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1 Corinthians 8:1-13  Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.  2 Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge;  3 but anyone who loves God is known by him.
4 Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.”  5 Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth– as in fact there are many gods and many lords–  6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
7 It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.  8 “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.  9 But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.  10 For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols?  11 So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed.  12 But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.  13 Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

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Mark 1:21-28  They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.  22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.  23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit,  24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”  25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”  26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.  27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching– with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”  28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

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Welcome to the third and final week of our Wesley Challenge sermon series!  The Wesley Challenge groups are still meeting for the next few weeks so if you haven’t made a meeting yet, do come. And for any who can’t make the meetings, we have a South Hills Partnership Wesley Challenge Facebook page set up for discussion.

So the last couple weeks we’ve looked at (1) our relationship with God, and (2) our relationship with ourselves, and this week we are on the third and final chapter, which is about our relationship with others.

There’s a lot of information in this chapter – more than we could possibly cover this morning – so I thought I’d start with a few insights from the book, and then take a look at what our scriptures for today have to say about those insights.

The author of our book, Chris Folmsbee, starts out by saying ‘how we treat others is how we treat Jesus’.  The foundation of this statement can be found in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 25, in the parable of the judgement day, where Jesus says, “just as you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers or sisters, you did it to me.”

So with that in mind, John Wesley’s questions that have been gathered in chapter three are designed to root out those things in our lives that might cause pain to other people.  And the first question in this category is “Do I thank God that I’m not like others?”

This question is based in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, where the two men go into the temple to pray, and the Pharisee prays “God I thank you I’m not like other people… even this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I give a tenth of all my income.” While the tax collector, who knows he’s no saint, stands far off, grieving over his sins, and says “God be merciful to me a sinner!” Jesus comments that the tax collector went home justified, rather than the Pharisee, because: “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14 paraphrased)

In addition, as the book points out, comparing ourselves to other people is never helpful anyway.  If we think we’re better than others, that will damage our relationships; and if we think we’re worse than others that will damage our relationships.  It’s not good to compare ourselves with others at all.

There is a side-issue I should mention, and that is, it’s OK to say we’re good at something. Not ‘better than’, but good. For example, I enjoy playing the piano.  It would not be helpful for me to compare myself to other piano players: that would get me nowhere.  But it’s also not good for me to hide my gift just because not everybody plays the piano. God has given all of us different gifts and different abilities, and those gifts are meant to benefit the whole church family.

And it’s OK to enjoy our God-given gifts!  I’m reminded of the story of the Olympic athlete Eric Liddel in the movie Chariots of Fire.  When he decided to delay going into the mission field in order to run in the Olympics, his sister reminded him of God’s call on his life.  He answered, “I believe God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

When we do what God has designed us to do, we feel God’s pleasure. And that’s a good thing. Not comparing ourselves with others, but appreciating and enjoying what God has done, and is doing, in us.

So getting back to the Wesley Challenge questions – a number of the other questions in chapter three deal with honesty in one way or another. Questions like: “do I create the impression that I’m better than I am?” -or- “am I a hypocrite?” -or- “do I share secrets that are told to me in confidence?” -or- “am I honest, or do I exaggerate?”

A word of caution: handle these questions carefully, especially in the context of our small group discussions, because it’s easy to hurt someone with these questions without even being aware we’re doing it. Many people struggle with self-doubt and self-criticism, and these questions can sometimes lead people into dark places. Handle them with care.

For those who are sharing Wesley’s questions in small group discussions, two other things to keep in mind:

  • Anything said in a small group needs to stay in the small group. Like, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, know what I’m saying? Not that we’re sharing great big deep dark secrets; but we need to be able to trust each other as we talk about these things.
  • As we examine our lives in light of these questions, remember nobody is worthy of God. God is the one who gives us our worth. God says, “you are my son, you are my daughter.” God values us. So if we struggle with self-doubt or self-esteem – remember we are God’s handiwork. It’s not our own goodness we’re supposed to trust in – it’s God’s goodness.

