last healing, by the way, Jesus asked the Pharisees which was lawful to do on the Sabbath: to heal or to kill?  At which point the Pharisees got angry with him, and in the ultimate irony went out and started making plans – on the Sabbath – to kill Jesus!

Jesus had much to say about Pharisees.  Of all the religious leaders of his day, he criticized them more than any others.  We tend to forget, those of us who live 2000 years later, that the Pharisees were very popular in their day.  The Sadducees were essentially collaborators with the Greeks and the chief priests were in cahoots with the Romans, but the Pharisees – they were the true-blue Jews.  They were… the Joel Osteens and the Robert Schullers and Rick Warrens and Pat Robertsons of their day. Proud supporters of their country and their heritage and the God of Israel.

So why do they have trouble with Jesus, and why does Jesus have trouble with them?

It all comes down to the great and the small.  The Pharisees were considered great – but their love was small.  And everyday people were considered small… but they’re about to meet someone whose love was great.

So Simon the Pharisee invited Jesus to dinner, and Jesus said “yes”.  And the men reclined at table: heads and shoulders near the table, feet extended out behind them. And they began to eat.

All of a sudden a woman from the city crashes the party. Luke says she was known for being ‘a sinner’. Many people have said she was a prostitute, but Luke doesn’t say that. The word he uses in Greek means essentially an ‘unbeliever’.  She was Jewish by birth but didn’t observe the faith.  She certainly didn’t give the Pharisees or Sadducees the time of day!

And she shows up with an alabaster jar of ointment.  Was this a spur-of-the-moment thing on her part? I don’t think so.  This woman – whose name we don’t know, I wish we did – lived in the Galilee region where Jesus had been preaching.  She’d heard about him. It was public knowledge that Jesus had cast out demons, and healed people who came to him for healing. He had raised a widow’s son from the dead.  It was public knowledge that the Pharisees were criticizing him, particularly for telling people their sins were forgiven. And he would be teaching in the synagogue one day and then eating with tax collectors the next!

She finally got a chance to hear him preach… from a distance, she didn’t dare come close… and she heard him talk about loving one’s enemies… and blessing the poor and the broken-hearted. And something deep inside her was moved.

Where it came to church she’d been an outsider all her life. She figured God, if there was a God, didn’t care all that much about people like her. But this guy – this Jesus – if there was ever a God she could believe in… if there was ever a God worth believing in… he’d be like Jesus.  She just knew it.  She looked at Jesus and she saw him for who he really was, on the inside, his love and his god-likeness – and she loved him from the depths of her soul.  If this wasn’t the Messiah, she thought to herself, there would never be one.

And she had to find some way to tell him. That’s the nature of love: real love can’t go unexpressed. Love has to be spoken, or demonstrated, no matter how vulnerable it makes us. She had to do something.

And then she was told about the dinner party at Simon’s house. What a perfect opportunity to do something! Jesus would be taking a swim in the shark tank (so to speak) and he could probably use a friend at a party like that. So she hatched her plan.  She would watch from outside the house, and once Jesus had been welcomed and his feet had been washed and the men were reclined at table she would enter and pour perfume on his feet – an extract of myrrh, by the way, according to Luke. It would be a wonderful way to praise him, to say by her actions ‘this man is royalty, he has the heart of a king’.

But when she got there she discovered Jesus’ feet had never been washed!  Simon had insulted the most truthful and loving person she’d ever seen!  Anger at Simon’s insult mixed with her own feelings of amazement at Jesus and unworthiness to touch such a holy man, and all those feelings mixed and combined and came to the surface in the form of tears – which she used to wash his feet, and used her hair to dry them. Once Jesus’ feet were properly cleaned she broke the alabaster jar and poured out the ointment, filling the whole house with the smell of perfume.

As she began to finish she could feel the eyes of all the men on her… and they weren’t looking at her kindly, except for one. The odd thing is they weren’t saying anything. They weren’t chasing her out. In fact… she suddenly realized… she wasn’t actually the focus of their attention, Jesus was. Their judgement was aimed at him.  And through her confusion she heard Jesus speak:

“Simon, I have something to say to you.”

