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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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“My Beloved Had a Vineyard”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

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

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 “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him,  7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.  8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.  9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,  10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.  11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ,  12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.  13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,  14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.  15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.  17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.  18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind,  19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.” – Colossians 2:6-19

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As some of you know, I just back from England a few weeks ago.  And as most of you know, a few weeks before that, I threw a disc in my back.  When that happened I almost canceled the trip, but my friend and I really wanted to go, so I gritted my teeth and got packing.

So… in the do-as-I-say-and-not-as-I-do department… I don’t recommend traveling with a bad back, let alone overseas!  But I also have to say I’m grateful for the people who, back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, fought for the rights of handicapped people to access public places.  Because of them, the airports and hotels we visited were well-equipped to deal with my physical issues, and they made us as comfortable as possible.

My friend and I made this effort to get to England because we had signed up to take a class at Oxford under one of the leading theologians of our day: the retired Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright. He’s not as well known in the States yet as in the U.K., but he spoke at Duke when Pastor Matt was there, and both he and I are familiar with Wright and we like his teaching.  So given the chance to take a class with him, my friend and I jumped at the opportunity.  And we were not disappointed.  I’ll be sharing with you the things we learned… probably for the next year!

One of the things I came away with was N.T. Wright has this big-picture view of Scripture: a view that says everything from Old Testament, to the Psalms, to the Gospels, to the New Testament, all works together to tell a story – which is a refreshing point of view when I hear people say things like “the Old Testament so old it’s not relevant any more”.  The big-picture story makes the Old Testament relevant. And the big-picture story is the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Our scripture reading for today from Colossians is a great example of a small excerpt of scripture fitting into the big picture, because it points to Jesus’ death and resurrection and how, through it, we can enter into the Kingdom of God.

So… if Pastor Matt preached the sermon he was hoping to preach last week, he talked about Colossae, an ancient city that was in the country we now know as Turkey. It was on a major road used for trade and military travel, so there was a real mix of people who lived and worked there. And Colossae was famous for its wool trade. But it was also famous for the way its people came up with new and different ways of mixing and combining the religions of the people who lived there.  They took bits and pieces of the Jewish faith, Greek philosophy, and the Greek and Roman gods, and mixed it all together.

This mixing of religions is called syncretism.  Most religions believe syncretism is not a good thing because it waters down the message of their faith, whatever faith it may be.  In fact it tends to lead people into a kind of agnosticism, a ‘not-knowing’, because if every faith has the truth how can one be sure of any faith?  Comedian Michael Palin of Monty Python put it this way: when asked about his religious beliefs, and he said, “I’m an agnostic, but I’m not sure about that.”  This is often the result of living in a syncretistic culture – which we live in, just as the Colossians did.

The church at Colossae, however, managed to avoid this syncretism. They stayed true to Jesus and to the Gospel message. And Paul praises them for this, and he says he thanks God for the Colossians’ faith and for their love for each other.

So that’s how the book of Colossians begins.  Today we move on to the next section of Paul’s letter, in which he warns the Colossians about spiritual dangers. He points out (1) the Colossians were living in a prosperous society. They had money, and their culture was becoming powerful and worldly; and (2) because of its religious experimentation, the Colossian culture was losing its sense of direction. And Paul wanted to spare the Colossian church the troubles that might come from these things.

Paul says a lot in this chapter… far more than we can cover this morning. For now I’d like to focus on just three things:

  1. Paul warns the Colossians against being taken captive
  2. Paul lists some dangers facing the Colossian church
  3. Paul explains how the Cross sets them free in Christ

The warning against being taken captive is found in Colossians 2:8. Paul says, “see to it that no one takes you captive”.

This probably surprised the Colossians, because they probably didn’t think of themselves as in danger of being taken captive. It would probably surprise us too, if someone said to us “don’t let anybody take you captive.” We think of ourselves as living in “the land of the free and the home of the brave” – how could we be taken captive?

Truth is captivity happens every day. People fall captive to addiction, for example: alcohol, drugs, sex, pornography – they can’t break free from these things. Then there’s human trafficking – the sale of human beings – which has become the second fastest growing crime, second only to the drug trade.

When people hear ‘human trafficking’ they usually think ‘prostitution’ but that’s always not the case. I remember a few years ago when I was working at another church in Pittsburgh area, a stranger came into the church and asked to talk to the pastor. He said he’d taken a job building houses and he said the construction crew was being forced to sleep on the floor of the house they were building, without electricity, without water, without heat. He managed to escape and found our church and he was asking for help so he wouldn’t have to go back. Turns out the man came to the right place, because our pastor, in his first career, had been a lawyer, so he knew exactly what to do.

These are just some examples of how people in our society can become captives. There are other ways that don’t show as much. Some people are captive to bad habits; or captive to negative thinking; some people are captive to fear.  These things may not endanger our lives but they rob us of the joy God intends for us.

So Paul starts out by warning against captivity.  He points out that whole history of God’s relationship with God’s people is about setting God’s people free!  From the very beginning, with the ancient Israelites escaping slavery in Egypt, to the New Testament where the people of God escape slavery to sin through the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the whole Bible is about freedom… and about the power to throw off our chains, by God’s grace, and move into the Promised Land of God’s Kingdom.

Paul then goes on to warn the Colossians about specific dangers he sees in society.  Paul doesn’t list all the possible dangers but he focuses on the ones people are most likely to come up against.  And he names four specifically: philosophy; deceit; human tradition, and the elemental spirits.  Let’s take a look at each one briefly.

First, philosophy.  Most of us have not studied ancient Greek philosophy, but our modern world is more influenced by Greek philosophy than we realize. Democracy, for example, was originally a Greek idea.  And in our society, beliefs about what happens when a person dies are often more Greek than Biblical. The idea that heaven is a place up there in the sky where our spirits go after our bodies are gone is purely Greek! The Bible teaches no such thing.  Scripture teaches resurrection of the body, not separation from the body, and it teaches a new heaven and new earth. God’s Kingdom is a place where we will live in new bodies on a new earth. That’s just one example of how philosophy can change our thinking without us even being aware of it. Our hope, for this life and the next, is not found in philosophy, but in Jesus Christ.