With this truth in our minds and hearts, we can then have the courage to face our flaws, and name them, and share them with someone we trust. As the author says, it’s good to have someone who knows the ‘real you’.  Sharing the truth is about freedom – because once our secrets are out they lose their power, and we are set free.

There’s a lot more to the questions in chapter three and nowhere near enough time to go into all of them, but there’s one more I’d like to look at: “Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold resentment toward, or disregard?”

I imagine most of us would say ‘yes’ to at least one of these at one time or another! Generally speaking, as scripture says, we want to esteem others more highly than ourselves.  And our author rightly points out that all people are made in the image of God, and that we are commanded to love all people. So if there’s anyone we’re holding grudges against, we need to let them go.

There’s just one fly in the ointment: If it’s true, as the author says, there are people in this world who ‘rub us the wrong way’, being told to ‘love them anyway’ can be an exercise in frustration. How are we supposed to love people we don’t like when what we really want to do is get away from them?

Here are some thoughts: Start by praying for that person (in private – don’t tell them you’re doing it!)  Lift them up to God, ask God to bless them. And then ask God ‘why does this person get on my nerves?’  In my experience this is a prayer God loves to answer, and the answers usually come pretty quickly. Sometimes I learn something about the other person I didn’t know, that helps me to care for them more. Sometimes I learn something about myself – sometimes I find out I do the same thing they do that bothers me, and I need to correct my own behavior.  And sometimes I learn I need to set a healthy boundary somewhere – that the other person is not respecting me, and I need to do something about that.

The one thing this chapter doesn’t mention – and I’m not faulting the author, you can only put so much in one book – is the issue of dealing with people who are physically or emotionally dangerous: abusive people, violent people, people who are actively addicted to something (and by ‘addicted’ I mean drugs, drink, pornography, over-spending, gambling, hoarding, any kind of addiction). People like this are not healthy to be around. Yes, we love them, and yes we pray for them; but for most of us this means ‘from a safe distance’.  People who are abusive, violent, manipulative, addictive – there are people who specialize in working with these folks, and in helping them. For most of us, we need to be guided by the people who are trained in the field.

The reason I bring this up is: Too often I’ve heard people say things like (for example) “God hates divorce (which it does say in scripture), therefore stay with your abuser and try to work things out.” NO!  Or if someone is high and lying through their teeth in order to get their next fix, and someone says “hey, it’s OK, they’re entitled to their opinion, let’s hear them out.” NO!  Love does not mean putting yourself in danger, putting others in danger, or listening to lies.

An example of this can be found in today’s reading from Mark.  Jesus has been teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, and his listeners are astounded by the authority of his teaching.  All of a sudden a man with an unclean spirit arrives. What they called an ‘unclean spirit’ in those days, is kind of a foreign concept to our Western minds, but maybe ‘evil’ would be a better word. Evil in the sense that – for example, people who shoot children in schools are possessed by evil. This man had something in him that was destroying God’s image in him and in the people around him.

Jesus does not try to ‘relate’ to this man, or to see things from his point of view. Jesus immediately says: “Be silent and come out of him!”

And Mark says the evil spirit cried out and came out of the man.

Jesus knows how to deal with what goes wrong in the human psyche. And by confronting the evil he sets the man free – and that’s love.

This kind of ministry calls for discernment that only the Holy Spirit can give – it cannot be done effectively in human power – which is why the people who witnessed this event said “what’s this? A new teaching!” There’s nothing new about evil in the world, but dealing with it the way Jesus did – that was new.

Our reading from I Corinthians is actually sort of along the same lines, though it may not appear that way at first glance.

Paul is talking to the Corinthians about food sacrificed to idols, which was a major controversy in his day,  but it also touches on the nature of evil.  In this case the evil Paul is addressing is when people exercise their freedom in a way that damages other people.

Paul starts out by saying “we all have knowledge” (that is, knowledge about what’s right in God’s eyes and what isn’t) “but knowledge puffs up, while love builds up” – literally, in the Greek “love builds a house” or “builds a home”.

