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On this day churches around the world are remembering Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Ascension Day is not a major holiday for most folks – there are no Hallmark cards for it, and not every church in the world will be talking about it today.  But Pastor Matt and I both felt it was too important to miss.

A few years ago when my pastor led a tour of Israel, he took us to the top of the Mount of Olives, which is where the Ascension took place.

Here’s a photo of the chapel that was built on what’s believed to be the spot where the Ascension happened.  They’re not absolutely certain, but we know it’s within a few hundred yards.

You can see from the number of languages on the sign, the importance that’s given to this place.

And as you’re looking at the chapel, if you turn around you see this – looking out over Jerusalem.

As our tour group was standing here I’ll never forget what my pastor said:

“If not for the Ascension, you and I would not be standing here as Christians today. And I wish more churches taught that.”

Now I thought this was kind of an odd statement.  I could see saying something like “we wouldn’t be here without” Christmas or Good Friday or Easter. But the Ascension?  Two of the four Gospels don’t even mention it. So how could it be that important?

In our creed it says we believe in Jesus Christ, who died and rose again, and then “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty”.  If Jesus didn’t ascend – if the creed is wrong, then Jesus still has a human body – and is either impossibly old, or would have died again, and we’d be believing in nothing.

But that’s not what happened.  After Jesus’ resurrection things weren’t the same as they were before. Jesus’ body wasn’t the same as before. His resurrected body could do some really unusual things, like getting into a locked room without opening the door.

The Creator of the Universe, when he took human form, gave up a lot. Jesus entered into creation and became one of us, and lived and died like one of us, in order to open the door for us into God’s kingdom.

In Luke chapter 12 Jesus, speaking about his death and resurrection says: “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!”  In other words, there were things he couldn’t do when he was one of us.  For the creator of time and space to be limited within time and space is almost beyond imagination.

But that time of limitation, for Jesus, is almost over. And our readings for today tell us about how Jesus chose to spend his last 40 days here on earth, before returning home, where he could be fully himself again.

So let’s look at these readings.  Both of our readings for today were written by the apostle Luke.  They tell the same story but in slightly different ways.  The reading from Luke comes from the end of Luke’s gospel – which is about the life of Jesus.  The reading from Acts is the story of the beginning of the church.  We’ll look mostly at the reading from Acts (for those who want to follow in pew Bibles).

In the first verses of Acts, Luke dedicates his book to “Theophilus” – which is the same dedication as in the book of Luke. Nobody knows for sure if this is a man’s name or if it’s a title, but in Greek ‘Theophilus’ means ‘lover of God’ – and I think it’s safe to say Luke’s books were written for any of us who love God.

Luke starts out by saying

“after his suffering [Jesus] presented himself alive to [the disciples] by many convincing proofs.”

Luke is using legal language here – if I were going to translate this into American English I would say Jesus ‘proved his case beyond the shadow of a doubt’ – not once, but many times over.  The disciples had absolutely no doubts that Jesus had been dead, and was now alive.

For people in the 21st century who may doubt Jesus’ resurrection – I think one of the strongest replies we can offer is that so many men and women in the book of Acts were willing to die rather than deny what they saw.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, and we’ll be remembering those who gave their lives so that we could be free. Today let’s also remember those who gave their lives so that we could know the truth, so that our freedom would be something worth having. These men and women in the book of Acts were eyewitnesses to the living Jesus, who was crucified but didn’t stay dead, and they refused to say otherwise even if it cost their lives.

So having proven to the disciples that he was alive, Jesus gave them these instructions: stay in Jerusalem, and don’t leave until the promise of the Father comes.

Jesus had mentioned this before. He said: just as John baptized with water, soon you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Wait for it. He said, “Stay here… until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

And the disciples asked him, “Lord… is this when you’re going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

At this point a lot of theologians and commentators roll their eyes at how dense the disciples can be.  They still don’t get it that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world?  But I wouldn’t be so fast to roll eyes at the disciples – because their question about restoring the kingdom is still around today, just in different forms.

What I’m about to say here is not meant to be political – I don’t support any particular party – but looking at Acts 1:6 in the Greek, the phrase “restore the kingdom to Israel” sounds familiar. What the disciples are asking about is a return to a previous state of being: a restoration of greatness.

Their mistake is not in wanting to be ‘great again’.  Their mistake is in looking to the past rather than the future.

The thing is, the past is easier to imagine than the future, because we know the past – it’s familiar.  I was in the bank the other day, and they had on the wall an artists’ rendering of downtown Pittsburgh back in the late 60s or early 70s: streetcars, Kaufmann’s windows decorated for Christmas, the Kaufmann’s clock at the corner of 5th and Smithfield… the way things used to be… my banker and I had a ‘moment’ right there in the bank.

The past has such a strong pull on our hearts! And the future… sounds like an awful lot of work.

Of course we only ever live in the present – not the past or the future. And that’s true for the church as well as the nation.

But the kingdom Jesus is talking about is not about the past: it’s about the kingdom of God, which, to Jesus, is the present but to us feels like the future. So Jesus answers the disciples’ question by saying: the times and periods of nations are in the hands of God the Father.  YOUR job is to be my witnesses: in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  And when the Holy Spirit comes, he will give you power to do that. And the Holy Spirit is coming very soon.

