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A former seminary classmate just posted that the Westboro Baptist Organization (I won’t dignify them by calling them a church) will be protesting four churches in the small town of Elizabeth City NC this Sunday, May 31, 2015. Elizabeth City is on the mainland near the bay which borders the Outer Banks, and the main highway to and from the OBX passes very close by.  Classmate Rev. Craig Stephans, my former classmate, is pastor of the Anglican Church of the Redeemer in Elizabeth City.

At this point in time the Anglican Church is not on the protest list; protests are scheduled for the local Roman Catholic, United Methodist, Baptist, and Episcopal churches. Nonetheless the Anglican Church stands in solidarity with brothers and sisters in the four targeted churches.

The Baptist group will also be protesting in Kill Devil Hills, just north of Nags Head, on the Outer Banks, the day after.

One suspects the Westboro family simply wanted a vacation on the Outer Banks and figured out a way to make it a tax-deductible church expense.

Please keep the Elizabeth City faithful in your prayers this coming weekend – that all will be safe, and that many will hear the *good* news being preached from Elizabeth City pulpits.

News source: Local press Craig’s response: his blog

Jesus Prays for Us

[Jesus prayed:] “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.” – John 17:6-19

Today’s scripture reading from the gospel of John, the assigned reading for the day, is the middle of a prayer – which drives me nuts because it lops off the beginning and the end. It’s like walking in on the middle of a conversation. So I need to back up and give us some context.

In the larger context of our lectionary, for the past couple of weeks our scripture readings have been either from John’s gospel or from John’s first pastoral letter.

Two weeks ago in the reading from John’s gospel, Jesus describes himself as “the true vine” and we are the branches. Jesus says, “abide in me as I abide in you,” and the reading ends with the words “abide in my love”. The reading from I John talked about “loving one another” and said “whoever does not love does not know God for God is love.” The passage points out that there is no fear in love and that anyone who fears is not yet perfected in love.

Last week the reading from I John said “the love of God is this: that we obey his commandments” and in the reading from John’s gospel Jesus commands us to “abide in my love”. Jesus says, “This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you.”

So for the past two weeks there’s been a lot of talk about ‘abiding’ and ‘love’ and ‘abiding in love’. ‘Abide’ is an old-fashioned word. It means more than just ‘live with’… it’s more like ‘snuggle down and make yourself at home with’. So Jesus invites us to make ourselves at home with him, and to invite him to make himself at home with us. ‘Love’ is a harder word to define. It’s used so often the word has become almost meaningless… but I would direct us to Paul’s definition in I Corinthians 13. Paul writes:

“Love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude; love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the right; love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” (I Corinthians 13:4-8)

Jesus says if we love him we will keep his commandments. And his commandments are to love God and love each other.

In a way it’s simple… but in a way it’s not. The kind of love Jesus is talking about goes beyond ‘being nice’ or ‘being a good person’. It’s a full-bodied, deep, giving love – as Jesus has loved us. This kind of love is not possible, on a human level, without God. We need to stay connected to God, stay connected to the vine so to speak, in order to love this way. God loves us and abides in us, and as a result we love God and abide in God… and the circle of love is complete.

All of this is the backdrop against which Jesus prays his prayer. The disciples who hear Jesus’ prayer don’t realize Jesus is about to be arrested, that Good Friday is only a few days away. Jesus has told them, but they don’t quite grasp it yet. But Jesus, knowing what he knows, prays this prayer for them (and for us) as one of the last things he does before his death.

Two things to keep in mind as we read and listen to this prayer: first, when we talk about Jesus praying to God we need to hold in mind the truth of the Trinity: the God of scripture is described as ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’. The Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Spirit, but the Father and Son and Holy Spirit are altogether one God. This is one of the great mysteries of the faith. At this point in time, though, as we listen to Jesus’ prayer, it might be more helpful to hear it as the words of a bridegroom speaking to the father of the bride (the bride being us)… praying for us during the time of his absence from us

The second thing to keep in mind is that what God says, happens. When God said, “let there be light,” light happened. When God said, “let there be birds in the air” birds happened. And because Jesus is God, Jesus’ words have the same power. When Jesus says, “get up and walk,” lame people get up and walk. So what Jesus prays for will happen. It may not have happened yet, or it may be in the process of happening. There is sort of a now-and-not-yet-ness about Jesus’ prayer. But Jesus is praying truth, and what he prays will happen.

So with those two things in mind let’s take a look at Jesus’ prayer, starting from the beginning, in John 17 verse 1.

In the first part of the prayer, verses 1-5, Jesus starts out by saying, “the time has come.” And his first request is “glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you.” (John 17:1). This has a lot in common with the first line of the Lord’s Prayer: “hallowed be thy name”. The glory and honor of God is always Jesus’ first priority.

Jesus goes on to talk about eternal life, and the fact that eternal life comes through himself (as God wills) and yet, even though eternal life is through Jesus, Jesus says, “this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3) So Jesus’ second request is that we be able to live with Jesus and God forever. And what Jesus asks will happen.

Then Jesus returns to the theme of glory, saying, “glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.” (John 17:5) In other words, “Father, bring me home.”

