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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.

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

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

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

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” – John 20:19-31

~

Our scripture reading for today, from the book of John, is at the very tail end of John’s gospel. At the very end of the book, in the last paragraph, in the very last sentence, John tells us why he has gone to the trouble of writing his book. After all, writing books wasn’t easy back in those days. You had to make your own paper and make your own pens. So why did John go to the trouble? He says:

“so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31)

Throughout his book John has emphasized the unique connection between God and Jesus, the eternal nature of their eternal relationship. In fact John opens his gospel with these words:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What [came] into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5) And the Word became flesh and lived among us….” (John 1:14) Or as The Message Bible puts it, “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.”

These are familiar words for those of us who have been raised in the church… so familiar we tend to walk right by them the way we might walk right by a field of dandelions, not noticing the beauty and the awesome healing powers of something so common and everyday.

But John’s purpose in writing is to focus of our attention on, and help us to know better, Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.

To that end John relates the story we heard this morning about what happened in the week following Jesus’ resurrection. I’d like to imagine ourselves there, the whole congregation, a bunch of flies on the wall, and take in what John saw.

The place is Jerusalem… the great city surrounded by a wall, dry, dusty, crowded, with all kinds of smells lingering in the air (some pleasant, some not). It’s the day after the Sabbath in the week following Passover. The disciples have gathered in the great room of a private home, a house made of cut stone, heated by a fireplace, and they’re hiding from the Temple authorities.

Earlier that morning some of the women in the group ventured out to where Jesus was buried and came back wild-eyed saying that Jesus’ body was gone and an angel had told them he was alive and the disciples should all go meet him in Galilee. In fact Mary Magdalene even claimed she had seen Jesus and talked with him!

It is significant in many, many ways that women were the first people to see Jesus alive. But that’s a whole different sermon and I will come back to it someday. For today what we want to notice is the disciples’ grief was so deep they didn’t believe what the women said. It was too good to be true. So they stayed in hiding.

And that’s exactly where Jesus found them.

Even though the doors of the house were locked, Jesus walked right in. John doesn’t go into detail about exactly how Jesus did that, but bottom line is somehow Jesus’ resurrection body was capable of doing a few things his original body couldn’t do. As for the disciples, they hadn’t had much to eat since the Last Supper and hadn’t slept much since that night in the Garden of Gethsemane, so this was… more than they could handle. No wonder the first thing Jesus says to them is, “Peace be with you”!

The disciples needed God’s peace right then – the peace that passes understanding, beyond what the world can imagine. Peace given by the one whose words make it real, given by the one whose words brought peace to the wind and the waves of the Sea of Galilee when the disciples were caught in a storm.

Then Jesus shows them the scars in his hands and his side as proof that he really is himself… and as the moments and thoughts pass in slow motion for the disciples and then slowly come together, their stunned disbelief turns into rejoicing. Their celebrations and bear-hugs were so exuberant Jesus needed to say to them a second time, “Peace be with you!”

And then Jesus gives them an assignment: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

You probably could have heard a pin drop at that point. Send? Go where? Isn’t Jesus coming with us? And then Jesus breathed on each one of them and said “receive the Holy Spirit”. I imagine Jesus taking the face of each beloved disciple in his hands and breathing a blessing on each: “receive the Holy Spirit”… “go in my name”… “I am sending you”. It was like a little mini-Pentecost before the big Pentecost. The disciples receive the Holy Spirit and in the days and weeks ahead they go out and preach in power, healing the sick and spreading the gospel.

But Thomas, one of the twelve, was missing that day. And he refuses to believe any of what he’s being told. He says, “Unless I see the nail prints and put my hand in his side I will not believe.” John doesn’t say why Thomas reacts this way. Maybe he was too stuck in grief to see any hope. Maybe he was too traumatized. Maybe he thinks grief is playing tricks on the minds of his friends. Or maybe, as the Romans claimed, he thinks the disciples stole the body and made up a story about Jesus being raised from the dead. All of these things sound more reasonable than believing someone walked out of the grave alive.

A week later the disciples are together and this time Thomas is with them, when Jesus appears. Answering Thomas point-for-point, Jesus says to him, “Touch the nail prints… Touch my side where the spear went in. Don’t doubt, but believe.”

And as the reality that Jesus is alive breaks over Thomas’ awareness he cries out, “My Lord and My God!” And back in those days “my Lord and my God” was not just an expression, like saying “OMG” on Facebook. Thomas literally means “my lord” – that is, someone who has the right to command me – and “my God” – that is, someone I should worship.

And Jesus accepts this. He does not scold Thomas or say, ‘hey you’re taking this a little too seriously’. Just the opposite: Jesus commends Thomas’s faith. And then, looking as it were over Thomas’ shoulder to those of us not yet born, Jesus says, “blessed are those who have not seen and still believe.”

So what does this scene from early church history mean for us today? Three things I would pull out of this:

  1. Jesus’ resurrection opens the door to eternal life.
  2. The resurrected Jesus gives the Holy Spirit to his disciples.
  3. Eternal life and the Holy Spirit are received by faith in Jesus’ resurrection.

Easter is the very heart and soul of Christian witness and Christian life. Jesus is the only religious teacher in all of history who has ever walked out of the grave alive never to die again. And as hard as that is to comprehend, Peter and many of the disciples suffered violent deaths rather than deny Jesus’ resurrection. It is said “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” and that’s really true. These men and women knew the truth of Jesus’ words when he said, “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) They knew the truth that Jesus was alive, that he had conquered death, and that through him heaven was opened to all of us. The disciples pointed to that way that truth and that life with everything that was in them, so that we could share in eternity with them.

The second thing we see in this passage is Jesus giving the Holy Spirit to his disciples, after which the disciples are empowered to preach and teach and heal. The Holy Spirit is still active in believers today, as John Wesley often taught. But there’s a whole lot of confusion and mis-information out there about the Holy Spirit these days, so a quick definition: the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity and therefore is God. And the Holy Spirit is that aspect of God that indwells believers.

