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Hebrews 1

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

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

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

Hebrews 2

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

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

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

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

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Hebrews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

guardian angels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then we come to chapter 2 verse 10 –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Safe

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

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

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

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

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

Prayers in a Caring Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

prayer1

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

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

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

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

prayer2

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

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

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

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

sing to God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

community_0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

apostrophe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Upside-Down Kingdom

Psalm 1  

1 Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;
2 but their delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.
4 The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6 for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
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Mark 9:30-37 

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it;  31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”  32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”  34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.  35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,  37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

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Imagine for a minute if you walked into a room and all the furniture is stuck to the ceiling. The carpet is on the ceiling, the chairs are on the ceiling… so if you and your friends want to sit down, somehow you have to climb up to the ceiling and cling on to the armchair with your feet on the ceiling… how awkward would that be? And how challenging?

UpsideDown2In a way, living in God’s kingdom is like learning to live in a house with all the furniture on the ceiling – at least at first, because things in God’s kingdom aren’t like they are in our so-called ‘real world’.  When you first get a taste of God’s kingdom, things feel upside down, until you get used to it – and then you begin to realize that God’s kingdom and God’s way of doing things is actually right-side-up and it’s our so-called ‘real world’ that is messed up, upside-down and backwards.

That’s kind of what our scriptures are talking about this morning. Both readings talk about what life is like in God’s kingdom, and how that contrasts with reality as we’ve learned it. God’s people are always moving in a different direction and listening to a different voice: so if we feel like we stand out a bit, like we’re not in sync with the world around us, that’s how it’s supposed to be.

Psalm 1 talks about two groups of people: the ‘wicked’ and the ‘righteous’. Those two words are awkward in our culture: they sound a bit judgmental; so we’ll need to look to scripture to give us accurate and compassionate definitions of both words.

In the psalm both groups of people are in motion. They’re doing things. We see them sitting, standing, walking – and it appears that both groups are doing the same things. The difference, according to the psalm, comes down to who is directing the action. ‘The wicked’ are doing their own thing, but ‘the righteous’ are doing what God approves. The righteous may make some mistakes along the way, but the righteous seek God and try to please God by living as God directs.

In Psalm 1 both the righteous and the wicked both appear to be walking – in verse 1 they are ‘treading’ and in verse 6 they are following ‘the way’ or ‘the path’ – but the wicked are going their own way while the righteous are going God’s way.

For most of us, much of the time, it can be difficult to tell the two groups apart, because we can’t always see what motivates other people. If a whole group of people are all doing the same thing, how can we tell the difference between the wicked and the righteous?

As Jesus says in Matt 7:16 – it’s by the results. Jesus says, “By their fruits you will know them.” For people who don’t follow God, whatever they do eventually comes to nothing. Verse 4 says “they are like the chaff that the wind drives away.” But those who walk in God’s way, verse 3, are “fruitful,” “like trees planted beside streams of water” – because God watches over them, as a farmer would.

So the fact that people can be doing essentially the same thing and have different outcomes is one way that God’s kingdom may look a little bit upside-down to us. Psalm 1 doesn’t go into a whole lot more detail, so let’s switch over to Mark 9.

In this passage we see Jesus trying to hide from the crowds because he wants some quality time with his disciples. Jesus needs to tell them something important – specifically, that he is going to die, and that he will come back again three days later.

The disciples can’t figure out what Jesus is talking about. Why Jesus’ words are a mystery to them, we’re not sure. Maybe it’s because talking about Jesus’ death hurts too much. Maybe this talk about dying and coming back sounds a little crazy. Whatever it is that’s getting in the way of their understanding, they’re not asking Jesus any questions. Mark doesn’t explain why, but many people have offered educated guesses.

I think probably the best guess is that in some way, on some level, the disciples were afraid. The Bible often talks about fear as being something that gets in the way of faith. And I wonder how our lives might be different if we asked Jesus to explain whenever we’re feeling afraid or confused?

Anyway, instead of asking Jesus to explain what he’s talking about, the disciples start to argue over which one of them is the greatest.

ArgueThis is what ‘living rooms’ typically look like in our world: figuring out who’s on top. Creating pecking orders. Making some people higher and some people lower, some people privileged and some people not. In our world’s right-side-up living room we all know the people at the top are the rich, the famous, the successful, the powerful, the trend-setters.

But Jesus turns our world upside down… or more accurately, right-side-up. While the disciples are arguing over who is the greatest, Jesus takes a little child: someone with no wealth, no power, no success, no sophistication – and back in Jesus’ time, no legal rights: in Greek, the word paidion can be translated either ‘little child’ or ‘slave’. This child is the most vulnerable of all – and Jesus tells the disciples this little child is the greatest in heaven.

In God’s kingdom, as we begin to get comfortable having furniture on the ceiling, we begin to understand that the lowest and the weakest among us (by human standards) are the most honored in the kingdom of God. And for those who receive the small and unimportant and weakest among us in Jesus’ name, we begin to experience God’s kingdom in our own lives. We begin to see that the greatest in God’s kingdom is the servant of all – which Jesus is about to demonstrate for the world by dying on the Cross.

Theologian Elisabeth Johnson has said this:

“The radical grace of God that Jesus proclaims and lives… completely obliterates the world’s notions of greatness based on status, wealth, achievement, etc. Perhaps that is one reason we resist grace so much. It is much more appealing to be great on the world’s terms than on Jesus’ terms. Greatness on Jesus’ terms means being humble, lowly, and vulnerable as a child. Greatness on Jesus’ terms is risky; it can even get a person killed. But as Jesus [says]… his way of greatness is the path of life.”[1]

When we begin to see God’s Kingdom as being the world that is truly right-side-up, we begin to realize the people we used to instinctively pass by are the ones we’re called to serve; the people we used to shy away from are the ones we’re called to welcome – and we do this in Jesus’ name, as his representatives.

In another story, in Luke’s gospel, we are told the reason why Jesus tells us to accept the powerless. Luke 14:16–24 tells the story of a man who throws a great wedding banquet, but all the invited guests start making excuses why they can’t come. So eventually the man just says “go out to the streets and bring anyone in, so that the banquet hall will be filled.” It ends up that the poor, the stranger, and the outsider are the ones who will say ‘yes’ to the invitation.

One of the saddest side-effects of 9/11/2001, in my opinion, is that it has made many people feel afraid of outsiders and strangers. If we let that continue, the terrorists will have won, because we are afraid. That was their goal, to make us afraid.

Jesus’ words challenge us: they challenge us to acknowledge his death on cross: both the need for it and his willingness to do it. They challenge us to see the world by God’s definition of right-side-up. They challenge us to overcome fear and have faith: faith that our Lord is who he says he is and will do what he says he will do. They challenge us to live God’s way, even if the rest of the world thinks we’re nuts, because God will take care of us and God will make us fruitful.

Psalm 1 says: Happy are those whose delight is in the law of the Lord! Because the law of the Lord is life.

May the Lord bless his word to our understanding and our living. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 9/19/21

[1] Elisabeth Johnson, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-25-2/commentary-on-mark-930-37-5

