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[Scripture readings for today can be found at the end of this post]

At first glance our scripture readings for today appear to be completely un-related to each other.  The Old Testament lesson tells about Noah and the flood; the Gospel lesson tells about Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan; and in the New Testament lesson, Peter is declaring Jesus at the right hand of God now ruling in heaven.

So where’s the common thread? The answer to that question can be found in our passage from Peter.

The Archangel Michael

But before I dig in to these readings, I wanted to bring to memory an old, old song… a spiritual that many of us learned as children: Michael Row the Boat Ashore.  Remember the words? “Michael, row the boat ashore, alleluia!” And the verses go:

“River Jordan is deep and wide, alleluia!
Milk and honey on the other side, alleluia!
River Jordan is chilly and cold, alleluia!
Chills the body but not the soul, alleluia!”

This old slave song has a double meaning. Taken one way, it talks about freedom: taking a boat to get away from the slave-master and travel to the promised land. Taken another way, the song talks about dying and eternal life.  The River Jordan represents death, and ‘milk and honey on the other side’ represents the promised land of heaven.

The apostle Peter didn’t know the song of course, but in his letter he says many of the same things. He says that we are “saved through water.” (I Peter 3:20)  And he points to a number of illustrations.

Noah’s Ark Under Construction

In his first illustration Peter points to Noah, who along with eight other people, traveled through the great flood in the ark and they were ‘saved through water’.  When the waters had gone down, and the ark had landed, God’s word to Noah was a covenant, a promise in which God said, “I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant… the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature…”  (I like how God includes the animals in this covenant – both domestic and wild, God says. If we ever had any doubt that God cares about His creatures, this passage sets aside those doubts!)

In his second illustration, Peter talks about Jesus “suffering for sins once for all… in order to bring us to God”.  If we ever have any doubts that God loves us, or that Jesus wants us with him – this passage sets those doubts to rest. Jesus’ last prayer for us was “Father, forgive them.”  The love of Jesus: there’s no stopping it!

Peter goes on to say Jesus was “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.”  So Jesus himself has taken that boat-ride across the Jordan. He has passed through the waters of death – and not only landed safe on the other side but then came back to tell us about it.

And while he was doing that, Peter says, “Jesus went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey…” – that is, the people living in Old Testament times who had died not knowing Jesus, not knowing the hope of eternal life. Jesus made himself known to them and gave them a chance to respond to his invitation.  And so we say in the creeds Jesus “was crucified, dead, and buried, he descended into hell” – not because he belonged there but because he was ministering to the spirits trapped there, to set them free.

And then Peter talks about our salvation, which is also through water. He writes, “and baptism… saves you – not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

In other words, just as Jesus descended to the dead and rose again, we descend into the waters of baptism and are raised up again. (That’s why many churches practice baptism by immersion: because it’s a living picture of being buried and being raised again.) And just as Jesus “has gone into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God” so we also will follow in his footsteps and one day be with him on the far side of the Jordan.

And God looks at Jesus being baptized by John in the Jordan River and exclaims “you are my Son, my beloved, in you I am well pleased.” Because Jesus accomplishes God’s will to save us through water.

And after being baptized and tempted in the wilderness, Jesus goes to Galilee and begins his public ministry. And his message to the people – both then and now – is this: “the time is fulfilled, and kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news.”

Jesus’ message is always about the Kingdom of God. Yes, he taught peace and love and justice and mercy, goodness and kindness and holiness, all these things; but the main point of his teaching and his life was the coming of God’s Kingdom. This kingdom, as he said to Pilate, “is not of this world”.

What we look forward to on the far side of the Jordan – that Promised Land – is seeing Jesus crowned as King of all creation. Under his rule the universe will be made new; what is wrong will be set right; and Jesus will be King of kings and Lord of lords and Prince of peace.

So Jesus’ message is: Change course (that’s what ‘repent’ means)—change course and believe the good news.

So what can we take away from these passages today? Apart from receiving a hope that does not disappoint; our first response is to believe. The longer I live, the more challenges to faith it seems we come up against.  So it’s time to dust off our spirits: dust off all the years of church history and all the theology we’ve heard (for better or for worse) and all the other stuff that seems to accumulate around our hearts and our souls – dust it all off and renew and refresh our relationship with the living Jesus.

Second, we can reflect on the River Jordan and what it means to us: the sorrows it brings, as it has taken loved ones from us over the years; and the joys it brings as we look forward to many happy reunions. The song Michael Row the Boat Ashore has another verse that’s not as well-known as the ones quoted earlier: “gonna see my mother there, hallelujah… gonna see my papa there, hallelujah”.  We will see our loved ones, and we will see Jesus, all who have crossed the river ahead of us.

And finally, we can talk about these things among ourselves during the coming week – to encourage each other, and to inspire each other, and perhaps others may overhear our conversations and find encouragement too in Jesus’ words.

Wishing you many blessings during this holy season of Lent – AMEN.

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Genesis 9:8-17  Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him,  9 “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you,  10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.  11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”  12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations:  13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.  14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds,  15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.  16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”  17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

1 Peter 3:18-22  For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,  19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison,  20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.  21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you — not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,  22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

Mark 1:9-15   In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,  15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

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Preached at Fair Oaks of Pittsburgh 2/18/18

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[scriptures for the day are reprinted at the end of this post]

The call to worship and prayers in our service sheet today mention things like the chariot of Elijah, and God’s presence in a whirlwind… but these things kind of seem to come at us out of nowhere, so to begin to fill in the blanks, the common thread is today is Transfiguration Sunday.  This is the day when we remember Jesus meeting Moses and Elijah on a mountain-top and being transfigured in front of his disciples.

