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

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

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

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

Lamentations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

refugees2

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

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

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

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

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

hidden-brain-compassion

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

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

Mustard Seed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Catching the Spark” continues

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

The Vineyard

Vineyard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cloud of Witnesses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WrongSong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vineyard w wine press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God’s Call

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

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

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

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god-is-calling

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

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

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

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

2 kingdoms

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

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

God says to Israel:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

throne room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God Will Make a Way

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

A Tale of Two Churches

Inspiration Passages:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

StStephens1

St. Stephens Cathedral, Vienna Austria

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

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

StStephensInside

St Stephen’s Cathedral interior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

StPeters

St. Peter’s, Vienna Austria

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

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

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

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

StPetersInside

St. Peters Interior: the Altar

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

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

StPetersPulpit

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

StPetersImperial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pentecost 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pentecost

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

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

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

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

Spirit 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

filled with spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

spiritual gifts

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

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

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

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

trinity-graphic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queen n heirs

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

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

Heirs w christ

So Happy Birthday Church! AMEN!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garden1

Garden of Gethsemane

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

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

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

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

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

Cause Effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garden2

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

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

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

trinity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Lyrics to the song:

 

Lo I Am With You Always

John Rutter, Composer & Conductor

The Cambridge Singers & Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

(Text from the King James Version of John 14)

 

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

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

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

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

Because I live, ye shall live also.

 

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

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

 

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

And ye in me, and I in you.

 

He that hath my commandments and keepeth them,

He it is that loveth me.

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

And I will love him.

 

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

Not as the world giveth, give I unto you.

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

 

Lo I am with you always, always…

 

 

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

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

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PetersVision

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

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

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

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

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

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

loveoneanother

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

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

love-like-jesus

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

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

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

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

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

  John Wesley medicine

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter says this vision happened three times.

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

three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

spirit

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

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

 

Easter 5: Love One Another (Clean vs Unclean)

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

 

A Psalm of David

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

sheep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emmanuel

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

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

Sassy Sheep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green Pastures

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

No Evil

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

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

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

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

Jesus shepherd

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

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

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

Preached at Spencer United Methodist Church, May 8 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saul Sees Light

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

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

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

forgiven

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

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

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

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

Peter and Paul

(Saints Peter & Paul)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do You Love Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OneGod

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ransomed Healed

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Easter 3 – “The Restorations of Paul and Peter”

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

 

When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them,  28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.”  29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.  30 The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.  31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.  32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” – Acts 5:27-32

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When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

              24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

              26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”  28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

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

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Upper Room

Welcome to the second week of Easter! Like Advent and Christmas, the season of Easter continues for a few weeks beyond the actual holiday, so during Easter we have 40 days of celebration. Our scripture readings during this time will focus mostly on what Jesus did after his resurrection, and on what the disciples did immediately following Jesus’ ascension.

With this in mind, we’ll be hearing a lot from Gospel of John and the book of Acts in the next few weeks. These two books together give us a good idea of what happened after Jesus’ resurrection. They don’t tell us everything; there is a lot that happened in those days that wasn’t written down. But we know that Jesus spent time in Jerusalem after his resurrection, and we know that while he was there, he didn’t have any contact with the religious leadership or with Pilate or Herod. We also know Jesus spent some time the region of Galilee,  some of that time with his disciples. We would probably be safe in guessing that Jesus also went home to see his mother and visit his family. Scripture doesn’t tell us this specifically, but scripture does tell us Jesus’ brothers didn’t believe in him during his lifetime (John 7:5) yet after Jesus’ resurrection his brother James became a disciple and it’s believed he wrote the book of James in the New Testament – which is quite a turnaround from non-believing!

Still, at the end of John’s gospel John tells us: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.” (John 20:30) So there’s a lot we don’t know about what Jesus did during his last forty days on earth. But what we do know is more than enough to share over these next 40 days; and as John says in his gospel, “these things are written so that (we) may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing (we) may have life in his name.

This Sunday, our readings from John and Acts give us living examples of the work the Holy Spirit does in the lives of the disciples. We’ll begin with the Gospel of John today, and the familiar story of the man known to history as “Doubting Thomas”.

Our reading from John begins on Easter Day. The disciples have gathered in a locked room, afraid that what happened to Jesus might also happen to them. By now they’ve heard word from the women that Jesus has been seen alive, but they’re still feeling uncertain and afraid.

Suddenly Jesus walks into that locked room – without using the door! It seems resurrection bodies can do some things our bodies can’t. At any rate the disciples recognize Jesus immediately – his new body still has the old scars. They can see the whip marks and the places where the nails were.

Shalom

Jesus immediately says “Peace be with you” – using the word shalom, which is not just an absence of fear but a presence of well-being, physically and mentally and emotionally. When Jesus speaks the word shalom, the word is active: what he speaks becomes reality. The disciples lose their fear. Jesus then commissions them saying: “as the Father sent me now I send you.”  This means they are now all apostles – the Greek word apostle meaning ‘people who are sent’.

The apostles are prepared by Jesus to go out in the power of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus breathes onto them. The Holy Spirit – the third person of the Trinity – is often compared to ‘wind’ in scriptures: the Bible says “the Spirit blows where it wills” – but Jesus can and does direct it to his disciples. The message the disciples are given to share is a message of forgiveness through faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection; and this message is proclaimed by the disciples boldly and without fear.

In our world today many people doubt this message. Many people say “I’m a good person and I do good things, but the Bible was written over 2000 years ago. I don’t believe all that ancient supernatural stuff about people coming back from the dead.”

The best answer I’ve ever heard for kind of skepticism comes from Chuck Colson, one of the men convicted and sent to prison in the Watergate scandal. Colson became a Christian while he was in prison, and he said this:

“I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. […] Because [in the Bible] 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one [of them] was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured [all that for a lie]. Watergate [involved] 12 men, 12 of the most powerful men in the world-and they couldn’t keep a lie [secret] for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie [secret] for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.”[1]

That’s Chuck Colson. Going back now to the upper room with the disciples, we find one of them is missing: Thomas. We’re not sure where Thomas is, but when he returns to the group they all tell him “Jesus has been here! He’s alive!”

But Thomas says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Caravaggio Jesus Thomas

Caravaggio

Thomas has taken a lot of flack over the years for saying this… but when you get down to it, he’s not asking for anything more than what the other disciples have already seen. And he’s not willing to commit until both his mind and his heart are satisfied with the truth.

In a way I think that’s a wise thing, especially for us who live in today’s world, where email scams and Ponzi schemes are a dime a dozen. It’s a good thing to ask questions if something seems to good to be true. The good news is that God never rejects the sceptic. God meets those who doubt, where they are, when the doubts are honest ones.