          27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”  29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”  30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 
          31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
          34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?  37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?  38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” – Mark 8:27-38
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
          At that very time there were some present who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  2 [Jesus] asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?  3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.  4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?  5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” – Luke 13:1-5
~~~~~~~~~~~~
Our message for today is inspired by the passages we heard from the Gospels of Mark and Luke. In the gospel from Mark, Peter says to Jesus: “You are the Messiah” – that is, you’re the one we’ve been waiting for, you’re the coming King! And Jesus answers:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  

In the second passage Jesus teaches the disciples that tragedy here on earth is NOT a sign that someone somewhere is a worse sinner than somebody else, but that each person must turn away from what is worthless, and focus on building a relationship with God.

So that’s our foundation on which I will build our message for today.

This past week we have been remembering, both individually and as a nation, the tragedy of 9/11. The problem with tragedy is that we’re always left with the question “why?” Why did this have to happen? And the question why never seems to have answers. So then the question becomes, will we trust God anyway? Or as John puts it, will we change course (which is the meaning of the word ‘repent’) and choose life?

I don’t usually like to talk about current events in church because I don’t want to distract people from God. When we come to church, we come to be with God: to hear God’s word and to worship our Lord Jesus who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. We get more than enough current events from TV and radio and the internet. Sunday morning is God’s time.

But a couple of weeks ago, as we began to approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I began to realize that (1) my heart is still unsettled about this tragedy; (2) I’m not the only one feeling this way, and (3) there are still unanswered questions, both historically and spiritually.

So I decided to go digging, and not only on the Internet. Sandi and I drove out to the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville this past Tuesday. I brought with me a lot of questions, and I came away with far more than I expected, and I wanted to share with you some of the things I discovered.

Flight 93mem

9/11 is, above all, a story of people: people whose lives were changed because of a group of violent men. Some lives changed course in God’s direction and have become a blessing; and others changed course away from God and are adding to the damage caused by 9/11. So I’ve organized what I discovered into three categories: the Good, the Bad, and the Inspirational.

 

==So starting with The Good==

The Flight 93 Memorial (for those who haven’t yet been there) is surrounded by stunning beauty. It’s just a couple dozen miles east of Ligonier, PA, in the middle of forest and farmland. It is peaceful and quiet. But the memorial reminds us of a day when that peace and beauty were shattered.

This place is not just a memorial; it is also a final resting place. Twenty years ago, when the passengers of Flight 93 decided to fight back against the terrorists, they made progress: but they were not able to re-take control of the plane. In reaction against their efforts, the terrorists turned the plane upside down and flew it nose-first into the ground at over 550 miles per hour.

There is literally nothing left. A handful of plane parts were recovered, including the black box (thank goodness!), but most of the fragments recovered are about three inches long or less.  So if the families of these heroes want to visit their loved ones, they have to travel to Western Pennsylvania. And only the families and close friends are allowed to step onto that field and walk to the spot where the plane went down.

BlueSky

Most of us have heard that much of the story. Most of us know that the bravery and sacrifice of the passengers on Flight 93 saved lives either at the Capitol or the White House, which is where the plane was aimed. What I hadn’t heard were the personal stories and backgrounds of the people on board. Here are just a few:

  1. The First Officer, LeRoy Homer – a veteran of Desert Shield and Desert Storm, he also flew humanitarian missions into Somalia
  2. Deborah Welsh, Flight Attendant – used to take “leftover airline meals… to homeless people in her Manhattan neighborhood.”
  3. Donald and Jean Peterson, a retired couple – Spent their retirement volunteering. “Don worked with men struggling with drug and alcohol dependency. Jean counseled women in crisis pregnancies. […] Don’s personal Bible was recovered at the Flight 93 crash site, complete with a handwritten list of the men for whom he was praying.”[1]
  4. And of course Todd Beamer, who famously said “Let’s roll!” Before doing this, Todd called a long distance operator to report what was happening – and asked her to pray the Lord’s Prayer with him. This was a man who said his prayers before he rolled!

When all was said and done, the actions of the passengers on Flight 93 saved more lives than we know. When the plane did go down, not one person on the ground was killed or injured. Not one structure was hit – not even a shed. I’d call that a miracle, because there are homes and cabins nearby. The plane missed them all.

And at a time when our nation was at its lowest, this small group of people gave us hope and made us proud and reminded us of what it means to be American and to be people of faith.

There’s another footnote to the story that has been almost forgotten, though some of you may remember it. For me the memory was so fuzzy I wasn’t even sure it was factual. But I thought I had remembered reading, back in 2001 or 2002, that the original Flight 93 Memorial – which was a stack of hay bales and some wire fencing that people would leave flowers and prayers on – that the first caretakers of the Memorial came from the local United Methodist church.

First Memorial

So while we were there I asked around. The park rangers are Federal employees so they don’t know the locals all that well. But eventually we found our way to the Wall of Names, and we asked one of the volunteers there. I said: “I think I remember reading that the first volunteers for this memorial came from the local United Methodist Church – is this true?”

And she said, “I can confirm that story – because I’m one of them.” She explained that a woman had come to the Shanksville United Methodist Church in early 2002 saying “we need help – we need volunteers to help take care of the Memorial.” And she said every single thing left by visitors for the past twenty years has been kept and catalogued: every gift, every note, every teddy bear, since the very beginning. She said, “I wasn’t one of the very first ones but I came soon after.” She and her husband have been serving as volunteers – along with other United Methodists – for almost 20 years.

So that’s the good.

 

==The Bad==

Now for the bad. The actual fires of 9/11 were put out many years ago; but some of the spiritual fires are burning hotter today than they ever have.

In the days immediately following 9/11 our nation felt very united. After decades of declining church attendance people flooded back to the churches – to pray, and to comfort each other, and for encouragement.

But it didn’t last. And as time progressed a number of spiritual issues surfaced, and there are four I’d like to mention today.

Issue #1. Back in 2002, the U.S. Center for Politics stated that the years following 9/11 would be crucial for democracy, and that we as Americans would need to learn to share democracy. The Center said:

“it’s important to help Americans understand the world, and the world to understand Americans… You cannot teach or practice American democracy in a vacuum.”[2]

Historically, America has had a kind of inward focus. For our first 100 years or so, the United States maintained neutrality in practice if not in law. We tend to be more interested in what happens here than elsewhere. And spiritually there is nothing wrong with taking care one’s own: family, friends, neighbors, church, hometown.

But we need to remember that throughout scripture, both the old and the new testaments, God’s people are called to be God’s people not only for ourselves, but for the blessing of others, for the good of the nations. We have an obligation, as recipients of God’s blessings, to share God’s gifts with others.

9/11 damaged that vision. From that day onward many Americans became fearful of other nations, and of people from other nations. That’s what the 9/11 attacks were designed to do: to make us afraid. If we allow these events to scare us into missing out on God’s plans, then the terrorists have won. But if we get up, and dust ourselves off, and keep on sharing the gospel and sharing God’s good gifts with people in our neighborhoods and around the world – then we win, because we’re not afraid.

Issue #2. This is something I just learned this week. Some of you may know this but I did not know this: the World Trade Center was not built to the usual New York City building code specifications. The building code for Manhattan was written in 1938, but was deliberately set aside specifically for the World Trade Center in order to cut costs and increase square footage (and therefore profits) on the rental spaces. They did this by reducing the number and size of emergency exits. The Washington Post reported just a few weeks ago:

“If the WTC had had the required evacuation and exit standards of 1938 many more lives would have been saved. […] Some 1,000 people inside the North Tower who initially survived the impact of… Flight 11 could not reach an open staircase.”[3]

This is a justice issue and more: this is a faith issue. This is a God issue. In scripture, from the oldest times, even back to the law of Moses, building safety was a commandment of God. In ancient Israel, if a person built a house with a flat roof (which was the standard back then), the builder was legally liable if a wall was not built around the edge of the roof so people wouldn’t fall off.  For Christians – especially any of us who find ourselves in a position to have influence over building projects and/or the writing of building codes – this is a place where Christian witness is sorely needed. We need to speak up and say that it is wrong to make a profit by endangering lives.

Issue #3. The same Washington Post article also mentioned that, in the halls of government, the terrorist attacks “greatly reduced policymakers’ tolerance for risk.”  In other words, our national leaders are afraid of 9/11 happening again. And this has resulted in increased surveillance of our own people.

Now for most of us this is merely annoying. It means that everything we say online – on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, email – is being tracked and stored. And for most of us this just means we see ads that are personalized to the point of being spooky. But behind the scenes our personal information is being shared, packaged, and sold. The lack of laws protecting the privacy of average citizens is (at least in part) a direct result of 9/11. And spiritually this is wrong: because the motivation behind it is fear, mistrust, and greed. Christian values, by contrast, are love, trust, and generosity.

Issue #4 is a rise in what the media calls ‘civil religion’. My own personal term for it is “wrapping the Bible up in the flag so that if you kneel in front of one you can’t avoid kneeling in front of the other.” In ‘civil religion’ the Bible and America become inseparable and enmeshed. This is sin, because scripture tells us to worship God and God alone. It’s Commandment #1: “you shall have no other gods in my presence” – and that includes the flag.

There are at least two problems with this type of sin, apart from the fact that God says “don’t do it”. 1) It makes people easy to manipulate… and politicians and conspiracy theorists know this. 2) It demonizes people who are different from us. It makes negotiation and even polite conversation impossible because political opponents are now viewed as evil. One commentator sums it up this way:

“Seventeen years after the 9/11 Commission called on the United States to offer moral leadership… and to be generous and caring to [neighboring nations], our moral leadership is in question, and we can barely be generous and caring to [each other].”[4]

In such a world our churches are desperately needed: to model love, to model community, to model faith-based living. And this comes at a time when we as the church are admittedly not at our strongest. So the future of our ministries must be the Lord’s doing, as we pray and follow in faith. At times like these we can take a page from Todd Beamer’s playbook: say our prayers, and then “Let’s Roll”.

==Which brings us to the Inspirational==

I wanted to close by sharing with you a couple uplifting thoughts that have been spoken around and about 9/11.

The first comes from the blog of a Jewish Rabbi. A story is told of an ancient Rabbi who taught his followers: “Repent one day before your death.” To which, of course, his students objected saying, “but how do we know what day that will be?” And the Rabbi answered: “exactly the reason to start today.”

We see unexpected good that has come from 9/11: the amazing acts of heroism; and the faithful, unsung work of United Methodist Church in sharing the story. We have also seen the bad: the divisions and suspicions and anger that have grown and festered like untreated wounds. The time to change course is now; and the direction to go in is to proclaim Jesus King of heaven and earth and to follow Him.

So I wanted to close with some words from Billy Graham, who spoke at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001 – just three days after the attacks. He said in part:

“We come together today to affirm our conviction that God cares for us, whatever our ethnic, religious or political background may be. The Bible says that [God] is “the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles.”

“We are reminded of the mystery and reality of evil. “[We are also reminded] about our need for each other. 

“We desperately need a spiritual renewal in this country, and God has told us… that we need to repent of our sins and return to Him, and He will bless us in a new way.  [T]he cross tells us that God understands our sin and our suffering, for He took them upon Himself in the Person of Jesus Christ.

“My prayer today is that we will feel the loving arms of God wrapped around us and that as we trust in Him we will know in our hearts that He will never forsake us.” [6] 

These words spoken by Billy Graham are as true today as they were 20 years ago.

May all of these words, and all of these memories, be to us a blessing, a challenge, and an inspiration. AMEN.

 

Final Resting Place

9/11 Memorial: The boulder in the distance is the spot on which Flight 93 landed. Only families and close friends are permitted to visit beyond this gate.

 

 

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 9/12/21

[1] Personal histories quoted from Jerry Spangler, “Flight 93: National Memorial Visitors Guide”

[2] Center for Politics, Sabato, Global Perspectives on Democracy

[3] Carlos Lozada, essay in The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/interactive/2021/911-books-american-values/

[4] Ibid

[5] Billy Graham, in his address on Sept 14 2001 at the National Cathedral

Jesus and the Gentiles

“From there [Jesus] set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice,  25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.  26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.  27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter.”  30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

