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“The Root of All Evil”

(Scripture passages of the day – I Timothy 6:6-19 and Luke 16:19-31 – can be found at the end of this article.)

coins

Last week’s gospel lesson was the parable of the dishonest manager.  In case you weren’t here last week, at the end of last week’s gospel Jesus calls money “dishonest wealth”, and tells the disciples money is something that’s offensive to God. And he criticizes the Pharisees for loving money more than they love either people or God.

That’s what I preached on last week when I was at Fairhaven and Spencer.  After the sermon last Sunday, one of the members of Spencer sent me a story on Facebook. It was a story about a rich man who was dying and wanted to be buried with all his money. He wanted to take it all with him. He told his wife this was his final wish.  She tried to talk him out of it of course, but he insisted.  “All my money, in the casket with me” he said.  And he pestered her and pestered her until she finally agreed.  On the day of his funeral she slipped an envelope into the casket.

Now a mutual friend who knew what he had asked her to do, saw this and said, “you’re really going through with this?” And she said, “Yup.” And the two of them went together to the graveside service. The envelope was still in the casket when they closed the lid, lowered it into the ground, and shoveled the dirt on top.  The friend said to her, “You really did it! You put all his money in the casket with him.” “Every penny,” she said. “Just like I promised. I wrote him a check this morning and stuck it in the envelope.”

Scripture has a lot to say about money, in both the Old and New Testaments.  In today’s readings both Jesus and Paul give us warnings about money, and a lot of the warnings have to do with getting attached to money. The funny thing is, God actually does give us a way to take it with us. I’ll come back to that at the end, but let’s start at the beginning…

It’s interesting the Bible doesn’t say there’s anything wrong with being rich.  A lot of people who have money are afraid it does, and end up feeling guilty about what they have.  But some of the greatest people in the Bible were wealthy: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Joseph was rich and famous. King David was rich. And his son Solomon was so rich people still talk about his wealth 3000 years later. Joseph of Arimathea, who gave the disciples a place to bury Jesus, was rich. Nowhere in scripture does God criticize any of these people for having money.

So it’s not having money that’s the problem. It’s not even earning money or inheriting money that’s the problem.  The problem is people’s attitude towards money.

Paul says in our New Testament reading for today “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”  It’s not being rich that’s a sin, it’s wanting to be rich. It’s not in the having, it’s in the desire.

The parable Jesus tells in our gospel reading for today speaks to this.  (Just as an aside, today’s gospel lesson is not primarily about money – it’s about faith or a lack of faith.  But Jesus says some important things about money on the way to making his point.)

So in Jesus’ story there is a rich man – whose name we don’t know – dressed in purple, which tells us he was very rich. Purple dye back in those days was very expensive. It was mostly kings who wore purple. So this man was basically living like a king… while the poor man, Lazarus, sat outside his gate, wishing he could eat what fell from the rich man’s table.

As we read the story, it makes us wonder: can’t the rich man see this poor man suffering in front of his gate? Doesn’t he care? Jesus says even the dogs had compassion on Lazarus. The rich man didn’t even show the kindness of a dog.

God sees these things. And when Lazarus dies, he is carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. And then the rich man dies and finds himself in Hades. And the rest of the story doesn’t deal with money. For us, the point is it’s not money that decides where the two men go… it’s how they lived. It’s the attitude of the heart.

One of the greatest spiritual dangers of wealth is becoming blind and deaf to those in need, which is what happened to the rich man.  “There is no part of the soul which money will not corrupt.  It perverts judgement, it blinds the conscience, it hardens the heart. And in the world, money inspires injustice, oppression, fraud, theft, and murder.” (Charles Simeon, Expository Outlines, modern paraphrase mine)

Even rich people who claim to stand with the poor in public often have no contact with the poor in their private lives. It’s as true in our day as it was in Jesus’ day.  When Jesus was speaking these words, he was speaking to (and about) the Pharisees, who were listening in while Jesus was teaching.  The Pharisees were famous for being lovers of money. And “it gives the faith a bad name when people who claim to be believers, especially clergy, are more interested in gain for themselves than they are in advancing the cause of Christ.” (Simeon, ibid., paraphrased)

Which leads us to Paul’s letter to Timothy.  Timothy, as you remember, was a young church leader being trained up by Paul.  And Paul advises Timothy that people like the Pharisees who claim to be believers but who are more interested in personal gain… Paul says “withdraw from them.” They are a disgrace to the name of Christ.

And who would know better than Paul, who used to be Pharisee?  Paul then adds, “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”

10-commandments

Think for a minute about the Ten Commandments.  How often are the commandments broken for the sake of money?  “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”  If we stopped people on the street and asked them, “What’s more important to you, God or money?” – how many people would say “God” and how many would say “money”?

How about the commandment “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy?”  In our time the Sabbath day has all but disappeared because people are so anxious to make money 24/7.  How about “You shall not kill”? How many people die every day for the sake of money – in human trafficking? in the drug trade?  Or how about “You shall not steal”?  Or “You shall not bear false witness”? How many times do people lie – in or out of court – in order to get money or to keep money?

Or how about “You shall not covet”?  Paul says where people are going to spend eternity hangs in the balance on this commandment. He says in Colossians 3:5, “covetousness is idolatry”.  And idolatry is worshipping something that is not God.

Paul says to Timothy, “if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” (I Timothy 6:7-9)

Paul’s concern – and God’s concern – is with people, not things.  People are what matters. The human heart, the human will, human life.  God created people to be in relationship with God, and we are incomplete until we find that relationship.  Paul’s advice to Timothy – and to us – is this: “[people] of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of eternal life…” (I Timothy 6:11-12)

“Godliness” as Paul describes it includes:

  1. Trust in God and in Jesus – knowing that we are sinners saved through the blood of Christ.
  2. Being devoted to God – seeing God’s kingdom as our goal, and ourselves as subjects of the King
  3. Being thankful to God for God’s mercy and goodness
  4. Having a desire to become more like Jesus in the power of the Spirit

So in other words, we need to chase after righteousness, and faith, and love, and eternal life, with the same intensity and passion that other people invest in chasing after money. We need to make it our aim to be rich in the things of God and the things of God’s kingdom, rather than rich in the things of this world which is passing away.

Living as we do in one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations in the world, giving up chasing after money is easier said than done. It is completely and totally counter-cultural. And if we try to live this way, we will stick out. We will be different.  And that’s a good thing… I’ll come back to that in a moment.

When we follow Paul’s advice, money becomes a tool to achieve God’s ends, rather than an end in itself. Money becomes our servant and stops being our master.