Acts 1:3 tells us Jesus spent his last 40 days on earth teaching the disciples “about the kingdom of God” – giving them a vision of the kingdom.  And Luke’s gospel says  Jesus reviewed with the disciples “everything written about [him] in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms…” and “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”

This word ‘opened’ is an interesting word in the Greek. It’s word often used to describe the opening made when a woman is giving birth to her first child. It means to open completely, as far as their minds can stretch, so that they see clearly, and can bring all the parts of Jesus’ story together in a way that makes sense.

And then, having taught the disciples from the Old Testament how all these pieces come together, and having promised them that the Holy Spirit would come, Jesus blessed them and was carried up into heaven.

Luke says Jesus disappeared into a cloud, and suddenly there were two men in white standing near the disciples saying “why are you staring up into heaven? Jesus has been taken up into heaven and will come back again the same way.” And so the disciples went back to Jerusalem with great joy, and waited until the Holy Spirit came. And we’ll talk about that next week on Pentecost!

So I’d like to focus on two things from today’s readings: (1) what the ascension means to Jesus; and (2) what the ascension means to us.

What Ascension Day means to Jesus is going home.  It means Jesus’ work here on earth is done. It’s a time when heaven rejoices at the return of her King.  (You think the Steelers got a victory parade?)

It also means Jesus’ work in heaven is just beginning.  Jesus is now at God’s right hand, praying for us, forgiving us, preparing a place for us. He is our high priest in the temple of God, as Hebrews says, “entering into heaven with his own blood” for our forgiveness.

It means Jesus’ time of being limited to one time and one place is over.  Now he can send the Holy Spirit to be with every believer, everywhere, at all times.

Ascension Day for us is little different.  For us, it’s a reminder that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world.  God’s kingdom is something we are saved into, redeemed into, by our Lord Jesus, not something we have to work for.

But Ascension also means the disciples will have new work to do, just like Jesus has new work to do.  Our job is to bear witness. And this work will be directed by Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Ascension means that the Holy Spirit is now available to every believer. So the disciples are told to wait until the Spirit comes, because God’s work can only be accomplished through God’s power.

Even today, we as believers need to wait and pray for the Holy Spirit, and wait for the Spirit’s direction and gifts – like the disciples waited – in order to accomplish God’s will.  This not ‘religious talk’.  There was a time when I thought it was.  I grew up in a church where the Holy Spirit was hardly ever mentioned, and in my 20s when I first saw someone ministering in the power of the Spirit my question was “What kind of power is this?” (which is pretty much how people reacted to Jesus in the Bible.)

Just in case your experience has been anything like mine: I want to assure you the Holy Spirit is real.  If Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us, then the Holy Spirit is God-in-us.  And sometimes it takes awhile to grow into this.  John Wesley himself was an ordained minister for 10 years before his heart was ‘strangely warmed’ at that meeting at Aldersgate (an event whose anniversary is also remembered this week). That’s when he met the Holy Spirit. And the coming of the Spirit gave Wesley such power as a preacher – preaching not in human power but in the power of the Spirit – that God used Wesley to change the course of history.

(Not all of us are going to be called to change the course of history – but that’s an example of what the Holy Spirit can do.)

The Holy Spirit is a gift given by God, to God’s people, for the purpose of ministry.  So for us, Ascension Day gets us ready for Pentecost. It points to the coming of the Holy Spirit and to our calling to bear witness to what we know about Jesus.

Jesus tells his disciples:

“You will be my witnesses, to Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

No one believer could possibly cover all this ground! But as a group – as the Body of Christ – they did.  By the time Peter and Paul were martyred, the good news of Jesus had spread throughout the Roman Empire and into northern Africa and parts of Asia.

One of the helpful things one of our seminary professors taught us is: we can think of witnessing as being in three concentric circles: local, national, and international.

For the disciples, Jerusalem was local, it’s where they started; then they went on to preach throughout the region and nation (Judea & Samaria), and then to the rest of the known world.

So how might we define our concentric circles?  The local one would probably be Brentwood or Carrick.  The middle circle could be Allegheny County, or Pennsylvania, or the United States.  That’s a little flexible. And the outer circle is still “the whole world”.

For those of us who are involved in the ministries and missions of this church, either as groups or as individuals, I’d like to suggest reviewing our outreach programs, and praying over them, in terms of these circles.  What does God want us to do in our neighborhood? In the region or the nation? And in the world?

I’m not suggesting we run out and start throwing money in all directions. Just the opposite: I’m suggesting building – and continuing to build – personal relationships on each of these levels.  Let the Spirit guide us into those relationships. And then – as needs arise – respond to the needs. Because in the Kingdom of God, it’s Jesus who makes the difference, and it’s love that makes the difference, not money and not social programs.

Pray about it, and see where God may lead with this.

In the meantime, let’s celebrate with joy the anniversary of our Lord’s homecoming – and his promise to return for us and bring us to where he is, in the kingdom of God.  Amen.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 5/28/17

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Scripture Readings

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

6 “So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.  8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” – Acts 1:1-11

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

50 “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.  51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.  52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy;  53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” – Luke 24:44-53

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rabbi, speak,” he answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scripture Readings: Isaiah 40:21-31 and Mark 1:29-39

Have you ever had the experience of walking in on the middle of a conversation and completely getting the wrong end of the stick? I know I have. Here’s an imaginary example: I walk into a room and hear my doctor talking to my husband, and the doctor is saying, “oh… she’s in terrible shape… I don’t think she’s going to last more than another month or two.” I start to imagine the worst… when my Mr.-Fix-It husband pipes up and says he’s going to be working on the doctor’s old car.

