Living By Faith

“After the death of Saul, David returned from defeating the Amalekites and stayed in Ziklag two days. […] David took up this lament concerning Saul and his son Jonathan, and ordered that the men of Judah be taught this lament of the bow (it is written in the Book of Jashar):

“Your glory, O Israel, lies slain on your heights.
How the mighty have fallen!
Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon,
lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad,
lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice.
O mountains of Gilboa, may you have neither dew nor rain,
nor fields that yield offerings of grain.
For there the shield of the mighty was defiled,
the shield of Saul– no longer rubbed with oil.
From the blood of the slain, from the flesh of the mighty,
the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,
the sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied.
Saul and Jonathan– in life they were loved and gracious,
and in death they were not parted.
They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.
O daughters of Israel, weep for Saul,
who clothed you in scarlet and finery,
who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.
How the mighty have fallen in battle!
Jonathan lies slain on your heights.
I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;
you were very dear to me.
Your love for me was wonderful,
more wonderful than that of women.
How the mighty have fallen!
The weapons of war have perished!””
II Samuel 1:1, 17-27

“When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.
Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.
Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James.
When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.” – Mark 5:21-43


Today’s scriptures are a bit unusual in that they don’t talk directly about God. Jesus takes part in the New Testament reading, but he’s not talking about God, and the people around him don’t know yet that he is God. The people see Jesus as a prophet and as a healer. Except for a few of the disciples, no-one knows yet that Jesus is the Messiah.

So our readings today tell us three stories about people of faith.

I think sometimes when we read about people of faith in the Bible we tend to see them as sort of like super-saints, but they’re not. They’re everyday people like you and me. In this case, they are: a shepherd, a housewife, and a lay leader from the local synagogue.

What makes the people we meet in the Bible exceptional is they share everything with God. They hold nothing back. And God honors that.

As it happens, in today’s readings all three people we meet are facing some kind of crisis in their lives. In the Old Testament we see David dealing with the death of his best friend; and in the New Testament we meet a woman who has been sick for a long time, and a man whose daughter is dying.

Let’s take a look at each story.

Our reading from II Samuel – the reading itself – is a song of mourning, written by David on the death of King Saul and his son Jonathan. These two men lost their lives – in the prime of their lives – in a battle defending Israel. (If we go back into the history of Israel we find out the reason David was not fighting alongside them and defending them had to do with Saul’s disobedience to God and David’s subsequent estrangement… but at a time like this it would not be appropriate for David to point that out.) Saul was David’s father-in-law, and Jonathan was David’s best friend. David and Jonathan were like Butch and Sundance, or like Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon movies. They were inseparable, the very best of buddies.

If you’ve ever had friend like that you know friendships like that are rare. Men and women who have fought in battles together sometimes find this kind of friendship. Co-workers in the mission field, or in medical care sometimes find this kind of friendship. Every now and then it ‘just happens’. But most of us only get two or three friends like this in a lifetime, if we’re lucky. To lose a friend like this is devastating, because they leave a hole in your heart and in your life that can never be filled. When a friend like this dies we wish the world could stop turning just for a moment, to acknowledge that someone important is gone.

So what do you do at a time like that? David sang out his pain. David was a songwriter for many years. He used to sing to King Saul when Saul was troubled. He composed many of the psalms, which were the hymns back in those days.

David sings out his grief, praising King Saul as a mighty man of war, and grieving for Jonathan who he calls “brother”. David is not glorifying violence and killing here. What he’s doing is expressing honor to those who served their country and gave their last full measure in its defense. And in doing so he gives us a song that touches our hearts across the centuries, touching anyone who’s ever lost a good friend. ‘How the mighty have fallen!’ David cries. ‘Men of glory, worthy of love and honor, lie slain on the field. How the mighty have fallen!’

I’ll come back to David in a moment, but in the gospel of Mark we meet two more people. The first is a man named Jairus, whose daughter is very ill. Any of us who have ever sat up with a sick child know his pain. He’s worried, he’s spending sleepless nights, he’s praying, he’d give anything to make her better. He’d even change places with her if he could.

Being a lay leader in the synagogue, Jairus has heard of Jesus. He knows Jesus is miracle worker, and he needs a miracle right about now. He just has to get Jesus to where his daughter is before it’s too late. He begs Jesus to come. Some translations of the Bible say he begged Jesus ‘repeatedly’. Apparently Jesus wasn’t moving very quickly… which is understandable considering the size of the crowd.

And then, on the way to Jairus’ house, there’s a delay! We meet a third person, a woman whose name we don’t know, though some people in the early church felt she deserved a name and called her ‘Veronica’. For twelve years she has had some kind of medical condition that causes her to bleed – based on the description, most likely a menstrual period that won’t stop.

Anyone who has ever been through serious illness or surgery knows how frightening is, and the frustration of missing out on life, and all the expenses involved. Illness disrupts a person’s life in a way that nothing else does. In this particular woman’s case, her condition makes her anemic, and she’s getting progressively weaker, and most likely suffering from depression because of a low energy levels. And on top of that, she has a social problem. Under the Law of Moses, her condition makes her ritually ‘unclean’. According to the law she shouldn’t be going out of the house, and she certainly shouldn’t be mixing in a crowd this large! But she’s desperate. For twelve years – as long as Jairus’ little daughter has been alive – she’s been in pain. She has spent all her money on doctors and she’s only gotten worse.

And now she hears that Jesus can heal people with a touch, and she’s convinced he can heal her. Somewhere deep down she knows that what is impossible with human beings is possible with God.