I chose On That Holy Mountain as the title of our sermon for today: the title is taken from an anthem my choir used to sing.  This particular song was one of my choir’s favorites to sing on Transfiguration Sunday.  The words go something like this:

The wolf is the guest of the lamb
On that holy mountain
The calf and the lion shall lie down
On that holy mountain
Together they shall rest with a child…
On that holy mountain of the Lord

Justice shall flower for all time
On that holy mountain
As long as the sun still can shine
On that holy mountain
Peace til the moon be no more…
On that holy mountain of the Lord

The song doesn’t actually have anything to do with the Transfiguration! But church choirs have good instincts about these things and over the years I’ve learned to respect that. The words of the song are actually taken from Isaiah chapter 11, which predicts the coming of the Messiah. Isaiah writes:

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.” (Isaiah 11:1-2)

It’s a familiar passage – one we usually read during Advent as we look for the coming of the baby Jesus.  And at the end of the passage Isaiah writes:

“They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain (there’s the title); for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9)

“On my holy mountain,” God says.  There is something special about the tops of mountains: anyone who’s ever gone to Jumonville and walked up to the cross at the top of that mountain has felt it.  And all through scripture God chooses the tops of mountains to reveal himself to God’s people. Think about it:

  • In the Old Testament, Noah and his family, when they were in the ark: after the flood was over, the ark came to rest on top of a mountain. Noah and his family learned: God’s people are saved, through the flood waters, to a mountain-top.
  • Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel, was told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac on a mountain top, but at the last minute God provided a lamb in place of his son. And so Abraham and Isaac learned that one day God would provide a sacrifice on a mountain top, and God shared with Abraham what that would mean. Genesis 22:14 says Abraham called that place “The LORD will provide” (Jehovah-Jireh); as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”
  • Many years later, when God set the people of Israel free from slavery in Egypt, just like Noah, they passed through waters and arrived at a mountain; and God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on top of that mountain.
  • Many years after that, when David became king, even though David was from Bethlehem he reigned as king in the City of David – Jerusalem – which was built on top of a mountain.
  • Years after that, when the people of Israel rebelled against God and started serving the false god Ba’al, the prophet Elijah called them back to the true faith, and afterwards Elijah saw God’s glory on top of a mountain.
  • In the New Testament, Jesus taught the disciples and gave us the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer as he preached the Sermon on the Mount.
  • And when the time was fulfilled, Jesus was crucified on top of a mountain: God’s provision for our salvation, fulfilling the prophecy God gave Abraham all those years ago.
  • At the end of Matthew’s gospel, after Jesus has risen from the dead, the disciples meet Jesus again on a mountain, where he gives them the Great Commission to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son & Holy Spirit
  • In the beginning of the book of Acts, Jesus ascends into heaven from the top of a mountain.
  • At the end of the book of Revelation, an angel takes the apostle John to the top of a mountain to see the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming out of heaven from God. John writes: “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” (Rev. 21:23)

Journeying from one mountaintop to the next, to the next, to the next, we hear the whole story of creation, and salvation, and God’s provision, and God’s love for humankind.

Viewed from this perspective it makes sense that Jesus would take his best friends up a mountain to reveal to them the purpose of his mission: to fulfill the law (represented by Moses) and to fulfill the prophets (represented by Elijah).

So for a moment let’s imagine ourselves with the disciples, seeing what they saw and hearing what they heard.

Jesus leads us up a mountain on a sunny spring day. The grass is tall and green, and insects are buzzing. As we get to the top of the mountain we look around at the beautiful view.  Suddenly our friend Jesus is changed.  The word Mark uses in his gospel is metamorphosis: the word we use to describe what happens when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.  Not just changed but transformed. The best the disciples can say is that Jesus became radiant, almost blinding, and his garments became whiter than a person could scrape them clean.

All of a sudden Jesus is talking with two other men, who have appeared out of nowhere: Elijah and Moses. The disciples (and ourselves, as we stand with them) are aware of nothing else. We see nothing else. And we’re wondering if our eyes were deceiving us.

Mark says Peter then, answering, said “it’s good we’re here – let us put up some tents for the three of you”.  (The word answering only appears in the Greek, not in the English translations, but it lets us know we don’t have the entire conversation; Mark didn’t record it.) But Mark comments ‘Peter didn’t know what to say because they were all terrified’ – which sounds about right given the circumstances. At least Peter had the presence of mind to offer their guests some hospitality, which was the proper thing to do in that culture.

But then a cloud covered the mountain-top, and a voice was heard was heard coming out of the cloud saying, “this is my son, my beloved, listen to him.”

And suddenly everything’s back to ‘normal’.

Moses and Elijah are gone and Jesus is back to his usual self. I imagine the disciples are standing there in stunned disbelief, wondering if they just saw what they saw.  As if to assure them it really happened, Jesus tells them not to talk about what they’ve seen until after he rises from the dead. And, lacking any other handle on the events of the day, the disciples start to talk among themselves trying to figure out what Jesus means by ‘rising from the dead’.

And that’s it.

Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus talked about with Moses and Elijah. But Luke does. In his gospel, Luke tells us they were talking about “Jesus’ departure, which would take place at Jerusalem”.  That’s all Luke says; but it makes sense Jesus would find comfort and encouragement talking with two prophets who understood God’s plan for the salvation of the world and how events needed to unfold.

In the 2000+ years that have passed since then, people have debated what this vision means, and I’m not going to step into those debates. My gut instinct, for what it’s worth, is that this is a sneak preview of what the next life – what eternal life – will be like. It makes sense that our bodies will go through a metamorphosis similar to what Jesus’ body did.  It makes sense that in God’s kingdom we will see and talk to people who have already passed, who (as scripture says) are always alive to God. It’s too much for us mere mortals to take in; but someday, like Noah, like Israel, we will pass through the waters and arrive at the mountain-top in God’s eternal kingdom.

Until that day comes, God’s message to the disciples on the mountain is the one we need to take with us: Jesus is God’s son, deeply loved by God, and our job is to listen to him.

