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Who Is My Neighbor

Today we have two scripture readings from the New Testament that are pretty much unrelated in context. Our passage from Colossians is the introduction to Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae, and our passage from Luke contains one of Jesus’ best-known parables. But in the details of each passage we can find common ground, because both of them talk about what it means to be a neighbor.

All of us live in neighborhoods of one kind or another. We may live on a residential street, in an apartment building, in a retirement community. Here in Pittsburgh the sense of neighborhood is important; the phrase “won’t you be my neighbor” resonates for a reason. When I first moved here I was amazed at how my new friends from Pittsburgh couldn’t walk from one end of downtown to the other without running into somebody they knew. Or how, if I got lost, most Pittsburghers wouldn’t just give directions, they’d take you there: “Follow me!”  For a native Philadelphian like myself this felt risky… but here in Pittsburgh even strangers become neighbors very quickly. We’re in this together, and that’s how things are.

The Christian concept of ‘neighbor’ includes all that and more.  Both of our scripture readings for today define ‘being a neighbor’ in ways that take our breath away, even in a city that prides itself on neighborhood.

I’d like to start with Colossians. Paul’s letter to the Colossians gives us a picture of what the church was like back when Christian churches were first starting. Most churches back then didn’t own their own buildings; they met in people’s homes, or outdoors, or in public buildings that weren’t in use at worship time.  The Christian church was a new kind of community; in fact it was a new kind of family, defined not by blood relations but by each person’s relationship with God.

It has become cliché in our culture to say “if God is our Father, we are all God’s children, and that makes us all brothers and sisters.” There’s truth in that, but what Paul describes in his letter is deeper and more costly.

Paul leads off by saying: “When we pray for you we always thank God for you” (v 3) “because we have heard about your faith in Jesus, and your love for the saints, and the hope that is laid up for you in heaven.” (v 4-5a)

Did you hear the echo of I Corinthians 13 in there? In I Corinthians 13, Paul says there are only three things in this world that will last forever: faith, hope, and love: and the greatest is love. If you want to make an investment in eternity, if you want to ‘lay up treasure’ in the Kingdom of God – faith, hope, and love are the coins of the realm! And Paul thanks God for the reports he’s hearing about the Colossian church being rich in faith, hope, and love.

As Paul continues to teach the Colossians what it means to live as Christian neighbors, he brings together faith, hope, and love in such a way that we can see God’s grace and God’s salvation at work as it is being lived. Books upon books have been written on how salvation happens: how it is that people come to be “saved”. Paul’s description here sounds like something John Wesley might have written, with his three kinds of grace: Paul says, “we have heard of your faith” (justifying grace) – “and of the love you have for all the saints” (sanctifying grace) – “because of the hope laid up for you in heaven” (prevenient grace).  All three coming together and enabling human beings to inherit the Kingdom of God by the grace of God.

This is what defines the Christian concept of ‘neighbor’ because it creates the foundation on which we become members of God’s family and live as members of God’s family. With the grace of God in play, Paul writes to people he’s never met and calls them “brothers” and “sisters”, “fellow servants of the Lord” and “saints” who have been “rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son.” This definition of Christian community still applies today.

It’s important to see God’s hand in bringing all this together: God rescues people from the power of darkness through Jesus. God calls us to be servants, working together for the Kingdom. God inspires and directs our faith, and our hope, and our love. God bears fruit in us.

Paul’s prayer is that God will grow this neighborhood of faith, so that fruit will abound, and so that each person will grow in the knowledge of God’s will; and in spiritual wisdom and understanding; and in good works. So the learning we do here in church is meant to move us from being hearers of God’s word to doers of God’s word. Our outreach to the community is meant to invite more people out of the darkness and into God’s neighborhood where all is light.

So that’s Paul. Our reading from Luke approaches the concept of being a neighbor from a different direction but it still points us to the Kingdom.  In this passage the question becomes: how can we take the concept of neighbor and apply it to everyday life?

I’ll need to back up and lead into this story to set the scene.  Immediately before this passage, Jesus had sent out seventy of the disciples to preach and to heal and to prepare the way for Jesus’ ministry. The mission was successful: and the disciples come back excited, bouncing off the walls with joy. They say to Jesus: “Lord in your name even the demons submit to us!” And Jesus joins in the celebration and says “I saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning!” And then He goes on to say, “but don’t rejoice that the powers submit to you; rather rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”  And Jesus tells them that many kings and prophets longed to see what they have seen, and never did.

As they are all together, the family of God, neighbors to one another, filled with joy at what God has done… along comes a lawyer. And he throws cold water on their joy. (Keep in mind a ‘lawyer’ in those days was someone who specialized in the Law of Moses: Deuteronomy and Leviticus.  We’re talking about God’s law, not Roman law.)

And this lawyer has a lot of cold water to throw! I see four ways he did this:

  1. He ignores the mood of the room: all the smiles and laughter, all the stories the disciples are sharing about people being healed and people being reunited with God; and he comes up with a very serious look on his face.
  2. Jesus has just told the disciples that their names are written in heaven! The lawyer’s question implies that Jesus might not be in a position to say this. I mean, people study for years and attend synagogue for years before they understand what’s required for eternal life… right?
  3. The lawyer is questioning Jesus in general. Luke says the lawyer asked his question to “test Jesus” – to make sure Jesus is measuring up.
  4. The lawyer leads with the question – “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” – not because he wants to know the answer, but because he already knows the answer. He wants to get Jesus in a spot where he has to modify his position, even just a little: to argue Jesus into a place where he has to admit the lawyer is right.

But Jesus doesn’t take the bait. Instead he steps back into his role of Teacher (that’s what the lawyer called him) and he asks the kind of question a teacher would ask. He says: “What does the law say? What do you read there?”

And the lawyer pulls himself up straight and tall and pronounces the Right Answer. He says: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  The lawyer has pulled his answer from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18 and he has quoted the passages without any change or comment. If this were a seminary exam, he would have just aced the test – and he knows it.

And Jesus agrees. He says: “You have given the right answer.” And then Jesus says: “Do this and you will live.”

In the Kingdom of God it’s not enough to know the right answers. Once we know God’s word we have to live it.  And that’s the curveball the lawyer isn’t expecting.  Now if he wants to hold on to the A+ he just earned, he needs to prove he is doing what the law says to do. So in an attempt to prove that – or at least to prove that Jesus can’t prove he isn’t – he asks: “and who is my neighbor?”

I expect the lawyer is probably thinking neighbors are people he lives with, or people he works with, or people who live in his home town. But Jesus tells a story to expand the definition of ‘neighbor’ to something much larger, and much more challenging.

The Good Samaritan

Jesus tells the story of man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho, who falls among robbers and is beaten.  The specifics of Jesus’ story are foreign to us: most of us have never walked from Jerusalem to Jericho, and we don’t deal with Samaritans on a regular basis.  So to bring the story into our own world and our own time, allow me to paraphrase. Let’s say this man is driving from Pittsburgh to Wheeling. He is traveling alone down I-79, and when he stops at a rest stop some men ambush him, beat him up, steal all his things including his car and his clothes, and leave him lying on the grass outside the vending machine building, half-dead.

A little while later a priest stops in to use the facilities, sees the man lying on the grass, and passes by.  Jesus doesn’t say why the priest passes by. Scholars have debated possible reasons, but I think Jesus’ point is – for someone who knows the scriptures and who knows what God requires – there is no good reason to walk by and do nothing.

A little bit later a church volunteer stops in and does the same thing.  And then a third man comes along: someone whose religion is suspect, someone whose nationality is both foreign and unwelcome – that’s what Samaritans were: wrong religion, foreign and unwelcome. Today we might choose, say, an immigrant from Iraq. This immigrant sees the man, and is moved with compassion, and bandages his wounds; and at great risk to himself picks the man up, puts him in his own car, and drives him to the nearest Comfort Inn – where he gives the hotel manager two days’ wages and says, “take care of him; and when I come back I will repay you whatever you spend.”

And Jesus asks: “which of these three men was a neighbor to the man who was beaten up?”

The lawyer again gives the right answer. He says: “the one who showed mercy”. And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

What we see in both these passages is that while the facts are important, the kingdom of heaven isn’t just about knowing the right answers; it’s about wisdom, and it’s about compassion, and it’s about knowing the will of God.

And it’s about building right relationships and being good neighbors: first with God, as Paul says in Colossians. And then with each other, as Jesus describes in Luke. Jesus is not only our teacher; but in leaving heaven to reach out to us in love, and to help us when we could not help ourselves, he is also our example. Let us therefore go… and do likewise. AMEN.

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Colossians 1:1-14   Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,  2 To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

3  In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,  4 for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints,  5 because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel  6 that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God.  7 This you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf,  8 and he has made known to us your love in the Spirit.