          31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.  32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him.  33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue.  34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”  35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.  36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.  37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.” – Mark 7:24-37

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Our scripture reading from Mark today is a little unusual, and likewise will the sermon be. The working title for our sermon today is:

Jesus and the Gentiles
==OR==
An Adventure In Which Jesus Crosses International Borders
Without Proper Paperwork or Vetting

The entire scripture reading today takes place outside the borders of Israel; and while Jesus is not a refugee, he might have been mistaken for one – if he wasn’t already famous.

Jesus came to Tyre needing of a break. At the beginning of Mark chapter seven Jesus got into a heated debate with the Pharisees over the subject of purity. Specifically, the Pharisees accused Jesus’ disciples of sin and impurity because they didn’t wash their hands before they ate. (Have you ever felt like you were being nitpicked to death? I think that’s how the disciples felt!)

Nowhere in the Law of Moses does it say people have to wash their hands before they eat; but around the time of King Solomon the priests in the temple were commanded by God to wash their hands before eating any gifts of oil, wine, or wheat. These gifts would have been brought by the worshipers, and it made sense to wash hands before eating things of unknown origin.

But the Pharisees extended this law to ALL people everywhere at ALL times, and wrote the law into the Talmud (the teachings of the rabbis). So people were now obeying religious ‘laws’ that God never commanded in the first place.

Jesus answered the Pharisees by quoting the prophet Isaiah:  “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me… their teachings are merely human rules.” (Isaiah 29:13)  Jesus then used this confrontation to teach the people crowding in around them what it really means to be ‘unclean’. Jesus says:

“Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them” – things like “adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly” and so on. (Mark 7:14-15, 21-23)

Having said this, Jesus illustrates the point by going away from the people who claim to be ‘clean’ (that is, the Pharisees) and going to visit people the Pharisees considered to be ‘unclean’ (that is, the Gentiles).

So all of this sets the stage for our reading today. Jesus and the disciples walk around 200 miles to get away from the Pharisees (and also from King Herod who was looking to stir up some trouble).

Tyre

Modern-day Tyre

As our reading opens, we see Jesus and the disciples entering a city called Tyre, which today is in the country of Lebanon. Tyre was – and still is – a beautiful port city on the Mediterranean Sea, with gorgeous coastlines and legendary hospitality. It’s a great place to get away to for a long weekend, and Jesus seems to be looking forward to doing just that.

It’s important to acknowledge that Jesus needed time off now and then. To be human is to need rest, and that includes all of us.

Jesus tells the disciples “don’t tell anyone where I’m going, and don’t tell anyone where I am.” When you’re famous it can be hard to travel secretly (remember the Beatles).

So Jesus and the disciples slip quietly into Tyre: a city big enough and busy enough to get lost in. They find a quiet house where they can stay and not be bothered, and they quietly settle in.

Except somebody has been tracking them: somebody ready to make the most of the first opportunity. That somebody was a local woman whose daughter was suffering from demon possession.

This woman knew she was taking a big risk. Back in those days, approaching Jesus directly was a gutsy move. From the disciples’ point of view this woman had three strikes against her already: she was a Gentile; she was a foreigner (to Jesus, anyway – mind, they were in her country); and she was an unaccompanied woman approaching a man. Just like today in Afghanistan, a woman alone approaching a man was in a very vulnerable position.

But this woman was driven by love for her demon-possessed daughter. (By the way, we aren’t sure exactly what was meant by ‘demon possession’ in this case. It could have been mental illness, or addiction, or a chemical imbalance, or indeed something to do with the occult; we really don’t know.) The bottom line was, only Jesus could heal her. And based on what the woman had heard about Jesus, she knew he was a kind man and a powerful miracle-worker.

So she found her way to where Jesus and the disciples are staying. And she approaches Jesus, falls at his feet, and begs him to heal her daughter.

Jesus answers her with one of the most troubling quotes in scripture. He says:

“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Mark 7:27)

Why on earth would Jesus say this? We don’t really know. People have made some guesses, and I’ll offer some of the more popular ones here for you to choose from:

First possibility: Jesus might be reminding her that he is sent to the people of Israel. He is Israel’s Messiah, and his mission is to them.

…which is true as far as it goes. Jesus once told the disciples that he was “the true vine” and the people of Israel are “the branches”, and that the Gentiles are “wild grapes that have been grafted in” (that includes you and me BTW).

Theologian Elisabeth Johnson points out: “For those of us who are used to having a place at the table, perhaps we need to be reminded that none of us has any right or privilege whatsoever… with God. We all come as beggars to the table, and it is solely by God’s grace that we are fed.”

So that’s the first possibility.

Second possibility: Jesus is making fun of the attitude of the Pharisees, and his comment is meant to be satire. (I tend to favor this one myself.)

Third possibility: Jesus is giving this woman the ‘textbook’ cultural Old Testament reply, complete with standard cultural prejudices, to see what she will do with it – how she will reply.

Whatever Jesus’ reasons were, the woman gives a brilliant comeback. She doesn’t disrespect him, and she disagrees so gently we almost miss it. She says: “Yes Lord; but even the dogs under the table eat children’s crumbs.”

Translation: I’ve heard about you, Jesus. I’ve heard about how you love people. I’ve heard about your miracles. I know you can do what I’m asking. And what I’m asking for is just crumbs to you, but it would mean all the world to me.

Can’t you just see the smile on Jesus’ face when he hears this?

And he answers simply, “Go home. The demon has left your daughter.” (In Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus says a little bit more: he says, “How great your faith is! Your request is granted.”)

Jesus came to Tyre looking for refreshment, and he finds it in this conversation with a Gentile woman. Jesus is now rested – because this is his kind of rest. (Remember John chapter 4.) Bringing the kingdom of God to people who need it, and bringing people into the kingdom, is exactly the refreshment Jesus needs.

And in the strength of that joy, Jesus and the disciples travel to the Decapolis.

The Decapolis is on the far side of the Sea of Galilee from Tyre: on the southeast corner, in the region we would think of today as sort of Israel/Palestine/ Jordan. It was (and is) a debated area, and Jesus is still in Gentile territory.

Again, Jesus is approached and asked to heal someone: another Gentile, this time a deaf man with a speech impediment. This time Jesus doesn’t bring up his being a Gentile. He takes man aside, probably to avoid attracting a crowd. He sighs deeply, in empathy with the man’s years of suffering. And then he speaks one word: “Ephphatha!” – “Be opened!”

This single word sounds a lot like Genesis chapter one, when God says “light, be made!” and light is made. Whatever God says is done; whatever Jesus says happens! God’s word is active. With one word the man is healed. Welcome to life in the Kingdom!

Then Jesus says to the witnesses: “tell no one about this”. (Theologians call this the “messianic secret”, this keeping a lid on the truth of Jesus’ messiahship.) This isn’t the only place in the gospels where Jesus says “don’t tell anyone.” Most likely the time just wasn’t right yet.

The final words of this passage, spoken by the witnesses, read like the chorus of a song. They say:

“He has done everything well;
he even makes the deaf to hear
and the mute to speak.”

DoneAllThingsWell

Contrast these words of the Gentiles with the complaints of the Pharisees a few verses back, and we begin to understand how the last will be first and the first will be last.

I always like to leave us with a few thoughts to take home and mull over. Today there are four:

  1. Recalling the Pharisees and the way they twisted God’s law to mean something it was never meant to mean: watch out for theologians and preachers who do this even today. There are still Pharisees in this world, and Jesus’ warning to avoid their teaching still applies. Always test what you hear against the scriptures, and see that it agrees with the Word of God.
  2. Jesus loved foreigners. We see this as he visits people of other nations and ministers to them. Jesus also loved the people who were on the fringes of society – which in his day included Gentiles, women, and handicapped people. And Jesus calls all of us, as his disciples, to do the same.
  3. The time to stay silent about Jesus’ miracles is over! When Jesus said “don’t tell anyone” that was a temporary thing. Today – tell everyone! Any prayer that is answered, any miracle that you witness – share it! Let people know what the King can do.
  4. Give praise to God. Like the people in the Decapolis, say it out loud: “He has done everything well!”

God bless this word to our understanding and our living. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 9/5/2021

A Wedding Song

Psalm 45
<To the leader: according to Lilies. Of the Korahites. A Maskil. A love song.>
1 My heart overflows with a goodly theme;
I address my verses to the king;
my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.
2 You are the most handsome of men;
grace is poured upon your lips;
therefore God has blessed you forever.
3 Gird your sword on your thigh, O mighty one, in your glory and majesty.
4 In your majesty ride on victoriously for the cause of truth and to defend the right;
let your right hand teach you dread deeds.
5 Your arrows are sharp in the heart of the king’s enemies; the peoples fall under you.
6 Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever.
Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity;
7 you love righteousness and hate wickedness.
Therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions;
8 your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia.
From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad;
9 daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor;
at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.
10 Hear, O daughter, consider and incline your ear;
forget your people and your father’s house,
11 and the king will desire your beauty. Since he is your lord, bow to him;
12 the people of Tyre will seek your favor with gifts, the richest of the people
13 with all kinds of wealth. The princess is decked in her chamber
with gold-woven robes;
14 in many-colored robes she is led to the king;
behind her the virgins, her companions, follow.
15 With joy and gladness they are led along as they enter the palace of the king.
16 In the place of ancestors you, O king, shall have sons;
you will make them princes in all the earth.
17 I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations;
therefore the peoples will praise you forever and ever.

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

As it works out, the last Psalm in our summer series, Psalm 45, is one of my all-time favorites. It gives us such a beautiful picture of Jesus and such an amazing vision of the Kingdom of God – and what the future will hold for those of us who love and follow Jesus. And especially for anyone who may be feeling down or discouraged today, this song’s for you.

Psalm 45 has been set to music many times. Verse 8 inspired the hymn Ivory Palaces, and the whole psalm has been set to music by Graham Kendrick, who’s probably best known for Shine Jesus Shine. Kendrick’s version of Psalm 45 was sung by my choir as I came down the aisle to marry my husband Neil, so this psalm has a very special place in my heart.

(lyrics for the above song)

All The Glory

My heart is full of admiration
For you, my Lord, my God and King
Your excellence, my inspiration
Your words of grace have made my spirit sing.

All the glory, honour and power
Belong to you, belong to you.
Jesus, saviour, anointed one,
I worship you, I worship you.

You love what’s right and hate what’s evil
Therefore your God sets you on high.
And on your head pours oil of gladness
While fragrance fills your royal palaces

Your throne, O God, will last forever
Justice will be your royal decree
In majesty, ride out victorious
For righteousness, truth and humility.

Graham Kendrick, Copyright © 1991 Graham Kendrick, http://www.grahamkendrick.co.uk

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

Starting out with the notations at the top of the Psalm: To the leader: according to Lilies. Of the Korahites. A Maskil. A love song. “To the leader” means for the music director; “the Lilies” would have been a melody or a tune; “the Korahites” were the songwriters. They were descendants of Moses’ cousin Korah, and they worked as temple musicians. A “maskil” is a type of composition; and then it says “a love song” – or in some versions of the Bible it says “a wedding song”, which is actually more accurate.

Psalm 45 was originally written for a royal wedding that took place in the temple in Jerusalem around 3000 years ago. We don’t know for certain exactly whose wedding it was; but some scholars guess it was King Solomon’s wedding to Pharaoh’s daughter, the Princess of Egypt. Whether that’s accurate or not, I think it’s helpful to think of it that way, because this wedding would have brought together two very important families, and it would have been a lavish royal wedding.

We Americans don’t have a lot of experience with royalty, except for occasionally when one of the British royal family gets married, and even then not everybody gets into that… but you gotta admit ‘nobody does it better’. I’ve never lucky enough to be invited to one of the royal weddings (tho I still want to know where they get those hats).

But I got a small taste of British royalty a number of years ago when I was overseas. I had taken a week-long class up at Oxford and was coming back into London on a Saturday morning. I caught a taxi at the train station and immediately we found we were in a massive traffic jam. I looked at the cabbie and asked, “what’s going on?” and he said, “it’s the Queen’s birthday.”

Really?  “I thought her birthday was in April?” I asked. He answered: “That’s her real birthday. This is her official birthday. She’ll be attending a special church service about a mile from the palace and if you hurry to Pall Mall you might catch a glimpse of the carriage.”

Really?!?!  When he got me to my hotel I threw my bags in the lobby, dashed out the door, and following his directions quickly found Pall Mall. Dashing up to the street, I found about a half-dozen rows of British citizens waving flags; and beyond them, on the street facing us, a row of soldiers in red uniforms and those tall black fuzzy hats sitting on huge black horses, with long swords attached to their hips. And they did not look amused. (I tell ya, these guys can be scarier than Secret Service.)

So I struck up a conversation with the people near me and gathered I hadn’t missed anything yet, and one couple kindly invited me to sit down on the pavement and join their family in a picnic lunch, which was lovely.

About a half-hour later we saw some motion down the street to the left, and along came more soldiers on black horses moving in absolute precision.

PhotosThru080513 641

And then a marching band – all playing from memory, absolutely flawlessly. And then a carriage: Prince William and Kate! And then more horses. And then another carriage: Prince Harry (he hadn’t married yet at that point) and Prince Charles and Camilla. And then more horses, and then men on horses with trumpets, all in perfect precision, and then a massive gold-trimmed carriage with the Queen and Prince Philip inside, waving. And more horses. And then they were gone.

And I said, “well now, that’s something you don’t see every day.”

