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Salt and Light

“Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.  2 Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.  3 “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.  4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.  5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

6 “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?  8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.  9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.  – Isaiah 58:1-12

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“Praise the LORD! Happy are those who fear the LORD, who greatly delight in his commandments.  2 Their descendants will be mighty in the land; the generation of the upright will be blessed.  3 Wealth and riches are in their houses, and their righteousness endures forever.  4 They rise in the darkness as a light for the upright; they are gracious, merciful, and righteous.  5 It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice.  6 For the righteous will never be moved; they will be remembered forever.  7 They are not afraid of evil tidings; their hearts are firm, secure in the LORD.  8 Their hearts are steady, they will not be afraid; in the end they will look in triumph on their foes.  9 They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; their righteousness endures forever; their horn is exalted in honor.”  – Psalm 112:1-10

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“When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.  2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.  3 And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.  4 My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power,  5 so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.  6 ¶ Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish.  7 But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.  8 None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.  9 But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”–  10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.  11 For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God.  12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.” – 1 Corinthians 2:1-16

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13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.  14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.  17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 5:13-20

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Salt and Light

It’s been a tough week in the Partnership this week. Out of our four churches, three either lost members or friends of the church this past week. There were three funerals – two in Brentwood and one in a local Catholic church. At Spencer we lost two; at Fairhaven, we lost one, and then a second the day after the first funeral; and at Carnegie we lost someone we’d been praying for, who was only 45 years old. Hill Top is the only church that has been spared this week, but I’m still feeling a bit raw over the murder of Stacy’s friend a few weeks ago.

I think at times like these we just need to slow down a bit and take stock.

Very often the scriptures we read on Sundays, and the lessons we take from them, almost end up sounding like a to-do list. It’s kind of like, “You wanna get to heaven? Gotta do this, gotta do that…” At times like these, when losses piles up on top of each other, finding more things to do is not the answer.  I think sometimes it’s better to just stop, and remind ourselves of who we are in God, who we are in Jesus.

Our reading from Isaiah today tells us that we are, as human beings, deeply imperfect. We try to do what’s right but we miss the mark. Some of us are so hurting or discouraged, we’re just going through the motions these days, trying to survive from one day to the next.

In Isaiah, God encourages us to keep on doing what we know is right: to avoid empty religious actions and be truly faithful from the heart. Religious ritual means nothing if it is not accompanied by right actions. For as one theologian says: “Whenever people take up their calling to see that justice is done, or to tend to those who suffer, God’s presence breaks into the world.” (Juliana Claassens)

The things God mentions we should do in Isaiah don’t really take all that much effort: God says, when we see people bound by injustice or oppression, set them free. If we see someone who’s hungry, feed them; if we see someone who needs clothes, give them clothes. And in this church, it seems to me, we have people with good hearts who, if we see someone in need, we do something about it. We step up. And just doing that much brings God’s blessing.  God says “your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.”

do justice

The reading from Isaiah is the only one for today that mentions actually doing something. So if we’re feeling tired and worn out and discouraged right now, we can come back to these verses when we’re feeling a little stronger. For now we’ll move along to the Psalm…

In Psalm 112, David says that those of us who fear the Lord, and who take delight in the word of God and in the commandments of God, are blessed. Why? Because in times of trouble we know what to do and who to turn to. Do we love God’s word? Do we love the justice and right-ness of God’s commands? If so, God says: “It is well with you.”

Again God encourages God’s people to be generous and be just and be gracious – to keep on following God’s commands – but this psalm is more about who we are than about what we do. Or maybe more accurately, it’s about the fact that what we do springs out of who we are. God’s people who stand on God’s word are not afraid; we are secure in God; and therefore we can be generous. And God says we will be honored – if not in this life, then in the next.

As we come to Paul’s letter, Paul points out the difference between the wisdom of this age (which is perishing), and God’s wisdom (which will last forever). Paul says God reveals to us through the Holy Spirit that Jesus is indeed the Lord of Glory, and that God is preparing a place for all of us who love him. Only the Holy Spirit can confirm this truth to someone, and the Holy Spirit reveals this truth when people hear about the cross of Christ and Jesus’ resurrection. The wisdom of this world – if you could call it that – knows nothing about these things.

So even when we are feeling weak and weary, maybe even scared of what the world is becoming, we have in us the power of God through the Holy Spirit. And especially when we are feeling less than our best, we can rest in God’s Holy Spirit and let the Spirit’s power flow through us. God gives us, in Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, this precious promise: “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”.  What a comfort these words are after a week like this one!

Which brings us to Matthew. The passage we heard today is a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount which we started last week. Jesus is teaching his disciples while other people are listening in: mostly the sick (or the recently healed) and their caregivers. The surprising thing for this crowd is that Jesus calls them salt and light. They’re the ones who were so recently sick, so recently hurting, so recently at the bottom rung of society… and now Jesus is telling them they are the ones God has chosen. “God has made you, and blessed you, to take a role in creation’s redemption.” (SALT)

rocksalt

At first glance Jesus’ teaching about being salt and light sounds another spiritual to-do list. Gotta be salt! Gotta be light! Except that… exactly what does salt do to be salty?  Nothing, right? Salt is just  salty! And it only takes a little bit of salt to spice up a dish. Jesus says, “you ARE the salt of the earth.” This is an existing condition, not something we have to work to become. Individual grains of salt are small, so they’re usually used together with other grains of salt – which is why we need the church. And salt is tasty. Salt preserves things. Salt doesn’t do anything to be all these things. It just is – and we just are –  what God has made us to be.

Side-note: Salt was a valued commodity in the ancient world. Salt was not just for flavor and for preserving, it was also a purifying agent. And if salt was not of good quality people might use it as something to prevent slipping on wet surfaces (much as we do with rock salt today). This rock-salt would be the salt that is ‘thrown out and trodden under foot’ – not good enough to eat. Salt was so valuable, people back in Roman times were sometimes paid in salt rather than money, which inspired the saying that someone is “worth their salt”.  And for those of us who grew up in the “steel city” – a city built on the strength of one industry – in Europe there is a “salt city” built around the nearby salt mines. The name of that city is Salzburg – which means literally “salt city”. [End of side-note.]

We have the same basic idea with light. We don’t need to light ourselves up. Light simply is, by its nature, something by which we see. God has created us to BE light. And just a little bit of light – sometimes just one candle – is enough to bring light into a room. God is not going to put us out, or hide us under something; God will put us somewhere where we can shine for the benefit of others. We just need to be sure not to hide who we are, or to let anyone put out our light.

What God wills for our lives comes about by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by human power. All we need to do is be what God created us to be, and stay connected to God who is the source. We don’t do these good things in order to get a blessing; God has created us to be a blessing.

At Jewish funerals sometimes you hear people say “may his (or her) memory be a blessing.” That’s the general idea. A person who has lived with God and walked with God – the memory of that person is a blessing. I’m happy to say all the people who went home to God this week leave behind memories that are a blessing.

The one warning Jesus gives is that we need to be careful not lose our integrity. Faith and moral standards are ‘salt’ in this world; and our light is a beacon of love. So we need to hold on to what we have been given, in the power of the Spirit.

There’s an online group of Christian creative people who call themselves SALT (I’m still not sure what that stands for), but every week they put out what they call a “theologian’s almanac” – things that happened that week in Christian history. The almanac for yesterday – February 4 – reminded us of the birthday of Rosa Parks. Those of us who were alive back in the 50s and 60s remember her well. She was the African-American woman in Montgomery AL who, in 1955, refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man and was arrested for saying ‘no’. She told her biographer that people thought she’d had a rough day and was tired. She said, “that isn’t true. I wasn’t tired physically… I wasn’t old… I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

Before she died, Rosa Parks wrote her memoir called Quiet Strength, which focused on her Christian faith. In it she says her ability to love her enemies and to stand up for what she believed in were gifts from God. She says, “I had the strength of God and of my ancestors.” Rosa Parks is a perfect example of being salt and light in this world just by being what God created us to be.

In Matthew, Jesus adds one more note: He doesn’t want the people listening to think he has come to replace the law and the prophets. The truth is, if we do what Jesus is teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, we will actually end up fulfilling the law of Moses more completely than if we just tried to obey all the rules. Jesus says: “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it” – and he teaches us to do the same by the way we live.

Jesus calls us ‘salt’ and ‘light’ – small things that can make a huge difference in the lives of others and in the world around us. All we need to do is to be the salt and the light God has created us to be. And when Jesus says “you are the light of the world” or “you are the salt of the earth” the word ‘you’ is plural: all y’all, together.

One last thought. When Jesus says “let your light shine” into the world, this statement is in the form of a command – to the light. Think about it: the very first thing God says in scripture is “let there be light” – or as the old English version says, “light, be made”. Jesus’ command is “light: shine!” – through each of us. Any good works we do come from God, and they come into the world through us. Our job is to trust God and to be willing, and give all the glory to Jesus. AMEN.

Salt and Light

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, February 4, 2023

Epiphany – Unveiling Jesus

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.  2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness– on them light has shined.  3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.  4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.  – Isaiah 9:1-4

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The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?  4 One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple.  5 For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.  6 Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the LORD.  7 Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!  8 “Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, LORD, do I seek.  9 Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation! – Psalm 27:1, 4-9

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12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.  13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali,  14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:  15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles–  16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”  17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea– for they were fishermen.  19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him.  21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them.  22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.  23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. – Matthew 4:12-23

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Jesus calls fishermen

Well, here we are, on the other side of Christmas: shopping all done for another year, decorations put away (maybe?)  We are now in the season of Epiphany, and we will be in Epiphany until Lent starts on February 22, which is only a month away!

So what exactly is Epiphany all about? The word epiphany comes from Greek – it means ‘unveiling’ or ‘revealing’ – and it’s that time of year when God makes Godself known to the world through Jesus. Jesus was born at Christmas, but we get to know him in Epiphany.

Epiphany begins with the baptism of Jesus, and then Jesus begins to travel and minister and call people to himself. And when people are called, they (and we) are also chosen by God for a reason. So in a sense the season of Epiphany reveals us too – reveals something of who we are, and what we are called to be in God’s kingdom.

This week we have three scripture passages to consider, all of which have something to say about this revealing of Jesus and of us.

Starting from a big-picture standpoint: what we have in today’s readings is King David setting the stage in his Psalm; Isaiah giving us a detailed prophecy of what is to come; and Matthew, telling us about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and showing us how Isaiah’s prophecy is being fulfilled.

The Psalm

King David sets the stage by saying “the Lord is my light, my salvation, and my stronghold.” This was true for David around 3000 years ago, and it was true for Jesus, and it’s true for us today. God is light, salvation, and stronghold. No matter what happens in our lives, no matter what we see around us, God protects and saves and sheds light on our path.

David continues with a prayer:

One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple.”

One Thing

This prayer is not just for this life but for the next life as well. In this life we come to God’s house, we worship, we pray, and it is beautiful. When we arrive in God’s kingdom, it will be even more beautiful: we will ‘live in God’s house forever’ as Jesus promised. Jesus said:

“In my Father’s house are many mansions… and I go to prepare a place for you…” (John 14:2)

If we are faithful to Jesus in this life, we will have a place in God’s house, forever, where we will be able to wake up every morning and open our eyes to the beauty of God the Father, surrounded by God’s love and God’s perfect creation, unharmed by human sin. We will be able to go into God’s temple, and ask questions, and learn, and experience things we can’t even begin to imagine right now. This is where we will spend eternity. This is our destiny. This is the one thing David asks of God. It’s our one request too, isn’t it – for us and our loved ones to be with God forever?

Isaiah’s Prophecy

The stage is set. Next comes the prophecy. Isaiah’s prophecy involves God’s answer to David’s prayer: God is making a way for us to live in God’s house and be with God forever.

Our passage from Isaiah takes us back to Advent for a moment. This passage is quoted in Advent scriptures, as well as in Handel’s Messiah.  But there’s more than just Advent here. First off, there’s a back story. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been captured by Assyria. The people were terrified and powerless, and many of them forced into slavery, and many more had had everything they owned taken away.

So Isaiah’s first message is to them. He says help is on the way. The “day of Midian” he refers to looks back to an unusual military victory in Israel’s past, when Gideon and a ragtag bunch of neighbors got together and, in God’s power, defeated the troops of Midian. Isaiah’s words hint that there’s a parallel between that victory over Midian and Israel’s current situation with Assyria. In other words, the tables are about to turn.

Isaiah’s second message has a double meaning: one for the Northern Kingdom back then, and one for us today. Isaiah talks about “the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali” who would witness “a great light”. These two tribes, Zebulun and Naphtali, were the least of Israel’s people. They had settled around the region of Galilee but never really conquered it; so the people of Israel and the Gentiles lived together. The region became known to the Southern Kingdom as “Galilee of the Gentiles.”  There was an intermixing of faiths, which got them into spiritual trouble, and which made the Northern Kingdom easy to defeat when Assyria came.

Israelite tribes

But there’s a side note to this Biblical history that will become very important during the lifetime of Jesus. Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah almost always talked about the Messiah coming from the Southern Kingdom: the Messiah would be descended from the line of King David, who ruled in Jerusalem in the South; the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, which was in the South. There was no doubt about these things – the prophecies were very clear.

So when Jesus appeared coming (so it seemed) from the region of Galilee, in the north, all the religious scholars said “No way. No major prophet comes from Galilee.”

But they were mistaken. Back in the law of Moses, in the book of Leviticus, in an obscure old regulation, the priests were told to offer their sacrifices “on the north side of the altar.” This led Jewish scholars (for many hundreds of years) to believe that God’s redeeming process would begin in the North. Isaiah confirms this by mentioning Zebulun and Naphtali in context of the Messiah’s coming.

By the time Jesus got here, most people had forgotten about all this; so when Jesus arrived, the Jewish leaders said ‘the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem’ – and in John chapter 7 we find them making fun of the idea that any spiritual leader could come from Galilee.

Looping back to Isaiah’s prophecy: Isaiah’s words give us that marvelous verse from the Advent/Christmas story that points us straight to Jesus:

the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light: those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.

What we don’t hear again in today’s reading are the verses that come immediately after. This is one of my favorite verses in the Christmas season:

For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.”

Someday every war will be over. Someday every gun will be silenced. Someday there will be no more bombs, no more shootings, no more murders – all the instruments of violence will be burned. Don’t we long for that day? This is the promise of the Messiah. Why?

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

Jesus will establish eternal peace.

This Messiah is a direct challenge to any and all earthly powers that keep people down or lock people into conflict. Jesus is a King above all other kings, above any president, dictator, czar, whatever. Jesus is not elected. He is born king.

Matthew’s Gospel

Which brings us to Matthew. In Matthew’s gospel we see Isaiah’s prophecies of the Messiah beginning to come true, one day at a time, one moment at a time, one person at a time.

Jesus waits until John the Baptist is arrested before starting his own public ministry. Matthew doesn’t say why; but God gave John a job to do, to prepare the people for the Messiah’s arrival, and John needed to finish that job before Jesus started his ministry. And in fact Jesus built on John’s ministry so much that many people thought Jesus was John reincarnated.

Matthew starts out by quoting our reading from Isaiah.

“[Jesus] left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” (Matt 4:13-16)

It was in this exact region that Jesus began teaching; and his message was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Jesus was basically contrasting two kingdoms: the kingdom of Heaven, and the kingdoms of earth, and he was saying people need to make a choice: which are they going to be loyal to?

At that point in time the choice would have been between God’s kingdom or the Roman Empire.  For those of us in the 21st century, it’s not quite as simple a question. The human race has had thousands of years of history, confusing and conflating the kingdom of God with the kingdoms of men. To give just a few examples, think of the Holy Roman Empire – which elevated both the Emperor and the Pope to positions of leadership, and didn’t teach much practical difference between the two. Or think of modern-day Britain, where the King is both the head of the government and the head of the Church. Or think of some of the political movements here in America in the past few years that run religion and politics together until you can’t quite separate the two.

Fusing secular leadership with religious leadership creates superpowers – which are never of God.  Jesus calls people everywhere to “repent” and give to God what belongs to God.

Sadly even the word ‘repent’ has become a triggering word in our time, so I need to give us a working definition. The word ‘repent’ in Greek is metanoieo. It means “to undergo a change in frame of mind or feeling”. It’s a combination of two Greek words: meta (meaning ‘with’) and noieo (meaning ‘to understand’). So it’s ‘with understanding’ – to come to a new way of thinking. Jesus is inviting people, including you and me, into new understandings and new insights.

Therefore the word ‘repent’ has absolutely nothing to do with fire and brimstone. It is not a threat; it is never meant to be spoken in anger. It is an invitation, given in love, to see and understand the world in a new way, and then move in a new direction.

repent

I had a little bit of a metanoieo myself last summer when I was traveling overseas. Travel – especially outside the country – has a way of changing how we see things. We are exposed to different cultures and different people.  The traveler who comes home isn’t the same person who left. That’s really the definition of repentance – to perceive and understand differently, and to change how we live because of it.

The new understanding and the new direction that Jesus is giving, is in the direction of God’s kingdom. Once more we turn to the Greek: the word for kingdom is basileia, which can mean things like reigning, or ruling, or having great power. For those familiar with the Harry Potter series, it was no mistake that the great snake in the second Harry Potter movie is called a basilisk. Same root word, meaning something very powerful, and supposedly undefeatable.

One of the differences between human kingdoms and how they exercise power, and God’s kingdom and how it exercises power, is that human kingdoms assume the right to colonize. Think how our nation got started all those years ago: the kingdom of Britain made a colony, and they claimed rights to our land and our people. In God’s kingdom the purpose is not to colonize; it is to liberate, to set God’s people free. Total opposite purpose. Total different direction.

As Jesus preaches, he invites people to follow him. We don’t read about all the people he invited – in fact we don’t read about most of them, but we read about some. Jesus says to the fishermen, “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of people.”

Jesus does not start out by saying “believe what I believe” or “come sign on to the cause”. He simply says “follow Me”. No platform, no list of rules, just a call to companionship: to live together, to walk in God’s kingdom together.

When Jesus and the disciples do start to preach God’s Kingdom, there are a few things to notice about that.  The message is for all of Israel, not just Galilee; and Jesus is not interested in being governor or emperor, because God’s kingdom is not of this world. And along with this teaching comes power to heal: diseases, sicknesses, weaknesses, physical infirmities.