9 For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,  10 so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.  11 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully  12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.  13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son,  14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Luke 10:25-37  Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”  27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

29  But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”  30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.  31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.  34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.  35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’  36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in Pittsburgh, 7/14/19

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This week, on Thursday, we will celebrate the 243rd anniversary of the birth of the United States of America. It’s is a day when we remember and celebrate our many freedoms: freedom from Great Britain (much as I love Queen Elizabeth), freedom to live as we choose, freedom to worship God in peace, freedom to do and to become the very best we can be.

So I was delighted when I discovered our New Testament reading today talks about freedom.  Our passage is from Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

By way of background: Paul was Jewish but he was also a Roman citizen, and Roman citizens considered themselves free people.  In Paul’s parents’ lifetime, Rome was a democratic republic, much like ours; in fact, our government is to some extent modeled after it. The Republic had built-in political safeguards and balances of power. But in the years leading up to Jesus’ birth, Rome was divided by civil war; Julius Caesar was assassinated: and the Republic fell. What remained for the next few hundred years was the Roman Empire.  Under the Empire, power was concentrated in the emperor’s hands. While the Senate continued, as time passed it had less and less real power, and the emperor became essentially a dictator.

Paul was born after the Roman Empire had begun; but Paul’s parents most likely remembered the days of the Republic. And as citizens, all of them would have grown up thinking of themselves as free people even though the political ground under them was shifting.

I mention all this to point out that where it comes to freedom, Paul’s mindset was probably very similar to ours: he was a ‘free man’. He was also a member of an ancient and traditional religion, one that was not really in favor with the upper echelons of power but which was tolerated. Paul was not above using his rights as a Roman citizen to help spread the good news of Jesus.

As we listen to what Paul has to say about freedom we might get the feeling that he believes in anarchy – total lawlessness. Most of the book of Galatians is about not being trapped by the law. By ‘law’ Paul means the teachings of Moses, which would have included the Ten Commandments and all the other laws God gave to Israel through Moses. But what Paul says about the law could really apply to any set of laws.

Paul drives his point home so well, some of his contemporaries claimed he was saying that Christians are above the law. Rest assured this could not be further from the truth. The fact is, Paul has his sights on something higher than law: life in God’s Kingdom. Jesus came to earth to proclaim God’s Kingdom, and as we enter into God’s Kingdom, the law is no longer necessary.

Paul leads off our reading today with the words “For freedom Christ has set us free.” As citizens of the United States we might ask (and Paul as a citizen of Rome might also have asked) are we not already free?

But in Paul’s eyes, there’s freedom and then there’s freedom.

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Paul writes to the church in Galatia because some religious leaders visited from Jerusalem and told them Christians are obligated to keep the Jewish law – and this included male believers being circumcised.  Circumcision was (and still is) the rite of initiation into the Jewish faith; but you can imagine how the Gentiles in Galatia felt about this.  And Paul takes the Galatians’ side – in words that I won’t repeat!

Paul’s argument, though, goes way beyond circumcision and cuts to the heart of the matter: we are saved by grace and not by keeping the law. Christ has set us free from the law.  Jesus died to forgive our sins – all the times when we have not been able to live up to the law. “The wages of sin is death”, but Jesus took our place on the cross. God receives us because when God looks at us, God sees the righteousness and perfection of Jesus. So if we try to be good Christians by obeying the Old Testament law, we take ourselves out of God’s grace and put ourselves in a place where we must keep the whole law. And if we do that, we lose our freedom in Christ and fall back into slavery to the law. We need God’s grace: there is no other way; all other roads lead to slavery.

That’s Paul’s message, and that’s the big picture of Galatians in a nutshell.

In our passage for today, however, Paul warns that our freedom in Christ can be misused, if we choose to use our freedom to indulge ourselves.  And Paul gives us a long list of things people frequently indulge in.  As we listen to this list, we might be tempted to think Paul is setting up a whole new set of laws, but that’s not his point. Paul’s point is that Godly freedom is found in service, not in self-seeking.  And the corollary to that point is that using our freedom to indulge the passions of the flesh, strips away the very freedom we think we’re exercising and leads us back into slavery.

So turning now to our passage in Galatians…

Paul says “for freedom Christ has set us free.”  Believing in Jesus fulfills the law of God. In believing we are counted as righteous.  ‘Believing’ does not mean intellectual assent, but rather the kind of faith that lives what is believed. Paul says “stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”  He warns: if we use our freedom to indulge ourselves we will find ourselves enslaved by our own desires (or by the desires of those who feed our desires).

One of the great truths of life is (in the words of the old Bob Dylan song) “you gotta serve somebody”.

We can’t escape that. We might serve our bosses, we might serve our spouses, we might serve our families, we might serve God – but one way or another we will serve somebody.  What Paul says is this: if we are going to serve God, what God has commanded us above all other commandments is: “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Paul says ‘become servants to one another in love’.

Paul then goes into some detail about how not to get caught up in being self-serving.  He warns that serving ourselves might look like a pleasant idea at first, but it’s actually a trap: and it’s the kind of trap that gets tighter the more you struggle.  Paul explains that God’s Holy Spirit within us is opposed to the flesh, and the flesh is opposed to the Spirit.

As an aside: when Paul talks about ‘the flesh’ he does not mean that our bodies are evil, or that our bodies drag us into immorality. This view of ‘the flesh’ is an ancient Greek concept that snuck into the early church, but the Jewish understanding of human nature does not think of the spirit as more holy than the body; or even that the spirit is separate from the body. Body and spirit are united and are equally redeemed by Christ.  What Paul means by ‘flesh’ is anything in us that cannot survive contact with God; that is, anything unholy or anything in us that dies when we pass through death and step into God’s kingdom. The Greek word Paul uses is sarki, which is the word we get sarcophagus from – having to do with death.

So the fleshly activities Paul lists in verses 18-21 talk about things that won’t go with us into God’s kingdom.  This list is not meant to be comprehensive, and Paul says so. This is just a short list of examples. Serving the ‘flesh’ might include indulging the body, or it might include indulging negative attitudes or behaviors.

By contrast, with God’s Spirit in us, we are able to have godly thoughts, holy desires, holy passions.  And yes, there are holy passions.  As one theologian put it: ‘The flesh has its desires and the Spirit has other desires, but the contrast is not between having passion and having no passion, but rather different kinds of passion.’  Christians aren’t supposed to be like Mr. Spock on Star Trek.  God never asks us to give up being passionate! God loves people who love passionately.

As human beings we will always have passions, desires, and longings. Paul’s point is, if we use our freedom selfishly, to indulge ourselves, gratifying our own flesh will result in harming the flesh of others. This is what Paul is getting at in verse 15 where he says: “if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”

One look at our world today shows the truth of this.  People desire power, so they take up arms and start wars. People indulge hatred, so they take guns into schools and synagogues. People desire wealth at any cost, so workers are cheated out of their pensions, and global warming is ignored. People in wealthy countries crave drugs, and the governments of smaller countries fall apart under the anarchy of drug lords. And then we have refugees at our door… Lord have mercy.

If we indulge our flesh, we end up consuming one another. This is the ultimate end of a ‘consumer culture’.

Looking at Paul’s list of fleshly cravings – which again is not comprehensive – I’d like to spend a few minutes with just four of them: four ‘sins of the flesh’ that we don’t usually think of as ‘sins of the flesh’.

The first is Idolatry.  Idolatry is the root sin of all sins.  It is disobeying Commandment #1. Idolatry is having something in our hearts that is more important than God or that takes the place of God. It could be drugs or alcohol or pornography… but it could also be something good, like a job, or our families, or earning an income, or a hobby, or even some kind of recreation. These are all good things – blessings from God – meant to bring God’s goodness into our lives, and to inspire praise and worship. We thank God for our families, for supplying our needs, for the abilities God gives us to play sports or to grow vegetables or to enjoy a movie. But if any of these things becomes more important than God, it becomes an idol.  It is my belief that idolatry is the #1 slavery of our time.

The second is like it: Sorcery – which is an old-fashioned word. We tend to think of sorcery as being a kind of dark magic, sort of like witchcraft, but that’s only a small part of the definition. Sorcery may or may not involve calling on evil spirits. At its heart, sorcery is playing God: grasping for power that only God should have, or trying to manipulate the world around us, and the people around us, to do what we want rather than what God wants.

The third is Enmities – which includes hatred, either in action or in thought; along with strife, jealousy, anger, and selfish ambition.

