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Reading: 2 Samuel 6:1-5 and 12-19 at end of post

Back in 1992 the Queen of England looked back over a year in which Prince Charles and Diana, Prince Andrew and Fergie, and Princess Anne and Mark Philips all separated and headed for divorce. And the Queen described it as an “annus horribilus” – a horrible year.

This past week has been a horrible week.

Last Sunday morning the members of our sister church, Fairhaven United Methodist, woke up to the news that their choir director Ricardo Tobia had been murdered.  As we put our heads and hearts together, all we really knew at that point was that neighbors had called in a wellness check early Saturday morning, and the police had gone in and found the bodies of a man and a dog, and they were saying it was a homicide. They hadn’t released any names yet.

And that’s all we knew. A few folks were holding on to the hope that maybe it wasn’t Ricardo. But as the news continued to unfold on Sunday and Monday and Tuesday, the worst was confirmed. And the description of the crime scene given in the press is too gruesome to talk about, or even to think about for more than a few seconds at a time.

This morning Ricardo was supposed to have been the lay reader at Fairhaven, and I was looking forward to serving with him again and hoping he might even have a solo for us. I can’t imagine never hearing his voice again… or debating with him over the relative merits of this hymn vs that hymn… or never hearing his students again, who he used to invite to come and sing and share their gifts. Ricardo and his students had a mutual love for each other, and the tributes on Facebook bring tears to the eyes. So many of his students say things like “he believed in me when I didn’t even believe in myself.” There’s no higher tribute a student can give a teacher.

At a time like this the question that keeps coming back is: WHY??? Why did this have to happen? How could anyone do such a thing? I mean, yes, we understand that the man who has been arrested has a history of mental illness… but that doesn’t really answer to the question, not really.

And then a few days after that, another news story broke, about a Pittsburgh musician who lost his life in the rip tides off the coast of New Jersey.  That young man was Gabriel D’Abruzzo. Gabe was a piano student of mine when he was a kid and we stayed friends over the years. He grew up to be an amazing musician.  And there’s a connection between Gabe and our sister church Hill Top United Methodist: Gabe was a friend and accompanist to Erin Ehrlich when she was studying at Duquesne; and Gabe’s family is originally from the Allentown neighborhood. In fact his grandparents owned the Micromart & Deli that used to be next door to Barry Funeral Home, across from the church. Gabe was the kindest, most generous person you’d want to know. And he was only 42.

Over the weeks and months ahead we will be coming to terms with these losses, or at the very least comforting those who are grieving. And the question of why do these things happen – why do horrible things happen to good people – is one of the toughest things in life to deal with. Books upon books have been written to trying to answer these questions, and I don’t know that any of them give an answer that really satisfies.

So this week I was looking at our scripture reading for today, about the Ark of the Covenant, and as I read, I found it actually spoke to me about these questions and about what we’re going through this week.  Because when I find myself asking the question ‘why?’ or ‘Where is God in all this?’ – what I really want is assurance that God is still there and still cares about the people I love.

In the Old Testament the Ark of the Covenant represented the presence of God.  As the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness after being set free from Egypt, the Ark was always in the middle of the people. When they set up camp, the Ark was in the middle of the camp, with three tribes on each side, north, south, east and west.

OldArk

But today’s passage doesn’t take place during that wilderness time. It takes place at a time when the Ark had actually been lost, and Israel was wondering if God was still with them.  The people of Israel had gone to war against the Philistines, and because they wanted God on their side, they took the Ark into battle with them. And they lost the battle. When it was all over, Eli the priest was dead, Eli’s sons were dead, the Ark was captured by the enemy, and Eli’s daughter-in-law, who saw the Ark being carried off as she was dying in childbirth, named her son ‘Ichabod’ – which means ‘the glory of God has departed’.

The Israelites had made the mistake of thinking the Ark had some kind of magical power that could be used and manipulated in battle, as if God could be forced to be on their side. It’s kind of like in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark.  You may remember the end of that movie, when the Nazis dressed up like Jewish priests and opened the Ark believing they would find invincibility and maybe even immortality, and in the end they end up essentially being cremated alive.

But the Ark was just a box covered with gold, with angels on top… very pretty, but it wasn’t God, and it wasn’t magic. What made the Ark a sign of God’s presence was not what was on the outside, but what was on the inside: the Ten Commandments, the original stones on which the finger of God had written; the rod of Aaron, used in witnessing to Pharaoh; and a jar of manna, the ‘bread of heaven’ which the people had eaten in the wilderness. Or to put it another way, what was inside the Ark represented: the law, the prophets, and the bread of life.

At times like these, God is still with us in these ways. We have God’s word, and we have God’s promises, and we have the Bread of Heaven, and we have the Body of Christ. We are not alone. And we can take comfort in knowing that God is also present with Ricardo and with Gabe.  Much as we miss them and wish they were still here, they are still with God in a place where they will never again experience pain or sorrow.

In the days of ancient Israel, the Ark of the Covenant used to sit inside the holy of holies in the tabernacle, separated from the worshipers by a curtain. But when Jesus died, scripture tells us “the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matt 27:51) – removing the barrier between the people and the Ark.  So no longer is God’s presence hidden.

The law and the prophets and the Bread of Heaven are with us always – by the power of the Spirit, inside us. As God promised in the words of Jeremiah, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jer. 31:33)

And Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matt. 5:17)  So the law of Moses and the writings of the prophets are fulfilled in Jesus, who is the bread of heaven. And Jesus said: “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51)

At times of tragedy like this, we can’t help but ask the question “why?” – even if the answers God gives don’t start with “because…”. Instead God’s answers start with: “I am here. I am present with you. I am with those you love, and those you love are with me.” In such a horrible week, Jesus stands with us, and weeps with us.

For the time being our job is to stay here, and to be like the Ark in this world. Because we have, written on our hearts, the law and the prophets, and the Bread of Heaven, we become like the Ark for others who need to know God’s presence. And just like David rejoiced in the presence of God, we also rejoice in God’s presence… even through our tears.

May those we love who are no longer with us rest in peace and rise in glory. AMEN.

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David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand.  2 David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the LORD of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim.  3 They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart  4 with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark.  5 David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the LORD with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.

It was told King David, “The LORD has blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.” So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing;  13 and when those who bore the ark of the LORD had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling.  14 David danced before the LORD with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod.  15 So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.

 16 As the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart.  17 They brought in the ark of the LORD, and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and David offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before the LORD.  18 When David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD of hosts,  19 and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes. – 2 Samuel 6:1-5 and 12-19

 

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 Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 7/15/18

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“Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Look, we are your bone and flesh. For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The LORD said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.”  So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the LORD, and they anointed David king over Israel. David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years. David occupied the stronghold, and named it the city of David. David built the city all around from the Millo inward. And David became greater and greater, for the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him.”  2 Samuel 5:1-6, 9-10

David’s Palace – an artist’s rendering

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Today we continue our summer series in I & II Samuel. So far this summer we met the prophet Samuel as a boy, serving God in the midst of a corrupt temple leadership; we’ve seen Samuel as a mature man, whose own sons didn’t believe in or serve God the way their father did; and we’ve heard the people of Israel asking God for a king “like all the other nations” and God’s displeasure as God said to Samuel, “It’s not you they’ve rejected, it’s me.”  We saw Samuel – at God’s direction – anoint Saul as king, and then (when Saul turned out to be a disappointment), Samuel annointed David. We saw young David confront the giant Goliath and lead Israel to victory over the Philistines.  And last week we heard David’s lament at the death of Saul and his son Jonathan.