Like the disciples, we’re still trying to figure things out.  We’re still trying to make sense of what happened.  We hear Jesus’ words, but we don’t fully understand.  And that’s OK.  Our understanding is in part, for now. Jesus doesn’t scold the disciples for not getting it all right away.  Understanding will come. For now, the best we can do is listen to him, and follow.

With that in mind, we leave the mountaintop of Transfiguration and head down the mountain – into Lent,  and Good Friday… and Easter. Over these next 40 days, listen to him, and follow. AMEN.

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2 Kings 2:1-12  Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.  2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.  3 The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.”

 4 Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the LORD has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho.  5 The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.”

 6 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on.  7 Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan.  8 Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.

 9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.”  10 He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.”  11 As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.  12 Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

Mark 9:2-9  Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them,  3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.  4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.  5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.  7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.  9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

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Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 2/12/18

 

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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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[Jesus said] “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them;  15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.  16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents.  17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents.  18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.  19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.  20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’  21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’  22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’  23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’  24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed;  25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’  26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?  27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.  28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.  29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” – Matthew 25:14-30

[The apostle Paul writes:] “Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you.  2 For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.  3 When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!  4 But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief;  5 for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.  6 So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober;  7 for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night.  8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.  9 For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,  10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.  11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” – I Thessalonians 5:1-11

 

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Well today is kind of a weird Sunday. We’re at the end of Fall but not quite at Christmas. Next Sunday we celebrate Christ the King and the week after that Advent starts. This week is Thanksgiving, and that’s sort of today’s theme, but there are no turkeys in Scripture, and our readings for today talk about Jesus coming back to earth at the end of time, which is usually something we hear about in Advent.

So we could consider today a sneak preview of Advent.

So at this time of year, when the days are getting shorter and the weather is getting colder, I think a message of encouragement will be a good thing. And of the two readings for today, Paul’s words in I Thessalonians are more encouraging, so I’m going to leave Paul for last, and we’ll start with the story from Matthew.

Our reading in Matthew is a familiar parable. Jesus told this story to the disciples a day or two before he died on the cross, so in a sense, these are a dying man’s last words. (There are actually three parables in Matthew 25, and together they make up Jesus’ final instructions to the disciples – and to us – on how to live a life of faith when Jesus is no longer here on earth in the flesh.)

Just to kind of fill in the rest of the chapter briefly – the first parable is the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, five of whom took extra oil with them and five of whom did not – and when the groom (who was late) finally arrived, the five who weren’t ready ran out of oil, and had to go get more, and they ended up being locked out of the wedding feast. The moral of the story being, stay awake and be prepared.

The third parable in the chapter is the story of the lambs and the goats on judgement day. The King says to the lambs on his right hand “welcome into my Father’s kingdom – for I was hungry and thirsty and naked and sick and in prison and you took care of me…”.  And then he says to the goats on his left, “depart from me, evildoers, because you didn’t do these things.”  And both the sheep and the goats reply, “when did we ever do this (or not do this) for you?”  And Jesus answers, “just as you did it to one of the least of these (or didn’t do it), you did it (or didn’t do it) to me.”

Both stories tell us that what we do with our lives matters.  Yes, we are saved by grace through faith.  Salvation is totally a gift from God; but as Martin Luther pointed out, faith without works is dead.  If we really believe, what we believe in will show up in how we live.

Today’s parable about three servants and their talents reinforces this point. So turning to the story…

There’s a rich man – a very rich man – who is going away on a long journey. While he’s away he wants his servants to take over management of what he owns. The rich man of course represents God, and the servants represent us – not just us present here today, but all people.

As for the talents – in Jesus’ day a talent was a measure of weight that was used to weigh things like gold or silver or bronze.  We don’t know exactly how much a talent was worth (depending on which book you read, a talent may have been worth anywhere from tens of thousands to 1.5 million), but the point is: each servant was given, basically, a lifetime’s wages. And that amount would be somewhat different for each person, just like it is for us.

The talents, then, represent what God has given us: our bodies, our minds, our hearts, our souls, our families, our abilities, all the things that make up who we are. These gifts are all God’s, but he hands over to our care.  He gives one servant five talents, another two talents, another one talent.

Is God playing favorites here? No. God knows each person, and gives what’s appropriate to each person.  Having more talents doesn’t make someone a better person – it just means that person has more work to earn!  And having fewer talents doesn’t mean a person’s efforts are less important. Remember the story of the widow’s mite: Jesus said the poor widow who gave two pennies gave more than anyone else because she gave all she had.  So it’s not about how many talents we have – it’s what we do with what we’ve been given.

So the first and second servant go out and trade with their master’s talents, and they double what they’ve been given: the one with five talents makes five more, and the one with two makes two more.  But the third servant… I’m going to come back to him in a moment.

Up to this point the story reminds me of Shark Tank on TV. Shark Tank is a reality show about rich investors (called “Sharks”) and average people like you and me who go to the Sharks with business proposals. And if the ideas are good a Shark will invest, giving the business owner money and advice on growing their business, and in a matter of years (or sometimes just months) an investment of a few hundred thousand dollars turns into millions. And both the Shark and the business owner are thrilled!

Of course God doesn’t need money, but God is an investor.  God invests in us!  And our job is like those business owners on Shark Tank: to take the talents God gives us, and the guidance God gives us, and make a profit with it.

So what would a profit look like in the kingdom of God?  It could take on many forms. Winning souls for Jesus, perhaps. Providing food and clothing to people after hurricanes. Building friendships between people from different countries. Bringing justice into an unjust situation. Welcoming strangers. Could be any number of things. Through prayer God guides us in investing the talents we have been given.

And imagine the joy of standing before God on that day and saying, “Look, you gave me these gifts and I made more!” And hearing God say, “well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master!”  No matter how many talents we’ve been given, the reward is the same: “Well done!”

So what’s up with the guy with the one talent? I could never figure out where he’s coming from.  Look at the things he says to God: “Master, I knew that you were a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” (Matt 25:24-25)

Where does he get this? How does his brain get to the point of saying to God, “you’re a hard man” when God is neither hard nor a man?