And my friends with the sandwiches said, “sit down, join us.” And I looked at them kind of quizzically and they said, “Well the royal family do have to come home, you know.”

Good point. So we sat down again for a little over an hour, and the procession came back, every bit as perfect as the first time.

PhotosThru080513 712

And then something unexpected happened. You and I have seen these processions on TV before, but I’ve never seen what happens afterwards. After the royal company had passed by, the soldiers that had been lining the street watching us from horseback turned and make this beautiful pivot into the street (around every 200 feet or so) and started moving toward Buckingham Palace, and the crowd filed in behind them.

And all of a sudden we were part of the procession!  We were part of the celebration! And we walked down the street, following those horses, all the way to Buckingham Palace. And when we got there we sang “God Save the Queen” while she waved from the balcony. And that was it.

All of this by way of describing something of what it’s like to step inside Psalm 45 and live it.

Because this is us. This Psalm has a dual meaning, and this comes from Jewish scholars as well as Christian theologians:

The first meaning of the psalm is the royal wedding that happened in ancient Jerusalem.

The second meaning is a prophecy of the Messiah with God’s faithful people.

The Christian faith teaches that this king is Jesus, and Psalm 45 is a vision and a prophecy of the future. On that day we will be there. Not just faces in the crowd but taking part in the events of the day!

There are scriptures all through the Old and New Testaments that tie into Psalm 45 and add depth and detail to its meaning, so I’d like to take this psalm line by line and invite you to join me in this royal procession …

Verse one: the heart of the songwriter is full to overflowing, both at the joy of the occasion, and at the worthiness and beauty of the King. The writer describes Jesus as handsome, full of grace, and blessed by God.

This stands in contrast to Jesus’ life here on Earth 2000 years ago. Back then he was, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “despised and rejected… a man of suffering and acquainted with… grief.” (Is 53:3) Jesus has entered into our pain and our suffering in every way. And now, at last, God is restoring all things. The injustices Jesus suffered are being set right – and here he stands, the king, in all his majesty.

In verse two the writer says of the king, “grace is poured upon your lips.” Two thousand years ago, when Jesus was here on earth, people used to remark about how full of grace his speech was. Luke tells us: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” (Lk 4:22)  The King’s majesty and blessing does not have its roots in conquest or in force, but in truth, humility, and righteousness.[1]

The songwriter then says: “put on your sword, mighty one, in glory and majesty.”  This is not a prayer for war. It’s more like the swords those British horsemen carried: they never came out of the scabbards. They didn’t need to. And the Bible adds one other interpretation: Scripture speaks of “the sword of the Lord” as “the word of God”, and the songwriter is praying on behalf of us all that “that all the nations on earth would come under the command of the justice, peace, and love of Jesus.”[2]

The songwriter continues: “In your majesty ride on victoriously for the cause of truth and to defend the right.”  Isn’t this what we pray for: that lies would be silenced, that misinformation would be done away with, that injustice would be defeated? Here, today, in this psalm, God answers our prayers with a resounding “YES”!!

And yet the next verse and a half sound almost violent. Will Jesus really kill his enemies? John Wesley gives us an explanation that is as British as it is accurate: “[both the] arrows [and] the sword, are none other than [Jesus’] word, which is sharp and powerful, and pierces [human] hearts.” The people fall, Wesley says, in the same way that a conquered people might fall to their knees in front of a king to ask for mercy.[3]

If there are any who perish, it’s because they reject God and in doing so reject life. There are those who (as Dante put it) would rather “rule in hell than serve in heaven”; but the choice is theirs. God will not force anyone who hates Him to be with Him.

In verse six the songwriter continues: “Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever.” Every Sunday we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” – and at last this prayer is answered YES!!

By the way this passage is quoted in the New Testament book of Hebrews, where the writer makes the connection between this prophecy and Jesus. Hebrews 1:7-9 says:

Hebrews 1:7-9   7 Of the angels [God] says, “He makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.”  8 But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom.  9 You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”

Then in verse seven the scene changes: and we are in the royal palace. The battles are over, God’s word has won the day… AND won the hearts of the King’s subjects. The songwriter can hardly find the words to express his joy. The king has been perfumed (and he smells good), and the royal palace is gorgeous, and there stringed instruments scattered throughout the palace playing beautiful music, and the ladies in waiting are princesses from various nations.

And then the scene shifts again to the wedding day. The bride – the queen – is robed in golden robes. And the songwriter turns and speaks to her. He says:

“Hear, O daughter; forget your people and your father’s house; the king desires your beauty.”

The bride in this psalm is a union of God’s faithful people throughout the centuries – all of us, together – and the king finds us beautiful: in part because his mercy has made us that way. Charles Simeon, a friend of John Wesley’s, said that: [God’s people have] “by adoption, by regeneration, and especially by [our] union with the Lord Jesus Christ, become the “daughter of Almighty God”… [and we are] addressed by him under that affectionate name.” “The direction is given to every individual [among God’s people]… to give up all earthly attachments… and unite ourselves to Christ. “The interests of the world, and of Christ, are altogether opposite” – and the world must be left behind. Simeon warns: “Remember Lot’s wife” and don’t look back.[4]

Jesus, the King, is delighted with us: because we have been changed “from glory to glory” by the Spirit of the Lord.

Royal wedding

I mean, really, how on earth can one draw this scene? But all the people becoming the Bride… that’s the idea.

So the bride (that is, us) has been decked out in gold and multicolored robes with the richest of jewels. The apostle Paul says: “having put on Christ (Rom 8:14)” “she walks as he walked.” (I John 2:6)  John Wesley says the “people of Tyre” represent the Gentiles, who are also included. And the apostle John says, “blessed are they who are called to the marriage-supper of the Lamb.” (Rev 19:6-9)

The songwriter adds a mysterious postscript in verse 16, and I’m not going to speculate on the details, but his words promise a glorious eternity ahead.

So as we struggle through these dark days, let this prophecy and this vision lift our spirits and remind us of who we are and whose we are.

This will be our royal wedding song in the Kingdom of God. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 8/29/21

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

[1] David Guzik commentary

[2] Charles Simeon, Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible

[3] John Wesley, Commentary

[4] Charles Simeon, Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible

How Lovely!

Psalm 84

To the leader: according to The Gittith. Of the Korahites. A Psalm.
1 How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!
2 My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.
3 Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.
4 Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise. Selah

 5 Happy are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
6 As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools.
7 They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.
8 O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah

 9 Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed.
10 For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.
11 For the LORD God is a sun and shield;
he bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does the LORD withhold
from those who walk uprightly.
12 O LORD of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.

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

How Lovely

Continuing in our series on the Psalm of the Day, today we look at Psalm 84, one of my personal favorites. The psalm opens, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs… for the courts of the LORD…”

Back when those words were written there really was no place on earth quite like the Temple in Jerusalem. It was not only beautiful, it was the center of life and faith – the place where God met with God’s people. Psalm 84 helps us understand what it was like to be there.

The notation at the beginning of the psalm tells us it was written by the Korahites, the descendants of Moses’ cousin Korah. The Korahites were Levites – of the priestly tribe – and their job was to be either temple musicians, or doorkeepers to welcome people into worship: two jobs that are still very important in the church today.

The notation also says “according to the gittith”. We don’t know exactly what a gittith was, but it was probably some kind of stringed instrument like a harp or a lyre. So the overall musical effect of this psalm was pretty: something like a love song except not quite so mushy.

The overall purpose of the psalm is to express our love for God, and to invite everyone who hears it to join in and sing their love to God. Verse two might be better translated “my soul craves the place where God lives; my whole being cries out for joy to the living God.”

This psalm is also, at heart, a song of the pilgrim: a song sung by people who are traveling to where God is, who are SO looking forward to meeting God.

Even though the psalm doesn’t say so at the beginning, this could have been a song of ascents, which is a specific kind of psalm sung by people who were traveling to Jerusalem. I’d like to spend a little bit of time with this thought, so let me take us back 3000 years to ancient Israel.

We are followers of Yahweh God, and according to the law of Moses all able-bodied people are required to present themselves at the Temple three times a year: for Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles. Three times a year, our whole extended family and neighborhood would pack up and travel together to Jerusalem for the festivals.

There was just one thing: for most people at that time there was really only one way to get to the Holy City: travel to Jericho in the Jordan Valley and then turn east up the mountain.

Imagine this: Jericho is the lowest city on Earth, elevation-wise. It sits 864 feet below sea level. Jerusalem sits at the top of a mountain 2575 feet above sea level. The road from Jericho to Jerusalem goes just pretty much straight up for around 14 miles, over rocky ground where there is very little water. A healthy young adult might walk it in around eight or nine hours. An entire neighborhood, however, would take a bit longer! As the old African proverb says, “you can either travel quickly or you can travel together.” The people traveled together; and as they did, they sang songs to encourage each other as they walked up the mountain.

This psalm is one of those songs; so let’s join in.

“How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts.” The people are imagining what the temple will look like when they finally arrive at the top of that mountain. And don’t we sometimes feel like that about the place where we worship? At the end of a long week, we come here and… how lovely. How beautiful.

(One of the earliest contemporary settings of Psalm 84, from Maranatha! Music)

There are truly no buildings on earth quite like churches: from the greatest cathedrals to the smallest chapels. It’s not just the décor, although that helps; it’s the feeling of being in a house of prayer, a place where people meet God, and being part of the family of believers. All of us who know Jesus and have been saved by his death and resurrection are members of God’s family, and this is our home. How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! We look forward to being here. “My heart and my flesh sing for joy.”

The second set of four verses – beginning with verse 5 – talk about the blessings that come from finding our strength in God and not in ourselves. One modern translation paraphrases it this way:

“In your courts there’s shelter for the greatest and the small
The sparrow has a place to build her nest
The pilgrim finds refreshment in the rains that fall
And each one has the strength to meet the test.”[1]

It’s been lost to history exactly where the “valley of Baca” was (in verse 6), but if it was in southern Israel it was probably a semi-desert area – very hot and dry, where a traveler would get worn out very easily. But the psalmist says those who have the “highway to Zion in their hearts” find strength in God.  But question: what exactly does he mean: do people ‘know the road by heart’? Or do people ‘know in their hearts God’s path of salvation’?

Probably both. For people who know God, as they pass through the dry places of life, desert places become places where fresh water springs up and strength is restored. And vss 6-7 add “as they go”: they’re moving. The people are traveling together. The life of faith, and the road to God’s dwelling, is never traveled alone; we go together.

In verse 8, as we travel, we pray as we go: O Lord hear us. Hear us when we pray for our families. Hear us when we grieve for those we have lost. Hear us when we pray for our brothers and sisters in Haiti and Afghanistan and in Africa and in all places where our people are in trouble. Hear our prayer! Give ear O God of Jacob!

And then the word Selah gives us a musical interlude… after which the scene changes and suddenly we find ourselves in the middle of a Messianic prophecy!

Verse 9: “Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed.” The word for anointed in Hebrew is meshah, or messiah. The Messiah is our shield. As we draw near to God, we become very aware of God’s holiness and perfection and our own imperfections. So we ask God not to look upon us but to look upon the Messiah, who stands between us as a shield (verse 9) and as a bringer of honor (verse 11). “For a day in your courts” – that is, in God’s kingdom – “a day in your courts is worth a thousand elsewhere.”

The world would tell you otherwise. The world would tell you, in the words of Lucifer in Milton’s Paradise Lost, “tis better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” These are the words of pride, and they lead to isolation, despair, and destruction. The words of the psalm are true: it is a greater joy to serve in heaven than to be anywhere else: because God is there.

sparrow1

In the words of the old theologian Matthew Henry (paraphrasing to make the language a bit more modern): “The word of God is the believer’s comfort in this evil world; because in God’s word we enjoy the presence of the living God… God’s words are, to [us], like a nest to a bird. And yet it’s only a down-payment of the happiness of heaven… [those who travel] to the heavenly city may have to pass through valleys of weeping, and thirsty deserts; but wells of salvation will be opened for them… Those that keep on keeping on will find God adding grace to grace. And those who grow in grace, will become perfect in glory.”[2]

Truly in God’s presence there is beauty and welcome: and “O Lord of hosts, how happy is everyone who trusts in you.”

So what or where exactly is God’s “dwelling place”? Where does God live? The ancient temple has been gone for a long time; and even in the Old Testament, the Temple wasn’t the only place God met with people.

In the book of Genesis, God met Adam and Eve while strolling through the Garden. Later in Genesis, God stopped by to visit Abraham in his tent. During the time of Moses, the people met with God in the Tabernacle. As we get to the reign of David and then Solomon, the Temple is finally built in Jerusalem.