What the Holy Spirit is not is an impersonal power like The Force in Star Wars. In the first Star Wars movie, Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker:

the Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love Star Wars. I’ve probably seen it around 25 times. And that’s just the first movie. And that’s just in the theater, not counting TV. But Star Wars is fantasy. The Force is fantasy… the Holy Spirit, being God, is the ultimate reality. The Force is an impersonal energy field… God is a living being with personality and character, with whom we have a relationship. The Force is something a Jedi manipulates… the Holy Spirit cannot be manipulated. The Force is something a Jedi has to master so that it doesn’t drag him over to the Dark Side… the Holy Spirit cannot be mastered and the Holy Spirit has no dark side. The Holy Spirit has many names in scripture: comforter, guide, advocate, inspiration, and friend.

The Holy Spirit, and the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, and eternal life, are all received by faith. Scripture says, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” We hear God’s word, we believe, and by faith in the victory of Jesus Christ on the cross, we enter into eternal life.

Thomas and the disciples, on the first day of the week, were confronted with the reality of all of this, and it took them a while to process it all. But once they did, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the world has never been the same.

I’d like to close by leading us in a prayer to renew that faith and that Spirit in us. Pray with me…

Lord God we thank you for being who you are
We thank you for the life of Jesus
Who showed us how to live
Who died so our sins could be forgiven
Who rose from the grave victorious over death
And opened the doors to eternal life
We thank you for the Holy Spirit
We pray that you will fill us fresh
With your Spirit
And with the knowledge of your truth and love
Help us to know and love God more
And to love each other as you would have us love
We pray all these things in the holy name of Jesus AMEN.

Easter Morning

It’s Easter morning! After the darkness and sorrow of Holy Week, the sun is finally breaking through. Jesus is alive! The forces of evil cannot win. Death is destroyed and the door to eternal life is opened.

The thing about Easter is, the English language isn’t enough to express the greatness of Jesus’ victory. So much of what people say about Easter is expressed in not-negative terms because we don’t have any other words – so we say things like INdescribable. UNforgettable. IMmeasurable.

So rather than struggling for words what I’d like to do this morning is take us back to Jerusalem (as much as is possible) to be with the disciples on that morning, to see what they saw and hear what they heard.

Jesus had died on a Friday afternoon and was buried just before Sabbath began on Friday night. He was buried in a rich man’s tomb by two of his followers, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus the Pharisee, who up to that point had kept their discipleship secret out of fear of the temple leadership.

The next day, Saturday, the disciples gathered together in a secret place, grieving and shattered, in disbelief and on the cutting edge of despair. But in spite of it all, love didn’t die… so as soon as the Sabbath was over, at the crack of dawn, Mary Magdalene and Mary and Salome went to the tomb with spices to complete Jesus’ burial.

But when they got to the tomb the women saw the stone rolled aside and the grave standing open. Jesus’ body was gone! Shock ran through them adding to the grief as the women wondered who could have stolen his body? They look around and they see a young man, an angel according to Matthew, and he tells them Jesus had been raised and is on his way to Galilee, and go tell the disciples to meet him there.

In their grief the words don’t register.

In our Gospel reading for this morning, the apostle Mark tells us that the women were terrified and ran away… and that’s the end of Mark’s gospel. But John tells us more: he says Mary Magdalene stayed behind in the garden weeping, and she heard a man say to her: “Why are you weeping?”. Taking him for the gardener, she says, “where have you put him? Please tell me.” The voice calls her name, “Mary” – and recognition like a lightning bolt runs through her, and grief turns to unspeakable joy, as she looks up and sees Jesus, alive. Jesus gives her the same message the angel did: “tell my disciples to meet me in Galilee.”

Getting back to the gospel of Mark – something else in Mark’s account stands out. The angel’s message to the women was “go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee…” The disciples and Peter? Peter was the one who, on the night of Jesus’ arrest, denied Jesus three times. To be fair, Peter was also the only disciple with courage enough to follow Jesus to Pilate’s house that night. The rest ran away. But Peter wasn’t quite as ready for what he saw as he thought he was. And when the denials were spoken and the rooster crowed, Jesus met Peter’s eyes, and they both knew… and Peter went out and wept. And that was the last time Peter saw Jesus alive.

After Jesus’ resurrection, Peter is specifically invited to re-join the disciples, otherwise he might hesitate to go with them. But Peter is forgiven and restored through the very death and resurrection he had been afraid to face. And that’s good news for all of us… because if there’s hope for Peter there’s hope for us too. No matter who we are, and no matter what we’ve done in our lives, Jesus’ death wipes the slate clean and the power of Jesus’ resurrection opens the door to new life, for all of us. As the apostle Paul writes in I Corinthians:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Cor 15:54-57)

Jesus’ victory over death is the focal point, and the turning point, of all of human history. And it’s the turning point of each of our personal histories as well. Jesus stands triumphant over the grave, inviting each one of us to forgiveness and new life and a place at the banquet table in God’s kingdom.

As N.T. Wright said recently, because of the resurrection, “the world has become a different place, full of new possibilities, previously unimagined.” And as the great Methodist hymn-writer Charles Wesley put it:

“Love’s redeeming work is done
Fought the fight, the battle won
Death in vain forbids him rise
Christ has opened paradise”

Let us give him all the glory! AMEN.

Preached at Canterbury Place, Easter Sunday, 4/5/15

~

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. (Mark 11:1-11)

This Lent we have been following A Disciples’ Path, and this Sunday is the final installment in the series. This week we look at the Path of Witness. And I’m going to get to that… but this being Palm Sunday I’d like to talk about Palm Sunday first!

Palm Sunday is kind of a strange holiday. On the one hand it’s a celebration, and on the other hand it’s a day of gathering gloom. On the one hand we celebrate the arrival of King Jesus into His royal city… and on the other hand, this is the beginning of the last week of Jesus’ life.

Looking at our reading from the gospel of Mark, let’s become people in the crowd for a moment. As people born and raised in Jerusalem back in those days, what would we see? What would we hear? What would we know

We know Jesus has arrived in town. He’s the prophet from Galilee everyone’s talking about. They say he heals the sick. They say he gives sight to the blind. They say he even raises the dead. They say he’s the most amazing teacher – he speaks with authority, not like the scribes and the Pharisees. They whisper this must be the Messiah. They don’t say it too loudly because the rabbis say anyone who says ‘Jesus is the Messiah’ will be put out of the synagogue. But with all the amazing things he has done, who else could he be?