“Rabbi, speak,” he answered.

Jesus said, “A certain man had two people who owed him money. One owed him about a month’s wages, the other owed him almost two years’ wages. When they could not pay, he cancelled both debts. Which of these two men will love him more?”

The woman remained at Jesus’ feet in silence but her heart took flight. Jesus understood! Without a word he knew her heart and had received her gift.

Simon answered, “I suppose the one who had the greater debt canceled.”

And Jesus said, “you’re right.” And he went on to compare two people in the room who had been forgiven: Simon himself, and the woman. “Do you see this woman?” Jesus said.  “When I came into your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair… I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven, because she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

And for the first time the woman dared to raise her eyes and look at Jesus. She looked into the face of love, and he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

And for the first time in her life, she felt like her heart was at peace. Jesus had not only received her gift, he had given her an even greater gift in return: the assurance that she was right about God. That God is a God who cares about the least and the lost, and Jesus is the Messiah worth believing in, the one who forgives, the one who honors love. She went home a different person, changed forever, seeing life in a new light, at peace with God.

Meanwhile back at the Pharisees’ dinner party the guests were asking each other, “who is this who forgives sins?”  Truly there is none so blind as those who will not see.  Each person at that dinner table had been offered the same forgiveness that the woman received, but they never knew it. These men ate dinner with Jesus himself and went away untouched and unchanged and unmoved.  They didn’t love, and they didn’t believe.

All in all this woman’s story is a beautiful illustration of what Paul is talking about when he says we are saved by faith.

But wait… doesn’t Jesus say the woman’s sins were forgiven because she loved so much? Yes. And this is no contradiction. It comes under the heading of the old saying, “faith without works is dead”.  The woman was saved by faith.  Jesus even said so: “your faith has saved you.”  But real faith moves us to action. And the deeper the faith, the deeper the love; and the deeper the love, the more passionate the action.

So today as we listen to this woman’s story, where do we find ourselves in the story? Do we relate to Simon, wanting to be in Jesus’ company but always keeping him emotionally at arm’s length?  Do we relate to the other dinner guests, curious but not getting involved? Or do we relate to the woman, who in spite of all the disappointments in her life, sees in Jesus a love and a worth and a truth that can’t be found anywhere else? Do we seen in Jesus someone we would give anything to be with? Something greater than anything this world can offer?

This woman’s heart shows us the very heart and soul of the Christian faith. To be Christian is to love Jesus so much that we’ve got to do something about it. We can’t stay silent. We are captivated by the person Jesus is, and like the woman we feel we must respond.

Let’s pray together. Lord Jesus, inspire in our hearts such love for you today that we would not be ashamed to fall at your feet in tears and receive your welcome with joy. Help us to hear your voice as you say to each one of us, “your sins are forgiven – go in peace.” Amen.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, 6/12/16

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“Praise God!”

Readings for June 5, 2016: Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17

 “Praise the Lord!” These are the words that open Psalm 146 – a call to praise God.

These words were written around 3000 years ago, but sometime during our lifetimes the words ‘praise the Lord’ became a kind of a catch-phrase – a way to stereotype people who have more heart than head about their religion.

It started back in the 1980s when people in the ‘born-again Christian’ movement starting using the words ‘praise the Lord’ almost like a way to identify who’s really a Christian and who’s not: if you say it, you’re saved; if you don’t, you need to be witnessed to. One televangelist who eventually ended up in a famous scandal even named his ministry PTL Ministries which stood for ‘Praise The Lord’.

So in our time the phrase ‘praise the Lord’ has gotten a bad rep.  So today I’d like to restore these words to their original meaning and intention.

First, in the original Hebrew, this phrase is only two words: Hallelu and jah, which translates ‘praise Yahweh’ or ‘praise God’.  Put it together and you’ve got hallelujah – a beautiful word, one of my favorite of all words.

