“So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me – that is my petition – and the lives of my people – that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.” Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?” Esther said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!” Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.

“Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, “Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.” And the king said, “Hang him on that.” So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.

“Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor.” – Esther 7:1-6, 9-10 and 9:20-22


This past week our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrated Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) which is the highest holy day in the Jewish calendar. It’s a time of repentance and celebration of God’s forgiveness.

So it’s kind of a strange time of year to be talking about Purim, because Purim takes place in early spring. But our reading for today is from the book of Esther, and the book of Esther tells the story of how the holiday of Purim got started, so we’ll be looking at Purim today, even though it’s not quite the right time of year.

The name Purim comes from casting lots – which happens in the story, and is a form of gambling sort of like tossing dice. A “lot” in Hebrew is called pur and if you have more than one lot it’s called purim. So the name of the holiday recalls a time when the fate of the Jewish people hung on a roll of the dice.

But before we look at the story of Esther let me backtrack a little. Last week the Old Testament lesson was Proverbs 31. I know most of us here in the Partnership preach on the New Testament most of the time so you probably didn’t get a sermon on Proverbs 31 last week… but it relates to this week’s reading so bear with me and I’ll do a quick review.

Proverbs 31 is that famous chapter at the end of the book of Proverbs that talks about the “good wife” or the “worthy wife”. It describes a woman who gets up before dawn, makes clothing, buys food for her household, gives the servants work to do, buys a vineyard and plants it, and makes goods and sells them in the marketplace. Proverbs 31 often is preached like it’s a to-do list for Christian women… but in fact it was written by the Queen Mother to her son, the King of Israel, as dating advice. In other words, she’s saying ‘here’s what to look for in a queen’. Most women – then and now – don’t have the time or the financial resources to do everything the woman in Proverbs 31 does.

What Proverbs 31 does offer us is a concept of what the Hebrews called the eshet chayil – the woman of valor (and of course the corresponding esh chayil, the man of valor). Men and women of valor are people who seek God’s wisdom and live by it. Two of the greatest examples in the Old Testament are Ruth and Boaz. Ruth was a foreigner who gave up everything she had to support her mother-in-law after they both lost their husbands – she was called an eshet chayil by Boaz for the loving care she showed her mother-in-law. And Boaz, an esh chayil, rather than taking advantage of Ruth in her poverty, marries her, and together they become the great-grandparents of King David. Boaz and Ruth are two average, everyday people – a farmer and a housewife – who seek to live life God’s way, in wisdom and honor, and so Scripture calls them ‘man of valor’ and ‘woman of valor’.

Esther is another example of an eshet chayil, a woman of valor. She is orphaned as a child and is raised by her uncle, whose name is Mordecai. The two of them live, not in Israel, but in Babylon. Four generations before Esther was born, Israel was conquered and the people were carried off as captives to Babylon. Two generations before Esther was born, one of the kings of Babylon allowed the Jews to return to Israel and rebuild Jerusalem, but many chose not to go back. Jerusalem lay in ruins; life there was hard; and they had settled in to their new country and started new lives so they chose to stay.

And so the story of Esther begins in the winter capital of Babylon, the walled city of Susa, where King Xerxes of Babylon is holding a banquet.

King Xerxes was one of the most powerful rulers the world has ever known. We Westerners tend to look back to the Roman Empire, forgetting there was once an empire even greater than that. Xerxes ruled almost half the population of the planet at that time in history. His empire stretched from modern-day India in the east, to Egypt in the west (he was Pharoah of Egypt as well as Emperor of Babylon), and from Rumania and Greece in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south.

To say that King Xerxes was rich and powerful would like saying Pittsburghers think black and gold in an okay color combination. In fact, somewhere in Xerxes’ kingdom – nobody knows exactly where – were the ‘Hanging Gardens of Babylon’ – one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Xerxes controlled unimaginable wealth. And just to remind people of this, as if they needed reminding, Xerxes held a banquet for his officials and military officers, that lasted for 180 days. They partied for half a year without stopping! And when it was all over, he held another banquet! This one was a only week long but the entire city was invited. The party went on, and the wine flowed…

One of the ancient historians wrote about the Persian empire:

“the Persians drank wine in large quantities and used it even for counsel, deliberating on important affairs when drunk, and deciding the next day, when sober, whether to act on the decision or set it aside.”

What a way to run a country!

But this is pretty much what happens in the book of Esther. At the end of the seven-day banquet, when the king and his friends were drunk, King Xerxes calls the queen to come join them so all his buddies can see how beautiful she is. The queen, who was holding a banquet of her own for all the women, refused to come. So the men started a drunken debate about what should be done to a queen who refuses to come when she’s called.

Long story short, they decided not to kill her for treason but rather to take away her crown and exile her from the king’s presence. She can never see the king again. And what’s more, the king orders all his friends to go out into his great empire and gather up the most beautiful virgins they can find and present them to the king so he can choose a new queen.

This sounds good to all the men, so they go out and start collecting up beautiful women and bringing them to the palace. And Esther, being a very beautiful young woman, is one of the hundreds of women rounded up and brought to the palace. All these women go through a year of living in the palace and being bathed in oils and perfumes before they are presented to the king. And one by one they go and spend a night with the king, and afterwards they’re sent to another part of the palace where they live with the concubines.

When Esther’s turn comes, the king falls in love, and decides to make her his queen.

While all this has been going on, Esther’s uncle Mordecai has been worried about her and has been sitting outside the palace every day talking to the servants to get news about his niece. While he’s doing this he happens to overhear a couple of servants plotting to kill the king. He immediately tells Esther, Esther tells the king giving credit to Mordecai, the king’s life is saved.

Some time later the king appoints an evil man named Haman to be what’s essentially the prime minister of the country. Haman can’t stand Mordecai, because Mordecai (out of all the people in Xerxes’ kingdom) is the only person who refuses to kneel to Haman. Haman hates Mordecai so much that it’s not enough for him to make plans to kill Mordecai. He decides he’s going to wipe out all of Mordecai’s people… all the Jews in the whole Persian Empire.

(Historical side note: Nazi Germany is not the first country in history to attempt to wipe out the Jewish people. What I find interesting is Hitler hated the book of Esther and tried to have it banned. He did not allow it to be read anywhere where the Nazis were in power. I wonder if he saw himself in the character of Haman…? But back to the story…)

So Haman goes to the king and says “these people the Jews don’t obey your laws, they insist on following their own laws and their own God, they’re a trouble to the kingdom, they should be wiped out”. The king gives Haman his signet ring and says “do whatever seems good to you.” So Haman sets a date when all Babylonians are to take up arms and kill the Jews, and he sets the date by casting the purim.

Mordecai hears about this, and tells Queen Esther, and tells her to talk to the king on behalf of her people. He says to her, “who knows but that you have come to the throne for such a time as this?”

There’s just one problem: by Persian law, nobody is allowed into the king’s presence except by the king’s command. To come to the king without being called is punishable by death… unless the king holds out the scepter of mercy. So Esther sends word to Mordecai: tell the people to fast and pray for me for three days and then I will go to the king, and whatever happens, happens.

Turns out the king is very fond of Esther, so he holds out the scepter, and asks her what she wants, and she says, “please come, you and Haman, to a banquet I have prepared.” (What a great move! – she knows what he likes.) The next night, over dinner, the king asks her again, “Esther, what can I do for you?”, she says “the two of you – please come to another banquet tomorrow and then I will tell you”. Then at the second banquet, the king asks a third time, “Esther, what can I do for you? Up to half my kingdom, it’s yours.” – and the rest of the story we heard in today’s reading. Esther reveals that she is Jewish (the king didn’t know that) and that Haman’s plot would kill her as well as her people, and she begs the king for all of their lives. Haman is hung on the gallows he prepared for Mordecai, the people of God are saved, and Purim becomes a holiday that is still celebrated today.

It’s a fascinating story, but it makes you wonder why it’s included in the Bible. I mean, God is never mentioned, or the Holy Spirit, or faith-hope-and-love, or holiness… where is God in all this?