Paul wraps up his words to Timothy about money with instructions that are as good today as they were 2000 years ago. He says: “As for those who in the present age are rich” – and that’s all of us, no matter how much we make – “command them not to be haughty [that is, proud] or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches…”

Paul’s words remind us of Jesus’ parable about the rich man who says to himself, “self, you have enough stored up for many years… eat, drink and be merry.”  God says to him, “this very night your soul is required of you, and then who will get all your wealth?”

So it’s not having money that’s wrong. It’s not wrong to save for retirement. But as one wise man once put it, “The happiest person is not the one who owns the most, but the one who has the least number of worries.” (Simeon, ibid, paraphrase)

Paul goes on to tell Timothy to set his hopes “on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”  Our God is not stingy.  In fact one of the characteristics of our God is extravagance.  Just look at nature: the variety of flowers, the variety of animals, the variety of people. The amazing food we have to eat. God provides for us so richly, so far beyond anything we can imagine.

Money comes and goes, but God is always there. Money doesn’t last forever, but God does. So Paul says set our hopes on God rather than on money, and God will provide richly.

The other thing Paul tells Timothy is that rich people should “do good, be rich in good works, generous… ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”  (I Timothy 6:18-19)

In other words, there is something about how we handle money in this life that prepares us for the world to come. This is not the only place in Scripture that says so. Jesus said the same thing in last week’s gospel, in Luke 16, when he said, “If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?”

How we use our money effects our future in the Kingdom.  And when we use our money to invest in other people’s lives, we are investing our money in the kingdom. We are ‘taking it with us’ in the only way it is truly possible to do that.

In this life, money is deceptive and temporary. But how we handle it prepares us for a future in God’s kingdom when we will have true wealth. And that’s what we’re aiming for.

You want to be rich? Go for the wealth that never passes away. Go for the currency of God’s kingdom.  Go for faith, hope, and love – expressed in compassion for others. That’s what builds up wealth in God’s kingdom. That’s how we can “take it with us” – by giving it away!  Isn’t that just what Jesus told us – that those who try to hang onto life will lose it, but those who give up our lives for God and for the sake of the Gospel will find it?

A moment ago I mentioned something about being counter-cultural in our approach to money and how it attracts people’s attention.  At Carnegie UMC, we’re working our way through a book called Walking with Nehemiah. The book and the class that goes with it have to do with re-birthing or re-growing a church. But when you dig into the text, what the book is really talking about is engaging the community around us. It involves following the leading of the Holy Spirit, as God speaks to our hearts and touches us with the needs around us. This doesn’t just have to do with money. It has to do with our time, and abilities, and relationships, and all kinds of things we can share with the community.

But I guarantee you if we chase after righteousness and faith and love the way most people chase after money, we will get people’s attention.

What Israel learned from Nehemiah in the book we’re reading, is the same lesson the disciples learned from Jesus, and the same lesson Timothy learned from Paul.  We all need to be rich in doing good works, giving generously to anyone in need. We need to be ready to share from the abundance God has given us. Because that is what builds up the Kingdom of God – in this world and the next. AMEN.

 

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 9/25/16

1 Timothy 6:6-19  Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment;  7 for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it;  8 but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.  9 But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.  10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

11 But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.  12 Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.  13 In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you  14 to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ,  15 which he will bring about at the right time– he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords.  16 It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

17 As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.  18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share,  19 thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

Luke 16:19-31   “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.  20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,  21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.  22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.  23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.  24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’  25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.  26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’  27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house–  28 for I have five brothers– that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’  29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’  30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’  31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”

(scripture passages quoted from the NRSV)

 

….a friend shared this article on Facebook: “The Five Things I Need from White People Right Now“.

In no way does this seem like enough, or even doing anything at all. But the author asks us to share, and it’s the least I can do.

In grief and near-disbelief that a brother in Christ, musician, and father of four can be shot dead just because his car broke down.  When will it end?

The Dishonest Manager

Scripture Lesson: Luke 16:1-15 – The Parable of the Dishonest Manager (full text at the of the post)

The parable of the “dishonest steward” or the “dishonest manager” (depending on which version of the Bible you’re reading) from the Gospel of Luke is a difficult passage. It’s open to a number of interpretations, and it leaves us with a lot of questions – questions like: what did the manager do to get himself fired? Or, why does Jesus praise the dishonest manager’s actions – which were clearly immoral if not illegal?

Let’s back up for a minute and take in the larger story here in Luke.  This parable comes immediately after the parable of the Prodigal Son, which comes immediately after the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin (which were the scripture lessons for last week).  Last week Jesus was talking to the Pharisees and answering their question as to how a man of God like himself could eat with “tax collectors and sinners”. Jesus answered them by saying God seeks the lost, and heaven rejoices when someone repents, and the people of God also rejoice when the lost are found.

Then verse 1 of Luke 16 begins, “then Jesus said to his disciples…”  So in today’s story, Jesus has turned away from the Pharisees and is talking to the disciples. However he still has the Pharisees in mind, and the Pharisees are still listening in. So the parable of the dishonest manager is Pharisee-related. We’ll keep this in mind as we look at the parable.

Pharisees

Pharisees

First, what does the dishonest manager do for a living? In the Greek he is called an oikonomon – a word we get the English word economy from (oikos + nomos = ‘house’ + ‘law’). It literally means ‘the law of the house’ or ‘the rule of the house’.  So he’s in charge of managing the rich man’s household, the rich man’s assets. It’s his job is to preserve his master’s money, and increase it.  This could have meant doing anything from taking crops to market, to investing excess cash with bankers… there’s any number of things the manager might have done to increase his master’s net worth.

However this particular manager failed at his job.  Jesus doesn’t say exactly what he did or didn’t do. He might have stolen, he may have failed to invest, he may have been lazy and missed opportunities. Scripture doesn’t say. What is clear though, is that the manager is guilty – because he himself does not deny the charges. In some way or another he has taken advantage of his position to line his own pockets rather than increasing his master’s wealth.

So the master says to the dishonest manager, “show me your books”. And the manager says to himself, “I’m in trouble! What am I going to do? I’m not strong enough to dig, I’m too proud to beg, and I’m going to be starving in a minute if I don’t think of something quick. I know!  I’ll change the accounts, so after I’m fired the master’s debtors will owe me!”

So he calls in his master’s debtors. And he asks one, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ And he says, ‘A hundred jugs of oil.’  The dishonest manager says, ‘make it fifty.’  And he asks another one, ‘how much do you owe?’ And he says, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ And the manager says ‘make it eighty.’

bills

What he’s doing is buying favors.  He’s adding one more crime on top of the other crimes he’s committed… only this time he’s conspiring with his master’s debtors, making them partners in his crime, putting them in his debt. So when he loses his job he will have friends – or at the very least co-conspirators – who will help him out.