Theologian Mary Hinkle Shore says this:

“Thomas will not be shamed into believing, or shamed into… keeping his unbelief to himself. […] Thomas’s journey to faith makes his story especially important for an audience of would-be believers…”[2]

So Thomas’s words are especially good for people to hear when they’re not sure what they believe. Meanwhile Jesus is willing to meet Thomas where he needs to be met – and Jesus will do the same for us. At the same time, Jesus says, “blessed are those who haven’t seen and yet believe”, which speaks directly to all of us who are not eyewitnesses of the resurrection but have come to faith in more recent years. It gives us hope that Jesus meets us, just as he met Thomas; and Jesus commissions us just as he commissioned the disciples.

Turning now to our reading from Acts: this scene takes place in and around the Temple, after the resurrection and ascension. The disciples are now living and moving and teaching in the power of the Holy Spirit which Jesus has given them. As they do, large groups gather to listen. The disciples heal the sick and cast out demons, and they proclaim Jesus as the Ruler and Savior of the world.

From an ancient Roman point of view, the disciples are walking on thin ice because only Caesar can claim to be Ruler and Savior of the world. And the religious authorities in the Temple are afraid the Romans will hear this teaching and stir up trouble. Most of them did not believe the rumors about the resurrection; and some of them had paid off the soldiers who were guarding the tomb to say someone had stolen the body.

The religious authorities arrest Peter and John as they’re preaching in the Temple in Acts chapter four. They warn them sternly not to do this any more and then set them free. The disciples then gathered around and prayed for boldness, and returned to the Temple in Acts chapter five, healing people and preaching. The High Priest and the Sadducees were “filled with jealousy” and arrested them again and put them in prison, but that night an angel of the Lord brought them out of the prison and said “go back and keep on preaching” – which they did at daybreak the next day. They were arrested again (Groundhog Day?) and this time they were brought before the whole council which included the Pharisees as well as the Sadducees.

apostles in the temple

The High Priest tells them, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” And Peter, acting as spokesperson for the apostles, says, “We must obey God rather than men.”

Peter has his loyalties right. But there’s one side note I need to make here: this passage, and these words, have been used and mis-used for the past 2000 years to blame the Jewish people for the death of Jesus. I can’t say this strongly enough: this is not true.  First off, Peter was Jewish, and Jesus was Jewish, and all the disciples and all the believers up to this point in time were all Jewish. The religious leaders were wrong not because they were Jewish, but because they didn’t listen to Jesus, and because they mis-used their authority to conspire to kill an innocent man. (End of side note.)

This meeting of the council, meanwhile, started to look like it was going to end in a theological free-for-all until a Pharisee named Gamaliel stood up to speak. (This takes place just after our reading in Acts that we heard this morning.) Gamaliel was considered to be one of the greatest theologians of his time, and he was the teacher of a bright up-and-coming young Pharisee we will someday know as the apostle Paul. Gamaliel stands up and says: “hear me. Consider carefully what you propose to do.” And he goes on to talk about the many false teachers who have passed through Jerusalem over the years (and he names them) and he says their teaching proved to be false and quickly died out. And if these men are preaching a message of human origin, it will likewise die out; but if the message is from God you may find yourselves fighting against God!” The council takes his advice, and they have the disciples whipped and set them free. And so the news of Jesus’ resurrection spreads throughout Jerusalem and all of Israel.

Gamaliel

So summing up this morning’s readings…

First, in the beginning we see the disciples hiding in fear. It’s hard for us to imagine what they felt seeing Jesus dead on a cross and then buried. It was the shattering of all their dreams. It called into question everything they had invested their lives in. But God did not leave them in sorrow for long. One very long, silent Saturday, and then… the Lord is alive again! Some of the disciples met Jesus on Easter morning, and many more later that day. Sorrow turned into joy, faith was fulfilled!

Second, Jesus immediately renewed the disciples’ commission to preach the good news to the world. This good news is: “The Kingdom of God is at hand – change course and believe the good news!” To which the disciples now add, “and this is proven by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.”

Jesus will shortly be returning to God the Father, so he gives the disciples the Holy Spirit as a guide and teacher. The Holy Spirit is described in scripture as “the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.”

The disciples – and today, we also – are therefore called to:

  • Believe in Jesus Christ, as Messiah, Saviour, and Prince of Heaven.
  • Believe in Jesus’ ability and willingness to cleanse us from sin.
  • Receive the Holy Spirit, and with that Spirit the power for ministry. (we’ll hear more about this at Pentecost)
  • In the power of the Spirit, make Jesus known to others.

Knowing and learning the Scriptures is just a beginning; it’s a living faith in Jesus through the Holy Spirit that opens the door to eternal life. When Thomas saw Jesus alive for the first time, he exclaimed, “My Lord and My God!”. Let this be our testimony also. AMEN.

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Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, April 24 2022

[1] Chuck Colson, GoodReads.com, https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/555921-i-know-the-resurrection-is-a-fact-and-watergate-proved

[2] Mary Hinkle Shore, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/thomas-2/commentary-on-john-2019-31-5

“If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.  20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.  21 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being;  22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.  23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.  24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.  25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” – 1 Corinthians 15:19-26

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Tulip

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.  2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.  4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.  5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.  6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there,  7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.  8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed;  9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.  10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

              11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb;  12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.  13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”  14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).  17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”  18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. – John 20:1-18

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Happy Easter! It is good to see all of you this morning and to celebrate this beautiful day!

Last week Pastor Dylan was here with you on Palm Sunday – a day that begins in celebration but has dark overtones to it, a sense of a building darkness. In contrast, this morning our Easter story from John begins in darkness but ends in joy.

In our reading for this morning, the apostle John tells us that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb on Easter Sunday even before the sun was up.

Mary loved Jesus very much, and she was grieving his loss deeply. Mary is one of the disciples who had the courage to stay with Jesus the whole time he was on the cross on Good Friday. She had witnessed everything, and she had helped to prepare the spices for Jesus’ burial.

Now, on this morning, as Mary approaches the tomb, she sees that that the tomb has been opened – and the pain in her heart is made fresh all over again. Grave robbers were common back in those days, and Jesus had been laid in the tomb of a rich man, so it’s likely the thought ran through Mary’s mind – along with the thought ‘why couldn’t they just leave him in peace?’

Open Tomb

Mary immediately ran off to find Peter and John (John is “the other disciple” mentioned in our reading). And she told them:

“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where he is.”

On hearing this, the men ran to the tomb. They looked in, and saw the burial linens and the cloth that had been around Jesus’ head; and they believed Mary’s story, but they didn’t know what to make of it. So they went home.