But then in the New Testament, Jesus says: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2)  And Paul says in Ephesians that all of us, as the church, are being “built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” (Eph. 2:22)

The one thing all these passages have in common, from Genesis to Ephesians – is that God’s ‘dwelling place’ is with God’s people. And our dwelling place is with God. Yes, we believe in heaven, we believe in the afterlife, we believe one day God will restore all things. But God’s home and our home will be the same place. “How lovely is your dwelling place” – because where God is, we are home. A day in your courts, O Lord, is better than a thousand elsewhere! Happy is everyone who trusts in You.

For those who know and trust God, Psalm 84 is a reminder of all that God is and all that we will experience when Jesus takes up his throne as King. And for anyone who hasn’t met God yet, this psalm is your invitation to do so.

(and here’s Brahms’ version of Psalm 84 – breathtaking)

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 8/22/21

[1] Psalms Alive!, How Lovely Is Your Dwelling Place, Maranatha Music

[2] Matthew Henry Commentary, https://www.christianity.com/bible/commentary.php?com=mhc&b=19&c=84

Psalm 111 – Praising God

Psalm 111

1 Praise the LORD! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
2 Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them.
3 Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever.
4 He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the LORD is gracious and merciful.
5 He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.
6 He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations.
7 The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy.
8 They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
9 He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever.
Holy and awesome is his name.
10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom;
all those who practice it have a good understanding.
His praise endures forever.

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

A couple weeks ago we started a sermon series on the Psalm of the day in the lectionary. The first week we did Psalm 51, a psalm of confession; and the second week we did Psalm 130, which was a wonderfully appropriate Psalm about praying to God during difficult times. I felt both of these Psalms were, in their own way, very timely, very relevant to where we are.

Today’s Psalm I almost didn’t do. I almost changed it out, because it felt so out of place and jarring to me.

PTLIt starts off with the words “Praise the Lord” – and I felt like, we’re in a difficult time right now, between the resurgence of the pandemic, and the flash flooding this past week, and all the craziness that’s happening in the world around us. It almost seemed out of place. And for me personally (unfortunately) the phrase “Praise the Lord” will always be associated with the disgraced ministry of Jimmy Bakker’s “PTL Club” back in the 1980s.

So I almost chose another psalm. But then I thought twice, because it’s been my experience when the heart resists some part of God’s word, it usually means I need to spend some time with it. So here goes.

Verse One: in Hebrew, the first sentence is just one word: “Hallelujah!”  Which to me means a whole lot more than praise the Lord.  For starters, praise the Lord in English borders on being a command. Hallelujah is not. Hallelujah is better translated the Lord’s name be praised.  It focuses on God, and invites everyone within hearing to join in a song of praise that began back in the beginning of time and continues into eternity.

And isn’t that why we’re here every Sunday? We want to take our place in God’s story and add our voices to that eternal song.

So starting with a hymn of praise, the psalmist opens our song.

As an aside, I should mention: the writer of this psalm used an ancient Jewish technique called an acrostic: in the Hebrew, every line begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet: aleph, bet, gimmel, and so on. It adds artistry to the poem, and also made it easier to memorize (if you happen to speak Hebrew).

The psalmist continues by talking about why God is worthy of all our heartfelt praise and why God should be praised in the assembly, by all of us together. He says, “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart…”.  When the Bible talks about the ‘heart’ it doesn’t mean (as we mean it) just the emotions; in Bible times, the ‘heart’ was seen as the center of “emotion, morality, spirituality, [the will], and the intellect”[1] – in other words, the whole self, our whole being.

The psalmist says he praises God for three reasons: (1) God’s works are great; (2) God’s works are to be remembered; and (3) God’s works are truth and justice. I’d like to take a look at each one of these three.

  • God’s works are great

God’s works include both what God has done and what God has created, and I think the emphasis in this psalm is on the creative side. “The Hebrew word for “wonderful deeds” is niphla’oth” which means literally, “something that I simply cannot understand,”[2] something beyond comprehension. God’s thoughts are beyond us. But as the psalmist says, “God’s works are studied by all who delight in them.”

Isn’t that true, even today? People who work in the sciences, in medicine, in art, in theology, in music, in psychology and cultural studies, in history – all of us – are, as the 16th century scientist Johann Kepler said, merely “thinking God’s thoughts after him”.  And God’s thoughts are such a delight! As a musician, to know that every note was invented by God, and we musicians are all just exploring; my brother the physicist loves Kepler’s quotation and agrees wholeheartedly that physicists are ‘thinking God’s thoughts after him’; as a theologian, I learn more every day about what God has created in us and has done for us. We are all called to ‘think God’s thoughts after him,’ and when we do, praise becomes spontaneous because God is so brilliant and so amazing.

Great Works

  • God’s works are to be remembered.

— and that means “out loud”, in conversation. God’s works are to be proclaimed: not just ‘brought to mind’ but spoken.

For the ancient Israelites, this meant remembering things like God’s call to Abraham to be the father of a nation that would bless all the people of the earth. It meant remembering God’s call through Moses to freedom and a promised land. It meant remembering God’s faithfulness to Joshua and to King David and to the nation of Israel as they settled securely in Judea and Jerusalem.

That’s as far as the psalm-writer’s history goes. But you and I can add a lot more to that story. We remember God sending Jesus: to teach us what God’s law looks like when it’s actually lived: not as a set of cold-hearted rules like the Pharisees and Sadducees taught, but warm and loving and inclusive of outsiders and the outcast, healing the sick and giving to the poor and setting the prisoners free; and then dying in our place so that we all could enter into his life, in the eternal Promised Land.

Theologian Walter Bouzard says this: “Christians have seen the power of God’s work in the weakness of the cross. Christians have seen God’s faithfulness in the work of Christ’s wounded hands. Christians, like the prophet Anna… have seen the “redemption of Israel” (Luke 2:38). […] Christians praise God for God’s works not [just] because of what God has done in the past, but because the work of God, the righteousness of God, the love of God approaches us again and again in the cup and the bread.”[3]

God continues to work today: in every prayer that is answered, in every new hope that we discover, in every ray of light we find as we pass through the dark places.

And God’s works are also found in the everyday: in the fact that we have food to eat, and homes that are comfortable and health care when it’s needed, and family and friends nearby. All that we have, all that we need, are provided by God so generously.

God’s works are to be remembered, and when they are, they inspire praise.

  • God’s Works are Truth and Justice.

The very nature of God is truth and love – and in God these two characteristics are never in conflict. How often, in our sinful and imperfect world, does it seem like we have to make a choice between doing what is right and doing what is loving? In God there is no conflict between the two. In God, truth and love meet and merge and find their highest meaning.

So when God works, the actions God takes express his truth and his justice.

God’s laws don’t change. God is holy, and God’s understanding and mercy are as far beyond us as the next galaxy is from the Planet Earth. We need to be in God’s word, learning God’s truth, learning God’s justice, on a daily basis, because we don’t change God’s word; God’s word changes us.

That’s what the psalmist means when he says “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” “The fear of the Lord” does not mean being scared of God, but rather being in awe. It means wanting God more than we want anything else.

This awesomeness: we can get a taste of it sometimes, like when we walk into an empty church at night and can almost hear the songs of the generations before us echoing off the walls. We can feel it when we look into the eyes of a newborn baby and see someone who knows more about God than about the world. We feel it when we realize a prayer has been answered and God really heard what we asked for. That’s awesomeness, and that’s where wisdom begins.

Wisdom doesn’t end there. We need to keep on growing; and we need to know “that God’s praise will outlast everything, including [our] own praises.”[4]

So when we see all that God has done, praise is the only possible response.  Today when we sing the Doxology, our song of praise, let’s remember all these things, and blend our voices together to praise our God.

Hallelujah! AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 8/15/21

[1] Yolanda Norton, Working Preacher

[2] Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Working Preacher

[3] Walter Bouzard, Working Preacher

[4] Wil Gafney, Working Preacher

Today I happened across an interview of a young Christian Dreamer whose parents brought her to the United States from Venezuela in early 2001 when she was four years old.

She shared her testimony of growing up in a world that she loved but where she didn’t really belong: of being a straight-A student but knowing she wasn’t allowed to go to college or get a job… and at the same time knowing with certainty that God had a purpose for her life and a call on her life.

What did she end up doing? And where was God in the process? Her testimony will inspire your faith — and a few tears.

Easily the most inspiring video I’ve seen this year. From Women Of Welcome:

https://fb.watch/7jYAJGkjOJ/

WoW Screenshot

Screenshot of Video – click link above to view

What is Christian welcome? Remembering that even in the midst of diversity, “He is our peace, who has broken down every wall…” (Eph 2:14)

I accept the challenge. Count me in. From now on call me “Ally of Dreamers”.

Psalm 130

A Song of Ascents

1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.
2 Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
3 If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?
4 But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.
5 I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
6 my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
7 O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
8 It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.

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

Last week we started a mini-series on the Psalm of the Day, which today is Psalm 130 (above). The book of Psalms was the hymnal of ancient Israel; the Psalms were meant to be used in worship in the Temple and were usually meant to be sung.

At the top of many of the psalms we see notations telling us who wrote the psalm or how to sing it. For example, we may see things like “to the choirmaster” or “with stringed instruments”. These are not part of the psalm itself but they’re instructions and background comments for the leaders of worship.

At the top of Psalm 130 it says “A Song of Ascents.” Songs of ascents were often sung while people were climbing up the mountain to Jerusalem to worship in the temple; so it’s a song of traveling in God’s direction.

Let me take us back 2000 years to ancient Israel. We are followers of Yahweh God, and according to the law of Moses, all able-bodied people are required to present themselves at the Temple three times a year: for the holidays of Passover (in the early spring); Pentecost (in late spring or early summer) and The Feast of Tabernacles (in the fall). All three of these holidays were times of feasting and rejoicing before God, along with families, friends, and neighbors. Your whole village would travel together to Jerusalem for these festivals.

There was just one challenge: unless you happened to live on the ridge of mountains that included Jerusalem (and could travel the mountain passes) there was at that time really only one way to get to the Holy City: travel to Jericho in the Jordan Valley and then turn east up the mountain.

Imagine this:

  • Jericho is the lowest city on the planet Earth, elevation-wise. It sits 864 feet below sea level.
  • Jerusalem is 2575 feet above sea level.
  • The road from Jericho to Jerusalem goes just about straight up for 14 miles over rocky ground where there is very little water. One travel writer describes the road as “anything but a normal highway”. In Jesus’ time people didn’t travel this road alone because robbers often hid behind the rocks and attacked travelers. (This is happened to the man in the story of the Good Samaritan. It was on this road that the Samaritan found that traveler half-dead and had mercy on him and took care of him.)
  • A healthy young adult might walk from Jericho to Jerusalem in around eight or nine hours. An entire village, however, would take a bit longer! So people sang songs of ascents to encourage each other as they traveled.

Road2

Road from Jericho to Jerusalem

I don’t know about you, but if it were me, I’d be standing at the bottom of that mountain going “I… don’t… know… about… this! I’m not in the best of shape. I haven’t been following my diet. My knees hurt. My feet hurt. I don’t know if I can make it all… the… way… up… there…”

That’s where the writer of our psalm is, spiritually speaking. He is looking at God, from down here on earth, looking at the perfection of God, looking at the place where God lives, seeing how much higher God is than we are… and he’s not sure he can make it.

Like those travelers down below sea level, the writer of our psalm is down deep. He says: “Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord.” He’s being realistic. He knows where he stands, and he knows what the goal is, and he knows no member of the human race has ever lived up to God’s standards.

“Out of the depths I cry to you,” he says.  When we are down… when we are weary of the pandemic… when we are weary of a world without peace… when we are grieving the loss of a family member or a friend… when we are grieving the loss of a job, or a dream, or a future… when we are mistreated or excluded by someone who should have cared for us… when we are challenged by health issues… like the psalmist, when we are in those deep places, we can cry out to God from the depths.

In verses three and four the writer says “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?” The writer is not making a confession here. He’s not like David in last week’s psalm (Psalm 51) who had gotten caught red-handed doing something he shouldn’t have done. In this case it’s more like the psalmist is acknowledging the human condition. He’s saying all of us are sinners, all of us make mistakes, all of us do things we know we shouldn’t do. If God decides to press charges, if God is not merciful, we are all going to be found guilty. He is acknowledging human weakness, in order to contrast it with God’s greatness and God’s mercy.  He writes: “There is forgiveness with you so that you may be revered.”

This psalm is, at its heart, a lament.  We had a service of lament here just a few weeks ago to remember before God our losses from the pandemic. Lament is a necessary part of faith. Lament is being honest with God. But more than that…