And at the end of the story the master praises this dishonest manager for acting shrewdly… and in an unexpected twist, Jesus agrees! He says, “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than the children of the light.”

But wait a minute now.  Is Jesus praising theft and deception? Is he saying there are times when a person needs to ignore the law that says, “thou shalt not steal?” Is he approving of situational ethics?

This story has been interpreted that way from time to time but it’s an incorrect interpretation.  So what is Jesus getting at?

Let me offer one interpretation of this parable. It’s not the only possible interpretation, but it’s one that seems to me to be relevant to us today.

In the parable, the rich man represents God. He is the landowner, the one who owns everything, and has a right to everything, because it is his and he made it.  The rich man has a manager, whose job it is to take whatever belongs to God and increase it.  This brings to mind another parable, the parable of the talents, where one servant is given 10 talents and goes out and makes 10 more, and another servant has 5 talents goes out and makes 5 more. This servant is expected to go and take what God has given him and make more.

Instead the manager has been squandering God’s property. He has not invested his talents, and he’s been getting in the way of other servants who have been trying to invest their talents. He may even stealing some of their talents. At the very least he’s been using his position to benefit himself and not the master.

What better way to describe the Pharisees? They were, in Jesus’ day, God’s managers. They were put in charge of God’s household: the temple, the synagogues, the worship, the leadership of God’s people. And they use their position not to increase God’s kingdom but to increase their own wealth.

All the offerings that were brought to the Temple, all the skills and spiritual gifts of the people, were hijacked by these dishonest managers. And the worship of the people sometimes is redirected from God to the Pharisees in the form of hero-worship. Scripture says the Pharisees were very popular – they got the best seats in the house, everybody spoke well of them, they looked good on the outside. (Jesus had other things to say about their insides!)

The Pharisees kind of remind me of certain well-known preachers in our own time, who are always in the news, well known, traveling in the circles of power, proclaiming the word of God but somehow missing the point in their own lifestyles. They get rich preaching the gospel and they tell us that we as Jesus’ followers should also be aiming for our ‘best life now’ in this life.

The Pharisees know what they’re doing, at least on some level. They know Jesus is the Messiah, because only the Messiah could do the miracles Jesus does.  But they refuse to admit Jesus is the Messiah. They’ve already cut a deal with God’s debtors, just like the dishonest steward.

They have lowered the price of salvation.

Anyone who reads Scripture knows that we owe God our lives, all that we are, all that we have.

The Pharisees say to the people, “naaah, you don’t have to give up your life. Just live up to this rule and this rule and this rule and you’ll be fine. Oh, and be sure you tithe… 10% of everything, all the way down to your spices.”  (Or if you lived 1000 years ago it would have been “here, buy some indulgences…”)

The Pharisees don’t make it easy to be considered righteous, but they do seem to make it possible.  The Pharisees conspire with people who want to look religious. The Pharisees says to God’s debtors “what do you owe God?” and they make what we owe God somehow less than everything.

The thing is, it’s all a lie.  The Pharisees are going down, like that dishonest manager is going down, and we don’t want to go down with them.

So why does Jesus say, “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the children of the light”?

Jesus is not commending the dishonest manager. He’s saying where it comes to setting goals and accomplishing them, or just to sheer tenacity and daring, the dishonest steward puts God’s people to shame.

If only we could be as creative about advancing God’s kingdom! If we would look after God’s interests as intensely as this steward looks after his own interests. That’s what Jesus is getting at.

The passage ends with Jesus commenting on the use of money. This parable is not all about money, but it’s where the story ends. Jesus says, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

Jesus is saying, just like the crooked manager made friends for himself using money, we can do the same for God. We can give of our money in ways that benefit God’s kingdom, in ways that will help bring more people to faith.

dirtymoney

Money is dirty stuff, Jesus says.  None of it is clean. And if we think about it we can see that’s true.  We have no idea where the dollar bills in our wallets have come from, what’s been done with them before we had them.  Money, in some way or another, involves oppression, hardship, or people putting themselves in danger (or putting others in danger).  Look at the risks people take who work in gold and silver mines.  Look at the economic policies made by nations that impoverish the people of other nations. Look at tax money, which is essentially legalized theft.  Money is dirty, and the way people get it is dirty.

In verse 15, a few verses after our passage ends, Jesus calls money an “abomination in the sight of God”.  And the Bible dictionary amplifies this to say “extremely hated, detestable, connected with idolatry, connected with the worship of the Antichrist”.)

So we want to keep from getting attached to the stuff!  We want to be careful to keep money in its place. Money is a tool, not a master, and we need to use it, Jesus says, to buy for ourselves friends who will welcome us into the kingdom when we get there.

What an interesting thing to say! And what a thought that is! The “great cloud of witnesses” who watch us as we run our race on this earth can be increased by means of how we spend our money. What a thought! “When it is gone, they will welcome you into the eternal homes,” Jesus says.

And he adds, “If you have not been faithful with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with the true riches?” What we do in this life with our money is not just practice. It’s a building of spiritual skills and spiritual abilities that will benefit us in the Kingdom.

Jesus goes on, “And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?” He speaks of our inheritance in the Kingdom – which will be truly ours, never to be lost or taken away.

And then Jesus says, “you cannot serve both God and wealth.” Why? Because God and money are competing powers. God is of the eternal kingdom; money is of this world only. And we either worship God or we worship the idols of this world.

Now the Pharisees have been listening in on all this, even though Jesus is no longer speaking directly to them. And when Jesus says it’s impossible to serve both God and wealth… they laughed at him.

The Pharisees poked fun at the Son of God, knowing full well that he was the Messiah. Which gives us an idea of just how much they loved their money.

And you know – modern-day Pharisees do the same thing.  It’s one of the ways you can tell who God’s servants are and who the fakers are.  If you tell a Pharisee it’s impossible to serve both God and money they will either laugh at you or start making excuses.  Beware the leaven of the Pharisees, Jesus often warned his disciples. And he says one last thing to the Pharisees: “what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.”

So does this mean as Christians we’re supposed to give all our money to the church? No! It means that all we have belongs to God because God created it. And we are called to be wise and honest managers of what God has given us.

So for the take-away for today I have five things:

  1. Pray for your pastors and your spiritual leaders, that we don’t fall into Phariseeism. It is always a temptation. Pray that God keeps us honest, and that our love for God and for God’s people keeps on growing.
  2. We need to live our lives in such a way that we are faithful to our Master in using what he gives us. Honor God in the way we use our money. Honor God in the way we develop our talents and employ our skills. Remember that we are only stewards in this life. We need to work as if we were going to have to give an accounting someday.Having said that, there are two dangers I would warn about. The first is looking around at our fellow church members and thinking “I don’t have much to give. All these people are more gifted than I am. They have more than I have, and they can do more than I can do.” Don’t believe that for a minute. No matter who we are, and no matter what our abilities, God has given each one of us gifts to share in God’s name with people who need them.  That includes everybody.