So she makes up her mind to sneak up behind Jesus and touch his robe. She says to herself, “all I have to do is touch his garment and I’ll be well. I don’t have to say anything to anybody, I don’t have to disturb anybody, I don’t have to make anybody unclean from coming into contact with me.”

And things work out just like she planned. She touches Jesus’ robe and immediately the blood stops, and she can feel energy and health beginning to return to her body. After twelve years she’s finally well.

Except that’s not the end of the story. Jesus stops. Something has happened, he knows, and he calls out over the crowd, “who touched me?”

The disciples look around at a crowd that’s as tightly packed as Times Square on New Year’s Eve and say to Jesus, “How can you say ‘who touched me’? Everybody’s pressing in all around you.”

I suspect Jesus already knows who touched him, but he also knows the woman needs to share her story. And there are people present who need to hear it. So he creates a space in which she can speak. And scared and trembling, she falls at Jesus’ feet and tells him everything – every detail, the whole story. And when she’s finished, Jesus says, “your faith has made you well. Go in peace.”

She came looking for physical healing, and she got that, but she got far more: healing of the heart, and healing of the soul. This is the meaning of the word shalom – holistic well-being and peace.

While all this is happening, and in fact as Jesus is still speaking, people come from Jairus’ house and say, “don’t bother the teacher any longer. Your daughter is dead.”

I can’t begin to imagine what Jairus felt in that moment. But before he can say anything, Jesus says to him, “don’t be afraid, just believe.”

And taking Jairus, Peter, James, and John, Jesus tells the rest of the crowd to stay put. The deathbed of a child is no place for curiosity-seekers and hangers-on. When they get to Jairus’ house Jesus chases out the mourners, who make fun of Jesus when he says the girl is not dead.

Jairus and his wife enter their daughter’s bedroom and look at their little girl. Gently Jesus takes her by the hand and says, ‘little girl, get up’. And she does. And grief turns into joy.

I find it interesting that at the end of this great miracle Jesus says to Jairus ‘don’t tell anyone what happened’ when in the previous miracle, Jesus makes public something that happened in secret. God’s ways are not our ways! At any rate, we’ve met three people who are very everyday people, living everyday lives. They don’t preach, they don’t quote the law… but where it comes to God they hold nothing back.

David shows us is how a person of God grieves. A person of God is open-hearted toward God. As people of God, when pain comes into our lives, we do not despair. We can hurt very deeply; but we pour out our grief to God. David is not afraid to be passionate in God’s presence. And neither should we be.

The woman with the flow of blood gives us an example of confession. Confession is not sitting in a box talking to a priest, or even necessarily admitting sin. The word confession simply means to speak the truth. Telling God what we see and what we’ve experienced and how we’ve felt and what we’ve lived through. Yes, God already knows it – so did Jesus in our story. But Jesus knows this woman needs to tell her story, and so he listens… and he knows other people need to hear it, and so he asks her to speak. And the same is true of us. We all, each one of us, have a story to tell, and we all need to share it, and there people who need to hear it.

Some of you know I was doing some training in a retirement home recently and as part of my training I interviewed four residents and basically wrote their histories. I listened to their stories and wrote them down and illustrated them with photographs from ‘back in the day’. What started out as something kind of fun became a lot more as one resident found forgiveness for something that had been bothering him for decades, and another resident, in the early stages of Alzheimers, lost her husband and she now has something that will help her children and grandchildren remember. Our stories need to be told, and they need to be heard, and that’s part of God’s plan.

And Jairus gives us an example of how to ask God for what we need, and keep on asking, trusting God in spite of what we hear and see around us. Ask, and then trust. Jesus knows what he’s doing.

So as we walk through life, we seek to be open-hearted and passionate with God; completely open with God about our lives and our experiences; asking God for what we need and trusting God’s provision.

Let’s pray. Lord Jesus, open our hearts toward you more and more, and open our lives to you, and build up faith in us, for our joy and for your honor and glory, AMEN.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 6/28/15


“Where Were You?”

“Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements– surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?”Job 38:1-11

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?””Mark 4:35-41

The stories we read in the Old Testament take place a long time ago, so long ago that the world they take place in often seems foreign to us. I sometimes hear people ask if the Old Testament is even relevant any more. To those folks I would say: yes, it is, because the people we meet in the Old Testament are facing the same challenges and life issues we face.

The book of Job tackles the tough question “why do bad things happen to good people?” – and I can’t think of a more appropriate subject for this week.

Let’s begin by looking at Job and his story. Back in the days of Job, people believed if you lived right and kept the Ten Commandments you could expect your life to be blessed by God. The law of Moses said:

“See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God…; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God…” (Deut. 11:26-28)

So it stood to reason if someone wasn’t being blessed they must have disobeyed God somehow. If someone got injured, they must have done something wrong; or if someone got sick, they must have broken one of the commandments.

That’s what Job’s friends were saying to him. Job had lost his children, his home, his wealth, and his health all in a rapid-fire series of tragedies. And his friends told him, ‘You must have done something wrong’.

But it wasn’t true. Job chapter 1 verse 1 tells us Job “was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.”

In spite of that, most of the rest of the book of Job is a debate between Job and his friends over the causes of Job’s tragedy.

Debating over the causes of tragedy… doesn’t that sound just like the public conversation that’s been going on this past week over the killings in Charleston? Blame lack of education. Blame lack of gun control. Blame mental illness. Blame a lack of security in the church building.

The problem with all this blaming is, whatever you blame the tragedy on, if you’re able to find a fault, it then follows logically that the tragedy could have been prevented… which essentially, if indirectly, results in blaming the victims. That’s what Job’s friends were doing, and while the pundits on our TV screens may not mean to that’s what they’re doing too.