Two answers I would give to that question:

  1. The story can be read as an allegory:
    1. Haman is like Satan: evil personified. His plans are to wipe out God’s people by deceit and deception. Why? Because, like Mordecai, God’s people refuse to kneel to anyone but the true king.
    2. Some of the things Esther does foreshadow things Jesus will do: she leaves a loving home to enter into the lives of fallen people; Jesus leaves heaven to enter into our world. Esther opens her heart to Gentiles; Jesus opens God’s kingdom to Gentiles. Esther risks her life to save her people; Jesus gives his life to save his people. Esther suffers in silence for three days and three nights while Haman does his evil work; Jesus is in the grave three days and three nights while Satan does his evil work. And in the end Haman is defeated and God’s people are saved by Esther’s courageous actions; and in the end all who believe are saved by Jesus’ courage and sacrifice on the cross.
      (I’m not saying that Esther is a messiah, only that her actions parallel some of Jesus’ actions. Parallels like this happen frequently in the Old Testament and should be noted when they do.)
  2. The other way we can understand God in this story is that God is present, unseen, working behind the scenes to bring about salvation for God’s people. God puts the right people in the right places at the right time. God’s will and God’s plans will not be thwarted, not even by the richest man in the world, or the most evil man in the world.

So what does this story of ancient Babylon have to say to us in the 21st century?

First off, looking at Babylon – is our world really all that different? Do we not live in a culture that obsesses about the body, what we eat, what we drink, what we wear, how can we stop eating carbs? Do we not live in a culture that neglects spiritual needs… a world of gossip and intrigue, where false accusations lead to the arrest of the innocent? Is our time really all that different?

Secondly, one Jewish writer said of the story of Esther:

“The hedonism of the prevailing Persian culture was part of the air [the Jewish people] breathed. It dulled our senses…”

We also live in a hedonistic culture, and it dulls our senses. We need to let God wake us up… to open our eyes to perceive and our ears to hear what God would say to us.

Third, Esther and Mordecai were people of valor. They risked their lives to take a stand for what was right. If we ever find ourselves doubting that one or two ordinary, everyday people can make a difference, this story reminds us that every person matters.

Above all, the story of Esther reminds us that God is in control. God can even work through a bunch of partying royals to elevate a woman of God to the throne and bring about salvation for God’s people. No matter what happens in the world, God will save God’s people.

Whenever we see trouble in the world, we need to pray and then act (and it is in that order… pray first then act) putting everything in the trustworthy hands of the King of Kings.

The website beingjewish.com says that “Essentially, Purim is about how G-d is hidden in everything. G-d performs miracles for us, all behind the scenes.” This is the same God we serve and worship and love today. Let us be God’s people – let us be women and men of valor. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 9/27/15


The Proverbs 31 Woman

“A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from far away. She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household and tasks for her servant-girls. She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong. She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy. She is not afraid for her household when it snows, for all her household are clothed in crimson. She makes herself coverings; her clothing is fine linen and purple. Her husband is known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land. She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes. Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her happy; her husband too, and he praises her: ‘Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.’ Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates.” – Proverbs 31:10-31


Proverbs 31 is probably one of the most controversial Bible passages in contemporary American Christianity. Books upon books have been written about it, seminars have been taught about it, Bible study groups have focused on it.

Over the past 100 years or so, as women have gained the right to vote and to work outside the home, churches have looked to Proverbs 31 to reflect on these events. Generally speaking – and this is painting with a broad brush – but generally speaking, the arguments have gone something like this:

Conservative churches focus on the fact that the woman in Proverbs 31 does everything she does at home – and they use this to defend a sort of ‘separate but equal’ kind of thinking: while both men and women have equal gifts, women are meant to exercise those gifts within the home, while men exercise their gifts outside the home.

Liberal churches, on the other hand, point out that the woman in Proverbs 31 runs a business, and buys and sells real estate… she’s a professional woman, she’s ahead of her time, and she’s a clear indication that God supports a woman’s right to have a career and do what she chooses to do with her life.

Meanwhile the average woman in the pew often gets caught between the two viewpoints, and she also gets caught between the hope of becoming more like the Proverbs 31 woman and the frustration of falling short of the ideal.

As I glanced over websites and chat rooms dedicated to the teaching of Proverbs 31, I read comments from women like these:

  • “You mean I’m not the only one that isn’t the perfect Proverbs 31 wife?” (in response to a book called My So-Called Life as a Proverbs 31 Wife by Sara Horn)
  • “This [Proverbs 31] woman… is… skillful in everything… she wakes up super early, has great biceps, buys property, wears a lot of purple, cares for her kids, cares for the poor, keeps her home warm at night and doesn’t eat carbs. […] Is every woman supposed to try and fit this mold? […] What if she can’t sew or cook…? What if she never even gets married?” (from Relevant Magazine)

The problem is, the Proverbs 31 Woman, as understood and taught in postmodern America, is not real. ALL of these viewpoints miss what the author of Proverbs 31 is saying.

So what is Proverbs 31 all about?

It’s a piece of Jewish wisdom literature, written about 3000 years ago, probably during the reign of King Solomon. More than that, it’s a poem. And like most poetry it’s not meant to be read as an instruction manual. The poem speaks in the voice of a queen mother speaking to her son the king, giving him the benefit of her wisdom in seeking a wife – who will be the future queen. (We can almost imagine Queen Elizabeth having a chat like this with her grandson Prince William before he got engaged.) The poem is also an acrostic – each line begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in alphabetical order – which indicates that it’s universally applicable… it covers everything from A to Z.

In the first nine verses of Proverbs 31 – which we did not hear today, and which often get skipped – the queen mother essentially tells her son to avoid strong drink and fast women, and to remember to look after the poor and disadvantaged… surprisingly contemporary advice!

Then, in verse 10 (where we began today) she says to him: search for a woman of quality: someone who can be a true partner, someone he can trust. The woman a king marries must be able to raise children, look after the welfare of the palace and those who live there, command servants and delegate work… these all reflect the realities of palace life. That’s where all these qualities listed in Proverbs 31 come from. A poor man’s wife would not have been expected to do all these things… any more than any of us can do all of them. We don’t have the servants and we don’t have the economic opportunities.

So what does Proverbs 31 have to say to people today? For an answer to that I’d like to take a look at contemporary Jewish use. Three thousand years after Proverbs 31 was written, these words are still being read every week, week in and week out, at the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. This adds layer upon layer of meaning, far more than I have time to go into today. But I will back up and give this much context:

As Christians many of us have lost the practice of Sabbath. We still do Sunday morning worship, but that’s only a small part of the Sabbath. In a nutshell, the Sabbath is a 24-hour period, from sundown to sundown, during which people (and animals) rest from all work. The Sabbath was meant to be one day a week when a worker could legally and legitimately say to his or her boss, “Not right now, I’ll do it tomorrow.”

So as a Jewish family prepares for the Sabbath, as the sun goes down on Friday night, the woman of the house lights the Sabbath candles. The children are blessed, and then the man of the house either reads or sings the words of Proverbs 31 to his wife. It is a blessing, in praise of all she does for the family. It’s more like a love poem than a laundry list.

“The woman of worth”: the first words of Proverbs 31:10 are different in every English translation. In Hebrew the opening words speak of the eshet chayil, which is better translated woman of valor. An esh chayil, a man of valor, often refers to a warrior, a military man, although it can also refer to a man of exceptional character. King David, for example, is described as an esh chayil. So Proverbs 31 gives advice to the king to search for an eshet chayil, a woman of valor.

The best example scripture gives of an eshet chayil is Ruth. Ruth was widowed and had no children – which proves Proverbs 31 is not a laundry list. Being a woman of valor does not necessarily mean being married and raising kids. What’s more, Ruth was a foreigner and had been raised to believe in foreign gods. But Ruth put her trust in the God of Israel. And when her husband died, and when her mother-in-law’s husband died, Ruth adopted her mother-in-law Naomi, and said to her:

“Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” – Ruth 1:16

Boaz, the man Ruth eventually married, heard about this – and that’s why he calls Ruth an eshet chayil, a woman of valor. Boaz, by the way, is also called an esh chayil, a man of valor, even though he’s a farmer and not a warrior.