We’re walking through a small town called Bethany, where Mary and Martha and Lazarus live – Lazarus being one of the people Jesus raised from the dead. Jesus and his disciples are there, and Jesus tells his disciples to go find a colt and bring it, and they do. And he gets on the colt and we all start out in the direction of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem: the city whose name means ‘God’s peace’ is being visited by the Prince of Peace. And as the crowd moves we start to shout and sing. The crowd gets bigger as we walk from Bethany to the Mount of Olives, about a mile’s journey. As we walk, people are cutting palm branches and throwing them in front of Jesus as a sign of praise and respect. At the top of the Mount of Olives, Jesus and the crowd stop for a moment, looking out over Jerusalem.

I’d like to pause our story here just for a moment to share some photographs with you so you can picture what they saw. This is the view of Jerusalem from the top of the Mount of Olives. The city wouldn’t have been quite as large back then, but the old Temple Mount can be seen just to the right of the gold dome.

Jerusalem, from the Mount of Olives

Jerusalem, from the Mount of Olives

The path down the mountain passes through the Garden of Gethsemane. It’s a very peaceful place, and these are olive trees we see, some of them old enough to have been touched by Jesus as He passed.

Garden of Gethsemane

Garden of Gethsemane

On the far side of the Garden the path crosses the Kidron Valley before ascending to the Temple Mount.

So picking up our story, Jesus and everyone in the crowd are at the top of the Mount of Olives looking over Jerusalem. And the crowd begins to sing a praise song written by King David: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” And at the thought of King David, the words of the song change and become, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.”

Jerusalem is the City of David, and Jerusalem is the city of David’s heir, the Messiah. We begin to realize that this, today, at last, is the day our people have been waiting for, for over 1000 years. The king is finally here. The Son of David will sit on David’s throne again! As it says in the prophecy of Zechariah:

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9)

But as the crowd continues to celebrate, the people closest to Jesus begin to realize something’s wrong. In the middle of the celebration, Jesus is weeping. He stops again midway down the mountain, and says, ‘oh Jerusalem!':

“If you… had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:42-44)

The Church of Dominus Flevit ("The Lord Wept") marks the spot where Jesus stopped

The Church of Dominus Flevit (“The Lord Wept”) marks the spot where Jesus stopped

As the crowd reaches the city, Jesus does not go to the palace (as expected) to overturn the throne of Herod and claim the throne for himself. Instead Jesus goes to the Temple and overturns the tables of the moneychangers. The crowd is happy to see this, but a little confused. And then Jesus and the disciples walk back to Bethany for the night.

And the crowd is left wondering: what just happened?

~

Jesus was right. The people of Jerusalem didn’t know what it was that made for peace. They didn’t understand that God’s kingdom is not of this world, and that Jesus’ mission was not to overthrow the civil authorities but to bring in a heavenly kingdom.

In the Old Testament King David wrote:

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: ‘May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.’” (Psalm 122:6-7)

We see in the Palm Sunday story how passionately Jesus loved this city, and across the centuries we join King David in praying for Jerusalem, not just for an end to hostilities, but that the people who live in Jerusalem and the people who visit, as tourists or as pilgrims, will know the Prince of Peace, who is the only one who can bring lasting peace.

So that’s the story of Palm Sunday: a blending of celebration and sorrow, and the beginning of God’s kingdom on earth.

~

So where does that leave us today, and how does it tie in to the Path of Witness?

The book A Disciple’s Path has a lot to offer in its final chapter and I recommend the whole thing to your reading. But for today I’ll just pull out two important questions: What is witness? And what is our story?

Christian witness is primarily sharing Jesus’ love and Jesus’ teaching. Christian witness is also, like Palm Sunday, often a blend of celebration and sorrow. The author of A Disciple’s Path suggests three ways to get started on the path of witness:

  1. begin with friendship,
  2. listen well, and
  3. know our own story and be prepared to share it

Which leads to the second question: what is our story, and how do we share it? The author of A Disciple’s Path gives us an example. He mentions the story of Coventry Cathedral in England. Some of you may remember this or may have heard your parents tell the story.

Coventry Cathedral was built over 1000 years ago. It stood in the center of the town of Coventry, a small English city about the size of Erie PA. There’s a lot of manufacturing in the area around Coventry, not in the town itself, but surrounding it.

During World War II, German bombers targeted the town. There are a lot of stories about why things happened the way they happened, but the bottom line is the bombers somehow missed most of the strategic targets and hit civilian areas instead. On the night of November 14 1940, bombs fell on Coventry for 12 straight hours, dropping over 500 tons of explosives on the town. One of the first things hit was the cathedral. By the time morning dawned, over 500 people were dead and over 1200 injured. Schools, hospitals, churches, shops and over 50,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.

In the months and years that followed, the people of Coventry chose not to clear up the rubble of the old cathedral, but to leave it standing as a witness to the depths of inhumanity human beings are capable of. Yet “shortly after [the bombing]…the cathedral stonemason… noticed that two of the… roof timbers had fallen in the shape of a cross.  He set them up in the ruins… [with the] words ‘Father Forgive’ inscribed on the… wall [nearby].”

The people of Coventry built a new cathedral right next door to the old one, and their mission is to tell their story and to work for peace and reconciliation. They have created what they call “The Community of the Cross of Nails” – a fellowship of churches that were bombed during WWII, including those in Germany bombed by the Allies. The Coventry Cathedral website says this:

“Because of our history, and especially the events of 14 November 1940, we believe Coventry Cathedral has a special responsibility to take the message of reconciliation across the world. We consider this ministry to be our particular calling from God – sometimes described as ‘God’s thumb-print’ on us.”

What I would like to leave all of us with today, each one of us individually and all of us together as a church, is to ask this: What is our history? What is our story that we can share? Where can we see ‘God’s thumb-print’ on us? Can we put it into words and share it with a world that needs to hear it?