Healing

So where does all this prophecy and history lead us today? Four things to consider:

First and most important: God is still working.  God is working to make Jesus known to the people of this world; to bring truth to those who are lost in lies; to bring freedom to those who are imprisoned; to bring vision to those who can’t see; to bring healing and wholeness to those who are sick and in pain. Just as in the days of the disciples, Jesus invites us to be part of this ministry, as he leads.

Second, God is still breaking into human history. God is unmasking the world’s powers, bringing light into darkness.

Think for a moment what it’s like to be in a room when the power goes out. We can’t see, we may become tense or frightened. We stop what we’re doing and carefully try to find some light.

The spiritual darkness in our world is similar. People can’t see what’s ahead. They feel tense and maybe even hopeless, and they’re not sure where they left the candles and matches. Jesus invites us to share His light. Jesus said, “no one lights a lamp and puts it under a bushel basket. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” The glory goes to God because the light is God’s – we let God shine through us, and we become the light-bearers.

Third, we are called to communicate the good news by the way we live. God’s kingdom brings freedom, joy, light, love, friendship, compassion – even while our world is lost in hatred, violence, war, greed, pain, and sorrow. “Jesus said: “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, by the love you have for each other.”  What an appropriate message this is for the week in which we remembered Martin Luther King Jr! The arc of history is indeed long, but it bends towards justice. We share good news in and by our life together in Jesus.

Last but not least: Just as Jesus called the disciples into partnership with himself, Jesus also calls us. What is it, then, that Jesus is calling us to do and be… as individuals? as a congregation? Do we need a bit of an epiphany ourselves, an unveiling of God’s plan for us?

I hope the small group ministry starting this year will lead to answers to some of these questions, both on a faith level and on a ministry level.

For now I’ll just leave us with this: God’s call on our lives is not a one-time thing; it is an ongoing adventure. Wherever God leads, God has created us and prepared us for this time and place. And I believe this church is already on the path, we just need to continue to discern and follow.

So when we hear Jesus call: “Follow me” – like the fishermen, let’s drop our nets and follow! AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 1/22/23

Epiphany, Herod, and Wise Men

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

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

          13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”  14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt,  15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

          16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.  17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:  18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

          19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said,  20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”  21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.  22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.  23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.” – Matthew 2:1-23

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This Sunday, Epiphany Sunday, brings us to the end of the story of Jesus’ earliest years. During the first week of his life Jesus was greeted by shepherds, sung about by angels, presented in the temple, and circumcised on the 8th day. This Sunday brings us to the visit of the Wise Men.

Wise Men

As we read this part of the Christmas story, it makes me wish we could linger over Christmas Day for a while. I wish we could savor the innocence of the new baby, and the sweetness and the joy of that first Christmas night when the angels and shepherds were there. God knows we need that sense of peace today. We need a break from the demands of work or school, from the news and the politics and the violence, even from the shopping – let’s face it, we could all use a vacation right about now!

But the time for that peaceful Christmas night has passed – for now, at least. The story of the Wise Men mixes the greatest of joys with the greatest of sorrows, and brings an end to our holiday with the deepest of tragedies.

The story of the Wise Men, or the Magi (as they were called) is shrouded in mystery. Scholars have debated about who they were, and about their journey, for centuries. Here’s what we do know: the Magi were from Persia, which was in modern-day Iran/Iraq. They were not kings, in the sense of royalty. They were more like priests or sages or seers – which is why we speak of them as ‘wise men’. They were royal advisors. They knew how to study the stars: they were trained in a mixture of astrology and astronomy, as the two fields of study were one back then.

wise men journey

They were definitely Gentiles, in the sense of being not Jewish; so already God is reaching out to the Gentiles through Jesus to these men. But the Magi were also monotheists, which was somewhat unusual at the time – they believed in one God, as opposed to the pantheon of gods the Romans and Greeks believed in.

The Magi may have even had some Jewish ancestry or influence: the Jewish people had been captive in Babylon for 70 years, and during that captivity, the prophet Daniel had been appointed the head of the royal advisors – he was the “top Magus” so to speak. And he certainly would have taught the other Magi something of the Jewish faith and would have told them to keep their eyes open for a prophesied Messiah. So the Magi may have had some hint that something big was going to happen in Israel someday.

We also don’t know exactly how many of these Wise Men there were. The ‘three kings’ have become traditional; but there may have been more, and they probably traveled with a large entourage, as wealthy and powerful men did back then.

What got them started on their journey – what made them pack up and leave home – was that they saw a star. This wasn’t just any star; it was something extra-ordinary. It may have been a unique alignment of planets; it may have been a supernova somewhere out in the depths of space; but they saw something – something that told them God was on the move, and that a child – a king – had been born, somewhere in the direction of Israel.

The Magi were so moved by this star they didn’t want to wait until more news arrived from Israel. They saddled up their camels and hit the road. They traveled hundreds of miles, crossing over national, ethnic, cultural and religious boundaries (to say nothing of some mountains) until they arrived in Jerusalem and King Herod’s palace – where they guessed the baby king would be.

wise men n herod

They discovered that King Herod knew less than they did about this child – which did not sit well with Herod. The Bible says Herod was “troubled, stirred up, thrown into confusion” – and when a king who is described by historians as “a brutal, ruthless, and dangerously high-strung tyrant” is feeling stirred up and confused, this is not a good thing! Matthew comments, “… and all Jerusalem was troubled with him.”

Herod asked the priests and other court scholars where the Messiah was to be born, and they answered from prophecy: “in Bethlehem of Judea”. Herod then asked the Magi when the star appeared, and they told him; Herod also said to them, “and when you find the child, let me know where he is so I can come and worship him also.”

Herod didn’t mean this of course; he was setting a trap. If Herod had really wanted to see and worship Jesus he could easily have gone with the Wise Men, and joined his entourage to theirs. The Magi would have been wonderful traveling companions: wise, learned, and traveling in comfort. But Herod chose not to go with them – he chose instead to wait in the palace while the Wise Men met Jesus a result King Herod never saw Jesus.

Ironically, a similar thing happened to his son, Herod, during the ministry of Jesus. Luke tells us in chapter nine of his gospel that Herod “wanted to see Jesus” because (1) he wanted to see a miracle (spiritual sight-seeing), and (2) people were saying that Jesus was John the Baptist come back to life – John, who Herod had killed. So Herod wanted to see Jesus; but he wasn’t willing to go to where Jesus was. When he finally did see Jesus – after Jesus was arrested – Jesus performed no miracles and he didn’t speak a word to Herod. Herod, like his father, was not willing to get up off his throne and see Jesus himself. (Runs in the family.)

This is a word of wisdom to us all: not to let opportunities to be with Jesus pass us by.

Anyway, back to the Magi. After speaking with King Herod, the Wise Men continued to be led by the star, and it brought them to exactly the place where Jesus and his family were staying. Scripture says the Wise Men were filled with “exceedingly great joy.”

Wise men n Jesus

Matthew also says the Magi “entered the house” to greet Jesus. This tells us some time has passed since Jesus’ birth – probably a year or more – so Jesus and his family are now living in a house. The stable and manger are in the past (which also tells us the Magi and the shepherds never met.) When the Magi see Jesus they are so full of joy they kneel in front of him and offer very expensive gifts: gold – a gift for a king; frankincense – representing the prayers for (or of) a priest; and myrrh – a healing oil also used in burials.

After visiting with Jesus and his family, the Magi had a dream from God telling them not to go back to Herod. So they went home another way.

Immediately after they’re gone an angel visits Joseph and warns him: “Go, take your family, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, because Herod is going to seek the child’s life.” Joseph doesn’t waste a moment: they pack and are gone. Matthew adds for our sake: this fulfills the prophecy of Hosea that says “out of Egypt I have called my son.”

Herod, meanwhile, discovers the Wise Men have disobeyed him. Herod interprets this as the Magi “making a fool of him” (v 16) and Herod is beyond furious. He sends his army to kill all the children in Bethlehem and the surrounding areas two years old and under. (That’s all the babies, not just the boys.)

the innocents

Can we imagine what it was like living in Bethlehem then? Can we imagine even being a soldier and receiving an order like this? Being forced to choose between killing babies and being killed yourself (which would have been the penalty for saying ‘no’)?

The people of Bethlehem were dealing with a tragedy that goes so far beyond Sandy Hook we can’t even begin to imagine it. Matthew quotes the prophet Jeremiah: “Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing to be comforted, for they are no more.”

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Within a few years, Herod himself will be dead. According to Wikipedia, Herod will die of “an excruciatingly painful, putrefying illness of uncertain cause.”

After this, the angel appears to Joseph one more time and tells him the coast is clear: they can move back home. But Joseph and Mary find Herod’s son, Herod Archelaus, on the throne, and they don’t trust him. And being warned again in a dream, Joseph and family head north to Nazareth – fulfilling the prophecy that Jesus would be called a “Nazorean”.

The family settles in Nazareth – a city in the north of Israel, not too far from the Sea of Galilee – a working-class town (both then and now). Joseph sets up shop as a carpenter, and that’s the last we hear of Jesus and his family until Jesus is twelve years old.

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So what are we to make of these events?

It is jarring and saddening to hear of this unthinkable tragedy within the context of the birth of Jesus, who is the Prince of Peace. I don’t know about you, but I would have been happy to keep on celebrating Christmas for a while, with the shepherds and angels and the songs and the candlelight and peace on earth. Why does this have to be in the middle of the Christmas story?

First and most importantly, because this shows so clearly why our world needs a savior. Jesus came for this exact reason: to save us from evil and death. To break the chains that bind our world in violence and murder.

Second – a side note, but an important one – God led Joseph to take his family to a foreign country in order to stay alive. This is the dictionary definition of refugee. In this way, God and Jesus identify with refugees and homeless people in every time and place. The author of our Christmas series, Dr. Christine Hong, is herself the child of refugees, and she shares her family’s story of being immigrants from Korea in our Advent devotional. She says her family’s story includes people who welcomed them when they arrived in the United States – people who helped them learn the language and find jobs. She says, likewise, people in Egypt would have helped Jesus and his family: “helped [them] settle… in a new country… helped them learn a new language, and new ways of life.” People did this for Jesus and his family; and we, in our time, can do things like this – in Jesus’ name and in his honor – for other families who are newly arrived in our country.

Third and last, and the toughest thing to come to terms with in this story is: the king of the universe, who came to our world to bring peace and love, is greeted with hatred and murder. One commentator, Mike Frost, said: “followers of Christ are called not to side with the empire, but to sit with the terrified, to comfort those who mourn…”

Episcopal theologian Fleming Rutledge adds: “…by putting Rachel’s lament at the heart of the Christmas story, Matthew has shown us how to hold on to faith and hope until the second coming. […] The Savior reigns even now in the faith of all those who continue to stand for humanity in the face of barbarity. The unconditional love of God in Jesus Christ will be the Last Word.”

So take courage, Church. God is in control. The Savior has come. And in the words of the Christmas carol, Joy to the World:

“He comes to make his blessings known

Far as the curse is found…”

AMEN

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, January 8, 2023

Wise men n Jesus

Advent 2: Peace

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.  3 His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;  4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.  5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.  6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.  9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.  10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.” – Isaiah 11:1-10

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“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,  27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.  28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”  29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.  30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.  36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.  37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”  38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.” – Luke 1:26-38

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I have a confession to make.

I have a weakness for Chuck Norris jokes.

Chuck Norris

Mind you I don’t usually watch martial arts movies. I don’t like watching fights. But I’ve seen probably two Chuck Norris movies and I get the idea: Chuck Norris is tough. Chuck Norris can’t be beaten.

Here are a few of my favorite Chuck Norris jokes:

  • When Chuck Norris slices onions, the onions cry.
  • There is no theory of evolution, just a list of animals Chuck Norris allows to live.
  • Chuck Norris can slam a revolving door.
  • Chuck Norris was once exposed to COVID. COVID had to quarantine for a week.
  • Chuck Norris was once bitten by a cobra. After two weeks of agonizing pain the cobra died.
  • And my favorite: Death once had a near-Chuck-Norris experience.

This Sunday, the second week of Advent, we have two interconnecting themes. Our advent wreath brings us to the candle of Peace. And our advent series, From Generation to Generation, focuses on fear, and how God meets us in our fears.

The problem is, these two things – peace and fear – usually cancel each other out. If we’re afraid, we have no peace. If we are at peace we are not afraid. We need a Chuck Norris! (as in, “there is nothing to fear but Chuck Norris himself.”)

Let me shift gears for a moment. At the Advent service this past Thursday night we were talking about the first words God speaks in the time of Advent. In Isaiah 40, God says:

“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.”

These are the first words sung in Handel’s Messiah. The words to Messiah were pieced together from scripture: from the Old Testament, the Gospels, and Revelation; telling the story of Jesus the Messiah in God’s own words. These words from Isaiah are where the story begins.

Comfort Ye

As we live in these fearful days, where we see so many lives being pulled apart by hurricanes, tornados, floods, earthquakes… and the cost of food going through the roof… and all the shootings… just to name a few things… people have a lot of reasons to be afraid.

But as Christians we have even better reasons to not be afraid. Before I get to today’s scriptures I’d like to share a scripture verse that tells us why we don’t need to be afraid.

This verse is Isaiah 45:12.

To give context: In Isaiah chapter 45 God is talking to Cyrus, the king of the Babylonians. Most of Isaiah was written for (and to) the people of Israel who were in captivity in Babylon. Whenever we read all the beautiful Advent and Christmas readings from Isaiah, it’s important to keep in mind God was talking to people who were in captivity in a foreign land. They were living in a dark world,  much like we do.

In Isaiah chapter 45, God takes the unusual step of talking directly to a king who is NOT from Israel. God speaks directly to Cyrus, King of Babylon, and God says basically, “look, you don’t know who I am, but I know who you are, and you don’t know who you’re dealing with.” (v. 3-5) (God is sounding a little Chuck-Norris-y here!) God says to Cyrus: “you have taken my people captive… and I am watching” (v. 4, 11) God also says: “it’s not your place to question Me, it’s My place to question you” (v 9-11).

And then comes vs 12. God says:

“I made the earth,
And created humankind upon it
It was my hands that stretched out the heavens,
And I commanded all their host.” (Is 45:12)

This verse puts me in mind of the old saying, “don’t tell God how big your problems are, tell your problems how big your God is.”

Let me add quickly: it is perfectly OK to bring our problems to God, large or small, because we are God’s children and God loves us. It is more than OK to share everything with God. But the saying is often true: it can be helpful to tell our problems how big our God is.

Turning to our scriptures for the day, there’s no doubt in my mind that Mary, the young Jewish teenager from Nazareth, knew how big her God was. We can see this in the way she handled herself when she met the angel Gabriel.

When Gabriel greets Mary, one of the first things Gabriel says is “do not be afraid”. This seems to be a standard greeting throughout scripture whenever angels talk to people. There must be something about angels that we humans find frightening, though the Bible doesn’t say why. Are angels physically big? We don’t know. We do know angels don’t have wings – wings were added by artists in medieval times to express the concept that angels move very quickly, and can appear and disappear in an instant. But there are no wings involved where it comes to meeting angels. So do angels have eyes that are fiery and penetrating? Do they have voices that resound and fill the room? Do they have something of God’s perfect nature about them, so that people fear angels the way we fear God? We don’t know.

Gabriel n Mary

We do know that most of the time in scripture, when someone meets an angel, their first reaction is to pass out and fall over. It is a testament to Mary’s courage and godly character that she stays on her feet during this whole conversation with Gabriel.

The writers of our Advent series point out that the phrase “do not be afraid” is one of the most commonly-spoken phrases in the Bible. It appears 75 times. By comparison, widows and orphans – who we are commanded throughout scripture to take care of – are mentioned only about half as often. But from generation to generation, God has arrived in the middle of our fears, in spite of our fears. And Mary’s reaction was exceptional.

For the rest of us, in today’s world, how do we get past the places of fear or pain or uncertainty? In our world fear is a common experience. We may fear for our safety, for the well-being of our loved ones. Many of us fear the things we see on the news at night. Some of us fear having too much month left at the end of the money. The list of things people might fear is extremely long. In fact there are over 400 officially recognized phobias in the world of psychology… and that doesn’t include just everyday garden-variety fears.

Where it comes to God, we may be afraid of not being good enough. We may be afraid that we’ve committed sins God can’t forgive. We may be afraid that God is like Santa, keeping track of who’s naughty and who’s nice. We may try to rack up some extra points in the “nice” column by volunteering or making a donation on Giving Tuesday.

(My take on Giving Tuesday:)

Giving Tues

Just in case it needs to be said: God is not like that. We who love Jesus do what we do, and give what we give, because God loved us first. And when you’re in a relationship with Someone you love, you want to do things for each other that will bring joy to each other.

But sometimes our feelings and worries go deeper than that. Sometimes we miss out on shalom – that deep peace and sense of well-being that Jesus talks about when he says “peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you: not as the world gives, do I give to you.”

How do we find peace like that, in times like these?

Let me get back to Isaiah 45:12, where God is talking to King Cyrus. God says two really important things:

  1. “I made the earth, and created humankind”, and
  2. “it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host.”

Our God – the God who teaches us to pray “Our Father” – created us. God also created this good earth. God designed and made the mountains, the canyons, the rivers, the waterfalls, the oceans, the animals: lions, and cheetahs (I love cheetahs – they run as fast as cars!) God made giraffes, and snails, and sharks, and whales, and trees, and strawberries, and grapevines… you name it. God designed and made everything on earth. And when God created us, God gave us the ability to create also. So we make houses and businesses and parks and cathedrals and so on – demonstrating that we are created in the image of God who creates.

God made the earth, and all humankind. And then God says: “it was my hands that stretched out the heavens.” I want to think about that for a moment. God didn’t create just this planet. God created everything we see in the night sky, and some things that we can’t see!

Where it comes to the stars, the star nearest to earth, Alpha Centauri, is about 4.25 light-years away. A light-year is the distance light travels in a year. To give an idea of how far a light-year is: someone traveling around the earth at the equator at the speed of light would go around the world about 7½ times in a second. That’s a light-second. Traveling at the speed of light, the nearest star is 4.25 light-years away. And that’s the closest star. There’s much more further out.