The second thing Paul mentions is deceit. In other words, lies. Lies are a problem on a daily basis but I think Paul is talking here more about deceit on a cultural level.  Miscarriages of justice, for example. Leaders who don’t speak the truth. These things wear on our spirits, they make us angry, or sometimes afraid for the future. Paul says in Jesus Christ we have hope and we have nothing to fear.  So beware, Paul says, of being taken captive by lies and by the negative feelings that follow.

The third thing Paul mentions is human tradition.  Paul is not saying all traditions are bad – far from it. He’s just saying some traditions can get out of control sometimes, especially if we forget why the tradition is there in the first place.  Take for example the tradition of not eating meat on Fridays. Way back in the early days of Christianity, the Church taught the spiritual discipline of fasting.  Fasting can be a good thing, it can help us draw closer to God, it can help us to understand God.

And because it can be a good thing, the early Catholic Church taught people the spiritual discipline of fasting. They said to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. As time went on, this rule was relaxed and changed to just Fridays. Later still, it was relaxed again and changed to just ‘don’t eat meat on Fridays’. And so to this day some churches still teach that people shouldn’t eat meat on Fridays.

And so the original spiritual discipline of fasting – of not eating at all on a given day in order to remember the hungry – in our day has become… the tradition of having Fish Frys on Fridays!

Now don’t get me wrong – I LOVE a good fish fry! But there’s a problem (1) if eating fish on Fridays becomes a rule, something people are told God requires, because nowhere in the Bible does it say “go thou and eat fish on Friday.”  (2) Fasting in the Bible has to do with our relationship with God, not our relationship with food. It has to do with sharing the experience of the hungry, and praying for the hungry, and giving so that hungry people can eat. Fish frys don’t do this – unless we find some way to, at the same time, remember the poor and the hungry.

Bottom line, there’s a difference between human tradition and God’s commands. And we need to be careful not to get trapped by tradition and dragged off course.

The fourth thing Paul mentions is elemental spirits.  This is kind of hard to define; it has to do with the fact that there is more to the universe – and more to our world – than just what we can see and touch and measure.  The Kingdom of God, for example, is not something we can see right now, but it exists.  Generally speaking we don’t see angels, but they exist. Powers for good and powers for evil exist.  The spiritual world is real.

This is why scripture warns us not to do things like going to fortune-tellers or palm-readers, or taking part in séances or dabbling in witchcraft.  As Christians we know God is in charge.  God is who we turn to when we’re in trouble or need advice.  To turn in any other direction is to turn away from God. That’s why the First Commandment is “thou shalt have no other gods but me”.  We have one God, the true and living God, and that’s all we need.

Paul goes on to say in verse 10, “Jesus is the head of all rulers and authorities.” Jesus is not just some power or force. Jesus has disarmed the spiritual powers, Paul says, “making a show of them.” Jesus Christ is the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the Power of powers.  Paul adds, “we are together in Christ… we are made alive together with him.” “Don’t let anyone rob you of your prize!”

And with these words Paul then proclaims our freedom in Christ.   He says we have been buried together with Jesus in baptism, raised through faith in the power of God who raised Jesus from the dead.  We, who were dead in our sins, God made alive through Jesus.  “Therefore,” Paul says, “let no one pass judgement on you” with regard to traditions or spiritual practices. Let nothing take you captive. Hold onto Jesus who is above all, the head of the body, who brings all the parts of the body together.

This is Kingdom living.  We trust God, for all that we need, for all that we do, and for the life to come, because Jesus has gone before us and opened the way.

So what does this all mean to us in practical terms?  In spite of Paul’s deep theology, his conclusion is pretty straightforward: every person has a choice.  Will we invest our lives, our time and our energy, in the kingdom of this world, or in the Kingdom of God? Will we follow the powers of this world and submit to them? Or will we follow Jesus and submit to him?

Jesus said, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  No earthly power ever said that (or if they did they were lying!)

Where it comes to citizenship in the Kingdom of God, or citizenship in the kingdom of this world, we cannot hold dual citizenships. Either we are citizens of God’s kingdom and just visiting this world; or we are citizens of this world and just catching a glimpse of God’s kingdom from a distance. We can’t be dedicated to both at the same time.  This is what Jesus meant when he said, “No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve both God and mammon.”  (Matt 6:24)

So the bottom line of Paul’s teaching for today is that we live in a place and a time where two kingdoms are in conflict. The kingdom of this world is passing away. The Kingdom of God is about to come in.  That’s why Jesus preached, through all the gospels, “the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news!” That was his message, over and over. Change direction and head for the Kingdom of God.

So which kingdom will we choose? Which power will we serve? If anyone here has not made that decision yet: don’t wait any longer. The Kingdom of God is at hand.  And Jesus is calling you.

Choose.

Today.

AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church 7/24/16

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Scripture Readings: Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities- all things were created through him and for him. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”  (Col 1:15-16, 19-20)

Sabbath Living: The Hope of Glory

I have been wanting to preach a sermon about the Sabbath for a long time. And our scriptures for today, even though they don’t mention the Sabbath directly, tie into it. So I’m going to start out talking about the Sabbath today, and then tie in the scripture readings and see where they take us.

As many of you know, before I became a pastor I directed a church choir for many years. And I loved my choir. But there was one thing they did that bugged me.  Every fall I would get calls or emails from some of my choir members saying “I can’t be there Sunday, sorry.” And if I asked “why?” they would say “Steelers game.” And I would say “But church ends at noon, and the game starts at one… what’s the problem?” (Apparently I just didn’t get it.)

Finally one day I looked at my choir and I said “God… Football… Weigh them in the scales: which is more important? God? Or football?”

(The very fact that I would ask that question is a dead giveaway that I was not born and raised in Pittsburgh!)

But it got me to thinking: how did we, as Americans, as Pittsburghers, as churchgoers, get to where we are with the Sabbath? I mean, when I was a kid the stores were all closed on Sundays. You didn’t work on Sundays (unless you worked at a hospital). You didn’t play sports on Sundays (unless you were a professional athlete).  I don’t even remember watching TV on Sundays (except for the Ed Sullivan Show, and that was on at night). Sundays were for going to church and then having dinner with your family… better still, with your extended family. Sundays were a day to relax.