In the second part of the prayer, verses 6-19 which we read this morning, Jesus prays for his disciples. This prayer is particularly relevant to “the twelve” but it’s not just for them; it’s for us too. This prayer is for anyone who lives by faith without Jesus physically present in the world. You and I may be used to not having Jesus physically here, used to living by faith (I mean, it would be nice to have Jesus physically here!) but for the twelve, Jesus being gone was going to be a shock. Even after his resurrection, Jesus won’t be back on earth to stay; his ascension into heaven happens only forty days after the resurrection. So in praying for the disciples – and for us – Jesus says to God:

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you” (John 17:6-7)

“They were yours” – have you ever thought about that? We belong to God. If you’ve ever in your life felt like you don’t belong, like this world is out of kilter, or like you’re a stranger in a strange land, that’s why. You belong to God, and God’s kingdom is not of this world.

God gave us to Jesus. But because God has given us to Jesus, and Jesus is leaving this world, Jesus prays for us and he says:

“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:11)

This is not about physical protection. It may include physical protection, but Jesus says ‘protect them in your name,’ that is, in the truth, in reality. God’s name is “I AM”. ‘Protect them in that truth’ is what Jesus is asking, so that we may be one even as Jesus and God are one

When I hear Jesus’ words and I look around at the state of the church today, with all its divisions, it makes me want to cry. We are so far away from the unity Jesus talks about. Jesus is not saying we all have to be the same, or think the same, or vote the same… that’s not his point. Jesus himself is not the Father and the Father is not Jesus, but they are one God – likewise we are not each other but we are one in God’s name. But as bad as things look, I take comfort in knowing even though we don’t look unified now, someday we will be – because Jesus’ words have the power to make it so.

Jesus goes on to say that believers in God are not of this world, just as Jesus himself is not of this world, and Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. And Jesus asks, not that God would take us out of the world, but that God would protect us from the evil one; that we would be made holy by the truth of God’s word. And again Jesus’ words have the power to make it so.

In the third part of the prayer Jesus prays for all believers in all times and places… “on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word…” (John 17:20) And Jesus asks “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” (Sounds a bit like that vine-and-branches thing again doesn’t it?) Why does Jesus ask this? “…so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:21)

Did you know one of the most difficult things overseas missionaries have to deal with is a lack of Christian unity? When missionaries evangelize a group of people, and then those people run into other missionaries from some other church, and the second missionaries tell the people the first missionaries don’t have all their theological ducks in a row… this is one of the biggest causes of new believers falling away from the faith. They say, “look, you all can’t even agree on what you believe in.”

But what if the opposite were true? If people could say, “look at those Christians – how they love each other!” What a witness that would be to the world! And again, ‘unity’ is not thinking the same things or living the same way… unity is knowing the truth of God: God is the great “I AM”; Jesus is the Son of God; and we are saved by faith and seek to live in love. That is our unity.

Jesus says to God, “The glory you have given me I have given them.” (John 17:22) And Jesus says, “I desire that those… whom you have given me, may be with me where I am.” (John 17:24) Doesn’t that sound like a loving bridegroom wanting his bride to be where he is?

This prayer of Jesus in John 17 is a spiritual gold mine… there is so much more that could be found in it!… but for now I need to wrap up and look at how we might apply some of this to everyday life. Jesus is talking about such high concepts – glory and unity and truth and love – where do we even begin to bring this down to the everyday?

I would suggest first – confidence. Being confident in our salvation. When Jesus prays for us, what he prays will happen. Jesus says to God, “you gave them to me.” We are his. We do not trust in our own strength – which is very limited – but we trust in Jesus, trust that we belong to him, and we go into the world carrying God’s truth and love with confidence.

Second, we can strive to make Jesus’ priorities our priorities. For Jesus, God’s glory and honor is his first priority. I wonder how we might live if God’s glory and honor were our first priority? What might we do to bring honor to God, or what might we stop doing that doesn’t honor God?

Jesus also puts a high priority on our knowing God and knowing himself, because knowing God leads us to eternal life. Jesus wants this so that we can know the joy that God and Jesus know. We can get ready for eternity by reading God’s word and talking to God in prayer as much as we can.

And Jesus puts the highest priority on our being one, on our living in love. Paul says in II Timothy 2:23, “Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” And in Galatians 5:19 Paul lists among “the works of the flesh” “jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing…” (Galatians 5:20-21) Yes – Paul really means all these endless arguments we hear on TV talk shows and on Facebook are right up there with public drunkenness and carousing! Unity and love are our highest priorities.

Third, as Paul says in I Corinthians, strive for the greatest gifts. At the end of I Corinthians 13 Paul says the greatest spiritual gifts are “faith, hope, and love”. By faith we grow in our knowledge of God; by hope we keep moving in a God-ward direction; and by love we fulfill God’s commands.

Let’s pray together. Lord thank you for praying for us. Thank you for thinking of us even when you were on your way to the cross. Help us to walk in the confidence of knowing we are loved and protected by you. Help us to make your priorities our priorities. And above all help us to love as you have loved. We ask in your name and to your glory, AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 5/17/15

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Three Ways To Love God

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth. – 1 John 5:1-6

[Jesus said] “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” – John 15:9-17

This morning is the second part of our two-part mini-series on love. Last week we looked at what it means to love our brothers and sisters in the faith, and how our ability to love with God’s love depends on our staying connected to Jesus like branches to a vine. We also talked about the need to define what love is, because the word ‘love’ can mean so many things to so many people. We looked at I Corinthians 13 and Paul’s amazing description of love.

Today our focus is on loving God – which is such a huge subject, a person could talk about it for hours… days… an entire lifetime! So I feel a need to break it down a little and start from where we are.