~

So to kind of pull things together…

Did you know in Greek, the word for ‘witness’ is spelled m-a-r-t-y-r? The truth is A Disciples’ Path is difficult. The Christian message is not one of easy grace or easy prosperity. A disciples’ path requires prayer and a spirit of generosity and sacrifice and sometimes letting go of what is good for the sake of what is best.

Like Palm Sunday, the Christian message has aspects of celebration and of sorrow. The writer of Hebrews says:

“Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus… who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross…” (Hebrews 12:1-2, edited)

The joy that was set before Jesus is… us! And the joy that is set before us is eternity with Jesus. This is our witness… and this is the good news we share. AMEN.

 

Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hilltop United Methodist Church, 3/30/15

~

The Path of Service

“Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say– ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.” – John 12:20-33

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A number of years ago Bob Dylan recorded a song called Gotta Serve Somebody.  (Here’s Phil Keaggy & friends performing it live…)

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The point of the song is that everybody ends up serving something or someone, sometime in our lives. We may serve a boss, we may serve our family or our church, we may serve our country. Some people serve themselves. The bottom line is, one way or another, all of us serve. The question then becomes: who are we going to serve?

This week is the fifth week in our Lenten series on A Disciple’s Path, and this week we look at the Path of Service. Just like last week when we were on the Path of Generosity and I promised not to talk about money, this week, on the Path of Service, I promise not to talk about volunteering more of your time!

What I’d like to look at instead are two things that go into making up Christian service: (1) God’s call and (2) God’s gifts. And then I’ll wrap up with a few notes on the scripture reading from John.

When God calls people, God calls us individually by name, and God calls us for a purpose. In scripture, God called Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. God called David to be king over Israel. In the New Testament, God called Saul the Pharisee to become Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles.

Many of the examples of God’s calling in the Bible are calls to leadership or to prophecy (or both). But there are other kinds of calling. Jesus called the disciples to be ‘fishers of men’. Jesus called the woman at the well to become the first evangelist. When God calls everyday people like you and me, God usually calls us to everyday things like teaching or hospitality or encouragement. The thing to notice is that we are who we are, and we are called the way we are called, by God’s design.

This is what A Disciple’s Path talks about in the Path of Service. The focus in this chapter of the book is on discovering what gifts God has given each one of us, and then using what we discover about God’s plan for us. Speaking personally I have spent years studying this, and I’ve taught a course in it at the local community college. I believe passionately in discovering our personal gifts, and here’s why. According to a recent poll, somewhere between 50-70% of employees don’t like their jobs. And I believe that often comes from a mis-match between personal gifts and job requirements: people trying to do things they were never designed to do. Both in the work world and in the church, life’s joys come from living into God’s design. Those age-old questions of “who am I?” and “why am I here?” have answers, if we take the time to find them.

Hearing and following God’s call requires that we spend time with God. Otherwise we are in danger of either following our own agenda (instead of God’s) or of overworking and burning out. We are all familiar with the story of Mary and Martha. Jesus comes to their house, and Mary sits at Jesus’ feet listening and learning while Martha is in a fuss getting a meal ready. When she asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her, Jesus answers, “Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things… Mary has chosen the better part.”

Time with Jesus needs to be our very first priority. I think that’s why A Disciples Path starts out talking about prayer and scripture reading and community before it talks about service. The priorities need to be in the right order.

So the Path of Service begins with prayer, bringing our questions and concerns to God, and putting what we have in God’s hands for God’s use. We also need to spend time listening to God, through Scripture, and in the silence of prayer, and in the words of fellow Christians who often notice our gifts before we do.

Secondly, when God calls us, God also gives us gifts to enable us to live into that calling. God’s gifts tend to fall into one of two categories, for lack of better terms: natural talents and spiritual gifts. Natural talents are gifts we’re born with, things we have a knack for: musical talent, for example, or artistic talent, or the ability to build things or fix things or analyze problems. Natural talents are skills that anyone can learn the basics of, but some just have the knack.

Spiritual gifts on the other hand are gifts God gives us when we become children of God (or sometimes later as needed). As it says in A Disciple’s Path, spiritual gifts are “gifts of grace” “different from, although not contradictory to, natural talents.”

So what exactly are spiritual gifts? Spiritual gifts are rooted in the Trinity. God calls us; Jesus sanctifies us; the Holy Spirit indwells us. Spiritual gifts are made possible by the Holy Spirit’s indwelling. Spiritual gifts contain a touch of the supernatural. They have the fragrance of another world, metaphorically speaking. Spiritual gifts are just a wee bit beyond our natural-born abilities because they are gifts from God.

The apostle Paul lists spiritual gifts a number of times in the New Testament. None of the lists are exactly the same but here’s a sampling. From Romans 12:

“For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ… We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy… ministry… teaching…; exhortation… generosity… diligence… compassion… cheerfulness. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good… Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. (Romans 12:4-13, edited)

So this list of spiritual gifts includes prophecy, ministry (Greek diaconian, the word we get “deacon” from), teaching, exhorting (Greek paracaleon – related to the word for Holy Spirit (paraclete) which means ‘comforter’ – someone who “comes alongside” or “parallels” us as we walk the path of life), generosity, leadership, compassion, love, hope, patience, perseverance, hospitality.

In First Corinthians 12 Paul says this about the spiritual gifts:

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord… To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge… to another faith… to another gifts of healing… to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.” (I Corinthians 12:4-11, edited)

So the gifts listed here include words of wisdom, words of knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, and interpretation of tongues.

In Ephesians chapter four Paul adds to the list: apostles (which means ‘sent ones’), prophecy, evangelism, pastoring, teaching, equipping, and building up the church. In Ephesians Paul also includes the purpose of the spiritual gifts, which is to make Jesus known and to lead people to faith in him.

(I should also mention prophecy, which is included in most of Paul’s lists, does not mean ‘predicting the future’. It means ‘speaking God’s truth into a situation’. The best way to describe prophecy is to say it is closely related to the natural gift of intuition.)