I tripped over something on Google this week written by Jerome Creach, a former pastor of the Presbyterian church across the street, and I wanted to share what he wrote with you. He says lament should not be ignored because spirituality without lament becomes very shallow. He writes: “Lament is a form of speech that allows the worshipper to complain about injustice and to call on God to hear the cries of those who suffer.”

So when we lament we are not criticizing God or doubting God; we are complaining about injustice or suffering from a position of faith. Lament calls on God to hear the voices of those whose hearts are broken.

Pastor Creach makes one other really good observation: he says “lament is also praise, and a very important expression of praise at that. It gives evidence of faith worked out in the midst of hardship, hurt, and loss.”  That is, lament is an expression of trust… that will give way to praise when God answers.

As the psalmist says, we watch for what God will do. Like watchmen for the morning. Have you ever sat up with a friend all night? Just before dawn there’s a sense of anticipation and the beginning of something new, something that has never been before, that you can’t experience anywhere else. We know that God is coming, just like we know the sun is coming. We watch for God like watchmen for the morning.

To wait like this is to live expectantly, with the awareness that God has acted in the past, and with anticipation of what God will do.  This psalm is about the character of God, which we can depend on no matter what life throws at us.

Psalm 131, the psalm right after this one, picks up on this theme and says (in a contemporary translation, one I’ve always loved):

“My heart is not proud, O Lord
My head is bowed down, O Lord
I don’t concern myself with great and lofty speech
Or matters far beyond the limits of my reach

But I have stilled and quieted my soul…”

This psalm stills and quiets our souls before a God who can be trusted, even when we’re deep in the valleys.

“O Israel, hope in the Lord!”  With these words the travelers of old encouraged each other as they climbed up that mountain.

And with these words travelers today encourage each other, looking forward to that gathering on God’s holy mountain in the everlasting Kingdom. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 8/8/21

This morning we’re starting a new summer mini-series on the Psalm of the Day, which today is Psalm 51 (full text at the bottom). I’ve been reading the Psalms a good bit this summer and have gotten a lot out of them so I wanted to share some of the blessings with you!

As many of you know, the book of Psalms was the hymnal of ancient Israel. Many of the psalms, at the top of the psalm, tell us about who wrote them or about how they were to be performed. For example, we may see things like “to the choirmaster” or “with stringed instruments” at the top.

Most of the time the psalms were meant to be sung by the congregation in worship. The psalms of David, however, often had two purposes: they were often prayers David prayed when he was in a tough spot, and then were later adapted for worship – so they’re both historical and spiritual.

This Sunday our lectionary gives us one of the most famous and one of the most heartbreaking of all the psalms. Psalm 51 is still used in today in Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant worship. If we ever can’t find words to say ‘I’m sorry’ to God, this psalm will give us the words – and for that reason many churches read this psalm on Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent.

But here we are, in the middle of summer, in the middle of a difficult year, and because this year has been so difficult this psalm may feel like a little bit of overkill. So as we read the psalm, let me suggest two possible ways to approach it, and whichever way works for you, take that approach.

David on roof

The first approach is for those of us who have sin in our lives that we haven’t talked to God about yet because we’re either ashamed to or afraid to. For anyone in this position, Psalm 51 gives us a way to talk to God about what we’ve done. And it also gives us confidence that God is willing to forgive.

The second approach is for those of us who are up-to-date on our prayers of confession. In this case we can approach this psalm as one that helps us understand people who are still struggling. This psalm helps us to see others through God’s eyes, and see how much God cares for people who get themselves into trouble sometimes.

With either approach, this psalm is a touchstone. It brings us back to the foundation of salvation, which is by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ – and therefore this psalm is something we always want to have close to hand.

At the very top of Psalm 51 it says: A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.  

That one sentence says a lot!! To summarize the back story:

In the ancient middle east, kings usually went to war in the spring, either to defend their territory or to expand their territory. Israel was no exception. But one year when the army went to war, King David decided not to go with the troops. The Bible doesn’t say why… but it hints that David maybe should have gone.

David’s palace stood at the highest point in the city of Jerusalem, and the city itself is built on top of a mountain. So David could look out and see just about anything from up there. One morning when he was looking out, David saw a beautiful woman in the city below, taking a bath on her rooftop. He decided he wanted her, so he sent messengers, and Bathsheba was brought to the palace, and the two of them were together, and then David sent her home.

Before I go on with David’s story I want to correct a misinterpretation of this passage I have sometimes heard preached, both in churches and on the radio. I have heard people say this whole thing was Bathsheba’s fault, that she shouldn’t have been bathing on the rooftop, that she was trying to catch David’s eye, that she was quite willing to be with him, and if it hadn’t been for her none of what followed would have happened.

This is simply not true. In Jerusalem, both back then and today, water is hard to come by. Most of the houses in Jerusalem have containers to catch rainwater on the roof of the house. So it was (and is) perfectly normal to bathe and do laundry on the roof of a house. Secondly, if Bathsheba had said ‘no’ to David — to disobey a king’s command is treason. The fact is, even if David was a gentleman (and I believe he was – their future relationship bears this out), Bathsheba really didn’t have a choice. This was not Bathsheba’s doing.

A little while later, Bathsheba discovers she’s pregnant. And the child can only be David’s because her husband Uriah is in the army and he’s off fighting the war. So she sends a message to David saying “I’m pregnant.”

David sends for her husband Uriah, greets him warmly, gives him something to drink, asks how the battle is going, and then says “go home and enjoy your wife”.  But Uriah, being a loyal soldier, stays with the army and doesn’t go home. He says “how can I enjoy my wife while my comrades are out there risking their lives?” David tries once more but Uriah won’t go home. So David sends Uriah back to the front lines with secret instructions for the commander saying “put Uriah where the fighting is the hottest and then pull back so he dies.”

Which the commander does.
And Uriah dies.
And David marries Bathsheba.
And soon there’s a baby boy – a new prince in the palace!

David thought he’d gotten away with it.

But God is never deceived. And God was very angry with David. So God sends Nathan the prophet to David with a message. Nathan says: “There’s a poor man living in the city, who had nothing except one precious little lamb that was like family to him. He and his lamb even slept curled up together sometimes. This man had a rich neighbor, and one day a visitor came to visit the rich neighbor, and rather than killing one of his own sheep, the rich man took the poor man’s only lamb, and killed it, and served it to his guest.”

David is furious when he hears this. He says, “This rich man had no pity at all! He deserves to die.”
And Nathan says: “You are the man.”

Create in me

Nathan also tells David that because he has done this, the sword will never depart from David’s house, and that the son born to Bathsheba will die. And the greatest crime, Nathan says, is that David has given the enemies of the God an opportunity to blaspheme God’s name.

Isn’t that always the case when God’s leaders fall into sin? A priest is caught with a young altar boy… and people blaspheme the name of God. A youth leader is found seducing one of the youth group… and people curse God and walk away from the church. A church secretary makes off with peoples’ donations… and people shame the name of God.  There is no such thing as “victimless” sin. Every sin is an opportunity for the enemies of God to cut down God’s name and curse God’s people.

Realizing the truth of this, David prays the prayer in Psalm 51. And God, in mercy, allows David not only to be forgiven, but to speak words of prophecy while he’s praying.

David cuts straight to the chase. He says: “have mercy on me O God”. Not because David deserves it, not because David is the king, but because God is who God is. David calls on God’s “steadfast love” and “abundant mercy”.  In Hebrew the words are hesed and rakham – loving kindness and bottomless mercy – and we will hear these two words over and over in the Old Testament. David is praying to the God who is – a God who David has come to know well.

David then asks God to act. He says: wash me, cleanse me, forgive me. When we sinners stand in front of God, our first reaction when we see how perfect God is, is to say ‘please make me clean’. We can’t make ourselves clean enough for God, no matter how hard we try. The only way we can be free of the dirt of sin is if God washes us. The only way we can be forgiven is if God chooses to forgive.

We have to trust God’s mercy.

Standing in God’s presence is a very vulnerable place to be. The question is, will we trust God? Will we trust that God is as kind and loving and forgiving as God tells us he is?

David has known God for a long time so he’s able to trust God fairly quickly. But then he says something that stuns us: he says to God: “against you, you only, have I sinned”. But what about Bathsheba? What about Uriah? Didn’t he sin against them? Yes. Now we take that one step further. Bathsheba and Uriah are God’s precious children. And when David hurts them, he hurts God even more. God hurts like any parent hurts when their child is hurting. Against you only, Lord, do we sin.

David goes even further: he says “I was born guilty.”

Theologians have a field day with this verse! They say it proves the doctrine of original sin. Personally I don’t think David was trying to make a doctrinal statement here – I think he was being emotional and poetic. He’s saying “this world puts us all in an environment where we can’t help but sin, we have no choice”.

But David says, “Lord you desire truth on the inside – teach me wisdom way down deep – deeper than the sin goes.” And then David speaks a word of prophecy, even though he probably didn’t realize it at the time. He says: “purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean.” Hyssop is a plant similar to mint whose leaves used to be used in medicine and disinfecting; so the statement makes sense in its own context. But it also looks forward to a day, 1000 years in the future, when God’s Messiah will be hanging on a cross, dying for the sins of the world, and he will say, “I’m thirsty”. And the soldiers will offer him something to drink: dipped in sour wine and offered on a hyssop branch. By hyssop God makes us clean.

David continues: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” The word ‘create’ here is the same word used in Genesis chapter one, when God creates the heavens and the earth. It’s not just cleaning up the old heart; it’s creating a brand-new heart. It’s like a heart transplant. David’s hope – and ours – is in the power of creation and re-creation that only God has.

David looks forward to feeling God’s joy again, when he lives in harmony with God’s will. There is a joy that comes from being exactly where God wants us to be. Remember the movie Chariots of Fire from a few years ago? It was about a missionary who was also an Olympic runner. People asked him why he delayed going into the mission field in order be in the Olympics he said, “God made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure.” When we are in God’s will, we feel His pleasure.

David promises that when God has forgiven him, David will lead others to return to God. “Repent” is the old-fashioned word, but it means to change course or change direction. So David says, “Deliver me, God, and my tongue will sing of your deliverance… I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.” This is why we, as a fellowship of forgiven people, reach out to the addicted and the hurting: because God has forgiven us and we want to share that forgiveness and that joy with others.

David knows that God will forgive because “a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” God never turns his back on his child who is grieving.

David closes his prayer with a request for the well-being of the nation – knowing that his actions may have jeopardized the nation’s well-being – and knowing that he and God share the same goal, which is the good of God’s people.

So today, as God’s people, let’s keep this prayer close by. There are times we may need to pray it ourselves… and there are times we may need to share it with others, in order to assure them that God does want to forgive and that hearts can be changed. This psalm shows us not only David’s heart, but God’s heart, which is always loving and merciful. So keep this psalm close. AMEN.

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

Psalm 51:1-19  

To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba

1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;

according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 

2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 

3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 

4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight,

so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. 

5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. 

6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. 

7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 

8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 

9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. 

11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. 

12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. 

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. 

14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation,

and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. 

15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. 

16 For you have no delight in sacrifice;

if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. 

17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;

a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. 

18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, 

19 then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;

then bulls will be offered on your altar.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 8/1/21

 

Today is Pentecost – the day we remember the fulfillment of the prophecy that John the Baptist spoke when he said: “I baptize you with water… but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matt 3:11)  Pentecost is the day when that prophecy came true, and it is still true today.

Jesus also talked about this event when he said that God would send “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit…” [who] would teach us everything, and remind us of all that he had said. (John 14:26) Jesus said: “When the Advocate comes… the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.” (John 15:26) This is why, when we share the story of Jesus with others, God touches hearts and lives are changed.

PentecostActs chapter two gives us the story of what happened that day a little over 2000 years ago. Luke writes: “When the day of Pentecost had come, [the disciples] were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 2:1-4)