Second, saying ‘praise the Lord’ is not in itself praising the Lord. It’s a command to others (or to ourselves) to praise God. Actually praising God means telling God how wonderful God is and why.  We praise God when we sing hymns to God. We praise God when we talk to others about what God has done for us. We praise God when we pray.

Here’s an example what I mean:  Let’s say I wanted to praise my husband for taking good care of me while I’ve been dealing with these back problems.  Would I walk up to him and say “Praise the husband!”?  Of course not!  I would look at my husband and say “You’ve been taking such good care of me. Thank you.”  You see the difference.  Saying the word ‘praise’ is just talk. Praising is actually telling the person, saying out loud what we appreciate about them.

So the psalmist today is encouraging us to praise God.  And then he goes on to say why we should praise God. Let’s dig into this.

First the psalmist says God is the greatest power in the universe, and he compares God to people the world considers powerful or great. He says “do not put your trust in princes… when their breath departs they return to the earth: on that very day their plans perish.”

These are wise words for us to remember anytime, but especially during a presidential election year. No matter who you like as a politician or who you plan to vote for, these ‘princes of the earth’ – as the psalmist calls them – are mere mortals. They won’t live forever. Their words will not live forever. And whether they succeed in keeping their campaign promises or not, their plans and their policies won’t last forever. No leader is forever. No nation is forever, for that matter.

But God is forever. God will live forever. God’s word will last forever. And God’s plans will come to pass.  Therefore, as the psalmist says, “happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob… who keeps faith forever.”  We praise God because God is always with us, and can always be trusted. Those who hope in God will not be disappointed.

The psalmist goes on to give us more reasons to praise God: God executes justice. God feeds the hungry. God sets the prisoners free. God opens the eyes of the blind. God lifts up the lowly and the downtrodden. God loves the righteous and puts an end to wickedness. God welcomes the stranger. God provides for orphans and widows.

So many of these things are things politicial candidates try to offer us: Food. Justice. Medical care. Care for the disadvantaged. Protection for honest citizens. They promise these things every election cycle – but do things ever really change? Not much. A little maybe, but not much – because political leaders don’t really have the power do these things, at least not perfectly, or with perfect fairness. At some point the implementation of their programs fails: the result of imperfect human beings running imperfect institutions.

All these things that the world’s power can’t deliver, God can deliver.  Look at that list again, and think about what Jesus has done: Feeding the hungry? Jesus fed 5000 people with just a few loaves and fish, and had 12 baskets of food left over. Setting prisoners free? Remember the woman caught in adultery – she was forgiven, and all the men who were going to stone her walked away.  Opening the eyes of the blind? Jesus did this a number of times. Lifting up the lowly? Remember the people who fell at his feet begging for healing for their loved ones, for their families. Not one of them went away disappointed. Welcoming the stranger? Even a Roman centurion and a woman from Samaria – people who were hated by the Jews of his day – were welcomed by Jesus.

Providing for orphans and widows? Our Gospel reading from today gives us an example of this: Jesus and the disciples run into a funeral procession coming out of the city. And Jesus, seeing a widow who had lost her only son, is moved with compassion and brings the young man back to life, and gives him back to his mother.  The people who witness these things immediately praise God. Why? Because, in their words, “God has looked favorably upon his people”.

There are examples all through scripture of God providing for God’s people, and Jesus’ ministry is a shining example of that. Where leaders of nations disappoint us, God succeeds. God meets every need perfectly.

But what about those times when we feel like our needs aren’t being met? Or we feel like our prayers aren’t being answered? It happens sometimes. We may lose a loved one, or some tragedy touches our lives, and we ask God ‘why?’ Or we may ask “how can a good God allow this to happen? Why doesn’t God do something?”

I’ll be honest – there are no easy answers to these questions.  Philosophers and theologians have wrestled with these questions for thousands of years and they are no closer to finding answers than I am.