These days we don’t have Sunday any more, not like that. Employers expect people to work any day of the week.  Schools and sports coaches demand our children’s time (or our grand-kids’ time) every day of the week. And stores have sales on Sundays to compete for what little time we have left on weekends.

It’s no wonder church attendance has dropped. Church has become, for many people, just one more thing to do, one more demand on our limited weekend time.

And if I sound like somebody who’s missing the good ol’ days, I’m not. I could tell stories about the ‘good ol’ days’.  But my experience with my choir made me start to re-think things.  Were we missing something back in those old days? Are we missing something now?

In looking for answers to these questions I came across a book called To Be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin. It’s standard reading for Jewish families.  And I chose a Jewish author because the Sabbath has its roots in Judaism. It started with Moses and the Ten Commandments.

You remember the Fourth Commandment.  God says:

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11)

This law comes before the laws against murder, theft, adultery, false witness and coveting! Why? Why was God so serious about keeping the Sabbath?

The Jewish people have had thousands of years to wrestle with these question. So I turned to a Jewish expert for some answers.

Rabbi Donin writes that the Jewish people have a great love for the Sabbath. They sometimes call it ‘the Sabbath Bride’ because they love it so much.

He says looking at it from the outside, Sabbath rules (like no working) may seem restrictive – ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that’ – but in reality it’s just the opposite.  The Sabbath is, in his words, “a glorious release from weekday concerns, routine pressures, and even secular recreation. It is a day of peaceful tranquility, inner joy, and spiritual uplift.” And after a week like the one we’ve had this week – with everything that has happened in the news — couldn’t we use a bit of peace, joy, and spiritual uplift?

The author also says the Sabbath speaks to us of  “…the eternal Paradise, of the world to come, [which will be] one long extended, unending, eternal Sabbath day.”

In other words, the Sabbath is meant to be a small picture, a taste, of eternity with God – a living picture of God’s Promised Land – where all earthly concerns will be behind us.  A world in which the powers and obligations of this world will be things of the past.

The Sabbath is one day out of seven when we can, with God’s blessing, tell the world to knock it off. It speaks to us of God’s justice, because God says all workers get time off. And it speaks to us of God’s joy and love, because it’s family time for the family of God.

For Jewish people, the Sabbath begins on Friday night at sundown. Friday dinner is served as if an honored guest were coming to visit: the best dishes are laid out, and the family dresses as if for company. Candles are lit. Prayers are said. Parents lay hands on their children and bless them in God’s name. And as dinner is eaten, songs are sung and celebration is in the air. Saturday morning the family goes to synagogue, and then the rest of the day is free to enjoy: to spend time with friends, visit neighbors, or enjoy some rest or a good meal. The Sabbath day continues all day until the stars come out on Saturday night.

Doesn’t that sound like a soothing break from our crazy pace of life? Doesn’t it make you hungry for something our society is missing? It does for me. It is a taste of the future, it’s a taste of God’s kingdom.

The apostle Paul knew all of this: knew it better than most of us, because he was a Pharisee. He was trained in Jewish law.  But he says in Galatians that Christians don’t have to keep Jewish law any more. Did he mean to include the Sabbath in that? Did he mean the Ten Commandments aren’t law for us any more? Yes, basically.  But does that mean we should disobey the Ten Commandments? Are we allowed to go around killing and stealing and lying? Of course not.

The Ten Commandments are still a good thing, guidelines for living. So we ignore the Sabbath at our own risk. Not because salvation is about keeping the law… but because if we miss it, we are missing someing really important. We miss out on rest that our bodies and minds and hearts and souls need. And we miss out on catching a glimpse of the coming kingdom of God. Sabbath points us in the direction of our future with Jesus in Paradise.

Listen to what Paul says in our reading from Colossians today:

“He (that is Jesus) is the image of the invisible God.” The word image in Greek is icon, and it has the same meaning as the word ‘icon’ in our day: it’s a picture that represents or stands in for something.  Jesus is the icon of God. And just like Jesus is the icon of God, the Sabbath is the icon of eternal life: a picture of what eternity looks like.

Paul says: “By him (that is, Jesus) all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible; thrones, dominions, rulers, authorities – all things were created through him and for him.”

And if Jesus was there in creation, as Paul says he was, then Jesus was also there on the seventh day when God rested.  Creation and the Sabbath are linked together, in such a way that they can’t be torn apart.

Paul goes on to say: Jesus is “the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead… in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” And Jesus has reconciled us to God in his body by his death. Paul says this is “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.” The mystery is: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

This is Kingdom-talk.  In the book of Colossians Paul is teaching the Colossians about the Kingdom of God, about the rule of Christ. He is teaching them that, because Jesus is King and because Jesus is in us… he is in us, and he is in the Kingdom, and we are in Him, so we are in the Kingdom. Christ in us, the hope of glory.

The Kingdom will be a place where Jesus will rest from all he has done for us; and we with him, and in him, and he in us.  The kingdom and the Sabbath are related. Intertwined. That’s why the Sabbath is so holy, and why it’s so important.

So having heard what Paul has to say, we turn to the story of Mary and Martha.  And we see Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening, while Martha is rushing around, preparing food, serving guests, trying her best to be the ‘hostess with the mostess’.

It’s clear from the story that Jesus honors Mary’s choice over Martha’s… but why? Is Jesus saying it’s better to sit and learn than it is to be busy working? No! Disciples of Jesus are called to work just as much as we are called to learn.

But when I look at this story in the Greek, what I see is Mary being with Jesus – not just physically with, but emotionally with, spiritually with Jesus: following his words, following his thoughts. She’s being a disciple. Martha, on the other hand, is drawn away from Jesus by all her worrying and fretting. She feels alone and left out. She’s feeling at the end of her rope. Martha wants her sister’s company. She wants her sister to help her. And it’s not a bad thing that Martha’s asking for… it’s just not the right way or the right time.  Mary didn’t left her sister alone; Mary made a choice. And Martha also made a choice to do what she’s doing. And Jesus hints that Martha still has time to change her choice if she wants to.

What I come away with in this story is that if we find ourselves feeling anxious, distracted, troubled, bothered… we may need to put things down for a little while and spend some time with the Lord like Mary does. In other words, Martha needed a Sabbath! And Mary was taking one.  Our picture of Mary – sitting peacefully at Jesus’ feet listening to his words – is a beautiful picture of Sabbath rest. And that’s why Jesus says she has chosen the better portion.