And Paul goes on to give an example. He says: if I, knowing that idols don’t exist and that false gods don’t exist, should go with a friend to the temple of a god that doesn’t exist – let’s say Zeus or somebody like that – and I recline at table with my friend and eat meat that’s been sacrificed to Zeus, it’s no big deal because Zeus doesn’t exist. I know that, and you know that.

But if someone, maybe a recent convert who used to worship Zeus, sees me in the temple of Zeus eating meat sacrificed to Zeus, he may say to himself, “Look! I can be a Christian AND worship Zeus at the same time! I don’t have to give up my old god in order to worship the new god!”

And so, Paul says, in exercising my freedom in Christ, I have destroyed the faith of a person Christ died for.  And Paul says, “I would rather never eat meat again for the rest of my life than cause another person to miss out on Jesus.”  That is Christian love.

So in any church controversy, or argument, or even a little spat – if exercising your freedom means someone else’s faith (or fellowship in the church) will be damaged – it’s better to do without than to cause another person to stumble.

This kind of self-sacrificing love is the goal of Wesley’s teaching and it’s the reason he asked the questions he asked. This love is the goal of every Christian in every generation, which is why Wesley’s teaching is still so relevant today.

Jesus said that each one of us needs to take up our cross and follow Him, and I think this is part of what he meant.  I’m not going to end today tying this up with a neat little ribbon. This is not easy stuff. Dealing with sin and evil is hard, and it’s a constant battle. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!  So keep on working at it ‘one day at a time,’ and ‘keep on coming back,’ because we’re stronger together than on our own. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 1/28/18

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The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. […] When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. – Jonah 3:1-5, 10
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Now after John [the Baptist] was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. – Mark 1:14-20

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Welcome to Week Two of our series on The Wesley Challenge!  In case anybody missed the first message of our series last week, let me just say The Wesley Challenge is not just for Sunday mornings but is meant to be dug into more deeply in small groups.  To that end, there are three small groups meeting in the Partnership: one at Hill Top on Monday nights, one at Spencer on Thursday nights, and one at Carnegie on Wednesday nights, all of these meeting at 7:00PM.  If you haven’t already done so, make plans to join one of these groups.  And if you aren’t able to come out at night, meet up with us on Facebook, on the Wesley Challenge South Hills Partnership Facebook page.

The main reason we’re getting together on weeknights is because The Wesley Challenge is not just about “learning stuff”.  It’s about taking what John Wesley did 350 years ago and adapting it to our own time; and in order to do that, we need to put our heads together and discuss.

I also wanted to lead off with a few comments I shared with Fairhaven and Spencer last week, just by way of background.  I started out last week by quoting page one of the book, in which Adam Hamilton writes in the Foreword that the intention of The Wesley Challenge is “to shape the souls of the participants so that their everyday lives are changed…”.

The longer I live, the more I think the word “change” should be a four-letter word!

I never used to feel that way.  And in some ways I still don’t – I mean, variety IS the spice of life.  But, like, for example, I used to work in an office typing on a computer all day. And every now and then I’d come in, in the morning, and discover… my computer had been changed! Overnight the tech guys snuck in and installed an upgrade, and left the employees a note saying why this change was a good thing… and all it meant to us, was it was going to take us twice as long to get our work done! Change meant major frustrations and missed deadlines.

And then about ten years ago I ran for tax collector in Carnegie. So I went door to door talking to people and I campaigned on a platform of ‘change’ and why change was needed in our town – until I realized every time I said the word ‘change’ people’s eyes would glaze over! Because we’ve heard it too many times. Politicians promise change, but if they ever deliver it, they do it badly.

So when Adam Hamilton writes in the foreword of our book that the intention of The Wesley Challenge is to inspire change, I wonder if he’s wise to tell us that!

And yet at the same time he’s speaking the truth, and we know change is needed.  We know without change, the future of our churches is uncertain at best.

I also want to say – the kind of change The Wesley Challenge is talking about is NOT one more program, one more meeting to go to, one more thing on the to-do list. The Wesley Challenge is not that.