When tragedy happens, the essential thing is to listen to the ones who are suffering. When Job had finally had enough of his friends’ not listening to him, he cries out to heaven for just one day in court with God to present his case and defend his innocence.

And that’s when God answers Job with the words from our reading for today.

God answers Job saying: “Where were you when I laid out the foundations of the earth? Who decided on its size? Who sank its foundations? Who set the limits for the oceans and told them ‘thus far and no further’?” God continues along these lines for another page or two beyond our reading.

God’s answer seems a bit strange, doesn’t it? Almost cold-hearted. But it’s not. Speaking as someone who has lived through tragedy, for someone who is hurting, the answer God gives is the only answer that makes any sense. Some things are just beyond our knowing. For anyone who has ever been caught in depression, or despair, or the dark night of the soul, the best help is the help that listens, and then lifts up our heads so that we can see some light, somewhere, somehow. God lifts up Job’s head and helps him to see beyond the immediate moment to God’s eternal glory and Job’s part in God’s kingdom.

And that’s what we can see God doing in the lives of the family members of those murdered in Charleston. The best help is the help that listens… and as we listen to them we can catch a glimpse of the glory of God that Job saw. Listen to the words of the survivors:

  • Alana Simmons, who lost her grandfather, said: “They died at the hands of hate… [but] They lived in love. Hate won’t win.”
  • Ethel Lance, who lost her mother, said: “You’ve taken something very precious away from me… but I forgive you.”
  • Chris Singleton, who lost his mother, said: “We forgive right now, for all that has happened. It’s going to be tough but I know we’ll get through it as a family.”
  • Another family member said: “We are the family that love built. We have no room for hatin’ so we have to forgive.”
  • Mourners outside the church said: “You can’t have love and hate residing in the heart at the same time… we’re just going to have to love one another.”
  • The home page of the Emanuel AME Church says: “Jesus died a passionate death for us, so our love for Him should be as passionate.”
  • Anthony Thompson, who lost his wife, showed the most amazing love of all. He spoke to the killer and said: “Take this opportunity to repent. Give your life to the one who matters the most: Christ.”

If that’s not a demonstration of God’s glory and mercy and power and love I don’t know what is. After the most horrifying event in their lives, these people are speaking God’s truth to the whole world.

Did you know that the word for witness in the New Testament Greek is ‘martyr’? Our brothers and sisters at Emanuel AME Church have been true martyrs this week in every sense of the word.

And God will honor them, just as God honored Job.

From Job’s story we see:

  • That all wisdom and all power belong to God, far beyond our ability to imagine.
  • That God does not bring tragedy… but God does redeem tragedy with good.
  • That when tragedy happens it’s OK to cry out to God. God never tells Job not to cry or to be angry. God never tells Job not to be scared. God never tells Job not to feel what he feels. God never tells Job that he lacks faith for feeling what he feels. Just the opposite – God says to Job’s friends, “Job has spoken of me what is right”.
  • That ultimately God is God and we are not.

We don’t understand everything, but God does. We will never know the answer to the question “why?” – in this lifetime – because we do not see what God sees. God sees eternity; we only see the here and now. But we can trust that God is walking with us through everything.

That’s what the disciples learned in our New Testament reading for today. In that reading, at the end of a long day of teaching the crowds, Jesus and the disciples head out across the Sea of Galilee. Jesus curls up in the stern of the boat and falls asleep. All of a sudden the wind picks up and the water becomes rough and the boat starts to sink. Is this the fault the disciples, or the boat-makers? Of course not. The disciples just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. So they wake Jesus up, terrified, and they say, “we’re dying! Don’t you care?”

And Jesus gets up and says to the wind and the waves, “Peace! Be still!” And they are. Scripture says, “The wind stopped, and a great calm came.” Just like there was a ‘great’ storm in v. 37, there is a ‘great’ calm in v. 39. However great the storm was, that’s how great the calm was.

The funny thing is, the sudden calm scared the disciples even more than the storm did.

It’s a frightening thing to be in the presence of the living God. Not because we don’t love God, and not because God doesn’t love us… but because God is so far beyond us. Which is why Jesus came to earth as a human being: to show us the truth about God in a way that we could understand and not be afraid.

The story of Job and the events in Mark are basically two ways of telling the same story. In both readings God’s people face tragedy. They’re caught in a storm not of their own making. In both readings the focus is on the power and authority of God’s spoken word. And in both readings people are beyond amazed at what the spoken word of God does. The disciples ask, “who is this that commands the wind and waves?” Job says, “these are things too wonderful for me”.

The question for us today then is: Is God’s word only for people who lived a long time ago? Or is it active for us too? When tragedy happens, do we know that everything is in God’s hands?

In the wake of the Charleston shootings, a sheriff out in Arizona decided to send police protection to all the AME churches in his jurisdiction today. One of the AME pastors was asked by a news crew what he thought of this. He answered, “the Bible says God has not given us a spirit of fear but the power of love and a sound mind”.

I think we need to listen to the voices of our African-American brothers and sisters. We need to hear the voices that say ‘in Christ we’re not afraid’. We need to hear the voices that say ‘people are not born racist, they’re taught it, and we need to start teaching a new message’. We need to hear the voices that say ‘our hearts are broken but in Christ we forgive’.