Which brings us to this week, and “The Glory Years.”

What do these words bring to mind when someone says, ‘the glory years’?  For some of us it might take us back to the 1980s, when hair was big and big hair bands were bigger. For some of us it might be the 1960s, when the Beatles were the cat’s meow and just about every family could make ends meet on one person’s income. Or maybe the 1950s, back when everybody worshiped God on the weekend: our Jewish and Catholic friends on Saturday nights and everybody else on Sunday mornings, and the churches and the synagogues were packed because that’s just what you did.  Or maybe for some of us it was the 1940s, when World War II was finally over and our soldiers came home and there were parades and celebrations and reunions.

I was thinking this past week as we celebrated the 4th of July – talk about glory days!  242 years ago we Americans declared ourselves independent of Great Britain and made ourselves a new country. So would we say that 1776 was our ‘glory year’?

The reason I ask is because our scripture reading for today talks about the beginning of what Israel in Bible times would have called their ‘glory years’: those years when King David and his son King Solomon reigned over the Promised Land.

The people of Israel had been waiting so long for this! From the time God set them free from slavery in Egypt to the time they set foot in the Promised Land, forty years had passed – just to get there. And once they were there, they had to deal with attacks from neighbors on the outside, and rebellions against God on the inside, and leaders like Joshua and Samson and Deborah and Gideon were led by God to deal with all these things. But it took almost 350 years from the time the Israelites arrived in the Promised Land until the time King David sat in peace on the throne of Israel and the people of God were safe in the Promised Land.  And this was only after their first king, King Saul, failed to live up to expectations and very nearly ruined the nation by fighting unnecessary wars.

But finally, finally, David was king.  Finally, 400 years after Egypt, Israel was at rest in the Promised Land, secure in David’s leadership. And David, this man who Samuel described as “a man after God’s own heart,” became the pattern by which we would recognize the Messiah, ‘the Son of David’.

It’s the beginning of Israel’s glory years.

Those glory years, sadly, would last only 80 years. After Solomon’s death, the kingdom would be divided, never to be completely united again in the course of human history.  Even if you count modern-day Israel – which was founded in 1948 – less than half the Jewish people in the world live there. So the children of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and David have not yet been reunited completely, even 3000 years later.

The fact that any nation could survive for so long as a people without a country and a land to call their own tells us something about how secure God’s promises are in spite of what we see around us. And it teaches us something too about the nature of the Body of Christ, the church – because we too are a people without a land to call our own in this world, because our home is the promised land, the Kingdom of God.

So what we’re reading about today was the beginning of Israel’s glory years. Under King David the nation was united. They were united in worship of the one true and living God. They were free of idols, free of false gods. And there was peace (for the most part) and prosperity for all.  David built a palace, and made plans for the great temple of Jerusalem which his son Solomon would build. And it was glorious! And all of these things give us a foretaste of our own Promised Land.

But the funny thing about glory years is – from a human standpoint – people usually don’t know it when they’re in them.  Think about it. Take 1776 as an example. Yes, the surprise attack on the British at Washington’s Crossing went well.  But a year after that, in 1777, George Washington lost Philadelphia – the capital of our new country – to the British. And he stationed for the winter at Valley Forge – where the fledgling Continental Congress was unable to raise enough money for food or clothing for the army. The soldiers who practiced maneuvers there, hungry and leaving bloody footprints in the snow, never thought for a minute that they were living in any kind of glory years.

Or what if we look back to the 1950s and 1960s as our glory years – back when the economy was booming and the churches were full and dads worked and moms stayed home and raised the kids, and everything made sense and life was good. But if you were alive back then you would have been aware of the Vietnam War dragging on, with no end in sight… and all the mothers losing their sons while the protests on college campuses grew more violent. Racial prejudice was considered normal by many people back then, and when people tried to challenge it they got shot. In four short years we lost President Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King… and those were the people whose names we knew. Many others died whose names we didn’t know. And don’t get me started on gender inequality back then!

Our scripture reading for today gives us hints that the people who lived during Israel’s glory years didn’t know it either. First off scripture says the tribes of Israel “came to David at Hebron”.  Why not Jerusalem? Because King Saul had his throne at Jerusalem. Saul had only been killed in battle just days before, and what was left of Saul’s family was trying to re-establish the throne in Jerusalem. So the leaders of Israel came to David at Hebron because that’s where David was: David was in exile, chased there by Saul.

But years before that, David had been a hero. He killed Goliath with just a slingshot and a few stones. And he led the armies of Israel to victory over the Philistines, so that the people sang “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” David served Saul so well, that Saul became jealous and tried to murder him. But the people never forgot what David did. And so now, with Saul and his son Jonathan dead, the people came to David and said, “look, for some time now, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led Israel…” So lead us now, be our king now.

And David knows the prophet Samuel told him years before that this was his destiny. But he’s torn. David loved Saul in spite of everything. Saul was David’s king, and Saul’s son Jonathan was David’s best friend, and David wants to show mercy to what’s left of Saul’s family. So David says ‘yes’, and the people of Israel anoint David king, but David stays at Hebron for another seven and a half years until he can take care of the things that are on his heart. He takes time to grieve the loss of Saul and Jonathan, and he writes the song:

“Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen!” (II Sam 1:19)

‘Your glory O Israel’ – This lament stands at the very beginning of Israel’s glory years.  The glory years begin with a king with tears in his eyes.

And our glory years, also begin with a king – King Jesus – with tears in his eyes. Luke writes that in the middle of the Palm Sunday celebrations – while the crowds were shouting ‘hosanna!’ – Jesus was weeping. And he was saying, “If you… had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes…” (Luke 19:42)

Palm Sunday is the beginning of our glory days as Christians: a day when the cross was only days away, and the resurrection only a couple days after that. But no matter how you slice it, it seems ‘glory days’ never feel all that glorious when you’re in them.

So today if we look at the world around us, and our neighborhoods around us, and all the people who are hurting around us, and all the angry voices, it may not look like it or feel like it, but (like David) we are in the beginning – just the beginning – of the glory years. God has promised to redeem these years. And as Peter says in his first letter to the churches, “our faith… [which is] tested by fire—[will] result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (I Peter 1:7)

Our Promised Land still lies ahead.  Till then… praise God for the glory years.

AMEN.

 

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 7/8/18

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“Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “Look, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” So Samuel prayed to the LORD. And the LORD said to Samuel, “Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them.  According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt, even to this day — with which they have forsaken Me and served other gods — so they are doing to you also.  Now therefore, heed their voice. However, you shall solemnly forewarn them, and show them the behavior of the king who will reign over them.”

“So Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who asked him for a king.  And he said, “This will be the behavior of the king who will reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them for his own chariots and to be his horsemen, and some will run before his chariots. He will appoint captains over his thousands and captains over his fifties, will set some to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and some to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.  He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, and bakers. And he will take the best of your fields, your vineyards, and your olive groves, and give them to his servants. He will take a tenth of your grain and your vintage, and give it to his officers and servants. And he will take your male servants, your female servants, your finest young men, and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take a tenth of your sheep. And you will be his servants. And you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, and the LORD will not hear you in that day.”

Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, “No, but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” – I Samuel 8:4-20

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This past week at our Wesley Challenge study group, the author of the book we’re reading asked this question: “what Bible stories do you remember from childhood? What comes to mind when you think about Sunday School?” Most of us in the group remembered stories like Moses and the Ten Commandments, or Moses and the burning bush, or David and Goliath.

But nobody mentioned anything about Samuel.

There are two whole books in the Bible named after Samuel, but off the top of our heads it might be difficult to recall what Samuel did.  If we remember anything about him we might remember the story of Samuel as a little boy, serving in the temple. God called to him when he was sleeping, but Samuel didn’t know is was God calling, and so he ran off to the priest Eli and said, “you called me, here I am.” And Eli said, “I didn’t call you, go back to bed”. You remember the story: this happens three times and finally Eli realizes God is calling Samuel, so he tells Samuel ‘next time it happens, say to God “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.”’  And so we learned from this story about the need to listen for God’s voice and to answer as Samuel did, saying ‘speak Lord, your servant hears’.

But this story is just a small piece of a larger story, which is in turn a piece of an even larger story. And the same could be said of our scripture reading for today, which is also taken from Samuel.

Our sermon title for today – The Ways of a King – is taken from today’s reading. God says to Samuel: “warn the people: “These will be the ways of the king who will rule over you…””  But again we’re starting in the middle of a much larger story.

The really big picture story of Samuel covers 100 years of history, and is way more than we can talk about in one Sunday.  So this summer our ministry team will be preaching a sermon series on Samuel and the kings who lived during Samuel’s lifetime: Saul and David – both of them kings who Samuel anointed to be king at God’s command.

So today we begin the story of Samuel himself, laying the foundation for the rest of this summer’s messages.  So who is this man Samuel?

Hannah presents Samuel at the temple

I Samuel chapter one verse one says: “There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite.”

And this man Elkanah was Samuel’s dad.

The fact that verse one takes the long way around the barn to get to Samuel is an ancient way of making a grand entrance for an important person. It’s kind of like if we started a story with the words “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”.  We know something epic is coming.

So looking at verse one: the descendants listed, if you include Samuel, tell us of seven generations – and seven is the number of perfection or completion in scripture. They also tell us Samuel is descended from Ephraim, who was a son of Joseph, who you remember saved his people from famine in Egypt.

Samuel himself doesn’t show up in the book of Samuel for another chapter and a half.  In the meantime we hear the story of Samuel’s mother, Hannah, who longed for a child, and suffered the teasing of her husband’s other wife (who had children). And so, broken-hearted, one day Hannah went to worship in the temple, and she prayed to God saying “if you’ll only give me a son, I’ll see to it that he’s raised as a nazirite” – which is a religious sect devoted to God, whose members never drink strong drink and never cut their hair.

If this sounds familiar, there is another very famous nazirite in the Old Testament who never cut his hair: you remember Samson.  His strength wasn’t really in his hair, it was in the vow that he took as a nazirite (which btw has nothing to do with Nazareth, it’s just the name of the religious order).  So Hannah is promising to make this same vow on behalf of her son, if only God will give her a son.

And God answers ‘yes’, and not too much later, Samuel is born. And Hannah keeps him with her until he is weaned, and then she brings him to Eli the priest and tells him the whole story, and gives him her son Samuel to serve God in the temple.

Samuel’s name means asked of God or heard by God, and his name is a witness to God’s faithfulness. And on the day Samuel enters God’s service, Hannah sings a song of praise: one that sounds a lot like the song Mary sings when she’s pregnant with Jesus. Hannah sings these words:

“My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.
There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.” – I Samuel 2:1-5

Compare this to the words of Mary, Jesus’ mother:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… – Luke 1:46-48
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” – Luke 1:51-53

Isn’t it something how two women who lived over 1000 years apart had very similar experiences of God? And God hasn’t changed; this God they sing about is still our God today.

Hannah’s song ends with these words:

“The LORD will judge the ends of the earth;
he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.” – I Samuel 2:10

It’s interesting that Israel doesn’t have a king at this point in time. In fact it’s Hannah’s son who will anoint the first king of Israel. So is this a prophecy of Jesus?  Or a prophecy of what her son will do one day? Perhaps both? The Bible doesn’t say, but this song tells us we should count Hannah among the prophets.

So Hannah leaves her young son Samuel to serve in the temple.  And Samuel’s early years were not easy for him. His mom comes to visit once a year, and brings him handmade clothing, made with love. But the rest of the time he is raised by the priest Eli – who was a kind man but not a very good leader – and he grew up with Eli’s two sons, who the Bible calls “scoundrels” who “had no regard for the Lord, or for the duties of priests to the people”.  In fact they stole the peoples’ sacrifices, and they took the women who volunteered at the temple and basically made them into temple prostitutes.  Eli told them to knock it off, but he didn’t force the matter, so the boys ignored him and kept on doing what they were doing.

Samuel, though, managed to hold on to what he knew was right in spite of growing up with scoundrels.

Not long after Samuel arrived at the temple, God sent a mysterious messenger to Eli to tell him that his sons are going to die if they don’t straighten up and fly right. The messenger says God will find someone else who will be faithful, and Eli’s family will fall. After the messenger goes away, Samuel has a vision at night (that’s what that whole story was about, with him getting up in the middle of the night). And the message God gives Samuel is the same: God says “I am going to punish the house of Eli because his sons were blaspheming God and he did not restrain them.” (I Samuel 3:13) And hearing this news the next morning, Eli answers: “It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.” (I Sam 3:18)

Eli has given up on his sons. And God has given up on Eli.

Samuel gives Eli God’s message

Samuel grows up, and his reputation for honesty and for knowing the word of God grows with him, and he serves the people of Israel as their priest and prophet and leader for the rest of his life.  He sees the nation through a war with the Philistines, in which the Ark of the Covenant is captured and Eli’s sons are killed. He sees the return of the Ark many months later (when the Philistines find their god face-down on the floor in front of the Ark – but that’s another story for another day). But the Ark of the Covenant doesn’t return to the temple for over 20 years because of the sins of the nation of Israel.

So Samuel leads a revival. He tells the people of Israel to put away all their other ‘gods’ and worship God alone.  And they do, and peace reigns in the nation for a number of years, and finally the Ark of the Covenant returns to the temple.

But Samuel’s sons turn out to be a bit of a disappointment. So when Samuel is old, the people come to him and say, ‘look, you’re old. And your sons aren’t like you. Give us a king, like all the other nations have.’

Can you imagine what Samuel felt, after all his years of service, to be told “you’re old, your kids are worthless, give us a king”?

At a time like this, Samuel does what people of faith do: he brings his broken heart to God.  And God says something surprising: he says “do as they say – give them a king – because they’ve not rejected you, they’ve rejected Me. They’re treating you the way they treat Me. They’ve been this way ever since I brought them out of Egypt,” God says. “They have forsaken me and they serve other gods. So do what they tell you – but warn them.  Warn them what a king will be like. Tell them what a king will do.”