Alpha Cent

GOD MADE ALL THIS!!

In Psalm 8 King David says to God:

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made [us] a little lower than divine beings, and crowned [us] with glory and honor.”

Knowing this – knowing what God can do – puts my mind at peace about a lot of things. I don’t know how everything in life is going to work out. I don’t know how the troubles in our world will be solved. But I know the power of the One we believe in, the power of the One who saved us. And I know God has called us to be part of the work to bring justice and compassion to people who are hurting, or in need, or find themselves alone in this world.

And I also know our reading from Isaiah 11:1-10 is talking about the coming of Jesus the Messiah when it says…

“The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD… He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;  4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth… 5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.” (Is 11:2-5)

This is the God who saves us. We don’t need to be afraid. And Isaiah’s prophecy assures us that when Jesus returns,

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” -and- “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”  (Is 11:6, 9)

From generation to generation, people have followed Isaiah’s example, and Mary’s example, and have said ‘yes’ to God, in trust and without fear. And the word of God, and faith in Christ have been passed down from them to us, and we in turn will pass it on to others.

And if we see anyone who afraid, God calls us to be bringers of peace in God’s power. One writer puts it this way: “Advent is a season both to long for God’s peace and to become lights of peace in the shadows.” 

So today two things today to take with us today:

  • Fear is common in a world that has turned away from God, in a world that does not listen to God’s call for love and justice. The closer we are to God – the closer anyone comes to God – the less fear there is in life, and the more we know how to bring peace and compassion into the world.
  • Peace comes from knowing the Prince of Peace. God, who created a universe bigger than anyone can imagine, loves us and hears our prayers, and by the power of Jesus has included us in the eternal Kingdom. We have nothing to fear.

Peace be with you. AMEN.

Peace

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 12/4/22

 

A Sermon for the Sunday Before Christ the King

Isaiah 65:17-25

17 For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating,
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy
and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it
or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime,
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat,
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain
or bear children for calamity,
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—
and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together;
the lion shall eat straw like the ox,
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.

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Isaiah 12

12 You will say on that day:
“I will give thanks to you, O Lord,
for though you were angry with me,
your anger turned away,
and you comforted me.

2 Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust and will not be afraid,
for the Lord is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.”

3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. 4 And you will say on that day:

“Give thanks to the Lord;
call on his name;
make known his deeds among the nations;
proclaim that his name is exalted.

5 Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
let this be known in all the earth.
6 Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”

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II Thessalonians 3:6-13

6 Now we command you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from every brother or sister living irresponsibly and not according to the tradition that they received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not irresponsible when we were with you, 8 and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day so that we might not burden any of you. 9 This was not because we do not have that right but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11 For we hear that some of you are living irresponsibly, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12 Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13 Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

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Luke 21:5-19

5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8 And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray, for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.

9 “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified, for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes and in various places famines and plagues, and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

12 “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance, 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and siblings, by relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.

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Last Sunday, and then again this Sunday, we have had scripture readings that talk about the end times – the last days. This may seem a bit strange at this time of year, when we are getting ready for Thanksgiving and being bombarded by Christmas commercials, to stop and think about when it’s all going to end. Why are we reading scriptures about the end of the world at this time of year?

LastDays

These scriptures are given to us in the lectionary for today, for this Sunday, because next Sunday is Christ the King Sunday. And Christ can’t be crowned King until after the great tribulation. This is what Jesus’ story has been building up to all year. We’ve been reading our way through the Gospel of Luke this year , and listening to what Jesus taught when he was here on earth, in order to be ready for this day.

A week from today we will celebrate the crowning of King Jesus, and on that day we will catch a vision of what God’s Kingdom will be like – when the one we love, and the one who loves us better than anyone else, is seated on heaven’s throne and ushers in the new heaven and the new earth.

And then two weeks from today we begin telling Jesus’ story all over again from the beginning, on the first Sunday of Advent.

Today brings us to the fulfillment of God’s plans and promises from long ago (in our passage from Isaiah) and from not quite so long ago (in our passage from Luke). As we turn to the scriptures, we will hear words of joy, and words of warning, and probably some words that will surprise us even though we know the story well.

Starting with Isaiah: the Old Testament prophet describes in beautiful poetry a world reborn. A world full of joy and delight where there is no more pain and no more sorrow. This is what we’re heading for; this is what we were made for; this is God’s world restored to what it was meant to be. In a way this is “a ‘new exodus’ – an exodus out of slavery to the powers of this world that destroy and steal and kill;” an exodus into a world where God’s will is done, and everything is beauty and peace.

God gives these words to Isaiah: “I will delight in my people… no more shall the sound of weeping be heard, or a cry of distress; no more will a child live only a few days or an old person not live out their lifetime… they shall build houses… they shall plant vineyards… [and] they shall not labor in vain…”. Whatever God’s people work for, or hope for, will be theirs.

I Will Delight

As we listen to these words, our minds may have a hard time picturing a world like this. We have become so used to living in a world where people are sick, or abused, or in pain, or gunned down in the streets. In God’s new world no one will ever be in danger, no one ever will be hungry, no one will ever be excluded, no tree will ever wither, no flower will ever die, and every person will be welcomed and loved, no matter where in this world they come from. Isaiah says even the animals will get along: the lion will lie down with the lamb! It’s not just us that will be restored – it will be all of creation. It’s hard to imagine a world like this, where everything is as God meant it to be.

Restoring everything to the way it’s supposed to be will include heaven itself. One website I read said this:

“[I]n Jewish tradition (and in the Bible) the rebellion against God actually began in the heavens… [and] then spilled over onto [the] earth.  It was in the heavens that a handful of angels rebelled, and sin became a reality. Revelation chapter 12 describes a war in heaven where the Archangel Michael battles the enemy and throws him out [of heaven]… Jesus’ redemption of creation includes a new heaven as well as a new earth.”[1]

Our second scripture, Isaiah 12, continues the theme. The passage says “shout aloud and sing for joy, O Royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel”.  The prophet’s words tell us what it will be like when Jesus is king. Jesus will be the joy of God’s people. Jesus will bring our salvation. We experience this salvation first as individuals – as our sins are forgiven and we enter into this new reality. And then salvation is experienced together, as a group – as God’s new community. The time of anger and division and misunderstandings has passed, and together we declare the glorious things God has done – including redeeming us by Jesus’ blood and then raising Jesus from the dead. On that day we will understand these things to the very core of our being: we will know fully even as we have been fully known.

Our reading from 2 Thessalonians is not really the focus for today, but it’s a word from Paul that’s relevant and worth hearing. It’s about how to live while we’re waiting for Jesus’ Kingdom to come. Paul was writing to some people he knew who thought Jesus would come back in their lifetimes so they quit working. They basically uninvolved themselves from everyday life. They gave up sharing the gospel, and they were just kind of sitting around waiting for the rapture. (We’ve had a few cults in our own time who have made this mistake, sometimes with tragic results.)

Paul tells the Thessalonians – and us as well – not to give up living life just because Jesus is coming back. Don’t drop out of the world, don’t ignore responsibilities. In fact, Paul says, the closer the day of the Lord comes, the more we should be working to bring people into God’s kingdom, because the time is short! People need to hear about God’s salvation. And we can’t be salt and light if we stay in the saltshaker – we need to get ‘out of the salt shaker and into the world’ as an author once said.

These are Paul’s words of warning and wisdom.

Then last but never least come Jesus’ words in the book of Luke.  In this part of Luke’s story, Jesus and the disciples are in the temple area, and Jesus had been debating with the religious leaders throughout the day. I’m guessing it was now probably towards the end of a long day. As Jesus and the disciples pass through the temple area one of the disciples points out the beauty of the temple itself.

It has been said that in Jesus’ time the temple area – the building and the top of the hill that it was on – was twice the size of the Acropolis in Athens, and many of the temple’s designs and decorations were covered in gold and would shine in the sunlight.

73_1 City King-B

I don’t know about you but I enjoy religious architecture. I love the beauty and the majesty and the excellence of workmanship that goes into building a church or a temple or a cathedral. Whenever I travel I always keep my eyes open for churches, and whenever I can I wander in and look around. No two places of worship are ever exactly alike, and every building tells the story of the people who built it.

The temple in Jerusalem would have been no different, except it was bigger. The building and the architecture told the story of God and God’s people, and it was magnificent.  Jesus’ words must have stunned the disciples when he said: “the days will come when not one stone will be left on another…”.

The disciples asked, “when will this be? And what are the signs of the coming age?” The disciples might have been hoping that Jesus would somehow be able to avoid this death he had been talking about, and do away with the Romans, and bring in God’s kingdom.

But not so. Jesus answered their second question first, in a way that made it clear that God’s kingdom was not going to come right away. Jesus gave them the signs of the coming age. He said there will be wars and plagues and persecutions, and Jesus spoke of many things we see again in the book of Revelation.

But then Jesus backs up and says “but before all this they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name…”. Jesus also tells the disciples they will have the opportunity to bear witness to our Lord in the middle of the world’s troubles, even when the troubles are great. Jesus says the reward will be eternal life.

The thing about the ancient temple in Jerusalem – and all the great houses of worship that have been built since then – is that they are part of a world system that will be going away.

As I read this passage this week, I thought back a few years ago when the people of Paris saw Notre Dame cathedral in flames. They were weeping in the streets, because Notre Dame is for them both a place of worship and a part of who they are as citizens of Paris. It was ‘home’ for them.

Notre Dame

The temple in Jerusalem was the same way – it was both a place of worship and a part of who the Jewish people were as citizens of Israel. It was ‘home’ to them.

The thing is, someday we’re going to have a new ‘home’, and all the old homes will be a thing of the past. I have to admit I’ve never really thought about that before… that these gorgeous structures in the world are part of what will be going away. I’ve never stopped to think just how much wealth and power it takes to build them. Cathedrals and temples are meant to be symbols of God’s greatness – but no matter how majestic they are, they cannot contain God. Scripture tells us God does not live in buildings built with hands. But God, in his patience, lets us have places like this, that we can think of as “the house of God”. Back when Solomon built God a house – the very first temple – God supported the idea; but God also knew it was only temporary. And Jesus’ words tell us the same thing: no matter how great or how beautiful, it’s not forever.

But before all these things happen, Jesus tells the disciples, you may find yourselves arrested, or persecuted, or put in prison, or dragged in front of kings or governors to defend the truth of God. Jesus says not to prepare ahead of time, because the words we will need will be given in the moment, words that our opponents won’t be able to contradict. All of these things, in God’s hands, will become part of the transforming work God is doing in the world. The surprising thing is that – both then and now – the path to eternal life runs through Calvary. There is no crown without a cross. And there is no Kingdom without the last days.

The-Road-to-Eternal-Life

Three things, then, we can take with us today:

  1. In Jesus’ final sermon before he was crucified (which is what we’ve read today), Jesus says “take heart – we will not perish”. Jesus already knows that after the crucifixion he will walk out the grave alive. Jesus also knows anyone who follows him will not be held by death. No matter what difficulties and challenges we face, we will not perish – because we belong to Jesus.
  2. No matter what we’re facing, no matter how hopeless things may seem in life sometimes, God will make a way, even when there is no way. God is not about ‘winning’ or helping us ‘win’ – God is about redesigning the game – re-writing the rules! The world will be re-made, turned upside down completely… or more accurately, turned right-side-up.
  3. The word of God, and the good news of Jesus, is meant for all people in all places, but especially where we can see no way and have no hope. As someone once said, “What good is a gospel – good news – that doesn’t hold true in the darkest of places?” Even the cross, the worst form of torture human beings have ever invented, becomes a path to life and a road to grace. As scripture says, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning”

With these truths in our minds and hearts, this week we worship the One who died to give us new life. And next week, we enter into Jesus’ kingdom, and worship the resurrected Jesus, Christ the King, who is King forever in a world remade. AMEN

[1] CMJ for 11/13/22

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 11/13/22

Reformation Sunday 2022

The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.  2 O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?  3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.  4 So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous– therefore judgment comes forth perverted. […]

I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.  2 Then the LORD answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.  3 For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.  4 Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith. – Habakkuk 1:1-4 and 2:1-4

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[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it.  2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich.  3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.  4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.  5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”  6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.  7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”  8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”  9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.  10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” – Luke 19:1-10  

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Today is the beginning of three holidays in a row! Today is Reformation Sunday, the anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation; tomorrow is All Hallows Eve, or ‘Halloween’ as we call it these days, and then November 1 is All Saints Day.  We will be observing All Saints Day in our churches next Sunday by reading the names of all the saints from our church and from our families and friends and neighborhoods who have gone to be with the Lord this past year.

But today we look back at the beginnings of the Protestant church. We remember the day, 505 years ago today, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, and this action started the Protestant Reformation.

Schlosskirche Wittenberg

Personally I’ve always thought tacking a message to the door of a church was kind of an odd thing to do. Why did Luther choose this method of raising a protest?  What is the significance of putting a piece of paper on a church door? And why do we still remember it 505 years later?

As I found answers to these questions I want to say first off that a lot has happened in 505 years. And if there are any practicing Catholics here today, or ex-Catholics, or families of Catholics, I want to say this sermon is not meant to be anti-Catholic. The Catholic tradition has had a rich heritage for over 2000 years. And FWIW I support the efforts of the members of our local parish to reopen – I believe this neighborhood is a lesser place without a Roman Catholic church in it.

But what we’re looking at today is what happened 500 years ago. On that day, Martin Luther was troubled. Luther started out his education studying to be a lawyer – which was what his dad wanted him to do – but after a close call with a lightning bolt, Luther decided to become a monk instead. And he brought all his intellectual lawyer training with him into his life as a monk and later as a priest.

Luther wanted more than anything to know God, and to be sure about the truth of God’s word. So he learned and studied and finally became a Doctor of Theology and a professor at Wittenberg University.

But throughout this process Luther had no peace in his heart. He was not happy to just believe what he had been told to believe. He wanted reasons for his faith. And he wanted to know how a person could be sure of God’s word and of getting into heaven. He learned Greek and Hebrew so he could read the Bible in its original languages. And as he did this, reading from the original languages, two things really stood out to him:

  • He was a sinner and he was not living up to God’s standards; and
  • His life as a monk and as a priest, and the people he reported to, were not helping to solve this problem.

Luther wrestled for years with the problem of sin. How does one go about being forgiven? Finally one day he came across a verse in the book of Romans (written by the apostle Paul) where the Paul quoted our reading from Habakkuk. The verse said: “the righteous shall live by faith.” Luther suddenly realized that there is absolutely nothing a person can do to earn God’s favor or to earn their way into heaven. Jesus took care of every sin and every shortcoming for us on the cross, and faith is the only way to respond to God. Trusting in God is what every believer is called to do. So “[Luther] began to teach that salvation… is a gift of God’s grace, [which can only be received] through faith in Jesus as the Messiah.”[1]

As soon as Luther became convinced of this, he also became very aware that there were some teachings in the Catholic Church back then (and the Catholic Church was, at that time, the only ‘legit’ church in Europe) – teachings that were leading people away from faith in Jesus.

The biggest issue for Luther was the practice of selling indulgences. Indulgences were (according to the church) a way of giving money in order to get someone who had died closer to heaven or even into heaven. There was a saying back in Luther’s day that went “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory into heaven springs.”

Purgatory

The church back then was teaching that when a person died they didn’t go straight to heaven, but they passed through a region called Purgatory, where all their sins from life would be burned away and they would be purified. (The word ‘purgatory’ literally means ‘fire pit’.) So the more sinful a person was, the more time they would spend in purgatory getting their sins burned off before they went to heaven.

The church was then telling people after someone you cared about died, you could get them through purgatory faster by giving money to the church on that person’s behalf. And who wouldn’t want to help get their relative or their loved one get out of a place of fire? So of course people gave all kinds of money to buy their friends and relatives out of purgatory.

Luther, however, being a student of the Bible, knew ‘purgatory’ wasn’t in the Bible, and he saw right through this. He saw it for the money grab that it was. He saw it as one more example of rich, educated people taking advantage of the poor. So on that Sunday 505 years ago Luther nailed to the church door 95 reasons why indulgences were unfair and should be done away with. And the bottom line of his argument was that only God can forgive sins and save a person’s soul. Only God. No priest has that power. No church has that power. No organization has that power. No donation has that power, no matter how generous. No good deeds have that power. It doesn’t matter who you know or who prays for you. Only God can forgive sins. Only God.

The 95 Theses that Martin Luther nailed to the door that morning were the arguments of an educated man meant for other educated men. It was an invitation to intellectual debate among the seminarians and university professors. They were not meant for the Vatican or the Pope… but they got there anyway.

And the Pope was not happy. Luther was taken to court, his life was threatened; and he spent most of the rest of his life in the protection of rich noblemen who liked him and could afford to defend him from his attackers. For the next 100 years, all of Europe argued over what Luther had said. They even fought wars over it.

But I’m not here to talk about the history of Europe; I’m here to talk about Martin Luther and what he said. Later in our service today we will be singing a hymn written by Martin Luther. It’s called A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. I’ve always felt that this hymn has in it basically everything Luther believed in and wanted us to know. It sums up Christian faith. So I wanted to talk through this hymn, and if you want to follow along, it’s hymn #110 in our hymnals, and you can follow with me and see what he wrote.

Martin Luther wrote:

“A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing”

For the person who believes in Jesus, God protects us the way a stone wall protects a city: no enemies can get through.

“Our helper, He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.”

All the things that go wrong in this world – violence, sickness, hatred, prejudice, death – God stands with us through all of these things, helping us get through them.

“For still our ancient foe” – that’s the devil – “doth seek to work us woe” – that is, he tries to harm us.

Not because we’re of any importance to him, but because he hates God and God loves us. And what better way is there to hurt God than to hurt the people God loves?

“His (that is, the devil’s) craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal” “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing”

None of us can beat evil without God. We’re not strong enough to win this fight by ourselves.

“Were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing.”

There is somebody on our side who is strong enough to handle all these things and to keep us safe in God’s kingdom

“Doth ask who that may be? Christ Jesus it is he – Lord Sabaoth his name, from age to age the same, and he must win the battle.”

Again, there’s this belief of Luther’s from scripture, that only trusting in God and trusting in Jesus will save us. Faith alone.