When John Wesley began leading his first group, the Church of England and the nation of England were at a low point, morally speaking.  Church attendance was down, people who were spiritual were held up to ridicule, and the nation itself was leading the world in the slave trade… while on the home front people in prisons were suffering horribly – many of whom were in prison simply because they were in debt or mentally ill, not because they were criminals.

Wesley believed that, as the apostle Paul said, faith without works is dead. So with that in mind, Wesley’s group met to read God’s word together, to pray together, to encourage each other in the Christian life, and to find ways of loving God and others.  And in the process they came up with a list of questions they would ask each other, to help each other grow in the faith, which became the Wesleyan ‘method’ – from which we get ‘Method-ism’.

Wesley knew that meaningful change starts in the hearts of individuals, when people’s hearts get close to God. Wesley also knew when people’s hearts are filled with God’s love, that love spills over into daily life. So Wesley’s goal was, basically, to change the nation, one person at a time, by bringing God’s love into everyday life.  Wesley was not so much teaching people about God as he was helping people to discover a life with God.

And even though people in Wesley’s time made fun of the “Holy Club” (as they called it) they began to see Wesley’s group serving the poor, and giving to the needy, and visiting prisoners, and praying together… and the Christian faith began to look real to them, and to look attractive.  Wesley’s ‘Holy Club’ was one of the foundations of a revival that spread across all of England in the 1700s.

So the goal of this book is to begin to bring Wesley’s practice into our own time.  America today, like England in Wesley’s day, is in moral crisis. Church attendance is down, people of faith are held up to ridicule, and the nation is being rocked by one scandal after another. We may have ended slavery in this country, but race relations are still far from what they should be, and our prisons still contain many people who are simply in debt or mentally ill.  And people across the nation are angry and afraid.  We need a course of action.  And that’s what John Wesley gives us.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the change brought on by taking part in the Wesley Challenge is not a huge effort on our part.  Change happens because we get close to God. Whenever people get close to God, change happens. That’s the nature of a relationship with God.

I’m reminded of the story of the young grape who wanted very much to grow up and turn purple and be made into grape juice. But as a young grape, he was hard and green and not very juicy.  So what did the little grape do?  Did he work himself up and say “Turn purple! Turn purple!”?  Of course not.  The grape naturally gets bigger and turns purple over time, so long as he stays connected to the vine.

We are like that grape. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Abide in me… and you will bear fruit.”  If we stay connected to Jesus, change happens naturally, the way it’s meant to. Our part is just to show up and be a part of the life of the vine.

So with that in mind, the authors of The Wesley Challenge took the questions John Wesley asked his people, and organized them into three categories: questions having to do with our relationship with God, our relationship with ourselves, and our relationship with others.

So last week Pastor Deb talked about our relationship with God.  This week our focus is on part two – our relationship with self. And having given all this background, let’s take a look at our scriptures for today.

The first scripture reading, from Jonah, is a small part of a larger and very familiar story.  Jonah was called and sent by God to preach to the people of Nineveh. And Jonah didn’t want to go – in fact he took a boat and went in the opposite direction.  But after some persuasion from God, involving a large fish, Jonah decided to do what God asked him to do.  And the message God told him to preach was a simple one: “In 40 days the city of Nineveh will be overthrown!”  And Jonah went all through Nineveh proclaiming this message.

Of course Jonah doesn’t have an army to overthrow the city.  He just had God’s message, which was really a call to change, to repentance, which was exactly the way the Ninevites took it.  “…they proclaimed a fast, and… put on sackcloth.”  Everybody in the city did this, great and small, even the king.

Most evangelists would be thrilled to get a 100% response to their preaching!  But Jonah was miserable.  A little further on in the story we see Jonah sitting under a tree waiting for God’s judgement to fall on Nineveh, and getting ticked off when it doesn’t happen.  The Ninevites were enemies of the people of Israel, and Jonah just can’t understand how God could have mercy on Ninevites and forgive them.

This story tells us that God’s salvation is not just for any one nation but for all nations… not just for one people, but for all people.  It tells us God loves every person God has created, regardless of where they live or what language they speak.