So Samuel goes back and gives the people God’s message. “Here’s what a king will do,” he says. “He’ll take some of your sons for his army, and force the other sons to farm for him and raise food for him. He’ll take your daughters to cook and bake and make perfume for him. He’ll take your crops – the very best of them – your grain and your wine and your olives, and feed them to his servants. He’ll claim your servants for his own, and he’ll take your farm animals too. He’ll take a tenth of everything you own, and you will live your life serving him. And you will cry out because of the burden of it, but God won’t hear you, because this is what you asked for.”

And the people said, “we don’t care. We want a king so we can be like all the other nations.”

Now God had called Israel – the children of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob – to be God’s chosen people, set apart among all the nations to reveal God’s glory to the whole world. And they said ‘no thanks. We’d rather be like everybody else.’

If we ever find ourselves tempted to wonder ‘why do God’s people have to be different?’ – it’s because we’re supposed to be. For those who love God – both Jews and Gentiles – it is God’s plan to show God’s glory (and righteousness and justice and kindness and all those wonderful characteristics of God) – to show God’s glory through God’s people. Through us.

When we feed children here at church, we are showing people just a little bit of what God’s kingdom is like. When we pray for our community and then follow up with action, we are showing the community just a little bit of what God’s kingdom is like.

And in spite of the fact Israel asked for a king, God’s plan to make them his chosen people was not changed.  In spite of the fact they sinned, God’s plans were moving forward. God always intended to give them a king – just not the kind of king they had in mind.  God knew one day there would be a King of kings and a Lord of lords. And giving the nation a human king would help people understand what a kingdom is like, even if human kings aren’t perfect.

And this juxtaposition of heavenly kingdom and earthly kingdom will continue throughout the rest of scripture. We will see it again, for example, when Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you a king?” and Jesus answers, “my kingdom is not of this world.”  We see this encounter of an earthly ruler (Pilate) face to face with the king of heaven, asking the question ‘what is truth?’ when he’s looking directly in the face of truth.

As we move into our summer series on Samuel, keep an eye out for this contrast between God’s kingdom and earthly rulers. We don’t have kings any more, but we still have powerful people running countries, putting our young people in the armed forces or in civil service, and taking way more than 10% of everything we earn. And people today still cry out because of legalized oppression, from race relations to immigration policies to programs designed to keep poor people in poverty.

God’s kingdom, on the other hand, is marked not only by justice and compassion, but by abundance and beauty. God says to the hungry ‘come and eat’ and to the brokenhearted scripture says, ‘a bruised reed he will not break, and a sputtering wick he will not snuff out’.

As we explore the life of Samuel this summer, listen for that juxtaposition of kingdoms. Listen for how we can reflect the kingdom of God rather than the kingdoms of men. And listen for the ways in which God uses human kings to teach us about the King of Kings… even if it’s only to see how they’re different.

Let’s pray…

“Lord Jesus,
You are the King of Glory,
You are the Lord of Lords, and King of Kings.
And we pray that your Kingdom will reign forever in our hearts and in this world.

“Lord, we pray for your Kingdom to come here now,
bringing your kingdom of justice, righteousness, hope, love,
peace, mercy and grace for all.
Lord, we ask that you rule in our hearts,
lead in this world and govern over your kingdom.

“Lord, thank you for being a different kind of King.
Thank you for your goodness and kindness in our lives.
Thank you for your generosity.
Thank you for loving us.
Thank you for your Kingdom that is unlike any
Kingdom in this world. AMEN.”

Abi, on her Long and Winding Road blog [edited]

 

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 6/10/18

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“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!” And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke.  So I said: “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, The LORD of hosts.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth with it, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; Your iniquity is taken away, And your sin purged.” Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: “Whom shall I send, And who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”” – Isaiah 6:1-8

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Psalm 29:1-11  (A Psalm of David)

Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name; worship the LORD in holy splendor.
The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters.
The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.
The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.
May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace!

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We’ve been having a lot of “two-fer” Sundays recently. A couple weeks ago it was Mother’s Day and Ascension on the same day.  Then last week it was Pentecost and Communion.

And this Sunday it’s Trinity Sunday and Memorial Day, which is kind of a weird mix.

Trinity Sunday is an odd holiday to begin with, because it’s one of the more recent additions to our list of church holidays so there’s not a whole lot of tradition built up around how to celebrate it. It’s also odd because the word Trinity doesn’t actually appear in the Bible.  The idea of one God in three “persons” (for lack of a better term) came into being over hundreds of years of people studying what God has revealed in scripture. And what Scripture tells us is the God of Israel – the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus – is one God: Scripture says, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One.”

And yet scripture also speaks of:

  • God as Creator, called the Father (although there are also a few “mother” references in the Bible);
  • God as Redeemer, called Jesus (because he will save his people from their sins. And, as the apostle John says “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” and “All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made” – so Jesus was present at Creation as well as in Israel 2000 years ago);
  • God as Comforter and Advocate, called the Holy Spirit: that part of God that bonds with human spirits who are open to God and who love God.

So that’s what Trinity is about. And today we remember and celebrate all that God has done for us in creation, and in saving us on the cross, and in living among us through the Holy Spirit.

And we also have Memorial Day, which of course is the day when we as Americans remember and honor those men and women who gave their lives for our country. And it is right and proper that we should remember them and honor them before God, because they have followed in Jesus’ footsteps by showing their love for us by making the ultimate sacrifice. Their sacrifice, and the sacrifices of their surviving families, goes beyond the power of words to honor. We have to live it. We need to show our appreciation by living well.

Seeing these two holidays together on the same day makes me wish, as a Christian, that we had a holiday to remember our martyrs, Christian martyrs – like a Memorial Day for those who, in answering God’s call, have died in the service of others and of the Gospel.

I’m not saying we should replace one holiday with the other: I totally want to have both. But I’d like to see a day when we could remember those who have given their lives so that we could hear the good news of Jesus’ love and salvation.

This Christian holiday would include remembering people like Paul, whose letters make up much of the New Testament, and who was beheaded rather than deny Jesus; and Peter, who was crucified upside down because he said he didn’t deserve the honor of dying like Jesus. It might also include people like John Wycliffe, who was persecuted for daring to translate the Bible from Latin into English so everyday people could understand it. Or Bishops Latimer and Ridley who were burned at the stake in Oxford, England, whose teachings laid the foundation for John Wesley’s ministry at Oxford. And it would include the thousands today around the world, whose names we don’t know, but whose faithfulness to Jesus puts their lives in danger, and whose courage is inspiring record numbers of conversions to Christianity, particularly among Muslims.

So with all of these thoughts in mind, I’d like to take this sermon in a slightly different direction than originally planned. I’d like to replace the sermon title for today – “The Voice of the Lord” – and make it instead “The Ultimate Royal Wedding”.

I’m sure I’m not the only person here who watched the Royal Wedding a couple weekends ago. As royal weddings go, this one was unique in a number of ways. It’s the first time a gospel choir has ever sung at a royal wedding. It’s the first time an American has ever preached at a royal wedding.  And it’s the first time in over 100 years that a foreigner has married into the royal family.