And the fourth is dissension and factions – or to put in another way, disunity and partisanship. Examples include all the divisions we see in public life today. People remark these days how much more violent public conversation has become, and how much more divided our country is. These divisions are reflected in everything from Facebook debates to TV newscasts that sound more like gossip columns than real news. Have you ever wondered what it is that motivates people to spend hours arguing with total strangers on the Internet? Dissensions and factions gratify the flesh; they engage the passions every bit as much as sex, maybe more so.  And these dissensions and factions are tearing our nation apart.

One more reason to pray fervently that God’s word is heard across this land.

These four things are just a few of the things Paul mentions in his list of fleshly pursuits.  God considers these four just as serious and just as fleshly as the sexual sins (if not more so) and they are equally hazardous to our freedom.  The self-seeking passion that drives people to adultery has the same root in our hearts as the passion that drives the political divisions in our country. And people are equally addicted to both, and addiction is loss of freedom.

Paul warns us: what looks like freedom, what looks like the ability to do as we choose, and to get what we want, will ultimately trap us, and in the end will prevent us being and becoming who we really want to be.

Thank goodness God doesn’t leave us there – and neither does Paul.  Paul closes by pointing us in a positive direction: “By contrast” he says “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, a gracious attitude, generosity, moral excellence, faithfulness, gentleness, courtesy, and self-control.” (I added a few words in that list because they’re implied in the Greek but haven’t quite made it into most English translations.) If we have the fruits of the Spirit in our lives, we are free of the law – because in loving and serving others, we fulfill the law.

For freedom we have been set free.

Garden

Jesus once said, “if you would be my disciple, you must take up your cross and follow me.”  Paul’s words in Galatians 5 help explain what Jesus meant: letting go of the flesh and living in the Spirit. This only makes sense, because flesh is mortal; it is doomed to die.  But life – eternal life – comes from walking in the Spirit. In spite of all appearances, the cross is the doorway to life.

When we are born into this world, we are born in bondage to the corruption of this world. When we are born in the Spirit, we are born into freedom. We might be tempted to think if we follow God’s law to the letter, it would be a good way to avoid evil; but Paul says not so: trying to follow the law will only take away our freedom.  Those who walk in the Spirit produce the fruit of the Spirit, against which there is no law; and therefore we are free.

For freedom Christ has set us free. This holiday week, let’s rededicate ourselves to REAL freedom – setting aside desires that would enslave us, and serving one another in the love and power of the Spirit. AMEN.

 

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Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 6/30/19

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Galatians 5:1, 13-25  For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. 13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.  14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.  17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.  18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.  19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness,  20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions,  21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,  23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.  24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

Luke 9:51-62  When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.  52 And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him;  53 but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.  54 When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”  55 But he turned and rebuked them.  56 Then they went on to another village.  57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”  58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”  59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”  60 But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”  61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.”  62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

 

When The Going Gets Tough

There are times in life when the going gets tough.  I’ve had a bit of that myself lately, and I know I’m not the only one.

I think partly it’s just the nature of life in a fallen world.  Being a Christian doesn’t shield us from life’s tough times. I’ve heard some preachers from time to time say that life in Jesus should just keep getting better and better, and that health and prosperity will be ours if we just believe. While it’s true keeping the Ten Commandments may help us to live longer, healthier lives, nowhere in the Bible is that guaranteed. In fact, if anything, scripture seems to support the opposite: from the Old Testament to the New, people who love God often have very difficult lives. Think about Job for example, who lost his family and everything he owned; or think about the apostle Paul, who was shipwrecked and beaten and left for dead more than once.

One of the characters in my favorite TV show once said (in his wonderful British accent) : “You know, I used to think it was awful that life was so unfair. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them? So now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the universe.” (Marcus Cole, Babylon 5)

This man has a very dark sense of humor! But things do get rough sometimes, and sometimes it seems the hard times go on much longer than we expected.

The men in both of our scripture readings today know what that’s like.

When God’s people go through tough times we tend to start asking questions like: Where is God? What is God doing? Why is this happening? We’re not asking because we’re wallowing in self-pity but because suffering tends to bring these questions to the surface. So as we look at today’s readings, I want like to approach with three questions in mind: (1) How is this person suffering? What is life like for them? (2) What is God doing during these difficult times? What actions does God take? (3) How is God’s call coming through? One thing I’ve learned about tough times over the years: for people who know and love Jesus, God’s call on our lives can be found, at least in part, in the middle of our suffering.

So turning first to Elijah. Elijah suffers because his country, the land he loves, has abandoned God.  Led by King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, they have turned away from worshiping God and have become Baal-worshipers. It started when King Ahab married Jezebel, a former priestess of Baal. She urged Ahab to build a temple to Baal in the middle of Israel, and then she brought in some of her old priest-buddies to run the place. 1 Kings 16:30 says, “Ahab did evil in the sight of the LORD more than all [the kings] who were before him” – and that takes some doing!

As God’s prophet and friend, Elijah is horrified to see his people turning away from the one true and living God. Elijah’s faithfulness to God puts his life in danger, but he doesn’t give up or back down. And when Ahab makes Baal-worship the law of the land, God gives Elijah a prophecy.  God tells Elijah to tell Ahab a drought is coming: a drought so severe, not even dew will form on the ground. Given that Baal was the Canaanite god of rain and dew, this hits Baal where it hurts.  And given that Israel depended on farming and pasture-lands for animals, this hits the country where it hurts too.

But rather than apologize to God and admit he was wrong, Ahab blamed Elijah for being “the troubler of Israel” (that’s what he called him). Ahab said it was all Elijah’s fault! Elijah answers, “If the Lord is God, then follow him; but if Baal is god, follow him.” Elijah then sets up a competition between the two gods: two altars will be set up, with an animal sacrifice on top of each one, and wood to burn the sacrifice, and the priests of Baal will call on their god, and Elijah will call on God… “and whichever deity sets fire to the wood and burns up the sacrifice, that’s the real god.”

All the people gather around and watch as the altars are set up, and the wood is arranged, and the animals are killed. The priests of Baal start dancing and praying and shouting around their altar, all day long, but nothing happens. Elijah then pours water all over his altar, and prays to God for fire, and fire falls from heaven. God’s sacrifice is consumed: and the wood, and the stone altar!

The people all shout “The Lord is God!” and the prophets of Baal are chased into the nearest wadi and slaughtered. Jezebel, royally ticked off, says to Elijah, “I am going to make you as dead as you have made my priests!” And Elijah takes off into the wilderness.

So Elijah has been suffering in a number of ways: He has lived most of his life as a member of a religious minority, persecuted for believing in God. He hasn’t been able to live in his own home town for many years.  After years of preaching, most of the people still follow Baal – it’s like his words have been falling on deaf ears. Elijah is weary and discouraged. And now, in his moment of victory, Queen Jezebel puts out a contract on his life!  Elijah is so down he says to God “I might as well just die.”

So what has God been doing in the middle of all this? First, unknown to Elijah, God has been calling people to faith and preserving the lives of believers. A few verses after our reading (verse 18) God tells Elijah there are “still seven thousand in Israel… [who] have not bowed to Baal…” But Elijah doesn’t know this yet.

God has also been working through Elijah to call the nation back to Himself.  But right now Elijah is exhausted and on the brink of burnout, so God sends an angel to watch over Elijah while he sleeps, and to feed him when he wakes up. God does this for two days, until Elijah is rested and refreshed. God knows Elijah’s physical needs, and he provides as tenderly as a Father would.

God then meets with Elijah in the wilderness and asks Elijah “why are you here?”  Of course God knows why Elijah is there: he’s exhausted and he’s afraid for his life. But God knows Elijah needs to be heard: Elijah needs to speak his fears and his pain.  And God listens.

Then God gives Elijah a fresh experience of Himself, because Elijah needs some first-hand experience of God’s goodness and power. God hides Elijah in a cave, and allows him to experience a great wind, and an earthquake, and a fire – none of which God was part of, but sent by God, while Elijah is protected from the dangers. And then God meets Elijah in the silence that follows.

Only after all these needs have been met does God call Elijah to his next task.  Elijah hasn’t failed, and God doesn’t hold Elijah’s negative feelings against him. On the contrary, God respects Elijah’s heart, and then assures Elijah he’s still God’s prophet by giving him his next assignment – which includes anointing Ahab’s replacement.

God does one other thing for Elijah that we don’t see in this passage: God provides a partner in ministry. God tells Elijah to anoint Elisha as his successor. Elisha will not take over as God’s prophet right away; he will be Elijah’s assistant for over 20 years. But from now on Elijah will no longer feel so alone in his ministry.

So God is with Elijah in the hard times; and God calls Elijah from within those hard times into a ministry Elijah could not have imagined before.

Turning now to our Gospel reading, and the meeting between Jesus and the Demoniac of Gerasenes.