What I have found is that God can use the difficult times to bring good things into our lives.  Going through difficulty makes us more compassionate, because we can understand others who are going through difficulty. And I find, even in difficult times, if I look around I can usually find reasons to praise God. Not that I’m praising God for pain or for trouble, but I’m praising God that God is with me through them, teaching and guiding. And that’s enough for me.

Getting back to our scriptures for today – the apostle Paul, in our reading from Galatians praises God because the gospel he preaches is not of human origin but was revealed by Jesus Himself. Paul praises God that God’s word is made known. And the people Paul is writing to praise God because the man who was once trying to destroy them – that is, Paul – is now “proclaiming the faith he tried to destroy”.

So we see in our scripture readings for today many reasons to praise God.

What then do our scriptures lead us to be doing?  Well, praising God, of course!  Throughout the day, every day. When we see something that touches us – praise God.  I look at the flowers in our gardens, for example – the exquisite and detailed beauty of every petal and leaf – and I praise God for beauty.  I look at ourselves and our families – the amazing complexity of every human being. Have you ever looked at, for example, your hand, and thought about all that goes into it? The bones, and the muscles, and the skin, and the fingernails, all moving the way they do. The hand is an engineering marvel! God’s creativity is astounding!

Secondly, our goal as God’s children is to grow up in God, to become more like our Father as time passes.  To have a family resemblance.  And so, whenever and wherever it depends on us, we need to be doing the things we praise God for.  In our Psalm for today that would include working for justice, feeding the hungry, visiting prisoners, setting captives free, working for healing, lifting up the poor and lowly, welcoming strangers (especially, in our time, the many refugees who are finding their way to Pittsburgh from around the world); helping provide for orphans and widows. And sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.  When we do these things we show we are God’s children, sharing God’s righteousness and God’s mercy in the lives of those we meet… and praising God by our actions.

The psalmist says: “Praise the LORD, O my soul!  I will praise the LORD as long as I live….”  Let’s take a few minutes right now to pray and thank God for all God has done for us. And if a hymn of praise happens to pop into your mind, sing it out.  Let’s pray.

Lord, we praise you for your many blessings in our lives… [silence]  Lord thank you that you have made us your children. Help us to be more like you. Create in us that family resemblance so others will praise you. Thank you Lord that you are forever, faithful and trustworthy. We look forward to an eternity spent telling you how wonderful you are. AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, 6/5/16

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This is Wisdom

Trinity Sunday – Scripture passages are Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15

The title of our sermon for today – “This is Wisdom” – is not meant to point to the sermon itself.  (I’ll do my best!)  Rather it refers to our readings. As I was reading the four scripture passages assigned for today, and trying to choose one to preach on, I said to myself after reading each passage, “this is about wisdom!” All four readings tie into the concept of wisdom, comment on it, and build on it.

So “This is Wisdom” points to all four of our scripture readings. Our focus for today will be mostly on the reading from Proverbs, but we will touch on the others as well.

I think we also need to start out with a working definition of wisdom.  Wisdom is not the same thing as knowledge or book-learning.  There’s an old joke that says knowledge is what tells us the tomato is a fruit, and wisdom is not putting tomato in a fruit salad.  I like that definition.  Wisdom gives us insight beyond just facts and figures, into meaning, and purpose, and intent… insight into the mind of the Creator God.

I give thanks to God that wisdom is not the same thing as knowledge.  Knowledge, education, and book-learning are good things. Personally I’d love to go to school for the rest of my life if I could afford it! But there are people for whom education and book-learning is not easy. I have a friend who can take a computer apart and put it back together… or take a car apart and put it back together!… but don’t ask him to learn how to do these things by reading a book.  That’s not how he learns. Those of us who do well in school are blessed, but I thank God, God’s wisdom does not require being good at book-learning.  Wisdom is available to all people, no matter how we learn.

The author of Proverbs tells us “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom”.  That is, the reverence of God, listening to God, taking God seriously. Wisdom requires a heart for God.