Meanwhile Mary stayed at the tomb, still weeping. She looked into the tomb, and when she did she saw two angels who weren’t there before. They were dressed in dazzling white and sitting where Jesus’ body had been laid. And the angels ask Mary, “Woman, why are you weeping?” (This is a question I’m sure the angels knew the answer to; but they are helping Mary to gather her thoughts and feelings into words.)

It’s interesting that Mary didn’t react to the angels the way most people in the Bible react to angels – she’s not afraid, she doesn’t tremble, she’s not speechless. I think maybe her sorrow put her beyond all that. She just said to the angels, “they’ve taken away my Lord and I don’t know where they have laid him.”

Then Mary turned to go… and as she did she saw someone in front of her, all blurry because of her tears. She assumes it’s the gardener, the caretaker of the place. He also asks her, “Why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” and Mary says, “Sir, if you’ve carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will come and take him.”

Someone once said, “gardens are the place where heaven and earth collide.” And it’s often been said that “one is closer to God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth.” It’s interesting that Jesus’ arrest, death, burial, and resurrection all happened in gardens.

At any rate, in this garden, in this moment, Mary’s earthly expectations collide with a heavenly reality. Jesus calls her name: “Mary!” Immediately she knows him, and she cries out “Teacher!” and gives him the biggest hug ever.

As the moment passes, Jesus says to Mary:

“Don’t hold on to me now. I haven’t yet ascended to the Father. But go tell my brothers, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Jesus n Mary

Why would Jesus be talking about his Ascension right now? The ascension is still weeks away; Jesus is going to be on earth for a while yet. Basically because his ascension completes the story. It answers the unanswered questions. Jesus’ resurrection isn’t just about one person coming back to life. It’s about the promised Messiah breaking free from death, and returning to God in order to open the path for human beings to follow the same road – to have the same relationship with God that Jesus has.

We’ll talk more about that in a few weeks on Ascension Sunday! For now, Jesus is appointing Mary Magdalene to be his first apostle. Mary is not usually listed in most lists of apostles: but the word apostolos in Greek means ‘one who is sent’ and Jesus is sending her. As one theologian puts it:

“Jesus’ commission to Mary earns her the title of ‘apostle to the apostles’.”[1]

In appointing her to do this, Jesus breaks with all tradition and legal precedent, because the law back then did not allow women to be witnesses in court. But Jesus makes Mary the first witness and the first evangelist – that is, the first bearer of the good news that he is alive. Jesus says to Mary, “go tell my brothers” – and she does. Mary finds the disciples and tells them, “I have seen the Lord!” and she relates to them everything Jesus has said to her.

So what does all of this mean for us this morning? So many things!

First, like the disciples, we come to this Easter morning in the middle of a very dark world. I don’t need to list for you all the things that have been in the news lately. Just to mention one: Just this past week we had a prayer service on the steps of Sts Peter & Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Carnegie, to remember those who have died in Ukraine – some of them relatives of people who attend that very church in Carnegie.

Second, like Mary, many of us come to this Easter morning on the edge of tears, having lost loved ones or having been through serious illnesses. Sometimes we wonder how it can be Easter when life is so difficult? We come to Jesus’ tomb – even though we already know how the story ends – we come still not quite knowing what to expect… wondering what Jesus will do in our time, on this Easter Sunday. We hear the message that Jesus is alive… but what does that mean for us today, right now? Like Mary we seek the Lord.

Third, for those of us who have lost loved ones – which unfortunately is far too many of us here today, myself included – we know what it is to grieve. We know what it is to look on the body of a loved one, and know the person we love isn’t there any more. None of us has ever seen anyone come back to life. It’s hard to imagine, it’s hard to picture in the mind. But the good news of Easter is this: death is conquered. It has been reversed. Our loved ones are not lost. Jesus said that when we call God “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” that God is not the God of the dead but of the living. Resurrection happened for Jesus and it will happen for all of us.

Which brings us to our reading from I Corinthians this morning. Paul says, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being [Paul is talking about Adam & Eve], the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being [that is, Jesus]; for “as in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive.”

Paul says Jesus is the “firstfruits” of the dead – which means there’s more fruit to come, lots more! When Jesus returns he will bring with him all the people who have died in Christ – all the people who have loved Jesus and been faithful to Jesus. And this faithfulness is a relationship, not a set of beliefs. In the garden that first Easter morning, Mary wasn’t wrapping her arms around a theology, she was wrapping her arms around Jesus: her teacher and her Lord.

resurrection

Paul also says “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” – which is good news for all of us: for the martyrs; for those who have given their lives in service of various kinds; for the victims of Hitler and the victims of Putin; for those who have died of COVID or cancer or any other horrible disease… this is good news for all of us! Jesus, by his death and resurrection, has opened the way for each one of us to be with God forever, just like Jesus is.

It took a moment or two (or five or six) for Mary to wrap her mind around all this; and it can be a challenge for us too. Like with Mary, the tears of this life may blind us for a moment to the joy that is standing right in front of us.

But also like Mary, when Jesus calls our name, we will know that it is him. And Jesus does call each one of us by name. He calls us to believe him, to follow him, and to the joy of knowing that he is alive!

Like Mary, every single one of us will recognize Jesus, and we will call him ‘teacher’ and ‘Lord’. And then, like Mary, Jesus calls us to share this good news; to be sent, as Mary was sent. “Tell your brothers. Tell your sisters. The last enemy is defeated. Death is dead!

Death is Dead

We share this testimony and this truth with anyone who bears the image of God.  And so we say together this morning: The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!  AMEN.

[1] Mary Hinkle Shore, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-john-201-18-8

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, Easter Sunday, April 17, 2022

Palm Sunday 2022

“After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.  29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples,  30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here.  31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.'”  32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them.  33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”  34 They said, “The Lord needs it.”  35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.  36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.  37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen,  38 saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”  39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”  40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” – Luke 19:28-40  

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Welcome to Palm Sunday! Our Lenten journey will be drawing to a close this week. Today, Palm Sunday, is a holiday like no other because of its unique combinations: of adults and children, light and darkness, joy and sorrow, all wrapped up in one day. In many ways these differing messages and emotions were present on the very first Palm Sunday. And looking at it from Jesus’ perspective, Palm Sunday is the beginning of the end of his rescue mission for our world.

The scripture reading for today, from Luke, focuses on the joy part – and I think rightly so. Today should be a joyful day. But we’re going to get a little bit of everything this morning. That said, let’s dig into the scriptures.

First a little background. For most of his life Jesus avoided coming straight out and telling people he was the Messiah, especially if scribes or Pharisees were nearby. This was probably in order to prevent anyone trying to proclaim Jesus the king of Israel; and/or to prevent his enemies from putting him to death before his work on earth was finished.  But today is the day that Jesus will finally declare himself publicly.