DemoniacGeresenes

The Demoniac suffers in many ways. First off, he suffers because people don’t even know his name. They know who he is; they know his story; but nobody ever wrote his name down, and even today we only know him as “the demoniac of Gerasenes” – which is what he was, not what he is now.

He suffers because he’s possessed by demons. How people have interpreted this over the centuries varies. It’s worth mentioning that the holy books of all the major world religions have something to say about demon-possession, so this is not just some weird corner of Christianity. Many Christian churches around the world today still practice exorcism. Modern psychology does not recognize demon-possession, and clinical specialists refer to the phenomenon as “dissociative identity disorder” often rooted in traumatic experiences or mental distress.

But however you interpret this – the bottom line is, this man has been suffering and has been out of his mind for a long time. Imagine what it’s been like for him: he’s been naked, living outdoors, and the region around Galilee does get cold in the winter. He has no house to live in, no place to call home. He’s been living in a graveyard, which has to be scary and extremely lonely.  The people of the town avoid him, and the only time they come to see him is when they come with chains to chain him up. Are they chaining him up so he won’t hurt himself or to keep themselves safe? Scripture doesn’t tell us. But no matter: the demons give the man superhuman power to break the chains. Even so he is still completely cut off from human society.

In his conversation with Jesus, we learn the man is also not able to control his own words. His greeting to Jesus is “what have you to do with me, Son of the Most High God?” – which are certainly not his own words, but the words of the demons.

While all this is going on, as the man looks at Jesus, he sees someone who is radically different from himself.  Jesus is psychologically in perfect health; morally, he’s perfectly good; and from a human standpoint (or from any standpoint) Jesus is perfect. It must have been incredibly difficult for this man to look Jesus in the eye.

I think to some extent all of us feel this, at least sometimes, when we’re in God’s presence. We’re not perfect like Jesus. We don’t have it all together like Jesus does. Sometimes it can be difficult to look our Lord in the eye, even in prayer.

But whatever was going on inside this man, whatever his demons were, Jesus sets him free… and sends the demons into a nearby herd of pigs. The pigs, being the intelligent and sensitive creatures they are, go mad and drown themselves. They would rather be dead than suffer with demons. Imagine how much pain that man had been in, and for so long!

As with Elijah, God meets this man where he is.  Jesus begins with the question, “what is your name?” Jesus knows this man has never been called by his name before. And he’s still not able even to speak his own name: he answers, “Legion, for we are many” – and that’s the demons talking, not the man. So Jesus kicks the demons out and sets the man free. When the people of the town came running to see what happened they found the man “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.”

You would think such a miracle like this would be cause for celebration – food, dancing, music!  But the people of the town react with fear. They’re so afraid they ask Jesus to leave. They’re afraid of the man; they’re afraid of Jesus; and so in this moment Jesus shares the man’s pain and loneliness, because both of them are rejected in fear.

So Jesus gets back in the boat. And the man says, “please can I go with you?” But Jesus says ‘no’ and gives him God’s call for his life: he says, “Go home” – for the first time – “and tell everyone what God has done for you.”

The people of this town are not going to get rid of Jesus so easily!  Every day for the rest of their lives they will see this man and remember what Jesus did.  They will hear his story, they will be told time and time again about Jesus and his love, they will have the opportunity to become believers.  Some will come to faith, and some will continue to fear.

Jesus’ calling on this man’s life is basically to return to the place where he has suffered and minister there. It seems God often makes this request of God’s people: to serve where we’ve been injured. It’s difficult, but it’s rewarding, and God’s calling redeems the painful times in our lives.

So I’ll leave us all, myself included, with these three questions:

  • Where is life difficult for us? Can we find ways to put our suffering into words and share it with God in prayer? This is not always easy; it may take time. Remember God can and does understand even without words, so if all we can say is ‘help, Lord’ it’s enough.
  • Can we find a way to offer our suffering to God, asking that ‘nothing be wasted’? One of the problems with life’s difficulties is they waste so much time and energy – time we could be spending with family, or working, or doing any number of things. Can we say to God “take this difficulty and use it – don’t let it be wasted”?
  • Can we watch and listen for God’s call? Because in times of difficulty, God’s call will be there somewhere. Expect it, listen for it, watch for it. God’s call is the beginning of healing, because as King David says in Psalm 30, “You have turned my mourning into dancing.” God’s call will make that happen. Listen for it. AMEN.

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Today’s Readings:

1 Kings 19:1-15  Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.  2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.”  3 Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

4  But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”  5 Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.”  6 He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again.  7 The angel of the LORD came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”  8 He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.

9  At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  10 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”  11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake;  12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.  13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  14 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”  15 Then the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.

Luke 8:26-39  Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee.  27 As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.  28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”–  29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.)  30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him.  31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.  32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission.  33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34  When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country.  35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.  36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed.  37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned.  38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying,  39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

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Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 6/23/19

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The Voice of Wisdom

Happy Father’s Day to all you fathers out there, as well as to grandfathers and all the men who have encouraged and guided young people as a father would do.  Thank you for all you have done and continue to do in the lives of the people around you.

Today is also Trinity Sunday, one of the newer holidays on the Christian calendar, which celebrates God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. With both of these holidays in mind I think it’s fitting that our scripture readings today focus on Wisdom: because it takes wisdom to be a good father, and wisdom is also a word that describes our God in heaven.

Wisdom is more than just intelligence; it goes beyond education. There’s an old saying, “knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting tomato in a fruit salad.”  But before we dig deeper into what wisdom is, I wanted to tell a story of a young man in love.

This young man had it all: he was strong, athletic, good looking, well educated, rich, and he was a person of good character. He was the kind of man anyone would have found attractive. But he wasn’t interested in just any woman. He was In Love.

Here are some of the things he wrote about the object of his affections:

“I would rather have her than scepters or thrones… wealth is nothing compared with her… nor will I compare her to any gemstone, for gold is but sand next to her… I love her more than health… I choose her rather than light because her radiance never ceases.  […]  There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique… irresistible, pure, and altogether subtle…” (Wisdom of Solomon 7, selected verses)

He goes on like that for a few more pages, and he wraps up by saying,

“I loved her and sought her from my youth; I desired to take her for my bride …”  (Wisdom 8:2)

The speaker of these words is Solomon, son of David, King of Israel. And the woman he’s in love with is a Lady named Wisdom.

Solomon is obviously seeing something beyond what you and I would usually think of when we hear the word wisdom. And we’ll get to Solomon’s definition in a moment. But on this Father’s Day, I encourage all men – and women as well – to get to know, and to fall in love with Wisdom the way Solomon did.

To fill in the back story just a little: when Solomon came to the throne after his father David died, one of his first things he did as king was to lead the people in worship and praising God. The story is told in II Chronicles chapter 1. That night God came to Solomon and said “Ask what I should give you.”

Solomon said to God, “You have shown great and steadfast love to my father David, and have made me succeed him as king.  O LORD God, let your promise to my father David now be fulfilled, for you have made me king over a people as numerous as the dust of the earth. Give me now wisdom and knowledge to go out and come in before this people, for who can rule this great people of yours?”

God answered Solomon, “Because this was in your heart, and you have not asked for possessions, wealth, honor, or the life of those who hate you, and have not even asked for long life, but have asked for wisdom and knowledge for yourself that you may rule my people over whom I have made you king, wisdom and knowledge are granted to you. I will also give you riches, possessions, and honor, such as none of the kings had who were before you, and none after you shall have the like.” (II Chronicles 1:8-12)

II Chronicles tells us that Solomon received Wisdom from God by asking, and that God approved so much of his request that He blessed Solomon with far more than he asked for.

The quotes I read earlier about Lady Wisdom were written in a book that’s not in our Bibles. The book is called The Wisdom of Solomon, and it’s found in the Apocrypha, a group of books Catholics have in their Bibles but we Protestants don’t have in ours. And so because it’s not “required reading” for us, I’ve never read it – until a couple of weeks ago, at someone request. And I thought, “this is too good not to share.”

Listen to what else the voice of Solomon speaks about Wisdom.

“Wisdom is more mobile than any motion;
Because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things
She is the breath of the power of God
A pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty
Nothing defiled gains entrance into her
For she is a reflection of eternal light
A spotless mirror of the working of God
And an image of God’s goodness.” (Wisdom 7:24-26)

“In every generation she passes into holy souls
And makes them friends of God…”  (Wisdom 7:27b)

“She glorifies her noble birth by living with God
And the Lord of all loves her…
[she is] an associate in all His works.” (Wisdom 8:3, 4b)

Solomon is in love with the best of the best; he is in love with what God loves. This wisdom knows and loves the whole Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and Solomon wants to know and honor God the way Wisdom does.  So Solomon prays this prayer to God:

“O God of my ancestors and Lord of mercy,
Who have made all things by your word
And by your wisdom have formed humankind…
Give me the wisdom that sits by your throne
And do not reject me… a man who is short-lived, with little understanding…
For even one who is perfect among human beings
Will be regarded as nothing without the wisdom that comes from you.” (Wisdom 9:1-2a, 4, 5b, 6)

Solomon describes Wisdom as the daughter of God, and Solomon is bold enough to approach the throne of God and ask God for His daughter’s hand in marriage!  And God rewards Solomon’s boldness: to this day Solomon is remembered for his wisdom.