At this point the question that often comes up is: are these gifts still relevant today? Does God still give them to people in our day and age? Most people agree that most of the gifts, like prophecy, teaching, exhorting, giving, leading, faith, hope, love, are definitely still in use. The disagreement is over the so-called ‘miraculous’ gifts such as healing and speaking in tongues, and people in every denomination debate over these.

I don’t want to spend too much time on the miraculous gifts, because I think people make too much fuss over them. But I don’t want to ignore them either, because I hardly ever hear anyone talk about them from the pulpit. So I’ll just say this: John Wesley kept meticulous diaries during his fifty years of ministry. He wrote everything down that happened during those fifty years. (When his diaries were first published they filled 20 volumes!) One modern-day biographer took those diaries and read through them and compiled all the miracles Wesley witnessed, and the resulting book is over 200 pages long. Another biographer said this about Wesley: “Wesley neither sought nor denied the supernatural… He warned against regarding extraordinary circumstances as essential (in other words, we don’t need to have miracles to have faith)… and [he also warned] against condemning them… [as] a hindrance to God’s work. (in other words, we shouldn’t get worked up if miracles do happen).” Wesley was extremely balanced in his thinking about miracles – a balance that is typical of Wesley. Having read some of what he has written, his descriptions of miracles strike me as very matter-of-fact, almost like he’s not surprised by them when they happen. He just takes them in stride and goes on with what he’s doing.

So having said that, most of the time most of the spiritual gifts we receive are not the ‘miraculous’ kind. They are the everyday kind. Spiritual gifts, used in God’s way and in God’s timing, bring about God’s healing and wholeness in a broken world. And as the apostle Paul points out in I Corinthians 13, the greatest spiritual gift of all is love. I won’t read the whole chapter (it would take too long) but let me point out the capstones, the beginning and end of that chapter:

“Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still 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…” (I Cor 12:29-I Cor 13:1)

And Paul wraps up the passage saying:

“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy.” (I Cor 13:13-I Cor 14:1)

Paul’s whole chapter on love is really talking about the spiritual gifts.

And love, the gift of love, brings us to our scripture for the day. In this passage, Jesus is facing into what he knows will be his last days on earth and he is preparing his disciples for what is coming. Jesus says he will be laying down his life for all of us. Scripture says “greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

Jesus is inviting us as his servants to follow him. Jesus says “where I am, there will my servant be also” and “whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” Three times in this passage Jesus mentions death and three times Jesus talks about glory. So here we in Lent, and even as we face into the Cross the light of Easter is already beginning to dawn. When Jesus is lifted up, he says, “I will draw all people to myself”. There is glory at the end of his suffering. There is praise for the faithful servant.

In the book of I Peter the apostle Peter, Jesus’ friend, writes to the early church to encourage them in their service, and he says this:

“By God’s great mercy God has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead… In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith – being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (I Peter 1:3-7, edited)

This ‘praise and glory and honor’ Peter talks about is promised by God not only for Jesus, but for all of us also who follow Jesus and serve him. This kingdom glory is where the Disciple’s Path leads.

So with this in mind, let us listen for God’s call in our lives, and use all the gifts God gives us, looking forward to the glory of God’s kingdom. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 3/22/15

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The Path of Generosity

[Jesus said] “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” – John 3:14-21

This is the fourth week in Lent and we are continuing down A Disciple’s Path focusing on spiritual disciplines that can help us grow as children of God. So far we’ve looked at the Path of Grace, the Path of Prayer, and the Path of Community. This week’s focus is on the Path of Generosity.

After giving it some thought, I am not going to talk about money today. A Disciple’s Path has good information in it about John Wesley’s approach to handling money from a Christian perspective, and gives examples of Old Testament and New Testament teaching on wealth. I recommend it to your reading and discussion groups.

But we’ve already had at least two sermons on giving since I came on board last July: the annual stewardship campaign, and one of the weeks in the Advent focused on giving. And I know the doors of this church are still open only because people give sacrificially, and I appreciate that.

I also appreciate the fact that there are a lot of ‘old-school’ Pittsburghers in this congregation – which I mean as a compliment, because old-school Pittsburghers are generous people. Speaking as a native of Philadelphia, in the city where I grew up, you don’t even say ‘hi’ to people on the street, or make eye contact. It’s dangerous and you just don’t do it. When I moved to Pittsburgh I was floored to discover that if I got lost downtown and asked someone on the street for directions, more often than not the response would be “Sure I know where it is. Come with me, I’ll take you there.” That’s generosity.

Old-school Pittsburghers were often raised by parents who worked six ten-hour days a week and depended on each other’s neighbors to look after the kids and keep an eye on the laundry hanging out back. The attitude was, “We’re all in this together.” Even if you couldn’t stand someone you’d still look after their kids in a pinch, or help organize a fund-raising dinner for them if there was a big medical bill to be paid. Pittsburghers have a natural generosity that comes from having survived challenging times.

So instead of yet another sermon about money I thought I’d share a couple of stories about the generosity of God’s people in history and what they have meant to history, and then I’ll wrap up with some brief thoughts on today’s scripture reading.

The first story I wanted to share today has to do with the field of modern medicine. Did you know that hospitals as we know them today would never have come about if not for the generosity of Christians? There were hospitals in the world before Jesus was born, but not as we know them today, and they weren’t for everybody.