Today’s scripture readings are like that. Both of them start in the middle of a story, and it would be really easy to get the wrong end of the stick. In both passages God comes across sounding almost like He’s scolding, like a father who’s annoyed with his children. In Isaiah it’s “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” and in Mark we see Jesus doing all he can to get away from the ever-increasing demands of the crowds.

To interpret these passages that way is to get the wrong end of the stick. The fact is both of these passages are about the comfort and confidence God’s people find in a God who is infinitely great and infinitely loving and who is the King of all creation. Both passages are about good news, not bad news.

Starting with Isaiah, for the proper meaning and context we need to back up to the beginning of chapter 40.

As you came in this morning you were given a copy of the text of Handel’s Messiah and you can refer to this if you like. The beginning of Isaiah 40 also happens to be the opening words of Handel’s Messiah.

I’m including Messiah in today’s sermon because there are some really interesting connections between this piece of music, and the scriptures for today, and the Methodist Church. For those of you who are not classical music buffs, bear with me, I need to back up and fill in some historical detail.

Messiah is probably best known today for its Hallelujah Chorus. You all know the piece: (singing) “Hallelujah!” But like the Mona Lisa, Messiah is one of those famous masterworks that everyone’s heard of but few people in our day actually know well.

Messiah was written in the early 1700s. It’s a large work for orchestra and choir, and the words the choir sings are all taken from the Bible.

The man who selected the scripture passages and strung them all together like pearls on a necklace, Charles Jennens, had a purpose in his choices. He chose the scriptures as an argument against Deism – a popular belief in the 1700s (and today as well) that God is somewhere out there, far above and far away from creation, and has nothing to do with the day-to-day functioning of the world.

In other words, Deists believe God does not get involved with the affairs of human beings. It’s the same idea as in the song “God is watching us… from a distance.” Jennens disagreed (and so did Handel) and so he compiled the scripture texts of Messiah in such a way as to present the gospel, in a way that shows God is involved in the world God created.

Jennens chose Isaiah chapter 40 as the place to begin telling the Gospel story. Let’s take a look. You may recognize these words as a passage often read at Christmas-time:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, says your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her,
that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned…
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness,
Prepare ye the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be exalted,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low:
and the crooked straight, and the rough places plain:
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together:
for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.

So the message of today’s reading from Isaiah is one of comfort. God’s words are meant to encourage, not offend.

There are two other meanings behind Isaiah’s words that Jennens pulls out of this passage. The first is that Isaiah is talking about Jesus. Isaiah’s words are not just about ancient Israeli history. This is also prophecy. The second meaning is the message of God’s involvement in the world. God will reveal his glory and all people will see it. The mouth of the Lord has spoken. And when God speaks, things happen.

There are a couple of footnotes to the history of Messiah that I wanted to share, not because I’m a history buff but because history tells us something about who we are, how we got where we are.

When it was first performed, Messiah caused a scandal. It was too controversial to be performed in the churches, so it was sung in opera halls, in front of nonbelievers and the ‘common rabble’ as they said back then. It scandalized people who thought scriptures should only be taught in church. But the press and the public loved it, and the concerts were sell-outs everywhere it played.

But the very first performance of Messiah was a fund-raising concert to benefit a debtor’s prison and two hospitals in Ireland. The performance sold so many tickets that 142 people had their debts paid and were released from prison and returned to their families. Even in music, the name of Jesus sets the captives free!

The second footnote is this: The only time Messiah was ever performed in a church during Handel’s lifetime, John Wesley was there. The founder of the Methodist movement remarked he had never seen a congregation so attentive to a sermon as they were to Messiah. And John’s brother Charles, who wrote many of our hymns, said where it came to music he “preferred Handel to all the world”.

There is a deep connection – probably not fully realized at the time – between Messiah and the founding of the Methodist church. They’re both cut from the same cloth. They’re both products of the same era. And they both address many of the same issues and needs. Messiah’s words being taken from Scripture, and relying so much on scripture, is in total agreement with John Wesley’s teaching on the importance of lay people reading and studying scripture for themselves. And Messiah’s focus on the Kingdom of God, and on the message of God’s grace to all people through Jesus Christ, was absolutely central to the Wesleys’ faith and teaching.

Because of all this, I felt it would be appropriate for you to have the words of Messiah to look at, and I encourage you to do so this week. It only takes about ten minutes to read through (as opposed to listening to the music, which takes over two and a half hours… but if you’d like to hear it, click below). Guaranteed you’ve never heard the gospel presented quite like this anywhere else.

So Isaiah chapter 40 begins with comfort for God’s people, who are invited to rest in God’s power, and trust in God’s provision.

Isaiah tells us about a God who “stretches out the heavens” to create a tent for people to live in. Isaiah tells us of a God who brings down the mighty but who counts each one of us and calls us by name; a God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, who is the King of Kings, and we are citizens of God’s kingdom. And Isaiah 40 ends with the promise that those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength, mount up with wings as eagles. This is good news.

Moving on to the gospel from Mark – our reading for today begins with the words “as soon as they left the synagogue…” which tells us we’re in the middle of the story again. We need to go back to the beginning for meaning and context.