So the first thing I want to draw attention to, from our readings today: it’s OK to be bold with God. When we desire good things that will benefit God’s kingdom and God’s people, it’s OK to bring our requests to God and ask boldly!

With Solomon’s love and passion for Wisdom as our backdrop, let’s turn now to today’s reading in Proverbs.  Proverbs 8:2-3 tell us that Wisdom stands “on the heights… [and] at the crossroads… [and] beside the gates of the town.”  Wisdom is right out there in the open; she’s not hiding; she’s right where all the paths meet, where business happens every day.  “At the gates in front of the town” is where a lot of business transactions took place back in those days.  Wisdom calls out to everyone who passes by; she speaks to all people.  And these are her words in Proverbs:

God created me.  Before God created anything else, God created me. Even before God said ‘let there be light’ – even before God created the foundations of the earth, God created me, Wisdom says.  She says, “When he established the heavens I was there… when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep… I was beside him, like a master worker… rejoicing before him always… and delighting in the human race.” (Prov 8:22-31, paraphrased)

There is so much delight and joy in this passage! God works with Wisdom to create all that we see around us: the sun, the moon, the stars; the oceans and beaches; the rivers and the mountains… (and by the way, this passage is an allegory; it does not conflict with modern science; its purpose is to teach us about the nature of God and the nature of wisdom). And so we see as God and Wisdom work together, there is between them a spirit of joy and even playfulness.  Our translation of Proverbs is written to sound poetic, which it is, but the original Hebrew translates something more like this. Wisdom says:

“I was beside him [that is, beside God] as a master workman; a daily delight, laughing before him all the time, dancing and playing in the world and in the earth, and delighting in the children of Adam.” (Prov 8:30-31)

I find it interesting that in CS Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, the children are called “Sons of Adam” and “Daughters of Eve” – which makes them royalty in the land of Narnia. Lewis gets that idea from this passage, among others.

All Creation – the world around us – is not something God cooked up in a laboratory, or built up on steel girders, or printed out blueprints for. The Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – were there during Creation, and Wisdom was the foreman on the job, and they were having fun!  Laughing and dancing and delighting in everything God made.

This is not a frivolous delight; God is not being silly. Their laughter has its roots in a deep, deep, joy; and their knowledge goes to the roots of the mountains. They delight in the rightness and completeness and perfection of the work being done. Wisdom understands biology and chemistry and physics and gravity and atmosphere – all the complexities of science – and helps God to bring forth life on this world: new life, innocent and marvelous.

This ability to delight so purely and so deeply in something so good is what we human beings lost when the human race chose to rebel against God. But we can still hear and feel echoes of it: in a sunset or in the cry of a newborn baby. And by the power of the Cross of Jesus, one day it will all be restored.

King David continues the thought in Psalm 8 when he says, “Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.” Something as simple and innocent as the laughter of children will one day bring the Evil One to an end.

The words that follow in Psalm 8 are one of my favorite passages in all Scripture. It’s a passage I love to call to mind on a warm summer evening when all the stars are out. David says to God:

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
or mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than Elohim
                                           (sometimes translated ‘God’, sometimes ‘angels’)
and crowned them with glory and honor.” (Ps 8:3-5)

David says the heavens – all the stars we see at night, and all the vastness of space – were created by God’s fingers! Which hints at the question: what might have been created if God had involved His whole hand? Wisdom delights in this: in this creation that Wisdom helped to create. This was God’s plan from the very beginning.

But when we look around at the world today, there is so much that is dangerous or harmful; so much hatred, so much violence, in our homes, in our places of worship, in our schools, where we work. All the troubles and all the pain come from forgetting who we are, and who we’re created to be, and choosing a path that God warned us not to walk.

But from the very beginning we were and are the work of God’s fingers.  We are made in God’s image, men and women. We are crowned with glory by God.  We are honored by God.  When we forget God, we forget who we are and who we belong to.

And there’s more! David continues:

“You have given us dominion over the works of your hands…
All sheep and oxen, all the beasts of the field,
The birds of the air and the fish of the sea…”

David began by asking the question: “What is one person? Compared to all the vastness of creation, what does just one person mean to you, God? Why do you care?”

In these verses the questions are answered: God created human beings not only to be a part of creation, but to have dominion over creation. God says: “you matter, and what you do matters, because you are the caretakers of everything I’ve created.” The word dominion – as in ‘you shall have dominion over’ – is related in the Hebrew to royalty: in other words, we are kings and queens over God’s creation, rulers as well as caretakers.

Whenever we take care of what God has created – by caring for the planet, or by rescuing animals, or by having jobs that provide food and shelter, or – as we celebrate today – by taking care of children… we are doing what God created us to do.

When people harm or destroy what’s in the world – by polluting, by mistreating living things, or by destroying human beings – we are rebelling against our creator and have forgotten what God put us here to do. And when we forget God, we forget who we are, and we forget why we’re here. I think this is one huge reason why suicide has become so common in our society: people don’t know who they are or whose they are, and they don’t know why they’re here.

For people who are hurting like this, we have the words of God, given through David, to share: “you O Lord have made us little less than Elohim and have crowned us with glory and honor.”

David ends his psalm the way he began: with the words (in Hebrew) “Yahweh Adonai” – literally translated “I AM the Lord” – “how majestic is your name in all the earth!”  With these words David joins in the celebration and the joy, shared by God and Wisdom on the day of Creation. And you and I are invited to join in that celebration.

So today’s message from Proverbs and Psalms is dedicated to the fathers, but it’s really for everybody: Take time today to remember God, our heavenly Father, who with Wisdom made the world and everything in it, and then put us in charge of that world. Take time today to remember Wisdom, the great lady who is at God’s side. Fall in love with her the way Solomon did. Take time today to remember who you are, Son of Adam, Daughter of Eve: steward with royal command over God’s creation. God has crowned us with glory and honor. All praise be to God on high. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 6/16/19

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Proverbs 8:1-4  Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?  2 On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand;  3 beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out:  4 “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.

Proverbs 8:22-31  The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.  23 Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.  24 When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water.  25 Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth–  26 when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil.  27 When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,  28 when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep,  29 when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth,  30 then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always,  31 rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.

Psalm 8:1-9  <To the leader: according to The Gittith. A Psalm of David.>

O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark
because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
7 all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the air,
and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9 O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

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He Was Taken Up

Every Sunday morning during worship our sermon is followed by the Apostles Creed. This is a time-honored tradition, given to us not only to reinforce what we believe in, but also to engrave it in our memories.  When I go to lead worship in retirement homes, often times even people who are suffering from memory loss can recite the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles Creed: if I start it, they will finish it. It’s a gift that keeps on giving, the older we get.

In the Apostles Creed one of the things we say is:

“on the third day [Jesus] rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”

That’s all one sentence; and there have been books upon books of theology written on just that one sentence. For today I’d like to point out just two things:

  1. this part of the Creed is connected to Easter. It starts out: “on the third day Jesus rose from the dead” – so this part of the Easter story; and
  2. this part of the Creed applies to us today.  We are included in the ‘quick’ – that is, people who are still alive and waiting for Jesus’ return. So this one sentence connects us directly to Jesus!

This past Thursday was a holiday we don’t usually observe in Sunday worship because it always lands on a Thursday: Ascension Day. Ascension is forty days after Easter, the day Jesus “ascended into heaven and was seated at the right hand of the Father” as the Creed says. Because this is such an important day in the lives of both Jesus and the disciples, I chose today to read the assigned readings for Thursday, so we can celebrate this holiday before the Easter season ends. (Today is the last Sunday of Easter, and next Sunday is Pentecost: don’t forget to wear red!)

Jesus’ Ascension is a bit of a mystery – and I’ll get to the mysterious part in a moment. Two things that stand out in our scripture readings about the Ascension:

  1. The focus on Easter
  2. The focus on outreach and mission

Jesus’ resurrection and Jesus’ final instructions to the disciples, are intimately connected. As we dig into these readings we will see Easter leading directly to Pentecost by way of the Ascension.

Starting with our reading from Acts:  Luke, the author of Acts, tells us “Jesus presented himself to [the disciples] alive by many convincing proofs.”