“And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us”

This world is a dangerous place. It was back in Luther’s day, and it still is today. BUT…

“We will not fear, for God has willed his truth to triumph through us”

 Jesus will win the battle through us. We’re in this together.

“The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him – his rage we can endure, for lo his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him.”

We’re not scared, because we know who’s going to win. And that one word is “Jesus”.

“That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth”

The Word of God does not depend on us, or on our churches, or on our money, or on our giving, or on our connections, or on our organizations – the Word of God lives. Jesus lives.

“The Spirit and the gifts are ours, through him who with us sideth”

With Jesus on our side, the Holy Spirit is with us, and in us, and the gifts of baptism and communion are given to us to strengthen us.

“Let goods and kindred go; this mortal life also; the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still; his kingdom is forever.”

Luther knew what he was talking about when he said ‘the body they may kill’. They could have killed him for the things he said. By God’s grace that didn’t happen, but others have given their lives for the faith. No matter what, in life or in death, God’s truth stands.

And God’s kingdom really is forever. I think those of us who live in a democracy sometimes forget what a kingdom is all about, and that that’s where we’re heading. The kingdom is not a metaphor, it’s a reality. There are powers on this earth; and there is the kingdom of God. To be Christian is to choose God’s kingdom and to serve Jesus as King and Lord.

I read something recently in the book of Luke (12:35) that I’d never noticed before. Jesus advises his followers to be what he calls “watchful servants”.  In countries that have kings and queens, the job of a royal servant is to watch the king or queen like a hawk and anticipate his or her next move, and be there in advance with whatever is going to be needed. It requires the servant to have an intimate knowledge of the king or queen, as well as complete focus in the moment. It’s a wonderful picture of what we are called to do as followers of King Jesus.

Martin Luther

But back to Martin Luther. Luther knew that saying these things – and living them out in daily life – could get a person in trouble and might even get a person killed. Luther was not killed. But almost 500 years later they did succeed in killing a young man who was named after him: Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King was asking the same question the prophet Habakkuk asked all those years ago: “How long, O Lord? How long?”

It’s OK to ask God this question when times get rough. It is not a sign of doubt; it is a question that faith asks. Martin Luther King asked this question on the steps of the state capital of Montgomery AL: “How long will justice be crucified and truth be buried?… How long?” And he came back with the answer from scripture: “not long – because no lie can live forever….”

This is the same message God gave Habakkuk in our reading this morning. Habakkuk asks: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble… the law becomes slack and justice never prevails…” (that was almost 3000 years ago!)

And God answers in chapter 2:

“if it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. As for the proud, their spirit is not right in them; but the righteous will live by faith.”

In every generation and in every time, reform and faith begin with hearing God’s word and believing God’s promises. They begin when we let the Bible speak for itself, and when we take God’s words seriously.

In every generation and every time, setting things right is not a popular thing to do. The powers that be are deeply invested in keeping things the way they are. And the powers that be are very good at tossing up distractions and convincing people that God needs our help to set things right – which has the end result of making people feel desperate.

Anything that might distract us from Jesus or from following Jesus needs to be left by the wayside, because salvation is by faith in Jesus: faith alone in Jesus alone. There is no other way. There is no “yes, but…”. Jesus is the beginning, the middle, and the end of our faith. And as we saw in our gospel reading this morning, anyone can be invited – even a miserable old tax collector. If Jesus would invite Zacchaeus to lunch, Jesus would invite anybody to lunch. None of us is so bad that Jesus would turn us away.

A wise friend said this past week: “Habakkuk gives us permission to wrestle with God about the injustices we see; and in Luke, Zacchaeus shows us how Jesus executes [both] justice and mercy.”[2]

Jesus said: “The Son of Man has come to seek and save the lost.” Therefore, like Habakkuk, we “will stand at [the] watchpost… [and] keep watch to see…” what the Lord will do.

And with the words of Martin Luther we praise God, our mighty fortress: confident that the righteous will live by faith. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 10/30/22

[1] Wikipedia, Martin Luther

[2] Cariño Casas, CMJ

“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.  2 She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.  3 Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.  4 The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter.  5 Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the LORD has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe.  6 From daughter Zion has departed all her majesty. Her princes have become like stags that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer.” – Lamentations 1:1-6  

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5 “The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”  6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

7 “”Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’?  8 Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’?  9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?  10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'”” – Luke 17:5-10

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Welcome to the first week following our Catching the Spark series. As we give some thought to our re-commitment to the faith and to our Lord, this week we come to two very challenging scripture readings. The first is in Lamentations and the second is in Luke.

Lamentations

Both of these readings are dark and difficult and a bit tough on the heart. Sometimes they raise questions without presenting immediate answers. But what we’re about to take on in terms of renewed ministry – and what we’ve pledged ourselves to do – will bring many challenges, so it’s a good thing to take a look at some of the things we may run up against as we continue to follow Jesus.

Starting with Lamentations: this book was written by the prophet Jeremiah as he was watching the Southern Kingdom of Judah fall into the hands of the Babylonians. Jeremiah had spent most of his life as a prophet speaking God’s words to the Kings of Judah – and warning them to change course and follow God – and the result was usually Jeremiah’s being thrown in prison. Now Jeremiah is out of prison – because there’s no one left to guard him – and he is watching all of God’s people being deported hundreds of miles away from their homes. And he weeps as they are marched out of the city, down the mountain Jerusalem is built on, and away off in the direction of Babylon. We hear Jeremiah’s lament:

“The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter. Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper…” (Lamentations 1:4-5)

Jeremiah has been promised by God that some of the people will remain (the poorest of the poor will stay), and that God’s people will return someday, and the city will be rebuilt – but Jeremiah won’t live to see it.

As we listen to Jeremiah’s words, our hearts go out to him and to his people. We know that the people were disobedient to God, and God warned them many times to put away their idols and return to God (they didn’t)… but as we see fall of Jerusalem, this great tragedy moves our hearts in spite of everything that’s happened. And I think that’s what God wants us to see in this passage. God did not want this to happen to God’s people. God is not up there sitting on a cloud saying “you guys are getting what you deserve” – not at all! God is weeping at the loss of the nation he loves.

Today, in our world, as we watch the news and listen to the stories of various events, sometimes we hear people calling other groups of people ‘wicked’. For example, after the flooding in New Orleans a few years ago there was a TV evangelist who was quoted saying the city ‘deserved this flood as punishment because they’re so wicked’. This is totally NOT the way God looks at human suffering. God sent his Son Jesus to die for all of us imperfect people. Our society isn’t perfect. Our country isn’t perfect. There are things we need to change. And the word ‘repent,’ means to ‘change course’ and to say to ourselves, ‘God is right, let’s do it God’s way.’ ‘Repent’ is not a word to be used to guilt people into seeing our point of view.

So as we watch the exile of God’s people from Israel, as we stand with the prophet Jeremiah as he weeps, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder, human-to-human, and heart-to-heart, because no matter what went wrong, the people of Israel are now going through an incredibly painful experience.

Those of us who were born and raised in the USA have never (praise God) been forced to pack up everything and move to another country. We have never known what it is to be torn apart from our families and orphaned by a foreign army. Some of us, if we’ve lived long enough, may have known what it is to lose a family member during war-time. But what the people of Jerusalem are going through in Lamentations is something none of us has experienced. May God keep it so!

So why is it necessary that we look at this heartbreak with Jeremiah? Because as we go out to minister to people outside these walls, we will meet people with tragedies like this in their backgrounds. And our hearts should go out to them the same way our hearts go out to the people of Jerusalem.

refugees2

Just to give a few examples from real life today: first, Ukraine. It tears our hearts apart to see what is happening in Ukraine. If we walk just a couple blocks away from Carnegie UMC we will meet people who have family members still in Ukraine. Some of the family members are running from danger, and some of them are bravely staying to help those who are unable to leave. One couple I’m in touch with on Facebook pastors a contemporary church in the city of Kyiv. Every week they risk their lives to take donations of food to areas of the country that have been shelled or bombed.

Second example: Syria. Syria is not in the news much any more. About five years ago everyone was hearing about ‘Syrian refugees’. Most Syrians are out of Syria now, and waiting in refugee camps to move on to future destinations. The Syrians were – and are – running from their own government. Their president dropped bombs on his own people, in his own country. Even families of Syrian veterans have been bombed out of their homes. We now have people from Syria living in Pittsburgh – and as we go out to minister we will probably meet some. I’ve met a family who lives in Crafton, and they are some of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever met. And as soon as they learn enough English they’re going to have some stories to share, and they will need people to listen with compassion.

The third example is closer to home. This past week we’ve heard about the flooding in Florida in the wake of Hurricane Ian. We’ve heard the numbers: over 75 people dead, thousands rescued, thousands homeless, and some of the greatest destruction in recent memory. I don’t know about you but I personally know at least three or four families who live in Florida who experienced flooding in their homes.

I’m glad to say that UMCOR is responding immediately to this, and is helping alongside other agencies, doing whatever they can do to meet the needs of the people there. So as we look for opportunities for ministry, we can remember UMCOR; and we can also make personal contacts with people we know there and ask what’s needed. We also remember what it’s like to live through the flood caused by Hurricane Ivan a few years ago. We have people living in our neighborhoods who still live in fear of the next big rain. As we go out to minister, we can listen to these fears and offer comfort.

We live in a world today that is often uncomfortable with deep expressions of sorrow. We live in a world where it’s often said that what happens is all down to cause-and-effect. But that is not what the Bible teaches. This passage from Lamentations invites us to enter into the pain of a nation, or the pain of a community, and be moved by their suffering. So as we go out to minister, when we see people suffering, Jeremiah’s words prepare our hearts to be moved with compassion as we share the word of God and the love of Jesus.

hidden-brain-compassion

We turn now to our reading from Luke, and something a little bit less dark but perhaps more difficult. In this passage the disciples ask Jesus to “increase our faith.” They ask this in response to Jesus’ command to forgive people seventy-times-seven. I think their reaction is a reasonable one given that context; I know sometimes it takes me a while to forgive people just two or three times. Asking for an increase of faith makes sense!

But if we stop and think about it, how would we be able to tell if the request for more faith has been answered? Do we have some kind of chart on the wall showing 25% more faith today than a year ago? If the disciples are thinking something like “heroic deeds require heroic faith” they’re barking up the wrong tree.

Mustard Seed

Jesus is not criticizing their request for more faith; he’s saying they’re on the wrong track. It’s quality, not quantity, that Jesus is after. Even the smallest amount of faith – like the size of a mustard-seed – can achieve great things. All we have to do is act on the faith we have.

Using faith to help others is practical and down-to-earth: the ability to share, the ability to forgive, the ability to empathize, the ability to nurture one another. Doing these things in faith, in the name of Jesus, brings liberation and healing and restoration into peoples lives.

In the second paragraph, where Jesus talks about the ‘slave’ or the ‘servant’ (depending on your translation) Jesus is giving a heads-up against thinking we’re cool because we have faith. If we start to think “MY faith, MY work, MY strength, MY abilities, MY skills – wow, I’m really GOOD” – that’s where Jesus’s words come in: a servant is not thanked for doing what they’re supposed to be doing. Our thought instead should be something like “I don’t deserve any special praise for that”.

We serve Jesus because we want to see God’s will done. God is perfect; God’s love is astoundingly perfect; God wants the very best for every person in the world… and we serve God because of who God is. And when we do, we say “I was just doing what needed to be done.”

This does not make us (as some translations say in verse ten) ‘worthless slaves’. To put it into today’s language, when we do what God asks us to do, we say, “think nothing of it”.

I saw a living example of this, this past week in a Zoom meeting. We were having a group discussion, and one of the women there who lived in the Midwest is fostering two 2-year-old babies. The babies were two of the children who have been separated from their parents at our southern border. The children are not related to each other, they just happened to have arrived at her home together. Their parents are still in the process of applying for asylum. The foster parents are (thank goodness) in touch with the children’s parents by cell phone. And as she was sharing her story, all the rest of us in this Zoom meeting expressed amazement at her courage and her generosity and her willingness to share her home and her life – to take in two two-year-olds from a foreign country for nobody knows how long. And her reaction was one of surprise… as if to say ‘what else would one do?’ THAT’s what Jesus is talking about. It’s a frame of heart that says ‘I’m just doing what I’m supposed to be doing… nothing more.’

That’s faith. And that’s the good news of the Gospel. We don’t have to be superhuman. We don’t have to have oodles of faith. We just need to do what God created us to do… in his power, in his name. All that’s needed is just a little faith… and a lot of being there and being willing. As Jesus says: “One who is faithful in little is faithful in much.” (Luke 16:10)

As we head into this new season in our Partnership, let’s go forward with empathy, and willing hearts, and just a little faith. AMEN.

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“Catching the Spark” continues

Preached at Carnegie UMC and Hill Top UMC, Sunday October 2, 2022 – Pentecost 17

The Vineyard

Vineyard

“Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.  2 He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.  3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.  4 What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?  5 And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.  6 I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.  7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” – Isaiah 5:1-7 

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“By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned.  30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days.  31 By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

“32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets–  33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions,  34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.  35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.  36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented–  38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

“39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised,  40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

“Hebrews 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,  2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” – Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2 

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Today I’d like to spend most of our time with the Isaiah passage because it builds on what we heard in Hosea a few weeks ago.

But I can’t let Hebrews 11 go by without saying a few words about it. Hebrews 11 is one of my favorite passages in the Bible. It starts off in verse one saying, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It goes on to talk about men and women of faith down through the ages – Noah and Abraham and Sarah and Joseph and Moses – the list goes on. Some of these people were great leaders but others would never have been known if their names weren’t in the Bible. And it says “by faith” they did what they did.

Cloud of Witnesses

These were people just like you and me. They weren’t saints in stained glass windows. They were human, they made mistakes, they weren’t always sure what God was up to. But they kept on keeping on because they knew God and they trusted God.

Then at the very end of the reading, at the beginning of chapter 12, the writer of Hebrews says:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

When I read this, in my mind I see a huge arena – like an Olympic stadium – packed full with all the saints of God cheering us on as we take our places and run the race of faith. Those saints up there in the stands include our parents and our grandparents and our loved ones and all the people of faith who have entered God’s kingdom before us, from Genesis onward, and they are cheering for us.

It’s a vision to keep in mind, especially in tough times like these. When life gets rough and we find ourselves feeling discouraged, it helps to remember who is cheering us on.

It’s especially important to keep this in mind when we tackle passages like the one from Isaiah. These verses can be hard to spend time with because they’re dark; there is so little hope in them. Life in Israel during the years of Isaiah was not all that different from life in our world today.

In our reading from Isaiah chapter five, God sings a love song… but not the kind of love song we expect. It’s a love song of the broken-hearted. A somebody-done-somebody-wrong song.

WrongSong

God sings about his people. God says his nation is like a vineyard, a garden. God says he chose the best vines, and chose a fertile place to plant them, and cleared the land with care, and built a wall and a watch-tower for protection, and built a wine vat to make wine out of the grapes. But after all this work the grapevines produced wild grapes – and wild grapes are bitter, sour, not worth eating let alone making wine out of.

And God asks one question: “what more could I have done for my people?” Of course the answer is ‘nothing’.

In Isaiah God says: I will remove the protection from my vineyard, and tear down its wall, and stop weeding it and caring for it, and it will become an overgrown wasteland full of briars and thorns.

When Isaiah gave this prophecy, he was speaking in the Southern Kingdom of Israel. The Northern Kingdom, which we heard about in Hosea a few weeks ago, had recently fallen. The Southern Kingdom was now alone – just two tribes (Judah and Benjamin) remaining. Hearing these words must have made them stop and think: ‘Look what happened in the North. We only have two tribes left, and we’re not strong enough to stand on our own.’As it turned out, God protected the Southern Kingdom for many years before it finally fell; and when it did fall, God used non-believers to make sure a remnant of the people stayed in Jerusalem.

But back to Isaiah’s prophecy: Why is God saying these things? What was going wrong in the Southern Kingdom that troubled God so deeply? The first four chapters of Isaiah help answer these questions. God says in Isaiah chapter one:

  • Verse 23 – “Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves… they love bribes, they run after gifts, and they do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.”
  • Verse 27 – “Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness.”
  • Verse 28 – “But rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together, and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed.”

The people who were in running the nation were practicing extortion and bribery; and they refused to take care of those who were in need, particularly the orphans and the elderly.

God looks for justice – for leaders who have compassion on the powerless. And God looks for people who do right things. A nation that refuses to do these things is like a grapevine that produces bitter fruit – and isn’t that what we see in our news every day?

In Isaiah chapter two, God looks at the nation of Israel and sees a land full of diviners and soothsayers – people who claim to have ‘special’ or ‘insider’ information. God also sees a land full of silver and gold and treasure: people have ‘chariots in every garage’. God also sees a land filled with idols: people worshiping what is not God. God sees people who think they’ve gotten past the need for God. (I hear that just about every day on Facebook these days!)

In Isaiah chapter three God explains what will happen in the near future if the people do not change course and return to God:

  • Verse 4 – “I will make boys their princes, and babes shall rule over them.” This could be taken either literally or figuratively. If it’s figurative, then God is talking about immature adults in leadership. If it’s literal – in a kingdom, if a king and queen pass away leaving a child on the throne, the kingdom is not secure. Without an adult on the throne, a kingdom is easy prey for conspiracies and invaders.
  • Verse 5 – “The people will be oppressed, everyone by another, and everyone by a neighbor; the youth will be insolent to the elder, and the shameful to the honorable.”
  • Verse 14 – “the Lord enters into judgement with the elders and princes of his people: [God says to them] It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?” says the Lord God of hosts.

God goes on in chapter three to describe how people of privilege decorate themselves proudly with fine clothes and jewels while the poor go hungry. This kind of thing is so common in our society today I think we sometimes become numb to it. To give just one example: a poor person in America is more than twice as likely to come down with diabetes during their lifetime than a rich American. And that’s not because rich people don’t eat junk food, but because a poor person doesn’t have access to (or can’t afford) fresh, healthy, unprocessed, sugar-free food. Poor people too often live in “food deserts” where there are no supermarkets at all. (I was very pleased to see the local farmers’ markets giving tokens to people with SNAP cards, to help families afford the best of foods.)