The evening before Palm Sunday, Jesus and the disciples were staying with Lazarus in Bethany. They had eaten with Lazarus the night before. We heard that story last Sunday – about Mary’s expensive perfume and Judas’s grouchy comments.

Then Palm Sunday morning, Jesus and the disciples walked a couple of miles from Bethany to the top of a ridge of mountains, to a place called the Mount of Olives, which overlooks Jerusalem.

Mount of Olives from Jerusalem

The Mount of Olives, from Jerusalem

From the top of the Mount of Olives a person can look out over the city of Jerusalem, and the wall around the city, and the Kidron Valley, and the Garden of Gethsemane, and of course all the olive trees. It’s a beautiful place.

As Jesus and the disciples arrive at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sends two of the disciples on a mission to find a colt – a young colt that had never been ridden. Jesus told them where to find it, and he said, “if anyone asks, just say the Lord needs it.” (The other gospel-writers add the words “and we’ll send it back to you” – which they did). And they brought this colt to Jesus and Jesus sat on it.

This is a miracle in itself: getting on and sitting on a young untrained animal for the first time without being thrown off! How did this happen? Did the colt recognize its creator’s voice? Animals can be smart where it comes to the things of God – smarter than humans sometimes. Remember Balaam and his donkey in the Old Testament: the donkey had to tell his rider that there were angels blocking the path! Did the colt have some instinct about Jesus? Was he tamed by a single word from the Lord? The gospel-writers don’t tell us.  They just say the disciples threw their cloaks on the colt and Jesus got on.

While all this was going on, a crowd was gathering at the top of the Mount of Olives. And people start spreading their cloaks on the road ahead of Jesus. In those days this was an action that indicated the presence of a great leader. This procession, happening on the road on the top of the Mount of Olives, could have been seen (and probably was seen) from any building or house in Jerusalem that faced east.

Jerusalem from the Mt of Olives

Jerusalem, from the Mount of Olives

There’s a path that wanders down the side of the Mount of Olives, and across the Kidron Valley, and up the other side to the “Golden Gate” of Jerusalem. All in all from the top of the mountain it’s just over a mile’s walk – what they called a “Sabbath day’s walk” – from the top of the Mount of Olives to the valley and then up to the temple in Jerusalem.

So they travel along the top of the Mount of Olives for a little bit, looking out over Jerusalem. They would see the Temple and (on the far right) the Golden Gate into the city.

Then the road turns left – a gentle bend to the left – and begins to head down the Mount of Olives.

Palm Sunday Path

Path down the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem

Today if you take this path you will see a Jewish cemetery to the left and the church of Dominus Flevit (“Jesus Wept”) on the right. Back in Jesus’ day the whole side of the mountain was just olive trees, with a foot-path running down the hill.

As they make the turn, all the disciples and all the crowd started to praise God with loud voices. They waved palm branches, which are symbols of victory, triumph, peace and eternal life. They praise God for all the works of power they have seen Jesus perform, including Lazarus’ resurrection. They praised God for sending Jesus, the Messiah. And they praised God with ancient words written by King David, the heir to whose throne Jesus was and is. They shout: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

By now the people in the city would be seeing the crowd for sure. Some ran out to join them; others ran to the temple to tell the Pharisees and Sadducees what was going on. The Romans looked at this and saw something vaguely resembling the triumphal processions their military leaders led… except their leaders would be riding horses rather than donkeys. The symbolism might have looked a little uppity from a Roman point of view but Jesus didn’t look threatening. There’s a different kind of power about Jesus, a power that brings life and not death.

So on the Mount of Olives, there’s a celebration going on – even the children are joining in! The fact that Jesus enters Jerusalem riding a colt fulfills the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion, shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt the foal of a donkey.”

The crowd is singing another song too: the words are: “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.” This is an echo of the song the angels sang at the birth of our Lord Jesus (Luke 2:11-13). The multitude of disciples, like the multitude of angels, proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.

There were also some Pharisees in the crowd that day. In Jesus’ day, like today, there could be many differences of opinion among religious parties. Some Pharisees despised Jesus; others liked him. These particular Pharisees were in the crowd supporting Jesus; but they’re warning Jesus to keep his head down. They had been telling him for some time that Herod wanted to kill him. They also understood that a display like this of… what might look like a royal claim… might bring down on Jesus’ head the wrath of the powerful, whether it be the Sanhedrin, or Herod, or Pilate. They’re warning Jesus to tell his people to be careful what they’re saying. I believe this is was honest concern on their part: they didn’t want to see Jesus or anyone else in the crowd arrested or thrown out of the synagogue. So they said to Jesus, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”

Jesus answered, “Truly I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout out.” There was no stopping this celebration. Jesus is aware of the danger. He knows what’s coming. All of these things are a fulfillment of prophecy. In the Old Testament, Zechariah predicted that the King, the Messiah, would enter Jerusalem “riding on a colt.” And the people would acclaim him. And the celebration continues.

That’s where our reading for today ends; but that’s not the end of the story. The very next verse (41) tells us that while all this celebration was going on, Jesus was weeping.

“As [Jesus] came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:41-44)

The failure of the people of Jerusalem to recognize “the things that make for peace” will have tragic consequences for the city and the nation. Looking out over the city of Jerusalem, Jesus can see into the not-so-distant future, when Jerusalem will fall, and he is grieving.

The year will be 70AD. The Roman destruction of the city is described by a friend of John Wesley’s, Charles Simeon, who wrote: “[they suffered] such calamities from the hands of the Romans, as had never been endured by any nation since the foundation of the world…”

Siege

The Siege of Jerusalem, 70AD

Jerusalem and its people were wiped off the map in the most cruel way possible. Jesus loves Jerusalem, and so he grieves, because things could have been different if the leaders of Jerusalem hadn’t been threatened by him. The Chief Priest at the time was famous for saying (of Jesus) that it was necessary for one man to die to save the nation – which was true, but not the way he meant it. He was afraid Jesus would start a revolution and the Romans would come down hard on the city. Jesus never intended to start a revolution; somebody else did that – in the year 70 – and that’s when the Romans came down hard on the city.

Jesus sees all this as he is looking out over Jerusalem. In Jesus’ lament, ‘Jerusalem’ is also symbolic of the nation of Israel, and in a larger sense of all humanity. So while the crowds are cheering, Jesus is weeping.

The Garden of Gethsemane

The procession down the Mount of Olives continues, and at the bottom of the hill, the crowd passes through the Garden of Gethsemane. It’s a beautiful place, and very peaceful. This is where Jesus will choose to spend his last night of freedom before his arrest.

The procession that had come down the mountain then crosses the Kidron Valley, and through the Golden Gate, where Jesus enters the temple and turns over the tables of the money-changers.