We are witnessing miracles this week in the hearts of the families who lost loved ones. Times like these are the times when God brings us just a little closer to eternity, and gives us just a glimpse of the Promised Land. Job says: “Once I had heard of you… but now my eye sees you.” (Job 42:5)

Whenever tragedy strikes – and it will, in this fallen world, this won’t be the last tragedy we see – we can cry out to God and then listen for God’s reply. And standing in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Charleston, our faith will become, like theirs, a little less like hearing and a little more like seeing. Amen.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 6/21/15


Kingdom Gardening

“[Jesus] also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.” – Mark 4:26-34

The New Testament lesson for the day – II Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17 – is also referred to briefly.

Today’s sermon is for all you gardeners out there.

I’m just an amateur gardener myself. What I lack in knowledge I make up for in persistence. But I love gardening, partly because working in the garden brings to mind thoughts about God. The Bible itself begins in a garden, the Garden of Eden; and the turning point of all of human history happened in a garden, the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed ‘not my will but yours be done’.

Have you ever heard the old saying about being ‘nearer God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth’? That thought comes to mind a lot when I’m working in the garden, and the other day I decided to find out where that came from. It’s from a poem by Dorothy Frances Gurney called God’s Garden, and the poem goes like this (in part):

THE Lord God planted a garden
In the first… days of the world,
And He set there an angel warden
In a garment of light enfurled.

So near to the peace of Heaven,
That the hawk might nest with the wren,
For there in the cool of the even
God walked with the first of men.

The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,–
One is nearer God’s heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.

At the moment, in the middle of June, we’re kind of in between planting and harvest (with the exception of the strawberries, which are just finishing). Planting season in Western PA begins in mid-May, and harvesting begins around July, so most of the garden work this time of year is weeding. As I’ve been working in the gardens the past few weeks I’ve been putting together a theology of weeds.

In the Bible weeds represent sin (sometimes ‘sinners’ but usually ‘sin’) and weeding has to do with getting rid of sin and doing things God’s way. Here are some things I’ve noticed about weeds:

  • Weeds are persistent. Pull up three and five more grow in their place. It gets discouraging sometimes and sometimes it makes me want to give up… but I know if I stop weeding even for a week the weeds take over completely!
  • Weeds are tougher than the plants I’m trying to grow. They have thicker stems, they have deeper roots, they have more prolific seed-pods. I mean, look at the dandelion – those seeds come equipped with their own little parachutes! Good luck getting rid of them all.
  • Weeds are sneaky. They hide under bushes. They wrap themselves around good plants like vines and try to choke them. They grow real close to delicate little flowers, so that I can’t pull up one without pulling up the other. I look at those weeds and I say ‘you are taking advantage!’

In Matthew 13 Jesus tells a parable about a farmer who sows wheat and gets up the next day and finds an enemy has sown weeds in his wheat, so that when the wheat grows up so do the weeds. The farmer’s servants come and say, “Sir, didn’t you plant wheat? What’s up with all the weeds? Do you want us to tear them out?” And the farmer says, “no… you’ll tear up the wheat with it. Let them grow together until the harvest and then we’ll separate them out.” With those precious little flowers of mine that’s what I have to do: I have to at least let them grow bigger and stronger before I can weed around them.

So that’s been my meditation in the garden for the past few weeks, about weeds and sin and how much alike they are.

Jesus talked a lot about gardens in his parables. He talked about vineyards, and he talked about fig trees that don’t bear fruit, and about seeds that fall on the path, or on rocks, or among thorns, or in good soil. He said, when talking about the Pharisees, ‘every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.’

Today we have two parables where Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a garden.

In the first parable Jesus says the kingdom of God can be compared to a farmer who scatters seed and then goes about his business: he gets up, goes to sleep, does whatever he needs to do. The seed sprouts and grows on its own and the farmer has no idea how that happens. The wheat grows up out of the earth, first a stalk and then a head and then the full grain (remember that Thanksgiving hymn – “first the stalk and then the ear/then the full corn shall appear”), and when the grain is ripe the farmer immediately puts in the sickle because the harvest has come. That’s what the kingdom of God is like, Jesus says.

Verse 34 of Mark chapter 4 tells us Jesus “explained everything in private to his disciples” but this is one of those parables where the disciples didn’t write down what Jesus said. So we’re not sure exactly how Jesus might have explained it, and we could come up with a number of interpretations.

For example, the gardener could be God, scattering God’s word into peoples’ hearts. In a way this makes sense because God can be seen as the Gardener and in Jesus’ parables the seed always represents the Gospel. But in a way it doesn’t make sense because God is not like the farmer in the parable who goes about his business ignoring the seed and letting it do its own thing. God does know how the seed sprouts and how growth happens. So that interpretation only fits partly.

Another possible interpretation is that gardener represents those of us who share the Gospel with others. That’s not just clergy, that’s anybody who shares the faith. When we talk to people about God, we are tossing the seeds of the Gospel out there. Like the farmer, we have no idea what’s going to take root, or when it will start to grow, or how fast it will grow, or how long it will take to mature. We scatter the seed in faith and we go about our business.

I think this interpretation fits pretty well. The only thing that doesn’t fall into place with this interpretation is the harvester… and I’ll come back to that in a moment.

But I wanted to share a third interpretation from an old English preacher named Charles Simeon. Simeon was an acquaintance of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Simeon was young enough to be Wesley’s grandson, and the two theologians were… well they had their differences. Simeon was Calvinist and Wesley was Arminian; Simeon was a Cambridge man while Wesley was at Oxford; and the rivalry between those two schools was worse than the rivalry between the Steelers and the Ravens. Wesley and Simeon are a powerful example of how two religious leaders can disagree without dividing a church. The two men only met twice in their lives, but they actively searched for common ground, and they found it, and they stood on it. And if the leaders of the Anglican Church at the time had listened to Simeon (who was just a young pup in those days), the Methodist movement might still be Anglican. It’s one of those interesting moments in history.