From a purely human standpoint, when we love another person – whether it’s parent, child, spouse, or friend – that person is always in or near our thoughts. We look forward to spending time with them. We keep in touch on a regular basis. We can’t help thinking about them and we can’t help talking to other people about them.

This being Mother’s Day I’m reminded of the way young mothers are with their babies. There is no love on earth like the love of a mother for her child! A new mom can’t stop looking at her baby. She puts baby pictures on Facebook nearly every day. She talks about nothing else. And one of the things that happens when we love someone is we want to know everything about them. A new mother studies her baby. She knows every detail, every fold of their skin, every smell, every cry.

For those of us who aren’t mothers, when we first meet someone we love it’s not unusual to sit up all night talking, getting to know that person, and being so energized by the conversation that we don’t even miss the sleep!

With God the feelings are similar but the relationship isn’t quite so easy. For starters we can’t see or touch God – God is a spirit, and we get to know God by means of the Spirit. Then there’s the limitation of language: God transcends gender, but we don’t have a pronoun in the English language to describe that. Personally I find it helpful to remember that God has a name: in the book of Exodus, when Moses meets God, God introduces self to Moses as “I AM” – which is translated from the Hebrew “Yahweh”. That’s the proper name for God, and it’s a name full of meaning. If we ever have doubts, we can speak God’s name – ‘I AM’ – and our faith is confirmed.

And there’s one other issue. God is perfect, and we’re not. To stand in the presence of God is to be not just vulnerable but completely outclassed. Faith is believing God forgives and welcomes us because God has said we are forgiven and welcomed.

Once we take that step of faith we’re able to start getting to know God. In the Bible we see a God who is creative beyond our ability to imagine: who designs flowers in such amazing variety… who creates humans in such amazing variety… who makes the world beautiful not because beauty is necessary but because beauty is enjoyable… who places us in families… who gives us cats and dogs as friends… who creates the platypus, just ‘cause. Leonard Bernstein once said he believed God did not say ‘let there be light’ but God sang it… and I agree. Our God is the creator of beauty beyond our imagining.

In scripture we hear the voices of other people through history who have loved God. People like Hannah in the Old Testament, who so badly wanted to have a child. When God heard and answered her prayer she said:

“There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God…” (1 Samuel 2:2, edited)

…or the words of the prophet Jeremiah who said:

“Lord GOD! It is you who made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you. You show steadfast love to the thousandth generation… great in counsel and mighty in deed; whose eyes are open to all the ways of mortals, rewarding all according to their ways…” (Jeremiah 32:17-19)

…or the words of Jesus’ mother Mary who said:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant… His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation…He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly…” (Luke 1:46-48, 50, 52)

In the scriptures we meet a God who wants to communicate with us, who loves us, who rejoices over us, who welcomes us, and teaches us, and shares with us, and surrounds us with beauty and goodness. David says, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

So the first way we can love God is by getting to know God. Building the relationship, spending time with God, reading scripture and praying and thinking about the things God says, and talking about what we learn with others.

The second thing I want to look at this morning is from our reading from I John, where the apostle John says, “the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments”. Jesus says something very similar in John 14:15: “If you love me, keep my commandments.”

Sometimes I think it would have been easier if Jesus had said, “If you love me make a pilgrimage to Israel” or “If you love me go feed the hungry” – you know, something within the realm of possibility. But ‘if you love me keep my commandments’ is impossible. As humans we’re not capable of doing it. And what’s worse, the words ‘if you love me keep my commandments’ can sound dry and even un-loving to our ears. How often have we heard people say, “if you love me do what I tell you”? In so many cases that’s not love, it’s manipulation, and that’s not what God is about.

What God is saying is: “my commandment is that you love one another as I have loved you”. God’s command is love, and as John says in his letter, “God’s commandments are not burdensome.” As I was looking at this passage in the Greek I was reminded of the old song He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother. That’s the feeling here. It’s not a burden to do what God asks. Just the opposite: it’s an honor to be able to serve, because God’s command is love.

But John goes even further than that. The love John is talking about is not ‘being nice for the sake of being nice’. As I mentioned last week, the love of God is supernatural… it’s otherworldly… it’s the stuff of which miracles are made. It comes from God, through us, as we stay connected to the vine. John’s letter says:

“for whatever is born of God conquers the world.”

The Greek word here for ‘conquers’ is ‘nike’ – it’s where they get the name for the sneakers – it means “victory”. And the word ‘world’ is ‘cosmos’ – not just our planet but all of creation. God’s love is the victory over it all, and whoever is born of God shares in that victory. John goes on to say:

“And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.”

It’s not complicated. In fact it’s very simple: the least of us, even a child, can have this kind of faith. I think maybe that’s why some of the most popular and enduring stories are ones where someone small overcomes a great evil just by being faithful. Think of Luke Skywalker for example… or Frodo the Hobbit from Lord of the Rings… or Harry Potter, a child sent to defeat the Dark Lord. These stories tap into something our spirits recognize, whether we know it or not. God has built the spiritual DNA of ‘salvation by faith’ into our psyches and we can’t help but love stories like these.

So we love God by doing what God tells us to do: living in love, by faith.

Which brings us to point three and, oddly enough, back to loving others – which is where we started last week! Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) If we love others, we are loving God. If we love God, we will love others. It’s like a circle, and it just keeps going around.

So three things to take away from today: three interconnected ways to love God: (1) getting to know God more and more each day, through scripture reading, prayer, meditation, and conversation; (2) obey God and God’s commands, which leads to… (3) loving others.