But that’s another story for another day.

For today, it is right that we celebrate Jesus’ glorious entry into the City of David – the city that should have been his, and someday will be. Today we shout along with crowds and the children, “Hosanna! Save O Lord! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Bishop Martyn Minns wrote this past week:

“From God’s perspective, the events of the first Palm Sunday are as much for you and me today as they were the first time Jesus rode into the city. God does not count time as we do. […] NOW [as always] is the day of salvation.”

So let no-one and nothing discourage your joy in Jesus today. We who live in the present have even more cause for joy than the people did back then. We know, from the vantage point of time, that Jesus will be back three days after his crucifixion. We know more clearly than before that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, but that a new heaven and new earth are on the way.

So let us celebrate this day, saying, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 4/10/22

“When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.

Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy;

then it was said among the nations,

“The LORD has done great things for them.”

The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb.

May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,

shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” – Psalm 126:1-6

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“Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters,  17 who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:  18 Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  19 I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.  20 The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people,  21 the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.” – Isaiah 43:16-21

(this scripture, set to music by the Fisherfolk – formerly of Scotland – in the 1970s. Recording is below)

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“Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.  2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.  3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.  4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said,  5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”  6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)  7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.  8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” – John 12:1-8

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This morning we step into the final week of Lent before Palm Sunday. Our theme for today is Filled With the Fragrance, which is taken from our reading in the Gospel of John.

The scripture readings for today – and especially John’s gospel – are studies in contrast. There’s good news and bad news, bad news and good news, all mixed in and jumbled together.

I’m going to come back to John in a moment. But to fill in a little of the back story: Both Old Testament readings look to the past and to the future. Both contain sadness and joy.

In the Psalm, the writer is looking at the nation of Israel. The psalmist lives in a time when the nation isn’t what it once was, and life has become challenging, and a lot of the greatness of the past has been lost. Many of the leaders of the nation have left the ways of God. Yet as the psalmist reflects on all this, he remembers how God set the people free from slavery in Egypt, and he says “The Lord has done great things for us.”

Great Things

I think as Americans and as United Methodists we can say the same thing. We can look out over our past, over hundreds of years, and how God has dealt with us, and we can say wholeheartedly, “The Lord has done great things for us.” We know from experience what the psalmist is talking about.

The psalmist also looks to the future and he says, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream…” He knows a time is coming, a time of great joy beyond anything we can imagine. We also in our time look forward to the time of the Lord’s return, when wrongs will be righted and the beauty of the earth restored. We know it will be a time of great celebration.

But the psalm-writer stands in a dark valley: he’s in between the heights of God’s blessings in the past, and the glory of God’s future to come. He can see better days in both directions, but the present is dark and the valley is deep. So he blesses himself and his people with the words “May those who sow in tears reap in joy.”

The prophet Isaiah also ministered during dark years in Israel’s history. He saw the leaders of his nation making alliances with kings who could not or would not help Israel fight its enemies. Isaiah predicted – and lived to see – the invasion and fall of Israel. He saw the tears of God’s people as they were carried into captivity in foreign lands.

Isaiah looks backwards to the past and he sees God’s hand in the creation of Israel. Speaking in the words of God, he refers to Israel as “the people I formed for myself, so that they might declare my praise.” Israel was chosen by God to have the awesome privilege of telling the world and showing the world how great God is. But they abandoned God and formed alliances with people who didn’t know God.

Still, Isaiah looks forward with hope; and again, speaking God’s words, he says: “Do not remember the former things… I am about to do a new thing… do you perceive it?”

New Thing

Do you see it?

All of these prophecies form the backdrop for John’s Gospel. Here also John looks back, not to the distant past but to the recent past: when Lazarus, our host for the evening, was raised from the dead. John tells us about a banquet given at Lazarus’ house in Bethany. By this time, the news of Lazarus’ resurrection had spread all through Judea, and because of it many people believed that Jesus was the Messiah.

Meanwhile the chief priests and Pharisees were very troubled by this miracle, and they put a price Lazarus’ head. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always thought this was kind of silly – because if Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead once he could do it again, right? But secretly, the religious leaders had also put a price on Jesus’ head – and Jesus knew it.

Luke also looks to the recent past, and shows us Martha and Mary. Martha is once again serving, and Mary is once again at Jesus’ feet. The first time Jesus visited Lazarus, Martha complained to Jesus that Mary wasn’t helping her serve. Instead, Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet listening. And Jesus answered, ‘let her be; she has chosen the better part’.

This day, Martha and Mary seem to be getting along much better. Martha likes to serve, and she is doing it cheerfully; and Mary is at Jesus’ feet, this time with a bottle of perfume, pouring it over Jesus’ feet and wiping his feet with her hair. Only this time, Mary is criticized not by her sister but by the disciple Judas Iscariot.

Annointing

The story we hear in John’s Gospel, like the Old Testament passages, takes place in the valley of the present. The glory of the Israel’s past is in the distance; Israel has been occupied by Rome for many years; and the glory of God’s promised future looks very far away – unless one has eyes to see what Mary sees. When Mary looks at Jesus, she sees a savior; she knows Jesus is going to his death; and she knows that this valley will turn the tables on death and bring about eternal life. She doesn’t understand how all this is going to work yet, but she trusts Jesus, and she knows that where Jesus is leading is the way to freedom and life.

And this day, Judas is the one with the complaint. He criticizes Mary directly, saying, “why wasn’t this perfume sold and given to the poor?”

It’s true the perfume Mary was using was extremely expensive. John tells us it was worth 300 denarii, which was about a year’s wages for most working people at that time. Judas was offended by Mary’s extravagance – or at least he pretended to be. He was actually interested in the money. John clues us in that Judas had somehow gotten himself put in charge of the disciples’ money box and he helped himself to what was in it.

Again there’s a parallel to our time, especially as we respond to the war in Ukraine. Those of us whose hearts are with the Ukrainian people want very much to help and to give; and unscrupulous people who want money know this, and they would like to stick their hands into the money box of today’s disciples. It is absolutely right that we be generous, but we also need to be careful.

Back to Luke’s story: in the dining room at Lazarus’ house, the whole room – in fact the whole house – was now filled with the fragrance of Mary’s perfume. The perfume she was using was made from a plant that is related to the honeysuckle – which, if you’ve ever smelled or tasted it, you know how sweet it is. As an expression of love and devotion to our Lord Jesus this perfume was unmatched.

At the same time the room is also stinking with the greed of Judas, and with his upcoming betrayal of Jesus. Judas was already cooking up plans to go to the priests – which he did a few days after this banquet, asking them how much they would give if he betrayed Jesus to them. The priests gave him 30 pieces of silver – about four months’ wages back then.