Towards the beginning of the book of Proverbs the author writes:

“Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for [wisdom’s] income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her.  Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor.   Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.” (Prov 3:13-17)

Later on the author writes: “To get wisdom is to love oneself.” (Prov 19:8)

Throughout the book of Proverbs, we are encouraged, over and over again, to “get wisdom” and to desire wisdom above all else.  The writer of Proverbs says get wisdom first, and everything else will follow.

So how do we go about doing this? In our passage for today Proverbs says:

“Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?  On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out.” (Prov 8:1-3)

The first thing we notice in this passage is, wisdom is not hidden.  Which, given how rare wisdom is in our world, may come as a surprise.  But wisdom is not hiding; wisdom cries out. Wisdom makes her voice heard.  The question is, who’s listening?

And then as the reading from Proverbs continues, the speaker changes: and we hear Wisdom herself speaking, saying “the Lord created me at the beginning – the first of God’s acts of long ago.”

“Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth… When he established the heavens, I was there, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep… I was beside him, like a master worker…”   (Prov 8:25, 27, 28, 30, edited)

Whenever we talk about creation, the language is so poetic… and yet when we learn about the origins of our world, somehow science and poetry seem to pull us in different directions.  It’s like we’re saying ‘OK, over here are the scientific facts, and over there is the poetry’.  But why should the two be opposed?  Many of today’s leading scientists who study the origins of the universe now believe that the ‘Big Bang’ was made up primarily of light.  The poetry of Scripture agrees when it says in the creation story, “let there be light”.  Proverbs says, Wisdom was there, witnessing these events, a master worker, rejoicing in the work!  Verse 31 says Wisdom was rejoicing before God, rejoicing in creation, and “delighting in the human race.” (Prov 8:31)

The great conductor Leonard Bernstein once said he believed God did not so much say ‘let there be light’ as God sang it.  I believe that.  And I believe that’s what Proverbs is saying here.  The Big Bang was no accident. It was designed. It was deliberate. And it is infused in every way with wisdom and with music and with joy.

There is an awesomeness to creation. We’ve all felt it, in those quiet moments… perhaps gazing at the vastness of the stars at night; or perhaps watching a newborn infant sleep, and wondering at this new life… when we become overwhelmed at the grandeur of God’s creation, the sheer profound knowledge that God speaks to us through creation.

I am reminded of a time long ago when I went on a church trip out to the Colorado Rockies.  One morning I sat on a mountainside, looking out over miles and miles of mountains and valleys at the utter grandeur of God’s creation. You can’t help but praise God sitting in a place like that! The Rocky Mountains are so huge, and we are so small by comparison, it’s overwhelming.  And as I prayed that morning I sensed the Holy Spirit whispering “Do you see all this? All this grandeur? This is nothing compared to the grandeur I’ve created in every human soul.”

This is wisdom. And this is what King David was getting at in Psalm 8 when he wrote:

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?  Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet,  … O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:3-9, edited)

David says we have been made ‘little lower than God, crowned with glory and honor’.  This is wisdom. This is who human beings are; what we were created for – our purpose, our destiny. Where people run into trouble is when we forget we’re a little lower than God and start denying God, or playing God, or trying to take the place of God, or in some other way thinking we don’t have need of God. When our thoughts head in this direction, wisdom slips from our grasp.

David says God has given us “dominion over the works of God’s hands” – that is, all of creation – which we see in the book of Genesis when God brings all the creatures to Adam to be named.  Thousands of years later scientists are still discovering new life forms and giving them names!  God’s work in creation continues to this day.  But the human race runs into trouble when we forget we are stewards of God’s creation, not owners; when people abuse creation, damage it, pollute it, or neglect it.

David’s words are wisdom.  And there’s one more thought in Psalm 8 that often gets overlooked and that’s in verse two:

“Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.” (Psalm 8:2)

So often we only hear the first line “out of the mouths of babes…” and we forget the rest of the verse.  Out of the mouth of a child God has founded a bulwark – a defensive wall, used in battle – to silence the enemy!  David is looking forward to the coming of the baby Jesus, the Messiah!