I thought I remembered hearing about this some time a long time ago like in high school but I had to double-check my facts on the internet to be sure. Here’s what Wikipedia had to say: The ancient Romans had begun a rudimentary system of health care but it was…

“…the declaration of Christianity as an accepted religion in the Roman Empire [which] drove an expansion of the provision of care. Following the First Council of Nicaea [which, as you recall, was where the Nicene Creed was written] in 325 A.D. construction of a hospital in every cathedral town was begun. […] Some hospitals maintained libraries and training programs, and doctors compiled their medical and pharmacological studies in manuscripts. Thus in-patient medical care in the sense of what we today consider a hospital, was an invention driven by Christian mercy and Byzantine innovation.[14]

“…the first physicians under Muslim rule were Christians or Jews in conquered areas in the 7th century.[20] The first prominent Islamic hospital was founded in Damascus, Syria in around 707AD with assistance from Christians.[21] […] The public hospital in Baghdad was opened… in the 8th century.[22] […] It was headed by (a) Christian physician…

“Medieval hospitals in Europe followed a similar pattern to the Byzantine. They were religious communities, with care provided by monks and nuns. […] Some were attached to monasteries; others were independent… The first Spanish hospital… was supplied with physicians and nurses, whose mission included the care of the sick wherever they were found, “slave or free, Christian or Jew.” [28]

In this bit of history we see the generosity of God’s people making it possible over the centuries for the injured to be healed and the sick to be cured. We’re not talking about a lot of money being donated (there wasn’t a whole lot of money going around in those days). It was a generosity of lifestyle, in the monks and the nuns and the people who worked alongside them. These people taught that everyone should be cared for, and that every life mattered, regardless of background. And their legacy of care and generosity is still with us today.

The second story I’d like to share is from the book of I Samuel and is taken from the life of David. This story tells about both generosity and the lack of it. This story takes place when the prophet Samuel had already anointed David as the next king of Israel but David had not yet been crowned. The current king, Saul, was trying to kill him, so David and a few hundred of his best friends were living in the wilderness far away from Jerusalem.

1 Samuel 25:1-39 Now Samuel died; and all Israel assembled and mourned for him. […] Then David [and his men] got up and went down to the wilderness of Paran. 2 There was a man in Maon, whose property was in Carmel. The man was very rich; he had three thousand sheep and a thousand goats. He was shearing his sheep in Carmel. 3 Now the name of the man was Nabal, and the name of his wife Abigail. The woman was clever and beautiful, but the man was surly and mean… 4 David heard in the wilderness that Nabal was shearing his sheep. 5 So David sent ten young men and… said to the young men, “Go up to Carmel, and go to Nabal, and greet him in my name. 6 [say to him] ‘Peace be to you, and peace be to your house, and peace be to all that you have. 7 I hear that you have shearers; …your shepherds have been with us, and we did them no harm, and they missed nothing, all the time they were in Carmel. 8 Ask your young men, and they will tell you. Therefore let my young men find favor in your sight; for we have come on a feast day. Please give whatever you have at hand to your servants and to your son David.’”

9 When David’s young men came, they said all this to Nabal in the name of David… 10 But Nabal answered David’s servants, “Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants today who are breaking away from their masters. 11 Shall I take my bread and my water and the meat that I have butchered for my shearers, and give it to men who come from I do not know where?” 12 So David’s young men turned away, and came back and told him all this. 13 David said to his men, “Every man strap on his sword!” And… about four hundred men went up after David, while two hundred remained with the baggage.

14 But one of the young men told Abigail, Nabal’s wife, “David sent messengers out of the wilderness to salute our master; and he shouted insults at them. 15 Yet the men were very good to us, and we suffered no harm, and we never missed anything when we were in the fields, as long as we were with them; 16 they were a wall to us both by night and by day, all the while we were with them keeping the sheep. 17 Now therefore know this and consider what you should do; for evil has been decided against our master and against all his house; he is so ill-natured that no one can speak to him.”

18 Then Abigail hurried and took two hundred loaves, two skins of wine, five sheep ready dressed, five measures of parched grain, one hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs. She loaded them on donkeys 19 and said to her young men, “Go on ahead of me; I am coming after you.” But she did not tell her husband Nabal. 20 As she rode on the donkey and came down under cover of the mountain, David and his men came down toward her; and she met them. 21 Now David had said, “Surely it was in vain that I protected all that this fellow has in the wilderness… but he has returned me evil for good. 22 God do so to David and more also, if by morning I leave so much as one [man] of all who belong to him.”

23 When Abigail saw David, she hurried and alighted from the donkey, fell before David on her face, bowing to the ground. 24 She… said, “Upon me alone, my lord, be the guilt; please let your servant speak in your ears, and hear the words of your servant. 25 My lord, do not take seriously this ill-natured fellow, Nabal; for as his name is, so is he; Nabal is his name, and folly is with him; but I, your servant, did not see the young men of my lord, whom you sent. 26 Now then, my lord, as the LORD [God] lives, and as you yourself live, since the LORD [God] has restrained you from bloodguilt and from taking vengeance with your own hand, now let your enemies and those who seek to do evil to my lord be like Nabal. 27 And now let this present that your servant has brought to my lord be given to the young men who follow my lord. 28 Please forgive the trespass of your servant; for the LORD [God] will certainly make my lord a sure house, because my lord is fighting the battles of the LORD [God]; and evil shall not be found in you so long as you live. 29 If anyone should rise up to pursue you and to seek your life, the life of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of the living under the care of the LORD your God; but the lives of your enemies he shall sling out as from the hollow of a sling. 30 When the LORD [God] has done to my lord according to all the good that he has spoken concerning you, and has appointed you prince over Israel, 31 my lord shall have no cause of grief, or pangs of conscience, for having shed blood without cause or for having saved himself. And when the LORD [God] has dealt well with my lord, then remember your servant.”

32 David said to Abigail, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who sent you to meet me today! 33 Blessed be your good sense, and blessed be you, who have kept me today from bloodguilt and from avenging myself by my own hand! 34 For as surely as the LORD the God of Israel lives, who has restrained me from hurting you, unless you had hurried and come to meet me, truly by morning there would not have been left to Nabal so much as one [man].” 35 Then David received from her hand what she had brought him; he said to her, “Go up to your house in peace; see, I have heeded your voice, and I have granted your petition.”

36 Abigail came to Nabal; he was holding a feast in his house, like the feast of a king. Nabal’s heart was merry within him, for he was very drunk; so she told him nothing at all until the morning light. 37 In the morning, when the wine had gone out of Nabal, his wife told him these things, and his heart died within him; he became like a stone. 38 About ten days later the LORD struck Nabal, and he died.

39 When David heard that Nabal was dead, he said, “Blessed be the LORD who has judged the case of Nabal’s insult to me, and has kept back his servant from evil; the LORD has returned the evildoing of Nabal upon his own head.” Then David sent and wooed Abigail, to make her his wife.”