Silver

Judas wasn’t interested in the poor. But one of the great mysteries of the Bible is: why did Judas betray Jesus? Judas – like all the other disciples – had traveled with Jesus, had done ministry with Jesus, had helped to feed the 5000, had witnessed so many miracles. He knew what a great man and great teacher Jesus was. Maybe he didn’t understand that Jesus was more than just that: that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. Maybe Judas thought Jesus being the Messiah meant that he would overthrow the Romans and restore the kingdom to Israel – which was a nationalistic dream that Jesus was not about to fulfill. Maybe Judas thought that Jesus, as the Messiah, was indestructible – that the Messiah couldn’t possibly die. Scripture tells us Judas was surprised when he saw Jesus was condemned. Whatever it was though, somehow, Judas’ attitude changed. His unconfessed sins created a wedge in his heart big enough for the deceiver to enter in and take over.

Meanwhile back at Lazarus’ house, Jesus responds to Judas, telling him “leave Mary alone. She has bought (this perfume) so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” In other words Mary knows what’s coming. Mary has been listening to Jesus’ words, and even though the disciples don’t understand yet, she understands. She has been keeping this amazing gift for Jesus until his time came… and his time is now.

Isaiah and the Psalmist speak of the glory of the past and the glory of the future. And they speak of hope for the present, in spite of the darkness of the valley we live in. As we lean in to John’s gospel we also hear good news for the valleys of today. Four pieces of good news in particular:

  1. Death does not and will not have the final word. Jesus is facing into his own death, for our sakes, in order to destroy the power of death.
  2. Death is the gateway into God’s eternal Kingdom. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross made it that.
  3. We human beings are created by God to live, not die; for good, not for evil. God loves us – each one of us. God wants us alive, and God wants us to live with God forever.
  4. Jesus came to earth, and suffered what he suffered, so that we wouldn’t have to; so we would be able to enter God’s kingdom, free and forgiven.

So the scene in Lazarus’ dining room, which John describes to us, is a pivot-point on the way to the Cross. For Jesus, as of the day of this dinner, the Cross is now only eight days away, and the events of Palm Sunday will take place tomorrow. From this point on Jesus’ focus is on Jerusalem and what he will be enduring… and the hope that lies beyond it.

Dinner w Jesus

(Dinner With Jesus)

For us, from this point until Good Friday, we walk beside Jesus in silence and in solidarity, being with him and listening to him. May we all be blessed in these coming weeks with a closer walk with Jesus – and with an understanding and a love like Mary’s. AMEN.

Lent 5 – April 3, 2022 – “Filled with the Fragrance” – Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 4/3/22

Lent 4: Lost & Found

“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.  2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  3 So he told them this parable:

“There was a man who had two sons.  12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.  13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.  14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.  15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.  16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.  17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!  18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;  19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘  20 So he set off and went to his father. But 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.  21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’  22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe– the best one– and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;  24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.  26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.  27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’  28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.  29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.  30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’  31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.  32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'”   – Luke 15:1-3, Luke 15:11-32

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ProdigalSon

Preamble

In the very beginning of the Book of Genesis, God created human beings in God’s own image. God created them male and female, after God’s image – which tells us God has within Godself aspects of what we would think of as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. One of the big difficulties we have in talking about God in the English language is that we doesn’t have a personal first-person singular gender-inclusive pronoun. We can’t accurately speak of God as being either ‘he’ or ‘she’ and certainly not ‘it’. And ‘they’ doesn’t work because the Bible says, “the Lord our God, the Lord is one”. It makes speaking about God awkward at best.

I say all this because our Gospel reading today presents God as a father-image. I invite us to understand this as an allegory, not biological fact; in fact Jesus tells us in John 4:24 that God is spirit. It would therefore be more accurate, in most circumstances, to use the word ‘parent’ for God. But in this parable Jesus chooses ‘father’ imagery, I think in part because in ancient cultures the ‘father’ was not just the male parent but also the head of household, spokesperson for the family, and liaison with the community – which are also things God does. I say this because there may be some listening today for whom the image of God as father is awkward or painful, in which case it’s OK to simply think of God as a loving parent.

God being our parent, and we being God’s children, we can then understand God as being bigger than we are, and older and more experienced than we are; more mature, more complex. We can understand that God’s understanding is beyond anything our minds can grasp at this point in time. I can remember as a child asking questions and having my parents answer, “you’ll understand when you grow up” – which used to frustrate me, but it’s true. God as our parent teaches us age-appropriately as we grow. And as God’s offspring we continue to grow and learn.

Gods Children

The thing about kids though, is… well, two things actually… one, there’s always a family resemblance to the parent. And two, a good healthy upbringing is no guarantee a child will grow up to have a happy, productive life as an adult. We all, as God’s children, resemble God in many ways: in our ability to think, and feel, and reason, and create, and care for each other, and share, and communicate, and offer help, and learn, and give, and receive and be in relationship. These are all characteristics of God that we have inherited from our heavenly parent. But – as in our parable today of the Prodigal Son – that good healthy start is no predictor of what the adult child will be like.

So taking all this and heading now into our parable…

The Parable

In this story Jesus shares, God is pictured as a wealthy landowner. And he has two sons: the older son is responsible and hard-working; he stays close to his father, in proximity if not in spirit. The younger son, however, is irresponsible, disrespectful, self-indulgent; and in that culture his attitudes and actions bring shame on the whole family.

Jesus is telling this story in answer to the Pharisees and scribes, who were criticizing him for hanging out with ‘sinners’ and eating with them. According to the law of Moses, sharing a meal with someone who was considered ‘unclean’ made a clean person likewise ‘unclean’ – and then that person would then have to go through a ritual of purification before being allowed back into the temple to worship. What the Pharisees and scribes didn’t grasp was that, as the Messiah, Jesus’ presence has the power to make the ‘unclean’ clean. It’s like Moses’ law working in reverse. The goodness of Jesus is more powerful than the ‘badness’ of anyone around him. Jesus is the ultimate healer: not only of disease but of sin itself.

It’s like carrying a lit candle into a dark room. The room isn’t dark any more, because darkness can’t exist where light is. This is one of the reasons Jesus says “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). When Jesus is present, darkness is gone.

This also explains why Jesus is hanging out with the so-called ‘wrong’ crowd. As Jesus says to the Pharisees in Luke 5:31, “it is not the healthy who are in need of a physician, but the sick.” Jesus came to save people who were in trouble. If someone’s life is perfect they don’t need God! Jesus is here for the rest of us – people who aren’t perfect.

The thing about the Pharisees is they were always hanging around with God – at least in theory. It’s what they did for a living. They studied the scriptures (God’s word), they spent lots of time in the temple, they hung out with the holiest of people. The riches and blessings of God were all around them all the time. If the common people wanted to get to know God (at least in theory) all they had to do is come to where the Pharisees were. Right?