Anyway, Simeon interprets Jesus’ parable is an illustration of the inner workings of grace in a person’s soul. He says God’s grace, like the sprouting of a seed, is spontaneous, gradual, and inexplicable. Spontaneous, because there is something in the nature of a seed that causes it to sprout – not by itself, but with help from (as he puts it) “the Sun of Righteousness and showers of the Spirit”. The growth is gradual, because the blade, the ear, and the full corn don’t happen all at once… and likewise Christians grow from being newly converted, to a more solid and hopeful walk with God, to having real experience in dealing with good and evil. And growth is inexplicable, because we can’t explain how a seed grows or how grace works. It just does. They just do.

And then when the grain is mature the harvester immediately puts in the sickle and brings the grain into the barn.

In all of Jesus’ parables about gardening there is no other way to interpret the ‘harvester’ except as God, bringing God’s faithful home. When the fruit is mature, the harvest comes. God has eternal purposes in mind, and everything we live through in this life is aimed toward that goal.

The psalmist prays, “Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” (Psalm 90:12) Paul writes to the Corinthians saying “we walk by faith, not by sight; we have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord; but whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.” (II Cor 5:7-9) If we are living by faith our journey home to God is a continuation of what we’ve already begun; a continuation of the grace God is already working in us.

Jesus immediately follows up this parable with the parable of the mustard seed. If the grace working within us sometimes seems to us small and easily overwhelmed by weeds, we can rest assured growth will happen. If the church herself sometimes seems to us to be too small to take on the evils of the world around us, this parable is for us too. Do we wonder what difference our little church can make in the world? Do we fret over small numbers, remembering the days when the churches were packed every Sunday? Jesus says, ‘look how small the mustard seed is, and how big the mustard tree is’.

So what can we take away from these parables today? Two things. First, God is a wise and experienced gardener and we can trust God’s ability to work with us plants. From planting to harvest, God is in control. So fear not! As I’ve mentioned before, so much in our world is designed to make us afraid, so that our actions are motivated by fear. I believe with all my heart one of the greatest ways we can bear witness to God in today’s world is to live fearlessly.

And second, keep on being faithful in scattering the seed, even when we don’t know what becomes of it. God will take care of both the growth and the weeds. And with a tip of the hat to Simeon, ‘let us wait for the former and the latter rains… and expect a variety of seasons…’. Amen.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Anglican Church in the Strip, 6/14/15


Fall and Redemption

Scripture readings: Genesis 3:8-15 and I Samuel 8:4-11,16-20 in addition to the Gospel reading below.

Then he went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”– for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” – Mark 3:19b-35

So Kenny Chesney was in town this past week. I know nothing at all about country music, but this guy packs in such a huge crowd that even I heard about it. He was in the news. His fans were in the news. The people protesting his fans were in the news. It kind of reminded me of the days of Beatlemania.

Not that I’m saying Kenny Chesney is as big as the Beatles (sorry, Kenny Chesney fans). But the craziness, the way people forgot who they were and how to behave, the fact that so many people who went to the concert didn’t actually get to enjoy the concert because of the things other fans were doing… that’s what reminded me of Beatlemania.

Speaking of Beatlemania. some of you here may remember the concert the Beatles gave in Pittsburgh back in 1964. I don’t (sadly). I do remember the Beatles on Ed Sullivan but I wasn’t aware enough back then to realize over 4,000 fans showed up to greet the Beatles’ plane when they arrived in Pittsburgh, or that the fans at the concert screamed so loudly the music couldn’t be heard. It wasn’t until much later I understood why the Beatles stopped touring at the height of their popularity. They couldn’t hear themselves play, and the crowds were getting way out of hand. Everyone wanted a piece of their clothing or a lock of their hair… it was crazy. It was dangerous. It was no way to live.

The scene Mark describes in the gospel reading for today is like that. Jesus has been healing people and casting out demons and preaching the good news, and he is being followed around by a crowd of people that’s getting bigger and bigger by the moment. Shortly before our reading for today, in Mark 3:9, Jesus and the disciples arrive at Galilee, and Jesus “told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him…” (italics mine). It was getting crazy.

At the height of Beatlemania, I wonder if Mama McCartney and Mama Harrison and other Beatle family members had the band over for tea one afternoon and said, “ok boys, you’ve had your fun, but really this is going too far. There are strangers digging through our rubbish bins, and you all look awful, you’re run ragged, and look, you’ve done well lads, but it’s time to settle down and get a proper job and get married and start a family…” I mean, people from Liverpool are very sensible people.

And that’s sort of what I hear coming from Jesus’ family in Mark’s gospel. Mark writes “[Jesus and the disciples] went home;  and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”” Looking at the Greek in verse 21, “out of his mind” has the flavor not so much of insanity as amazement or astonishment. And the Greek suggests it was Jesus’ family, not ‘people’ in general, who were concerned for his safety. And rightfully so. Crowds can be crazy. And this particular crowd was getting so much into Jesus’ personal space that he couldn’t even eat a meal! From a human standpoint at least, it’s no wonder his family was worried.

The scribes, on the other hand, were not worried about Jesus’ safety. They took one look at the situation, saw how crazy it was, and told everybody Jesus was serving Satan. (I notice there is no comment about how crazy it is for the scribes to have walked 63 miles from Jerusalem to Galilee just to criticize the ministry of a preacher they’ve never met before.)