This verse reminds me of a piece of music called A Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten, often heard at Christmas time.  One of the carols is called This Little Babe and the text includes these words:

This little Babe so few days old is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake, though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak unarmèd wise the gates of hell he will surprise

His camp is pitchèd in a stall, his bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib his trench, haystacks his stakes; of shepherds he his muster makes;
And thus, as sure his foe to wound, the angels’ trumps alarum sound.

And the song ends by saying, “… If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy, then flit not from this heavenly Boy.”

David’s words lead us to wisdom, to the birth of the Messiah, and to the words of the apostle Paul:

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ – [the Messiah!] – through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand..” (Romans 5:1-2)

This little babe has come, and for those who believe, he has reconciled us to God through faith. This is wisdom. Salvation is wisdom, reconciliation to God is wisdom.

Justified by faith, we now have peace with God through Jesus Christ. Not through good works, not through church-y things like being baptized or confirmed – which are good things to do – but through Jesus alone we are justified, and therefore we can boast in God’s glory.

The world tries to tell us we’re believing in a fantasy – but the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah are historical facts, recorded not just in the Bible but by other historians who witnessed these events.

And Wisdom also speaks through the Holy Spirit, as the apostle John writes.  The Spirit “takes what belongs to Jesus, what belongs to God, and declares it to us”.  Jesus says:

“He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:14-15)

Jesus is wisdom incarnate, and the Holy Spirit is wisdom in us, who guides us into truth and speaks God’s word into our hearts.

So what can we take away from all this?

First and foremost, the call to “get wisdom” and to seek after wisdom, a knowledge of God and God’s word that grows deeper and richer over time, and results in rejoicing – a deep-seated joy that nothing can shake. Wisdom is the result of being close to God, and spending time with God… and the longer we do, the greater our wisdom grows.

Secondly, wisdom surprises us.  God’s wisdom turns the world’s wisdom on its ear.  Who would think to send a baby to save the world? God did. God brings down the mighty and raises up the humble. God uses the small and the powerless to change the course of history.  Wisdom is always surprising.

And with wisdom, even our sufferings are turned into good for us – as Paul says in Romans, “we boast in our sufferings (because) suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:3-5)  With wisdom, even the negative things in our lives are turned and used for our good.

Third, when we seek and follow wisdom we are seeking and following Jesus in the power of the Spirit.  The prophet Isaiah wrote about the Messiah:

“The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might.” (Isaiah 11:2)

Wisdom was with God in Creation, was with Jesus in the Incarnation, and is with us in the Holy Spirit – wisdom, the joyful servant of the Trinity.

Brothers and sisters, seek wisdom. AMEN.

 

 

Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 5/22/16

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“City of God”

Scripture Readings: John 14:23-29, Revelation 21:1-10, and Revelation 22:1-5.

Excerpt: 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.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 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; 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.”  – Revelation 21:1-4

(The sermon is preceded by the song The Golden City from the CD City of Gold, Phil Baggeley et al, Gold Records UK 1998. This album is a collection of songs and poems about heaven, and was very popular in the UK though never made it to the U.S. It is often particularly meaningful to people who have lost loved ones because it gives a vision of heaven and God’s future.)

When I was in school we had a professor who always used to say “Context is king!”  It became a catch-phrase among the students: What’s the difference between a nice meal at home and a nice meal at a restaurant? Context! What’s the difference between a vacation in the mountains or a vacation at the beach? Context!

The question of context is equally important when reading the Bible, and he taught us that as we read, we should ask the questions a reporter would ask: Who? What? When? Where? Why?

These questions become particularly challenging when we approach a book like Revelation.  Revelation is literally an apocalypse – a tale of the end of the world – and because of that it’s mystifying, and a bit scary in places. I don’t know about you but I can remember as a teenager having “heavy” conversations with friends about the book of Revelation and wondering what the end times would be like. Would we live to see them?  I don’t think any of us had actually read the book at that point, just a few passages that seemed to defy all logic. We used to try to figure out which country was represented by which beast: a bear? That’s got to be Russia! An eagle? That’s got to be the U.S.!