For those of us who know God, this guy sounds completely out in left field. So where are his words coming from?  One theologian makes a good point when he says (paraphrasing) “one way or another, every stubborn sinner ends up blaming his sins on God.” In other words, what the man is saying is what psychologists would call denial and projection: looking at someone else and seeing a reflection of himself instead of what’s really in front of him.

So servant number three blames God for his own shortcomings, insults and falsely accuses God to his face, and then hands him one lousy coin covered with dirt. Is it any surprise the master says, “you wicked and lazy servant! The least you could have done was earn some interest! Take away his talent and give it to the one with ten, and throw him out into the darkness!”

Bottom line, we do not want to be this guy. We want to see God as God is: the loving Lord, the gracious God, the source of all good things, who wants us to do well and wants us to enter into the joy of our master.

And at this point, then, we turn to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians.  Paul and his hearers would likely have been familiar with this story Jesus told here.  And Paul picks up the theme, saying, “you know the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”  Paul writes, “When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them” (I Thess 5:3).  (I think the “they” Paul is talking about are those guys with the one talent. “They” are false prophets.)

Paul continues: “But you, beloved, are not in darkness” (I Thess 5:4)  Darkness may represent lostness, confusion, lack of direction, lack of meaning, lack of purpose, lack of knowledge, lack of connectedness with God. Darkness is where people hide when they don’t want to be seen.  And darkness is where the guy with one talent ends up living.

But Paul says, “you belong to the day.”( v. 8)  Therefore, he says, “since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” (I Thess 5:8)

Look at that equipment for a moment: faith and love, as a breastplate, to protect our hearts… and the hope of salvation as a helmet to protect our minds. And faith, hope, and love, these three (the greatest of which is love) which will direct us in investing our talents.

Paul adds, “so awake or asleep we may live with him.” (I Thess 5:10)

Therefore encourage each other. Encourage each other to good works, to investing talents wisely, to investing ourselves in God’s kingdom.  And likewise encourage the church to good works, and to faith and hope and love.

And I would add, when you see something, say something.  If you see someone using their talents, or see the church using its talents, say so.  Spread the good news! Give thanks to God, and give thanks to the people involved.

See… I knew we’d get around to Thanksgiving somehow.  Thanks be to God, who gives us the talents, and who gives us the hope and the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip, 11/19/17

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[Jesus said] “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.  2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.  3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them;  4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.  5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.  6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’  7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.  8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’  9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’  10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.  11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’  12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’  13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” – Matthew 25:1-13

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Artwork: The Parable of the Ten Virgins (section) by Phoebe Traquair, Mansfield Traquair Church, Edinburgh

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Today’s parable about the wise and foolish bridesmaids is a familiar story for clergy and congregations alike. It is – or at least seems to be – a straightforward story with a simple message, which is: “be ready.” Or “be prepared” as the Boy Scouts would say.

But as I was looking at this parable this week, I realized it’s not quite that simple.  Being prepared is only part of Jesus’ point.  The main point is in the last sentence following the word therefore: “Therefore keep awake for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (And some translations add, “in which the Son of Man comes.”)

So Jesus is talking about his return at the end of the age, and his main point is nobody knows when he’s coming back.

Jesus isn’t telling us this parable to make us paranoid. We don’t need to be thinking, every minute of every day, “what would Jesus say if he came back right now and saw me doing this?” It’s not like the old t-shirt that says, “Jesus is coming… look busy!”

Jesus is not trying to make us unbearably self-concious.  But he is telling us to be aware of how we invest our time.  We only have so much time in this life to get to know God, and to grow up into the children of God we were born to be. So Jesus is saying “stay awake, stay on your toes!”

And yet… as we look at this story of the bridesmaids, we see that none of them stays awake!  The wise ones and foolish ones alike grow drowsy and nod off.

So if Jesus’ point is “stay awake”, and none of the bridesmaids manage to do that, then what?

Often in scripture when Jesus told parables, the disciples would pull him aside later and ask, ‘what did you mean by that?’… but in this case they didn’t. So I think our best bet is to start with what we know, and then work our way into what’s less clear. And there are at least five things that we know about this story:

First, we know this is a parable about the kingdom of heaven. Jesus says so in the first sentence: “the kingdom of heaven will be like this”. So the story is about the time, sometime in the future, when God will restore creation to its original glory at the end of the age.

Second, this parable is the first of three parables Jesus tells in Matthew chapter 25 about the end of the age.  The other two parables are: (1) the parable of the talents (where three men are given 10 talents, 5 talents, and 1 talent, respectively, and the first two go out and earn more, but the third man buries his talent and gives the master back only the one. Jesus says to the first two “well done good and faithful servant” but says to the last “you wicked and lazy servant”.  And then parable number (2) is the parable of the sheep and the goats on the judgement day, when Jesus says to the sheep on his right hand “come, blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom” but says to the goats on his left hand, “depart from me into the eternal fire”.  And both the sheep and the goats say to him, “When did we ever see you hungry or naked or in need, and help you (or not help you)?” And Jesus answers “as much as you did it (or didn’t do it) to one of the least of these, you did it (or didn’t do it) to me.”

So in all three parables in Matthew 25, the human race is being divided into two groups, based on what each person did in their lives. And one group is welcomed into the kingdom and the other group is not.

These stories make us uncomfortable: because if we truly love our fellow human beings we don’t ever want to think of anyone as being excluded from God’s kingdom.  (Which by the way is why mission and outreach are so critically important.)

On top of that it’s frightening to hear Jesus say words like “I don’t know you” and “depart from me” – because we begin to wonder if we’ve done enough in our lives… and we cry out to God for mercy (which is exactly the right thing to do, because our God is gracious and delights in showing mercy).