So what would an eshet chayil look like today? One Jewish woman is quoted by author Rachel Held Evans saying:

“’eshet chayil’ — ‘woman of valor!’ — is invoked as a sort of spontaneous blessing in Jewish culture. Friends cheer one another on with the blessing, celebrating everything from promotions, to pregnancies, to acts of mercy and justice… battles with cancer… brave acts of vulnerability… or difficult choices, [all of these celebrated] with a hearty ‘eshet chayil!’—woman of valor.”

So combining this Jewish understanding with a New Testament viewpoint, the eshet chayil is first and foremost a woman who is loyal to God, who seeks to do God’s will – which is the definition of wisdom. She is courageous and strong in the face of everyday challenges and adversities.

Which leaves us with the question, what exactly does Proverbs 31 tell us to do? The only ‘to-do’ item in the passage is in verse 30: “a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” And the same is true for a man, an esh chayil. Men and women of valor are to be praised.

All of you here know far better than I do how many acts of valor have been done in this congregation, in this church… how many acts of mercy, or acts of justice, or missions, or battles with cancer, or difficult choices, or acts of loyalty to God. Proverbs 31 challenges us to speak of these things… to acknowledge the esh chayil and the eshet chayil when we see them.

We are called to be women – and men – of valor. As Christians this means primarily seeking God’s will and God’s wisdom for our lives, both individually and as a church. And as we do so, we are called to encourage each other with the words eshet chayil, esh chayil. Women and men of valor! AMEN.


Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 9/20/15


~ Author’s Postscript: If you know of an example of a man or woman of valor, and would like to honor them, leave a comment describing briefly what they’ve said or done that is worthy of praise. (Use first names only please.) ~


The Voice of Wisdom

“Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.
Because I have called and you refused,
have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
and because you have ignored all my counsel
and would have none of my reproof,
I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when panic strikes you,
when panic strikes you like a storm,
and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
when distress and anguish come upon you.
Then they will call upon me,
but I will not answer;
they will seek me diligently,
but will not find me.
Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the LORD,
would have none of my counsel,
and despised all my reproof,
therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way
and be sated with their own devices.
For waywardness kills the simple,
and the complacency of fools destroys them;
but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease,
without dread of disaster.’”
Proverbs 1:20-33


The apostle James writes:  “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue– a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.” – James 3:1-12


The apostle Mark writes:  “Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

“He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” – Mark 8:27-38


Words matter.

God’s word matters, and because human beings are made in the image of God, the words we speak matter.

All three of our readings for today talk about what different groups of people say, the words they speak. In the reading from Mark, Jesus asks the questions “who do people say that I am?” and “who do you say that I am?”

Jesus does not ask “what do people believe in?” or “what do you believe in?” or “what do you think?” but “what do you say?”

In this passage, Jesus separates people into two groups: those who speak truth about him, and those who don’t. And he does this throughout the gospels, pointing out (in particular) the difference between what the scribes and Pharisees know about him, and what they say about him. Because they know Jesus is the Messiah but they’ll never admit it, they’ll never speak it.

What is spoken… matters.

In the reading from James, James also separates people into two groups: those who are able to control their tongues, and those who aren’t. Controlling the tongue is a tough challenge for all of us, myself included. And control of the tongue involves not just refraining from harsh words, but also speaking good words when needed. It’s about the appropriate use of words.

The ability to speak the truth, and the ability to speak appropriately, calls for wisdom, which leads us to the reading from Proverbs, one of the wisdom books in the Old Testament.

The author of Proverbs also divides people into two groups: those who are wise, and those who are scoffers. The word scoffer is kind of an old-fashioned word, one we don’t use very often. To scoff is “to speak in a scornful or mocking way; to ridicule… belittle… to speak contemptuously.”

The opposite of scoff is praise. And I think that’s important – I’ll come back to it.

But for now let’s dig into what the writer of Proverbs has to say.

Our reading from Proverbs begins with the words:

“Wisdom cries out in the street, in the squares she raises her voice.”

When I read these words I have to stop and say, “Is this really true?” Because it seems to me like most of the words we hear every day, words we are bombarded with, are anything but words of wisdom. We hear words of advertisers, words of politicians, words of bosses, words of co-workers, words of preachers sometimes, but how often are those words actually words of wisdom?

People in our time are bombarded with more noise than any generation before us… and sometimes I think it acts on our psyches like itching powder, keeping us vaguely dissatisfied with life and feeling at odds with the world around us.

And yet at the same time Wisdom does cry out in the street. Her voice is heard. Sometimes wisdom comes to us in the words of people like Mother Teresa or more recently Pope Francis. Sometimes it comes to us in the words of a nation, like the people of Poland who said recently, “It only costs $3000 per person to save the life of a refugee. It’s a small price to pay for a human life. Let them come.” Sometimes it comes in the voice of a child, like one of the neighbor’s children the other day, who said to her mother, “Look Mom, this little kitten lost her family, can we give her a home?” (Compassion is one way wisdom expresses itself.)

On the other side of the coin, as the writer of Proverbs points out, there are people who deliberately reject wisdom. Proverbs says: “scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge.”

Nowhere is this more evident than on social media. Anytime anyone says anything on the Internet about God or faith they are sure to be met with scoffers. There are people who prowl the ‘net for hours looking for people of faith to belittle and insult.

Here’s an example I came across this past week. I was reading an article on the Huffington Post called This River Church Does Religion Right. It’s about a new kind of church down in North Carolina that is reaching out to people who are young and athletic and who feel close to God in nature, and tend to spend their Sundays boating on the river rather than going to church. This church has opened up a chapel on the beach of the river, so the boaters can pull over and join in the service and then keep on boating. It sounds like a cool idea.

In the comments section after the article there were a few people who said they liked the idea, but they were quickly silenced by comments like these:

  • “Which of the thousands of gods do you feel closer to by observing the beauty of evolution?” –OR-
  • “It is so amazing to me that anyone who has an IQ above that of a peanut still adheres to and professes myths and superstitions put forth by any and all religions.”

This is modern-day scoffing.

If it makes us feel any better, this kind of scoffing is not new… it’s just found a new venue. Back in the 1700s, British preacher Charles Simeon wrote that believers were often told their faith was “the effervescence of a heated imagination” or “the offspring of a weak, enthusiastic mind.” Things haven’t changed much in 300 years!

As I was thinking about scoffing this week and what it means to scoff, I turned the TV on – I was flipping channels – and I flipped to America’s Got Talent and got an earful of one of America’s most famous professional scoffers: Howard Stern. I don’t know the man personally, but I’ve heard stories about him, that he is a totally different person in real life, and that when his kids were growing up he wouldn’t let them to listen to his own radio show. I always thought, if this was true, it was a bit hypocritical to make a fortune feeding verbal garbage to our children that he wouldn’t feed to his own children. But I thought I’d better check my facts before I said anything, so I went out and asked Google a few pointed questions and this is what I found:

A few years ago, when Howard Stern’s daughter Emily was in her mid-20s, she gave an interview in which she said that, growing up, she was not explicitly forbidden from tuning in to her father’s program, “but there was the sense of ‘You wouldn’t want to listen; it’s not your father.’”

When she finally did listen her initial reaction was: ““I remember being like, ‘That isn’t my dad.  Who is this?’ Then once I reached the age when it was maybe acceptable to listen … it really just wasn’t what I was interested in, in seeing my dad that way, and also the content.”

Asked by the interviewer about whether she saw her parents’ divorce coming, [she] responded, “Living this character on the radio, there’s only so much you can say, ‘It’s not me’ before you embody it – I think that’s a bit of what happened.”

It’s a sad story and I share it, not to tear the man down, but as an example. Jesus warned all of us when he said, “what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?”

BTW there is a ray of hope in the article: Stern’s daughter is now a practicing Orthodox Jew and is in the process of sharing her faith with her father. I pray God’s blessing on those conversations.