Understanding is easy. Doing is a bit harder. But we have a lifetime to practice. And we have a God who, like a parent, is deeply committed – and deeply invested – in helping us learn. This is our hope, and our faith, and our joy. AMEN.

Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 5/10/15

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[Jesus said] “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 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. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” – John 15:1-9

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” – 1 John 4:7-21

This week and next week both of our scripture readings are from the apostle John: one reading from John’s gospel and one from John’s first letter. And – since I have the rare privilege of being with you for two weeks in a row – I’d like to do a sort of two-week mini-series.

The subject John is writing about is LOVE. This week we’ll be focusing on loving others, and next week on loving God.

Love is such a huge subject… where does one begin to talk about love? On the one hand people stretch the meaning of the word too far: I love my car, I love my job, I love my nails. On the other hand, finding real love in action can be hard to do sometimes. We all know what it is to feel love, but how do you put those feelings into words?

The first thing we need when talking about love is a working definition. I have to confess I’m no expert on the subject. I can’t even live up to my own standards where it comes to love, let alone God’s standards.

But I can say this: God is love. And the apostle John says the same thing in our reading from I John this morning. “God is love” – this statement does not mean God-equals-love in the sense that you can switch around the wording like a math problem and say love-equals-God. A lot of people make that mistake. But as Christians we don’t worship love. We strive for love, but we worship God.

God is the source of love; love is not the source of God. When scripture says “God is love” it’s describing God’s nature. It’s like saying “rain is wet”. If rain ever stopped being wet it wouldn’t be rain… if God ever stopped loving, God would not be God. I think this is what the apostle Paul means when he says in 2 Timothy 2:13, “if we are faithless, [God] remains faithful– for [God] cannot deny himself.”

But we still need a working definition of love: what is love? The best definition I’ve ever come across is Paul’s description in I Corinthians 13. It’s a familiar passage – often read at weddings – and rightly so, but it was not originally written for people who were in love. Just the opposite: Paul wrote these words to a church where the members were fighting among themselves (those of us who have been in the church for any length of time have no idea what that’s like!).

The Corinthians were fighting over the spiritual gifts: which ones were greater? Paul, trying to help bring peace to the church at Corinth, praises all the gifts (such as tongues and prophecy) but then he says “I will show you a more excellent way.”

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast [that is, as a martyr], but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” 1 Corinthians 13:1-8  

Does this not describe God’s love for us? Patience; kindness; unwillingness to lord over us how much greater God is than we are; God is never arrogant or boastful towards us, or rude to us. God doesn’t even insist on his will being done – God waits for us to pray ‘thy will be done’. God is never irritable or resentful; God rejoices in the truth. God bears – and has borne – all things. God’s love never ends.

As we grow in the faith, and as we grow closer to God, our aim is to become more like God in the way we love. Which in a large part is what John is getting at in both of our readings this morning.

Starting with I John, I’d like to pull out three points and then do a quick tie-in with the gospel reading.

First, from I John: the source of real love. John says, “Let us love one another…” because love is from God and those who love are born of God and know God. In some ways this seems obvious, but in other ways it’s kind of deep and mystical.

If you’ve ever seen Les Miserables, in the last line of the story, Fantine says to the hero Jean Valjean who is dying, “to love another person is to see the face of God” – I think what the apostle John is saying is the same thing Victor Hugo was trying to say. When we love with the love that God gives, we catch a glimpse of God, because love is from God.

We love one another because God loved us first. God set aside the glory of heaven and became flesh and lived on earth, ‘moved into the neighborhood’ as The Message Bible puts it, died for us so that we can live, and God sends the Holy Spirit to guide us into love.

The second thing I would point out from John’s letter is this line: “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…” I am becoming more and more convinced of the truth of this with every passing day. This is why I pray in the pastoral prayer every week that God will inspire in the hearts of our people a faith that does not fear.

So much of what we hear and experience in our world today is designed to make people afraid. If you can scare people you can motivate them – whether it’s to buy more insurance, or to do something morally questionable in order to keep a job, or to villainize people who vote for that ‘other’ party, or to look the other way when someone’s being bullied.

Love cancels out fear, just like light cancels out darkness. Fear cannot exist where love is. And so God says to us: ‘put an end to fear and instead, love’.

The third thing John shows us is that the love of God in our lives cannot be separated from God’s salvation. John says, “…the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.”

The world would have us believe that it is possible for humans to love with a perfect, selfless love, without God; that we as humans can love the way people need to be loved, with all the power and self-giving the world needs to be healed of its ills, without involving a deity. That’s a misconception at best, because (as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous) we all worship something, and whatever we worship controls us. If we’re not turning our lives over to a ‘higher power’ (as AA would put it), then something else, something less honorable and less trustworthy than God, is controlling us.

That’s a hard truth to come to terms with. But Jesus makes the same point in our gospel lesson. Jesus says, “I am the true vine”. Jesus does not say “I am a true vine’ or ‘I am one of many possible vines’. I double-checked the Greek just to be sure. Jesus is saying “I am the one true vine.” In order to bear fruit for God’s kingdom we need to be tapped into, connected to, the one true living vine, which is Jesus himself.

So when Jesus talks about vines, what is he getting at? This is obviously metaphor, so what are the characteristics of vines that might apply to us?