Third, we know that Jesus told these parables only two or three days before he went to the cross.  They are part of Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples.  In a way they’re a dying man’s last words.  Jesus is not going to be with the disciples much longer, so he’s telling them – and us – what we’re going to need to know in his absence.

Fourth, we know what some of the people and events in the parable represent.  We know the bridegroom represents Jesus, and the bridegroom’s arrival represents Jesus’ second coming. The bridesmaids in this story represent the people who follow Jesus, that is, churchgoers or Christians. (In most end-time parables in the Bible, the church is represented by the Bride. But in this particular story we don’t see the bride, and the church is represented by the bridesmaids.)

Fifth, we hear Jesus repeating himself.  In Matt. 24:36 he says “about that day and hour no one knows.” In Matt. 24:44 he says, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” and in Matt. 25:13 he says, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  When Jesus repeats himself three times – we need to be paying attention!

So with all this as background, let’s take a look at the story.

Jesus says: “the kingdom of heaven will be like this.  There were ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.”

Of course wedding traditions have changed over the years.  Back in those days, the wedding was arranged, and the couple made their promises and vows (such as they were) at the betrothal.  The groom would then go and prepare a place for his bride – build a house, furnish it, gather together whatever was needed to raise a family – and when everything was ready, the invitation to the wedding feast would go out. On that day the groom would come and claim his bride from her father’s house, and take her to the banquet, and from there they would go home to their new home together.

And when the invitation went out it didn’t read “wedding at four, reception at six” like in our day. The invitation would arrive word-of-mouth and would tell the date of the groom’s arrival, and that’s all!  Usually the groom would arrive after dark, so the job of the bridesmaids was to light the path for the groom to the banquet hall. Partly this was to make the path visible, and partly it was a beautiful thing to see, it set the mood.

So the bridesmaids have only one job: to carry lamps to provide light.

So the bridesmaids who were wise took extra oil with them, in case the groom might be delayed.  The bridesmaids who were foolish figured, “naaah, he’ll be on time” and didn’t bother to bring anything extra.

And as it happened, the groom was delayed.  In fact he was much later than expected, and all the bridesmaids, whose job was to watch and wait and light the path, fell asleep.  And then at midnight the cry came, “the groom is here! Come out to meet him!”  And the bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps and went out to light the way, but the foolish bridesmaids realized their lamps were going out.

So they said to their companions “give us some of your oil”. But the wise said, “No. If we do, we won’t have enough for ourselves. Go to the vendors and buy some.”

This may sound like a cold-hearted answer, especially after all the things Jesus has taught us about generosity and giving and sharing. Why would they say “no”? (Especially considering the oil vendors weren’t likely to be open at midnight.)

Because the wise bridesmaids are right: at a time like this, each of us must supply our own oil. Because the oil in the story represents our relationship with with God: and that’s something each one of us must do for ourselves. God has no stepchildren. Each of us individually must become children of God, believing in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to forgive our sins, and praying to receive the Holy Spirit. Nobody can do it for us.

So the story continues: the foolish bridesmaids dash off to try to find an oil vendor, and while they’re gone, the groom arrives, and the wise bridesmaids light his way to the feast, and they all go in, and the door is shut.

Some time later – probably hours later – the foolish bridesmaids return with their lamps and their oil (which are no longer needed at this point because the sun is coming up) and they say “open the door to us – we’re part of the wedding party too.” But the bridegroom says to them, “I don’t know you.”

…God forbid…

It’s tempting to take this story to mean that the things we do in our lives earn us a place at the heavenly banquet. It’s tempting to think Jesus is teaching ‘salvation by works’. But that’s not the meaning at all.  It is impossible for anyone to earn their way into heaven.

What Jesus is describing here, in the lives of these bridesmaids, are actions and habits of mind that are the result of, and the outworking of, what the people in the story truly believe. And this is true in all three of the parables in Matthew 25: whether bringing extra oil, or investing talents, or giving food and water to the hungry and thirsty, are all done because the people in the story know and believe and love God.

Jesus says, “you know neither the day nor the hour.”  When the cry goes out, “the bridegroom is here!” – it will be too late to develop the habits of mind, or to invest the talents, or to fill our lamps with the Holy Spirit’s oil.

In our parable, when all the bridesmaids sleep – while it’s not clear from the story – this may represent the sleep of death.  Because when Jesus returns, the vast majority of people who have lived on the earth, including ourselves, will most likely have passed into eternal slumber.  And it is Jesus’ voice that will call us back to life when that day comes.  It is always, always, God’s power and God’s grace that saves us.  We can’t save ourselves, any more than a dead person can raise themselves. But when Jesus calls, we will rise.

And when he calls, we will pick up our lamps and light the way to the wedding feast. And the things we have done for God in our lifetime – having faith, trusting God, receiving the Holy Spirit, obeying God’s word, loving and caring for God’s people – these things will become the oil in our lamps.

In the Greek, the ‘foolishness’ of the foolish bridesmaids is not a matter of intelligence or education.  The Greek word has shades of moral meaning. In the Greek definition, wisdom is knowing what is right and doing it.  Foolishness is knowing what is right and choosing not to do it, or to put it off.

As a side note, for those of us who have experienced setbacks in life – difficulties in careers, or in relationships, or in education – or who have had family issues, or health issues, or have faced poverty or neglect or violence – these things do not exclude us from Godly wisdom. God says in Isaiah 42:3, speaking of the Messiah: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not extinguish”. So each one of us should take whatever light we have, and go and meet the bridegroom.

But for those who say “ahhh, there’s always tomorrow” – “I’ll take care of it tomorrow” – “I’ll do what God wants eventually” – “I don’t have to deal with my bad habits today. There’s always tomorrow” – no, there isn’t always tomorrow.

I know many people here have already made the decision to follow Jesus and are already working on putting oil in their lamps.  I encourage you to keep on doing that.