Then we come to Isaiah chapter 5, today’s reading, where we hear God’s love song for his vineyard, and God’s lament. After the song, in verses 8 and 9, God says:

“…you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no-one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land! The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing: Surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant…”

But God does not leave us here, thank God. Isaiah continues to warn the Southern Kingdom that there’s trouble ahead. For now, though, I’d like to take us to a few other places in Scripture where God and Jesus talk about vines and vineyards. Vineyards are mentioned around 60 times in Scripture! Here are just a handful of the verses:

The first time a vineyard appears in the Bible is in Exodus and Leviticus, where God teaches the people about taking good care of the land. God says: plant vineyards for six years and in the seventh year, let the land rest. It’s like a sabbath for the soil, and it’s good farming practice. It allows the nutrients in the soil to build back up again. God also says: anything that grows by itself in the seventh year is to be left “for the poor and the alien”.  In the book of Deuteronomy God says: when you harvest your grapes, don’t go over the vines a second time: leave the rest for “the alien, the orphan, and the widow.”  When we see the word ‘alien’ in the Bible God is talking about foreigners: people from other countries.

Back in Old Testament times, foreigners and orphans and widows were particularly vulnerable because it was hard for them to make a living. We remember the story of Ruth, who did not allow her widowed mother-in-law, Naomi, to go home alone. Ruth – who was a foreigner and a widow – went home with Naomi, and took care of her, and worked hard to put food on their table. Imagine what might have happened to Naomi if Ruth had not done that. Even today widows and orphans and foreigners are often exploited, and targeted by scammers and violent people. We as the people of God need to help defend and provide for people who find themselves in these situations.

Vineyard w wine press

Moving on to the New Testament, Jesus frequently talks about vineyards. In one passage he says: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” (John 15:1-4)  So we need to stay connected to Jesus in order to grow and thrive.

The last vineyard story I want to share today is the parable Jesus tells about a landowner and his vineyard. The beginning of the story sounds a lot like God’s love song in Isaiah, but Jesus gives it an unexpected twist. He says:

“There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’”  […] When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. (Matt 21:33-38, 45)

In this parable, the vineyard still represents Israel, and Israel is still God’s people, and the owner of the vineyard is still God. But this time we see tenants: people who God has appointed to take care of the vineyard and see to it that the vines are healthy and produce fruit. The tenants are paid by the owner and can expect to have a share in the harvest. God then sends his slaves – the prophets – to collect some of the produce… but the prophets come back empty-handed. In fact the prophets often came back beaten and tortured.

Finally the land-owner sends his son – Jesus – the heir, the King of Kings. And the tenants – the chief priests, the Pharisees, the Sadducees – know Jesus is the Messiah! They know Jesus fulfills the ancient prophecies. But they won’t admit it, because if they do, they’re out of a job. If the Messiah has come then people don’t need priests any more. So they say to themselves “let’s kill him, and the vineyard will be ours”. And that’s what they do. Verse 45 says “they realized he was speaking about them” and they killed Jesus anyway.

There’s just one catch to their plan: Jesus came back!  There is no killing the Son. There is no claiming the vineyard for anyone but God. God wins in the end – and that means so do we. We grapevines, we who want to be fruitful for God, we who look forward to the great wine-tasting in God’s kingdom, we are safe in Jesus’ hands.

Which brings us back to Hebrews. By faith the saints of old did God’s will in spite of everything that was going on in the world around them. By faith the prophets spoke the truth. By faith we follow in their footsteps. By faith we bear fruit as we live in Jesus.

We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, cheering us on. So be encouraged: we are not alone. And the race has already been won. AMEN.

Preached at the South Hills Partnership of United Methodist Churches, August 2022

God’s Call

God speaks through the Prophet Hosea: When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.  2 The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.  3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.  4 I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.  5 They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.  6 The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes.  7 My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.  8 How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.  9 I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.  10 They shall go after the LORD, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west.  11 They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD. — Hosea 11:1-11

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The Apostle Paul writes: So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,  3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  4 When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

5 Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).  6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.  7 These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life.  8 But now you must get rid of all such things– anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.  9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices  10 and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.  11 In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! — Colossians 3:1-11

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god-is-calling

Today we’ll be looking at both our Old Testament lesson and our New Testament lesson and the focus will be on the common ground between the two.

The prophet Hosea and the apostle Paul lived about 700 years apart, give or take a few decades. They weren’t born or raised anywhere near each other: so it is remarkable how much their messages amplify and support each other. Hosea focuses mostly on how very much God loves us; and Paul encourages us to love God back. Let there be a two-way relationship between us, and let us be confident that even when we fall short of God’s perfection, God’s love and compassion are always there.

God also reminds us throughout scripture that God’s people were called out of Egypt – out of slavery – and into freedom. Israel’s experience in Egypt is not just history; it is also a parable showing us what it means to be in bondage to sin and separated from God. Without God we find ourselves trying to satisfy people and powers who are not God but would like to take God’s place in our lives. These people and things can become idols, and we may find ourselves trapped: giving our best efforts and the very best of our minds and abilities to something that isn’t God. In every time and every age and every nation, our loyalty is to Jesus. Jesus came to set us free, and he died and rose again to bring us into God’s eternal kingdom.

But I’m getting ahead of myself! Let me back up and start with the reading from Hosea. Hosea was a prophet in the northern kingdom of Israel shortly before the kingdom fell. He lived in a time when the people of Israel had been living in the Promised Land for a few hundred years. They had made themselves at home, and now they’re forgetting God (who brought them there) and are chasing after the Baals – the local false gods. They have forgotten what God did for them in Egypt; and when Hosea talks about a “return to Egypt” in verse 5, it has a double meaning: (1) that the people are taking themselves spiritually back into slavery by disobeying God, and (2) that Israel at that time was negotiating with Egypt to help them fight the Assyrians who were attacking from the north. God is warning them that their alliance with Egypt will fail. In the end, Israel doesn’t listen and the Northern Kingdom falls. But at this point in time the Northern Kingdom is still standing, and God is pleading with the people to return to the one who loves them.

2 kingdoms

In the book of Hosea, chapter 1, God gives Hosea a very unusual to begin his prophetic task: God tells Hosea to marry a prostitute and have children with her. This is meant to give the people of Israel a living picture of how God feels, being the God of a people who are always chasing after other gods. The fact that this illustration doesn’t even touch the peoples’ hearts tells us how far gone the nation is.

But in chapter 11 God changes approach: God opens his heart to the people and speaks in a way that many theologians have said is “like a mother”. Our God is of course beyond gender and has qualities that could be described as either or both. So as we read these words, we can hear God’s words spoken as either a mother or as a father would speak them.

God says to Israel:

“From the very beginning I called you. I taught you how to walk… I took you in my arms… I led you with human kindness, with bands of love… I lifted you like a child to my cheek… I bent down and fed you… but you refuse me; and as a result you will lose your land, and Assyria will be your king.”

As we hear God speaking from the heart it may remind us of other children we know – children of loving parents who have turned away from their families. We know the pain it causes. It may lead the child into danger, poverty, addiction, sometimes even death. We know that any loving parent would do anything to save their child, would even take the child’s place, if only their son or daughter would come home. This is how God is feeling towards God’s rebellious people.

But Israel won’t hear it. They keep on worshiping Baal and other false gods.

Moses had warned if they did this, God would have to act in ways that would bring great tragedy on the nation. This may not seem very God-like to us today, but as CS Lewis pointed out in the Chronicles of Narnia, speaking about the God-figure Aslan, “Aslan is not a tame lion but he is a good lion.”  Likewise our God is not tame, but good.

In this situation with Israel, God must act, or the covenant with Israel will be broken. God could bring down on Israel all the curses Moses warned about. But God says to Israel in Hosea 11:8:

“How can I give you up? How can I hand you over? My heart draws back, my compassion grows warm and tender…” And finally God says in verse 9: “I will not act in my fierce anger; I will not destroy the people; because I am God and no mortal.”

God, being God, will find a way where from a human standpoint there is no way.

In verse one of this chapter God says, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”  That’s how God will do it: God will fulfill the law of Moses and still spare the people. In the New Testament, the apostle Matthew quotes this verse to identify Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy. This is how God will do it – through Jesus!

Our God refuses to get stuck in binary opposites. God does not get caught in either/or reasoning the way we often do. From our human point of view it often seems like every issue that comes along boils down to one of two positions: left-right, red-blue etc etc. God is not limited by this kind of thinking. To give just one example: when the Pharisees said to Jesus, “We just caught this woman in adultery – what should we do? Look the other way, or do what Moses said and stone her?” Jesus avoids the binary and he answers, “whichever one of you is without sin cast the first stone.”

With God there is always a third way. God does not get trapped in human dichotomies. God says, “I am God and no mortal”– and God finds a way.

As an aside, while I was writing this I saw a quotation which I thought was helpful.  There was a seminary professor who wrote, “Too often, contemporary Christian [thought] accepts the false… dichotomy between the “Old Testament God of wrath” and the “New Testament God of love.” Hosea 11 gives us a picture of God that includes both anger and love. God is the same throughout the Bible. God doesn’t change. When we turn away God hurts. God is a God of holiness and a God of mercy.

Which brings us to Paul’s letter to the Colossians. The Colossian church got off to a good start – one of their leaders was Philemon, who wrote one of the books of the New Testament. But after awhile false teachings started to slip into the church. The exact nature of these false teachings is lost to history, but we know in a general sense they included some asceticism (that is, harsh self-discipline and refusal of pleasure); and also human wisdom, tradition, and “secret knowledge.” Back then this ‘secret knowledge’ was often called Gnosticism, but today we have similar things: for example the recent QAnon phenomenon, where people were claiming to have “secret knowledge” about how things “really are” and lead people away from God.

Back to Paul’s letter: so far Paul has talked about things like God’s heavenly throne room, where Jesus is seated in victory at God’s right hand. Paul tells the Colossians to stay focused on this vision of the throne room, and to keep on doing justice, and to keep on remembering that God’s people are safe and at peace in God’s kingdom.

throne room

Paul also reminds us to listen to the Holy Spirit so we can see beyond appearances. The Holy Spirit lifts the veil from the false pretenses of the world’s powers and authorities. To give just one small real-world example of false pretenses from our own time: when we go to the store these days we are getting less for the same price: boxes of Kleenex are the same size but have fewer tissues in them. Bags of cat food are the same size bag but have less food in them. Bottles of medicine are the same size bottles but contain fewer pills. These are just some of the lies told by the powers of this world. Real truth and real freedom, come only from God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

As Paul continues his teaching, he says people are created to be in relationship: first with God and then with each other. As the old saying goes, “no one is an island” – we are all interconnected. Therefore, what we do with our bodies and minds and hearts has an effect on others and on the world around us. That’s why God must be #1 in our lives, so that God’s goodness and God’s kingdom and God’s truth can enter our world through us.

A good summary of this passage from Paul might be, in the words of the old hymn, “seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness”. The Greek word for “seek” – zeteo – means to desire, to want very deeply. It’s not “eh, I can take it or leave it”.  It’s more like how Jesus described the widow searching for her lost penny: she puts all her effort into it, and when she finds it, she calls all her friends to rejoice! In the same way we should seek for and find and rejoice in God’s kingdom.

So whatever we say or do, we say or do in Jesus’ name and to Jesus’ glory. In this passage, Paul gives as examples (not as a complete list) a list of things not to do – most of which are of a sexual nature – but I find it interesting that Paul includes “greed” in this list. Idolatry comes in many forms, often brought on by being dissatisfied with what God has given us.

So big picture, Paul is dealing with the same issue that Hosea is. God has called God’s people, and God’s people are turning away.

Paul says “since we have been raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Jesus is, where God is.”  As God’s people, our lives are hidden with Jesus in God. We don’t know yet what we will be when Jesus comes. But we do know when Jesus comes, what we really are will be revealed. So our goal is to live in God’s direction, moving toward Jesus. As Paul says, we need to “put away what is earthly” – get rid of anything in us that might hold us back or that might harm what God has created in us.

One commentator puts it this way: the time of the Roman Empire was a time of “insatiable consumption” – sounds a lot like our world today! And Paul calls this “idolatry”.

We need to take off the old self and put on the new self. Anything of this world that comes between us and God is an idol and needs to be gotten rid of. That might include, but is not limited to: unfaithfulness, greed, anger, slander, abusive language, speaking lies or half-truths – these all are forms of Baal-worship.

God calls us away from serving what is ‘not God’ and into worshiping the one and only true God. False gods – as with Pharaohs – only imprison and enslave us. Paul talks about putting on new clothing for our souls; he talks about “being renewed in the knowledge and in the image of our creator.” In God’s kingdom we are no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, black or white, children of different nations: we are all ONE in Jesus. As Paul says, “Christ is all and in all.”

We won’t ever see this perfectly in this life. But in Jesus we make progress… which starts now and continues into eternity. In the meantime we trust in the passionate love of God that Hosea talked about. God loves us so much! God is faithful; God will do what God has promised; and God will never let us go. God will find a way. AMEN.

God Will Make a Way

Preached at the South Hills Partnership of United Methodist Churches, July 2022

A Tale of Two Churches

Inspiration Passages:

“Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD! Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light;  19 as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake.  20 Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?  21 [The Lord says:] I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.  23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” – Amos 5:18-24

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[Amos writes:] This is what [the Lord] showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.  8 And the LORD said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by;  9 the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”  10 Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words.  11 For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.'”  12 And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there;  13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” – Amos 7:7-13

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I wanted to share with you today some reflections on my two weeks in Europe. Before I do, I want to share a scripture passage from the prophet Amos. Amos had been given the task of bringing a warning to King Jeroboam of Israel who was rebelling against God. The warning Amos preached included that famous verse: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24) God also said to Jeroboam through Amos that “the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I (God) will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” (Amos 7:9) The King’s reply to Amos was to tell him to get out of the country and “never again prophesy at Bethel, for” (he said) “it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” (Amos 7:13) Jeroboam had forgotten that the word “Bethel” means house of God, not ‘house of the kingdom’.

This passage – and this story – forms the backdrop for today’s sermon. What I’d like to share with you today is my experience of my first day in Vienna, Austria, in a sermon I call A Tale of Two Churches.  What I share here is, of course, spoken as an outside observer; I don’t know Austrian history or culture very well. But these are my impressions as a new arrival in this ancient city.

Proverbs 25:25 says, “Like cold water to a weary soul is good news from a distant land.” One of the questions I’m frequently asked is: “Is there still a living faith in Europe? And how are the churches doing over there?” The short answer is YES, I am happy to report there is still a living faith in Europe! On the whole, I think our European counterparts are pretty much in the same place we are: most churches are seeing declining Sunday attendance; some churches are popular and others are struggling; and everyone is wondering how to share the Gospel message in a way that will appeal to the younger generation.

The main difference is that many of our European brothers and sisters are living (or have lived) in countries where there is (or once was) an official state religion. Austria, for example, has always been Roman Catholic. Austrian citizens are of course free to believe and worship as they choose; and there are Protestant and Jewish and Muslim believers throughout the country. But Austria was for many hundreds of years the center of the Holy Roman Empire, and that influence doesn’t go away overnight. Even today, if a citizen of Austria is a registered member of the Catholic Church in Austria, that person has the right to be baptized, married, and buried from the church; and that person also pays a 1.1% income tax to the church directly out of their paychecks. For this reason many young people in Austria are resigning their memberships in the Catholic Church even if they still attend Mass. So our European cousins have some interesting issues to deal with that we, thankfully, do not.

The other thing that’s different from American churches in general, is that European churches are usually organized as parish churches. That is, the church is located in or near the center of a town or neighborhood, and the church is not only a place of worship but is also a meeting-place for the community. And frequently (though not always) small businesses and retail shops locate themselves near the parish church for convenience.

The parish church in turn sees itself as ministering to the entire community, even if not all of the community are church members. For example, on the final concert of our tour – I was tagging along with the Pittsburgh Concert Chorale on their European tour – the final concert of the tour was a benefit concert for a local hospice. It was held in the parish church of the town of Landshut, Germany, and the whole community was invited. On the night of the concert, this church – which usually gets about 60 people attending on a Sunday – was packed full with hundreds of people who were there to support the community. This is very much a part of what a parish church does. It’s actively linked to, and involved with, the community around it.

But to get to our tale of two churches: Vienna, like many European cities, has a “city centre”: a large open plaza, about three city blocks wide and three city blocks long, that’s lined with shops and outdoor cafés, and is a meeting place for residents and visitors alike. Unlike many European cities, Vienna’s city centre has a huge cathedral plunked down right smack in the middle of it! It’s called St. Stephen’s, and it’s the home church of the Archbishop of Vienna.

StStephens1

St. Stephens Cathedral, Vienna Austria

While the Pittsburgh Concert Chorale settled into their rehearsal space (about a block away) I decided to explore the cathedral. In my travels – both overseas and here in the US – I have discovered if I want to get to know a place that’s new to me, one of the best ways to do it is to visit a local church. Churches always hold information on the town’s history and whatever’s happening in and around the town. And if I’m lucky I might run into an employee of the church and I can ask questions and discover more!

As it turns out, I walked into St. Stephen’s Cathedral at 11:30 on Tuesday morning to discover a Mass already in progress! They have Masses three times a day in this church. And it was packed! Standing room only.

StStephensInside

St Stephen’s Cathedral interior

As I took this all in visually, and as I watched from the back of the church, they came to a part of the service that I think most of us would recognize: it’s the part of the communion service that says “holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest.” We’ve heard these words before, right? This part of the communion service is familiar to just about anyone from a Catholic or Protestant background.

But this Mass was in German – and I don’t speak German! So how did I know the words? Because it was sung, and I knew the tune! I’ve heard this music many, many times in many churches here in the USA.

I thought to myself in that moment: how cool is this, that the leadership of the cathedral chose this music. The words of the Mass have been set to music hundreds of times by hundreds of composers – but they chose a tune that would be recognized by people from around the world, because this church ministers to people from around the world. This music made us all feel like we belong, for a moment like we were in our own home church. How cool is that? What’s more, this song was written by the composer Franz Schubert, who is a native son of Vienna, so they were sharing something of themselves with us at the same time. In this moment, as all the visitors from all the nations in this cathedral were together as one, it was like a small foretaste of God’s kingdom to come.