Does this statement strike you as odd? It does me.  Why would a person need to prove that they’re alive? Apparently something about Jesus’ resurrected body was different than his original body. In fact a lot of things were different. Jesus walked with a group of disciples on the road to Emmaus without being recognized. He walked through locked doors to meet with the disciples in an upper room. He met Peter and the other fishermen on the shore of the Sea of Galilee without being recognized until he told them to fish on the other side of the boat and a miracle happened.

Something about Jesus was very different. On the other hand, his body also still bears the scars of the nails. And the things Jesus said and did convinced the people who knew him best that this really was him. In fact they were so convinced they were willing to die martyr’s deaths rather than change their story.

Luke tells us that Jesus removed all doubts, even for the ones who, like Thomas, doubted at first. Jesus also came with forgiveness. He forgave Thomas his doubts; he forgave Peter his denial; he forgave all the disciples for running away on that night in the Garden of Gethsemane. As he meets his friends alive again, he greets each one with the words “peace be with you” – putting their hearts and minds at rest.  The resurrected Jesus greets us also with the same forgiveness and the same words of peace.

When forty days had passed since the resurrection, Jesus called the disciples together and told them it was time for him to go home to his Father, and he gave them some final instructions.

Luke tells us Jesus’ final teaching was given in the power of the Holy Spirit. I’m sure all of Jesus’ teaching was given in the power of the Holy Spirit! What’s significant is the disciples are beginning to recognize this. The Holy Spirit is mentioned in the Old Testament, but not often; the disciples were still learning. The foundations for Pentecost are being laid.

Jesus’ final teaching included instructions to remain in Jerusalem until the disciples were baptized in the Holy Spirit. Did they understand what Jesus meant by this? Probably not, at least not completely. But they understood they needed to wait.

As an aside, it occurs to me that living for God involves a whole lot of waiting.  In the Old Testament, Joseph waited in jail for at least a decade before God’s promises came true. David waited for at least 20 years between the time he was anointed king and the day he was actually crowned king.  The people of Israel waited over 200 years for God’s promise of the Holy Land to come true.  As Christians we spend Advent waiting for Christmas, and Lent waiting for Easter, and today we are still waiting for Jesus’ return.  Waiting is so much a part of Christian life, there’s even an internet meme about it: “Until God opens the next door, praise Him in the hallway.”  I don’t know why God asks us to wait so much, but I have noticed waiting develops patience, and endurance, and faith, and hope, and love. And we can trust God’s timing.

So back to our reading from Acts. First off, Acts focuses on Easter and the proof that Jesus is alive again. The second focus of the passage is mission – not in the sense of ‘sending missionaries’ (although that might be included) but in the sense of purpose. That is, as Christians, why are we here? What are we doing? What does God want of us? The disciples ask the question this way: Is now the time that God will restore the kingdom to Israel? – implying they might help with this restoration.

Jesus’ answer to this question is mysterious: in the Greek, it reads literally, “it is not for you to know the time or the time which the Father has fixed by his own authority.” The time or the time: two ways to understand time: time, as in, by the clock or the calendar: what day is Jesus coming back? Or time, as in ‘the right time’ or ‘the proper time’: when is just the right moment for Jesus to come back?  Either way you look at time, the answer is in God’s hands, and not for us to know.

BUT! “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth.”  That’s the mission: to bear witness to what we have seen and heard, throughout the whole world.

This mission continues today.  There is a nonprofit organization called The Joshua Project whose mission it is to identify and reach all the people groups in the world who have not yet heard the Gospel. According to their research, there are still over 4,000 people groups in the world who have not yet heard about Jesus, representing just over 40% of the world’s population. So we still have a lot to do!

Another side note: the phrase “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth” has been used in some churches to help define and guide mission and outreach efforts, both in terms of how people give and in terms of what people do, and I think it can be a helpful concept. The thought goes like this: Jerusalem represents the church’s own neighborhood (in our case, Carnegie or Allentown). Judea represents the surrounding area: Pittsburgh or Allegheny County.  Samaria, further out, might represent either Pennsylvania or the nation. And the ends of the earth represent foreign mission.  The teaching goes that every church should have at least a little bit of outreach or giving in each of these four areas. It helps balance giving, and it helps our awareness, and it helps us to know how to pray for others. Of course this is not the only way to think about this verse; but I think it’s a practical and workable idea, so I share it for whatever it’s worth.

But back to the disciples in Jerusalem.  Having done and said all these things, Jesus then disappears into a cloud. Luke says “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him.”  This is a mystery.  The Greek says literally ‘cloud’ so this is not figurative speech.  But the presence of God is often represented in the Old Testament by a cloud: you remember the Israelites in the wilderness were guided by a ‘pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night’.  Isaiah, when he saw his vision, saw a cloud filling the Temple.  So the cloud represents God, the implication being that, at the ascension, Jesus returned to God.  Which is exactly what the Apostles Creed says.

Back in the temple in Jerusalem, the scribes and the high priests and the Pharisees were completely unaware of any of this. Jesus never visited the temple after his resurrection.  The priests put a story out that Jesus’ body was missing from the tomb because the disciples had stolen it.  And Jesus had once remarked in Luke’s gospel: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (Luke 16:31) So he left them alone.

For the people in the city, it looked like one more Jewish rabbi had been crucified. People had wept, and then life simply returned to the way it had always been. But the disciples knew differently: they knew the world had changed. They knew Jesus was now enthroned with God, as king and Lord – which means Caesar and all the other powers of earth are not Lord. And that makes all the difference.

So the disciples stayed in Jerusalem as Jesus told them: eating together, praying together, going to the temple and praising God together, and waiting together… waiting for the Holy Spirit.

And today we join them in that waiting, till next Sunday, when the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost.

While we wait this week, let’s think about and pray about Jesus’ call to share the good news: that He is alive, that He forgives, and that He is King. And let’s pray for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit – “power from on high” – in our lives, in the life of the Church, in the life of our nation, and throughout the world. AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 6/2/19

 

June 2 – Easter 7

Sunday after Ascension

Acts 1:1-11

Luke 24:44-53

“He Was Taken Up”

 Acts 1:1-11   In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning  2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.  3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.  4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me;  5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.  8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Luke 24:44-53  Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you– that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”  45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,  46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,  47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  48 You are witnesses of these things.  49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.  51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.  52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy;  53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

 

Visions

It’s Memorial Day weekend!  I hope you’ll have a chance to relax a bit with family and friends this weekend. Tomorrow we will remember all the men and women who served our country and gave their lives so that we could live in freedom and safety. It’s comforting on a holiday like this to hear the words we just heard from Revelation, where God says: “…he will wipe every tear from their eyes; death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more…”  We worship a God who is not ashamed to know, and to enter into, our pain and our grief; and who promises us one day all things will be made right.

I sometimes wish we Christians had a Memorial Day for the faith: a day to remember those who have given their lives so that we could have eternal life. Some of the people we would honor would include people we met in our scripture readings today: the apostles Paul and John, the disciple Timothy, and of course Jesus. All of them gave their lives so that we could know the joy of knowing God. It is fitting that we should remember them today.

What I wanted to focus on today is the vision that guided these men of faith.  All three of our scripture readings today have to do with vision (or visions), each in their own way.  In Acts, Paul has a literal vision of a man from Macedonia; in Revelation, John shares with us a vision of heaven; and in the gospel reading from John, Jesus shares a vision of God.  Today I’d like to spend a little bit of time with each of these visions, in hope they will be an inspiration to us as well.  I’ll be working chronologically backwards, starting with the vision in Revelation.

The apostle Paul writes in I Corinthians 15:19: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”  In other words, if this world is all there is, and we have been following a Messiah who talks about a different world, when there really isn’t one – then we will have lived our one and only life caught up in a lie. BUT! If Jesus’ words are true, then our hope and our joy begin now, in this life, and carry into the world to come.

Revelation gives us a glimpse of that world to come.  (One of these days I’m going to preach a sermon, maybe a whole series, on the book of Revelation because there is so much good stuff in here, and so much that is relevant to our time, but for now just a glimpse.) Bear in mind Revelation was written to a church going through tough times, to encourage them and to remind them God hasn’t forgotten them.

In these verses from Revelation, John shares with us a vision of the eternal city, the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming out of heaven, prepared and decorated like a bride for her husband; and God says, “behold, God’s home is with mortals… they will be his peoples (and that word is plural: many peoples) and God will be with them.”  And he will wipe away every tear; he will make all things new. God will give to the thirsty a drink from the fountain of the water of life.