If there are any here who have not yet decided to follow Jesus and would like to, please see me after the service.  And if there’s anyone here still thinking “I’ve still got tomorrow” – there’s no guarantee of that. Don’t wait.

The parable of the bridesmaids basically reminds us to stay on our toes, spiritually speaking.  To keep on with prayer; to keep on with reading scripture (both on our own and together with others), to keep on helping those in need, and to keep on staying close to our Lord Jesus. Because ultimately the oil comes from him… and only a foolish bridesmaid would look for it anywhere else.

God’s blessings as we struggle to stay awake and keep our lamps burning. AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 11/12/17

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[Scriptures for the day are quoted at the end of the post]
“I will not let you go.”  These words jump out at us from our passage in Genesis today. How many times in our lives have we said that to someone? Or thought it about someone?

When a parent takes their child to the big city for the first time, walking down the street, it’s “I’ve got you… don’t let go!”  Or when a child is learning how to swim: “Go ahead, try it… I won’t let you go.”

Lovers say it to each other, and love songs are full of the feeling. “Hold On” “I’ll Never Let You Go” “Stand By Me”  “I Won’t Last a Day Without You”

Sometimes love songs go a little too far, for example Sting:

“Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take
I’ll be watching you.”

(…which Sting calls his “Stalker Song”. Sting says he gets a bit worried when fans play this song at their weddings!)

This passionate sentiment of ‘not letting go’ is expressed in our readings from both Genesis and Romans today. In Genesis 32 a man says it to God, and in Romans 8 God says it to us.

Jacob Wrestles the Angel – Arthur Sussman
“Kick at the Darkness Until It Bleeds Daylight”

Let’s look at Genesis first.  In this passage we see the patriarch Jacob alone in the wilderness, wrestling with a stranger who turns out to be… sort of a human manifestation of God.  How Jacob came to be in this particular place on this particular night is a long story. So to make a long story short:

Jacob has been struggling and wrestling with God all his life. Even before Jacob was born, God told his mother Rebekah that her younger son (Jacob) would be blessed by God and would rule over her older son Esau.  As time went on, this started to become true, but for some reason Jacob and Rebekah felt a need to help God out a bit.  So first Jacob cheats his brother out of his birthright, and then he cheats him out of his father’s blessing.

At this point Esau is so angry he starts plotting to murder his brother Jacob.  So Rebekah sends Jacob about 500 miles away to stay with her brother Laban for safe-keeping.  On the way to Laban’s place, Jacob has his famous vision of the ladder, on which he sees angels going up and down into heaven, and hears God say:

“The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth… and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.  Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:13-15, edited)

Jacob is so amazed and moved by this meeting, he sets up a stone and calls the place Bethel which means “house of God.” Jacob has now heard, with his own ears, the same promise his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham heard God speak.  And yet when he gets to Laban’s place, Jacob still takes matters into his own hands.

And now, twenty years later, he finds himself with two wives (only one of which he asked for), eleven sons and a daughter, and huge flocks of sheep and goats – most of which he has more-or-less cheated his father-in-law out of. So Jacob’s family is now quite rich, but Jacob himself is tired and discouraged, and has worn out his welcome with just about everybody, and is caught between an angry father-in-law and an estranged brother.

So now Jacob is on the way home. Afraid of what he might meet, Jacob sends his wives and kids and animals on ahead while he spends a night alone.  But suddenly he finds himself wrestling with a mysterious man.

All.Night.Long.

As the night wears on, the wrestler puts Jacob’s hip out of joint, but still Jacob won’t let go.  Finally the sun begins to rise, and the wrestler says “let me go, for the day is breaking”. But Jacob answers, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

…as if Jacob would be able to prevent God’s departure!  You have to admire Jacob’s chutzpah. You also have to admire the rich grace of a God who is willing to spend a whole night wrestling with a mere mortal – just to teach him how to say “I will not let you go.”

So the wrestler, now revealed as God, blesses Jacob with the words:

“You shall no longer be called Jacob (which means ‘supplanter’ or ‘deceiver’) but [you shall be called] Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.”

In the ancient world, names meant something, much more than they do in our culture. And the meaning of the name ‘Israel’ has been much debated.  I’ve often seen it translated as ‘he struggles with God’ or ‘he wrestles with God’.  But the Hebrew word, Isra-El, describes God, not Jacob. So a more accurate translation might be “God struggles” or “God wrestles”.

Of course it takes two to tango.  God has been wrestling with Jacob… and Jacob has been wrestling with God… all his life.  Now, finally, Jacob is at the point where he’s ready to put things in God’s hands.

For us, where we are today, if we find ourselves at the end of our ropes or at the end of our strength, if we’re hurting and ready to quit, if we feel like strangers in a strange land, will we look to God (as Jacob did) and say “I will not let you go unless you bless me”?  Will we hold on to God with all the passion of a romantic lover?

It’s a choice. Holding on to God is not so much rooted in feeling, as it is a decision.  It’s a persistence.

[As an aside – I think the ‘holding on’ and ‘not letting go’ that popular love songs sing about often has more in common with addiction than it does with faith. One of the things I discovered in my younger days is that it’s impossible to get ‘hooked on’ God.  A person can get addicted to religion or to church (or to church music) or to one kind of theology or another. But somehow God in His mercy has made it impossible to get hooked on Him.  For those of us with addictive streaks in our personalities, it would be easier to be a Christian if we could just get hooked on God because then we wouldn’t have to worry about letting go. We’d have to have God. There would be no choice in the matter.  But God has made human beings in such a way that our faithfulness and our tenacity has to be a choice, moment by moment, day by day.]

The fly in the ointment of course is that none of us is perfect, so none of us can hold on to God perfectly. And none of us is infinitely strong, so none of us can hold on forever. And that’s where our reading from Romans comes in. Romans assures us that when we come to the end of our strength, the end our abilities, God will not let go.  Jesus, who loved us even to death, is holding on to us and will not let go.