The rest of the Mass was about as majestic as something you might expect to see at the Vatican – very formal, very grand. I’m not always crazy about this kind of grandeur in worship, because we know that our God is a God who reaches out to us in humility; but our God is also a God of greatness, and I think it’s good to be reminded now and then – as we look at these beautiful churches and these centuries-old forms of worship – of how great our God is.

When the service was over I explored the rest of the cathedral. The cathedral is made up of three… aisles or halls: the central aisle, and two side aisles, one on either side. The side aisles are not as tall or as wide, and they are broken up into sections they call ‘chapels’. These open-ended areas seat about a dozen people, and could be used for prayer, or for a baptism, or for confession, or something like that. Each chapel is dedicated to the memory of one of the apostles or saints, and includes artwork and stained glass that tell the story of that person.

This reminds us that when these cathedrals were built – this particular cathedral was built in 1147 (and rebuilt again in 1263 after a fire) – most of the people attending church back then didn’t read. So the purpose of the stained glass windows and statues and artwork was to teach people the faith in pictures: to tell stories from the Bible or from the lives of the saints in a way that people could understand. The Catholic Church does not teach its people to worship saints, but rather to learn about their lives and to take their lives as examples.

I was thrilled to see, in this cathedral, one of those chapels featuring Mother Teresa. It’s a reminder to us that not all saints lived hundreds of years ago; some are with us even today. StStephensMotherTeresaThe other thing I always look for – in any church or cathedral I visit – is a rack or a table containing brochures and information about the church and about the church’s ministries. I was very happy to find, at the back of St. Stephen’s, an entire table filled with brochures and information on the various projects and outreaches of the cathedral (both local and international).

So as a visitor, I found St. Stephens to be very much a place of welcome and of rest. I was able to sit quietly and pray and reflect for a bit. And no matter when I went there, it was always full of people and surrounded by people, both inside and outside.

The second church we visited was St Peter’s.  St. Peter’s is only about three blocks away from St. Stephen’s, connected by an alley of small shops and cafés. St. Peter’s was never meant to be a cathedral; it’s a much smaller building. It was meant to be a parish church – to serve the surrounding neighborhood – when it was first built; and the location is believed to be the location of the very oldest church in Vienna. The first small church built on this ground was built on the site of a Roman encampment.

StPeters

St. Peter’s, Vienna Austria

I don’t know about you, but the idea of Romans being in Vienna took me by surprise! We tend to forget that Austria borders Italy and that Vienna was very much a part of the Roman Empire for many years. So the first church on this location was built where the Romans were. Then in the year 800AD the old church was torn down and new one built by Charlemagne. In 1661 Charlemagne’s church burned down (church fires were not uncommon in the Middle Ages, and they were always a great tragedy for the city). This church was then replaced under the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I.

I need to mention, as an aside, that one of the standard jokes in Austria is that “the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire” – which is pretty much true. Still, the Holy Roman Emperors controlled much of Europe for much of the Middle Ages – and much of that time it was in connection with the Habsburg Empire (sometimes known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire).

Anyway, back to the church – what we see today was either built or remodeled in the 1700s, and it was designed to look like a miniature Vatican.

As a visitor I found this church to be quite different to St. Stephens. The front door (as you can see in the photo) is narrow, and it’s guarded inside by someone who just kind of sits there and watches people come in. It’s a little unnerving. Inside, the church is quiet: and except for during our choir’s concert (which was well attended) there weren’t very many people in the church. Like St. Stephens, this church has chapels on both sides, and I noticed in one of them there was a confessional with a light on (which means a priest is in it and ready to take confession); but there was no one there to take advantage of this offer.

StPetersInside

St. Peters Interior: the Altar

Inside this church, the artwork – both the sculptures and paintings – were stunning: clearly the works of the great baroque and classical masters of Europe. But even with a seminary degree I had a hard time trying to figure out who the people were in these paintings and statues, and what stories they told. I couldn’t imagine illiterate people recognizing the stories being told here.

And apart from that, I saw many things that could easily intimidate the poor: for example there was a massive pulpit, about six feet off the ground, with a small fortune’s worth of gold covering everything; and everywhere symbols of the Empire, including reserved seating for the Imperial Family (under the onion dome to the right of the pulpit).

StPetersPulpit

And finally, at the base of a glorious rotunda, at one of the main focal points of the building, where you might expect to see a Cross or a Holy Spirit dove, we see a two-headed black eagle and the coat of arms of the Habsburg Empire.

StPetersImperial

I couldn’t help wondering what was being worshiped here? Rome? The empire? God? The mixing of church and state – especially in a place like this, which was built to be a place of worship for God – the mixing diminished both God and state, and divided the loyalties of the people attending. As we look at this symbol of human empire we can almost hear echoes of King Jeroboam saying to Amos, “it’s the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom” – which it never was meant to be.

This royal family, the Habsburgs, reigned more-or-less from the years 1282 to 1918. They were frequently on the throne of both Austria-Hungary and the Holy Roman Empire.  Where were peoples’ loyalties going to go?

Along similar lines, while we were touring one of the great palaces of Salzburg, our tour guide told us the palace had been owned by the local Prince-Archbishop. At one point I pulled him aside and asked him: “You understand Americans: is there no separation between church and state?” And he answered that at the time it was not at all unusual for a prince to also be ordained and be in a position of power in the church. In pre-world-war Austria this was not considered a conflict of interest.

We see the same thing here at St. Peters. I can’t imagine the poor or the needy of the city of Vienna finding comfort in a place like this. It’s clearly designed for the royal family and their friends. This church was originally built to be a parish church, in a city neighborhood, but it no longer carries that designation. By the declaration of city’s archbishop, it is no longer a parish church. Today it is managed by a group called “The Priests of Opus Dei” – a modern-day religious order.

So we have here a tale of two churches: both of them built over many years at great expense, both of them in the heart of the capital city of Austria. One is full of people and welcoming the world, sharing who they are and what they believe with all who visit; always open, always staffed.

The other church, equally magnificent and richly appointed, but somehow not reaching the world, or even the city. It is neglected by the diocese, and it looks backward to a period of history that no longer exists.

This church reminds me of a line from the movie The Sound of Music. After Rolf delivers a telegram and gives the Nazi salute, the Baroness says to Captain von Trapp, “You’re far away. Where are you?” and he answers: “In a world that’s disappearing, I’m afraid.” Captain von Trapp understood that the way of life he and his family had known as nobility in Austria was at an end, and would never return, and that he needed to reinvent his life.

This second church, St. Peter’s, has missed that reality. It is, in many ways, still trying to live in a world that has disappeared.

This tale of two churches is a challenge for all of us: not to leave the past behind, because both of these churches speak richly of history: history of the church and history of the Christian faith. But rather to be outwardly focused: to be aware of the people around us and the people visiting us; to think in terms of ‘parish’ and what we find ourselves at the center of. To know what gifts God has given us, and to offer them, and to translate them into language the people around us can understand.

So is the faith still alive in Europe? You betcha! It might not always be where we expect to find it. But I say all this with gratitude to our tour guide in Salzburg who had the courage to share his own faith in Jesus with two busloads of total strangers.

May he be blessed, and may these churches be blessed; and may we all be blessed, to be a blessing – as we seek to follow and serve the God of all history and all nations. AMEN.

Preached at the churches of the South Hills Partnership of United Methodist Churches, July 2022

Pentecost 2022

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  2 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.  3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.  5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.  6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.  7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?  9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,  10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,  11 Cretans and Arabs– in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”  12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”  13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

               14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.  15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.  16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:  17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.  18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.  19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.  20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.  21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ – Acts 2:1-21

(Note: on Sunday this passage was read in different languages, including German, Polish, French, Spanish, Latin, and Swahili)

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Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”  9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.  11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

               12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.  13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  14 If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

              15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

               25 “I have said these things to you while I am still with you.  26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.  27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. – John 14:8-17, 25-27

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Pentecost

Good morning and Happy Birthday Church! Today being Pentecost, this is the day when the Holy Spirit first arrived and anointed Jesus’ disciples for ministry, and it’s considered the birthday of the Christian Church. Traditionally, depending on where you’re from, we wear red today to symbolize the flames of fire that anointed the disciples, or we wear white to symbolize the Holy Spirit’s cleansing.

The tradition of Pentecost stretches back into the Old Testament. Pentecost was, and still is, a Jewish holiday called Shavuot which means weeks – a holiday that was tied to the rhythms of a farming society. In ancient Israel they counted a sabbath of sabbaths (7×7 weeks) since the festival of firstfruits – and this became Pentecost, the harvest festival.

This creates parallels of prophecy between the Old Testament and the New Testament, tying the two testaments together. For example, Jesus is sometimes called “the firstfruits of them that sleep” – the first human being to be resurrected from the dead. He is the firstfruits of the human race. And seven times seven weeks after Jesus’ Resurrection we have Pentecost: a harvest of souls being brought into God’s kingdom by the power of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit’s presence is only possible because Jesus ascended into heaven (as we celebrated last Sunday) and is therefore able to send the Holy Spirit to be with us.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence the Jewish Pentecost was one of three holidays when Jewish believers were required to travel to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple. So on the church’s first Pentecost, there were faithful people from literally all over the known world in Jerusalem. They were there to give thanks for God’s blessings: good homes and good food which God had provided throughout the year; but this year, they were surprised by something that was going on in the city, and found themselves worshiping God – the same God they’d always worshipped – in a brand new way: in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Spirit 2

In a lot of ways the Holy Spirit is a bit of a mystery. The Old Testament talks about the Spirit from time to time; we know for example that King David often ministered and sang in the Spirit. We know that the Holy Spirit is called the “third person of the Trinity” – ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’, or as some say, ‘God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit’. And while the Father is not Jesus who is not the Spirit, at the same time God is One and all three are God. It’s a mystery, and we’ll explore this mystery a bit more next week on Trinity Sunday.

Meanwhile, Jesus describes the Holy Spirit in John 14:17 when he says:

“This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”

Before he ascended to heaven, Jesus told the disciples to wait together in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit – which is exactly what the disciples are doing at the beginning of Acts chapter two in our reading today. They were together in one room – a lot like we are now – and all of a sudden they heard a sound like rushing wind and saw tongues of fire coming down and resting on each one of them. And all of them – men and women, young and old – were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages.

Does the Holy Spirit always arrive in peoples’ lives with wind and fire? These days, not usually. But on that first Pentecost, wind and fire had specific meaning to the disciples. Jesus had said in John 3:8, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” So wind signifies the presence of the Spirit.

And in Luke 3:16 John the Baptist said: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; […] He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” And also in Isaiah chapter 6, when Isaiah is worshipping in the temple, he sees a vision of God, and he says “woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips…” God sends one of the seraphim to take a live coal from the altar and touch Isaiah’s lips with it; and he says, “this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin is atoned for.” The fire represents cleansing and a restoration of holiness. Anyone who was raised Jewish would have recognized these symbols.

So here on this first Pentecost, the disciples “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages.” And these languages were heard by all the people who had come to Jerusalem from all over the world to worship God. There were people from Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe – most of the known world at that time.

filled with spirit

I’d like to step back for a moment and reflect on this: have any of us ever had the experience of being in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language? If yes, while you were there, did you ever suddenly hear someone speaking English? How did it feel, to hear English in a foreign country? For me it was like having an instant friend – no matter where they’re from or what their politics are – this person is from home.

That was the feeling in the crowd that Pentecost morning. People from all over felt like they’d found one of their own. They felt welcomed. It felt like a taste of home. And the message in these words was telling them about God’s works – God’s deeds of power – including Jesus’ resurrection.

People didn’t know what to think.  They were blown away! Some wiseacre in the crowd said, “oh they’re just drunk” but Peter answered, “not so! It’s only nine in the morning!” And he explained: this is the fulfillment of the  prophecy of Joel, who said (this comes from Joel chapter two):

“‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.”

All will prophesy, all will see visions and dream dreams. And not long after this day, even the Gentiles will be included in God’s kingdom. The prophet Joel says, “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” – regardless of who they are or where they’re from or what they’ve done.

Hearing all this in their native languages, the people who had come to Jerusalem for Pentecost were deeply moved, and many were convinced of the truth. Luke tells us that 3000 people became believers that day, and were added to the church. 3000. People. And the last verse of Acts 2 tells us “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” The faith spread throughout Jerusalem like a fire.

So is the Holy Spirit still present today, and if so can we know if we have the Spirit in us? Yes and yes.

This is a topic of debate in some churches, and teachings on the Holy Spirit vary widely from church to church. Speaking as someone who has been in just about every kind of church there is, I will say this: Christians are never called to prove to anyone that we have the Spirit in us. I say this because some people believe that anyone who has the Spirit must speak in tongues (for example), and that’s not the case. Other people say the ability to heal is the sign of the Spirit’s presence. Again, not so.

The apostle Paul makes it clear we all receive different gifts from the Holy Spirit, as God created us to have them, and as God knows other people need them. The apostle Paul gives us a few lists of spiritual gifts in his letters, particularly in I Corinthians 12, and the lists of gifts include things like wisdom, knowledge, faith, prophecy, discernment and so on. Paul says: “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord…” (I Cor 12:4-5)

spiritual gifts

And if we’re ever not sure if the Spirit is with us or in us, the very best thing to do is to talk to God about it in prayer. Jesus says in Luke 11:13, “If you who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” So if we’re not sure we just need to ask.

So what does all of this mean for us today in the year 2022?

It’s been almost two thousand years since all these events happened, and millions and millions of people around the world have heard the message of Jesus and have joined the body of believers. From where we stand now, we can look back and see so many ways in which the prophecies of the Old Testament have come true in Jesus. We can look back and see how many people through the ages have heard God’s call on their lives and have “called on Jesus to be saved”. Notice how this is a two-way call: God calls us, and we respond by calling on Jesus, who is our King and our Lord.

The Holy Spirit unites the members of the church as one into the Body of Christ. And by that I don’t mean “team spirit” (it’s not something we need cheerleaders for); we don’t work ourselves up into unity. The reality comes from God: if we think of God the Father as God-above-us, and Jesus as God-with-us (which is what his name means), then the Holy Spirit is God-in-us or God-alongside-us. And because the Spirit is in all believers, the Spirit knits us together into one family – God’s family.

trinity-graphic

The Greek word for Holy Spirit is paraclete, which is tough to translate into English with just one word. One translation I read said this about the Holy Spirit: “alongside you he dwells and in you he will be.” Which I think sounds a bit like Yoda. But the word does have a mixture of meanings, including advocate, helper, guide, comforter; and the root meaning is “one who draws alongside” – a friend who walks with us. Jesus has sent us a friend like himself, who walks with us through life.

And now we are called to do the same for others: to come alongside them, and walk with them, and advocate for them – especially for those in need, or for those who cannot speak for themselves. I think, for example, of the children coming to our country and applying for asylum who enter our court system without a lawyer. Can you imagine going to court without a lawyer? A number of attorneys in our country are stepping up to volunteer in this situation (God bless them) but there aren’t enough yet. And that’s just one of so many ways people here and around the world need someone to speak for them. We are called to do for others what Jesus has done for us. And when we do, we do it with the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

We are also called to bear witness to the truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We are called to bear witness to the truth of God’s word in Scripture – which tells us (and the world) that the promise of repentance and forgiveness and a life empowered by the Holy Spirit is “for you, for your children, and for all who are far away” (as Peter says in Acts 2:39).

And in terms of ‘coming alongside’ others in an everyday kind of way: we can begin by asking ourselves, what are the languages being spoken by the people around us? People we hope to reach? Are they foreign languages? Are they languages of culture or of food or of music? What languages do we hear in the communities around us? And how can we speak to them about God’s love for them, in the power of the Holy Spirit?

The apostle Paul tells us in Romans 8:14 that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God”. Without the Spirit there is no family relationship. With the Spirit, we are children in God’s family – and if we are children, Paul says, we are also heirs: heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ – who calls us his brothers and sisters.

Speaking of heirs: I saw a photo this weekend (this weekend being the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, celebrating 70 years on the throne – what an amazing long life of service!) The photo was captioned The Queen and her Heirs and it showed Elizabeth, with her son Charles, and his son William, and his son George (Elizabeth’s great-grandson): all the heirs to the British throne.

Queen n heirs

The Queen and Her Heirs: photo credit BBC (2022)

Imagine if Jesus had a photo like that taken of him and all his heirs. It would have to be a very, very large photo! And we would all be in it (thanks be to God) – along with every believer in every age – and all because of what happened on Pentecost all those years ago. This is where it all started.

Heirs w christ

So Happy Birthday Church! AMEN!

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, Pentecost 2022

          And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.

          I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.  23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.  24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.  25 Its gates will never be shut by day– and there will be no night there.  26 People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.  27 But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. 

          Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb  2 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  3 Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him;  4 they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.  5 And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. – Revelation 21:10, 21:22-22:5  

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          Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.  24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me. 

                 25 “I have said these things to you while I am still with you.  26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.  27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.  28 You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.  29 And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe. – John 14:23-29

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This morning is the sixth and final week of our Easter celebrations! Next week we remember the Ascension – and the week after that, Pentecost.

Garden1

Garden of Gethsemane

Today, as we take one last look back at Jesus’ death and resurrection and what it means for us, I’ll be focusing in on our readings from the Gospel of John and from Revelation. Both of these books were written by the disciple and apostle John. As we mentioned in Bible Study this past week, some Bible scholars disagree and believe they were written by two different people named John, but I believe it’s one author for the same reason I recognize Stephen King or JRR Tolkien when I read them.

John was one of the sons of Zebedee, two brothers who Jesus called the “sons of thunder” – ya gotta love the nicknames Jesus gave his friends! John is also the one referred to in many passages as “the disciple Jesus loved”. John was one of the youngest of the disciples; he was probably still a teenager when Jesus was crucified.

The other thing John is famous for is being rather complex and difficult to understand. Those of us who read Revelation in Bible Study a while back can attest to this!  John’s writings are very deeply not logical.  For example: he begins his gospel in John 1:1 saying “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” Is he talking about Creation? Is talking about Jesus? Is he talking about God? Is he talking about words God’s people need to know?

YES. All of the above. John has a way of saying a great deal with just a few words. It’s possible to find double and triple and quadruple meanings in what he writes.

We Americans – and our European cousins for the most part – tend to think scientifically and mathematically; we believe in rationality, we believe in cause-and-effect. “I think therefore I am” – that’s us.  We are a people who think in terms of “therefore”s.  “I have a headache therefore I take an aspirin”.  It’s all very reasonable.