The Holy City

In John’s vision, this beautiful, radiant city is also called the wife of the Lamb. When I hear the words ‘holy city’ what I usually see in my mind’s eye is white stone skyscrapers and city walls glowing in the sunlight… but I think that’s the wrong vision. The city is people, not buildings; just like the church is people, not buildings. The wife of the Lamb is not real estate; she is a living, breathing bride, made up of all of us together.  And it will take all of us together to make a bride worthy of Jesus.  How that will all work out, I don’t know. Revelation is an allegory, it’s not meant to be read literally; but it begins to give us a vision.

John continues to share his vision, and he says: in this city, running through it, running through the middle of the main street, is the river of the water of life. The river’s source is the throne of God and the throne of the Lamb. On either side of that river is the tree of life, with twelve kinds of fruit, one fruit for each month.  And the leaves of the tree of life are to be used for “the healing of the nations”.

When you consider how much violence is done every day in our world, and how many days there have been since the world began… that’s a lot of healing to do. How great is God’s healing power! And God Himself will be the light in the city; there’s no need for lamp or sun, and God and the Lamb “will reign for ever and ever.”  But that’s not all: this scene includes the Bride – us – God’s servants, elevated to the throne as well. Or perhaps more accurately, restored to the place Adam and Eve were originally given before the fall of the human race.

What will make this city different from all others is that, as John says, “nothing accursed will be found there”.  Anyone who has denied or abandoned God – the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and liars – these will have been removed and they will no longer trouble us.  We will enjoy God’s presence, as the Bride of the Lamb, always.

This vision, this future, is a great part of what makes the Christian life worthwhile. But it’s still a ways off.  In the present, being a servant of God can sometimes mean a life full of curve balls. Paul’s vision in Acts is a great example of this.

Just before our reading in Acts, Paul was traveling and evangelizing with Silas and Timothy throughout the regions of Phrygia and Galatia, which is in the center of what is today known as Turkey. From where they were, the logical next step would have been to either turn right (north) and preach in Bithynia, or turn left (south) and preach in what is now western Turkey – both of which were highly populated areas. But scripture tells us Paul and his companions were “prevented” by the Holy Spirit from going in either direction.

This is unusual. Usually the idea, speaking as a preacher, is to preach in all the places one possibly can, so as reach as many people as possible.  I’m reminded of John Wesley (I’m reading his memoirs right now) who often preached three or four sermons in a day, in three or four different cities, and then rode on horseback to another city and did it all over again the next day! Or remember the Billy Graham crusades: would Billy Graham ever say ‘no’ to a city that asked him to preach? Not that I ever heard of.

But in this case, Paul is clearly told ‘don’t go there’.  And he sees a vision of a man from Macedonia, pleading with him and begging him to “come over to Macedonia and help us.”  This vision is not a figment of Paul’s imagination, and it’s not a dream; it is a supernatural experience, and it most likely came to Paul while he was praying. But the vision’s instructions are not detailed: how to interpret and obey the vision was up to Paul and his companions. God in His wisdom chooses to invite mere mortals to help flesh out the plans.

By the way, this is not the only time God used a vision of a messengers to communicate an outreach strategy. Paul’s story reminds me of the story of St. Patrick, who had a similar experience. Patrick had a dream in which he saw a man coming from Ireland. The man handed him a letter with the heading Vox Hiberniae – ‘the Voice of the Irish’. And as he read the letter, he heard the people he had known in Ireland (when he was younger) calling to him: “…come and walk among us once again.”

St. Patrick was British; he had been a slave in Ireland when he was young. He escaped from Ireland and made it home to Britain, where he became a priest, and then he had this vision.  I imagine St. Patrick’s first reaction must have been surprise, at the very least: God wants him to go back to the land where he had been a slave? It’s probably not what Patrick had in mind for his ministry. And Macedonia was probably not what Paul had in mind for his ministry.

Both Patrick and Paul had dreams and plans for their ministries that ended up going by the wayside because God had something else in mind. And it must have been frustrating at first. But as Patrick and Paul followed God’s lead, opportunities for ministry opened up like they’d never dreamed of. St. Patrick spent the rest of his life ministering to the people of Ireland, and he is credited with single-handedly bringing the Christian faith to Ireland. (He did have some help but he did the lion’s share of the work.)

Back in Turkey, Paul and his friends got on a boat and sailed to the region of Macedonia, to the city of Neapolis, which was the main harbor for the nearby city of Philippi.  Once in Philippi, life continued to take unexpected turns. Ministering there would eventually bring them close to the heart of the Roman Empire, because Philippi was a Roman colony. But at first, nothing happened.  They were in the city a number of days doing nothing in terms of ministry.  Then, on the Sabbath, they went to look for people who believed in the God of Israel – who (if there were any) would be gathering outside the city. And they went to the banks of the river, probably expecting to run into a Macedonian man, and instead they meet a Thyatiran woman!  Ironically, Thyatira is one of the cities God had told them not to go to when they were in Turkey.  Turns out the Thyatirans got to hear the message through her.

Lydia was not just any woman: she was “a businesswoman” and “a dealer in purple cloth”: she was a successful person with influence. Paul and his companions had come on this journey planning to give to others – which they did, preaching the good news of Jesus – but they also found themselves in the position of needing to receive: specifically, food and shelter. So after Lydia and her whole household were baptized, she urged them to come to her house and stay.  The word ‘urge’ in Greek has the same root as paraclete, which is a word used to describe the Holy Spirit: it means ‘to come alongside’ and stay alongside. Lydia didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, and it’s a beautiful expression of her new-found faith.

All of this happened as a result of a vision that started out with the message, “don’t preach here – preach over there instead”. We never know where God’s vision is going to lead us.

The final vision in our readings today is in the gospel of John. In this passage Jesus gives us a vision of our amazing God.  As we read and hear this passage I think it’s important not to try to understand it literally, that is, with an analytical mind.  This passage is more like a song, and it needs to be interpreted from the same part of our hearts that music would be.

In this short passage, Jesus is (as they say on the TV show The Bachelor) “putting himself out there.”  He’s saying ‘I love you and here’s what I have to offer: will you accept me, will you be mine?’ And he’s letting us know the road ahead with him won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.

Listen to Jesus’ words as he tells the disciples – and through them, us – the plans he has in mind. Jesus says:

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But [when I’m not here on earth with you any more] 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.

“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.

“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. And now I have told you this before it happens, so that when it does happen, you will know and believe.

“Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” – literally translated, ‘we will share your tent’.

I love that phrase, ‘sharing a tent’. Back in those days, tents were large and well-equipped, big enough for a family, and the words stir up images of cozy family life. It also speaks of our share in the Holy Spirit while we are here in this earthly tent. When the heavenly tent comes… well, that can only happen if Jesus goes back to the Father and gets it ready. And so we rejoice because that’s where Jesus is, and that’s what he’s doing right now: getting the tent ready.

The question then remains: Jesus has ‘put himself out there’ for us; will we ‘put ourselves out there’ for Jesus?  Loving Jesus may take us on some very unexpected paths and journeys. But do not let your hearts be troubled: His peace and his Spirit are with us.  So will we love him back? Everything in life – everything – hinges on our answer to this question.

Let’s pray.  Lord, thank you for the visions you share with us, and for the future you have promised us.  Thank you for loving us and ‘putting yourself out there’ for us.  Guide us now, as you guided Paul and John. Stir up our hearts to love, and give us a vision for the future you have in mind, to your honor and glory. AMEN.

 

May 26

Easter 6

Memorial Day Weekend

Acts 16:9-15

Rev 21:1-10, 22:1-5

John 14:23-29

“Visions”

 Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church

 Acts 16:9-15  During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.  11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis,  12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.  13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.  14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.  15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

Revelation 21:1-10, 22:1-5  Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;  4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.  7 Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.  8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

9 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.”  10 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.

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.

John 14:23-29  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.

~

 

A Light To the Gentiles

We continue this week in our Easter season readings from the New Testament, and I’m going be focusing mostly on Acts today with a little bit of input from the other two readings.

As I was looking over our passage from Acts this week, it occurred to me that the cultural and religious issues Peter runs into in this reading are not something most Americans have first-hand experience with.  We as Americans think of ourselves and speak of ourselves as living in a “melting pot”.  We come from hundreds of different countries and dozens of religious backgrounds; and while the different groups don’t always get along, and in spite of some lingering prejudices, on the whole all these different people share life together pretty well. We love our families, we work together, we get along with our neighbors (most of the time), and we don’t always have to agree with each other in order to care for each other.

That said, for some people groups in America there are certain rules and expectations that don’t go along with the majority culture. If you go to Squirrel Hill, for example, you may see men wearing yarmulkes on any day of the week. And if you look closely, you may see what looks like fishing lines over some of the streets, which extends the boundaries of peoples’ homes so they can carry things outdoors on the Sabbath. For conservative Muslims, women wear a hijab (or scarf) to express devotion to God, as well as for modesty and self-respect. In their culture, to go without a hijab is to be a loose woman, and it brings shame on the family.