    The second danger is the tendency of some of us to run ourselves ragged for God.  This is not a wise use of God’s gifts.  Keeping the Sabbath – a day of rest once a week – is important. And choosing prayerfully where to invest our time in God’s kingdom, and letting other things go, is important.

  3. The parable of the dishonest steward talks about being shrewd in our choices, being wise. Think about what God is calling us to do. How can we use the gifts we have most efficiently, for the best impact? Sometimes we don’t know, but God knows.  And so we pray, and talk about it with trusted friends.
  4. Where it comes to money, we need to invest wisely. Have you ever noticed, the longer we’re church members, the more mailing lists we get on for donations? And it’s too easy just to give $5.00 to everybody just to make ourselves feel better. A wise steward thinks about how and where an investment will grow, and takes into consideration what the Master has asked us to do.  It takes time and thought and prayer to decide where and how to give our money.
  5. And finally we need to support and encourage each other in our faithfulness to God. Ask each other: “what is God leading you to do?” And keep asking that question, and keep on helping each other to be good stewards of what God has given.

So Jesus says when we are faithful with the little wealth we have in this life, we will be rewarded with far greater wealth, which will be truly ours, in God’s kingdom. That’s our goal. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Anglican Church (Pittsburgh) on 9/18/16

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

Luke 16: 1-15.  Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.  So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’  Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.  I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’  So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’  He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’  Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’  And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.  And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.  “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.  If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?  And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?  No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

[Postscript: 14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.  15 So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.”]

 

Lost & Found

[The apostle Paul writes:] “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners– of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” – I Timothy 1:12-17

“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus].  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’  Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.  Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’  Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” – Luke 15:1-10

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Before we look at the scriptures for today I wanted to say a word about today being the 15th anniversary of 9/11.  For those of us who remember that day, it’s hard to believe 15 years has passed.  Fifteen years is an entire generation… the kids who are in school today learn about it in the history books.

The other day on the Internet I tripped over a lesson plan for teaching school children about 9/11.  The quiz at the end asked questions like: what were the flight numbers of the airplanes? What time did they crash, and in what order?

I’ll grant these are important things to know, but what struck me was: this isn’t what 9/11 was really about.  When we remember the day we remember the people. People who died in ways to horrible to imagine. People who lost loved ones. The people of New York and Washington DC and Shanksville.  People who were heroes – who risked their lives and in some cases gave their lives in order to save others.

History is never about facts and figures. It’s always about people. Those of us who remember 9/11 need to pass this on to the younger generation. They need to know there was once a time when people were not afraid. When airplanes were never flown into skyscrapers. When people weren’t scared about when the next bomb would go off or when the next shooting was going to happen. They need to know that 9/11 is about the people in the World Trade Center, and in the Pentagon, on those airplanes – and the people had names.

In Israel there is a Holocaust memorial museum called Yad Va’Shem, which translated means “a place and a name”.  They named the museum that because many who died in the Holocaust – like those who died on 9/11 – were never properly buried.  So the Israelis gave them “a place and a name”.  We need to teach the generations who come after us to give the people who died on 9/11 a place and a name.

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When we as Christians remember 9/11 we are also reminded that there is still great evil in this world. Even though God’s kingdom has begun to break through – even though God has given an answer to the evil in the world in the form of the cross of Jesus Christ – all the evil is not gone yet.

Evil – and how God deals with it – is what our scripture readings for today are about.  So let’s turn to them now.  The Psalm we read earlier says “all have gone astray… there is none who does good, not one.” Nonetheless God is with His people, and as David says, “the Lord is their refuge.”

The apostle Paul in our reading from I Timothy builds on those thoughts.  Speaking from his own personal experience, Paul remembers how he once persecuted the church and took believers prisoner and dragged them off to be killed. He says, “I was… a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.”  He calls himself the “foremost of sinners.”

But, he says, “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (I Tim 1:14-15)

Paul says if God can forgive the worst of sinners (himself), then we can look at Paul as an example and as an encouragement – that God can forgive anyone who believes in Jesus.

It’s interesting to note that Paul was from Tarsus, which today is in modern-day Turkey, not far from the Syrian border. In Paul’s day these were troubled areas… and they still are today. It’s good to remember the Christian faith has its roots in that part of the world – and that God’s forgiveness is still available in that part of the world. In fact there are reports coming in from the refugee camps in Europe and in the Middle East that refugees are coming to faith in Christ by the thousands.  Is that good news or what?

This message of God’s forgiveness and mercy to sinners has not always been a popular one.  In our reading from Luke for today, we see the Pharisees and the scribes being very unhappy with Jesus, because Jesus is hanging out with tax collectors and sinners.  (Speaking as a tax collector and a sinner, I like our Lord’s choice of company!)

Actually, Luke says the tax collectors and sinners sought Jesus out: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.”  They came to Jesus. Jesus did not turn them away – and this ticked off the scribes and Pharisees.

So Jesus told them a couple of parables, both with the same meaning – which is an ancient way of emphasizing a point, saying the same thing twice.  Jesus tells the story of a shepherd who loses one sheep out of a flock of 100.  The shepherd leaves the 99 on the hillside and goes and searches for the one sheep. And when he finds it, he carries it home rejoicing and calls all his neighbors to rejoice with him: “my lost sheep is found!”

Jesus’ second story is similar to the first: a woman has 10 silver coins and she loses one. She turns on the light and grabs a broom and starts sweeping until she finds it. And when she does there is great joy which she shares with all her neighbors: “what I lost has been found!”

How much more does heaven celebrate when one lost person is found?  Jesus says there is “more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

But wait a minute.  If scripture says “none is righteous, no not one” – then what does Jesus mean when he talks about ‘righteous persons’? Does he mean there are people who only think they’re righteous?  Jesus does suggest that in other passages, and he may be suggesting it where the Pharisees are concerned. But in general the ‘righteous’ here would be people who have already repented. The 99 sheep are not rejoiced over because they were not lost – they were where they were supposed to be. Same with the other nine coins – they were never lost.

The thing with people though – for all of us, there was a time when we were lost. There was a time when heaven rejoiced at our being found.  We may not remember it that way – because the moment of conversion is not always pleasant.  In fact it can be a bit scary.  To borrow a phrase from Alcoholics Anonymous, conversion brings a person to the point where we have to admit we are powerless to save ourselves, and our lives have become unmanageable without God. This is not a pleasant place to be.  But there is rejoicing in heaven every time a person gets to that place.