But Jonah doesn’t like that, so he sits under the tree and pouts. And that’s pretty much where the book of Jonah ends – with Jonah sitting under a tree, pouting.

The story of Jonah is proof that God can use just about anybody! So was Jonah a man of faith?  Did he ever come around to God’s point of view? Only God knows.

One thing’s for certain: Jonah could have benefitted from some of the questions Wesley asks in this book:  questions like “Do I grumble and complain?” or “Am I self-pitying or self-justifying?” Jonah could have been an even better preacher than he was, if he could have found it within himself to be happy for others when God showed them mercy.

Of course Jonah is an extreme example.  Most of us aren’t quite that grouchy! But all of us have things about ourselves that we’d like to change, or at least improve.  And before I continue with that thought, I should mention: this book is not meant to be a self-help program.  The Wesley Challenge is not about making us into the people we’ve always wanted to be.

The Challenge is about becoming the people God designed us to be.  It’s about living into what God calls us to. And that does involve change.  In scripture, inner change is often described by the word repentance: and this is what Jesus preached in our second lesson for today.  Jesus traveled around Galilee saying, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”

The word repent has gotten some bad press over the years.  What the word means in Greek is to change course or change direction. It implies that we can see the course we’re on is one that’s going to have unfortunate consequences – and we want to avoid those consequences – so we turn and change direction.

So the questions Wesley asks us have to do with shining light into the dusty corners of our lives; rooting out those areas where things tend to sneak up and sabotage us.  They involve examining our attitudes, looking at how we take care of ourselves physically and emotionally, and looking at how we spend our time.

And remember as we talk about these things, God is at work – as we read the scriptures, as we pray together – God is at work, developing in us the wisdom and the character we will need as we go forward together in his service.

Our own efforts will be focused in one direction: to put God on the throne of our lives.  Jesus preached the kingdom of God – not just as a future promise, but as a present reality.  The aim of Wesley’s questions is to take our ‘selves’ off the throne of our lives and to put Jesus on the throne. That’s what the Wesley Covenant Prayer is all about: “I am no longer my own but thine; put me to what thou wilt…”

And so we are asking everyone during this Wesley Challenge to pray the Wesley Covenant prayer every day during our personal time with God.

And if you haven’t yet started having a daily time with God, where you read scripture and talk with the Lord, start now – maybe just 15 minutes a day, but start now.  Just yesterday I heard the Anglican Bishop of Pittsburgh giving a teaching on growing in the faith and he said – and I quote – “The one thing that makes the most difference (in spiritual growth) from beginning to end is daily Bible reading and reflection.”  We need to be in the word, every day, every one of us. John Wesley knew that, and that’s why he included Bible reading in the Wesley Challenge.

And where it comes to making Jesus king of our lives: as Americans, we’re not entirely comfortable with the idea of a king. Generally speaking we’re not into royalty.  It’s great for other countries, but not for us, thankyouverymuch.

The problem is, is that all we know is human royalty, and human royalty are not perfect.  But God is perfect. Jesus is the only king who, when He rules our lives, we flourish.  We become what we were meant to be.  Wesley knew this, so he taught his people to put Jesus on the throne of their lives.

And when we do that, people will notice. And our churches will become what they were always meant to be: beacons of hope in world of pain; beacons of compassion in a world that only seeks after its own.

So for those who have been with us for the Wesley Challenge already – keep on coming back.  And for those of us who haven’t been to a meeting yet – choose a night, and plan to join us.  The Wesley Challenge doesn’t work with just one person and a book.  It needs to be shared together.  Whether in person or online, join us.  Get connected to the vine, and let God work in us, together.

Let’s pray.  Lord, most of the time we don’t like change. But we want to see our church connected to you, growing in wisdom, growing in courage, and growing in our ministry to the community around us. Help us to find, as we follow John Wesley’s teaching, a closer walk with you, and with each other; and guide us in reaching out to our community with your love. For your name’s sake, AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 1/21/18

 

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[Scripture readings for the morning – I Samuel 3:1-20, John 1:43-51 – are reprinted at the end of this post.]