In the synagogue at Capernaum, on the shores of Galilee, that day, Jesus had not only taught from scripture in a way that made people marvel at his authority, but he had also cast out a demon from a man who was suffering. Talk about what Jesus did spread all over the region like wildfire. When worship was over, Jesus and the disciples walked down the street to Peter’s mother-in-law’s house for a meal and they found her not well. Jesus heals her, and she gets up and gets a meal ready. Meanwhile a crowd starts to gather outside, so many people that Jesus spends all night healing and freeing people from unclean spirits

Before I move on to the end of the passage, one thing I’d like to point out: Peter’s mother-in-law didn’t do anything before she was healed. She didn’t ask for anything, and she didn’t offer anything. After she is healed she gets up and serves; but the healing itself was a gift, unasked-for and un-earned.

This kind of jumped off the page at me because it tied in with something else I read this past week. It was an article in the Leadership Journal by pastor John Ortberg. Ortberg was writing about a problem many of us have, in that we’re so busy trying to do good things we neglect our souls and our relationship with God. He says that while it’s true that a healthy soul is marked by generosity and service, he says, “Jesus calls those who are weary and heavy-laden and promises ‘rest for your souls’”.

He goes on to say that Jesus said, “If you abide in me and I abide in you, you will bear much fruit.” Jesus did not say, “Try to find a balance between abiding and fruit-bearing.” Jesus did not say, “Work hard to produce much kingdom fruit but try… to make your life sustainable so you don’t end up in a moral ditch.” Or, as my old pastor once put it, if Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, we don’t have to push fruit out… we just have to stay connected to the vine and fruit will happen.

Jesus said, “Abide.” We live in Jesus, and Jesus lives in us. (We tend make it more complicated than it really is!)

At the end of today’s passage from Mark, we see Jesus following His own teaching: he gets away from the crowd and spends time with God in prayer, doing some ‘abiding’ of his own, and setting an example for us. And from there Jesus goes on to continue doing what he came to earth to do. He avoids the trap of the cult of celebrity that is starting to form around him, and moves on to the next village to preach the gospel, the good news of the arrival of the Kingdom of God.

And those are our stories for today: Isaiah, comforting and encouraging God’s people; and Jesus, setting people free and preaching the good news that God is king and God’s kingdom has come.

At this point in the sermon preachers usually plug in something we’re supposed to do, some way to apply the lesson of the day. But these two lessons talk about what God has done for us, and will do for us.

Which leaves us with the hardest lesson of all: To learn to be still and just receive. To rest in God’s truth; to abide in God’s love; to give up the thought that anything we do could make God love us more… or make God love us less.

It may be more blessed to give than to receive… but for many people, myself included, it’s harder to receive than it is to give. But that’s what God calls us to. To stay connected with God. To rest in God and receive all that God has to give.

How do we go about doing this? I think it’s different for everybody. It may mean prayer, or eliminating a thing or two from busy schedules to sort of carve out a Sabbath somewhere in the week. Or it may be something as simple as, saying to God, in the words of Samuel in the Old Testament, “speak Lord, for your servant is listening”. The important thing is to be connected to God, as God leads us. AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 2/8/15

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Scripture Readings: Jonah 3:1-5, I Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-20

After Jesus was raised from the dead he said to his disciples, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” Jesus added that anyone they met who believed the good news should be baptized into the family of God.

And for the past 2000 years the church in every generation has wrestled with how to go about obeying these commands.

I don’t know about you but I keep coming up against two questions: (1) what exactly is the Gospel, and (2) how does one go about preaching it? And a corollary: does this command apply only to clergy, or does it apply to everyone?

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed Jesus meant this for everyone, and that God empowers all people to share the gospel. And I’m with Mr. Wesley: Jesus’ instructions are for all of us.

As I was thinking about this, I thought back to the 1980s. There was a guy who used to carry around a “John 3:16” sign.

john316sign

He would photo-bomb sporting events (back before photo-bombing was a trend). He would do things like buy tickets in the end zone to a football game that was going to be televised, and whenever the action came to his end of the field he would stand up and hold up a sign that read “John 3:16” so the TV cameras would pick it up. “John 3:16” was all the sign said. Some people thought it was funny, some people thought it was annoying, but most of the people I talked to just wondered what on earth he was up to.

Not that I’m encouraging anyone to go out share the Gospel this way, but his actions led to a LOT of water-cooler and break-room conversations…

…like this one: Years later I was having dinner in a pool hall with a friend and his buddies and The John 3:16 Guy came up in conversation. One of the guys asked, “so what does ‘John 3:16’ stand for anyway?”

The friend I was with looked at me and said, “Well, preacher-lady?” (I was not yet a preacher-lady at that point but I think he saw it coming.)
I said, “Are you serious?”
He said, “Do you know it?”
I said, “I know it. Do you really want me to say it?”
And he said, “Yeah.”
And I said, “OK.”

And the whole table grew quiet as I quoted the familiar words:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”

The guys at the table thought for a minute, and then the guy who had asked the question said, “Cool.”
And the other guys nodded and said, “Cool.”
And the conversation moved on from there.

I have no idea if the seed planted that night ever took root. But thanks to The John 3:16 Guy four men heard the gospel who might not otherwise have heard it. And I figure if God can use The John 3:16 Guy, God can use you and me too.