When we think of vines, we think of plants that grow quickly and spread all over the place and cling to houses and are impossible to get rid of. There are some interesting spiritual possibilities in those characteristics. But when the writers of the Bible talk about vines they’re usually talking about grape-vines.

Where it comes to grape-vines, there are vines and there are vines. There are vines that look like grapevines but aren’t, and they don’t bear fruit. There are vines that are wild grapes, and they bear fruit, but it’s bitter – that’s where the term ‘sour grapes’ comes from.

Jesus says ‘I am the true vine.’ Real fruit from the real vine does not set your teeth on edge. It’s sweet and succulent and it makes great wine.

Grape-vines also have one very long main stem and the branches and leaves and fruit grow from that main stem. So each of us needs to stay connected to the main stem in order to bear good fruit.

Speaking of fruit, what kind of fruit is Jesus talking about? John doesn’t say specifically, but my educated guess is he’s pointing to the fruit of the Spirit… which brings us back to I Corinthians 13. At the end of his great chapter on love, Paul lists the three greatest gifts of the Spirit: faith, hope and love. In Galatians 5:22 Paul also gives us a list of the fruit of the Spirit, which includes “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Against these, he says, there is no law. And all of these things could be considered aspects of love.

Jesus says, in John’s gospel, that God helps us in our efforts to love and to bear fruit by cutting away the dead branches: anything in us that isn’t really alive any more, God breaks away and gets rid of it. And God also prunes the vine so it can bear more fruit. Pruning may seem harsh sometimes, because it cuts away living parts of the plant (as opposed to dead ones). But as any gardener knows, what appears harsh will actually make the plant more productive. I’m thinking right now of my hydrangeas, poor things. A few weeks ago I cut back last year’s stems and except for a few green leaves at the base of the plants they look like dead sticks sticking up out of the ground. I know by July they’ll be gorgeous, but right now you’d never guess it.

I think sometimes God’s work in our lives is like that. Sometimes we can feel like God has cut away too much. Sometimes the very best we can manage is to just hang on and trust God knows what God’s doing. As Jesus says, “abide in me as I abide in you… and those who abide in me and I in them will bear much fruit.”

The good news is that, as we are connected to the vine, fruit will happen. It is the nature of a grapevine to produce fruit. It doesn’t take a whole lot of effort… you never see a grapevine trying to push fruit out!… it just happens. The connection with the vine makes the fruit possible.

The best way that we can love others is to live in God and allow God to live in us… staying connected to God the way branches are connected to a vine. Godly love is a supernatural thing; it’s a miracle. It comes from God, and flows through us, and bears fruit to feed a hungry world. The closer we are to God, the better we will love others. Pray for this: for ourselves, for each other, for our churches, and for our neighborhoods. In Jesus’ name, AMEN.

Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 5/3/15

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The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. 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. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 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

[Jesus said:] “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away– and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” – John 10:11-18

As some of you know starting this past fall I have been a chaplain trainee at a retirement home in the east end of the city. One of the things I’ve learned there (not from experience thank goodness!) is Psalm 23 is not something you want to read at the bedside of an elderly resident. It makes people nervous, because Psalm 23 has become connected in many people’s minds with funerals and death. The verse that says “yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” might have something to do with it! But that’s not really what this psalm is about.

So today I would like to steal Psalm 23 back, away from the funeral parlor, and put it in a happier place, because I think this psalm is meant for the living.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want; he makes me to lie down in green pastures…” These words have moved people’s hearts for over 3000 years. The words give us a feeling of comfort, of being at home.

Speaking as a musician, I can’t hear the 23rd Psalm without hearing music, because it’s been set to music so many times, and because the Psalms themselves were written to be sung – the Psalms were the hymnal of ancient Israel.

And I think there’s another connection to music that can be found: in the larger setting of Psalm 23 within the book of psalms, though it’s kind of unusual to talk about ‘context’ where it comes to the psalms. A hymnal is basically just a collection of songs, not in any particular order. The songs in our hymnal, for example, aren’t in alphabetical order or organized by composer. On the other hand our hymnal is loosely organized by subject matter: Christmas songs in one place, Easter songs in another, and so on. And I think to some extent the people who collected the psalms and put them together into one book tried to do a similar thing.

Here’s the thought. In classical music there is a form, a structure for composition, called the concerto. If you’ve ever been to a Pittsburgh Symphony concert you’ve probably heard one. (And if you haven’t been to the Pittsburgh Symphony, what are you waiting for? The Pittsburgh Symphony is to classical music what the Pittsburgh Steelers are to football. But I digress…) The concerto is a long piece for solo instrument with orchestra typically in three movements, or three sections. And the movements are usually arranged Fast – Slow – Really Fast. The first movement is usually upbeat and cheerful and draws the listener in; the second movement is usually quiet and introspective; and the third movement is a grand conclusion that sweeps the audience to its feet in applause.

And I think that’s basically what we have in Psalms 22, 23, and 24: they’re like a three-movement concerto. I call it the Concerto of Our Salvation.

OK so… a concerto, first movement, usually opens upbeat and bright. Usually. But every now and then, a composer starts the first movement in a minor key: dark and brooding. This is a signal to the audience that what they’re about to hear is serious and needs careful attention.

That’s what we have in Psalm 22. Grab a Bible and follow with me. The psalm opens with a darkness that takes our breath away: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Words that plumb the depths of human sorrow. And we recognize the speaker: Jesus, who quoted these words from the cross, identifying Himself as the person King David was writing about in this psalm.