This day is the day when we thank God for these events. It’s also a day when we ask God to refresh our lives and our spirits with that same Spirit, with a knowledge of Himself, with the guidance and wisdom that comes from God’s throne. This is the day when we ask God to renew in our lives the fruits of God’s spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. It’s the day when we refresh the gifts God has given us by the Spirit: some of us as teachers or preachers, some of us with wisdom, or knowledge, or healing, or prophecy, or faith, or generosity. We are here today not only to remember, but to refresh and renew the Spirit within us.

There is one other aspect of Pentecost we hardly ever hear about, so I’m going to take us on a little detour this morning through the Old Testament.

I want to start by pointing out something that doesn’t always jump out at us right away as we read Acts.  We know that Pentecost is about the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Why is it then, that Acts 2:1 says, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all gathered together…?” How would the disciples have known it was Pentecost, if the Holy Spirit hadn’t come yet?

They knew because Pentecost was a Jewish holiday. The word ‘Pentecost’ is a Greek word meaning ‘fifty days’. For Christians, we count 50 days from Easter – the day of resurrection – to Pentecost. For Jewish people, it was 50 days from the beginning of the harvest – also known as the Feast of Weeks. Their 50 days was broken up into weeks – into Sabbaths (“Sabbath” being the Hebrew word for “seven”). So in each case we have 50 days.

So today we look back to Pentecost, which looks back to the coming of the Holy Spirit, which looks back to Easter (the resurrection). And Pentecost also looks back to the harvest, and the Feast of Weeks, which looks back to the Sabbath.

In the 21st century most people typically think of ‘Sabbath’ (if they think of it at all) as just another word for ‘Sunday’. But most of us here today know there’s more to it than that.  We remember Genesis chapter two, which says when God finished creating everything, “God rested on the seventh day…” and “God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it…” (Gen 2:2-3, edited)

And we remember the Ten Commandments, where God said:

“Remember the sabbath day, and 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; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth…” (Ex. 20:8-11)

FeastOfWeeksSo back to Pentecost – the Jewish Pentecost. When harvest time came, the Jewish people counted off seven weeks of seven days – in other words, a sabbath of sabbaths – which came out to 49 days. And on the 50th day they celebrated Pentecost. This was the Feast of Weeks. But this also looked forward to a holiday called Jubilee (which you may recall from the Old Testament: a holiday that came every 50 years – a year when all debts were forgiven). This Feast of Weeks was like a foretaste of the Jubilee, which itself is like a foretaste of heaven, where all sins are forgiven.

So this Feast of Weeks, this Sabbath of Sabbaths, is the reason there were so many foreigners in Jerusalem on the day the Holy Spirit arrived. All the Jewish people who were scattered all over the Roman Empire, including parts of Asia and Africa, came to Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks. Acts chapter 2 tells us:

“All of [the disciples] were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” (Acts 2:4-8)

At this Festival of the Harvest God gives the church it’s first harvest of believers. In the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter preaches to the crowd, and he tells them about Jesus and how God raised Jesus from the dead, and three thousand people were added to the church in one day.

Two things I’d like to pull out of these Pentecost celebrations:

  1. As on the day of Pentecost, when the early church started to grow and spread, it was in the power of the Holy Spirit. And throughout history, even today, whenever the church grows it happens in the power of the Holy Spirit. What we see here in Acts chapter two is the way God builds the church. The disciples didn’t have college educations; they didn’t have money or position; they didn’t have power. In fact they were in the upper room hiding from the authorities when all this started! They were just a small group. But they prayed, and they were open to what God wanted to do. And God filled them with the Holy Spirit and the world has never been the same. This same Spirit will touch our lives and inspire our church if we ask in faith.
  2. The second thing I want to point out is: God doesn’t always move the way we expect God to. There’s a story in the Old Testament, in the book of Judges, when Joshua is gathering the army for battle, and God says to Joshua “you have too many men, send some of them home.” And this happens twice before Joshua takes on the battle. It seems counter-intuitive to send more than half the army home before you start a battle. And likewise, on Pentecost, the Jewish holiday reminds us to observe the Sabbath. It seems counter-intuitive, that if believers want to accomplish something, we need to begin by resting!

Sabbath is something that’s been almost forgotten in our time. And I’m not talking about just ‘going to church on Sunday’, although that’s part of it. Sabbath is primarily a day of rest.

The thing is, people don’t rest very well in our culture. Even when we have spare time we fill it with busyness. You know the old saying from the philosopher Descartes, “I think therefore I am”. For most contemporary Americans it’s more like “I do therefore I am.” We feel as if, if we’re not doing something, we’re not justifying the space we take up on the planet.

All of this activity, without taking a break, is unhealthy, counterproductive, and spiritually harmful. Imagine for a moment what would happen if we didn’t sleep. Scientists tell us if we don’t sleep we will die in about 11 days – and we will have hallucinations in just three days. In our culture we may sleep but we don’t get enough sleep, and we never stop working. This is not good.

And God knows that. God gave us the Sabbath to remind us of who we are and Whose we are. God gives us one day, every seven days, to stop work and rest.

Of course the religious leaders of Israel made this really complicated. The way they taught it, the Sabbath was so much work you almost had to break the Sabbath in order to keep the Sabbath! That’s why Jesus said to the Pharisees, “the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)

So what exactly is the Sabbath, and how can we observe it today?

Put simply, the Sabbath is one day out of every seven when we do no work. Traditionally Sabbath is observed from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, but if you happen to work on Saturdays it can be observed on Tuesday. There are lots of possible variations.

But there’s more to it than just a day off.

Observing the Sabbath has actually become sort of an ‘in thing’ in some churches these days, so there’s a lot of chatter about it on the internet. Google brought me to a number of quotations from people taking about their experiences of the Sabbath.

  • One person says: “my own Sabbath… [includes] taking my watch off at sunset Friday and not looking at it again until sunset Saturday.”
  • Another person says: “Sabbath means to… break out of daily routine… a day of enjoying the world rather than doing battle with it …”
  • Another person says: “God created us. He knows our souls need the rest, refreshment, and fulfillment, which only comes from spending time in His presence. Therefore, the Sabbath is a gift from God.”
  • Another person says: “Sabbath provides freedom from the tyranny of things and the need to achieve. It restores value to time. […] Sabbath enables us to find our worth in being God’s children…”
  • Another person says the Sabbath focuses on feasting (which is true in the Scriptures) – so they “feast on music… [or] on beauty, [on] God’s creation…”
  • And one university psychology professor wrote: “We are a stressed out, time-strapped people, living in a world that is filled with suffering and injustice. Perhaps unexpectedly, one aid to improving the psychological health of individuals and the social, economic, and spiritual health of our communities… may be the commandment least [observed]…: keeping the Sabbath.”

So how does one observe the Sabbath? First off, the Sabbath was intended to be inclusive: that is, it’s a day of rest not just for ourselves but for family members, any friends who visit, employees (if we have them), strangers who live near us, and even animals. The traditional way is to begin Sabbath is by lighting candles and saying a short prayer at sundown on Friday, immediately followed by the best meal of the week served on the best china (it is about feasting!); and then having 24 hours of rest. It takes some planning!

Why should we do this? First off, because God tells us to. But more than that, Sabbath is a gift from God. And we don’t want to leave this gift unopened.

Sabbath is like hitting the ‘reset’ button on our lives. It clears our minds and hearts of all the junk the world puts in us. I have never met anyone who observes the Sabbath who has said, “oh I got tired of it and quit.” Never.

It is difficult at first to rest for 24 hours. Some people need to work up to it: starting with eight hours and then ten and then twelve, and so on. Some other people experiment a little:

  • Some people go on a 24-hour fast from screens (as in, TV, computers, cell phones, iPods, tablets.) – all turned off for 24 hours
  • Some people fast from spending money for 24 hours: no paying bills, no online shopping, no going out to eat, nothing involving money.
  • Some people try avoiding advertising for 24 hours. (this BTW is extremely difficult – if you succeed please let me know how!)
  • Some people fast from the news for 24 hours.

But Sabbath isn’t really about fasting. Sabbath is meant to be a foretaste of eternity with God. The prophet Isaiah wrote that in God’s kingdom “…the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples: a feast of rich food and wine on the lees…” (Is 25:6) Because of this, it’s traditional to begin the Sabbath with the richest meal of the week.  It’s a foretaste of God’s kingdom.

One last quotation on the Sabbath, this one from a Christian theologian:

“Take anything you delight in here on earth: Your children. Your craftwork. Your hot tub. The dewy green of a fairway on a July morning. The sweet corn from your garden, drenched in butter. Enjoy them all. Find rest in them. And imagine how much more awaits you…” in God’s kingdom.

That’s the Sabbath. It directs our hearts and minds to a foretaste of heaven. And until then, the Holy Spirit, given at Pentecost, guides our daily lives.

Whenever we observe the Sabbath, and whenever we observe Pentecost, we proclaim Jesus’ kingdom until He comes.

And so we pray: Oh Lord, renew in us your Holy Spirit. Equip us for ministry. And because You know we need it, lead us into holy rest. AMEN.

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Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 5/23/21

(A variation of this sermon was also preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church on 5/30/21)

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Source Material:

https://equippingblog.wordpress.com/2019/06/07/ascension-sabbath-shavuot-pentecost-june-7-10-2019/

Day of Pentecost HD Gise Ríos Published on Sep 27, 2015 From The Bible Series

https://www.faithgateway.com/feast-pentecost/#.YKLd8aEpCUk

https://ssnet.org/blog/sabbath-pentecost/

https://bibleproject.com/blog/keeping-the-sabbath-is-it-still-relevant-to-christians-today/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabbath

https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/observing-shabbat/

https://www.pointloma.edu/resources/theology-christian-ministry/reclaiming-sabbath

A Unity of Eyewitnesses

(Scripture readings are included in full at the end of the message.)

It’s kind of unusual to read all four lectionary readings in one go, but our four lectionary readings for today shed light on each other, enhance each other, and speak to each other, so I didn’t want to leave any one of them out.

Since we have so many passages, to help us organize our thinking, I’d like to highlight two things as we look at these passages: (1) the unity of believers; and (2) the disciples’ very real, in-the-flesh eyewitness to the resurrected Jesus.

Starting off with Psalm 133, the psalmist writes: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like… oil on the head, running down… on the beard of Aaron, running over the collar of his robes.”

Oil in the Old Testament represented God’s anointing, and God’s blessing. And unity is a rich blessing from God.

Today we live in a nation that is deeply divided. And we worship in a church that is deeply divided, and which would be true no matter what church or denomination we were sitting in this morning. We so rarely witness Christian unity, when we do, it stands out. For me it was around 35 years ago, and I remember thinking to myself in that moment, “take a mental snapshot of this – use your mind like a camera (this is in the days before cell phones) because it’s not going to last long and you’re going to want to remember it.” And I was right – it didn’t last long. Not because people started fighting with each other but because people moved, were transferred, retired… within two or three years most of the group was gone.

There have been other experiences of unity since then, smaller ones, and I hope that’s true for you too. I hope we can all say together, from experience, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.”

The apostle Luke, in our reading from Acts, echoes this sentiment. He says: “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul… everything they owned was held in common… and great grace was upon them all…”  This passage is often mistakenly interpreted to mean the early church was a sort of Christian commune, sharing all things together, but that’s not what the original Greek implies. What it implies is that the people in the early church provided for each other as needs arose – sometimes selling possessions or land in order to meet the needs of others. So no follower of Jesus went hungry. No follower of Jesus went without medicine. Everyone saw to it that needs were met. And their neighbors noticed, and they wanted to be part of this. Witnessing the unity of the believers, who were one in heart and soul attracted people to the faith.

And the unity of believers in the early church had its foundation in witnessing Jesus alive after the crucifixion. They all saw with their own eyes, and touched with their own hands, the prints of the nails and the scar from the Roman spear in Jesus’ side. They had seen him die, and they saw him alive after he’d been buried. They talked with him, ate with him, and spent time with him. Most members of the early church died a martyr’s death rather than deny that they had seen him alive.

You and I, of course, only have their word to go on. None of us have seen Jesus in the flesh. But I trust that those hundreds of early disciples would not have been willing to give their lives for a lie. I believe Jesus walked out of the grave alive, because they believed it. They stayed together even to death.

With this in mind, we now look at the story of “Doubting Thomas”. The Sunday after Good Friday, the disciples were together, and they were hiding inside a locked room, being afraid of the people who had killed Jesus, and then Jesus walked right through a locked door and said, “Peace be with you.” I would love to know more about this walking through locked doors… but for now, we focus on the fact that Jesus showed the disciples the scars in his hands and side. And the disciples were able to touch them and see that they were real.

But Thomas, one of the twelve disciples, wasn’t there that day. He missed it. The other disciples told him “Jesus is alive” and Thomas says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in his side, I will not believe it.”

Thomas has taken a lot of flack over the years for saying this. But when we look at what Thomas is saying, he’s not asking to see anything more than the other disciples had seen, or do anything more than the other disciples had done. And Jesus doesn’t criticize Thomas for this. The next time the disciples are all together, Thomas is there, and he sees the scars in Jesus’ hands, and he puts his hand in Jesus’ side, and he declares “My Lord and my God!”

And Jesus remarks: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Why? Because Jesus’ resurrection is the foundation of Christian unity.  It is the ground on which all of us stand. And John adds: “these things are written so that you (that is, us) may believe that Jesus is the Messiah… and through believing have life in his name.”