So what exactly is the Gospel then?

Gospel is an old-fashioned word meaning “good news”.

GoodNews

When Jesus preached the gospel he often said, as he says in our reading from Mark this morning, “The kingdom of God is at hand! Repent and believe the good news.”

When Jesus preached the gospel he preached about the kingdom of God. When the apostles preached the gospel they preached the good news of King Jesus. So the coming of Jesus and the coming of God’s Kingdom are one and the same.

When people believe the good news and follow Jesus, their lives take a new course… and that’s what it means to repent. Repentance does not mean we’re horrible, terrible people who need to wallow in guilt. It just means to change direction, to head into something new: a life inspired by God.

Getting back to today’s reading from Mark – after preaching the gospel, Jesus calls Peter and his brother Andrew, and James and his brother John, to be his disciples. Knowing they were fishermen, Jesus adds:

“Follow Me and I will make you fishers of men.”

Books upon books about what it means to be ‘fishers of men’. I’ve heard it said, for example, that when fishers fish they have to use bait, and the secret to successful fishing is using the right bait, and if we want to catch people we likewise have to use the right bait: the right kind of worship service, or the right preacher, or the right style of music. Sounds like we’re all sitting here in a boat-shaped church baiting our hooks and trying to figure out what will make the fish bite!

This is NOT Jesus’ point. It’s not even how people usually fished in Jesus’ day. Back then they used nets. Fishermen worked in teams, and they often went out at night, and when they cast their nets, they cast wide – and all kinds of things would get caught in the net. The first thing fishermen did after coming to shore with their catch was to sit down and sort out the catch, separating the fish from any other marine creatures that got into the nets.

Likewise when we share the gospel, it’s good to do it together as a team. And like the fishermen going out at night, sometimes we have to carry the gospel into dark places. And we need to cast the nets wide, and let God do the sorting later.

So to answer the first question, ‘what is the Gospel?’ – it’s about God’s kingdom, that Jesus is the king. It’s the good news that the one who loved us enough to lay down his life for us, and then walked out of the grave alive, is the king of hearts and the king of souls and his kingdom has no end. (“Grace is the beginning of glory.”)

As for the second question, ‘How does one share the Gospel?’ – we’ve already begun to answer that question. We can dig a little deeper as we look at the Old Testament lesson from Jonah.

In this reading, God tells the prophet Jonah to go preach to the city of Nineveh. The message God gave Jonah was not exactly good news; in fact it was bad news: God said the city of Nineveh was about to be overthrown, because the city was full of violence and its people were evil.

To set the scene: Nineveh was the capital of the ancient empire of Assyria, located on the opposite side of the Tigris River from what is today the city of Mosul in northern Iraq.

Nineveh

Nineveh was a very ancient city, dating to around 3000 BC, and it was the largest city in the world in Jonah’s day. Given its size and power, what army could possibly have conquered it? God could, and God intended to.

Another thing about Nineveh: Israel and Nineveh were enemies. In Jonah’s day the Assyrians had conquered the northern half of Israel, deporting its people, and had attacked the southern half including Jerusalem – which is why Jonah didn’t want God to show mercy to the Ninevites!

Nineveh’s people were also Gentiles, not Jews, and they knew nothing of Israel’s God. When we find a story like this in the Old Testament it’s a reminder that the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” is also the God of all the nations, both then and now. God’s prophets were given the same message for the nations that they were given for Israel: turn from wickedness, be people of peace; do justice to the poor; be people who are holy and loving – be God’s people.

So two things happened the day Jonah arrived: (1) Jonah spoke the message God gave him, and (2) the Ninevites believed God and changed their ways!

It’s interesting to note Jonah’s message did not include the option of repentance. In fact it offered no hope at all. “The city will be destroyed” – that’s all Jonah said. But the Ninevites said to themselves and to each other, “Who knows? Maybe God will hear us and not destroy us.” And they declared a nationwide fast, and they prayed, and they put an end to the violence in the city… and God saw and heard and spared Nineveh. Then as now, God is a God who hears prayer and sees changed hearts and changed lives. This is the gospel, and it was good news for the Ninevites.

So how does one share the gospel? By speaking God’s truth. By hearing God’s word and repeating it faithfully as God leads.

One more question then comes to mind: why share the gospel?

First, Jesus tells us to share it – that’s reason enough. Second, the gospel turns away disaster and brings salvation, as the people of Nineveh discovered – which is more than reason enough.

And beyond that, we have the reason Paul gives in our reading from I Corinthians: the time is short.

Life is short to begin with, and the older I get the more I become aware of just how short life is. Paul says, with this in mind:

“…let those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions… for the present form of this world is passing away.”

Paul does not mean this to say, ‘get rid of your spouse, don’t laugh, don’t cry, and don’t own anything’ – that’s not what he means. He’s saying this world is passing and we need to be getting ready for the next world. He’s saying ‘don’t allow anything in life to be more important than a relationship with God’. It’s like the old hymn says:

“In our joys and in our sorrows
Days of toil and hours of ease
Still he calls in cares and pleasures
‘Christian, love me more than these.’”

Jesus Calls Us (Cecil Frances Alexander, 1818-1895)

This world is passing. As the English theologian Charles Simeon put it:

“We scarcely behold the glare and glitter of this vain world,
before the enchanting prospect vanishes
and the phantom passes onward,
to astonish and delude succeeding generations.”