Jesus answers the scribes very reasonably, pointing out that if Satan is driving out demons then Satan is essentially throwing himself out, and/or Satan’s kingdom has become divided and is about to fall. But the truth is, Jesus opposes Satan, he has come to bind up the ‘strong man’ (a euphemism for Satan) and plunder his house… this is Jesus’ game plan.

The sad thing is, God’s people don’t get it. The nation of Israel – represented in this passage by the scribes, and the crowds, and Jesus’ own birth-family – don’t understand what Jesus is up to. The religious leaders run him down publicly. His family doesn’t trust that he is in control of the situation. And the crowd, much as they love Jesus’ teaching and the miracles he does, they ignore his physical needs, they refuse to let him be human.

And this is not the first time in Biblical history that God’s people have gotten God wrong. It started in the Garden of Eden and our first scripture reading for today. Whenever I read a Bible story I try to imagine what it would be like to be there. But it’s hard to imagine what life on earth was like before sin entered the world. The garden was flawless and beautiful; animals lived at peace with one another; Adam and Eve were completely innocent, living as human beings were designed to live, natural, unsophisticated, unaware there is such things as shame or regret, secure in God’s love. They walked with God in the garden as friends, completely un-self-conscious.

And then they were deceived by the serpent into believing God, who loved them so much, hadn’t been honest with them. The serpent told them: “God knows that when you eat [the apple] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5) He’s implying, ‘God’s been holding back on you’.

Have you ever loved someone and then been told that person you love can’t be trusted? You begin to doubt, and unless that doubt is nipped in the bud it eats away at the relationship and finally ruins it even if your loved one is innocent. That’s what happened here. That night God walked through the garden alone. Adam and Eve are hiding because they’ve learned what shame is. Innocence is dead, and their ability to blame others has been born.

God in love sees what happened and does not leave it there. God finds a way to set things right, to restore the relationship: he says the seed of the woman will someday crush the serpent’s head. That seed is Jesus, who restores our relationship with God.

In the second reading for today, from I Samuel, we see God’s people asking for a king. They seem to have forgotten they’ve already got one. God, their king, who rescued them from slavery in Egypt, and brought them into the Promised Land, and arranged a system of judges to help settle disputes between the people. But the people now come to God’s prophet Samuel and say ‘you are getting old and we don’t want your sons to rule over us. We want a king, like every other nation has.’

God says to Samuel, ‘it is not you they have rejected but me’. And God says, warn them. Tell them what a king will be like, how a king will take their children for soldiers and their slaves for servants and their crops for food, how the king will take a tenth of everything they own…’ (these days they take about four tenths… I wish our taxes were only 10%!) God says they will regret this decision. But the people don’t listen.

And just like in the garden, the people suffer the results of their lack of trust in God. And just like in the garden, God provides a way to set things right. Before Samuel dies, he anoints David, a shepherd boy from Bethlehem, to be king over Israel. David will prophesy about the Messiah, and Jesus will be known as ‘the son of David’.

All through scripture, people fall short of what God intends for their lives. And all through scripture, God provides a means to set things right.

Jesus says, “Who are my mother and my brothers? …whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” And the will of God is to believe and trust in Jesus.

I started off this morning talking about fans. There’s one other aspect of fandom that I’d like to return to, and that is the aspect of how a fan perceives the object of their admiration. We can see it in the crowd’s treatment of Jesus, how they didn’t allow him to take care of his basic physical needs like eating.

Here’s a contemporary illustration. Back in the ‘90s I had the chance to meet my favorite rock band and chat with them briefly. And it was wonderful to discover the people who had had such influence on my musical understanding were truly kind and decent people, family men who plan tour dates around their childrens’ birthdays.

Some time later I overheard another fan talking about this band, and the things she was saying didn’t seem quite right to me based on my admittedly limited experience. And I said to her, “that doesn’t sound like the real people.” And she looked at me like I’d just grown three heads and said to me, “I don’t want to know the real people!”

As a musician that was an eye-opener. As a human being it made me sad because I thought, she has no idea what she’s missing.

As a person of faith I thought: there are a lot of times people – myself included – get into moods when we don’t really feel like knowing the real God. We think: God’s out there, far above us, God isn’t like us, I can’t reach God, nothing I can say or do would ever make a difference to God… we get discouraged, we get caught up in religiosity or get caught up in our own lives and lose sight of who God really is.

And when that happens we don’t know what we’re missing. Whenever we get tangled up in church politics or theological debates or even some news report on religion, we lose sight of the real God. The real God loves us. The real God does not reject us. The real God wants to be with us, wants to spend time with us. The real God loves us so much Jesus went to the cross to set things right, to make it possible for our relationship to be restored.

When we know the real God, we trust Jesus as God-with-us, and we recognize the Holy Spirit as God-in-us. And I don’t know about you but I breathe a sigh of relief because I know it’s not up to me. God sets things right. My job, our job, as Jesus says, is to stay in God’s will, and be Jesus’ family, his mothers and brothers and sisters. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 6/7/15




Born From Above

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me.”
– Isaiah 6:1-8

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
– John 3:1-17

Today’s sermon is Born From Above, a phrase taken from the gospel reading for today. We’ll spend some time with Nicodemus in a moment, but I’d like to start out with our reading from Isaiah, because the two passages are related. Both passages speak to a number of the same themes, and there are four of those themes I’d like to focus on today: (1) the majesty of God; (2) the effect on a nation when its leaders have lost sight of God; (3) God’s merciful provision for times like this; and (4) and what it means to be ‘born from above’.