Of all the stories I’ve ever heard about how people have met their spouses, this one takes the cake!

Other than that, this story seems a bit strange to modern ears. After all, these events took place over 3000 years ago. By our standards, it makes sense that all the sheep and all the harvest and everything belonged to Nabal, the property owner – to our ears it sounds like he had the right to do what he chose to do with what belonged to him.

But that’s not how people thought in the ancient Middle East. Back in those days, living in a semi-desert area, where people had no electricity or running water or heat (other than fire), resources were precious. It was considered a person’s duty – not a religious duty, just a human duty – to feed any travelers that passed through, because it could mean the difference between life and death. And in the case of David, there was one other thing to consider: a tradition, an old and strong tradition in that culture. A large estate like Nabal’s would have attracted robbers and sheep-stealers and all kinds of unsavory characters. It was not unusual for young, unattached men like David and his friends to act as protectors on an estate like this, like rangers guarding the perimeter. That’s why David tells his messengers to say to Nabal, “your shepherds have been with us, and we did them no harm, and nothing went missing….” They did Nabal a service. And cultural norms dictated that Nabal share his good fortune with the ones who had helped to protect it. His refusal to do so was an insult worthy of battle.

Nabal was foolish. That’s what is name means, translated from the Hebrew, it means “fool”. That’s why his wife says, “his name is ‘Nabal’ and he is a fool”. Abigail, on the other hand, demonstrates the generosity of the desert people: she presents David with 200 loaves of bread, five sheep, wine, and piles of figs and raisins and grain. That’s the way things were supposed to be.

This story is more than just history though; it’s also an allegory. It’s a picture of life. Nabal represents the world’s way of doing things: profiteering, greedy, selfish, short-sighted, living only for today. The Bible calls this foolishness, because Nabal doesn’t realize that death is right around the corner. Jesus tells a similar story of another rich man in Luke 12 – a man who says to himself, “eat, drink, and be merry,” but God says to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you…”

Abigail by contrast represents God’s faithful people, acting wisely. Abigail’s name in Hebrew means “my father is joy” – and for God’s people our Father IS joy. There is always enough and to spare in our Father’s house. There is always enough here to make a stranger welcome. As Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God… and all these things will be added to you.” Just as Abigail seeks first David’s kingdom and his joy – and she ends up a queen (!), in the same way the people of God seek first God’s kingdom and God’s joy, and we end up the bride of Christ.

And so in the story David represents Jesus. Jesus, like David, comes to the world looking for what is rightfully his own, only to be insulted and turned away and thrown out; but God’s people hear his voice and are wise enough to do what is right. And when the time is right, David – and Jesus – both become King.

Finally I’d like to take a quick look at our scripture reading for today.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)

The apostle John describes our world as being like Nabal: foolish. The world loves darkness because evil can hide in the darkness. The world hates light because light exposes evil for what it is. The world is not condemned by Jesus because the world in its foolishness condemns itself. But Jesus gives his life for this world so that anyone, regardless of their background or their past, anyone who wants to leave the darkness behind and live in the light of God’s truth can do so by believing in Jesus and trusting Him. This is the ultimate in generosity: we receive life with God forever by faith and through grace.

Christian generosity is not something we do because we’re required to. It’s not something we do to get into heaven. Eternal life is a gift of God, and there’s nothing we can do to earn it. We practice generosity because we are God’s children, and as God’s children, we want to grow up to be like our heavenly Parent. We are like kids trying on their parents’ shoes when we imitate God’s generosity. And as we clomp around in shoes too big for us, God smiles like a parent and says knowingly, “They sure grow up fast.”

It all comes down to a choice, really. Nabal or Abigail? Foolishness or wisdom? Darkness or light? Hard-heartedness or generosity? Death or eternal life?

Seems to me the choice is obvious. Amen.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church 3/15/15

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The Path of Community

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. – John 2:13-22

The time is right before the national holiday of Passover: the celebration of freedom from slavery. The place is the outer courts of the temple in Jerusalem, at the top of the temple mountain, with the city at its feet.

Jesus and the disciples are there in the outer courts of the temple. And Jesus is royally ticked off. He’s found some leather, and sits weaving the strips into a whip. As he does you can see the temperature rising.

When he’s done, Jesus takes the whip and starts a stampede. The outer courtyard of the temple is crowded with sacrificial animals up for sale – cows and oxen and sheep and goats – and all of a sudden, with Jesus behind them, they take off, running in every direction down the hill and into the city streets. Can you picture the scene?

Then Jesus throws over the tables of the moneychangers and all the coins go flying, rolling over the stone floors and into the streets. I like to think that some of the poor beggars sitting near the temple got their bills paid that day.

In the middle of all this the priests come dashing out and confront Jesus and demand to know who-he-thinks-he-is to be doing such things.

The disciples meanwhile remember the words of the prophets, who said of the Messiah:

“Zeal for God’s house consumes me”.

Or in more modern language, “I’m on fire for God’s house.”

What does that mean, to be “on fire for God’s house”? And what does that have to do with the Path of Community we’re looking at today?

First question first. When Jesus is described as being ‘on fire for God’s house,’ the prophets are not talking about the physical temple. Jesus himself predicts the destruction of the temple that happens in the year 70AD. Granted, places of worship are beautiful and meaningful. But there’s an important question to ask: if the building God’s people worship in disappears tomorrow, would we still be the church?

As the congregation up at Hill Top, has discovered since last year’s fire, the answer is yes. Because the church is not the building, the church is the people. So when Jesus is described as being passionate about God’s house, we’re talking about Jesus being passionate about God’s people, about us.

Getting back to the scene: Jesus shouts at the moneychangers:

“Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

Or, in other words, ‘God’s people are not your emporium’. (Emporium is the literal word in the Greek. It’s not just a small business, it’s more like a shopping mall.) Jesus says, ‘God’s people are not your commercial enterprise.’

And then Jesus is confronted by angry temple priests who have no clue what he’s going on about. These men who are supposed to represent God to the people have gotten so used to seeing the people of God as a source of profit that they demand that Jesus defend his actions! They say:

“What sign can you show us?”