Psalm 22 goes on to describe the scene at Calvary, 1000 years before it happened. Look at verse 8: “He trusted in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him.” These exact words are found in Matthew 27:43, spoken by the chief priests and scribes as Jesus was hanging on the cross. Look at verse 16: “They have pierced my hands and feet; I can count all my bones…” David is describing crucifixion, a form of capital punishment that wasn’t invented until around 500 years after David’s death. Look at verse 17: “They divide my garments among them; they cast lots for my clothing…” – exactly what the Roman soldiers did in Matthew 27:35.

So the Concerto of Our Salvation begins with the suffering and death of the Son of God. That’s the first movement.

The third movement, the finale, Psalm 24, ends with a rousing victory. Take a look at verse 7:

“Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.

George Frederick Handel quoted these lines in his oratorio Messiah. The psalm (and the oratorio) continue:

“Who is the King of glory?
The Lord, strong and mighty,
the Lord, mighty in battle.

Who is the King of glory? The same suffering servant we met in Psalm 22. He has been raised from the dead and God has made him king over all creation. And so the greatest concerto ever written ends with the greatest victory the universe has ever seen.

And in between these two movements… in between the pain and darkness of the first movement and the shining victory of the third… is a tender song, Psalm 23, the song of the shepherd. Actually it’s the song of the sheep, singing about the shepherd. It’s the song we sing in between the cross and the crown.

Psalm 23 is where we live. It’s a song of trust and quiet confidence. It begins and ends with the Lord: verse 1, “The Lord is my shepherd”; verse 6 “the house of the Lord”. In the same way our lives begin and end with God.

David says the presence of the good shepherd gives us a number of things. The first is confidence. “The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want.” We are confident that God will provide all we need, because God has been faithful in the past. David wrote: “I have been young and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.”

The presence of the good shepherd also gives us rest and refreshment. “He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.” God’s provision is abundant, and good, and we rest in safe places. “He restores my soul…” David says. At the end of a long day or a long week when we’ve had the mud of the world tramped through our souls we can come to the Good Shepherd and he will restore us.

The presence of the good shepherd also gives us guidance. “He leads me ‘in right paths’ for his name’s sake” – for His name’s sake. Not because we deserve it, but because God is our creator, and God leads us in what is right because doing so is part of who God is.

The presence of the good shepherd also gives us life. “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” Notice David doesn’t say if I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. He says “though I walk…” He’s already there, and so are we. That’s the reality of living in a fallen world, where addiction and abuse and violence and persecution are everywhere.

In spite of the darkness, (David says) “…I shall fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The shepherd’s rod was used as a club for fighting off wild animals, and the staff was a crook for guiding the sheep. As we pass through this world we have nothing to fear as long as we are with the shepherd.

David focuses his attention on God and not on his fears. I want to stress that point, because so much of what we hear and experience these days is designed to cause people to fear. If you can scare people you can motivate them – whether it’s to buy more insurance, or to do something morally questionable in order to keep a job, or villainize people who vote for the ‘other’ party, or to look the other way when someone’s being bullied. That’s why I pray every Sunday, when we pray for our nation, that God will raise up in our nation people whose hearts trust in God and do not fear. We fear no evil – not because evil doesn’t exist but because the good shepherd is here with us.

The presence of the good shepherd also gives us eternity with God. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…” and what a feast it’s going to be! The prophet Isaiah tells us, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees…”. This feast is going to make a 5-star restaurant look like McDonald’s by comparison. And David continues: “You anoint my head with oil, my cup runs over”.

“Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Goodness and mercy will follow me… the meaning there is ‘chase after’ – goodness and mercy will pursue me’. As the great old English preacher Charles Simeon put it: “Are you bold enough to carry this confidence beyond the grave?” If so, he says, “while all the [world is] following after happiness and it eludes their grasp, those who believe in Jesus have happiness following after them.” God’s loving kindness runs after us like the father of the Prodigal Son runs to meet his son.

And when our time on earth is done, by God’s goodness and mercy, we will move from Psalm 23 into Psalm 24 – ascending the hill of the Lord and celebrating his victory. In the meantime, Psalm 23 is the gentle, quiet second movement in the Concerto of Our Salvation. No matter what happens, no matter what we see around us, we can trust Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who has given his life for our protection, our restoration, and to bring us safely into our eternal home. Rest in Him. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Crafton United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church on 4/26/15

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God’s Covenant

“When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.

“And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus…” – Acts 3:12-20

“While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.”

“Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you– that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” – Luke 24:36-48

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He said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures…” (Luke 24:44-45)

The scriptures Jesus opened the disciples’ minds to were the ancient Jewish scriptures, what we now call the ‘Old Testament’, or the ‘book of the law’. These names are actually sort of misleading, because God’s promises to God’s people have always rested on faith and grace, not on law, even in ancient Israel. The law was given to lead God’s people to grace. But Luke’s point is: Jesus dug into the nation’s history.

There are times when understanding history is the only way to understand what is going on in the present.

And I’m not saying that just because I’m a history buff. I am… but I like history because it is the story of real people doing real things, and there’s always something to learn from that. For example, today is Native American Ministries Sunday in the United Methodist Church. Today we remember a part of our nation’s history that we’re not particularly proud of. I can’t help but wonder how different America would be if our ancestors had been wise enough to learn from Native Americans rather than pushing them away. If, for example, they had understood and appreciated the Native American belief in treating land and animals with dignity and respect, how much cleaner would our water and air be today? How many animals would not be threatened with extinction today? Native Americans understood – and still understand – what it means to be good stewards of God’s creation – which is something, quite honestly, Christians have not been very good at throughout history. But knowing what has happened in the past can, if we’re paying attention, improve the present and the future.