If you’re tracking with me, the next logical thought is: ‘be careful where you’re going pastor’ and that would be a correct thought. The temptation to become like the Pharisees is one of the greatest temptations clergy face: all of us, not just Methodist pastors. Pray for us that we don’t fall into that trap. We need your prayers.

In the meantime Jesus is disagreeing with the Pharisees. He tells this parable to illustrate why he’s hanging around with so-called ‘sinners’ instead of the so-called ‘righteous’.

Jesus says: a wealthy landowner had two sons. The younger of the two comes to his father one day and asks for his inheritance – that is, the half of the family’s money and property that would come to him when his father passes – he wants it right now.

This is wrong on so many levels! First, it lowers the standard of living for the whole family. Second, it’s something he doesn’t have a right to while his father is still alive. Worst of all, especially in that culture, it’s like saying to your dad, “I wish you were dead.”

For reasons known only to himself the father says ‘yes’ and gives the young man half of his estate. The son then goes out and squanders it: partying, drinking, visiting prostitutes, living only for the day’s pleasure, and giving no thought to his future (or anyone else’s).

Paralleling this to today’s world, there are people today (and in every era) who wish God dead. There are people who deny God’s existence, who ignore God, who live like God isn’t there. There are people who live like there’s no tomorrow. This doesn’t necessarily mean wild living; people can be self-indulgent in lots of ways. The common denominator is ignoring the reality that everything we have and everything we are is from God.

In this particular case, the young man’s lack of planning for the future caught up with him: there was a famine in the country – a desperate shortage of food that we here in America can only begin to imagine. (I get upset when there’s not enough cat food in the store…) We’ve never experienced anything like it in our country, at least not in our lifetimes. But that’s what this young man found himself in. He had no skills, he had no land, he had no way to get food, so he hired himself out as a farm hand, and he landed a job caring for pigs. And the food he was feeding the pigs was of better quality than what his boss was feeding him!

pigsty

This when on for a while until, as scripture says, “he came to himself”. I love that phrase! How many of us have known what it is like to be divided against ourselves, to be torn between opposite points of view? It reminds me of the concept of ‘going on walkabout’ where a person just starts walking and keeps walking until they find themselves.

So this young man finally came to himself. When he did, he said to himself, “my father’s servants have better food than this, and more food than they need. I would rather work for my old man. I’m starving here. I know what I’ll do: I’ll go home, and I’ll tell my dad that I was wrong, and I’m sorry I said what I said, and please let me be one of your servants.”

And he starts to make his way home.

While he’s still at a distance, his father looks up and sees him on the road. He sees his son, thin and worn out, filthy from all the work he’s been doing, and looking older than his years, and his father’s heart is filled with compassion, and he runs out to meet his son.

Back then, patriarchs of families usually didn’t run – it was considered undignified. It is also, to the best of my knowledge, the only place in Scripture where God is described as running. What gets God moving is a rebellious child who has come to himself and is coming home.

Back in the 1980s there was a contemporary worship song written about this – it was called “When God Ran” and the chorus went like this:

“The only time I ever saw him run
Was when he ran to me
He took me in his arms
Held my head to his chest
Said my son’s come home again
Lifted my face
Wiped the tears from my eyes
With forgiveness in his voice he said
“Son, do you know I still love you”

(Benny Hester, recorded by Phillips, Craig & Dean, 1985)

The father wrapped his arms around his son and kissed him. And the son began his apology. He said, “Father, I have sinned against God and against you…” but he never got to finish his sentence. The father interrupted and said to his servants:

“Go, get the best robe, and jewelry for his fingers, and sandals for his feet, and kill the fatted calf! We’re going to celebrate! My son was dead, and is alive again. He was lost and is found.”

This is the heart of God – the deepest part of God: to love and forgive and restore those who have lost their way.

It’s interesting that on the day the son left home, wishing his father dead, that was actually the day the son began to die. The child’s hurtful words didn’t kill the father. It was the son who began a downhill slide that would have ended in his death if he had not ‘come to himself’ and returned home.

But the story’s not over yet – because there’s still another son. This one, the older one, the responsible one, hears a massive party going on and asks one of the servants what’s up. He’s told, “your brother has come home, and your father has killed and roasted the fatted calf.” And the older son gets angry and refuses to join the party.

The older son is taking the Pharisee’s point of view, and this attitude is as much a sin as the rough living the younger son did. But the father loves the older son too, just as much as the younger. So the father leaves the party, alone, and seeks out his older son, and asks him to come in and join the celebration. But the young man says, “for all these years I have worked like a slave for you! I’ve done everything you’ve told me to do! And you’ve never given me so much as a goat to have a party with my friends. But this son of yours who has wasted half your estate on prostitutes, you’ve killed the fatted calf for him!”

The father answers – and showing his love and patience for even Pharisees – he says: “you’ve always been with me. All that I have is yours. But it’s right to celebrate because this brother of yours was as good as dead, and he’s alive – he was lost and is found!”

LostAndFound

We don’t have to worry about God ever running out of love: God has love enough for every one of his children and more. If we tend to be the kind of child who mouths off, and wanders off, and gets ourselves into jams – God loves us and is waiting to welcome us home. And if we tend to be the kind of child who stays home and behaves – the celebration feast is for us too; it’s for us to share in.

Jesus doesn’t tell us whether or not the older brother ever went to the party. But I think it’s good to remember the passage from Isaiah that was read last week – it starts out:

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. […] Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” (Isaiah 55:1, 2b)

There is, coming in the Kingdom of God, a feast of celebration waiting for all God’s children, if only we will go in. When Jesus parties with tax collectors and sinners this is just a foretaste of the feast to come – a feast that God is hosting, that we are all invited to.

The question then, for each one of us, is: “will you come?”

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 3/27/22

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.  2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.  3 Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.  4 See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.  5 See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.

6 “Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near;  7 let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.  8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.  9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:1-9

Come to the Water

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At that very time there were some present who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?  3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.  4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?  5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.  7 So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’  8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.  9 If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'” – Luke 13:1-9

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Preamble: Martin Luther King, Jr., once said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In a parallel thought, theologian Matt Skinner recently said, “The Christian outlook on repentance arcs toward joy.” It’s a surprising thought, to think that repentance would lead to joy, but that’s the big picture thought for today.

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Our theme for this morning, the third Sunday of Lent, is If It Bears Fruit – which is taken from today’s reading in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus teaches that as Christian believers, our lives need to be bearing spiritual fruit. And if our lives are not producing spiritual fruit then we’re not really following Jesus.