We couldn’t have known it back then, but we were way out of context.  The book of Revelation is not meant to be a road-map to the end times. Many people have mistaken it for that.  There have been many instances in history where people sold everything they had and went up a mountain to wait for Jesus to return, and it didn’t happen.  People thought they “miscalculated”.

The book of Revelation is not a timetable.  It’s a vision, and it’s a letter, written to the early church during a time of trouble.  And there are two kinds of trouble Revelation addresses: trouble from outside the church, and trouble from inside the church.

The opening chapters of Revelation deal with troubles inside the church. This is not our focus for today, but the messages to the early churches in the first few chapters contain words of encouragement and warning that are just as relevant today as they were then.  One of the most touching of these is Jesus’ challenge to the church at Ephesus:

“I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary.  Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love….” (Rev 2:2-4)

These words were written over 2000 years ago but they echo down through all of history to Christians in every time and every place, challenging us to stay loyal to our first love.

But our focus for today is on the last chapters of Revelation, and we need to back up and get some of that context our professor talked about.

The book of Revelation was written by the apostle John, possibly assisted by friends, while in exile on the island of Patmos. It was probably written around 65AD give or take a few years, 30 years or more after Jesus’ resurrection.  The generation after Jesus – the Christians born and raised roughly between the years 35-70AD – were raised in a church that was for the most part free of persecution.  What little persecution there was usually came from the temple authorities in Jerusalem, not from the Romans (with a few exceptions).  The church at that time was still centered in Jerusalem; it still had Jewish leaders (Peter, Paul, and James); and evangelism to that point had been relatively local. The church spread throughout Judea in the south of Israel and Galilee in the north, as well as areas like Gaza, Samaria, and the seaside towns of Joppa and Caesarea.

It was a time of rapid growth for the church.  But as the decade of the 60s drew to a close, political unrest began to grow in Israel and in the year 70 the unrest erupted into out-and-out rebellion against Rome that would end in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, most of which were burned to the ground.  Somewhere around this time the Romans – who till now had not paid much attention to this new group called ‘Christians’ – heard a rumor (started by the Jerusalem rebels) that Christians were responsible for the uprisings, and persecution began.

Jesus predicted all of this in Luke’s gospel. He had warned the disciples:

“When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.  Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; […] they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (Luke 21:20-24, edited)

So the Christians living in Jerusalem ran for their lives. (The refugees we hear about today are, sadly, not new in human history.)  As a result Christians were scattered throughout the Roman Empire, and churches were founded in countries that include modern-day Egypt, Libya, Syria, Turkey, Greece, and Italy.

So the apostles started to write letters to keep in touch with the believers throughout the Empire.  Paul wrote to the churches he visited; Peter wrote letters (I & II Peter) intending them to be shared among the churches; and John wrote his Apocalypse.  All of these written to strengthen believers who were facing troubles from outside and inside the church.

I think it would be fair to say we also are now in a church that is under pressure from both the outside and the inside.  We may not face physical persecution here in the U.S., though there is persecution happening in other parts of the world.  But for us Americans, many of us remember the 1950s and 1960s when the church in the U.S. was widely accepted by society, and it takes us by surprise when we see church attendance falling and religion getting bad press in the media.  When we were kids everybody went to weekend services: our Jewish friends went to temple on Saturday, and everyone else went to church on Sunday. It was expected, it was part of everyday life… but not any more.

What we didn’t realize, those of us who grew up in those days, is: times like these, when the church is the “in” place to be, are actually relatively rare in human history. In the 1400s Martin Luther risked his life to reform the Catholic church back when mass was said in a language people didn’t understand. Congregations back then (when they attended church) had no idea what the priest was saying.  Roughly 100 years later, John Wycliffe of England risked his life to translate the Bible into English, and while he managed to avoid being killed, many of the people who helped him paid with their lives.  Two hundred years later, also in England, just before the Wesleys came on the scene, one historian writes England was “a moral quagmire and a spiritual cesspool” filled with gambling, public executions, and the slave trade.  John and Charles Wesley risked their careers to bring a revival of faith that changed English history – and American history as well.  The revival they started resulted in many people returning to God and the founding of hundreds of churches.