So what does all this mean for us today? I think three things:

  • First off it may seem strange to be talking about Christians taking a break after a week like this one. The world around us needs Jesus desperately, and we Christians need to be about God’s business, proclaiming the gospel, speaking God’s truth, bearing witness to God’s love in a world that is spinning out of control. But it’s at times like these when the Sabbath is even more We need to be rested, we need to let Jesus refresh us and teach us, so that we can go out into the world and be effective for God the other six days of the week. Otherwise we’ll just be a bunch of Marthas running around upset and distracted and wondering why nobody’s helping. Human beings were not designed to be on the go 24/7. We need rest, we need time with God, we need time when we can tell the world to go away for a little while, so that we can come at life again fresh.
  • Take some time to learn about the Sabbath and what God had in mind when God created the Sabbath. Read what Scripture has to say about the Sabbath. If you have a computer, go to biblegateway.com and run a search on the word ‘Sabbath’. Find out why the Sabbath is so important to God. Read about what happened when the ancient Israelites gave up on the Sabbath because they decided they’d rather make money on Saturdays… and how their society gave way to a culture of greed.  Are we seeing the same thing happening today?  How did God respond when this happened back then?  Take a look at these issues, and talk about them with each other.
  • As you are able, do some experimenting with the Sabbath. I have to admit I’m still experimenting myself, I’m still learning. So what I suggest here are some of the things that have worked for me, but feel free to improvise. Try setting aside one day a week when you will do no work. You might not be able to clear off one day a week at first… maybe just one day a month to start with. But make it a day when you will do absolutely nothing, from sundown one night to sundown the next. And it might not be Sunday – you might have too much to do on Sundays. Try a Saturday or a Tuesday, whenever you can clear off a day.  For that one day, be a human being, not a human doing.  Turn off the phones, turn off the computer, turn off the TV news (movies and entertainment are OK, but I recommend avoiding the news) and just live in the now. Be free of all obligations to anybody else.

I want to warn you, observing the Sabbath not easy. It’s amazing how fast distractions crop up and how hard it is to keep one day completely clear.  But it is worth the effort.  As you experiment, try different things. Try setting aside time to read scripture and pray. Try lighting a candle when the sun goes down on the first night. If you have kids or grand-kids, try pray God’s blessing over them. Listen to music… or if you play an instrument, play.  Visit a neighbor. Read a book. Go for a walk.  Sit out in the backyard with some sunscreen and a tall glass of iced tea.  And do no work for a day.

And whatever you do, do it with prayer. Ask God to guide you and teach you about this gift called Sabbath. Ask God to lead your thoughts and activities. Tell God you’re doing this because you want to know God better, and you want to know God’s Kingdom better.

And when you try this, let me know how it goes. I’d love to compare notes!

In the meantime, remember: the Sabbath is our icon, our picture, of the eternity to come. So step into the Sabbath… and enjoy!  AMEN.

 

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church 7/17/16

 

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Scripture Readings: Amos 7:7-17, Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37.  This is the Gospel reading: 

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”  Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

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As some of you know I just back from England about a week ago.  And as most of you know, a few weeks before that, I threw my back out. And when that happened I almost canceled the trip.  But my friend and I had already paid for it, and we wanted to go, so I gritted my teeth and got to packing.

Now I do not recommend traveling anywhere with a bad back, let alone overseas!  But I have to say I am very grateful for the people who, a few decades ago, fought for the rights of the handicapped to access public places.  Because of them, the airports and hotels we visited were well-equipped to deal with what I’ve got going on, and they did everything to make our trip as comfortable as possible.

My friend and I made this extra effort to get to England because we had signed up to take a class at Oxford under one of the leading theologians of our time: the retired Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright. He’s not as well known in the States as in the UK yet, but he spoke at Duke when Pastor Matt was there, and both he and I are familiar with Wright and we like his teaching.  So given the chance to take a class with him, my friend and I jumped at the opportunity.  And we were not disappointed.  I will be sharing what we learned with you probably for the next year or so!

One of the big things I came away with from that class was this: N.T. Wright has a huge big-picture view of Scripture: a view that says everything from Old Testament to the Psalms to the Gospels to the New Testament all work together to tell the same story – which is a refreshing point of view when I hear so many people saying things like “the Old Testament so old it isn’t relevant any more”.  According to Wright, the big-picture story the entire scriptures tell is a two-faceted story of (1) the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and (2) the coming of the kingdom of God.

The scripture readings for today are a great example of this.  We’re going to look mostly at the story of the Good Samaritan; but our readings from Amos in the Old Testament and Colossians in the New Testament lend support and direction and illustration to what Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel.  They build on one another. So follow with me as we look at today’s readings as a series of building blocks building to the main point.

The first building block is our passage from the prophet Amos.  By way of background (Amos being a little-known prophet): Amos preached God’s word in the northern kingdom of Israel around 700 BC (give or take a couple decades) after the kingdom of Israel had divided into two, north and south.  The south kingdom, called Judah, remained faithful to the descendants of King David (for a while). But the northern kingdom was in rebellion – not only against David’s royal line, but against God as well. Its priests and its kings were about as corrupt as you can get. They lived only for themselves; they indulged every whim; they were famous for exploiting the poor; taking advantage of widows and orphans; bribing judges; and completely corrupting the legal system.

This is what God called Amos to preach against. And here’s the message God gave Amos to preach: the Lord said, “I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by… I will rise against the house of Jeroboam (the king at the time) with the sword.”

A ‘plumb line’: I’ve never actually used one, but my husband the carpenter has.  A plumb line is a string with a weight on the end that uses the force of gravity to show a perfectly straight vertical line. And it’s used to make sure things like walls are built straight up.  God is saying to King Jeroboam and the religious leaders of Israel: ‘I am holding you up to a straight line… and it shows that you are not straight. You are crooked. You are bent.’

Of course when a carpenter is building, if a wall is not straight, it has to be torn down and rebuilt, because you can’t build on a foundation or on a wall that’s crooked. The whole building would fall over.  And that’s the implication here: God wants to build his Kingdom through Israel, but the nation has become crooked and God can’t build on that.  And God is saying through Amos: if the leadership of the nation can’t be straightened out, it needs to be removed and replaced.