Or to put it another way: if the ship you’re on is sinking, don’t get attached to it. Help people into the lifeboats and GO!

When God speaks, things happen. When God said, ‘Let there be light’ light happened. When we share the gospel, God’s word is active there too. God speaks through human beings, and things happen. Cities repent. Lives are spared. Fishermen become disciples, and disciples become apostles, and apostles end up sharing a message that changes the course of history.

The kingdom of God is here, and Jesus, the Lord of love, is king. Let us join with the saints throughout history in sharing that good news. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 1/25/2015

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Scripture Readings: Romans 14:1–12 and Matthew 18:21–35

Before I dig into the scripture readings from Romans and Matthew, I want to mention three notes on these readings.

First, there is a third scripture reading assigned for this morning, from the Old Testament, that we did not read, that gives a great context to the words of Paul and Matthew. The Old Testament reading would have been from Exodus chapters 14 and 15, which tell the story of Israel’s liberation from slavery, crossing the Red Sea while God holds the waters back, and then the song of freedom and victory when they reach the other side. This picture of God setting his people free gives us a proper background for these two New Testament readings, because it gives us a picture of God’s mercy and power to set us free from sin and death.

When Jesus talks about forgiveness in the reading from Matthew – it is humanly impossible to forgive the way Jesus says to forgive, unless we know we are God’s people and God is with us. When Paul talks about not judging others – it is impossible to not judge others unless we know our own sins have been forgiven. It is human nature to point out the flaws of others; but as Christians we have been set free from the power of sin and death, through the mercy and power of God, and because of this we are able to live lives of mercy and compassion. So I recommend to your reading this week Exodus chapters 14 and 15.

Second, these two readings from Matthew and Romans are related to each other. They are both close to the very heart of the gospel. Jesus started his public ministry preaching, “the kingdom of God is near – repent and believe the good news.” The word ‘repent’ means to change course, or to change direction, or to change one’s mind. Repentance is not about regret or guilt or shame, it’s about facing into a new direction. So Jesus is saying basically, “The kingdom of God is near – change course and believe the good news.” The coming of the King, the coming of the Messiah, is what makes it possible for us to have changed minds and changed direction.

Third, both of these passages – from Matthew and from Romans – are difficult. They’re difficult to hear, and they’re difficult to live. This is going to be one of those sermons where I’ll be preaching to myself as much as I am to you.

With all that said, let’s dig in. We’ll start with the reading from Romans. Paul is writing to the church at Rome because the Roman church is on the brink of a church split (something that seems to happen a lot throughout church history!) Paul is writing to correct the attitudes of the people who are tearing the church apart.

The division in the Roman church is over the subject of eating meat. Should Christians eat meat or shouldn’t they? That’s the question. This is not about vegetarianism; the issue in the ancient world was that most of the meat a person could buy in the open market – not all, but most – came from religious sacrifices. In other words, these animals had been sacrificed to false gods. Some people said meat sacrificed to a false god was tainted by false religion and was therefore evil and should not be eaten. Other people said a false god isn’t a real god and therefore has no power to harm the meat or the person who eats it. The people who said the meat was tainted by false religion started to question every piece of meat they came across – at a dinner party, for instance, they might ask the host, “where did this meat come from?” You can imagine people started to take offense to this. On the other hand, the people who saw no harm in such meat tended to flaunt their freedom, deliberately eating meat in the presence of the non-meat-eaters in order to offend them.

To give a somewhat more modern parallel, there was a similar kind of debate in many churches when I was growing up. Some of you may remember it. The issue was rock n roll music, particularly its use in the church, and the argument went something like this: one side said, “rock music promotes sex and drugs and a godless lifestyle… and besides the Beatles claim they’re more popular than Jesus… so rock music is evil and must be avoided.” The other side said, “a musical style is not in and of itself good or evil. Rock music can be good and can be enjoyed.” Cliff Richard even wrote a song about the debate called Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?

It’s the same species of argument, the debate over eating meat and the debate over rock music. People who are against, are concerned with holiness – they want to do what pleases God and avoid what doesn’t please God. People who are for, are concerned with freedom and justice. They know we are set free from sin by the death of Christ on the cross, and therefore we don’t need to live in fear. So both sides start out with legitimate concerns. But then the arguments quickly devolve into name-calling and finger-pointing and arguments at church councils and nasty messages on Facebook.

It’s interesting to note that Paul describes the abstain-from-meat argument as being the weaker of the two. In Romans 14:2 he says: “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.” So on this particular issue Paul sides with the meat-eaters. But Paul does not press that point. He goes on to say each person must obey their own conscience. In other words, if a person believes eating meat offends God then for that person it would be wrong to eat meat.

And more importantly, whatever a person does, whether abstaining or enjoying, it is to be done (v. 6) “in honor of the Lord, [giving] thanks to God.” Those who eat meat are not to despise those who don’t… and those who don’t eat meat are not to pass judgement on those who do. The most important issue is the attitude of the heart towards God and toward our brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul nails that argument down by saying (v. 4), “Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”

Paul says so much in that one little verse! Every one of us is someone else’s servant. Each of us answers directly to God. Each of us belongs to God. It is before God that each of us stands or falls.