So the righteous people in this parable are the ones who are already saved – members of the household of God.  But Jesus is also talking about – and to – the scribes and the Pharisees. We tend to think of the Pharisees as the ‘bad guys’ – like we should ‘boo’ every time they’re mentioned in scripture.  The truth is the Pharisees and the scribes were the religious leaders of Jesus’ day who were actually the closest to the true Jewish faith. The Sadducees were the ones who had practically deserted the faith and compromised with the culture. They were more Greek than Jewish, and Jesus didn’t have a whole lot to say to them. But Jesus picked on the Pharisees all the time – not because they were so wrong but because they were often right in theory but they didn’t practice what they preached. They had serious issues where it came to how they lived the faith. They were legalistic, they were full of spiritual pride, and the combination of these sins got in the way of people who were trying to find God.

And so these parables are perfect examples of how they were.  When the lost sheep is found, the neighbors rejoice… but the Pharisees didn’t.  They never even cracked a smile. It’s as if the Pharisees are saying to the lost sheep, “you shouldn’t have wandered off in the first place. It’s your own fault you got lost! The shepherd was worried sick about you and had to go out looking for you at all hours of the night! You’ve caused all kinds of trouble. You’re a bad sheep and you don’t deserve to be celebrated.”

Well, maybe it was the sheep’s fault it got lost. The thing is, that’s not what’s important. It’s the nature of sheep to wander off – that’s why we need shepherds. If the lost sheep hadn’t been found it would have died out there in the wilderness by itself.  When the sheep was found, it wasn’t just the return of a commodity, it was a life that was saved! And that is cause for rejoicing.

We see this lesson even more clearly in the parable of the Prodigal Son, which Jesus tells immediately following these two parables.  Jesus makes his point a third time, giving it the utmost importance, and this time drawing an even clearer picture.  In the story of the Prodigal Son, it is the son’s fault for demanding his inheritance and then squandering it.  But, scripture says, when he finds himself broke and feeding pigs and wishing he could eat what the pigs are eating, he comes to his senses and he says to himself “even my father’s servants are treated better than this. I will go to him and say “I’m not worthy to be your son, make me one of your servants.””

And the father says “this my son who was dead is now alive!” and he calls all his friends and relatives to come and celebrate because his son is alive. Jesus clearly puts the Pharisees in the role of the older brother who refuses to celebrate the return of a juvenile delinquent.

The younger son had had a true change of heart. He’s not just playing his dad.  He hit bottom, he was scraping the bottom of the barrel, and he came back to his father begging for mercy and asking to be made the very least in the household.  What the father gives him is not cheap grace. So the older brother’s objection is not out of concern for his father; he is simply jealous. “You never gave me a party!” he says. And the father says “everything I have has always been yours. But your brother was dead and is alive again!”

What’s really difficult for those of us who have been in the family of God for a while, is when we come across a Prodigal Son who is truly prodigal… who has done great evil, and then repents.  To give a modern-day example… I am reminded of classmate from Sudan.  Many of you will have heard the name of Darfur.  Darfur is in southwest Sudan and it’s the place where hundreds of thousands of people have been massacred over the past few decades. What is not as commonly known is thousands more have died in South Sudan. My classmate grew up in South Sudan and he witnessed his entire village being burned to the ground and its people killed. The only reason he survived is because he was tending the cattle and was away from the house when the village was attacked. He became one of the “Lost Boys” you may have heard of. He walked to safety in Ethiopia, and from there found a way to the United States.

One day an African bishop came to our school, and we ate lunch together and he went around the table asking each of us what kind of ministry we planned to enter after graduation.  My friend from Sudan said, “Bishop, my parents and all my family were killed in South Sudan. My plan is to go back and witness to the people who killed my family and tell them about Jesus.”

That’s a man who understands what the Prodigal Son is about.  (He was true to his word by the way – he is now ministering in South Sudan.)

For those of us who find ourselves in the category of the righteous – the ones who are already saved – we need to be aware of this pitfall and fight against the urge to resent it when people who have done evil come to Christ.  As our church grows – and we do want it to grow – new people will come bringing new challenges… new needs… new questions… new problems, possibly even new evils. They will not be convenient, and they will not be easy.  And it might seem sometimes like they get the lion’s share of God’s attention.  But we need to rejoice that they are alive in Christ! That the lost have been found! And remember that we have always had access to God as our Father.

So what’s our takeaway from all this today?  I think first, the need to remember – to remember our sorrows and our joys, to pass on what we know to the next generation.  Second, to remember there is evil in the world, there are evil people. There are people who refuse to acknowledge God… and worse still, there are people who think God is just like them and God hates the people they hate.

As human beings, we can’t put a stop to evil.  It’s not in our power to do that.  But Jesus can.  Our God is a God who seeks and saves the lost, who brings life to the dying. We need to keep on getting that message out there: Jesus is Lord, and the kingdom of God is near, and all people everywhere are called to change direction and follow Jesus. And when sinners do turn to God, we can rejoice with God and with all of heaven, because our brother or our sister who was dead is alive; the one who was lost is found.

This is the heart of God. Let’s share in it with all that we have.

 

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 9/11/16

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When I started this blog nearly a decade ago my purpose was to share my thoughts and experiences as I explored seminary and a future full of question marks… to toss ideas out there and to get insights from others. I’m thankful for the many folks who have encouraged and challenged me with your comments, both here or in person.

The Sea of Galilee

I’m now an ordained Deacon in the Anglican Church (ACNA) and am a regular preacher in local Methodist and Anglican churches, and Lord willing will be ordained Priest sometime within the next year or so.

By request of a number of friends, family, and parishioners, this blog has become a place to put sermons I’ve preached — but I’m hoping it won’t be limited to just that in the future. So hang in there, subscribers, there’s more to come!

In the meantime I’d like to invite everyone to check out a new blog some friends and I have put together. It’s called GoodNewsForAChange.  So many people I talk to these days feel dragged down by the constant bombardment of bad news in the media and in the world around us; and yet so many of my colleagues in ministry (professional or lay) see so much good news happening on a day-to-day basis, we decided we wanted to share it.

So if you’re hungry for a bit of good news come visit us at GoodNewsForAChange and say “hi”!

 

 

“Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”– Isaiah 58:12 (the scripture lesson for the day is Isaiah chapter 58 complete)

I can’t think of a more appropriate scripture for where we find ourselves today! In our neighborhoods and in our churches, every day we see around us old buildings that are crumbling, old churches (many of them closed or made into bars), old neighborhoods where houses have been abandoned and the grass grows tall.