The plumb line – that perfect plumb line that God sets in Israel – in a way is a prophecy about Jesus.  Note: this is not the only meaning in the passage; the Old Testament means what it means within its own context.  But many passages in the Old Testament have a double meaning and this is one of them.  Jesus is the plumb line against which all humanity is measured, and against which none of us comes up perfectly straight.  I’ll come back to that thought in a moment.

But there are a few other parallels to observe in this passage between Amos’ message and Jesus’ life:

  1. In our passage from Amos, Amaziah the priest tells the king “Amos is conspiring against you.” And in Jesus’ story, the priests go to Pilate and say “Jesus is stirring up a rebellion” – in other words, “he’s conspiring against you”. Same accusation against both men of God. Coincidence?
  2. In the reading from Amos, Amaziah the priest says to Amos: ‘get out of here. Go somewhere else. We don’t want to hear you’. His exact words in verse 13 are: “Never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

The irony of these words is that the name ‘Bethel’ in Hebrew means ‘house of God’ – in other words, this temple is the sanctuary of the true king, the heavenly king – not the corrupt earthly king.  And Amos replies: judgement will fall, and the people will be exiled… just like Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden.

So the plumb line is the first building block of the story: Israel didn’t measure up. And none of us measures up perfectly either.  But the good news is Jesus, the Messiah, did for us what we – and what Israel – could not do for ourselves.

The second building block is found in Colossians. In this passage Paul is talking about the gospel of the kingdom of God, whose arrival has begun in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. In Paul’s words kingdom living is characterized by faith, hope, and love (vss 4 & 5), and results in spiritual wisdom and understanding (v 9) and also results in bearing fruit for the kingdom in the form of good works. (Note: good works are the fruit of salvation, the result, not the means of getting there.)

In verse 13 Paul describes God’s kingdom this way: “God has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”  It is God’s forgiveness that opens the doors of the Kingdom to us; it is God’s forgiveness that makes it possible for us to see what the plumb line is telling us, to hear and understand and turn to God for the forgiveness we need in faith, in confidence; and therefore to enter God’s kingdom and live lives that bear Kingdom fruit.

God’s Kingdom is a change in leadership, a change in sovereignty. In God’s Kingdom we are ruled by the power of love and mercy, not by the power of violence and force like the world around us.  This is the good news that overcomes the world!

So the second building block is the preaching of the good news of God’s Kingdom.

And the story of the Good Samaritan is our third building block. It illustrates for us what reality is like in God’s Kingdom… what Kingdom values are.  Let’s take a look.

So a lawyer comes to Jesus to test him, and he says, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  It’s an odd conversation opener, and Jesus bounces it back to him.  He says, “What’s in the law? How do you read?”  And the lawyer answers, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul and all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself.”

And Jesus says basically, “That’s right.  Now go do it.”

“But wanting to justify himself” the scripture says, the lawyer asks ‘and who is my neighbor?’

I find it interesting that the lawyer doesn’t quibble with the first part, the part about loving God with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength. Does he think he’s got that nailed down already?  But I digress.

So Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan – how a Jewish man, traveling the dangerous desert road from Jerusalem to Jericho, falls among thieves and is beaten and left by the roadside for dead.  He is passed by, first by a priest and then by a Levite.  But a man from Samaria – a foreigner, someone who was considered an enemy of the Jewish people – has compassion on him, and rescues him, and cares for him, and pays an innkeeper to take care of him.

And the lawyer questioning Jesus has to admit that the Samaritan was the one who was the true neighbor.  And Jesus tells him, “go and do likewise.”

This story is SO well-known and has been preached so many times, I feel a need to back up for a minute and lay down a few disclaimers.  There are a number of things the Good Samaritan story is not about:

  • It is not (primarily) about which group of people is right and which group of people is wrong
  • It is not (primarily) about avoiding self-righteousness… although it does confront self-righteousness
  • It is not a blanket condemnation of lawyers (this is not history’s first lawyer joke)
  • It is not a blanket condemnation of priests, Levites, or any other clergy (however it does point out that not everyone practices what they preach)
  • It is not a blanket commendation of Samaritans: Jesus is not saying that all Samaritans are good. The choice of a Samaritan as the hero of the story does speak to the issue of prejudice, but only to make a larger point.

So what IS this story about?

As the old English theologian Charles Simeon once said: “The distinctions [that is, our differences] of religion or politics should be forgotten whenever [someone] stands in need of our assistance; we should sympathize as truly with our bitterest enemy, as with our dearest friend.” THAT is the point of this story.

The Samaritan’s kindness and mercy to an enemy is like Jesus.  It’s Christlike, because Jesus showed us kindness and mercy by dying for us when we were enemies of God.

This is the ‘gold standard’ of God’s kingdom.  This is the plumb line against which we will be measured.  And knowing we don’t measure up perfectly, this is the forgiveness Jesus gives us so that we can enter the Kingdom.

When Jesus says “go and do likewise” he is inviting us to let God’s heart of compassion take root in us and grow in us.  It’s not just “be like the Samaritan”.  To really grasp the point I had to go back to the Greek. Verse 33 says “and when [the Samaritan] saw him, he had compassion”…

The Greek word translated compassion is a word that’s only used five other times in the whole Bible, and in all five times it describes the heart of God:

  • Three of the five times describe Jesus’ compassion for the crowds. For example, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were…like sheep without a shepherd.”
  • The fourth time describes Jesus’ compassion for the widow whose son had died. (Luke 7:13) Jesus had compassion and raised the young man from the dead.
  • The fifth and final time describes the compassion of the father for the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:20) “while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”

The story of the Good Samaritan invites us to do more than just have sympathy for others.  We are invited to have empathy with God.  That’s what Paul is talking about in Colossians when he prays the Colossians will be “filled with… spiritual wisdom and understanding…”  It means to know God better, to know God’s heart, to let our hearts move with God’s heart

God is inviting us to feel as God feels, to be moved by what moves God, and to be moved to action by the things that move God to action.  This is Kingdom living!  It’s what the people in Amos’ day were missing, and it’s what the Colossians were being praised for as they began their faith journey

And for us here today – will we live into God’s kingdom?  Not just trusting God for our salvation – which is a beginning – but more than this, believing God’s promises are true for all people in all times and places.