— without even realizing they’ve just witnessed a sign.

Jesus takes advantage of this teachable moment and draws a parallel between the temple and his own body. Actually it’s a three-way parallel: between the temple building, the ‘body of Christ’ or God’s faithful people, and Jesus’ physical body. All three – the building, the people, and Jesus’ body – are the dwelling place of God. All three are being desecrated by men who claim to represent God. All three are about to be cleansed and made whole by God’s Messiah.

This passage is a picture of how passionately Jesus loves us, and how passionately Jesus hates injustice. The temple system he overturned that day wasn’t just commercialism. It was that; but the animals were there because they were required for worship, for sacrifice. But the people couldn’t sacrifice just any animal. The sacrifice had to be a perfect animal, according to the law of Moses: an “animal without blemish”. And you can bet if the people brought an animal from back home on the farm, the temple inspectors would find a blemish. So they had to buy animals perfect enough to sacrifice. And they couldn’t buy these animals with Roman coins. The Roman emperor – whose face was on the coin – claimed to be a god and you couldn’t bring false gods into the temple. So you had to change your money from Roman coins to temple coins. And you can bet the exchange rate was a bit high. So God’s holy house had become a place where people were ripped off before they were even allowed inside to worship.

And that’s not all. These animals and moneychangers were set up in the outer courts of the temple. The inner courts were for Jewish worship; the outer courts were for the seekers and the Gentiles, the foreigners and the beggars. The very people who needed God most were being crowded out of God’s house.

Jesus was royally ticked off. Praise God!

So what does this scene have to do with the Path of Community? The community of believers, also known as the Church or the Body of Christ, faces injustice today just like God’s people did back then. There are still people around today who see us as their own personal marketplace. I got something in the mail awhile back from a ministry out in Ohio saying “pray on the enclosed prayer mat” They had enclosed a decorative piece of paper about the size of a place mat that you were supposed to put on the floor and kneel down on. The instructions said: “pray on this mat and ask God how much money God wants you to send our ministry.”

Not quite as bad, there’s Christian merchandise and Christian books and Christian music – which I enjoy – but it’s become big business, and there are many stories of believers who go to work for these companies and walk away disillusioned.

And there are churches that lift up an impossible standard of perfection in Christian living, so much so that people who are single or divorced or childless or sick or poor or out of work or in recovery don’t feel welcome because they don’t measure up.

The community of believers should not be like this. And Jesus is as ready today as He was back then to cleanse the church, with the power of His death and resurrection.

Which leads us to the Lenten discipline of the path of community. So what is Christian community all about? There’s a lot that could be said, but five things I want to look at today:

  1. As the Body of Christ, we are one. This may sound a little strange given that there are hundreds of denominations in the world. Christian unity has proven to be elusive for the past 2000 years. Nonetheless, everyone who believes in God and in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord is a child of God and a member of God’s family. We are one in Jesus.
  2. The Christian community is counter-cultural; it goes against the grain of the culture around us. Christians believe what Jesus said about the last being first and the first being last. We believe that the poor and the meek and the persecuted and the lovers of peace and the children are the greatest in God’s kingdom… not the rich or the powerful or the popular.
  3. Christian community is a place where anyone can find welcome. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done. The door is open, and we can offer a hot meal if it’s needed, or a listening ear, or a shoulder to lean on, or a prayer.
  4. Christian community is not found in just one place. It can be found wherever two or more believers are gathered together, anywhere around the world. One of the greatest joys I find in travel – across this country or in other countries – is meeting and getting to know believers from all kinds of places. People who love our Lord can be found everywhere on this planet. And wherever they are, Christian community is. They belong to us and we belong to them.
  5. The Christian community also extends through time. Jesus said that when God says, “I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” that God is not the God of the dead but of the living. So Christian community includes our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents; our ancestors who came across the ocean; and the ancestors who stayed in the old country. Christian community includes the saints: John Wesley and Martin Luther and John Calvin and St. Benedict and Peter and Paul, and Abraham and Isaac. The community of faith is forever. Even death cannot end it.

These five things are a large part of why it’s important not to give up on coming to church. Yes, we can worship God on the golf course… but not as part of the community. When we gather together as a community, we worship, we celebrate the sacraments, and we send people out to do mission, locally or around the world. We pray, and we study and learn, and we serve – together. And the fact that you’re here today tells me most of you already know how important Christian community is. You’re here, and I’m preaching to the choir. But it’s good to hear anyway.

So what does this mean for us today? I think this: to ask ourselves where are we in Jesus’ scenario? Where do we find ourselves in the community? Are we among the worshipers in the inner courts, praying and praising God, enjoying God’s presence? Are we in the outer courts, where we can hear the praise and worship happening on the inside, but things seem worldly and commercial where we’re standing, and God feels kind of far away? Are we outside the temple completely, on the city streets, unsure about anything, unsure about God, but feeling strangely drawn to this man from Galilee?

To anyone who is here today who is feeling unsure about God, or feeling like an outsider, I want to say this: It takes a lot of courage to feel the way you feel and still set foot inside a church. I admire that kind of courage and I’m glad you’re here. Jesus said, when He was talking about His body, “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” He was talking about His death and resurrection, which is the heart of our faith and the reason for our hope. The grave could not hold Jesus. The grave could not defeat His love. If you get nothing else out of today, take that faith and that hope with you.

To anyone who is here today feeling like they’re in the outer courts, feeling like God is far away: I want to say this: don’t let the world distract you, and don’t let people who make a show of religion discourage you. God has called all people to Jesus and that includes you. God loves you, and it’s your turn to enter into the inner courts.

And to those who are in the inner courts, enjoying fellowship with God and the family of faith – praise God for you! Just remember one thing: remember the people in the outer courts. Invite them in, help them feel at home.

The Path of Community is an intentional journey. We are being built up into the Body of Christ day by day. And that can’t happen if we’re not here. We are called into God’s family. Let us live into that calling, cleansed and defended, created and redeemed by our Lord Jesus Christ. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 3/8/15

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