Cause Effect

The way John writes makes us hesitate. We may start to ask: is this a puzzle we need to figure out? Is it a poem? Is it philosophy? How do we interpret this? It’s hard to find solid ground on which to stand. I remember people saying as much during the Bible study.

What I’d like to suggest today is an alternative approach to scripture, and particularly the writings of John. I’d like to suggest approaching John’s words from a place of intuition, or feeling, or from a poetic standpoint. Let me give an example:

You may remember the movie Dances with Wolves from a few years ago. Kevin Costner plays an American soldier in the old west who is assigned to a distant outpost and loses touch with the rest of the army, and he  befriends some local Native Americans. One day, some of his Native American friends come upon Kevin Costner’s character playing with some wolves, and they give him the Native American name “Dances With Wolves”.  This name means so much more than just the fact that he plays with animals. It begins to describe him, and his personality, and he grows into this name through the course of the movie. That’s the kind of way John writes: with lots of layers of meaning.

Or to put it another way, we can approach John’s writings with both sides of our brains at once. You may have heard people say that if you’re the analytical type you’re left-brained, and if you’re the creative type you’re right-brained. When we approach John’s writings, it’s good to approach with both sides of our brain, as much as we’re able to. When God calls us, God calls all of who we are, both sides of our brains, and all the parts of our hearts, not just our thoughts: we want to include intuitions, feelings, the whole enchilada as we approach scripture.

I’ll mention as an aside, in case it’s helpful: there are two (at least two) religious movements happening today – you may have heard of them – that encourage this kind of holistic approach to scripture and faith: one is the Taizé Community in France, and the other is the Iona Community in Scotland. Both of these communities are known for their music as well as their spirituality, and both of them have hymns in our supplemental hymnals – so you may come across the names from time to time!

Anyway, the goal is to invite and involve the whole self in relationship with God. Belief is just the beginning; it’s also about what we sense, what we experience; it’s about knowing God in much the same way as we know the people we live in community with.

Scripture tells us “in God we live and move and have our being”. As a fish lives and moves in water, we live and move in God. We are never in a place where God’s Spirit is not touching us.

So approaching the writings of John, we bring our whole selves into play.  To help us do that, I’m going to try something a bit different today, to bring us holistically into John’s words. But first a little bit of background…

Garden2

Our passage from the Gospel of John starts in the middle of a conversation that actually begins back in chapter 13. This conversation takes place after the Last Supper, either in the Garden of Gethsemane or on the way to the Garden.  Jesus is, in part, giving final instructions to his disciples; but in the larger part, Jesus is sharing words that are meant to comfort and encourage the disciples… and us as well. So these words should be heard and spoken with gentleness and a sense of peace.

Jesus has already told the disciples that he’s going to die, and they are devastated by this. Anyone who has ever lost someone they love knows how the disciples are feeling. Jesus has told them that he will be back from the grave, but they’re not quite grasping this yet; and the thing is, ultimately, Jesus will be going away – back to heaven. And in their sorrow the disciples aren’t able to take the message in.

So these words are spoken gently: like comfort from a friend.  Jesus also speaks about the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and how all three will be present for the disciples after he’s gone. Jesus also says the Holy Spirit will come soon, and teach the disciples everything they need to know, and remind them of Jesus’ words, and bring peace to all who believe. Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

trinity

Jesus’ words can be a great comfort not only to the disciples but to us also – especially in troubled times like we’re living through today. Jesus says: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

In the verses immediately before this passage, Jesus says: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever.”  He also says, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”  (John 14:15-16, 18b-21)

This sums up what it means to be a Christian: to love Jesus and keep his commandments with our whole self, with everything we are, in the power of the Holy Spirit – and to receive the love of God and the love of Jesus, coming back to us.

This passage we’re reading today is Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question, “Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?”

Jesus answers: “those who love me will keep my word.” In other words, he’s looking for a two-way street… which only makes sense, as that’s the definition of relationship.

What Jesus is talking about, then, is for both for now and for the future. When Jesus returns to heaven, God will send the Holy Spirit to teach us and lead us and guide us into the paths of peace.

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This chapter in John, along with one verse from Matthew, has been set to music, and I’d like to share it with you this morning. The song is Lo I Am With You Always (lyrics are below). The text is taken from the King James version of the Bible, so it’s a little old-fashioned. I invite you to listen, and as you do, either follow along with the text, or if you like, just close your eyes and take it in.

[as the music ends] Stay relaxed please, eyes closed if you like, and listen now as John describes what all of this is leading to. Picture these things in your mind as you listen before God. John writes:

“He took me away in the Spirit to an enormous, high mountain and showed me Holy Jerusalem descending out of Heaven from God, resplendent in the bright glory of God.

“The main street of the City was pure gold, translucent as glass. But there was no sign of a Temple, for the Lord God (—the Sovereign-Strong—) and the Lamb are the Temple. The City doesn’t need sun or moon for light. God’s Glory is its light, the Lamb its lamp! The nations will walk in its light and earth’s kings bring in their splendor. Its gates will never be shut by day, and there won’t be any night. They’ll bring the glory and honor of the nations into the City. Nothing dirty or defiled will get into the City, and no one who defiles or deceives [will enter]. Only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life will get in.

“Then the Angel showed me Water-of-Life River, crystal bright. It flowed from the Throne of God and the Lamb, right down the middle of the street. The Tree of Life was planted on each side of the River, producing twelve kinds of fruit, a ripe fruit [for] each month. The leaves of the Tree are for healing the nations. Never again will anything be cursed. The Throne of God and of the Lamb is at the center. His servants will offer God service—worshiping, they’ll look on his face, their foreheads mirroring God. Never again will there be any night. No one will need lamplight or sunlight. The shining of God, the Master, is all the light anyone needs. And they will rule with him age after age after age.” – Revelation 21:10 and 21:22-22:5, The Message

This is the destiny of all who love Jesus. His promise is that, when the time is right, he will come and take us there. These are the words of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God, AMEN.

 

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Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, May 22, 2022

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Lyrics to the song:

 

Lo I Am With You Always

John Rutter, Composer & Conductor

The Cambridge Singers & Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

(Text from the King James Version of John 14)

 

Lo I am with you always, even unto the end of the world

Lo I am with you always, even unto the end of the world

I will not leave you comfortless; I will come to you.

Yet a little while and the world seeth me no more, but ye see me.

Because I live, ye shall live also.

 

Lo I am with you always, even unto the end of the world (I am with you)

Lo I am with you always, even unto the end of the world

 

At that day ye shall know that I am in the Father

And ye in me, and I in you.

 

He that hath my commandments and keepeth them,

He it is that loveth me.

And he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father,

And I will love him.

 

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you –

Not as the world giveth, give I unto you.

Let not your heart be troubled; neither let it be afraid.

 

Lo I am with you always, always…

 

 

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God.  2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him,  3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”  4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying,  5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me.  6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air.  7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’  8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’  9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’  10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.  11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were.  12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house.  13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter;  14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’  15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.  16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’  17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”  18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” – Acts 11:1-18  

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When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.  32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.  33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’  34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:31-35 

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PetersVision

Welcome to the fifth week of Easter! We are still focused today on celebrating all that Jesus did for us on the Cross, and all the good things that have come to us through the power of Jesus’ resurrection. Through the Cross we have been forgiven, and through the Resurrection we are called to new life – both in this world and the next. And as we will see in a couple of weeks, through Jesus’ Ascension, the Holy Spirit is released to Jesus’ followers, to guide and counsel us in this life.

We see the Spirit in action in today’s reading from the book of Acts, so I’d like to focus today on Acts, but I’d also like to look at our reading from John. These two readings will work like a sort of spiritual sandwich: John is the bread and Acts is the meat in between. John gives us a framework within which to understand what we see happening in Acts.

So starting with John: Jesus is speaking to his disciples about three things that are about to happen: God receiving glory, Jesus’ departure, and a new commandment.

The word glory can be tough to define. I once heard someone describe glory as ‘weightiness’ – something of real substance. Other people describe glory as ‘splendor’ or ‘majesty’. Almost always definitions of glory hint at royalty. But God’s glory goes far beyond that – in fact it goes beyond anything we could imagine (other than maybe creation itself).

Jesus says that God will receive glory through what Jesus is about to do on the cross. And likewise Jesus will receive glory from God through Jesus’ resurrection. So the glory is given by each to each: one giving glory to the other in a continual sharing of glory.

Jesus also speaks of his departure. The departure Jesus is talking about here is not his death (he’ll be back from that). He’s talking about his departure after the resurrection: he will be returning to God the Father, and he will not be physically staying here on earth very long. And he’s saying that where he’s going the disciples won’t be able to follow – because, as he says in John chapter 14, “I am going to prepare a place for you.” And he will return to take us there.

loveoneanother

In the meantime, Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment: love one another.”  This is indeed the great commandment – but is it new? Jesus has been talking about love all through his ministry. It seems what might be new at this point is love is expressed in action: in humility, as Jesus washes the disciples’ feet; or in heroic actions like his martyrdom. The love Jesus teaches and shows us goes beyond feeling and beyond emotion to doing what is best for others no matter what it costs.

Jesus also promises that the world will know we are his disciples by our love for one other. The world doesn’t see Christians as belonging to Jesus if our theology is right (even tho theology is important); the world doesn’t see Christians as belonging to Jesus if our morals are good (even tho living a good life is important); the world doesn’t see Christians as belonging to Jesus if we know a lot about God (tho knowing about God is important). The world knows we belong to Jesus when it sees Christians loving each other with the love of Jesus.

love-like-jesus

The challenge in this commandment is that Jesus doesn’t allow us to draw lines separating those we love from those we don’t love. We don’t get to pick and choose. And that’s where we pick up Peter’s story in the book of Acts.

Back in Jesus’ day, as in most periods of human history, there were certain groups of people a “good” person didn’t mix with. A good Jew, for example, would never hang around with Gentiles (that is, non-Jews). I’ll talk about why in a moment. But it raises the question: who are the people we don’t hang around with in our society? Not that we necessarily deliberately exclude, just that we don’t notice them? Maybe the poor? Drug addicts? Immigrants – legal or otherwise? The homeless? Minorities of any kind? The mentally ill? The handicapped? It’s amazing how many ways people can find to draw lines around people that exclude.

Here are a couple of other examples from history where Christians took notice and stood up and said to society, “here’s a better way”.

In ancient Rome: as the Christian church was getting off the ground in the first couple centuries, in Roman society it was considered a tragedy to be born female. Baby girls born in the Roman Empire were often left on the town trash heap to die. But Christians saw the likeness of God in these babies and rescued them – at great cost to themselves, both financially and socially. The early church became famous for having mercy on the least and the helpless.

In early Methodist history: John and Charles Wesley and their friends at school at Oxford looked around at their society and they noticed that poverty was a serious problem. The poor were stuck: partly because there were no schools for their children. There were no public schools at the time; education in those days had to be paid for, and the poor couldn’t afford it. They also noticed that if a poor man fell into debt and failed to pay it off, he would be thrown into debtors’ prison until he could pay the debt – which of course was impossible if he wasn’t free to work. The effect on poor families was devastating. John and Charles and their Oxford friends spent all time they had in between coursework teaching the children of the poor, giving them an education; and paying off the debts of those in prison – reuniting families and lifting them out of poverty. And they did this even though the well-to-do in the church and society didn’t approve and called them derogatory names.

  John Wesley medicine

 John Wesley also gave counsel to the poor on basic first aid and health care

Both of these – saving Roman babies and reaching out to the Oxford poor – are examples of what Christians have done to love others in Jesus’ name: what Christians have done to reach out to, and include, people who weren’t considered acceptable by the culture around them.

The tradition of doing this has its roots in our story from Acts. In this ancient society, the Gentiles were the outcasts: anyone not born Jewish. That would most likely include you and me. We tend to forget sometimes that the first believers were Jewish and that all of Christianity rests on the foundation of Judaism. As Paul says, we Gentiles are “grafted into the vine” – the vine being Judaism.  And as we can see from Peter’s story, even he was reluctant at first to bring the Gospel to people who were considered ‘unclean’.

Jewish purity laws since the time of Moses taught the Jewish people not to eat with, or even enter the house of, a non-Jewish person. Mixing with Gentiles meant mixing with people who worshiped false gods. It was considered a form of idolatry. And in the history of Israel, whenever people started relaxing this law, national disasters always followed. So keeping oneself away from Gentiles was loyalty both to God and to the nation.

But now the apostle Peter – the rock on which Jesus founded the church – has not only visited a Gentile, but had baptized a whole family of them, and then ate with them! How could the leader of the Jesus movement do this?

Peter travels to Jerusalem to explain what happened. He says, “This is God’s doing.” Peter tells them while he was in Joppa he saw a vision of a large sheet full of animals being lowered down from heaven. And he hears a voice saying, “rise Peter – kill and eat.”  But as Peter looked at the animals he realized they were animals Jews were forbidden to eat. So he answers, “By no means, Lord; nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” And he hears a reply, “What God has made clean you must not call unclean.”

Peter says this vision happened three times.

The number three is significant in the Jewish faith. For starters, there were three patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Secondly, the number three is considered the number of completion: it brings harmony, peace, and stability. Something happening three times makes it permanent.

three

And after the vision – three men show up at the door! They’re from Caesarea, and they’ve come looking for Peter. The Holy Spirit tells Peter to go with them. Six of the disciples go with Peter (that’s twice three) and they enter the house of a Gentile, Cornelius, who says he has seen a vision of an angel who told him to send for Peter and listen to his message.

Peter shares the Gospel with this Gentile family – all their relatives and servants are present in the largest room of the house. And while Peter is still speaking the Holy Spirit falls on all the members of the household, and they start speaking in tongues. Peter, seeing this, is amazed.

And then Peter does the next logical thing: he baptizes them. It’s what Jesus said to do just before he went back to heaven: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matt 28:19) Somehow the disciples had missed that ‘all nations’ part – until now. And then, after the baptism, they all had a meal together because… why wouldn’t they? They’re all members of God’s family now.

Back in Jerusalem, Peter draws this conclusion: if God has given the Holy Spirit to Gentiles, we cannot call them unclean because we would find ourselves opposing God.

At these words the Jewish critics were silenced, and the believers rejoiced and praised God that repentance unto life was now available to everyone, everywhere. They all realized – as Peter did – that where it comes to salvation God’s Holy Spirit was leading the way.

After these events, the early church had some difficult questions to deal with like: will Gentiles have to worship the same way Jewish people do? Will they have to eat the same foods? These questions and others caused some friction in the early church. But they would be worked out, mostly by Paul in his missionary journeys and his letters. What’s clear to them now is that Jesus’ call to “repent and believe the good news” is a call to all people everywhere.

So what does all this mean for us in the 21st century? Bringing us back to our reading from John, it means that for all of us, no matter who we are, salvation is made possible by Jesus’ death and resurrection and by his love for us. It means that all things are ours through God, because God was faithful and gave sacrificially in sending his son Jesus to do what he did.

It means also, as it meant for Peter, that we should rejoice when anyone comes to faith, when anyone believes in Jesus and receives the Holy Spirit, no matter where they come from or where they’ve been. The Holy Spirit reaches out across boundaries that our culture may not approve of. What God has called ‘clean’ we should not call ‘unclean’. We follow God not the world.

spirit

The Holy Spirit – the “Spirit of Truth” – bears witness to our spirits of the truth of God’s word. The Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to believe in and trust Jesus. The Holy Spirit guides us and helps us to avoid pitfalls. The Holy Spirit sheds light: both on the meaning of Scripture, and on the truth about the world around us. The Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to live by the love Jesus talks about in John: loving one another.

So then our question today is: where is God’s Spirit leading us now? Whose voices and whose stories do we need to hear? Where is God leading us to share the good news? May God inspire us with answers to these questions and give us the courage to follow. AMEN.

 

Easter 5: Love One Another (Clean vs Unclean)

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 5/15/22

 

A Psalm of David

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.  2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;  3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.  4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me.  5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.  6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long. – Psalm 23

sheep

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Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.  37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs.  38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.”  39 So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.  40 Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up.  41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive.  42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.  43 Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner. – Acts 9:36-43

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After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.  10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”  11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God,  12 singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”  14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.  16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;  17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” – Revelation 7:9-17

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We have some truly wonderful scripture readings this morning – passages that can inspire, uplift, and encourage us. The story of Dorcas from the book of Acts is especially sweet to hear on Mothers’ Day, and all the wonderful things she did for her family and community.

But today I’d like to focus on Psalm 23 for three reasons:

  1. We’re still in the Easter season, and this psalm is directly related to Easter because it speaks of the Messiah;
  2. I think too often we only hear Psalm 23 at funerals – and while it’s very meaningful to be reminded of these words when someone we love has passed, it’s a shame to only read it at funerals, because these words are meant for the living! And…
  3. the job of a shepherd and the job of a good mother are very similar. Shepherds guide, feed, protect, lead, care for, and defend the sheep; and that’s also what a good mother does for her children.

One thing I want to point out about Psalm 23 before we dig into it: Psalm 23 is found in our Bibles between Psalm 22 and Psalm 24. (I know you all have figured that much out!) But here’s the thing: the numbering of the Psalms, like the numbering chapters and verses throughout the Bible, was done centuries ago, more for convenience than anything else. The original books of the Bible, in their original languages, didn’t even have periods at the ends of sentences let alone verse numbers!

The chapter and verse numbers were developed over time in an almost random way. But in this particular case, the numbering and order of Psalms 22, 23, and 24 turns out to have great meaning, one that theologians have remarked over for centuries:

  • Psalm 22 is a prophecy of the crucifixion, and it describes in detail a form of execution that hadn’t been invented yet, and would not be invented until the Roman Empire came about. It was a Roman form of execution.
  • Psalm 24 is a prophecy of the coronation of the heavenly king, the Messiah: a window into our eternal future.
  • And sandwiched in between these two passionate and descriptive psalms is this quiet green pasture of Psalm 23, that tells our story – how God cares for, and has cared for, us – God’s people.

God is always with us. Jesus’ name – Emmanuel – means “God with us”. It is said that John Wesley’s dying words were, “The best of all is, God is with us.” It doesn’t mean that life is easy or perfect but it does mean no matter what happens, we are never alone. We are never without someone who cares for and loves us. We live in between the cross and the crown, and we are cared for here by our Good Shepherd.