The apostle Paul says this is true in spite of any persecution or trouble we may face. It’s true no matter what. And then Paul lists a whole bunch of things that cannot separate us from God.  They include:

  • Death. Life. (That covers most of it, doesn’t it?)
  • Angels (fallen or otherwise)
  • At this point the Greek gets a little open to variation – most translations say ‘principalities’ (which is true enough – principalities can’t make God let go of us). But the word looks more like ‘the first things’ followed by ‘the present’ and then ‘the things that are to come’. In other words, past, present and future. Nothing in our past can make God let go of us. Nothing in our present can get in God’s way. And the future is nothing to fear when we’re in God’s hands.
  • Heights or depths (this can be interpreted either literally or figuratively. The highest high you’ve ever known can’t surpass God, and the deepest depression you’ve ever felt can’t overwhelm God.)
  • Nor anything else in all creation (Paul says) can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

God will never let us go.  Is this not good news?

And so as we move into this week and into our daily lives, think about how Jacob wrestled with God, and refused to let go.  Try approaching God in prayer with that kind of mindset and tenacity.

But also remember God is holding on to us, and God won’t let go, so we are secure no matter what happens, no matter what comes our way. We go out into the world in the confidence of God’s love that cannot be shaken.

God loves you – and will never let you go.  AMEN.

 

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Preached at Fair Oaks Retirement Home and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District, 8/6/17

Artwork: “Jacob Wrestles the Angel” by Arthur Sussman

“Kick at the Darkness” article by Victoria Emily Jones. Pull-quote:

“In the painting God’s various sets of hands are breaking Jacob down and holding him up. Some of his faces speak gentleness, some fierceness. Whatever mixture of approaches God may use on us, his goal is this: to bring us through our brokenness to a place of blessing and glory.”

With thanks to Fr. Paul Johnston for bringing these works into our worship today.

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Scriptures

Genesis 32:22-31

“The same night [Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.  Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”  So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”  Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”  Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.  So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.”

 

Romans 8:35-39

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

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Scripture reading: Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

This morning we continue our summer series in Genesis: today’s reading tells the story of the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah.  We met Isaac last week, the son of Abraham, the great patriarch of Israel. As our story opens today, Isaac is now 40 years old; his mother Sarah has recently passed away; and his father Abraham is old and doesn’t get around much any more.

And Isaac has not yet married – which is unusual for a man his age in that culture. And it’s becoming an issue in the family – because Abraham is a very wealthy man, with a very large household (practically the size of a small town), and God has promised his son Isaac will be the father of nations.  So Abraham needs an heir, and Isaac needs children. But first, Isaac needs a wife!

Some of us can remember a similar situation back in the 1970s, when Prince Charles of Great Britain was turning 30 and hadn’t married yet. It was a HUGE issue over in the UK! One of the Prince’s royal duties is to see to it that the dynasty continues. It’s interesting to note both Prince Charles and Abraham chose to do basically the same thing: they chose their most trusted servants and sent them out quietly to look for a bride worthy of their prince. (Charles of course dated his bride-to-be a few times – it wasn’t entirely an arranged marriage, as Isaac’s was. But in both cases servants took the lead in getting the relationships started.)

These servants would not have been typical house-servants. Think Mr. Carson on Downton Abbey: He would have been hired as a young man to be the personal servant of the man who would eventually inherit the estate. This kind of servant does far more than just manage other servants: he is a close friend and confidante… one of the few people his master can count on to be absolutely loyal and absolutely trustworthy.

In our story today, Abraham’s servant has worked for Abraham for at least 60 years. Interestingly his name – Eliezer – means “God is [my] help”.  And because he is such a remarkable servant, I’d like to tell Isaac’s story from Eliezer’s point of view, the way he might have told it. I imagine him saying something like this:

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“A few days ago my master Abraham called me into his tent and gave me a very special assignment. He wants me to find a wife for his son Isaac.  My master is too old now for such a task, and I am honored that he asked me.  God has blessed my master richly: he lacks nothing, and his son Isaac is strong and handsome. But at the age of forty, Isaac needs an heir.  My master says God has promised that Isaac’s children will become nations of people… but before that happens he needs a wife!

“Of course the wife of a man like Isaac must be an exceptional woman. My master told me: ‘do not get a wife for Isaac from among the Canaanites. They don’t know God, and they would lead Isaac away from God. Go to my father’s house, to my family in Mesopotamia, and find a wife for Isaac there.’

“Of course I would do anything for Abraham… but what he asks is very difficult. Traditionally it is the father who arranges such a marriage, but Abraham is too old to travel, so I must take his part. The journey is around 500 miles, and once I get there I must find the family of Abraham’s father, and then find among them a worthy woman.  Assuming I am successful in this, I then need to negotiate a bride price, and give appropriate gifts to the bride and her family. And then the bride herself must agree to leave her home and her family and travel to a foreign land to marry a man she has never met.

“This mission may prove impossible. So I ask my master: what if the woman will not return with me? Shall I bring Isaac to her?  And my master answered ‘No. My son is NOT to go back. God took me from my father’s house and brought me here and promised this land to me and my descendants. Under no circumstances are you to take Isaac there. If the woman will not come with you, you are free of your oath.’  And my master made me swear, placing my hand under his thigh and swearing on God’s covenant, that I would be faithful to my task.

“And so we loaded up the camels with rich gifts for the bride, and gathered some men-servants to travel with me, and we set off. After a few weeks we arrived in the region where my master’s family was last known to live.  It was late in the day, and we stopped by a spring of water because my men and their camels are thirsty.

“And as we stopped, I prayed. I have often heard my master pray, and I know God talks to him, but God has never spoken to me. I don’t know if he will hear me, but I pray he will answer, not because of who I am, but because I am Abraham’s servant.