John defines the message which all Christians are given to share. He also defines the evangelistic challenge we all face, which is: how do we communicate the reality of Jesus’ resurrection to people who have not been eyewitnesses?

In these passages, Christian unity – the community of faith – bears witness to God’s truth and Jesus’ resurrection.

So does this mean that we as Christians always have to agree with each other, in order to bear witness to the world? No. Does it mean we have to do the things the same way or live the same way? No.

300 years ago John Wesley took up that question in a sermon he preached called On a Catholic Spirit. (By ‘catholic’ he means it the way we mean it in the Creed – in the sense of ‘the whole church’, not in the sense of Roman Catholic). The sermon On a Catholic Spirit can be found on the internet, and I recommend it, even though Wesley’s old-fashioned English makes for slow reading. But translating his core thought into modern English basically what he said is this:

First off, (1) all people are unaware of many things – that is, there’s a lot we don’t know; and (2) all people are mistaken about some things, that is, none of us is perfect. So Wesley’s question to people is always this: “Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?” In other words, if you love and believe God, as I do, then you and I stand together – no matter what any other differences may be. Wesley says:

“Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?” And he goes on to say: “I will not ask, therefore, questions like, Do you belong to my church? Do you have the same form of church government? Do pray the same way? […] (Wesley says) My only question to you is, “Is your heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?”” – do we love and believe God?

With this in mind, we turn now to John’s epistle. John says to those reading his letter:

The things we share with you are things “we have looked at and touched with our hands” – and we are writing this to you, “so that our joy may be complete” – that is, so that you may become one with us and we may all know the same joy. John continues:

“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness… if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another.

Furthermore, “the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.”  This is why the Cross was necessary. John says Jesus is “the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Jesus is alive – death and sin couldn’t hold him – and he is the one who invites us to see his scars.

The challenge, back then and today, is how to share this good news with others: how to tell people that Jesus died and walked out of the grave alive? How to tell people this isn’t a fable, that men and women (including Thomas) have seen him alive and touched his scars? How do we share this unlikely story with people who doubt it, or who have never heard it?

The solution to the challenge is our unity: being of one heart and soul; showing the world a better way. If the message of Jesus is true – if, as our creed says, Jesus is the one and only unique son of God, who was crucified, died and was buried, and who rose again on the third day in fulfillment of the scriptures, then the Spirit of God who made this miracle happen will also bring about the miracle of Christian unity.

John Wesley asked, “May we not be of one heart, even if we are not of one opinion?” And Wesley’s answer to that question in daily life was the founding of the Methodist Church: a church known through its history for generosity, for members who minister to the poor and the sick and the suffering, and for willingness to study together and serve together. Being of one heart, even if we’re not of one opinion – through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and his resurrection – shows the world something new and different. People notice.

May God make us one in our witness in our day, as John Wesley was in his day, and as the apostle John was in his day. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 4/11/21

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Psalm 133:1-3  A Song of Ascents

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!  2 It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.  3 It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the LORD ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

 Acts 4:32-35

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.  33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.  34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.  35 They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

1 John 1:1 – 2:2

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life–  2 this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us–  3 we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.  4 We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.  6 If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true;  7 but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.  8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous;  2 and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”  28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

An Unexpected Easter

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.  2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.  3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”  4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.  5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.  6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.  7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”  8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” – Mark 16:1-8

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Alleluia! Christ is Risen!  ~  The Lord is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!

This beautiful Easter morning we come together to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has walked out of the grave alive! This is the kingdom of God, breaking into our earthly reality, just as Jesus promised – and the hope of eternal life for every one of us.

EasterEarly

The thing is: we really don’t hear this message in the Gospel of Mark. Of all the resurrection stories in the four gospels, Mark’s is the only one that doesn’t end on a note of joy. It ends instead with the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection running away in fear. How do we celebrate Easter with a story like this?

First let me back up a little bit and set the scene. The women in Mark’s gospel – Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome – had witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion two days before. They had witnessed the injustice of Pilate’s so-called trial. They had witnessed their Lord and their friend being tortured beyond recognition and being ridiculed while he died. They had had the courage to stay and watch with him while many others disappeared.

After Jesus died, Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. He placed the body in his brand new family grave, in a cave. Mary Magdalene went with him and witnessed this. She saw the care Joseph gave Jesus’ body, and she also realized the burial wasn’t complete: Joseph had to stop what he was doing because the Sabbath was beginning. So Joseph rolled a stone in front of the door of the tomb and all of them went home for the Sabbath.

That Sabbath must have been the longest day of their lives.

What these women had witnessed on Friday was life-changing, and not in a good way. J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote: “I will not say do not weep; for not all tears are evil.”  There are times when tears are very much needed, like when justice is ignored, or when cruelty has won the day, or when love has been murdered.

But the women were determined to do what they could do for the Lord they loved. So they got up on the first day of the week, as soon as the Sabbath was over, and arrived at the tomb just as the sun was coming up. And they were wondering how they were going to move that huge stone away.

But… they found… the grave… open! And when they looked inside, they saw a young man in white (an angel, according to the other gospel writers) sitting to the right-hand side of where Jesus’ body had been, apparently waiting for the women to get there.

Can you imagine what must have gone through their minds, to see Jesus’ body gone? But this young man (this angel) tells them: “Don’t be alarmed. Jesus, who you’re looking for, has been raised from the dead. He is not here; but look and see the place where he was laid” – pointing to the grave clothes that were still there.

Then he tells the women, “go tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee and he will meet you there.” It’s significant the angel added “and Peter,” because Peter had denied Jesus three times, and he was about to be forgiven. Jesus’ death and resurrection makes new beginnings possible – for Peter, and for all of us.

The other gospel writers tell us the women went out and told the disciples the good news. But we don’t hear this from Mark. Mark says the women were distressed and fled from the tomb and said nothing to anyone.

THE END.

Mark ends his story so abruptly that down through the centuries people have tried to write alternate endings to the book of Mark. (You may have one or more of those alternate endings in your Bible depending on which version you have.)

But given the year we’ve had this past year, I like Mark’s ending.

It fits us. It fits life in pandemic time: life where tomorrow is uncertain, and circumstances and plans are always changing. It’s almost like we’ve had a stone rolled across this past year.

As we stand with the women in the empty tomb, we see Mary and Mary and Salome still grieving. The pain and horror they had witnessed was still too fresh. It would take a little while for the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to sink in – for the reality of the good news to become part of them.

I think it may be like that for us too, as we begin to move slowly out of pandemic time. Like them, we are moving into a world that has changed. And like the women at the grave, we’re not quite done grieving yet. Many of us lost loved ones this past year, and we couldn’t say a proper ‘goodbye’ before they passed. Some of us grieve the loss of health or the loss of a job or a business. All of us grieve the loss of time with family and loved ones and worshiping in our churches.

Grieving

Like the women at the tomb, if we try to move too quickly past the pain of this year, before our tears have all been cried, our hearts won’t let us forget – and pain denied is never pain avoided.

I think Mark knew that the women still needed to grieve. So he leaves the story there: with the commission to go and tell, the commission to be the world’s first Christian evangelists, yet knowing it’s not going to happen right this very minute.

The time will come, very soon, when the women will go and tell the disciples. Jesus is calling them all to meet him in Galilee, where they met him before, back when everything started. And all of us are invited to join them there – where Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry – and began again the mission of proclaiming the good news that God’s kingdom has come.

When our grieving is over, like the women in Mark’s gospel, we have good news to share: Jesus is alive! Death has been conquered! Jesus has risen – and we are called to meet him, and be strengthened for the days ahead, and continue the work he began.

We are called to finish with our lives the story that Mark left unfinished. To go and tell the good news: The grave is empty. Jesus is Risen. God’s Kingdom has come. Alleluia! AMEN.

New Start

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Preached at Old St. Luke’s Sunrise Service, Scott Township PA, March 4 2021

Full service may be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_6P3F1m_Qw

It’s not often the description of the specs for building the Tabernacle in the book of Exodus make for inspiring reading. But God’s word has a way of being a blessing regardless, and that happened today, and I wanted to share it.

First off, I have no idea how long a “cubit” is. When Exodus describes one of the tent curtains as “twenty-eight cubits long and four cubits wide” (Ex 26:2) I am clueless. Google tells us a cubit was around 18 inches long but even that doesn’t really help me: my husband the carpenter would be able to visualize it, but my brain simply doesn’t work this way. If you said to me “seven times the height of a man” I might get a vague idea.

Tabernacle

But understanding the exactness of measurement isn’t necessary to grasp what God is getting at.

God takes seven chapters – Exodus 25-31 – describing to Moses in great detail how the tabernacle should be created. And in the final chapter God appoints workers specially gifted for the work, whose job will be to create all the pieces and put them together.

As soon as the Lord is finished speaking, in chapter 32, the people waiting for Moses at the bottom of the mountain decide they’ve waited long enough and they’d like to make a golden calf and worship it instead. This starts a whole string of unpleasant events, but that’s not the point of today’s reading.

Here’s the blessing: what God gives is So.Much.Better.

In chapters 25-31, even without the construction details, I can catch a glimpse of what the Tabernacle would have been like:

  • The tabernacle would have been very tall and wide. Big. Like God.
  • With all the animal hides and layers of coverings, it would have been cozy warm inside, even in the cold of desert nights. Like the heart of God.
  • The inside of the tabernacle would have been stunningly beautiful: decorated in gold, silver and bronze, with scenes from nature in blue, purple, and scarlet woven into the fabric of the tent. Beautiful like God and like God’s creation.
  • God’s promises and God’s covenant were kept there, in a golden ark, and on top of the ark was a mercy seat. God’s covenant is rich in mercy.
  • In front of the ark was a golden table on which was the Bread of the Presence – the promise that God was always there – and a prophecy of the Bread of Heaven to come. Always with us – like God.
  • The tabernacle was lit by golden lampstands that had branches like almond trees, burning scented olive oil – a light to inspire and guide. Like God.
  • There was an altar for burnt offerings. The whole place would have smelled like either steak or lamb BBQ all the time. The offerings were made to God, but some were for people to share. Forgiveness of sin was celebrated with God.
  • There was an altar of incense, representing the prayers of the people. Aaron and the priests were to burn incense on it every morning and every evening, a special mix of herbs and spices specified by God for this purpose only, to represent the prayers of God’s people. God was always listening for the people’s prayers.
  • There was a basin for washing – to purify the priests before they performed the various sacrifices. God knew even the clergy needed cleansing, and God provided.
  • There was anointing oil – again made with a mix of spices only to be used for God’s holy purposes – for anointing everything in the tabernacle, making everything holy.
  • And the final command in Chapter 31 was to remember the Sabbath: don’t forget to observe one day a week with no work. Remember God, who rested on the seventh day, and do the same. A foretaste of God’s Kingdom to come, when we all will rest from our work and enjoy God’s presence.

When a person walked into a place like this, they would have been overwhelmed with warmth, rich beauty, the sparkle of gold and silver, and smells he or she would quickly come to associate with God. The feeling would be one of warmth, acceptance, and joyful celebration.

Contrast this with the scene in Chapter 32: the Golden Calf. This is what false gods and false beliefs are like. False gods have to be created by human hands (v 4). They are costly (v 2-3, 6). They do nothing but sit there. They are hard and cold. There is nothing beautiful about them, other than a gold façade. There is no home with them. There is no prayer. There is no light, no incense, no scented oil – no comfort. Those who worship them have no purpose or direction (v. 23, 25). And the idol ends up being fuel for fire (v. 20).

God invites and welcomes us into the Tabernacle of fellowship and belonging… welcomes us home. Why settle for anything less?