The longer I live, the more I think “change” should be a four-letter word. 

I never used to feel that way.  And in some ways I still don’t – I mean, variety IS the spice of life.  But… for example, I used to work in an office typing on a computer all day. And every now and then I’d come in, in the morning, and discover my computer had been changed! Overnight the tech guys snuck in and installed an upgrade, and left the employees a note saying why this change was a good thing. All it meant to us was, it was going to take us twice as long to get our work done! (At least until we learned the new software.) Change meant major frustration and missed deadlines.

And then years later when I ran for tax collector I went door to door talking to people and I campaigned on ‘change’ and why change was needed in our community – until I realized every time I said the word ‘change’ people’s eyes would glaze over. They’ve heard it too many times. Change is something politicians promise and then deliver badly, if at all.

And then there’s the change so many of us attempt at this time of year: the resolution to improve our diet and exercise. I don’t know about you but I enjoy food, and who wants be out walking in all this snow?  Diet and exercise take effort and time, and progress seems sooooo slooow. This kind of change is not pleasant.

So when Adam Hamilton writes in the foreword to The Wesley Challenge – our text for the next few weeks – on page one of the book, that the intention of the Wesley Challenge is “to shape the souls of the participants so that their everyday lives are changed…” – I wonder if he’s wise to say that!

But to say anything else would be less than honest.  Because the truth is, whenever human beings get involved with God, change happens… to us, not to God (because God doesn’t change).

Our scripture readings for today give us a couple of examples of that.  In our passage from John, we hear Nathanael say “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Which is kind of like somebody from Pittsburgh saying “can anything good come out of Cleveland?”) But after talking with Jesus for just a few moments, Nathanael finds himself saying, “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Just a few words with Jesus and Nathanael’s opinion is changed!

Our scripture reading from I Samuel also is a story of change, though on a sadder note. At this point in Israel’s history, the prophet Samuel is a boy serving as an apprentice in the temple. God calls Samuel, and Samuel doesn’t even know enough about God to recognize God’s voice.  Finally Eli the priest explains what’s going on, and Samuel says, “speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”

And God proceeds to tell Samuel that judgement is about to fall on the house of Eli, because Eli’s sons are blaspheming God, and Eli hasn’t stopped them. And the next morning Eli tells Samuel to tell him what God said – and he says “don’t leave anything out!”  So Samuel gives Eli the message.

Sadly, God’s words are not enough to inspire Eli (or his sons) to change. When human beings come in contact with God, change happens… usually.  But God never forces a person to change. God invites people into relationship, but every person has the right – the God-given right – to say ‘no’, to refuse a relationship with God. And that’s what happens with Eli and his sons.

Samuel, on the other hand, says ‘yes’ to God.  Samuel’s life changes in God’s direction, and scripture tells us his ministry was a blessing to all Israel, and God “let none of his words fall to the ground.”

So spending time with God brings change. And the kind of change God brings won’t let us down, and it doesn’t disappoint, and it isn’t a waste of time, and it isn’t a drudgery.

Scripture itself doesn’t say much about change directly. It tells us stories about change; but it talks more about God’s grace in offering forgiveness and salvation free of charge and without our asking. The one verse where the Bible actually uses the word ‘change’ in reference to people, is in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Paul says that on the last day:

“The trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” (I Cor 15:52-53)

So the most important change you and I will ever experience is a gift from God and not something we can do for ourselves! While we wait for that change, in gratitude, we invest our lives – as Jesus said in the story of the talents – working to invest the gifts God has given us to turn a profit (so to speak) for the kingdom of God.  And even that doesn’t take a whole lot of effort because, as Paul says in Philippians:

“…it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil 2:13)

So having said all of this about change by way of background, what kind of change is Wesley talking about in this book? What was his method, and how does it work? And what is our investment in the process?

When John Wesley began leading his first home group, the Church of England and the nation of England were at a low point, morally speaking.  Church attendance was down, serious spirituality was ridiculed, and the nation itself was leading the world in the slave trade, while at home people in prisons – many of whom were simply in debt or mentally ill – were suffering horribly.