This is where Jesus’ parable from Matthew chimes in. Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wishes to settle accounts with his slaves.” One slave owes him 10,000 talents. We don’t know exactly how much money that would be in today’s terms, but scholars generally agree it’s far more than a person could earn in a lifetime. So the slave and his family, and all that he has, is to be sold to pay off the debt. The slave begs for mercy and the king forgives the debt. Erases it completely. The slave then goes out and sees another slave who owes him about a day’s wages. This other slave begs for mercy, but the first slave says ‘no’ and has him beaten. The king is furious – he says to the first slave “I forgave you all that debt just because you asked me to, and you won’t forgive the little bit your fellow slave owes you?”

We forgive each other, not because it’s a nice thing to do (though it is), but because we know our forgiveness has come at a higher price than we could ever pay. How can we possibly demand payment from a fellow slave?

Having said this I need to step back for a moment and point out some things people sometimes say about forgiveness that need to be addressed. Three notes, and the first two are caveats:

  • Caveat #1. Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness is often misinterpreted and mis-applied where it comes to people who are in danger. Are we expected to forgive someone who threatens us? Are we expected to forgive someone who deliberately hurts us or bullies us? Are we expected to forgive someone who is self-destructive and is pulling family and friends down into a vortex of self-destruction? The Christian answer is “Yes, but…” Yes, but forgive from a safe distance. Get away from danger first. And know it may take a long time before we’re able to forgive these kinds of things. Christian forgiveness does not mean being a martyr to someone who may injure you or someone you love.
  • Caveat #2. Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness is not a command to look the other way or let people off the hook where it comes to immorality or injustice. As much as it is possible, as Christians we need to address issues and concerns without attacking persons.
  • Third note (not a caveat) : Alcoholics Anonymous gives us one of the world’s best examples of Paul’s teaching in Romans, so much so that I would like to spend some time with it.

Most of you have heard of AA’s Twelve Steps. Step Four of the Twelve Steps has to do with “making a searching and fearless moral inventory” of one’s life. This step is essentially a confession, in which the person in recovery writes down everything they’ve ever done wrong, as best they can remember, with the purpose of making reparations where possible. In the process of recovery, the inventory is shared with God and with one other trusted person, and that’s it. As you can imagine this inventory is extremely personal.

What Paul is describing in Romans – the way people were passing judgement on each other – is what AA calls “taking someone else’s inventory”. And it’s a huge red flag in recovery. Focusing on someone else’s inventory is more than just fault-finding. It is one of the primary characteristics of addiction. On a spiritual level, when we’re taking someone else’s inventory we’re not leaving room for God to work in that person’s life – or in our own.

The apostle Paul didn’t have the Twelve Steps to pull from, but he’s got the idea in spades.

So where does this all lead us?

First, where there is disagreement between Christians on an issue, each one of us must do what our own conscience dictates, as best we are able, based on what we know. It helps to be informed on the issues, but ultimately the questions are spiritual, and we will answer to God for what we choose.

Second, we need to remember that our Christian brothers and sisters are someone else’s servants. They belong to someone else, and they will answer to Him. Our job is to do whatever we do “in honor of the Lord, giving thanks to God.”

Third, we need to remember God has already forgiven us far more than any person will ever owe us. Therefore we are in a position where we can afford to show mercy to others.

Fourth and finally, above all we need to remember that the kingdom of heaven is near, and our salvation is already secured. Just as the Israelites passed through the Red Sea to freedom, Jesus has passed through death into life, giving us freedom from sin and death.

Therefore the victory is already ours. We have nothing to fear, and we have nothing to lose.

Lord, help us to forgive and be forgiven. Help us to remember the price you paid for us… and for our brothers and sisters in the faith. Help us to include… understand… confront fairly… and listen with compassion as we seek to follow You. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 9/14/14

Soli Deo Gloria

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Fire at Hill Top United Methodist Church, Allentown (Pittsburgh), 8/28/14 Credit: WTAE.com

Fire at Hill Top United Methodist Church, Allentown (Pittsburgh), 8/28/14 Credit: WTAE.com

 Scripture readings: Exodus 3:1-15 and Matthew 16:21-28

I wanted to start this morning by sharing a little bit more with you about the events at our sister church Hill Top United Methodist Church this week. I got news of the fire around two hours after it started and since I live nearby I headed up to see if there was anything I could do. As it turned out there wasn’t anything to do – the firefighters and police had things well in hand – so I spent some time talking with the people who were there. When I got there the fire was under control and the firefighters were checking to be sure there were no hidden hot-spots in the roof and pouring on lots of water.

Even so it was gut-wrenching to watch. It’s the kind of thing that leaves you speechless.

While all this was going on, some of the firefighters entered the church and brought out things they knew the people would want to save. I saw them bring out the pulpit, the Lord’s table, the big painting of Jesus, the cross, the flags, and if I’m not mistaken they got the old photographs that were hanging in the vestibule. They treated everything with great respect and care. Pastor Sue speaks the truth when she said what a fantastic job they did.

I spoke briefly with one of the members of the church council, had a quick word with Pastor Sue, and spoke with a few people nearby. It was during these conversations that I learned how the fire started. I would ask you, as we pray for this situation, remember the roofers and their families in your prayers as well – they must be absolutely devastated.

On the positive side is the outpouring of love and support and prayers coming in from everywhere. We’ve heard the good news that Hill Top’s building has been declared structurally sound, with the exception of the very peak (which can be repaired), so rebuilding is possible – and it seems to be in the heart of the people to do it. And that’s great news!