“So I pray: ‘O God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham.  I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water.  Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’ – let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac.’ (Genesis 24:12-14)

RebekahNServant

“Before I even finished my prayer, a beautiful young woman came up from the spring carrying a jug of water. And I ran to her and I said, ‘please let me have a sip of your water,’ and she answered, ‘drink, my lord, and I will water your camels also.’

“And I watched, astounded, as she ran with grace and strength to tend to my camels. The Lord answered my prayer so quickly – and with such a generous and kind young woman!  So I took out of my master’s treasures a gold nose-ring and two gold bracelets and presented them to her. And I asked her: ‘whose daughter are you? And is there room in your father’s house for my men and camels to stay the night?’

“She answered: ‘I am the daughter of Bethuel, the son of Nahor and Milcah.’ (Nahor by the way is my master Abraham’s brother!) ‘And yes,’ she says, ‘we have plenty of straw and fodder and a place to stay for the night.’ At which I bow my head and gave praise to God saying, ‘Blessed be the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master […] the LORD has led me on the way to the house of my master’s kin.’ (Genesis 24:27)

“The girl ran home to tell her family all of this, and they all ran out to meet me. Her brother Laban took care of our camels, and he prepared a rich feast for us. But I would not eat until I had told them my mission.  I said to her family, ‘I am Abraham’s servant. The LORD has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys. And Sarah my master’s wife bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has. My master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, […] but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.’ ’ (Gen 24:34-38)

“And I told them about my prayer, and about Rebekah being the answer to that prayer. And I said to them, ‘if you will deal faithfully with my master and me please say so, and if not please say so, so that I know what to do next.’

“Rebekah’s father and brother both said, ‘this comes from God! We can’t say otherwise. Let our sister be the wife of your master’s son.’

And at that word, Rebekah was legally married – so long as she approved. So I opened my master’s treasures and gave rich gifts to Rebekah and to her father and to her brother.  And then we sat down and had a feast!

“In the morning they called Rebekah in and asked her: ‘will you go with this man?’ and she said ‘yes’.  And she packed her things, and she and her maidservants came  home with us.  Rebekah rode on the camels alongside me most of the way, and I had the chance to get to know her. She is lively and good-natured and speaks with a twinkle in her eye.  I couldn’t wait to introduce her to Isaac.

“Before we even got home, Isaac and Rebekah saw each other from across a field, and Rebekah immediately got off the camel and wrapped her veils around her like a proper lady. And when they met, it was love at first sight. Isaac now had someone in his life to comfort him after the passing of his mother… someone who would be by his side for a lifetime.

“I give praise and glory to God for their happiness, and for God’s faithfulness to my master and to my master’s servant. That is my story.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Taking back the mic now from Abraham’s servant Eliezer, just three things I’d like to say about his story:

  1. In this story – as in all of Genesis – Isaac can be understood as a type of Christ.
    In other words, the pattern of the events in Isaac’s life point to Jesus and create a kind of prophecy.Isaac, like Jesus, is the one and only heir of an extremely wealthy Father. Isaac waits for his bride in his Father’s house, preparing a place for her – just as Jesus does for us. And both Isaac and Jesus love their brides with all their hearts.
    The bride can be seen to represent us, God’s people.  Like Rebekah, Jesus’ bride is remarkable for her beauty, her generosity, and her willingness to tend to the needs of others. She is willing to leave behind her home and everything she knows in order to be with her husband.
    Jesus once said ‘anyone who loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me’ – not because it’s wrong to love father and mother! – but because the bride’s heart is set on her husband. So in this love story we see a prophecy of the love story between Jesus and us.
  2. Love relationships never happen in a vacuum.
    Notice how many people were involved in bringing about this marriage!  There’s the groom, the groom’s father, the groom’s best servant, the groom’s household servants, the bride, the bride’s brother, the bride’s mother and father, the bride’s maidservants, and of course God. Love relationships involve the entire family and the entire community.
    These days it’s popular to say “relationships are just between two consenting adults”.  But the story of Isaac and Rebekah shows why this is complete nonsense. Love relationships never happen in a vacuum.  And because this is true, in the words of theologian Charles Simeon: “Let a concern for God’s honor regulate our conduct.” In other words, as we have seen in this story, whatever we do in our love relationships, let it bring honor to God.
  3. Abraham’s servant sets an example for all of us as we serve God.
    Look at how he goes about doing what Abraham has asked him to do:
  • Eliezer does not put himself forward. His goal is to bring attention to the Father and to the Son.
  • He does not travel alone; he goes with others. There is no such thing as a ‘lone ranger Christian’ – we are called to work and to serve together.
  • He has taken a vow and he works to fulfill it. We also have taken vows – either in baptism or in confirmation – and we work to fulfill those vows.
  • He is 100% loyal to his master, following his directions, listening to his concerns, and asking questions where needed.
  • He knows he can act with confidence because the mission and the resources are his Master’s. And each one of us – as God’s servants – can move with confidence because the gifts and the mission are God’s.
  • Like Abraham’s servant, we pray as we serve, seeking God’s direction as God’s plans unfold.

So Abraham’s servant gives us a model to follow as we serve.  But having said that, the closest parallel for us as the body of believers really is Rebekah.  We follow in her footsteps. We are the ones who hear the words of God’s servants, the prophets – words of love and commitment from our Lord. We are the ones who are asked: “will you go with this man, this Jesus?”

If we say ‘yes’, just as the servant clothed Rebekah and gave her rich gifts,  Jesus will clothe us with a robe of righteousness and jewels of spiritual gifts – and the Holy Spirit, which is God’s pledge, like an engagement ring. The question then is: are we willing to leave what we know, and go with him?

In Psalm 45, a song written for the wedding of a king, the psalmist says:

“Hear, O daughter, consider and incline your ear; forget your people and your father’s house… the king desires your beauty…” – Psalm 45:10-11

Today we stand where Rebekah stood. The King of Kings and the Lord of Lords desires our beauty, and asks if we will go with him. Will we say ‘yes’?

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican), Pittsburgh – 7/9/17

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