Do we have the courage to hold up a plumb line to the world we live in, and call people to mercy and forgiveness?  Do we have the courage to say ‘yes Lord’ where it comes to getting to know the heart of God? Will we live into this ourselves, showing mercy even to our enemies? This is kingdom living, and whenever we do these things, the light of God’s kingdom advances further into the darkness of our world. Let’s go for it! AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 7/10/16

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The Great and the Small

Readings for June 12: Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36 – 8:3

In our reading from Galatians this morning, the apostle Paul speaks to the Galatians very passionately about salvation by faith alone through grace alone – words which, 1500 years later, became the cornerstone of the Protestant reformation.

Paul speaks in sort of legal-sounding language – which makes sense because Paul was essentially a lawyer – but the point he’s making is that it’s not what we do that saves us.  It’s who we believe in.

When Paul first brought the gospel to the Galatians, they received the good news with joy and were blessed by the Holy Spirit with spiritual gifts.  But a few years later, other religious teachers came, teaching that Christians must obey Jewish law as set out in the Old Testament.  After all, they said, Christians follow a Jewish Messiah; and Jesus said he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. So all these non-Jewish people in Greece and Rome and elsewhere who were coming to faith through Paul’s teaching needed to observe the Jewish laws and feasts and traditions.

Paul is very passionate about putting these teachers in their places, because they were dividing the church as well as negating the Gospel message. And that’s most of what the book of Galatians is about.  I recommend it to your reading. But for this morning I want to call attention to this quotation from Galatians 2:16. Paul writes:

“…we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.”

John Wesley, in one of his sermons, said this:

“To be justified is to have all of our sins completely blotted out, as if they had never been. […] It is the sinner, not the saint, who is forgiven. The good shepherd came “to seek and to save the lost”, to pardon those in need of mercy, to rescue us from the guilt and the power of sin. […] On what terms are they justified? On only one – faith.”  (http://theconnexion.net/wp/?p=3142#ixzz4BCzKEW7A )

So this teaching about salvation by faith has been the foundation of the Methodist Church from the very beginning until now. We are not saved by things we do; we are saved by trusting Jesus.

Our reading from Luke’s gospel today gives a wonderful illustration of this teaching: what it means, and what it looks like in real life.  So let’s turn our attention to this story.

One day a Pharisee invited Jesus to dinner. This was not unusual; it’s a common practice even in our day for clergy to invite guest speakers out to lunch after church. Most likely this was an after-synagogue invitation after Jesus had been a guest speaker.

I’ve been to a number of after-church dinners like this, and usually it involves the senior pastor and family, the junior pastor (if there is one) and family, maybe the head of church council… and the conversation is usually friendly, sharing stories and so on.

But this particular dinner Jesus was invited to was not like that.  First off the families weren’t there.  This group was all men.  The dinner was at the Pharisee’s house – his name was Simon – and the other people there were Simon’s friends.  Luke doesn’t say exactly who they were but my guess is they were probably other Pharisees, maybe a few scribes… religious types, mostly. Maybe one or two of the disciples.

Now (speaking as a recent seminarian) it’s not unusual for theology geeks to bunch together at the dinner table and debate minute details of theological teachings… but that’s not what’s happening here either. Simon the Pharisee has too many friends to qualify as a theology geek.

So why did Simon invite Jesus to dinner? Was he trying to ride the wave of Jesus’ popularity?  I doubt it.  Was he hoping to see a miracle? Luke doesn’t mention that. Was he seeking the truth, like the Pharisee Nicodemus did – was he coming to Jesus with questions? No – he doesn’t ask Jesus any questions.

Luke doesn’t say why Jesus was invited to this dinner. But he does say that Simon did not treat Jesus with proper hospitality. Simon failed to greet Jesus with a kiss.  Even today, on the news, you see European and Middle Eastern politicians greet each other with kisses, even if they can’t stand each other.  It’s the polite thing to do. But Simon didn’t. Simon didn’t offer Jesus water to wash his feet, or oil to clean his hair… both of which were common courtesy. So Jesus started out the dinner party with his host trying to make him feel like the odd man out.  This was not a friendly invitation.

This undercurrent of hostility becomes even clearer when we look at the previous few chapters of Luke, where we see Jesus coming under scrutiny of the Pharisees.  Jesus has been scolded by various Pharisees for things like (1) healing a paralyzed man and then forgiving his sins; (2) attending a feast with Tax Collector Matthew and all his tax collector buddies – ‘eating with sinners’ they called it; (3) not teaching his disciples to fast; (4) harvesting grain on the Sabbath; and (5) healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath.  After that last healing, by the way, Jesus asked the Pharisees which was lawful to do on the Sabbath: to heal or to kill?  At which point the Pharisees got angry with him, and in the ultimate irony went out and started making plans – on the Sabbath – to kill Jesus!

Jesus had much to say about Pharisees.  Of all the religious leaders of his day, he criticized them more than any others.  We tend to forget, those of us who live 2000 years later, that the Pharisees were very popular in their day.  The Sadducees were essentially collaborators with the Greeks and the chief priests were in cahoots with the Romans, but the Pharisees – they were the true-blue Jews.  They were… the Joel Osteens and the Robert Schullers and Rick Warrens and Pat Robertsons of their day. Proud supporters of their country and their heritage and the God of Israel.

So why do they have trouble with Jesus, and why does Jesus have trouble with them?

It all comes down to the great and the small.  The Pharisees were considered great – but their love was small.  And everyday people were considered small… but they’re about to meet someone whose love was great.

So Simon the Pharisee invited Jesus to dinner, and Jesus said “yes”.  And the men reclined at table: heads and shoulders near the table, feet extended out behind them. And they began to eat.

All of a sudden a woman from the city crashes the party. Luke says she was known for being ‘a sinner’. Many people have said she was a prostitute, but Luke doesn’t say that. The word he uses in Greek means essentially an ‘unbeliever’.  She was Jewish by birth but didn’t observe the faith.  She certainly didn’t give the Pharisees or Sadducees the time of day!