So starting with Isaiah. Isaiah is in the temple one day and he sees a vision of God. What Isaiah sees is not a literal reality – scripture tells us God is a spirit, not a physical being – but a vision is a spiritual reality conveying truth about the kingdom of God. Isaiah sees God as a great king, high and powerful, seated on a great throne, so majestic that just the hems of God’s robe are enough to fill the sanctuary. And Isaiah hears seraphim calling out to each other, “holy, holy, holy Lord of hosts.”

The word ‘holy’ is one of those words we hear a lot in church but might have trouble defining. The website Pathos gives some helpful clarity:

The Hebrew word for holy… means “apartness, set-apartness, separateness, sacredness”… “otherness, transcendent and totally other” – all of these things – because God is totally above… creation… .  Holy [also] has the idea of heaviness or weight of glory….”

The website goes on to say:

“In Jewish liturgy, when something is incredibly important, it is mentioned twice.  Jesus does this when He says something twice like “truly, truly [I say to you]”… but when something is mentioned three times in a row, it is off the charts in importance….”

A God who is ‘holy, holy, holy’ is so far beyond and above us that it is impossible for us to even put it into words. As Isaiah stands in the temple and sees this vision he catches just a glimpse of the greatness and otherness of God, and he is undone.

Imagine if something like that were to happen this morning – if God were to show us just a glimpse of God’s majesty and glory. We would not be singing hymns and I would not be preaching a sermon. We would be in exactly the same place Isaiah was: crying out, “I am undone! For I am a person of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.”

In Isaiah’s vision, God immediately takes action. One of the seraphim cleanses Isaiah’s lips with a coal from the altar (this is still part of the vision; we’re not talking about physical burning). And the sacrifice of the altar – which is the forerunner of the sacrifice of Jesus – takes care of both literal and spiritual uncleanness.

And then God asks, “who will go for us?” and then Isaiah is able to answer, “I will! Send me.”

Stepping back for a moment for context, in the context of both passages, God is dealing with a group of people – a nation – who have rebelled against God’s laws. And in both passages God – or Jesus, in the gospel reading – asks the leadership some very pointed questions. In Isaiah, just before the events in this morning’s reading, God gives these words to Isaiah the prophet:

“O my people, your leaders mislead you, and confuse the course of your paths. […] The LORD enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? says the Lord GOD of hosts.” – Isaiah 3:12-15, edited

Ancient Israel suffered under a ruling class that ignored the the poor and indulged themselves on the fat of the land while the little people struggled to stay alive. The gap between rich and poor was wide and getting wider. (Things haven’t changed much in 3000 years!) And God puts the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the leaders, the ruling class, who have the power to do something about it but don’t.

Of course in the days of Isaiah and Jesus, national leaders would have been both political and religious –in those days the two overlapped. So Isaiah’s words are not a political statement; God is not writing a manifesto. In God’s eyes the treatment of the poor is a spiritual issue, not a political one. If the hearts of the nation are right toward God, the poor and the powerless will be provided for. They will be treated with mercy and generosity because this is what God commands. Throughout scripture one of the marks of true faith – and one of the first things people did when they converted to the faith – was to give generously and joyfully to the poor. Remember Zacchaeus the tax collector? When Jesus called him to be a disciple, Zacchaeus immediately said:

“Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house…” (Luke 19:8-9)

When a person is born from above, this is the kind of heart – and the kind of leadership – the Spirit of God inspires.

In Isaiah’s case, when Isaiah is born from above, he becomes a leader after God’s own heart. The people now have a leader who loves God above all else, and it will make a difference in the life of their nation. Isaiah’s efforts will not be enough to turn the hearts of all of Israel’s leaders; the nation will end up going into exile in Babylon; but Isaiah will care for God’s people during the exile and he will predict their return to Jerusalem, which comes true in the lifetime of the prophet Daniel.

And so now we turn our attention to the reading from John. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a ruler among the religious leaders. Jesus had a lot to say about the Pharisees in the New Testament, and very little of it was good! He called them things like “a brood of vipers” and “whitewashed tombs that look good on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones”.

Historical side note: During Jesus’ time there were two main camps among the religious leaders: the Sadducees and the Pharisees. I point this out because, while the specifics change from generation to generation, I think church history has been marked by a similar division among religious leaders for the past 2000 years. See if you can recognize some parallels. The Sadducees were religious leaders whose faith had become compromised with the surrounding culture; they were more Greek than Jewish, more like aristocrats than the faithful. They took advantage of their positions to have the best of everything, but they were no longer dependable as religious teachers. Jesus had very little to say to them; they confronted him now and then, but not as often as the Pharisees, and he never sought them out.

The Pharisees on the other hand were a popular group, well-liked by the people and (with a few glaring flaws) generally interpreted scripture correctly. The problem was they were hypocrites: they taught one thing and lived another. They didn’t practice what they preached. Jesus told his followers: “do what they tell you but don’t do what they do.”

So Nicodemus the Pharisee comes to see Jesus. But there’s something different about this particular Pharisee. He comes to see Jesus, alone, at night – presumably to avoid being seen by his fellow Pharisees, who said anyone believing in Jesus would be thrown out of the synagogue. And Nicodemus reveals a truth that no other Pharisee has confessed: he says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God.”

We know. After all the arguments and public confrontations and opposition, the truth comes out: we know. The Pharisees oppose Jesus knowing full well who he is. They’re not acting in ignorance. They don’t want to change their ways. They don’t want to give back to God what belongs to God – namely the people of God and the gifts the people bring.

Why would Nicodemus, a ruler of the Pharisees, take the risk of coming to Jesus and saying this?