In our reading from Proverbs for today, Wisdom speaks and says to the scoffers: “when panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity comes like a whirlwind… Then [you] will call upon me, but I will not answer; [you] will seek me diligently, but will not find me.” (Prov 1:27-28)

Wisdom is not being vindictive; wisdom is telling it like it is, because wisdom can’t be gained overnight. When the day of trouble comes, either we’ve done our homework or we haven’t. Now is the time to search for wisdom, before the hard times come, before we’re so set in our ways that we can’t change.

Scripture has a great deal to say about wisdom, and the value of wisdom, and how to get wisdom. Here are just a few of the highlights:

  • Psalm 111:10: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.” Notice the tie-in between wisdom and praise again. And when scripture speaks of the ‘fear of the Lord’ this does not mean we’re ‘scared of God’ but more like ‘in awe of God’. Seeing God as awesome is the beginning of wisdom.
  • Proverbs 2:6-13: “For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding… he is a shield to those who walk blamelessly, guarding the paths of justice and preserving the way of his faithful ones…” Wisdom includes knowledge but just knowledge; it also includes God’s protection, God’s justice, and God’s preservation.
  • Proverbs 8:10-11: “Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.”
  • Proverbs 19:8: “To get wisdom is to love oneself; to keep understanding is to prosper.”
  • 1 Corinthians 1:20-24: “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
  • James 1:5: “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.”

From these verses we can see that wisdom is connected to understanding; praise; protection; enlightened self-interest and self-care; humility; prosperity; and faith.

So what can we take away from this? First, as scripture says, “God is not willing that any should perish”. Even those who have scoffed in the past are welcome to turn away from their scoffing and learn wisdom. God’s wisdom is found in God’s word: God’s written word in the scriptures, and God’s living word in the life of of Jesus, the Word of God.

Secondly, if any of us feels that we lack wisdom, or need more wisdom, we should ask God for it, knowing that this is a request God has never said ‘no’ to, when asked with a whole heart.

And third, if the awe of God is the beginning of wisdom, then praise is the result of wisdom. We need to take the opportunity to praise God whenever we can, by whatever means we can: in prayer, in song, in the words that we share with each other.

So this week, as we walk with God, let us seek after wisdom… pray for wisdom… and praise God.  AMEN.

Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 9/13/15



The Wedding of the King

“The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.’” – Song of Solomon 2:8-13

Psalm 45: Ode for a Royal Wedding
To the leader: according to Lilies. Of the Korahites. A Maskil. A love song.

My heart overflows with a goodly theme;
I address my verses to the king;
my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.

You are the most handsome of men;
grace is poured upon your lips;
therefore God has blessed you forever.
Gird your sword on your thigh, O mighty one,
in your glory and majesty.

In your majesty ride on victoriously
for the cause of truth and to defend the right;
let your right hand teach you dread deeds.
Your arrows are sharp in the heart of the king’s enemies;
the peoples fall under you.

Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever.
Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity;
    you love righteousness and hate wickedness.
Therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions;
    your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia.
From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad;
    daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor;
at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.

10 Hear, O daughter, consider and incline your ear;
forget your people and your father’s house,
11     and the king will desire your beauty.
Since he is your lord, bow to him;
12     the people of Tyre will seek your favor with gifts,
the richest of the people 13 with all kinds of wealth.

The princess is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes;
14     in many-colored robes she is led to the king;
behind her the virgins, her companions, follow.
15 With joy and gladness they are led along
as they enter the palace of the king.

16 In the place of ancestors you, O king, shall have sons;
you will make them princes in all the earth.
17 I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations;
therefore the peoples will praise you forever and ever.


When I was younger I used to love to play chess. I loved the nuances of the game, the richness of the possibilities that unfold as the game is played. But there’s one partner I used to play against who really took the wind out of my sails. He didn’t care about the richness of the game or the possibilities. He played to WIN. His moves on the board were awkward and lacked finesse, but he always won. When I pointed this out to him he said, “but that’s the point of the game, to win.”

And I had to admit he was right. The point of the game of chess is to win.

If the goal of chess is to win, what is the goal of life? What is the goal of our faith? Ultimately, where are we headed?

Towards the end of his life the apostle Paul wrote:

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day.” (II Timothy 4:7-8)

That was the goal Paul had for life – he called it ‘finishing the race, keeping the faith’.

To put it another way, our goal is eternal life. Heaven. We will be spending eternity with Jesus, the Son of God who loves us so much he gave his life for us. What will that going to be like, and how can we orient ourselves toward that goal?

Today’s scripture readings describe our life’s goal in terms of a love story. The images we read are colorful and sensual, in a Middle Eastern sort of way. The culture from which they spring is not like our Western culture which almost takes as a given a divide between body, mind, and spirit… these readings reflect a much more holistic understanding of what it means to be human, and what it means to belong to God. So as we look at these passages we need to set aside any stained-glass images we may have of our Lord and prepare to meet someone a bit more… human… and yet at the same time very much the King of Heaven.

The first passage I want to look at, from the Song of Solomon, is a love song with multiple layers of meaning. It is a love song between a prince and a young woman. It can also be interpreted, at least to some extent, as a love song between God and God’s people. It is Jesus who calls to us saying, “arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for the winter is past, and the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come… Arise, my love, my fair one, come away.”

Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us where we will never be cold again, or sick, or weary; a place of beauty, where there’s music, and singing; where we will never be lonely or afraid ever again.

The Song of Solomon describes the lover of our souls in these words: “he comes, leaping on the mountains… like a gazelle or a young stag… gazing in windows, peeking through the lattice…” He’s playful, full of life. Jesus is no dull, boring character. He’s full of energy, and you can almost see the twinkle in his eyes. He holds out his hand and says, “come away with me!”

This heavenly romance may sound a little unusual to our ears. But the church is spoken of in scripture as the ‘Bride of Christ’. In the words of the apostle John, in Revelation:

“…the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready; to her it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure.” (Revelation 19:7)

John goes on to say “the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.” (Revelation 19:8) – which tells us something about how we can prepare for the future, for meeting our bridegroom. John is saying that whenever we do God’s will, we are, in essence, sewing our own wedding garments. Investing in eternity. Eternal life as described in the Song of Solomon focuses on a relationship characterized by playfulness, love, and exuberance!

Psalm 45 continues the love story. The psalm is “a love song” as the subtitle says, written for the wedding (it is believed) of King Solomon to the daughter of Pharaoh around 3000 years ago. What’s even more remarkable than the antiquity of this poem is the fact that Jewish and Christian scholars actually agree on the meaning of the psalm. They agree it has two meanings: the first, the original meaning of the royal wedding in ancient Jerusalem; and the second, the wedding between the Messiah and God’s people.

It’s a wedding song! And who can resist a wedding? I remember when my husband and I got engaged, at just the mention of an upcoming wedding people would stop what they were doing and smile, even if they were having a lousy day, it would change their mood, and they would offer advice and share their experiences. There is something about a wedding that brings out the best in people, makes them shine.

When my husband and I got married, Psalm 45 set to music was the processional for our ceremony. These were the words I came down the aisle to. It was unforgettable, having the praise band and the choir I used to direct up at the Presbyterian church singing this text as I came down. This song was chosen not just because it’s a wedding song but because it’s a tribute the Lord Jesus who my husband and I both love.

Follow with me and let’s take a look at what this psalm tells us about the Messiah, remembering this song was written 1000 years before Jesus was born:

  1. (verse 2) Grace is on his lips. When Jesus spoke, his words were full of grace and mercy… compassion to the poor, forgiveness for the sinner.
  2. (v 2) God blesses him. We see this at Jesus’ baptism, when the Spirit comes down on him in the form of a dove and we hear the words from heaven, “this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”
  3. (v 3 & 4) Jesus shines with glory and majesty. When the time comes that we meet him face to face, he will take our breath away.
  4. (v 4) Jesus defends what is right and true.
  5. (v 6) Jesus’ throne endures forever. His kingdom is not of this world because this world is passing; Jesus’ kingdom is forever because it has its foundation in a world that’s forever.
  6. (v 6 & 7) Jesus rules fairly. He loves what is right and hates what is evil. Jesus hates evil so much that he went to the cross to destroy it and to free his people from it. In Jesus, justice and mercy become one and the same.
  7. (v 8) The Messiah’s palaces are made of ivory, and are full of the sound of stringed instruments, and the smell of perfume is in the air (myrrh, aloes & cassia). Jesus’ kingdom is a place of indescribable beauty.