And she shows up with an alabaster jar of ointment.  Was this a spur-of-the-moment thing on her part? I don’t think so.  This woman – whose name we don’t know, I wish we did – lived in the Galilee region where Jesus had been preaching.  She’d heard about him. It was public knowledge that Jesus had cast out demons, and healed people who came to him for healing. He had raised a widow’s son from the dead.  It was public knowledge that the Pharisees were criticizing him, particularly for telling people their sins were forgiven. And he would be teaching in the synagogue one day and then eating with tax collectors the next!

She finally got a chance to hear him preach… from a distance, she didn’t dare come close… and she heard him talk about loving one’s enemies… and blessing the poor and the broken-hearted. And something deep inside her was moved.

Where it came to church she’d been an outsider all her life. She figured God, if there was a God, didn’t care all that much about people like her. But this guy – this Jesus – if there was ever a God she could believe in… if there was ever a God worth believing in… he’d be like Jesus.  She just knew it.  She looked at Jesus and she saw him for who he really was, on the inside, his love and his god-likeness – and she loved him from the depths of her soul.  If this wasn’t the Messiah, she thought to herself, there would never be one.

And she had to find some way to tell him. That’s the nature of love: real love can’t go unexpressed. Love has to be spoken, or demonstrated, no matter how vulnerable it makes us. She had to do something.

And then she was told about the dinner party at Simon’s house. What a perfect opportunity to do something! Jesus would be taking a swim in the shark tank (so to speak) and he could probably use a friend at a party like that. So she hatched her plan.  She would watch from outside the house, and once Jesus had been welcomed and his feet had been washed and the men were reclined at table she would enter and pour perfume on his feet – an extract of myrrh, by the way, according to Luke. It would be a wonderful way to praise him, to say by her actions ‘this man is royalty, he has the heart of a king’.

But when she got there she discovered Jesus’ feet had never been washed!  Simon had insulted the most truthful and loving person she’d ever seen!  Anger at Simon’s insult mixed with her own feelings of amazement at Jesus and unworthiness to touch such a holy man, and all those feelings mixed and combined and came to the surface in the form of tears – which she used to wash his feet, and used her hair to dry them. Once Jesus’ feet were properly cleaned she broke the alabaster jar and poured out the ointment, filling the whole house with the smell of perfume.

As she began to finish she could feel the eyes of all the men on her… and they weren’t looking at her kindly, except for one. The odd thing is they weren’t saying anything. They weren’t chasing her out. In fact… she suddenly realized… she wasn’t actually the focus of their attention, Jesus was. Their judgement was aimed at him.  And through her confusion she heard Jesus speak:

“Simon, I have something to say to you.”

“Rabbi, speak,” he answered.

Jesus said, “A certain man had two people who owed him money. One owed him about a month’s wages, the other owed him almost two years’ wages. When they could not pay, he cancelled both debts. Which of these two men will love him more?”

The woman remained at Jesus’ feet in silence but her heart took flight. Jesus understood! Without a word he knew her heart and had received her gift.

Simon answered, “I suppose the one who had the greater debt canceled.”

And Jesus said, “you’re right.” And he went on to compare two people in the room who had been forgiven: Simon himself, and the woman. “Do you see this woman?” Jesus said.  “When I came into your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair… I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven, because she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

And for the first time the woman dared to raise her eyes and look at Jesus. She looked into the face of love, and he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

And for the first time in her life, she felt like her heart was at peace. Jesus had not only received her gift, he had given her an even greater gift in return: the assurance that she was right about God. That God is a God who cares about the least and the lost, and Jesus is the Messiah worth believing in, the one who forgives, the one who honors love. She went home a different person, changed forever, seeing life in a new light, at peace with God.

Meanwhile back at the Pharisees’ dinner party the guests were asking each other, “who is this who forgives sins?”  Truly there is none so blind as those who will not see.  Each person at that dinner table had been offered the same forgiveness that the woman received, but they never knew it. These men ate dinner with Jesus himself and went away untouched and unchanged and unmoved.  They didn’t love, and they didn’t believe.

All in all this woman’s story is a beautiful illustration of what Paul is talking about when he says we are saved by faith.

But wait… doesn’t Jesus say the woman’s sins were forgiven because she loved so much? Yes. And this is no contradiction. It comes under the heading of the old saying, “faith without works is dead”.  The woman was saved by faith.  Jesus even said so: “your faith has saved you.”  But real faith moves us to action. And the deeper the faith, the deeper the love; and the deeper the love, the more passionate the action.

So today as we listen to this woman’s story, where do we find ourselves in the story? Do we relate to Simon, wanting to be in Jesus’ company but always keeping him emotionally at arm’s length?  Do we relate to the other dinner guests, curious but not getting involved? Or do we relate to the woman, who in spite of all the disappointments in her life, sees in Jesus a love and a worth and a truth that can’t be found anywhere else? Do we seen in Jesus someone we would give anything to be with? Something greater than anything this world can offer?

This woman’s heart shows us the very heart and soul of the Christian faith. To be Christian is to love Jesus so much that we’ve got to do something about it. We can’t stay silent. We are captivated by the person Jesus is, and like the woman we feel we must respond.

Let’s pray together. Lord Jesus, inspire in our hearts such love for you today that we would not be ashamed to fall at your feet in tears and receive your welcome with joy. Help us to hear your voice as you say to each one of us, “your sins are forgiven – go in peace.” Amen.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, 6/12/16

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“Praise God!”

Readings for June 5, 2016: Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17

 “Praise the Lord!” These are the words that open Psalm 146 – a call to praise God.

These words were written around 3000 years ago, but sometime during our lifetimes the words ‘praise the Lord’ became a kind of a catch-phrase – a way to stereotype people who have more heart than head about their religion.

It started back in the 1980s when people in the ‘born-again Christian’ movement starting using the words ‘praise the Lord’ almost like a way to identify who’s really a Christian and who’s not: if you say it, you’re saved; if you don’t, you need to be witnessed to. One televangelist who eventually ended up in a famous scandal even named his ministry PTL Ministries which stood for ‘Praise The Lord’.

So in our time the phrase ‘praise the Lord’ has gotten a bad rep.  So today I’d like to restore these words to their original meaning and intention.

First, in the original Hebrew, this phrase is only two words: Hallelu and jah, which translates ‘praise Yahweh’ or ‘praise God’.  Put it together and you’ve got hallelujah – a beautiful word, one of my favorite of all words.