In our scripture for today Jesus likewise finds himself in a moment where knowing history is absolutely essential. Of all the lessons Jesus taught his disciples, this one is probably the biggest and most important.

To set the scene: it’s late afternoon on the day after Jesus’ resurrection. In the morning some of the women had gone to Jesus’ tomb and found it empty and guarded by an angel who told them to tell the disciples Jesus was alive and to meet him in Galilee.

The disciples didn’t believe them.

Later in the day a couple of Jesus’ followers walked to the town of Emmaus, about seven miles away, and bumped into Jesus on the road. They didn’t recognize him right away but they talked with him for a long time, and when Jesus broke bread with them they remembered the last supper and realized who he was… and they ran back to Jerusalem and told the other disciples Jesus was alive.

The disciples didn’t believe them.

But while they’re talking about all this, Jesus appears among them. He shows them his hands and feet. The disciples are terrified and can’t believe what they’re seeing. They think they’re seeing a ghost. Jesus says, “why are you afraid? Does a ghost have flesh and bones?” And then he asks if they have anything to eat… something a ghost would never ask!

After the disciples settle down and realize this is really happening, Jesus begins to explain from the scriptures – from the Old Testament – what has happened in the past three days. Luke tells us Jesus talked about “everything written about himself in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms”.

There are many, many references to the Messiah in the Old Testament, so this would have taken some time. I like to imagine all the disciples sitting down to a fish dinner while Jesus is teaching. Luke doesn’t tell us which passages Jesus pointed to, but we can take an educated guess as to what some of them would have been.

Jesus probably started with Genesis chapter three. After Adam and Eve ate the apple and were confronted by God for disobeying his command, God says to the serpent who deceived them:

“Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals… I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:14-15 edited)

Hidden within God’s judgement on the serpent is a promise: one of Eve’s offspring will crush the serpent’s head. Take a look at how one artist has rendered the spiritual reality behind this prophecy. (Credit: Sr. Grace Remington, OCSO)

"Eve and Mary"

“Eve and Mary”

On the left we see Eve, holding the apple in her hand, weeping. The snake is wrapped around her ankles, tripping her up as she tries to walk. On the right we see Mary, pregnant with Jesus, holding Eve’s hand to her belly so she can feel the baby inside her, while Mary’s foot is standing on the snake’s head.

Mary’s baby, Jesus, is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Adam and Eve that one of their children would defeat the serpent. Jesus is the one whose death on the cross pays the price for the human race’s addiction to sin.

Jesus probably also talked to the disciples about Abraham. The great Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity – all look to Abraham as their founder, the man who believed in one true and living God. Abraham predates Moses and therefore predates the law. God says to Abraham,

“I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 26:4)

God’s promise to Abraham is for all the nations. That includes the disciples, and that includes us. The apostle Paul points out in his letter to the Galatians that God said to Abraham “by your seed all the nations will be blessed” not “by your seeds (plural)” (Galatians 3:16) – indicating that the seed is one person, one savior who is to come from the line of Abraham.

Paul goes on to point out Abraham’s salvation was by faith in God’s promise, not through the law (because the law hadn’t been given yet); and likewise we are promised salvation through faith in Jesus, not through the law. Paul writes: “if the inheritance comes from the law, it no longer comes from (the) promise; but God granted it to Abraham through (the) promise.” (Galatians 3:18) So salvation comes through God’s promise, not through the law… in both the Old Testament and the New.

Having reminded the disciples of this, Jesus no doubt would then have gone on to talk about Israel’s experience with Moses. He would have talked about the Passover, how God told Pharaoh through Moses that the firstborn of everyone in Egypt would die if God’s people were not allowed to leave Egypt. Pharaoh threw Moses out. Then God told Moses to tell the people: every household is to take a lamb and cook it and eat it and put the blood over the doors of their homes, and when the angel of death comes that night and sees the blood he will ‘pass over’ that house. So the people paint the lamb’s blood over their doors using a plant called hyssop as a brush. That night the first-born of every living thing in Egypt dies, except in those houses where the blood is over the door. The people of Israel are set free and begin their journey toward the promised land.

The Passover points to Jesus – the ‘lamb of God’ – whose sacrifice and whose blood protects us from death and brings us into God’s promised land of eternal life.

Hyssop is also mentioned in the Psalms, in David’s prayer of confession, Psalm 51. David writes:

“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean…” (Psalm 51:7)

David understands that it is the blood of the Lamb over a person’s heart that saves life, like the blood of the lamb over the door did in Egypt. In writing this, David is pointing to the Messiah.

David was not just King of Israel, he was also a prophet, and many of his psalms look forward to the Messiah. Jesus would certainly have reminded the disciples of Psalm 22, which includes a description of the crucifixion 1000 years before it happened. David writes:

“All who see me mock me; they hurl insults… I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.” (Psalm 22:7,14-18)

David has not only predicted the Messiah’s death, but he describes crucifixion, a form of capital punishment that won’t be invented for another 500 years. And Jesus directs our attention to this Psalm from the cross when he says, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – which is the first line of the psalm.