In our reading from Isaiah today God calls us to be ‘restorers of the breach’. This is an old battle term from back in the day when cities were surrounded by walls. An attacking army would try to create a breach or a break in the wall so they could get in and pillage the town.  “Repairers of the breach rebuild what the enemy had destroyed. And God is calling us to rebuild what our enemy has destroyed: to be “restorers of streets to live in. To make our neighborhoods and our churches places of welcome, and safe havens for the hurting and for those in need.

With these thoughts in mind I’d like to tell a true-life story by way of illustration. It’s the story of an old mill town.  There are many old mill towns in our area, and every mill town is unique in its own way, but all of them share some things in common: rapid growth, a few decades of prosperity, rapid decline, abandonment by the industry, stagnation and decay.  At which point every mill town and every neighborhood has to make a decision: will it live, or will it die?

The story I’d like to share today is the story of Aliquippa. It’s a town across the Ohio River from Ambridge in Beaver County, probably best known for being the hometown of Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett, and Henry Mancini. As part of my ministry training I spent a year there volunteering at a coffeehouse café ministry, and I got to know a little bit about Aliquippa’s history.

Aliquippa started out as a farming village. In the 1800s it became an important stop on the railway line between Pittsburgh and Ohio, which brought some business in and a little bit of growth. About the same time a park was built on the banks of the Ohio River near the train station, sort of a 19th century version of an amusement park, with rides and picnic areas and a bandstand – a great place for families to get away for the day.

With the exception of the train station and the park’s office, all of that was wiped out when the steel mill came. J&L Steel changed the face of Aliquippa.  Aliquippa became a city – rich and prosperous – a shopping destination with department stores and movie theatres. A true rags-to-riches story.

But there was another side to that story.  J&L Steel essentially re-designed the town.  They forced a creek that fed into the Ohio River underground and built the new main street on top of it. To this day whenever there’s heavy rain the underground pipes overflow and the main street floods.  (That was my introduction to Aliquippa– my first day volunteering was shoveling muck out of the basement of a building on the main street.)

The heads of J&L Steel had similar grand ideas about social engineering.  Those of us who have read history will recall back in the early 1900s it was a fairly common belief that “science” “proved” the superiority of certain people groups and the inferiority of others. For a few decades in the 1900s this kind of thinking was not only acceptable but was considered by many to be cutting edge. And the owners of the factory wanted to be famous for making Aliquippa the model city of the future.

The City of Aliquippa’s web page describes what happened this way: “The new [town] was in every way a company town. J&L laid out the borough in a series of “plans” identified by number such as “Plan 6,” “Plan 11,” etc., and settled people from various racial and ethnic sources separately in each plan.”

Talk about a recipe for disaster! It should have been obvious to anyone with half a brain that forced segregation would prevent the town from ever coming together as a unified community.  In fact I’m sure that was part of their thinking: people who are divided against each other are easier to manage. When you visit Aliquippa today, almost 100 years later, the mills are long gone, but the Plans are still there, and so is the segregated, prejudicial mindset they inspired. It makes you want to go back in a time machine and shake these guys and say “what were you thinking?!?

The saddest part of the story is that no one at the time spoke up to say, “this isn’t right”.  It isn’t right for a company to own a city. It isn’t right when the passion for money and fame causes company bosses to control every aspect of their workers’ lives. It isn’t right when neighbors turn their backs on neighbors just because they live in the wrong ‘Plan’. Nobody spoke up against this – not the politicians, not the media (who fawned all over this idea), not the churches, and not the workers.

After a period of about 30 or 40 years of economic prosperity – just long enough for people to get used to having steady incomes and benefits and reasonably comfortable lives – J&L Steel sold out to LTV Steel. A few years and some labor-management tussles later, LTV emptied the retirement accounts, declared bankruptcy, and the mill was closed.

Again, quoting from the town’s website: “One day in the late 1980s… veteran steel workers who had lost their jobs and then their retirement benefits gathered at the railroad tunnel at the entrance of the old plant to demonstrate…. Dubbed the “Tunnel Rats”, the group of steel workers were arrested by local police for disorderly conduct. There were tears in the eyes of some of the arresting officers as they were forced to handcuff their own family members…”

I will give the churches of Aliquippa credit for this: by the time the Tunnel Rats were protesting, the churches were taking a stand for what was right. There were a number of priests and clergy arrested along with those workers.

Sadly, the money had already disappeared and there wasn’t much that could be done.  Today if you walk through Aliquippa, the mills are long gone. There’s nothing but gravel and sand on miles of property where they once stood. Many of the homes and businesses are gone – not just closed, but torn down (or burned down).  The few buildings that remain are dirty, crumbling, many of them boarded up.

All of this history – initial prosperity but without a commitment to God, a community that turned its back on God’s call to love and care for neighbors, the corporate greed, the personal greed – directly or indirectly led to segregation, questionable business practices, the failure of an industry, a cascade of small business failures and personal bankruptcy – and a city that is now more a ghost town than a place to live.

And now the people who are still there look back and ask “why?” “Why did this happen to us? This town was great once.”

Our passage from Isaiah gives God’s answer to the ‘why?’ question… and it’s not easy to hear but it needs to be heard.

Isaiah 58, verse 2:  God says the people are religious, they claim to seek after God, they act “as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness.”  In other words, they went to church every Sunday, they said their prayers, they gave their money… this was true of everybody in Aliquippa, especially back in the 1940s and 1950s. They all went to church, from owners to management to workers… they all went to church… each in their own ‘Plan’ of course. And everybody was taught their church was the true church and all the others were shaky at best. God says, “Look, you serve your own interests on your fast day and oppress all your workers.”

God isn’t fooled. And even though our part of Western PA is not the same as Aliquippa, to some degree the same issues effect all of our communities. To use Carnegie as an example for a moment, because I know Carnegie’s history best: up until a few years ago there were five Catholic churches in the one parish of Carnegie: Irish, Italian, German (which have since merged), Polish and Ukrainian (which are still with us).  And not only that, but the social developers got hold of Carnegie too and they closed off Main Street in the 1960s to make a pedestrian mall… which nobody wanted, and which almost killed the town. I’m not picking on Carnegie: these are just examples, and I’m sure we could find similar problems in all of our neighborhoods.

The really difficult thing is, after all these years, one more problem cropped up in Aliquippa (and elsewhere), one that nobody saw coming: the loss of ability to imagine a future.  Here’s what I mean:

Aliquippa is a city with good bones. It was built solidly and well. It has natural resources and great natural beauty (if you can look past the blight). It could be rebuilt, repurposed. Someone like me with an entrepreneurial streak – when I walk down the streets I imagine the possibilities: put a preschool over here, put an animal shelter there in that abandoned building, and wow! look at that midcentury-modern bank, it’s all boarded up and just rusting away. Restore these things, and Aliquippa would become a destination again.