I can think of only one reason: Nicodemus is starting to believe: not in the sense of intellectually agreeing with Jesus, but in the sense that he’s beginning to realize that Jesus is ‘holy, holy, holy’. He’s catching a glimpse of the glory of God, like Isaiah did, and he feels undone. He knows his life is about to change, and he’s beginning to love Jesus too much to want it any other way. His loyalties have shifted and he doesn’t know what to do. So he comes to Jesus to ask for help.

And Jesus replies with the help Nicodemus needs: he says, “Truly, truly I say to you, if a person is not born from above (or born again) that person is not able to see the kingdom of God.”

This is probably one of the most mis-quoted and mis-understood verses of our generation, so let me bring it back to the original Greek and translate so we can get the real meaning. Jesus says, “Amen, amen” – well OK, that’s actually Hebrew – it means ‘I agree’ or ‘I affirm’ or (as they said back in the 90s) ‘word’.

Jesus says, “if a person is not born again or born from above” – and there is a deliberate double-meaning here. The phrase can and does mean ‘born from above’, ‘born from the beginning’, or ‘born anew’. And if this does not happen a person cannot see the kingdom of heaven.

I think the mistake in interpretation has been in putting the emphasis on the first phrase, ‘born again’ – instead of on the second phrase – ‘seeing the kingdom of heaven’. The second phrase does not mean ‘go to heaven’ (Jesus is not saying ‘you must be born again if you want to go to heaven’) – it means to perceive the kingdom. It’s kind of like Jesus is saying, ‘you need to put your spiritual glasses on if you want to see the kingdom’. The Greek word for ‘see’ could also be translated ‘experience’, ‘perceive’, or ‘witness’.

The verb is present tense and it is active. There’s a kingdom to perceive right now. The eternal kingdom of God does not begin when we die. It started before we were born and it extends into eternity. The kingdom of God is ‘not of this world’ but it exists (at least in part) in our time and place. The science fiction concept of a ‘parallel universe’ is not exactly accurate but it’s helpful here. There’s a reality, here and now, that can only be perceived spiritually and cannot be grasped by the natural human mind alone.

Nicodemus misses the point entirely and starts talking about crawling back inside a mother’s womb to be born again.

So Jesus explains further. He says a person must be born of both water and spirit; that what is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the spirit is spirit. The Greek word for ‘flesh’ is sarkos, it’s the word we get sarcophagus from, and while it doesn’t mean corpse, it does imply mortality, that is, flesh that doesn’t last forever. The Greek word for spirit is pneumatos, the word we get pneumatic from, it has to do with air or wind. Which is why Jesus then follows his comments by saying “the wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or where it goes; and so it is with all who are born of the Spirit.”

The life of a believer doesn’t make any sense to people without the Spirit. We appear to them to be tossed around by the wind – and in a sense we are! But those of us who have been born of the Spirit perceive a different reality and respond to a different voice.

Nicodemus is at a loss. Jesus chides him: “how can you be a spiritual teacher of Israel and not know this?” It’s like, ‘this is Spirituality 101’.

And Jesus goes on to explain God’s plan of salvation. He says, “I have come from heaven and I’m telling you what I’ve personally seen.” (Side note: the ‘you’ in verses 11 & 12 – ‘You did not receive our testimony’ – is plural; Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus about what the Pharisees teach, and is inviting Nicodemus to see things differently.) Jesus ties his mission in with the mission of Moses, who saved Israel from sickness and death by lifting up a snake on a stick – “so also must the son of man be lifted up” on a cross for all the world to see. Jesus has not come to judge, but so that the world can be saved through him.

Nicodemus’ story has a happy ending. He must have gone home and really thought and prayed about what Jesus said, because we see him two more times in scripture: once, defending Jesus’ rights to a proper trial, and a second time, helping with Jesus’ burial. There are no records of Nicodemus after Jesus’ death, but historically the church has considered him both a disciple and a saint.

This comforts me too, by the way, because it means even a Pharisee can make it into the kingdom. Because as a preacher it is easy to fall into the trap of being like a Pharisee, of saying one thing and living another. I preach about a perfect God, but I’m not a perfect person. The fact that religious leaders could deny the Messiah, the very one they were supposed to be serving, is a warning to all of us who share the gospel. But the fact that Nicodemus made it – that he was able to be born of the Spirit and perceive God’s kingdom – means we can too. We have hope.

OK so to sum up: we were looking at four things: the first was the greatness of God. In both stories, Isaiah and Nicodemus catch a small glimpse of God’s glory and God’s holiness. The second thing is both Isaiah and Nicodemus lived in a time when the leaders of the people were rebelling against God. The third thing is, God in mercy provides what is needed: the cleansing Isaiah needs, and the teaching Nicodemus needs; and now both are able to go out and speak God’s truth and teach the people about salvation by God’s grace. And fourth, both Isaiah and Nicodemus become born of the Spirit, able to perceive the kingdom of God, able to act as spiritual guides.

At this point in the sermon many preachers would give an altar call, but I don’t think that really follows on what we’ve just seen in these passages! Rather I would like us to follow the lead of Nicodemus: if we feel that Jesus is true, if we believe Jesus is holy and sent by God, if we love what Jesus has to say, if we’re amazed by what he does, if we know that only God could do the things Jesus does, then like Nicodemus we need to come to Jesus alone and speak to him what’s on our hearts. Jesus will take it from there.

Let’s pray together. Lord Jesus, thank you for your patience with us. Thank you for loving us and providing for us. As we take a moment of silence now, hear the thoughts of our hearts, and touch our spirits with your own. [In the silence add your own prayers.] We pray in Jesus’ name, AMEN.

Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, Trintiy Sunday, 5/31/15


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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus Prays for Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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