Having reviewed the Psalms, Jesus then turned to the prophets. He might have pointed to Isaiah, who said this about the Messiah:

“Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning… fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.” (Isaiah 9:5-7)

Isaiah also predicts that the Messiah will suffer. He says in Isaiah 53:

“He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. […] He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death… After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied… For he bore the sin of many…” (Isaiah 53:5-6, 9, 11, 12b)

Isaiah predicted not only Jesus’ crucifixion, but also his burial in a rich man’s tomb, and that the suffering servant would ‘see the light of life’ after having borne the sins of his people.

Jesus probably also reminded the disciples of the parallel between the prophet Jonah – who was three days in the belly of a whale – and the Messiah, who was three days in the grave. He reminded them of the time the Pharisees confronted Jesus and demanded a sign, and Jesus told them:

“A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” (Matthew 12:39-40)

These, and many other passages, Jesus shared with his disciples that night.

And so it was that a few weeks later, Luke tells us Peter and John are in the Temple and they heal a lame man in Jesus’ name and then explain to the crowd what’s going on, quoting the history Jesus has taught them:

“The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate… you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know… God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord…” (Acts 3:13-20 edited)

Peter and John now understood the history behind the events of Holy Week, and they were able to speak from that history with authority. They could point to what was written down – God’s covenants, God’s promises – as the foundation of their personal testimonies.

Like Peter and John we are also called to make the good news of Jesus known. And like them, we do not rely on spoken word alone, but draw from the written history. God’s covenant has been written – in all ages, for all ages, starting from Abraham and Moses and moving forward.

Luke says Jesus called on ‘the law, the psalms and the prophets’, and so can we. May God add understanding to our minds and hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit as we learn our spiritual history from God’s word and share it with others. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 4/19/15

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Recently a friend shared this Huffington Post article15 Things Not to Say to a Recovering Fundamentalist Christian – on social media. I jumped into the conversation, but I’m not satisfied that any of us really heard each other (or even stayed on-topic). It’s far too easy to react from the gut rather than listening from the heart, especially where it comes to personal matters like faith and religion.

The sad truth is too many religious groups are abusive to their members. And the abuse is not limited to Fundamentalism or Christianity. Fundamentalist Islam is training children to be killers while causing the deaths of thousands in the Middle East. HBO recently ran an expose of physical and psychological abuse in the Church of Scientology (Going Clear). And people around the world are still waiting for justice in child molestation cases in Catholic and Protestant churches alike.

What the author of the above article is saying is: remember who you’re talking to. Remember what we’ve been through. Be sensitive to what we’ve suffered.

Look at it this way: if someone we knew went to the city on an errand and was jumped by a street gang, robbed and beaten and left on the street, would we expect them to get up and run home and go to work the next day as if nothing had happened? Wouldn’t we take them to the hospital? See to it that their injuries were treated? Look in on them and visit? Understand if they didn’t feel like going to the city again for awhile?

The injuries suffered by people in abusive churches may not be visible but the scars are just as real, and the wounds need time to heal. Here’s what I mean:

If you had a life-threatening physical injury… If you have had a faith-shattering spiritual injury…
  • Would people expect you to go to work the very next day, ignoring the pain and the doctor’s orders?
  • Do people expect you to go to church the very next week, ignoring the pain?
  • Would people expect you to deny your pain and carry on as if nothing had happened?
  • Do people expect you to deny your pain and carry on as if nothing had happened?
  • Would people expect you to forgive the people who attacked you the very next day?
  • Do people expect you to forgive the one(s) who abused you the very next day?
  • Would people expect you to always have a positive attitude every minute of every day through months of rigorous physical therapy?
  • Do people expect you to always have a positive attitude toward organized religion as you work your way toward regaining spiritual health?
  • Would people look at your injuries and question your commitment to life and good health?
  • Do people hearing about your spiritual abuse question your commitment to God and spiritual health?
  • When you complain that you’re in pain, would people ask you why you’re not grateful for all the things you have?
  • When you say you’ve been abused, do people ask you why you’re not grateful for the good things about religion?
  • When you say “I hope they catch the people who did this to me” are you asked why you hate people so much?
  • When you say, “I hope they put a stop to the people who abused me” are you asked why you hate religious people so much?
  • When you say, “I need to speak out about gang violence” would people tell you to shut up and stop spreading bad news about the community?
  • When you say, “I need to speak out about religious abuse” do people tell you to shut up and stop causing hard feelings toward religion?
  • Would people tell you if you really had faith in God, you would pray and God would heal you immediately with no further need for medical care?
  • Do people tell you if you really had faith in God, you would pray and God would heal your heart and everything would be fine?
  • Would people dismiss or minimize your injuries and walk away?
  • Do people dismiss or minimize your abuse and end the conversation?

So if you’re a person of faith and you know someone who has suffered religious abuse, what can you do to help?

  • Pray for your friend (don’t make a show of it, just do it)
  • Listen, listen, listen.
  • Encourage your friend to share his/her story of what happened to them. Let them know you understand.
  • Don’t try to rush your friend back into church. It may take awhile. In fact your friend may never feel comfortable around organized religion again. It doesn’t mean they’ve lost their faith in God.
  • Don’t try to fix it. Your friend needs time to work through the pain and grieve the loss of innocence. Just be there while they do.
  • Remember your friend also needs time to assess what happened and rebuild healthy boundaries.
  • Do share positive spiritual experiences with your friend – answers to prayer, moments with God, spiritual insights, reflections on the life of Jesus – things that involve God but not organized religion.
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