Emmanuel

In our culture today most of us don’t have a whole lot of experience with shepherds or sheep. Just curious: how many of us here have ever met a shepherd? How many of us have ever touched a sheep? For those of us who have met a sheep, how many of us have tried to get a sheep to move?

I can remember a number of years ago an episode of The Amazing Race, one of the tasks the competitors were given was to move (I think it was) three sheep from one end of a pasture to the other. It was clear none of the competitors had ever met a sheep! Sheep don’t follow instructions, and they won’t move unless they think there’s a reason to… unless you happen to be the shepherd. The sheep know the voice of the one who cares for them.

Sassy Sheep

For those of us who, like myself, have extremely limited experience with sheep, the Bible tells us a good bit about sheep and about shepherds. Here are just a few of the sheep-related and shepherd-related passages in scripture:

  • The first mention of the word ‘shepherd’ in the Bible is made by Jacob on his deathbed, when he is blessing his son Joseph. Jacob describes God as being “my shepherd all my life to this day” and he says that Joseph has been blessed by the same God.
  • In Psalm 28, the psalmist prays to God: “save your people, and bless your heritage; be their shepherd, and carry them forever…”
  • In Isaiah 40 we find a prophecy of the Messiah that we often hear at Christmas-time: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead [those who are with young.]”
  • In Ezekiel 34 God makes these promises to his people: “I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep… says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. […] I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.”
  • In the New Testament, Jesus uses the word ‘shepherd’ to describe himself:
    • John chapter 10: “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. […] I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (We see some of the truth of this in the Old Testament when David describes how he used to tend the sheep: he would even attack bears and lions with nothing but a slingshot!)
    • In Matthew 18 Jesus says: “If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine… and go in search of the one…? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. [Likewise] it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”
  • And in our passage from Revelation 7 today, it says: “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

As we listen to our great Good Shepherd being described in Psalm 23, we hear good news – all the good things our shepherd brings to us. Verse 1: we lack for nothing. If Jesus our shepherd is with us, how will we be without anything we need?

By contrast, an American author I was reading recently pointed out that there’s a difference between needs and wants, and our entire American economic system is based on wants. That’s what advertising is all about: to convince us that we want something we never knew we needed. We want, and so we shop, and when we get what we wanted, we want the next thing! We are taught from childhood to want the new thing, the cool thing – and not just to want, but to have.

This author I was reading – his name is James Howell, he’s a United Methodist pastor down south –concludes that “the reason sheep need a shepherd is [because] sheep nibble themselves lost.” He says: “Leave a sheep without a shepherd, and he nibbles a bit of grass here, wanders over there for some more, sees a patch just past that rock; and before you know it the sheep is lost, or has fallen into a ravine, or been devoured by a wolf.”[1]

“Nibbling ourselves lost” – what a great word picture that is! Isn’t that really how it works – a little tiny bit at a time? Very few people abandon God in a hurry – most of the time it’s a little bit here and a little bit there.

So what is it that we really want? What really matters to us today? Or in the final hours of our lives? What we really need is just one thing: an intimate friendship with the Good Shepherd. We need to know Jesus is with us. We need to know that our home is with Jesus – in this world and the next.

Until the day the great kingdom comes, we need to know that Jesus is with us now. In the psalm, the Good Shepherd provides “green pasture” which is good food; and “still waters” – peaceful places to drink. Jesus restores our souls: he removes the grime and corruption of this world from us so that we can be in an intimate relationship with God.

Green Pastures

Jesus leads us in ‘right paths’. This is so important to know. How many of us, when we look back over our lives, start to second-guess ourselves? We wonder sometimes where we might be if we had chosen a different school, or a different career, or a different neighborhood to live in? What might our lives have been like if we had delayed getting married for five years or delayed having kids for five years? There are so many possibilities… so many roads not taken that we might have chosen… the “what ifs” can become overwhelming. But we can be confident our Good Shepherd “leads us in right paths for his name’s sake.” The paths we walk may not be the easiest ones; but each path we are led on is the right path for us, to get us to where we need to be and who we need to be.

No Evil

Even when we go through dark times: “through the darkest valley” – “through the valley of the shadow of death” – when we pass through places where we can’t see the future and where there may be danger – we don’t need to be afraid. Why? Because of the shepherd’s rod and staff: the rod to defend us against attackers, and the staff to guide us. Both of these give us comfort.

Our shepherd even sets a feast for us right where our enemies can see it! In the ancient world, hospitality and food were a matter of honor: Abraham even entertained God when he appeared outside his tent. Maybe this feast the Psalm talks about is a place where enemies will set aside differences to join in doing something together. Maybe after eating together we will no be longer enemies. The psalmist doesn’t say, but it’s a possibility.

Our good shepherd anoints our heads with oil. There are two meanings to this: the first, literally putting oil on the head of a sheep protects it against parasites (of all things!); oil help keep sheep healthy. And second, for us human sheep, it anoints us as children of the king. Back in ancient days, anointing with oil was a way to say “this is our next king or queen” – it marks us as members of God’s royal family.

With Jesus as our shepherd, we are safe. We will find goodness and mercy even in the darkest places. And we will be with Jesus – in the house of God – forever.

Jesus shepherd

The phrase “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” is actually better translated “surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me…”. The word is the same word used to describe how the Egyptians chased after the Israelites when they were leaving Egypt. Goodness and mercy will chase me down. God will chase after us with goodness. God will not rest until we discover a place of goodness and mercy.

It may take us some time to get there. Some of us have seen or experienced very difficult things in our lives, and it takes time to heal, and it takes time to trust. But God will be there like a shepherd: feeding us, guiding us, protecting us… preparing us for a future of beauty beyond our imagining.

This week – as we celebrate Mothers Day – let us each make this psalm our own. Read it over a few times this week; pray its truth over our families and the people we love. And as always we say: “Thank you Lord for your word and your truth and your love.” AMEN.

Preached at Spencer United Methodist Church, May 8 2022

[1] James Howell, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-in-lent/commentary-on-psalm-23-23

          Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest  2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.  3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.  4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 

             7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one.  8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.  9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. 

             10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.”  11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying,  12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”  13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem;  14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.”  15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel;  16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”  17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus,  20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” – Acts 9:1-20

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          After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way.  2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.  3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 

          4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.  5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.”  6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.  7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.  8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 

          9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread.  10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.”  11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.  12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord.  13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.  14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 

          15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”  16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”  17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.  18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”  19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.” – John 21:1-19

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Saul Sees Light

Our scripture readings today, on this third week of Easter, talk about something very close to the heart of God; and as we explore these things we also can draw very close to the heart of God.

God tells us all through scripture that he loves us, that God made people in his image, that God is a loving Father to us, his children. We are taught that love is, in a way, what God is made of: a loving Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, intertwined in a dance of love that goes on for eternity. Scripture tells us God’s plan is to have us join in that dance of love, through the Holy Spirit; that we would find ourselves drawn into God’s eternal family.

But Scripture also tells us something went wrong with this plan. In the book of Genesis, deceived by an evil being, humanity joined in a rebellion against God, and things have been wrong with our world ever since. So God sent Jesus on a rescue mission. And his rescue takes the form of forgiveness and restoration for God’s children through Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

forgiven

The good news of Easter is that in and through Jesus we can be forgiven. We can be restored to a loving relationship with God. Jesus has fulfilled the law and the prophets in a way that no human being could. We can enter into this hope through faith in the one who walked out of the grave alive.

That’s a lot of deep theology: hundreds of books have been written to try to describe exactly what Jesus did for us on the cross, and how it works, and what it means to us as people and as a church.  Thank God when God gave us the Bible, God gave us stories of people – real people with all the good and bad things that come with being human.

In our Bible Study on Wednesday nights we’ve just finished reading Genesis and one of the frequent comments has been along the lines of “these guys back then weren’t always very nice – and they were the foundation of our faith?”  It’s encouraging to know if they can make it, we can make it.

And speaking of people who sometimes doubted if they could make it…

Peter and Paul

(Saints Peter & Paul)

In and around the time of Jesus’ resurrection, there were two people who let Jesus down very badly: Peter and Paul. As we look at their stories today we are walking on holy ground. We are given the chance to see how God’s love works in the hearts of sinners – people who love God and want to honor God in spite of their human flaws. And we see the lengths Jesus goes to, to forgive them and restore them. These are Restoration Stories: This Old House for human beings.

So moving to our scriptures for today, we’ll start with Peter’s story.

Peter had denied Jesus three times. When Peter saw Jesus was arrested, he was scared. Granted, he had more courage than some: Peter followed the soldiers who arrested Jesus at a distance to see what would happen – which was more than many of the other disciples did. But when his Northern accent gave him away to the Southern bystanders, Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. Peter, who had said to Jesus “even if I have to die with you I will never disown you” (Matt 26:35) called a curse down on himself and swore “I don’t know the man”.

Jesus had predicted this. And after it happened, it must have hung over Peter’s heart and soul like the darkest of clouds. But Jesus had also added, “I have prayed for you, Peter, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32)

After Jesus’ death, Peter stayed with the disciples. He was with them on Easter morning. He was one of the first people to see the empty tomb. Jesus’ prayer was answered: Peter did not give up. Peter didn’t lose faith. He hung in there with the rest of the believers.

As we come to today’s reading from John we see Peter and the disciples, together again. They have returned to Galilee, where Jesus had said he would meet them. And one night, not quite sure what to do with themselves, seven of the eleven remaining disciples decided to go fishing. Fishing was familiar; it’s what they knew; it was like old home week. But the night ended in frustration: they didn’t catch a single fish!

Fishing

As the sun was rising, and they were heading back in to shore, they saw a man on the beach, who asked if they’d caught any fish that night. They said, “no”.  The man said: “let down your net on the right side of the boat and you’ll find some.” And they did – and the nets were so full of fish they couldn’t haul the catch into the boat. They had to drag them to the shore with the net still in the water. (Thank goodness they were only about a football-field’s length away from the shore at that point.)

As they were doing this, their minds went back to another fishing trip where they had caught nothing, and someone had told them where to find the fish. Memory clicks in, and John turns to Peter and says “it’s the Lord!” – and Peter gets dressed and leaps into the water to swim to Jesus while the rest of the disciples are hauling the fish in.

When they all got on land, Jesus had a fire going on the beach. And he had fish ready, with bread (fish sandwiches, anyone?). And Jesus tells them to bring along some of the fish they’ve caught, and he’ll throw those on the fire too. “Come and eat!” He says. And they do.

In his gospel John says “nobody asked Jesus who he was, because they knew it was him” – and this is an odd statement. Comparing this story to the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, it seems that Jesus’ new resurrected body was somehow different from his original body. Because even people who knew him well didn’t recognize him right away, and yet still they knew it was him. They must have recognized his personality, his spirit, his joy… and so they didn’t need to ask.

Jesus takes the bread and gives it to them, and some of the fish… bringing to memory the feeding of the five thousand, and in some ways bringing to memory the Last Supper, where he had broken the bread and given it to them. And Jesus reminds them that the disciples are called to be ‘fishers of men’, sharing the good news and bringing people into God’s kingdom. Jesus renews that call for all of them.

After breakfast, Jesus takes Peter aside: they have some unfinished business to discuss. Peter’s denial still hangs between them… and Jesus loves Peter too much to let anything stand between them. So Jesus asks Peter – three times, once for each denial – “Do you love me?”  And three times Peter answers, “Yes Lord, you know I love you.”

Do You Love Me

Jesus didn’t ask three times in order to shame Peter, but rather in order to help Peter be aware that he himself really does love Jesus. To help Peter see himself as Jesus sees him. To help Peter understand and know the way Jesus knows. The third time Jesus asks the question, it cuts Peter to the heart and he says, “Lord you know everything – you know that I love you.” And three times, Jesus says to Peter: “Feed my sheep. Tend my flock.”

Peter is right: Jesus does know how much Peter loves him. Peter is not just forgiven: Peter is understood, accepted, and honored with a fresh sending, a fresh commission for his service. Jesus tells Peter that following him will require everything Peter has to give, including his life. But Peter won’t fail Jesus again: he will live up to the nickname Jesus gave him. Peter’s name had been Simon; Jesus changed it to Peter, which means “rock” – and he said: “on this rock I will build my church.” That is, on the rock of Peter’s faithful witness and on the rock of Peter’s love for Jesus.

Jesus’ new assignment for Peter is to be shepherd to his people. Interestingly, it is not a call to be an evangelist or to “grow the church”. Peter’s assignment has more to do with meeting peoples’ needs: feeding them, protecting them, guiding them… that’s what a shepherd does. It’s a call to love and care for God’s people in everyday ways.

Jesus not only forgives Peter, but Jesus restores Peter to his place as a disciple and as an apostle. That’s Restoration #1.

The second restoration involves the apostle Paul, who at that time went by the name of ‘Saul’.  It’s interesting how often Jesus – or God – changes peoples’ names in the Bible. Often the new name reflects the character of who this person is becoming.

At the beginning of the Book of Acts, Saul is an up-and-coming Pharisee. He is a student of Gamaliel, one of the greatest theologians of the time. As a theology student himself, Saul is the best of the best. He’s a true believer in Judaism and the Torah and the Law of Moses. Saul has devoted his whole life to learning God’s way and living God’s way. When we first meet Saul in the Book of Acts, he is standing guard over the personal belongings of a group of Pharisees who are stoning a man named Stephen to death. (Stephen was the first Christian martyr.) Stephen’s crime was being a member of a religious group called “The Way” – which is what people called Christians before the word ‘Christian’ was invented.

Members of The Way were Jewish believers in Jesus as the Messiah. As Jewish people, they were still members of their synagogues for a number of decades after Jesus’ resurrection. But their beliefs put Jesus on the same level as God, which deeply troubled the Jewish leaders, especially the Pharisees. Saul, like many of his fellow Pharisees, thought the people of The Way were teaching a false god – which, in ancient Israel, could get you arrested or killed. Why?

OneGod

Because it was a violation of Commandment #1: “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.” Throughout their history, whenever the nation of Israel started worshiping false gods, they ended up being conquered, exiled, or worse. Basically, worshiping a false god was the same thing as treason in that society – and treason is still a capital crime today.

Saul was a patriot. Saul was a true believer in God. Saul sincerely believed that putting an end to The Way was serving God. Paul went to the Sanhedrin (the religious council) and got letters from them to the synagogues in Damascus saying that, if he found any followers of The Way in Damascus he could (and would) arrest them and bring them to Jerusalem for trial.

But on his way to Damascus, Saul had an encounter with Jesus. This man, who has been an accessory to Stephen’s murder – and who is planning to do violence to God’s people in Damascus – has already been forgiven by Jesus, who is about to give him a second chance.

On the road, Saul sees a blinding light and falls to the ground. And he hears a voice asking, “why are you persecuting me?” (Notice its not “why are you persecuting my people?” – Jesus identifies so strongly with us that to hurt us is to hurt him. To hurt even just one of us is to hurt Jesus.)

Saul replies, “Who are you, Lord?” – calling Jesus by the name kyrie.  Jesus answers: “I am Jesus, who you are persecuting. But get up and go into Damascus and you will learn what you need to do.” And his fellow travelers led Saul, now blind, into the city.

Not much later Jesus appeared to Ananias, a disciple who lived in Damascus. Jesus told him “go find Saul of Tarsus who is staying at Judas’ house on Straight Street. He is praying and has seen a vision of you, laying hands on him to restore his sight.”

Ananias is understandably troubled by this and says “Lord… this man has done so much evil to your people in Jerusalem, and now he’s coming here to stir up trouble.” But Jesus reassures Ananias. Jesus has chosen Saul – soon to be renamed Paul – “to bring his name before Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel… and he will suffer for my name,” Jesus says.

Ananias obeys. Saul is healed, baptized, and immediately starts preaching and proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues. Can you imagine how surprised they were in those synagogues in Damascus? Literally overnight, Saul had become a member of the very movement he was trying to stamp out. Verse 20 of Acts 9 says: “immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’”

Saul’s experience may inspire us to think about how we look at our world: today’s groups, today’s righteous causes. I think most of us are aware that in Russia right now, the Russian people are being told that Ukraine is their enemy and the war there is a righteous cause blessed by the church. That’s just one example of patriotism gone wrong – and it’s not the only example I could give.

Theologian James Boyce comments, ““The story of Saul and Ananias invites us to [think about] how we… look at our own world… and [where] God [might] take our “no” and transform [it] to a “yes.”

And all of this – all of this – begins with God’s forgiveness.

In today’s readings we see Jesus building the foundation of his church with the help of two very flawed human beings. Peter will be the apostle to Israel and to the Jews. Paul will be the apostle to the Gentiles. Between the two of them they will write the majority of the New Testament letters.

All this happens because Jesus’ death and resurrection unleashes God’s Holy Spirit and God’s forgiveness to sinners. It makes possible a call to service for deeply flawed human beings.

Jesus was able to forgive Paul – and not just forgive, but create miracles to bring about his salvation. And Jesus was able to forgive Peter. Jesus reminded Peter of the depth and the breadth of their friendship and of their love for each other.

Ransomed Healed

This is what Easter is all about: joy, restoration, and forgiveness made possible by Jesus’ resurrection. And restoration is always followed by a fresh commission. These conversations with Jesus are not conclusions but new beginnings.

And it can be the same for us today. If we have ever failed to live up to God’s standards – and who hasn’t? – we can be confident if we return to Jesus with our whole hearts, and be honest about what we’ve done, we will be forgiven. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus! (Romans 8:38)  And if we ever get the wrong end of the stick, like Saul did, and find ourselves excluding people that Jesus intends to include, Jesus will help us start over.

The bottom line of all these stories today is this: God loves us. God wants to see his children restored and forgiven. Jesus wants to reconcile us to God… because God loves us, and so does Jesus. Don’t ever doubt that.

And once we are forgiven, we are able to share the good news with others.

  • Peter went from denial in fear to being a strong foundation for the church.
  • Saul went from being an executioner to an evangelist named Paul.
  • And even Ananias went from fear to encouragement and courage.

God can work in us as well. Let this be our prayer. AMEN.

 

Easter 3 – “The Restorations of Paul and Peter”

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, May 1 2022