But two big questions come up right away:

  1. What exactly IS spiritual fruit? How do we know if we have it?
  2. How does one go about bearing spiritual fruit? How does it happen? How does it grow?

I want to start with the second question first, because I think this is where many people tend to get discouraged. How do we bear spiritual fruit? How do we bring this fruit into our lives? How much time does it take? What goes into growing it?

Fruit

I imagine it this way: spiritual fruit – like any kind of fruit, even the kind we eat – takes a lot of work but not a lot of effort. Here’s what I mean:

A few weeks ago I bought two dwarf cherry trees. I ordered them through the mail, and they arrived a few days ago. What attracted me to these trees is that they only grow to about 5 feet tall and you can grow them in pots!  We don’t have to dig up half the backyard just to plant some cherry trees!

But before I see a single cherry I have a lot of work to do. I need to buy LARGE pots, and dirt to fill the pots, and frost covers because the trees need to be protected from frost. I need to plant them and water them and trim them. And I probably won’t see any fruit for about three years: it takes that long for the tree to become strong enough to start producing fruit. Planting fruit trees is truly an act of faith! And it’s a lot of work.

But from the tree’s point of view, bearing fruit doesn’t take much effort. The tree grows, soaks in the sunshine, take in nutrients from the soil, and when the proper time comes it blooms and bears fruit. The tree doesn’t need to work up muscles to bear fruit. It doesn’t need to watch YouTube videos to figure out how to produce fruit. If the gardener (me) has done the work, fruit happens – because that’s what fruit trees do.

That’s what I mean by fruit takes a lot of work but not a lot of effort. The gardener does most of the work. The tree just does what it was created to do.

In our passage from Luke, Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree. This particular fig tree is not bearing fruit. In the parable the man who owns the fig tree represents God, and the fig tree represents a human being (could be anybody). God plants this fig tree in his vineyard (the world). God comes looking for fruit and doesn’t find any, so he says to the gardener (Jesus, in this story) “three years I’ve been looking for fruit on this tree, and I’m still not finding any.”

Fig Tree

As we’ve just learned from our example of cherry tree, some trees don’t produce fruit right away. Some trees might take two years, three years, maybe even four years, to produce fruit. The gardener knows this. I think this is one of the reasons why it’s agreeable to God to give this fig tree another year, and to work with it some more. The work of producing fruit, for the most part, is the gardener’s. The tree’s job is to take what the gardener gives it and grow fruit.

What the gardener has given us is our skills, our talents, our families, our communities, everything that makes up our lives. There are times when something goes badly wrong and a tree never bears fruit. It might have been frost-bitten when it was small; it might have been attacked by animals or insects; it might not have been a healthy tree to begin with. In the same way, human fruitfulness is sometimes inhibited by sickness or violence or other difficulties that prevent people bearing spiritual fruit in their lives.

In either case, God, the gardener, digs around the tree and puts manure on it. I expect this is probably not a very pleasant experience for the tree. Trees don’t like having their roots messed with: no plant does. And nobody I know (human or plant) enjoys having manure thrown on it!

In some ways we can parallel this to life’s difficulties and challenges. God may sometimes allow difficult things into our lives to help us grow. Let me say quickly: not all difficulties, hurts, or sicknesses are from God. Some tragedies – for example the war in Ukraine – are the result of other peoples’ sins. Some tragedies – like the example Jesus gives of a building falling on people – are simply accidents. These are things God never intended.

But for everyday difficulties, God may allow them into our lives to help us grow stronger. If we face into them with prayer and with trust in God, God will bring about changes in our lives (‘change for the better’ is the definition of repentance) and use them to help us produce fruit. God has created every single one of us to be fruitful. Bearing fruit is what we’re created to do. It’s what we’re here on earth to do.

To take this from a slightly different angle: Jesus once said (in the gospel of John): “I am the vine, you are the branches…

“and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes [that is, trims back] so that it will be even more fruitful. (John 15:1-2)  And Jesus goes on to say, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; but apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15:5-8)

The way we go about bearing fruit is to stay connected to Jesus – and we do that through Bible reading, and prayer, and fellowship with other believers, and worship. If we stay connected to Jesus, the True Vine, we don’t have to push fruit out like a woman in labor. It happens naturally because it’s what God created us to do.

So how can we recognize the fruit of the Spirit? What are we looking for?

First off, fruit is something that benefits others. Just like trees don’t eat their own fruit but rather give their fruit to the gardener, and the gardener then takes care of the tree and feeds it, and it becomes a circle of care:  the tree for the gardener, and the gardener for the tree. In much the same way the fruit we bear is for the good of others.

Fruit of the Spirit

The apostle Paul lists some of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. He says, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” – Galatians 5:22-23. I don’t think this is a comprehensive list; it’s a list to start with.

Paul also lists seven gifts of the Holy Spirit in I Corinthians 12. He includes: wisdom, understanding, wise counsel, courage, knowledge, holiness, and fear of the Lord. He goes on:

 28 First, God has placed apostles in the church. Second, he has placed prophets in the church. Third, he has placed teachers in the church. Then he has given to the church miracles and gifts of healing. He also has given the gift of helping others and the gift of guiding the church. God also has given the gift of speaking in different kinds of languages. 29 Is everyone an apostle? Is everyone a prophet? Is everyone a teacher? […](I Corinthians 12:28-31)

The answer to these questions is assumed to be ‘no’. No one has all the gifts; no one has all the fruits. The point is to have some. And then Paul goes on in verse 31:

31 “But now I will show you the best way of all…”

…and he leads us into that beautiful chapter on LOVE, the greatest gift and the greatest fruit of all.

These things grow in our lives naturally, over time, if we stay close to God, pray regularly, read scripture regularly, and do our best to follow the teachings of Jesus. The fruit will come.

In the beginning of our reading Jesus points out that tragedies in life may come. If they do, it does NOT mean that anyone is a worse sinner than anyone else. In a world that has rebelled against God, sometimes bad things happen. And at times like these, prayer is our best response. Again looking at Ukraine – I have been moved to tears as I read and hear the people in Ukraine turning to the book of Psalms and reading the Psalms as prayers. In the face of unthinkable violence and tragedy they are staying close to God, and they are asking God to be their protection. And their faith is inspiring the faith of people around the world. Does God want this war? NO. Are the people bearing fruit anyway? ………….. oh yes!

At the end of our story, when everything has been said and done, there is waiting for us an amazing reward. Isaiah describes it in our reading for this morning:

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.  [2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?] Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”  (Isaiah 55:1-2)

This passage is a true and trustworthy promise of God. It is for all of us trees who stay connected to Jesus and through him and in him bear good fruit. So hang in there, Trees of God. Stay connected and trust the Gardener. The fruit will come. AMEN.

pretty tree

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 3/20/22