There was another revival 100 years later, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when more churches were built and church attendance went up again.  This revival was the one in which our South Hills Partnership churches were built, and its roots were very much in the foundation laid by the Wesleys a century before.

So throughout history church attendance has gone up and down, and the up-swings have been very much linked to times of revival. And as one internet pastor writes: “revivals emerge during times of spiritual and moral decline.”  This same pastor also points out that, while revivals are the work of the Holy Spirit and they improve both the church and society, they are also (in his word) “messy”: revivals spark controversy, and they invite spiritual excesses, and inspire disputes among theologians (which makes seminary really interesting!).  So good times in the church, times of stability and peace, are relatively rare in church history.

So where does Revelation come into all of this? Revelation is a message to a church that finds itself in tough times.  Which, looking out over church history, is most of the time.  Revelation shares a vision of the coming of a new heaven and new earth – and comfort and encouragement for those of us who are living on the old earth in the meantime. The point of Revelation’s visions of beasts and battles and angels and horsemen can be summed up this way: the time is coming when evil will be done away with.  Jesus, the Lamb of God, the light of the world, and the lover of our souls, wins in the end.

I think Jesus had these things in mind when he spoke the words we hear in John’s gospel today:

“…the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.  […] If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.” (John 14:26-29)

Jesus is talking about the coming of the Holy Spirit, who will teach us the truth.  As we saw last week in the story of Cornelius, the Holy Spirit comes to those who hear the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and believe.  Jesus says, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (John 14:23)

The Holy Spirit is our advocate with God – the one who takes our part before the throne of grace, and the one who teaches us what God expects. The Holy Spirit never contradicts the teaching of Jesus; the Holy Spirit leads us to God’s truth, never away from it; and the Holy Spirit brings to mind words we need to say that we might never have thought of, and understanding we might never otherwise have grasped.

The Holy Spirit brings God’s peace in every situation – “not as the world gives” as Jesus says.  Does this mean we will never be upset by anything? No, of course not.  But it does mean that underneath it all we have a foundation of confidence that all things – including ourselves – are safe in God’s hands.

In John’s gospel Jesus says it is to our advantage for him to go to God the Father so that the Holy Spirit can come to us.

The Holy Spirit also gives in Revelation a word of warning to those who do not honor God. I actually like the old KJV translation here, the language is colorful: it describes evil people this way: “the fearful, and unbelieving, the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars”. The Spirit warns these will be subject to ‘the second death’ from which there will be no resurrection.

The ultimate source of all these sins is a lack of faith. Idolatry (which is on the list) is worshiping what is not God; and I believe this is the sin of our age – more than murder, more than terrorism, more than lying or cheating or stealing – because all these other sins are caused by people who desire something more than they desire God… who worship something more than they worship God. Even good things, like food and pleasure and relationships, if they become our masters, end up coming between us and God. They become idols.

So where does Revelation touch our daily lives? Primarily, it encourages us to keep on keeping the faith. And to avoid doing the evil things on that list from Revelation, and do the opposite: Do not be afraid. Do not be unfaithful; do not hate; do not murder but live at peace with others; don’t chase after cheap sex; resist the sin of sorcery, which is the temptation to play God; worship nothing but God; speak the truth.

To those who live God’s way, God promises:

“they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.  And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (Rev. 22:4-5)

Why would anyone want to settle for anything less?

Shakespeare’s Henry V famously said, “the readiness is all”.  And nowhere is that more true than in the book of Revelation.  There is a new world coming and we want to be part of it. And we need to be ready. Hold on to that vision, and keep on keeping the faith.  AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 5/1/16

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