Then the psalmist gives the bride these words (v 10 & 11): “forget your people and your father’s house; the king desires your beauty. He is your lord.” The word “forget” here is a kind of dramatic license. It doesn’t mean we should forget our loved ones. But it encourages us to look to the future and not the past, to keep our eyes on the goal. And it also means, like at a wedding, we are to ‘forsake all others and join to our spouse’, that is Jesus… being faithful to Jesus alone.

(v 13 & 14) The psalmist talks about the bride being made ready in her chamber. In ancient times preparation for a royal wedding sometimes took a year or longer. It included oil treatments, and training in royal etiquette (including practice wearing the royal robes), and learning the ways of the palace, before the bride was presented to the king. Paul tells us in II Corinthians, when we meet Jesus, “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror… are… transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” (II Corinthians 3:18) And then (v 15) the bride, finally made ready, is “led to the king in many-colored robes”.

And the ceremony begins.

Who would say “no” to a royal wedding?

And yet… and yet… in Matthew 22, Jesus tells a parable of this very thing happening. He says:

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business…” (Matt 22:2-5)

The parable ends with the invited ones not attending the wedding at all, and the king going “out into the streets” and bringing in whoever he find so the wedding hall is full. (Matt 22:10)

You and I, each one of us, is personally invited to the greatest wedding in all of history. In fact, as God’s people, we are invited to be the bride of the King. Jesus has proposed, and given us the Holy Spirit as his pledge. There is no other love like this love. There is no goal for our lives greater than this. For those who love God, who receive his love and trust in Jesus as Lord, we have a royal future.

The playful lover in the Song of Solomon… and the glorious king in Psalm 45… is our bridegroom. Who would say ‘no’ to this?

Let’s pray…

Lord Jesus, thank you that we have in you both hope and a future. If there’s anyone hearing these words today who has never said ‘yes’ to you, help their hearts to say ‘yes’ to you today. Help us to keep our heavenly goal in mind as we live this life, to your honor and glory, and to our future joy, Amen.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 8/30/15 and at Incarnation Church (Anglican), Strip District, Pittsburgh, 9/6/15


“The Full Armor of God”

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.

Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.” – Ephesians 6:10-20

The apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians tells us to “put on the whole armor of God”. Talking about armor implies life is a battlefield… which can sound wearying, since we live in a world that already seems too full of violence. Every day it seems, we turn on the TV and hear news of war, or terrorism, or another shooting of innocent people. We live in a world where people long for peace… so when Paul starts talking about putting on battle gear we are tempted to resist the suggestion. Besides, aren’t Christians supposed to be believers in peace?

Yes, we are. Paul is using the analogy of armor to point out that trying to live as Christians in a fallen world can sometimes get a little bit dicey. He’s drawing a parallel between a soldier’s equipment and training, and our own spiritual equipment and training. Paul makes three basic points in this passage: (1) as followers of Christ we will face opposition; (2) the nature of the battle is spiritual, not physical; and (3) because these things are true, we need to make use of the spiritual arsenal God provides.

So starting with the first point: If we try to live as disciples of Christ, we will face opposition. Why? Because Jesus faced opposition. We will face the same challenges Jesus faced, often from similar sources. Jesus mentions this himself at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, when he says, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!” (Matt 10:25) In other words, if they called Jesus the son of the devil, what are they going to call us? As followers of Jesus we can expect to find friends where Jesus found friends, and to find enemies where Jesus found enemies.

It’s not that we’re going around trying to make enemies – we don’t. Scripture tells us to live at peace with all people, as much as it depends on us… and for the most part I think we do. We’re not like the Westboro Baptists who seem to think it’s a Christian duty to go out of their way to offend people. Groups like that aren’t doing the cause of Christ any favors, because Christian spirituality is not measured by political power or media attention.

Which leads us to Paul’s second point: the nature of the opposition we face. If, as Christians, we face opposition, where will it come from? Paul says in verse 12 we do not fight against enemies of flesh and blood, but against “rulers”, “authorities”, “cosmic powers of this present darkness”, and “spiritual forces of evil”. (Eph. 6:12)

This is a difficult teaching. It almost sounds like Paul is advocating rebellion against the government, but that’s not where he’s coming from. As Christians, we are taught to respect rulers and authorities as much as conscience allows. There are government leaders we cannot in good conscience obey (Hitler was a good example). But on the whole Christians are called to respect and obey the laws of the land.

Here’s the thing: when Paul talks about “the cosmic powers of this present darkness” he was writing 2000 years ago to people in a culture very different from ours. Our modern ears hear these words a certain way, and our modern understanding is relevant, but it’s probably not what Paul meant. So when we hear the words “cosmic powers of this present darkness” – make a mental note of what that phrase means to you, and we’ll come back to it.

In this particular context, Paul is writing to a church in ancient Greece, to people familiar with Greek religion and Greek philosophy, and the early church in particular was interested in the philosophy of Plato. In the 21st century we don’t often think about Plato and his friends, but our modern world is heavily influenced by his teachings even if we no longer recognize Plato as the source of those teachings. Wikipedia says of Plato that “he laid the foundations of Western philosophy and science.” What a huge claim to make of one person! And even our word “democracy” has its roots in ancient Greek philosophy: it’s a combination of the Greek words “demos” (the people) + “kratia” (power or rule).

So what Paul is talking about here would have been recognized by the early church as an illustration taken from Greek philosophy. And it’s an aspect of Greek philosophy that has fallen out of favor in our time, but which was widely believed in the days of the early church: that there are spiritual realities called good and evil. In our postmodern world people shy away from calling anything ‘evil’ because we are taught to say ‘it’s different’ or ‘your truth isn’t the same as my truth’ or ‘that’s not how I experience things’. The ancient Greeks were wiser than that. They may not have understood God in the way Jesus taught (the Hebrew understanding of God is relational rather than intellectual), but the Greeks understood that there were some actions in life that bring a person closer to the heavenly realms and some actions that bind a person to earth and prevent them from ascending into the heavenly realms. Things that bind a person to earth and prevent approaching the heavenlies are described as “evil” or, as Paul puts it, “cosmic powers of this present darkness”. That’s what Paul talking about: things that bind the hearts of men and women so much to this world that they become blind and senseless to the heavenly realms, ignorant of God.

When we look at the news on TV, and we see all the pain and suffering in the world – racial unrest in our cities, women and children being sold as sex slaves around the world, ever-increasing corporate greed as entire nations fall into bankruptcy, wars and violence – and all of this happening at the same time – this is not by chance. There are ‘cosmic powers of this present darkness’ at work in the world, opposing God’s good purposes, opposing Jesus’ sacrifice to redeem the world. And powers that oppose God, will oppose us also when we seek to follow God.

So to sum it up, what is our opposition? It is that spirit which promotes injustice, and coldness of heart, and fear, and which despises and abuses God’s creation, and which depersonalizes and dehumanizes human beings who were made in God’s image. It’s not surprising movies like Hunger Games have become so popular lately. The movie illustrates what it’s like to try to live a life of integrity in a world built on a morally numbing combination of oppression, injustice and show biz.

So the second point Paul makes is that the nature of the opposition is spiritual. It is not at its source ultimately human. We do not do battle with flesh and blood. This is good news. It means it’s OK for people to be different, to belong to different political parties, to enjoy different things, to be male and female, African, Caucasian, and Asian… and as for the divide between rich and poor, God is so rich even Bill Gates looks like a pauper standing next to God. It’s all good!