Second, saying ‘praise the Lord’ is not in itself praising the Lord. It’s a command to others (or to ourselves) to praise God. Actually praising God means telling God how wonderful God is and why.  We praise God when we sing hymns to God. We praise God when we talk to others about what God has done for us. We praise God when we pray.

Here’s an example what I mean:  Let’s say I wanted to praise my husband for taking good care of me while I’ve been dealing with these back problems.  Would I walk up to him and say “Praise the husband!”?  Of course not!  I would look at my husband and say “You’ve been taking such good care of me. Thank you.”  You see the difference.  Saying the word ‘praise’ is just talk. Praising is actually telling the person, saying out loud what we appreciate about them.

So the psalmist today is encouraging us to praise God.  And then he goes on to say why we should praise God. Let’s dig into this.

First the psalmist says God is the greatest power in the universe, and he compares God to people the world considers powerful or great. He says “do not put your trust in princes… when their breath departs they return to the earth: on that very day their plans perish.”

These are wise words for us to remember anytime, but especially during a presidential election year. No matter who you like as a politician or who you plan to vote for, these ‘princes of the earth’ – as the psalmist calls them – are mere mortals. They won’t live forever. Their words will not live forever. And whether they succeed in keeping their campaign promises or not, their plans and their policies won’t last forever. No leader is forever. No nation is forever, for that matter.

But God is forever. God will live forever. God’s word will last forever. And God’s plans will come to pass.  Therefore, as the psalmist says, “happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob… who keeps faith forever.”  We praise God because God is always with us, and can always be trusted. Those who hope in God will not be disappointed.

The psalmist goes on to give us more reasons to praise God: God executes justice. God feeds the hungry. God sets the prisoners free. God opens the eyes of the blind. God lifts up the lowly and the downtrodden. God loves the righteous and puts an end to wickedness. God welcomes the stranger. God provides for orphans and widows.

So many of these things are things politicial candidates try to offer us: Food. Justice. Medical care. Care for the disadvantaged. Protection for honest citizens. They promise these things every election cycle – but do things ever really change? Not much. A little maybe, but not much – because political leaders don’t really have the power do these things, at least not perfectly, or with perfect fairness. At some point the implementation of their programs fails: the result of imperfect human beings running imperfect institutions.

All these things that the world’s power can’t deliver, God can deliver.  Look at that list again, and think about what Jesus has done: Feeding the hungry? Jesus fed 5000 people with just a few loaves and fish, and had 12 baskets of food left over. Setting prisoners free? Remember the woman caught in adultery – she was forgiven, and all the men who were going to stone her walked away.  Opening the eyes of the blind? Jesus did this a number of times. Lifting up the lowly? Remember the people who fell at his feet begging for healing for their loved ones, for their families. Not one of them went away disappointed. Welcoming the stranger? Even a Roman centurion and a woman from Samaria – people who were hated by the Jews of his day – were welcomed by Jesus.

Providing for orphans and widows? Our Gospel reading from today gives us an example of this: Jesus and the disciples run into a funeral procession coming out of the city. And Jesus, seeing a widow who had lost her only son, is moved with compassion and brings the young man back to life, and gives him back to his mother.  The people who witness these things immediately praise God. Why? Because, in their words, “God has looked favorably upon his people”.

There are examples all through scripture of God providing for God’s people, and Jesus’ ministry is a shining example of that. Where leaders of nations disappoint us, God succeeds. God meets every need perfectly.

But what about those times when we feel like our needs aren’t being met? Or we feel like our prayers aren’t being answered? It happens sometimes. We may lose a loved one, or some tragedy touches our lives, and we ask God ‘why?’ Or we may ask “how can a good God allow this to happen? Why doesn’t God do something?”

I’ll be honest – there are no easy answers to these questions.  Philosophers and theologians have wrestled with these questions for thousands of years and they are no closer to finding answers than I am.

What I have found is that God can use the difficult times to bring good things into our lives.  Going through difficulty makes us more compassionate, because we can understand others who are going through difficulty. And I find, even in difficult times, if I look around I can usually find reasons to praise God. Not that I’m praising God for pain or for trouble, but I’m praising God that God is with me through them, teaching and guiding. And that’s enough for me.

Getting back to our scriptures for today – the apostle Paul, in our reading from Galatians praises God because the gospel he preaches is not of human origin but was revealed by Jesus Himself. Paul praises God that God’s word is made known. And the people Paul is writing to praise God because the man who was once trying to destroy them – that is, Paul – is now “proclaiming the faith he tried to destroy”.

So we see in our scripture readings for today many reasons to praise God.

What then do our scriptures lead us to be doing?  Well, praising God, of course!  Throughout the day, every day. When we see something that touches us – praise God.  I look at the flowers in our gardens, for example – the exquisite and detailed beauty of every petal and leaf – and I praise God for beauty.  I look at ourselves and our families – the amazing complexity of every human being. Have you ever looked at, for example, your hand, and thought about all that goes into it? The bones, and the muscles, and the skin, and the fingernails, all moving the way they do. The hand is an engineering marvel! God’s creativity is astounding!

Secondly, our goal as God’s children is to grow up in God, to become more like our Father as time passes.  To have a family resemblance.  And so, whenever and wherever it depends on us, we need to be doing the things we praise God for.  In our Psalm for today that would include working for justice, feeding the hungry, visiting prisoners, setting captives free, working for healing, lifting up the poor and lowly, welcoming strangers (especially, in our time, the many refugees who are finding their way to Pittsburgh from around the world); helping provide for orphans and widows. And sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.  When we do these things we show we are God’s children, sharing God’s righteousness and God’s mercy in the lives of those we meet… and praising God by our actions.

The psalmist says: “Praise the LORD, O my soul!  I will praise the LORD as long as I live….”  Let’s take a few minutes right now to pray and thank God for all God has done for us. And if a hymn of praise happens to pop into your mind, sing it out.  Let’s pray.

Lord, we praise you for your many blessings in our lives… [silence]  Lord thank you that you have made us your children. Help us to be more like you. Create in us that family resemblance so others will praise you. Thank you Lord that you are forever, faithful and trustworthy. We look forward to an eternity spent telling you how wonderful you are. AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, 6/5/16

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