But did you ever stop to think what Meaghan Markle gave up in order to marry her prince? I mean, so much of this wedding looks and sounds like a fairy tale, but in the U.K. being a member of the royal family is serious business. Royals are expected to serve the country, much as someone in the military would – in fact most of them are veterans. It’s not a life of ease.

Some of the things Meaghan had to give up include:

  • Her privacy (she’ll never go anywhere without paparazzi following her ever again)
  • Her acting career. In fact all of her career up to this point, including her fashion business and her personal website and participating in social media
  • Wearing whatever clothes she wants (in Britain, royals are expected to promote British clothing designers)
  • Her home here in America

And last but not least, more than likely, she will have to give up her American citizenship. That’s not required, but if she doesn’t, the IRS would (theoretically) have the power to audit members of the royal family and I can’t see that happening.

In the meantime she’s becoming a citizen of Great Britain and she will swear allegiance to the Queen.

Meaghan gave up all that for the love of the grandson of the monarch. Can you imagine yourself in her shoes?

Her upcoming change in citizenship has been talked about widely in social media, with some wonder and concern. One person I know wrote: “Why would any free person submit to a monarch?” Of course the British are every bit as free as we are – they have a democracy like ours, in fact ours is loosely based on theirs – but it raises an important question.

Offered an opportunity to marry the child of the king (or the queen in this case), would we do it?  With all the obligations and sacrifices that go with it, would we do it?  Would we be willing to give up our jobs, our careers? (some of us may be saying ‘My job? You can have it’) Would we give up our homes, or living close to our relatives? Would we give up social media? (Again I know some of you are saying ‘no big loss there’) Would we allow others to tell us what to wear? Would we be willing to become a citizen of a foreign country?

In a sense, in a sense, God asks this of all of us. Not everyone is asked by God to do all these things, but all of us will be asked to do some.

In our passage from Isaiah today we hear the words, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up…” and in today’s psalm David writes, “the Lord sits enthroned as king forever”. When God adopts us into God’s family, we become engaged to be married, in a spiritual sense, to Christ, the son of the King. Every one of us who loves and believes in Jesus will one day be royalty! In fact, if we could only perceive it, we are royalty already: engaged, but not yet fully married.

Now being royal, as any Brit will tell you, is not an easy thing.  The expectations and the pressures and the public scrutiny (at least in part) led to the death of Princess Diana.  And before Harry and Meaghan’s wedding they were interviewed on British TV, and one of the questions asked was something along the lines of “Harry, have you told Meaghan what she’s getting into?” And he was very honest. He said: “I tried to warn [her] as much as possible… I had to have some pretty frank conversations with her about what she’s letting herself in for… it’s not easy for anybody.”

As followers of Jesus – and members of his royal family – we also live under public scrutiny (to a much lesser extent of course – we don’t have paparazzi chasing us around). Our faith is meant to be both public and shared.  As Jesus said, our city is set on a hill; our light is set on a lampstand, not under a bushel. And like Meaghan we may be asked to give up things that are precious to us for the sake of Jesus.  Jesus himself said:

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20)  And “If anyone wants to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)

The life of a child of the king is a life of service and self-sacrifice. But it is also a life lived with the King. And as Isaiah says, he is “high and lifted up, full of majesty and glory” and our God gives the blessings of strength and peace to his people.

The voice of our King asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” As Christians we have sworn allegiance to our King, so how can we say ‘no’?  Especially with a King so worthy of our love and service?

Our response to the Son of the King, who died for us and rose again for us, is to worship him with all that we have in us: mind, body, heart, and soul. As it says in the old English wedding vows, “with my body I thee worship and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.” That is our pledge to him.

And we join the seraphim in proclaiming his glory and singing “holy, holy, holy”.  We say with Isaiah ‘woe is me; I am a person of unclean lips living in the midst of a people of unclean lips’ – but we also say with Isaiah, “here am I, send me.”

If Meaghan Markle could give up so much to marry the son of an earthly king, what would we give to spend eternity with the King of Kings? Each one of us has received an invitation to that heavenly wedding. All we need to do is RSVP.

Let’s pray. Lord, we give you thanks for love and for the gift of love. We give you thanks that you loved us first and created us to be with you forever. Help us to count all things as loss for the surpassing joy of knowing you and being with you; and teach us to worship you with all that we have and all that we are. AMEN.

 

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 5/27/18

 

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[The apostle John writes:] “This is He who came by water and blood — Jesus Christ; not only by water, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is truth. For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one.

 “If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater; for this is the witness of God which He has testified of His Son. He who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself; he who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed the testimony that God has given of His Son. And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.

 “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God.” – I John 5:6-13

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[The apostle Luke writes:] “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning, until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 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. 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; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’

 “So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’  He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 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.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 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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The Ascension of Jesus Into Heaven

This morning we have three things to celebrate on the church calendar:

  • We’re still in the season of Easter, so we’re still celebrating Jesus’ resurrection;
  • It’s Ascension Sunday – the day we celebrate Jesus’ return to heaven after his resurrection;
  • And it’s Mother’s Day.

At first glance it might seem these holidays have nothing to do with each other. But there is a common thread: the three holidays are connected by, in the words of the apostle John, “water and blood”. John writes, “This is He who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ, not only by water, but by water and blood.”

I’m going to come back to this verse in a moment – but I’d like to start with Mother’s Day.  Every mother here today, and everyone who’s ever witnessed the birth of a child (even if it’s only on TV) knows that giving birth is a messy event!  Water and blood are present in abundance. Every one of us arrived in this world covered in the stuff. One of the first things the medical staff does is clean all that off, and then hand the baby to Mom.  But water and blood kept the baby alive for nine months leading up to the birth.

And then comes the moment the newborn child is placed in its mother’s arms.  Looking into the eyes of a newborn baby is an experience like no other. I don’t know any other words to describe it than to say ‘there’s a reflection of eternity in the child’s eyes’.  Even the most hardened of unbelievers has to admit that the birth of a baby is a miracle. And to look into the eyes of a newborn is to catch a glimpse of eternity. That look of eternity fades all too soon, as the child gets used to being in the world (instead of being with the Lord all the time). But there was a time when every one of us was a newborn and we had that look of eternity in our eyes. And I believe we will again someday.

All too soon children learn the ways of this world and they learn to misbehave, and they learn to talk back, and… bottom line, it’s not an easy job raising children. But it is worth it.  I remember many years ago comedienne Wanda Sykes did a whole comedy routine about this, back before Wanda had kids of her own.  The routine went something like this:

“People keep telling me ‘you gotta have kids…’
And they all say the same thing: ‘they’re a lotta work, but they’re worth it…’
“But I noticed something: they never look you in the eye when they say that.
It’s always: ‘kids, they’re a lotta work, but they’re worth it.’ (glancing down)”

And she went on with that line for some time: “kids: they’re a lot of work but they’re worth it. (glancing down)”

When God looks at you and me God says, “they’re worth it” and God doesn’t look down. Even though we’ve broken God’s law and rebelled, God still looks at us and says we’re worth it.  Isaiah says of the Messiah: “he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied.”  And that’s you and me – our lives are the fruit of the travail of his soul, and he is satisfied.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Turning back now to our reading from I John: John says Jesus came, born of water and blood, just like all the rest of us. And John says this to make clear that Jesus was fully human.