There’s a corollary to this point and that is this: it’s not our job to make this earth into paradise. I want to linger on that thought for a moment, because I’ve heard a lot of religious nonsense from all kinds of Christians who say we need to “work to bring God’s kingdom on this earth” or “work until this earth becomes like heaven”. If that’s true then Jesus died for nothing. Jesus said “my kingdom is not of this world” and he gave his life so that those who trust him can pass through death into God’s eternal kingdom, into the new heaven and new earth that God will create. Bringing about God’s kingdom is not our job.

Which brings us to Paul’s third point: what is our job? Our job is to make use of the spiritual tools God gives us… so let’s take a look at those tools. Paul says to put on:

  1. The belt of Truth. The belt is what keeps everything else on, it holds the outfit together. And what holds everything together spiritually is God’s truth. God’s truth can be found the Bible, and ultimately in the life of Jesus who said “I am the truth”. So we begin with the Truth.
  2. The breastplate of righteousness. The breastplate protects the internal organs, most importantly the heart. It is Jesus’ righteousness – not our own – that protects our hearts from the powers that oppose God. Whenever we doubt ourselves, whenever we feel insecure or unworthy, we can look to Jesus who is the “author and finisher of our faith” and he will protect our hearts.
  3. Shoes that make us ready to preach the gospel of peace. The footgear is about readiness, about having a secure footing spiritually speaking. Shakespeare’s Hamlet said ‘the readiness is all’ and Paul is saying the same thing. Be ready to share the good news about Jesus. That’s where our feet stand. In a world of violence that longs for peace we have a message of peace to share… not temporary peace like treaties between nations but an eternal peace won by Jesus on the cross.
  4. The shield of faith “with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one” Paul says. The shield of faith guards and deflects, and protects the whole body. Spiritually speaking, the shield is trust in God’s word which guards us from the arrows of doubt, discouragement, and difficulty.
  5. The helmet of salvation. The helmet protects the head. Spiritually speaking, the knowledge of salvation – firmly rooted, not in our own righteousness but in Jesus’ saving work – is what protects our minds from deception and misinformation.
  6. The sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. This is the only item Paul mentions that is not purely defensive; the sword can be used both defensively and offensively; and Paul mentions both uses. As an offensive weapon, the sword of the Spirit has to do with speaking and sharing the ‘word of God’. This can mean sharing scripture or sharing Jesus who is the Living Word. As a defensive weapon, as Paul says, the sword becomes prayer, as we reach out to defend others. We can pray scripture, which is fantastic, using the sword in two directions at once, praying for ourselves and others. That’s why we pray for each other every Sunday in the Joys & Concerns, and hopefully whenever we think of each other. Paul says, “Persevere in supplication for the saints.” Pray for each other’s health, safety, protection, and witness, and for all our needs. And “pray also for me” Paul says, “so that I may speak with boldness the mystery of the gospel.”

Paul’s message is a simple message really, but an essential one to life in the faith. Because Jesus was opposed by the powers and principalities of evil, we can expect the same. We need to understand that this opposition is spiritual, and that in this battle God does not leave us undefended but provides us with a spiritual arsenal to protect ourselves and each other as we follow him.

The discipline of a soldier is a good way to understand how to take hold of, and practice maneuvering in, God’s truth and righteousness. We need to practice standing in truth, holding high the shield of faith, protected by the knowledge of salvation, sharing God’s word with boldness. And pray for each other and for me as we minister God’s word to a world that desperately needs it. Put on, and make use of, the full armor of God. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 8/23/15


The Bread of Life

The apostle Paul writes: “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” – Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” – John 6:35, 41-51


John’s gospel this morning starts off with what may be THE six most controversial words ever spoken by anyone in all of human history. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life,” and people have been debating about what he meant by ever since. Was he talking about communion? Or did he mean something else entirely? Are we supposed to take Jesus literally? Or is he speaking metaphorically? And what is “bread of life” (as opposed to other kinds of bread)?

It’s a difficult passage. I’m not sure I understand it completely. I get it in part. But Jesus is talking about supernatural things, things belonging to the Kingdom of God. And I think asking what Jesus meant by “I am the bread of life” is kind of like asking the question,“what happens after you die?” (In fact I think the two questions might even be related.) But for right now, we only understand in part. Someday, as Paul says, “we will know fully even as we are fully known”. Until then we understand in part.

So let’s start off with what we do know. We can be certain at the very least that Jesus was not comparing himself to Wonder Bread. No insult to the makers of Wonder Bread, but that squishy white stuff would not have been recognized as bread back in Jesus’ time. In those days bread was made from whole grain: it was dense, and heavy, and it was enough to satisfy a person’s hunger.

So the first thing Jesus is saying is that he is able to satisfy what we’re hungry for. The deepest longings of our hearts and our spirits find their answer in Jesus.

Another meaning is, Jesus is drawing a parallel between himself as the ‘bread from heaven’ and manna, which is also bread from heaven. Back in the Old Testament manna was bread God gave the Israelites while they were traveling in the desert on their way from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. Manna appeared on the ground every morning for 40 years while they were traveling. The strange thing about manna was people had to gather it every day – the stuff didn’t keep. God warned them about that, but some of them tried to store it up anyway, and they found out pretty quickly it got moldy and got worms in it. God’s intention was that the Israelites depend on God for their daily needs, every morning of every day.

Jesus is saying he is like manna. Manna comes from heaven, and so does Jesus. Manna is bread from heaven; and so is Jesus. Manna needs to be gathered every morning; and our relationship with Jesus needs to be renewed every morning, through prayer and through reading God’s word.

This is a lesson God felt it was important to get across to the Israelites in the desert, and it’s something God shows us too in the spiritual desert of our post-modern world. God directs our lives by the Holy Spirit one day at a time, one moment at a time. I think sometimes people get the wrong end of the stick about the faith… like it’s enough that they were baptized or confirmed when they were kids. And these things are important, but like manna we can’t hoard these experiences and then do nothing more. God’s mercies are ‘new every morning’ like the old hymn says, and our relationship with God needs to be renewed every day.

I mean, what would it be like if the person you married said “I love you” on your wedding day and then never said it again for the rest of the marriage? Would you feel loved? Of course not. Your spouse might respond, “well I said it once, and nothing’s changed. I’ll let you know if it does.” But that’s not a relationship. We need to draw daily from the spiritual relationship between ourselves and God, and that’s what Jesus is getting at. In fact this daily drawing strength from spiritual food was a major point John Wesley’s ‘method’ for which Methodists are named, and it’s part of what made the Methodist movement spread like wildfire.

So two things Jesus’ words point to are: satisfaction of spiritual hunger, and seeking God for spiritual strength for the day.

But I’d like to bring us even closer to the Lord’s teaching if I can. I’d like to take us back to that day, as much as possible, 2000 years ago. It’s not an easy scene to step into as Biblical scenes go. I mean it’s easy to imagine ourselves as onlookers in the stable at Jesus’ birth, or to imagine being part of the crowd when the loaves and fishes are being passed around. But as we try to step into this particular scene, whose eyes can we look through? Whose point of view can we relate to?

There are basically three groups of people here, three different points of view to consider: there are the religious authorities, there’s Jesus, and there are Jesus’ followers (both the crowd and the disciples).

Let’s start with the religious authorities. There are probably not a lot of religious authorities here in the congregation today, but it’s not hard to grasp where they’re coming from. On the whole they’re worried. Some of them are worried Jesus might start a rebellion. If they knew Jesus at all they’d know that isn’t true, because Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, so he’s not interested in worldly power. But they have seen religious teachers inspire rebellions before, and it never ends well. Some of them are worried that there might be flaws in Jesus’ teaching, or that the people might misunderstand what Jesus is saying, and be lead away from the true faith. Most of them, while they wouldn’t admit it, are jealous of Jesus’ popularity.

So the complaint the religious authorities bring is this: “how can this man say he came down from heaven? We know his parents! We know he was born into this world in the usual way. So how can he say he’s from heaven?”