But when I talk like this to the people who live there, they look at me like I’m crazy. “It will never happen,” they say. And they’re right. It won’t… so long as people believe it won’t.  Because the people who live there are no longer able to imagine a future. All they see is the past. And if you ask them what kind of future they would like, what they describe sounds amazingly like the past.  The man who started and ran the Aliquippa café, after living there and working for progress for 15 years, all but despaired of getting the people of the town to hope for anything. They’re fixated on the past, on how things used to be.

God ran into this problem too, back in Moses’ day. After God liberated the people from Egypt, got them safely through the Red Sea on dry land, did away with Pharaoh’s army, and set their feet on the road to the Promised Land, Israel started complaining. They said: “We had good food to eat back in Egypt! We were ever hungry! We had comfortable houses… now all we have is tents and sand! Moses, have you brought us into this wilderness so we could die here?” God had to wait forty years for that entire generation of Israelites to die out before the people were able to imagine a different future and were ready to enter the Promised Land.

And I put it to us today: is there anything holding us back? How long is God going to have to wait for us?

God holds out hope to us. God has a future for us. God’s arms are open to us.  And in this passage from Isaiah God gives us a vision for the future and a road map to get there.  The vision and the road map each have ten points in this passage, and I could preach a sermon on each point but for now I’ll just read through them quickly.

Here’s the ten-point vision. God says:

  1. Your light shall break forth like the dawn
  2. Your healing shall spring up quickly (and haven’t we already seen healing in response to prayer? Already that’s coming true.)
  3. Your vindicator (that is, Jesus) shall go before you: leading the way, giving you the words, supplying your needs
  4. The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. In other words, God’s got your back!
  5. You shall cry out and the Lord will answer, “here am I”
  6. The ancient ruins shall be rebuilt
  7. You shall raise up foundations for many generations
  8. You shall repair the breach, restoring what the enemy has broken or taken
  9. You shall restore the streets, make them livable again
  10. God says, “I will make you ride upon the heights and will bring your heritage.”

That’s the vision.  Ten things God promises if we will… and then God gives us ten commands.  All these things will happen if we will do the following:

  1. Work for justice
  2. Free those who are in slavery or under oppression (and under ‘oppression’ I would include but not limit this to those who are enslaved to drugs, alcohol, and other addictions)
  3. Feed the hungry
  4. Welcome the poor
  5. Cover the naked
  6. Be present to your family (that is, both family-family and church family)
  7. Stop pointing fingers at each other
  8. Stop speaking evil
  9. Satisfy the needy
  10. Honor the Sabbath

That last point – “honor the Sabbath” – is the only item on the list God gives an entire verse to. God says: “If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth… for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 58:13-14)

When Isaiah says ‘the mouth of the Lord has spoken,’ remember Genesis chapter one. When God speaks, things happen. When God says ‘light be made’ light is made. Keeping the Sabbath brings rich rewards. The mouth of the Lord has spoken.

A couple of months ago I preached about the need to rediscover the Sabbath.  In this passage Isaiah tells us why that’s so important. Human beings made in the image of God need to rest from our labors, rest from our concerns, rest from our drive to make money, rest from other peoples’ demands on our time. One day a week we and our families need to have a day that belongs to God, for our own sakes as well as to honor God. The Sabbath is a gift from God, a rich gift, and we should receive it with thanks, and honor it.

Getting back to Aliquippa for one more moment… For the past two decades the churches of Aliquippa – including that café – have been some of the greatest sources of hope in the town. The churches help in small ways most of the time. There’s not a lot of money to be had any more, so what’s done relies on God’s Spirit and human cooperation rather than cash (which is an excellent place to be). They do things like cleaning shop windows of the stores that still remain. Weed-whacking a vacant lot to make room for a playground. Starting a community garden and teaching people how to care for it. Holding collections of prom-dresses in the spring, or coats in the winter, so no-one has to go without. Opening a bike-repair shop and teaching young people how to fix bikes so they have a trade.

As I walk the streets of Aliquippa I begin to understood what Isaiah was talking about. To catch the vision. “the ancient ruins shall be rebuilt… you shall be repairers of the breach, restorers of streets to live in.”

And in our own towns, things are starting to happen.  In Carnegie, the church took part in the Carnegie Crawl. In Allentown, we hosted a National Night Out event for the community. In the Strip District we supported a family who lost their home in a fire. We’re making a start. And I believe God honors that.

So let’s take the next step.  I’d like to invite you to join me in making this passage from Isaiah a guiding light for our future: both the future of the church, and the future of our communities. This passage, in so many ways, is a road map to renewal. I invite you to join me in praying over this passage, asking God for specific ideas about how we can make God’s words a reality in our congregation. To ask God to encourage us with a clear understanding of the goodness of God’s vision, to open our minds and hearts to to God’s thoughts. To ask God to show us how we can do what God commands… how and where we can become repairers of the breach and restorers of streets to live in.

Does that sound like an adventure or what? Can I get an Amen?

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Anglican Church (Strip), 8/21/16

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“My Beloved Had a Vineyard”

“Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 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.  And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. 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?  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. 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. 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

“[Jesus said] I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!  Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!  From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” – Luke 12:49-56

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Well it’s that time of year! Time when those of us who have planted vegetable gardens are beginning to enjoy the rewards of our labors: tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, zucchini (one of my favorites) – food-wise this is my favorite time of the year.

For those of us who garden, we know the kind of work it takes to tend a garden. Granted, you could just toss some seeds in the dirt and let them do their thing, and you’d probably get some results… but not like you do when you weed, and fertilize, and keep the pests away.

Like most gardeners I work at keeping my garden in good shape. So you can understand my disappointment this week when I discovered my zucchini plants had been attacked by something. I’m not sure what, probably some kind of insect, and I did everything I know how to do to save those plants. I may have succeeded, only time will tell. But before I got to it, a few little up-and-coming zucchinis were turned into mush by these pests. Innocent young zucchinis, gone… as a gardener, I take this personally!

So it’s easy to understand where God is coming from in our reading from Isaiah. The prophet writes “let me sing a love song of my beloved and his vineyard.”  We gardeners do love our gardens!  In fact my neighbor and I were talking just the other day: both of us have experienced serious back pain this year, and both of us, in spite of our chiropractor’s recommendations, continue to work in our gardens.  We compared our chiropractor’s comments (and I bet our chiropractors could compare a few notes on us as well!)