To set aside any of these beliefs, or to disrespect them, would cause major problems within a family or within friendships. These examples begin to give us an idea of what Peter was up against in our reading from Acts.

In Israel of Jesus’ day, Jewish people lived apart from the other cultures. They believed the surrounding Roman and Greek cultures were blind to the one True God, that is, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If a Roman or a Greek person wanted to get to know God, they would have to become Jewish: attend synagogue, learn the law of Moses, and if you were a man, be circumcised.

Side note: all through Israel’s history, God’s intention was that the Jewish people would be a witness to God to the other people groups around them.  The purpose of the law of Moses was to show God’s wisdom and greatness. But throughout the Old Testament, Israel failed to bear witness to God – particularly their religious leaders, who turned God’s law (which was a thing of glory) into a legalistic burden for the people. It wasn’t until Jesus came along that the law and God’s glory found common ground again.  As Jesus said: “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.”

So at the very beginning of Christianity, by force of habit if nothing else, the first Christians (who were all Jewish) continued to follow the Jewish laws and Jewish traditions.  The first believers continued to meet in synagogues, and they kept the Law of Moses, and if a Gentile wanted to become a Christian they would basically have to become Jewish first.

The early disciples hadn’t quite yet grasped the full meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection and what it had done for the world. They didn’t quite yet grasp what Jesus meant when he said things like:

  • Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life. (John 3:36)
  • This is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:40)
  • God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

It’s interesting all these verses are found in the gospel of John. John, who was the “disciple who Jesus loved,” seems to be the only one of the twelve who caught on to the idea of salvation by faith right from the very beginning. Maybe it’s because John was the youngest of the group: he was only a teenager when he met Jesus, so he wasn’t as steeped in tradition as the others: not quite as committed to “the way things have always been.”

Whatever the reason, the rest of the disciples didn’t quite get it yet.  But as John writes in Revelation, God is making all things new!  The old is passing away: not just the old faith or the old synagogue (both of which are still with us) but the old earth is passing away, along with all the things that come with a fallen world: mourning and crying and pain and death – all the ‘first things’ are passing away. The requirements of the Law of Moses have been fulfilled in Jesus, and something new has begun.  You and I live in a time where the old is passing, and the new is phasing in – it’s kind of like the ‘now and not yet’ – we’re in that in-between time where we can see both the old and the new but we’re not quite at home in either.

So as this new thing called Christianity got off the ground, Peter – being essentially the lead disciple in the new movement – needed to be brought up to speed.  And that’s where we begin today.

So I’ve taken as our sermon title for today A Light to the Gentiles – which are words from a prophecy spoken over the baby Jesus when he was presented in the temple. A wise elderly man named Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms and praised God and said:

“Lord, now dismiss your servant in peace, according to your word,
For my eyes have seen your salvation
Which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples
A light for revelation to the Gentiles
And glory for your people Israel.” (Luke 2:28-32, my translation)

The arrival of the Messiah was meant, from the very beginning, to unite the Gentiles and the Jews into one family of faith in God.  Now, here in Acts, it’s time for that plan to bear fruit.

The reading we heard from Acts today comes from chapter 11, but to get the full story we need to back up to chapter 10.  In Acts chapter 10, Peter was living in Joppa and had been visited by some servants of a Roman centurion named Cornelius.  Cornelius had seen a vision of an angel, who told him his prayers and generosity have been noticed by God, and the angel said, “send to Joppa for a man named Peter: he has an important message for you.”

Peter in the home of Cornelius

At the same time, God showed Peter through a vision that Peter should not consider ‘unclean’ what God had made ‘clean’.  And just as the heavenly vision disappeared, the messengers from Cornelius arrived at the house where Peter was staying, and ask Peter to come with them. Peter went, and shared the gospel of Jesus with Cornelius and his family, and while Peter was still speaking the Holy Spirit fell on the whole extended family, who started speaking in tongues and praising God.

Peter said to the believers who came with him, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47) So Peter baptized them and welcomed them into the family of God. And Peter stayed with Cornelius and his family for a number of days before returning home.

Without Cornelius and his family you and I would not be here today: like them, we are Gentiles who believe in the Jewish Messiah.  These are our ancestors in the faith – and they should be remembered and honored.

But there was a problem.  For the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, there were some things that simply shouldn’t be done, and eating with Gentiles was one of them. Word of what Peter had done got to Jerusalem before Peter did. (You don’t need a computer to get the old gossip mill going!). News spread all over the city: Gentiles have become believers! And Peter went and ate with them!!

These folks were more focused on what Peter did than they were on what God was doing in the lives of the Gentiles. God’s salvation had come to a family of Romans! Eternal life is now open to every person in the world!  But they missed it.

The next time Peter goes to visit Jerusalem, the believers there start throwing accusations at him, saying, “you went to men who still have their foreskins on and you ate with them!”  That’s the literal translation. It’s as rough in the original language as it sounds in English.

What’s more, people who were speaking politely back then would have started the conversation in the form of a question – kind of like on Jeopardy!  You see examples of this all through scripture. In fact, in many of the English translations of this verse it is translated as a question, because it’s how it would normally have been spoken. But there is no question in the original Greek. This is an accusation, plain and simple.

Peter knew there were going to be objections: he saw that going in. Wisely, he brought a half-dozen witnesses with him to Cornelius’ house, who could back up his story, and they came with him to Jerusalem.  Peter then explained what happened, fact by fact, without getting emotional, without getting sidetracked, without throwing around his God-given authority as an apostle. He told them what happened: what God said, what Cornelius said, how an angel visited Cornelius’ house, how the Holy Spirit came over Cornelius and his whole family, and how the whole family had been baptized in the name of Jesus. Peter reminded them of God’s words: “what God has cleansed, you must not call common.” And Peter – politely – ends his defense in the form of a question. He asks: “If an equal gift was given to them by God that was given to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus, who am I that I would have the power to hinder God?”

I wonder sometimes how many differences and debates in our world today, and even within our churches, might be de-fused by approaching them as questions; and particularly with this question.  Peter was faced with a long-standing tradition that was meant to protect peoples’ holiness, and to protect their relationship with God, but which was now driving a wedge between the people and God.  How many of our disputes and debates could be resolved, or at least brought down a few notches in volume, by asking the question “if God has done such-and-such, who am I to stand in God’s way?”

In this case, the people hearing Peter – the Christians in Jerusalem – were soft-hearted toward God and they were able to be guided by God’s word. At first they received Peter’s news quietly, thinking it over; and then they broke out in joy, praising God and saying, “God has given to the Gentiles the repentance that gives life!”  What a glorious thing, when God’s people allow God’s love to overcome prejudices and outdated traditions!  So they celebrated this new thing God was doing: adding people from the nations to the family of God.

It would be nice to be able to say that from that point on, everything was smooth sailing between the Jewish and non-Jewish believers, but it wasn’t.  Long-held beliefs are hard to change.  We read later on in Acts (Acts 6) about Gentiles sometimes being overlooked in the daily distribution of food, and complaining about it.  (This led to the appointment of the church’s first deacons.)  We read in Paul’s letters about certain Judaizers who went around teaching Paul’s Gentile converts they needed to be circumcised in order to be ‘real’ Christians. Paul responded to this with a comment I won’t translate, but the bottom line was, as Paul explained: salvation comes from believing in the right person – Jesus – not by doing the right things.

Paul basically said: Yes, Christians are supposed to live differently than the rest of the world; but personal holiness is not found in keeping a list of laws. Salvation is by faith; and the life of faith is in relationship with Jesus. Jesus says: “I give you a new commandment… as I have loved you, so love one another. In this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

That’s what sets Christians apart. Not our missions, not our good works – as important as those things are. Love is what sets us apart. The way we love Jesus, the way we love each other, and the way we care for the people we work with, and live with in our neighborhoods. Christian faith and Christian life is about being personally involved, and taking risks for the sake of others, as a reflection of God’s love.

John Wesley spoke of this when he said things like:

“Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? Though we are not of one opinion, may we not be of one heart?”

As the apostle Paul would have said, we are all part of one body: a hand is not a foot, an eye is not an ear, but we all need each other and we need to work together in unity, and it’s love that holds the body together.

So today we remember with joy the day when we, as Gentiles, were welcomed into the family of faith: remembering it is our faith alone in Jesus alone that keeps us in God’s kingdom. Our way of saying ‘thank you’ to God is to care for ourselves and care for each other and care for the people God has placed in our world.  Today let’s rededicate ourselves to this truth, and to welcoming others in love. AMEN

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“A Light to the Gentiles” Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 5/19/18

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Acts 11:1-18  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.”

Revelation 21:1-6  Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;  4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”  5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

John 13:31-35  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.”

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