Ironically the religious leaders are looking at Jesus from a worldly point of view. This is not an isolated case. There are theologians even in our own day who reject miracles in the Bible, who argue that what we see around us in this world is the only reality there is and what we accomplish in this life is all that matters. Jesus does not deny the realities of this world, or his human birth into this world. But Jesus insists that heaven does exist and that there is a reality beyond this world, and the religious leaders (on the whole) don’t get it.

So that’s one point of view. The second point of view is the point of view of Jesus himself. Imagine seeing this scene, if we can, looking out through Jesus’ eyes. What would he see?

In the past 48 hours, Jesus has seen crowds of people, hundreds, bringing the sick, coming to him with suffering and faith mingled in their eyes. He sees in them a spark of faith and responds in love. He reaches out a hand, with no fear of infection or contamination, and touches lepers, the blind, the lame, the bleeding, and he heals them all. He is exhausted by the work and he takes a short break, but then the crowds find him again and now they’re hungry. So Jesus takes two fish and five barley loaves and feeds 5000 men, plus women and children. And now they want to make him king… by force if necessary.

Jesus needs to communicate to the crowd that his kingdom is not of this world. That his mission is to open the door for them into heaven – for all of them. Just like the Israelites ate manna in the wilderness until they got to the Promised Land, God’s people now need to eat the ‘bread from heaven’ until we get to the Promised Land.

So Jesus begins to teach spiritual realities. He says “I am the bread of life.” He is not speaking of physical bread. He says, “Your fathers ate manna in the desert and they died; but whoever eats this bread will never die.” Jesus is not speaking of physical realities. God’s people do get hungry, and God’s people do pass through death. There are real physical needs in the world, and God’s will is that we should help to meet those needs as much as we can. But Jesus is speaking here of eternal realities.

Jesus then says, “no one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.”

There is only one person in all of history who can say this and not be a madman: the Messiah of God. No one else can promise resurrection and deliver.

CS Lewis once wrote:

“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. […] You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

CS Lewis is right. In this passage Jesus is not leaving options open. He doesn’t intend to. When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life” there is only one possible way that this can be both true and sane, and that is if he is speaking of heavenly realities, of the Kingdom of God. Jesus then takes it one step further: he says: “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Jesus is speaking of the fact that he will die on the cross –his life, his flesh, will be given for the life of the world.

Jesus’ words challenge the people in a whole new way, and he knows it.

And I can’t presume to go any further into the story from Jesus’ point of view, to know what he was thinking and feeling.

So let’s turn finally to the point of view of Jesus’ followers. I think this is probably where all of us can relate to the story most easily.

As Jesus’ followers in this story we have witnessed Jesus healing the sick and feeding the hungry. We are excited to be part of this crowd. We’re feeling inspired, like we’re being drawn closer to God. We hear Jesus answer the religious leaders who are trying to debunk him. Unlike them, we hear Jesus teaching with authority. We can feel the momentum building as we accompany Jesus from one mountaintop experience to the next.

When Jesus sits down and starts teaching, he says, “I am bread from heaven” we feel a little confused, until Jesus explains it. Of course he’s speaking of spiritual things. He’s saying that believing in him is how we get into heaven, and we’re right there with him. But then Jesus says, “the bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh” and it’s like a splash of cold water in the face. What is he talking about?

These words would have sounded as shocking to ancient ears as they do to ours. What is he saying? And then Jesus goes even further:

“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:53-55)

You and I in the 21st century have heard these words many times, usually in connection with communion. But if we step into the story as Jesus’ disciples 2000 years ago, these words have never been spoken before. The Last Supper hasn’t happened yet, so there is no communion to relate them to. Jesus is speaking of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of someone we love. And we would have understood that Jesus is speaking metaphorically – he has to be, because for Jews drinking blood and eating flesh with the blood still in it was unthinkable. It was one of the worst things a person could do, on the same level as murder. But even speaking metaphorically these words are shocking and confusing.

It’s no wonder John tells us:

“When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’” (John 6:60) and “…many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with [Jesus].” (John 6:66)

Suddenly those huge crowds melt away, until only a few people are left. Jesus then turns to his remaining followers and says, “Do you also wish to go away?”

And Peter answers on behalf of all of us:

“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)

That’s really what it comes down to. Jesus has the words of eternal life. Jesus, the bread from heaven, brings us life from heaven.

Jesus’ teaching, difficult as it is, is the foundation and cornerstone of our faith.

As we step now back into our post-modern point of view, there’s just one rub: All this talk about the ‘promised land’ and the kingdom of God being ‘not of this world’ sounds a bit like what they used to call ‘pie in the sky when you die’ preaching. I have two answers for that:

  1. Heaven is our home. God’s kingdom is our destination. As the apostle Paul writes, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (I Corinthians 15:19) Yes, we need to live in this world, but we need to know that we have something to hope for beyond the craziness of this world. And with that in mind, secondly…
  2. The words of Paul from our reading from Ephesians today take on a whole new luster in light of Jesus’ words, because they teach us how to live in the light of eternal life. If heaven is our destination, then we can, as Paul says, without fear, speak truth to our neighbors, deal with anger, do an honest day’s work and give to the poor, speak words that build others up, treat others with kindness, forgive others, live as imitators of God. We do these things because they please God, and because they build us into the people who will spend eternity in God’s kingdom. We love because Christ first loved us, and that is the economy of the kingdom of heaven.

So Jesus is the bread who comes down from heaven. He is the bread of life that satisfies, and that gives us the strength to live as God would have us live. But more than that, feeding on Jesus grows us into people who will one day spend eternity in God’s Kingdom.

Let’s pray together.

Lord Jesus, you have said that no one can come to you unless the Father draws them. Draw us to yourself, O God. Draw us to Jesus more and more with every day. Lord, we don’t always understand what you mean, but we know you have the words of eternal life. Keep us, and all we give you, in your loving hands until your kingdom comes, to your honor and glory and for our eternal joy. AMEN.


Fragments Matter

The Apostle Paul writes: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” – Ephesians 3:14-21

“After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

“When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.” – John 6:1-21


“The Feeding of the Five Thousand” is a familiar story, one many of us learned as children in Sunday School. The moral of the story of course is that Jesus can take whatever we have to offer, no matter how small, and use it to provide for the needs of many people. This is a comforting thing to know, especially when I look at how limited my resources are and how great the needs are in the world.

But as I was reading the story again this past week one phrase jumped out at me: after the crowd ate, Jesus told his disciples to “gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost”.

I never noticed the fragments before. John writes that the disciples gathered up twelve baskets of fragments. The number twelve is meaningful: it’s one basket for each disciple. But it made me wonder why Jesus would command them to do this, and why would John bother to tell us about it? So let’s return to the scene and picture it with fresh eyes.

Jesus and the disciples are in the region of Galilee, an area of hilly meadows above the Sea of Galilee. Jesus sees a huge crowd of people coming in their direction – John says 5000 people; Matthew, in his version of the story, says there were 5000 men plus women and children.

Just to give you an idea, a sell-out crowd at the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh is about 2500 people so double that and we’ve got a fair idea of how many people there were. Imagine what it would be like to be outdoors somewhere and have that many people coming in your direction!

Jesus turns to his disciple Philip and says, “where are we going to get food for all these people?” Philip points out it would probably take half a year to earn enough money to buy food for everyone. (Anyone who has ever planned a wedding reception knows the truth of this!) Andrew goes out and finds a young boy with five barley loaves and two fish but he says, “what’s this going to do for so many?”

But Jesus tells the disciples to have the people sit down on the grass. He then takes the loaves and fish in his hands and prays over them. Luke tells us Jesus “blessed and broke them” and gave them to the people – a foreshadowing of what he would do at the Last Supper.

When the people were done eating they were satisfied. More than ‘not hungry’, they were full. As in, stuffed. The people have just witnessed a MAJOR miracle, and it’s got them thinking.