There are people throughout history who have doubted this. The ancient Greek philosophers (for example) believed that a god could not, or at least would not, lower himself to become human. The heavens are high above the earth, and likewise God is high above mere mortals. And that kind of thinking has lasted, even to today.

And there is a grain of truth in it: God is greater than we are. God is higher, in the sense that God knows more than we can possibly know and understands more than we could possibly understand, and loves more purely and more deeply than we can begin to grasp. But God is not higher in the sense of being embarrassed by our physical reality.  God created the physical world; God created our bodies; God created beauty, and music and color and shape and form.

And God was not embarrassed to come into this physical world, and be born like one of us, out of a human mother, covered in water and blood. John says “the Spirit bears witness, and the Spirit is truth.” The Holy Spirit was also with Jesus, at his birth, and at his baptism. At his baptism the dove descended from heaven and lighted on Jesus, and God said, “this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”

Jesus was sent into the world to save a world that could not save itself – to save a people who could not save themselves.  He hung on the cross, to pay the price for our sin. And on that cross, he poured out water and blood – the same kind of water and blood through which he had been born and in which we all have been born. Jesus did this so we could be, like him, born of water and blood and of the Spirit – and have eternal life.

This is what John is talking about when he says “this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and that life is in his Son.”  John says “He who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself” – that is, the Spirit of God is in us, bearing witness to the truth, bearing witness that we are redeemed by God and have become children of God.

John says “anyone who doesn’t believe God has made God out to be a liar.” and “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” In the book of Deuteronomy, God says to his people: “I set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life…” This is God’s call to all people everywhere.  For those of us who know that God speaks the truth, John comforts us with assurance that we do have eternal life and encourages us to continue to have faith in Jesus.

So we have water and blood at the birth of every human being. We have water and blood at the birth of Jesus – and at Jesus’ death on the cross. But in Jesus’ case, there’s a third element present: the Holy Spirit. And Jesus wants us to have the Holy Spirit as well.  And so we come to Ascension Day.

The Ascension took place forty days after Jesus’ resurrection, on top of a hill above the Mount of Olives and looking out over Jerusalem. In the beginning of the book of Acts the apostle Luke tells us what happened there.

Chapel of the Ascension, Israel

First Luke says, “Jesus presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs.” I imagine it must have been difficult for the disciples to believe Jesus was really alive. At the crucifixion they had witnessed a horrible thing, something that would have broken their hearts and wounded their spirits.  So over those forty days Jesus healed their wounds and talked to them about how things will be in God’s kingdom.

So the disciples ask when Jesus is going to restore the kingdom. And Jesus says:

“that’s not for you to know — BUT!!” – he says – “stay in Jerusalem” because “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” “You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” – and then “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Notice Jesus doesn’t say, “I want you to do this, this and this.” He says wait. Wait until the Spirit comes, and then go in the power of the Spirit. They will be witnesses, not in their own power, but in God’s power.

And having given them their mission, Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took them out of their sight.” And suddenly a couple of men in white robes were standing with the disciples – seemingly out of nowhere – asking them, “why are you staring up into heaven? Jesus… will come back in the same way as you saw him go….”

Some time before, Jesus had explained why it was necessary for him to return to God. The disciples might not have remembered it just at that moment, but it came back to them eventually, and John wrote down what Jesus said:

“It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. […] When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” (John 16:6-13, edited)

Apparently there was something about Jesus being here on earth that limited the movement of the Holy Spirit.  Something about Jesus’ death and resurrection broke open the heavens and made it possible for all believers to receive the Holy Spirit… but not until Jesus returned to God. Jesus’ presence at God’s right hand makes it possible for us to be born not only of water and blood but of the Spirit as well. We can have that third element, just like Jesus.

And this is what it means to be ‘born again’.  Remember what Jesus said to Nicodemus:

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? […]”  Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (John 3:3-5 edited)

And John would add “…and the blood” – the blood of Christ on the cross.

One other note about the Ascension: remember the saying that Jesus would come again on the clouds, just as the disciples had seen him go?  This prophecy can also be found in the Old Testament in the book of Daniel.  Daniel had a vision of the end times. And in the middle of the destruction and darkness of those times, he writes:

“As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One [that is, God] and was presented before him.  14 To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14)

…and this was written almost a thousand years before Jesus was born! Daniel’s vision is mystical and mysterious – and so are John’s writings – perhaps better understood by the Spirit than by the mind. So I recommend them to your meditation. In the meantime let’s get back on topic…

I love watching TV shows like This Old House, where people buy up an old house and fix it up and restore it to its former glory. I don’t like the ones where they modernize the house, so much as the ones where they look at the builder’s original design and restore it to what it was meant to be.

I think you and I are like those old houses. The builder (that is, God) – had glorious plans for us. But over the years, because of evil in the world and temptation in our own hearts, the houses of our lives have become run down, broken in places, leaking in others, a bit dangerous on some of those back stairways – not quite what God had in mind. And not quite what we once were, when we were first born and someone looked into our eyes and saw a reflection of eternity.

But like a master restorer, Jesus bought us with a price… and with a plan. Jesus pours over us the water of baptism and the blood of his cross – and we are reborn, through water and blood, and filled with the Spirit. And the work of restoration begins. It won’t be quite finished in this lifetime, but when we look back, if we’ve kept on walking with Jesus, and kept on trusting him, we will see progress.  And Jesus knows the Creator’s original blueprint, and he will be true to it.

John says, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know you have eternal life.” When Jesus returns, the Master Restorer’s work will be complete, and “we will be like him, for we will see him as he is”: having been born of water and blood and the Spirit.

Let’s pray.

O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 5/13/18

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“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.  God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
“By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.  And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.  There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.  We love because he first loved us.  Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” – I John 4:7-21
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[Jesus said] “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” – John 15:1-8

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This past week the nation watched as “America’s Dad,” Bill Cosby, was found guilty of drugging Andrea Constand and sexually assaulting her. And the very next day Tom Brokaw was accused of sexual harassment. As some long-time friends and I were talking about this, one of them took me aside and said, “this is hitting too close to home.” She told me she suspects her daughter may have been molested. She has been the victim of severe bullying, and as she’s been going through counseling for it, they’re discovering there’s more to her story than just classmates being cruel. And my friend said to me, “who can you trust anymore?” She asked for our prayers and we will be including her and her family on our list of Concerns today.

Jesus once said to his disciples that in the latter days, “because of an increase of lawlessness and wickedness, the love of many will grow cold” and will be extinguished. (Matt. 24:12)  And as we look around us, isn’t that what’s happening in our world? People are harsh with each other, and life is becoming more dangerous, and we never know when or where somebody’s going to turn up with a gun.

Lawlessness and wickedness cause fear, and fear destroys love.

The words of the apostle John in our readings today could not be more timely.  John encourages people to love – and to keep on loving – in spite of what we see around us, and in a world where having compassion for others can be costly. And John knew what he was talking about. John (the youngest of Jesus’ disciples) lived to see the other disciples crucified, beheaded, martyred – and he himself was exiled – all because they dared to love Jesus and love each other and to carry God’s love to the world.

John’s whole message in the book of I John is about love and the need to love; and our reading from John’s gospel lays the foundation for our reading from I John.  If I John raises the question of ‘how we can love in a world where love is growing cold?’ John’s gospel answers by saying ‘stay connected to Jesus’. So let’s start with the words of Jesus.