So I’ve been thinking about all these things for the past few days – thoughts coming to mind throughout the day as I work – and I’ve been reminded of the words of my old pastor who said, “whenever you think of someone, pray for them.” That’s a good rule of thumb for times like this.

One of the other things that kept coming to mind this week was: it seems like everyday reality has been rough lately. What I mean is: there are times when reality can be sweet, like when you’re holding a newborn baby, or when you’re sitting on your porch with friends on a summer night. Life can be sweet and reality can be good. But lately it seems like we’ve been facing a lot of harsh realities, one after another after another. On a global level, we pray for people like Pastor Deb’s daughter Grace ministering in Bethlehem, who lives daily with the harsh reality that bombs might fall from the sky today. We pray for Christians around the world who face homelessness and even death because they refuse to give up their faith. Here in the States we’ve been faced with many harsh realities, from children at our southern borders to – for people of my generation – the death of Robin Williams, which hit home for us in ways we never expected. In our personal lives too we have relatives and friends who are facing the harsh reality of cancer or other serious illness. And now we need to deal with the harsh reality that Hill Top’s congregation will be without a place for the church to call home for a long time to come.

Every time one of these harsh realities hits it stops us in our tracks, it takes our breath away. And we know our lives are never going to be the same again from that point on. We can’t deny it – even though we may be tempted to try – and we can’t turn the clock back. Life just doesn’t come with an “Undo” button.

Dealing with harsh realities is tough. Dealing with harsh realities is also something God specializes in.

Both of our scripture readings for today show God dealing with harsh realities. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus is dealing with the harsh reality of his mission on earth: he has been sent here specifically for the purpose of paying the price for human sin. And he is facing into the harsh reality of the cross.

In the reading from Exodus, God is dealing with the harsh reality that his people are suffering as slaves in Egypt. God decides to send Moses to Pharaoh as his messenger, and a leader who will lead the Israelites out to a new land.

When God tells him all this, Moses answers, “who am I? Why should Pharaoh listen to me?” Because Moses is no longer welcome in the Egyptian court, and besides, he feels unequal to the task.

I think many of us, when we are faced with harsh realities, react much the same way. We ask: “Who am I? Who am I to take this on?” We feel unequal to the task.

God’s answer to us is the same answer he gave Moses: “I will be with you.”

Moses replies to this with a question whose meaning is, essentially, “who are you? Who shall I say sent me?”

So God introduces himself: “I AM” – in the Hebrew, “Yahweh” or “I am who I am.”

“I AM” is God’s name, but it also tells us God’s nature, which is to be. We’ve been talking so far about harsh realities. God is the ultimate reality. God is many things – God is holy, God is mighty, God is powerful… but most importantly, God IS. Full stop.

God tells Moses to tell the people: “I am the Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Jesus comments on this in Matt 22:32 when he says, “God is not the God of the dead but of the living.” Just as God is the God of Jacob you could also say He is the “God of Nicholas and the God of Robert and the God of Michael…” and so on.

Scripture gives us many names for God and for Jesus. And at times like these – times when harsh realities crowd into our lives – it’s good to remind ourselves of the names of God. It’s like the old saying says, “don’t tell God how big your problems are, tell your problems how big your God is.”

Some of the names for God in the Old Testament include:

  • El Shaddai – God Almighty
  • El Elyon – God Most High
  • Adonai – Lord
  • Elohim – God the Creator (in Genesis ch 1 – interestingly, a plural word!)
  • Elah – Awesome One
  • Ha’kadosh – the Holy One
  • Melek ha’kavod – King of Glory

Names for Jesus include:

  • Saviour
  • Messiah
  • Son of God
  • Word of Life
  • Wonderful Counselor
  • Prince of Peace
    …and most importantly at times like this…
  • **Immanuel – God with us**

Jesus calls himself:

  • The bread of life
  • The light of the world
  • The gate for the sheep
  • The resurrection and the life
  • The true vine
  • The good shepherd

The message of our passages from both Matthew and Exodus is that God sees our sufferings. God sees our harsh realities. And he does more than just observe them, God enters into our suffering with us. God is not ‘watching us from a distance’ like the old song says. God is right there with us, closer than a brother.

All these things that God is – almighty, creator, awesome, holy, saviour, prince of peace – all of that – is with us, in our corner. He is Immanuel, God with us, through the harsh times, in the middle of it all.

Psalm 30:5 says: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”

And in Psalm 126 the psalmist prays this prayer:

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like the watercourses in the Negev.
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.

God promises “those who sow in tears will reap in joy”. “Like the watercourses in the Negev” – dry river-beds that, when it rains, the desert itself begins to bloom.

One of the comments posted on Facebook this week under the photo of Hill Top said: “there’s no telling what revival God has planned!” I think there’s a word from God in that.

God was with the Israelites when they were slaves in Egypt. He was there to set them free and he led them through the wilderness and the desert to bring them to the promised land.

Jesus was with us when he lived on earth, and then died for our sins to set us free and open the door to God’s eternal kingdom.

And God is with us now, through all the trials we face. God, whose name is “I AM” – who is the ultimate reality – is with us. Praise God!

Let us encourage each other with this truth in the days ahead. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven UMC and Spencer UMC, August 31 2014

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