Anyway God is an even more loving and giving gardener than we are.  Just look at creation!  Look at the beauty in the world around us. Everywhere we look, something is growing. Trees… flowers… weeds… I’ve even seen grass poke its head up between cracks in the streets.  God’s garden is everywhere!

So Isaiah says God planted a vineyard – God cleared the land, planted good quality vines, watched over it. And God’s plans were to make wine, for the workers in the garden and for everybody who lived there to enjoy.

But when God went to pick the grapes God found wild grapes!  Have you ever tasted wild grapes?  I have, and I will never do it again!  They’re bitter, they don’t taste like grapes at all.  In fact the Hebrew in Isaiah’s passage is even stronger: the translation is more like “stinking worthless things.”In other words, rotten grapes.

And God asks “why? What more could I have done for my vineyard?”  Which is a rhetorical question of course: God has done everything right. Unlike human gardeners, God knows exactly the right thing to do, and exactly when to do it, and does it, all the time.  So God says, “I’ll tear down the wall of the vineyard, I’ll stop working in it, I’ll let it become overgrown and dried up.”

And then Isaiah explains he is speaking in a parable.  The vineyard of God is the house of Israel. God planted this nation, tended it, cared for it, grew it, fed it… and when God looked for good fruit in the lives of the people, God found stinking rotten fruit.  God says: “I expected justice but saw bloodshed, I expected righteousness but heard a cry of distress.”

Isaiah says, “let me sing you a love song of my beloved and his vineyard.”

Not all love songs have a happy ending. Some love songs are sad songs, songs about loving someone who doesn’t love you back. That’s the kind of song God is singing.  God’s heart is sad, and God is angry at the lack of justice and compassion in Israel.

It’s important to remember God is not saying ‘goodbye’ to the vineyard. God still loves Israel. God is still giving the people a chance to turn around. That’s the meaning of repentance, to turn around.  You can almost hear God singing:

“…there is someone who’ll stand beside you
Turn around, look at Me
And there’s someone to love and guide you
Turn around, look at Me”

If the people turn away from their violent ways, and learn to live lives of goodness and justice, God will spare the vineyard.  But if not… well, even then it would not be the end of the vineyard. God never gives up on God’s people. But it will bring a tragic turn in the nation’s history, one from which Israel will never fully recover.  Which is eventually what happened.

It’s a sad song.  But the song’s not over yet.  The climax of the song – and the story – is found in the life of Jesus. So let’s turn now to his words in Luke’s gospel for today.

What we hear Jesus saying is not easy to hear. We like to think of Jesus as the man who played with children and healed the sick – and he is that man – but that’s not all Jesus is.

In our gospel reading for today we hear Jesus taking up the same song Isaiah was singing: the song of the beloved and his people, a song of longing and warning. Immediately before this passage Jesus was saying to the disciples, “Be ready! The coming of the kingdom of heaven is like a bridegroom coming in the night… be ready!”

And then he turns like Isaiah turns, and looks at the vineyard, and he says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”

Is Jesus going to burn the vineyard down? No.  The Greek word for fire is ‘pur’ and it’s the word we get the English word purify from, and also purgatory. We Protestants don’t believe in purgatory as taught by the Catholic Church but in the old days the word purgatory basically meant a furnace where imperfections were burned out of a metal.  Those of us who remember the steel mills can remember seeing the glow of the furnaces that burned imperfections out of iron ore. The floor of a furnace was a dangerous place to be, but the process was essential to producing metal that could be used in practical ways, that wouldn’t break under pressure.

And the same thing is true of God’s people.  Jesus’ intention is to purify God’s people: not just heal our physical sicknesses but heal our souls and our spirits.

Jesus goes on to say “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how I am constrained until it is completed!”

He is speaking here of his death and resurrection.  Baptism is itself a picture of dying and rising again. That’s why the early church – and some churches still today – baptize people by immersion, dunking the whole body in water and then lifting back out again.  It’s a picture of death and resurrection. Jesus is predicting what will happen to him, but more than that, Jesus is saying why. It’s for our purification.

For those of us who hear God’s love song and find ourselves living in a vineyard that produces sour grapes… we know that God is expecting good fruit from us, and we’re… scared… of this purification process. We don’t like the idea of passing through fire! But we know God has every right to be disappointed and angry with us, and we know that change is needed, we know there’s room for improvement.

For those who don’t know that, Jesus says, “I have not come to bring peace but division, even within one’s own household: parent against child and child against parent.” And Jesus goes on to say, “you look at the sky and you know what the weather will be; how can you look at me and not know how to interpret the times?

The scripture readings today bring heavy messages. They’re dark. They speak of justice and purification. It’s important to remember they are also a love song. And if the sadness touches our hearts, that’s a good thing.  The song is meant to turn us to God, to turn us to the One who loves us, to say ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I want to do better’ and to do so in faith that Jesus is the one who died for us and walked out of the grave alive so that we can be welcomed in the kingdom.

Last week I talked about the need to stay close to Jesus, to resist the temptation in our society to ‘see how much we can get away with and still be saved’.  These scripture passages tell us why.  All of creation is God’s love song. And we are the object of God’s love. God has given us so much: our world, our minds, our hearts, our abilities, our loved ones.

And we are part of God’s vineyard, thanks to Jesus. It’s not just Israel now like it was in Isaiah’s day; everyone can be part of the vineyard. The vineyard is God’s people everywhere – in America, Europe, Asia Africa, even Antarctica. The vineyard is made up of all the people God has called and all the people who have entered into a covenant with God – around the world and in every time in history.

And God expects good things of the vineyard.  We, as part of that vineyard, need to bearing good fruit.  We’ve talked a lot about fruitfulness this year, in our sermons and in our studies of John Wesley.  So we need to be about bearing good fruit.

And when we fail, we know we can turn to Jesus who died on the cross for us, to make us pure, to take the pur-ifying fire on Himself so that we can be free. If Jesus died for sinners, and we are sinners, that’s good news because Jesus died for us. It’s only perfect people that Jesus didn’t die for.

So for today (in Isaiah) we have a love song: a song about a lover who gave all he had, and a beloved who in the past has been unfaithful, and who is still not quite faithful yet, but whose Saviour is faithful, and he will purify the vineyard and make it his own.

And in Luke we have a call: to interpret our times correctly in light of Jesus’ teaching, and respond appropriately guided by God’s Holy Spirit. We need to be praying about what that means for us, here and now.

And so we live between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’, moving in the direction of being fruitful, moving in the direction of the Kingdom.

Remembering the One who loves us with all there is to give, let’s do our best to be a faithful vineyard, producing good fruit that can be made into good wine that will lift our spirits, be attractive to the world around us, and most of all to lift the heart and the Spirit of our Beloved who gave all for us.

Amen.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 8/14/16

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