Meanwhile Jesus tells the disciples to gather up the broken pieces. Three things I want to mention about these pieces:

  1. When I’ve read this story before I always imagined these pieces as… kind of gross… like they’ve been bitten into already. Who would want to touch that, let alone save it? But as I looked at the story I realized there’s a different sense to it. The bread was broken and passed, broken and passed, like at communion. There were no teeth marks. The leftovers were still edible.
  2. The word ‘leftovers’ is the wrong shading of meaning. When we think of ‘leftovers’ we think of things in the back of the fridge. A better translation would be ‘abundance’… as in, there were an ‘abundance of broken pieces’ (not a pile of leftovers).
  3. Jesus said ‘gather up the pieces that none may be lost’.

Which brings us to one of the core spiritual truths of this miracle. The Greek word for ‘lost’ in this verse is usually used to describe people, not things. For example, “It is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” (Matt 18:14) Or speaking of the Prodigal Son, “he was lost and now is found”. Or speaking of Jesus, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10) Jesus’ concern with fragments of bread becoming lost paints a picture of his concern for people who are lost.

Sadly the crowd misses the point. They have witnessed Jesus healing all kinds of sicknesses, and they’ve been satisfied with plenty of food, and they decide this is the man they want to have as king – so he can keep on doing these things, keep on healing people, keep on feeding everyone.

The problem is, Jesus seems to be unwilling to lead a rebellion. So the people decide to make him king – ‘by force’ is implied. And while Jesus cares about health and food his primary mission on this earth is not about providing these things. His primary mission is to announce the good news of God’s kingdom and to provide a way for people to get there. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, and to try to force his kingdom into this world is to lose the Gospel.

Let me say that again, especially now with presidential campaigns ramping up and all kinds of people claiming to be on God’s side: to try to force Jesus’s kingdom into this world is to lose the Gospel, because the Gospel is about a kingdom greater than this world. Jesus’ kingdom cannot be voted in, legislated in, or mandated in. It’s not about movements or programs or what’s on the evening news. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world.

Jesus’ primary mission on this earth was and is to bring good news to the broken so no-one is lost.

Which brings me to our theme for the day: Fragments matter.

  • Fragments matter to God. Nothing in God’s hands – even a broken piece of bread – is ever wasted. Nothing is so small that God loses track of it. It’s like the old hymn says: “his eye is on the sparrow / and I know he watches me…”
  • Fragmented hearts and minds matter to God. You may have heard the story about an alcoholic named Bill who had a conversion experience, and then figured out how to explain the Gospel to other alcoholics. He became the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Bill’s life was in fragments but when he met Jesus, Jesus gathered up those fragments and gave meaning to Bill’s life, even the broken pieces.
  • Fragmented bodies matter to God. Remember Joni Eareckson, a few decades ago, the teenager who broke her neck in a diving accident? She was paralyzed from the shoulders down, but she learned to paint by holding a brush between her teeth and became a famous artist. She put her broken body in Jesus’ hands and she has been used by God to work with the disabled and to teach churches all over the country how to minister to the disabled.
  • Fragmented churches matter to God. All over our country, in every city and town, you can find church after church a lot like this one: churches over 100 years old that used to hold 500 people on a Sunday and are now down to maybe 50. The kids grew up and moved away and nobody has taken their place. And all the churches are wondering what went wrong. I think maybe that’s not the question to be asking. Jesus had something important in mind to do with those twelve baskets of bread-fragments, and I think he’s got something important in mind to do with our church-fragments too.

I don’t want to make it sound like I’m wearing rose-colored glasses. I know our churches face all kinds of challenges, and the immediate future looks difficult. But I do think that God is saying to churches across the country, ‘gather up the fragments that nothing may be lost’. Small churches across the country are finding that people who have attended large churches are discovering how good it is to be in a church ‘where everybody knows your name’. The key to building a future, with the fragments we have, is putting those fragments in Jesus’ hands… and then being willing to do what Jesus asks in service to the community.

God does not need a whole lot of people to accomplish God’s purposes. Let me give you a few examples from scripture of how God has used fragments.

  • In the book of Judges we see God using a small group of people to build up the faith of a nation. There was a man named Gideon who needed to defend Israel against attackers. He went out with the entire army and God said, “you have too many men. Send home anybody who’s afraid to fight.” So Gideon sent home 22,000 men and had 10,000 troops left. God said to Gideon, “that’s still too many. Take the men down to the river and have them drink. Anyone who bends over and drinks with their hands stays home, and anyone who drinks by putting their mouth right into the river gets to fight.” Only 300 men made the final cut. God won a mighty victory with just a fragment of the army. God wanted a fragment that day. God chose a fragment so that Israel would know that in God alone is the victory.
  • In the book of Ruth we meet another fragment – a fragment of a family that God uses to build hope and a future. This once-happy family of husband and wife, two sons and two daughters-in-law… their lives are shattered when all the men in the family suddenly die. Naomi, the mother, tells her daughters-in-law “I have no hope… go home to your fathers.” And one of them did, but Ruth refused to leave. The two women, who had nothing left but each other (and God), returned to Bethlehem… where Ruth met her husband Boaz and became the great-grandmother of King David and an ancestor of Jesus. God used that little fragment of a family in the master plan for the salvation of the whole world.
  • And in the New Testament, Jesus Himself becomes fragmented on the Cross. Jesus said at the Last Supper, “this is my body broken for you”. He made himself into fragments so we could be made whole.

How can we respond to this?

As we look at our lives… our families… our churches… we need to know that nothing is insignificant or worthless in Jesus’ hands. We need to know, down to the depths of our hearts, that broken pieces can become things of beauty in Jesus’ hands.

I have an old friend whose heart has been fragmented in more ways than I can count. I don’t usually talk about friends in sermons but he has told these stories in public so I’m not talking out of school. He lost his father at an early age; his step-father was an alcoholic who beat him; he was a victim of attempted rape as a teenager, he lost his first fiancee in a car accident, he lost his only son in childbirth… the list goes on. This man has been through more than I can imagine. But he put his life in Jesus’ hands, and when the light of God shines through all those broken pieces – like light through a stained-glass window – it’s beautiful, and people’s lives are changed, because what they see is God’s compassion and God’s miracle-working power.

The question then becomes how to go about putting our lives, our families, and our churches into God’s hands? Three things I would suggest.

First, prayer… and more prayer… and more prayer. You know how they say in real estate it’s all about “location, location, location”. In God’s kingdom it’s prayer, prayer, prayer… because the Christian life is all about a relationship with God, and all relationships have their foundation in communication. We need to pray for ourselves, for our families, for our churches, and we need to ask others to pray for us.

The passage we read from Ephesians this morning is a perfect example of the kind of prayer I’m talking about. In this passage Paul prays for the Ephesians that God would give them gifts including:

  • Inner strength
  • The power of the Holy Spirit – that is, God living in us
  • Jesus living in their hearts through faith
  • Being rooted and grounded in love
  • Understanding of the height and depth and breadth of the love of Christ
  • Being filled with the fulness of God
  • Giving glory to Jesus in every generation

Let’s join Paul in praying for these things for our lives and our churches.

Second, worship. If we grasp all that Jesus has done for us, and all that he is still doing, we can’t help but love him. Our hearts become wrapped up in his.

Have you ever talked to someone who’s in love? You know how they can’t stop talking about their special person. Or a new grandparent with baby pictures? Good luck getting them to change the subject – you know what I mean? Love Jesus like that. Be amazed at Jesus like that. Let those feelings spill over into worship, into our prayers and our songs.

And third, have an outward focus. If we focus on our brokenness – our broken lives, our broken families, our fragmented church – then that’s all we’re going to see. But if we put the fragments in God’s hands through prayer, then we can pay attention to the voices of need outside the church and God will use us to respond to those needs.

As an example – in a moment we will be dedicating some blankets our women have made. The ladies of our church have heard there is a need for children in Pittsburgh hospitals to have warm blankets and they are responding to that need. It’s a great example of putting what we have in God’s hands and having an outward focus.

So where do we see fragments in our lives? In our relationships? In our churches? In Jesus’ hands those fragments can and will find meaning and purpose.

Fragments matter to God. Join me in putting all those fragments in Jesus’ hands. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 7/26/15






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