In John’s gospel, Jesus tells a parable in which he says God is like a farmer who grows grapes. God plants the grapevines, and does mulching, pruning, and weeding. Jesus is the vine, and all of us are the branches.

And Jesus says to us branches: stay with me; stay connected to me; and your life will be fruitful. Which leads to the question: what kind of fruit is Jesus talking about? He doesn’t say in this passage, but the apostle Paul gives us an answer in his letter to the Galatians: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Gal 5:22-23)  Notice fruit is growing on the vine in spite of what’s happening in the world around.  And love is the #1 fruit on Paul’s list.

God’s will for us is love, and love is the motivation for all that Jesus has done for us.  Just as a farmer plants and grows and works and weeds in order to gain a harvest, God does what God does in order to grow and nurture and multiply a harvest of love in us.

Jesus also talks in his parable about God doing some pruning on the vine, which is something farmers do to help produce more fruit.  I’ve heard a lot of nonsense talked about this particular verse: somebody sees someone going through a rough time in life and they say, “oh, you’re just going through a pruning stage.” Which may or may not be true, but it’s insensitive to say so.  Besides, in this parable Jesus says, “you have already been cleansed” (that is, pruned – the word in Greek for ‘cleansed’ and ‘pruned’ is the same, and the words can be used interchangeably in this passage) “you have already been pruned by the word I have spoken to you.” In other words, God has cut away the sin in our lives, and continues to do so as we stay connected to the vine.

Jesus also says God removes any branch that doesn’t bear fruit.  Typically, any branch that stays connected to the vine will live and will produce fruit, so if a branch isn’t producing fruit, it’s probably dead. And dead branches need to be cleared away in order for the rest of the plant to remain healthy.

I’ve been reminded of these words as I’ve been cleaning up all the tree branches in our yard left behind by the windstorms lately.  I don’t know about you but we had a lot of tree branches in our yard!  And as I’ve been picking them up I noticed something strange: in most of the branches the wood is already dry. There are no leaves on them, no buds. They were already dead before they hit the ground. Somehow the sap in the tree wasn’t getting to them. Maybe the tree has a family of woodpeckers, or maybe some kind of insects. But the wood dried out, so when the storms came, the branches snapped and fell to the ground. Same idea in this parable.  Whatever’s dead on the vine, God snaps it off to make room for healthy branches and more fruit.

So the moral of the parable is ‘stay connected to Jesus’, who is the only true vine, and who gives us our nourishment and our strength and our ability to produce fruit through the life that is in him.

Jesus says, “My father is glorified in this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” And John adds that if we abide in God and God abides in us, the Holy Spirit flows into us from God – kind of like sap into those tree branches.

Which brings us to the book of I John.  The first thing I notice about John’s writing is he is addressing the believers as a group: this message is meant for the church. John’s words do apply to individuals, but they’re not aimed at individuals. This is meant for the community, for the family of God.  So when John says, “beloved, let us love one another” he means all y’all love one another.

John says if we don’t know love, we don’t know God. But if we love, we are born of God and we know God, and God’s love is revealed in us. So we become the means by which – one of the ways in which – God’s love comes into the world.  God loved us first, and sent Jesus into the world (as a sin-offering, John says) so that we can live.  And so we live through him – that is, in the vine.

And because God loved us so much, and gave his only son to save us, we literally (in the Greek it says) owe each other love. The word means the same as financial indebtedness.  It brings to mind Jesus’ parable of the servant who owed his master a huge amount of money, more than he could ever repay, and so his master forgave him. And then the servant went out and demanded a fellow servant repay him a debt of around $50.  The other servants were so upset by this, they went and told the master, and the master said to the servant, “how could you do this after what I did for you?” and threw the servant in jail.  We’ve been given so much by God, and have been loved so much by God, we owe it to each other to love one another.

And then John says something really amazing. He says: “if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.”  The word ‘perfected’ is the same word Jesus used on the cross – tetelestai – which means “it is finished,” or completed.  If we love one another, we are connected to God and God to us, and God’s love is completed in us.

So the whole point of God’s work, and the goal of salvation, and the purpose of us being here today as God’s people, is for God’s love to flow through us and so to complete God’s work of creation. In other words, God has put us here to give the sad story of human history a joyful ending. That’s what we’re here for.

Our vision needs to be bigger than just Brentwood/Carrick, or even just America. We are here to complete God’s story, to complete God’s creation. And when God’s people love each other, we are doing that. And then in loving each other, right here, right now, this brings us back to Brentwood/Carrick, because we are loving here and ministering here.

It goes without saying this kind of love has nothing to do with romance and actually has very little to do with emotions at all. It has more to do with doing what’s right for the sake of others.  In fact this kind of love is risky. John says “as [Jesus] is, we are in the world also” – in other words, the risks Jesus took may come to us also; and just as Jesus spent his life for us, we are called to spend our lives for others and for him.

This kind of love has truth at its core.  That’s why John ends his letter (the very last sentence in the book) by saying “keep yourselves from idols”.  Idols are a falsehood: they deceive, they distract, they’re not real.  Jesus alone is the true vine.  John says, “we have seen and testify” – like in court – that God has sent Jesus to save the world. And God lives in the people who acknowledge the truth that Jesus is God’s Son. There is no other truth, and there is no one else worthy of worship.

John says “God is love.” Nothing else people worship can make that claim. Those who live in love, live in God, and God lives in them.

Because real love has truth as its core, John says, “there is no fear in love.” Perfect love casts out fear.  And anyone who fears hasn’t yet reached perfection in love. That’s why I pray so often that God would set us free from fear, so that we can be free to love.

So what do we do when we’re afraid, or when we’re worried? We take our fear and our worries and lay them at the foot of the cross… and then look up and remember how very much God loves us. We love, because God first loved us.

Then John takes the truth one step further. He says: anyone who says “I love God” but hates his brother or sister is a liar, because if we can’t love the people we see, how can we love God who we can’t see? If we love God we will love our family of faith as well.

One word of warning about this rule: this verse has been used too often to cover up abuses in the church. I’ve heard people say ‘you have to forgive and you have to love no matter what another person has done to you’.  This is NOT the way to interpret this passage.  If anyone in the church family is abusive, that person is the one guilty of failing to love; and their victims need to be protected and given space to heal.

That said, in healthy relationships, what John says is true: if we don’t love our family of faith, we don’t love God.

I saw a Facebook meme the other day – it said: “Love without truth is deception; and truth without love is brutality.”  Strongly worded, but the essential idea is correct: Love without truth can dissolve into sentimentality, or it may become possessive, and feelings can blow with the wind. Love without truth is like a boat without a rudder, unable to steer or hold a straight course.  But truth without love cuts. It’s like a knife, that injures both the one holding it and the one receiving it.

But taken together, love and truth become two sides of the same coin: Truth gives love the staying power and direction it needs, and love tells truth to speak kindly.

So to pull it all together: These two passages pretty much sum up the Christian message. God, in love, sent us Jesus. Jesus, in love, gave his life to free us from sin, so that we could live. And Jesus says to us: “abide in me” – live in me, stay connected to me.  Jesus says love God, love me, and we will love you and live in you, and bear fruit through you.