Wesley believed that, as Paul said, faith without works is dead. So with that thought in mind, Wesley’s group met to read God’s word together, to pray together, to encourage each other in the Christian life, and to find ways of loving God and others.  And in the process they came up with a list of questions they would ask each other on a regular basis, which became the Wesleyan ‘method’, from which came the word ‘Method-ist’.

Wesley knew that meaningful change starts in the heart of individuals, when people’s hearts get close to God. Wesley also knew when people’s hearts are filled with God’s love, that love spills over into daily life. So Wesley’s goal was, basically, to change the nation – one person at a time – by bringing God’s love into everyday life and experience.  He wasn’t so much teaching people about God as he was helping people to share life with God.

And even though people in Wesley’s time made fun of the “Holy Club” (as they called it) they also began to see group members serving the poor, giving to the needy, visiting prisoners, and praying together… and the Christian faith began to look real to them. And attractive.  Wesley’s ‘Holy Club’ was one of the foundations of a nationwide revival in England in the 1700s.

So the goal of this book is to bring this into our own time.  Our country today, like England in Wesley’s day, is in moral crisis. Church attendance is down, and the nation is being rocked by one horrifying event after another, and people are angry and afraid.  How can we respond? We need a course of action.

I’m reminded of what the flight attendants tell us before a plane takes off:  If there’s trouble, and a mask drops down, put yours on first before you help someone else. Spiritually speaking, we need to put our masks on first before we can help somebody else.  The gospel of Jesus Christ, and a relationship with the living God, is the life-saving device. We need to make sure ours is secure before we help others.

That’s what the Wesley Challenge is about.  And as we head into the Wesley Challenge, I wanted to invite all of us to do a few things that will help us get the most out of Wesley’s teaching:

  • Try to be here for the next few weeks! We will be preaching on the Wesley Challenge for two more weeks, and you don’t want to miss a week.
  • If you can, get your hands on a copy of The Wesley Challenge.
  • Make the Wesley Covenant Prayer part of your daily prayer time for the next few weeks.
  • Attend a Wesley Challenge weeknight meeting of your choice. We have three that will be meeting:
    1. Monday nights – at 7:00PM at Hill Top UMC. Pastor Matt will be leading a group at the parsonage.
    2. Wednesday nights – 7:00PM at Carnegie UMC. I will be leading a group there.
    3. Thursday nights – at Spencer UMC at Beyond there will be a video series related to the book and to John Wesley’s teaching.
  • For those who can’t make it to a group meeting for whatever reason:
    1. Read the book at home
    2. Because the Wesley Challenge was meant to be done with others, in order to get the most out of Wesley’s teaching, share your thoughts with someone else in some other way.
      • Over the phone
      • On a Facebook page. There are other churches doing this at the same time we are: Carlisle UMC in PA and Grace UMC in Des Moines IA. Join one of these online groups, or if you prefer I could start a page for us, let me know.

However we approach this over the coming weeks, the change this course will bring will be mostly God’s work.  Our part is to be there and to share and to be open to what God has in store for us.

Let’s pray together. Lord, as we share your word, and as we read the words of your servant John Wesley over the next few weeks, open our hearts to yourself. Teach us to know you better. Help us understand what your Spirit is creating in us. Help us put away anything that comes between us, Lord. And help us to know how to reach out to others in your name. We give you all the glory and the praise, AMEN.

 

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Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 1/14/18

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 1 Samuel 3:1-20  Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

 2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room;  3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was.  4 Then the LORD called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!”  5 and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down.  6 The LORD called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.”  7 Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.  8 The LORD called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy.  9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

 10 Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”  11 Then the LORD said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.  12 On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end.  13 For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.  14 Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”

 15 Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the LORD. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli.  16 But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.”  17 Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.”  18 So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.”

 19 As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.  20 And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the LORD.

John 1:43-51   The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”  44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.  45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”  46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”  47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”  48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”  49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”  50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”  51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

~

 

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I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

John Wesley

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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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