We humans can’t produce the fruit of the Spirit (including love) apart from God or apart from the vine.  But if we live in Jesus and Jesus in us, abiding in love, loving each other, together we become the goal of God’s creation and the glory of God’s creation.  And what an amazing calling that is!

AMEN

 

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 4/29/18

 

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A Psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the LORD Forever. – Psalm 23
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[Jesus said] “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away– and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.  The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.  For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” – John 10:11-18

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Our reading from the gospel of John today starts right in the middle of one of Jesus’ parables, which actually begins at the first verse of the tenth chapter; and the parable is told in response to events that happen in chapter nine. So we need to back up a little bit in order to understand what Jesus is replying to.

In chapter nine, Jesus heals a man who was born blind; and the Pharisees and the synagogue leaders want to know how this happened. More specifically, they want to know how someone they believe to be a sinner – someone who has broken the law of Moses by doing work on the Sabbath – could possibly work a miracle.  So the formerly blind man is questioned in great detail by the religious leaders, who are debating among themselves whether Jesus is a prophet or a sinner.

In getting caught up in their legalistic attitudes, the Pharisees miss the whole point: that someone who was blind can now see. In fact a number of them are having a hard time believing it’s true this man was born blind in the first place. They think this healing is ‘fake news’ – at least until they call in witnesses who testify to the fact that the man was indeed born blind.

I don’t know about you, but if I knew somebody born blind who suddenly one day could just see, I would be thrilled for that person and I’d be dying to hear the story of how it happened.  The Pharisees, though, show no joy in the miracle, zero interest in the human story. The only thing that mattered to them was this miracle didn’t fit into their theology.

So after a long and heated debate, the man who had been healed finally says to the religious council, “Look. Never since the world began has anybody born blind ever been made to see. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (John 9:32-33, paraphrased)  And they answer him, “‘You were born in sin, and you are trying to teach us?” And they threw him out of the synagogue. (John 9:34, paraphrased)

As chapter nine closes, Jesus finds the man and asks him, “do you believe in the Son of Man?” and after a short conversation the healed man says “yes, I believe”.  And Jesus says, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” (John 9:39)

So in Chapter Ten, Jesus takes the Pharisees and synagogue leaders to task for their hard-heartedness and their failure to do the job God gave them to do. And he does this by telling a parable about shepherds and sheep. Jesus draws a contrast between himself as the Good Shepherd and the religious leaders who are just hired hands.

Before I get into the parable, just a few brief words about sheep.  I’ve never worked with sheep, I’ve never been around sheep much, but from what I’ve read, (1) sheep are intelligent; (2) shepherds say they are cute as a button when they’re young but that doesn’t last long; (3) sheep run from what frightens them; (4) sheep follow each other, mostly; if one starts moving in a direction the others move in that direction too; (5) sheep band together in flocks naturally, for protection. Sheep are social animals; however, like people, they maintain a ‘safe zone’ between themselves and others – kind of like our ‘personal space’.  And in times of stress and danger the distance between sheep – that ‘safe zone’ – increases. (Does that sound at all like our society today?)  (6) Lastly, sheep really do respond only to the shepherd’s voice, and won’t follow anyone else.

The job of the shepherd is to take care of the sheep, to feed them, to keep predators away, and to protect their health and well-being.

So in John chapter ten, Jesus contrasts the good shepherd with the hired hands, and I see five specific contrasts Jesus makes in this passage:

First, the Good Shepherd sees the sheep as his own. Not that he owns them, although God as creator could make that claim on us because He made us. But this is more like words of love: “you are my own, my beloved” – or – “I am yours and you are mine”.  The hired hands, the synagogue rulers, on the other hand, don’t see the sheep as ‘their own’ in any sense of the word – either by rights or by love.

I have to say at this point, as a pastor, Jesus’ words are troubling. Because when it comes down to it, I’m one of the hired hands, and so is every other ordained minister. I don’t think Jesus is saying here that all religious leaders, all pastors, or all prophets, are like the Pharisees.  Jesus is making a point about a specific group.  But I do think all of us hired hands need to be careful not to become like the Pharisees.  And I must acknowledge that even the very best of human pastors doesn’t love the sheep the way Jesus does.

My old pastor used to say to us, “don’t follow me, follow Jesus.”  He wasn’t trying to get out of his responsibilities – far from it – but he was letting us know (as Jesus says in this passage) that sheep only get into the sheep pen through the gate, and Jesus is the gate.  There is no other gate, no other way in.  The way to tell the difference between a hired hand who cares about the sheep and a hired hand who doesn’t, is whether they lead you in Jesus’ direction, and keep on leading you in Jesus’ direction.

Back to the parable.  The second thing Jesus says is when the sheep are attacked – when the wolf comes – the Good Shepherd defends and protects his sheep, even to the point of sacrificing his own life to save the sheep. The hired hand, by contrast, runs away when the wolf comes, leaving the sheep unprotected.

I think it’s worth taking a moment to see how Jesus describes the wolf, that is, our enemy, and what the enemy does.  Jesus says two things: he says the wolf (1) snatches the sheep; that is, he’s involved in sheep-stealing. An enemy tries to remove God’s people from the flock. An enemy knows once a sheep is isolated and by itself, it’s easy prey.  (2) The wolf scatters the sheep. An enemy divides. An enemy encourages sheep to fear and panic, and to attack one another in their fear. An enemy destroys the unity of the flock. The Good Shepherd keeps the flock together and at peace: as Jesus says, “one flock, one shepherd”.

Third, [as we saw in the video above] Jesus says the Good Shepherd knows his sheep and his sheep know him.  The Good Shepherd also knows God the Father and is known by God.  The sheep don’t recognize the voice of a stranger and will not follow him. In fact sheep will run away from a stranger.

Fourth, the Good Shepherd voluntarily lays down his life on behalf of the sheep, and then will take it up again.  Here Jesus is predicting his death on the cross, and also predicting his resurrection. No hired hand would do this, and no hired hand could make this claim.

And fifth and last, the Good Shepherd does God’s will and receives his authority from God. The hired hand’s interests – if the hired hand is a Pharisee – are in getting paid for his job and in maintaining his position.  The Good Shepherd loves God the Father, and the Father loves him, and both of them love the sheep; and the sheep who belong to Jesus love Jesus and love the Father. So love is the mark of God’s kingdom, or of Jesus’ sheepfold.

So Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep, and then takes it up again.  Jesus is the one whose voice calls us to follow. Jesus is the gate by which the sheep enter into God’s kingdom.  And love is the mark of God’s kingdom.

As I close today I’d like to return to our readings from John 10 and Psalm 23. John 10 can be understood as the song of the Good Shepherd, and Psalm 23 can be understood as the song of the sheep.  Together they make a love song.  So I’d like to read these as a duet the Good Shepherd and us, his sheep. If (Rachel, Jen, Cilia) would come up and join me… (we’re not going to sing it, we’re just going to read the lyrics)

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[Jesus begins] Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him; the sheep hear his voice. The shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want

Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me were thieves and bandits, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.

He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters.

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.  I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake.

The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me;

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.  5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.  You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over.

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the LORD Forever.

AMEN

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican), Pittsburgh, 4/22/18

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