Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

[Scripture readings are found at the bottom of this post]

I think it was a few weeks ago Pastor Matt preached on I Corinthians chapter one where Paul talked about divisions in the church: Paul said, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you…”

argument

In today’s reading from I Corinthians chapter three Paul again talks about divisions among believers.  In fact you could say he is still talking about divisions among believers. In fact when you get right down to it you could say the entire book of I Corinthians – all 16 chapters – deals with divisions among believers.

So it’s clear that disputes in the church and differences between believers are not unique to the 21st century!

I’ve named our sermon for today “Division Times Two” because both our readings for today are about divisions. Paul is talking about divisions in the church, and Deuteronomy talks about the dividing line between life and death, and good and evil.

So division times two.

I’d like to start with Paul and then sort of back into Deuteronomy, because even though it’s sort of backwards time-wise, in today’s readings what Paul says kind of leads into what Deuteronomy says.

Paul is writing to a congregation that has become split over a number of issues. The first issue Paul addresses is people being divided over their loyalty to different preachers. Some say “I follow Paul”, others say “I follow Peter”, “I follow Apollos” and so forth. And Paul is basically saying these divisions are bogus, because God’s people are supposed to be following Christ and Christ is not divided.

I can remember back in the 1980s, my pastor back then used to say in his sermons, “don’t follow me, follow Jesus”. And that’s the idea Paul is getting at. I can remember being tremendously relieved when my pastor said that, because you may remember back in the ‘80s there were a number of scandals with famous preachers getting caught in compromising situations. And it left a lot of people disillusioned. A lot of people left the church back then, and some even lost their faith, because they had following the preachers more than they’d been following Jesus. And so when the preachers fell, their faith fell.  And I’m not blaming the people for that entirely, because these preachers had encouraged this kind of following and competition. In many cases those ministries were already in spiritual danger long before the scandals hit.

So if we follow Jesus rather than following human teachers, we will avoid those false teachers who try to manipulate us.  We will understand that Paul and Peter and Apollos and all of our preachers and teachers who are true to God, are just fellow servants of God. It’s Jesus we all follow.

Now where it comes to divisions in the church, there are two things I think it’s important to mention that Paul is not saying.  The first is: when Paul says “I appeal to you … that there be no divisions among you…” Paul is not saying Christians need to agree on everything all the time.  If we disagree about clothing fashions, for example… or have different tastes in food… or root for different sports teams, maybe?… it’s OK to not agree on everything.  Just because you’re Christian doesn’t mean you have to love pierogis (although I do think it helps).

The second thing Paul is not saying is ‘peace at any price’ or unity at any price.  Later on in I Corinthians Paul tells the Corinthian congregation not to associate with immoral people. And he says:

“not meaning the immoral of this world – the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world.  But” (he says) “I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one” he says. (I Corinthians 5:9-11)

So if someone is constantly bringing sinful behavior into the church, we are not supposed to just carry on business as usual and ignore it in order to keep the peace. A person who deliberately and willingly flaunts sin after having been saved by the death of Jesus on the cross, is dirtying the cross and doing harm to the church. And Paul says don’t even associate with someone like that.

Let me give just one example.  Back in the 1990s there was an Episcopal bishop in New Jersey who published a list of things he didn’t believe in any more. He said he didn’t believe in the existence of a creator God, or that Jesus is the Son of God. He dismissed the idea of the crucifixion as barbaric, and he said that there is no such thing as resurrection.  And being a bishop, his teaching started to spread through the church and it was a major factor in a split in the Episcopal church ten years later.  But back in the 1990s, if the leadership of the Episcopal church had said, “hey Bishop, since you no longer believe in God, would you mind finding some way to make a living other than working in the church?” – things might have turned out differently. (They might not have, but they might have.)

Bottom line – letting rebellion against God go un-checked in the church is not a path to unity; in fact it’s just the opposite: it’s a path to division.

So what Paul is saying, is that among people of faith who want to live life God’s way, there should be a unity of purpose and of character and of calling that is evidence of being led by the Holy Spirit. While we may be different from each other, we are united.  This kind of diversity in unity can be seen, for example, in sports teams, whose goal is to win a trophy… or among veterans who have fought together in the same war… or in hospitals, where teams of professionals work together to save lives. These are all cases of very different people coming together to accomplish one thing; any time people come together for the sake of a cause greater than themselves, we see a reflection of this kind of diversity in unity.

And then add to that the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit to unite people and guide them – and what we have is Christian unity.

I discovered a wonderful example of this Christian unity this past week.  Last Monday we had a short prayer vigil for refugees at the Carnegie church. And while I was getting ready for that vigil, I googled a number of different church denomination websites to see what they had to say about the refugee crisis.  While different denominations emphasized different concerns – like safety and security, or addressing homelessness in general, or eliminating the causes of war – ALL the churches agreed on one thing: that we as Christians are called by God to minister to the homeless and to welcome the stranger.  This included Methodist, Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Reformed and Pentecostal churches.  When was the last time you saw ALL these churches agree on anything?!  It gives me hope…

In Psalm 133 King David says:

“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!  It is like the precious oil on the head, running down… the beard of Aaron… it is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the LORD ordained his blessing, life forevermore.” (Psalm 133:1-3 edited)

Where God’s people live together in unity, God ordains the blessing of life.

Which brings us to our reading from Deuteronomy.  God says in this passage, “See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.”  And God says “choose life.”  And then God explains what it means to choose life.

First, God says, “If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today… walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous…”

Now for us as Christians, on the other side of the Cross, we do not depend on the Law of Moses for our salvation. We depend on Jesus. But Jesus also said, “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.” So as Christians, the Old Testament law is not our savior but it is our teacher: it teaches us what pleases God, and how God designed life on earth to work. So we can still use the Ten Commandments (for example) as guidelines for moral behavior.

Second, God says “if you love the Lord your God… the Lord your God will bless you…”  It can be tough to love someone we can’t see, someone who is so much greater than we are. I think that’s part of why Jesus came to earth, so that we could more easily relate to God.

What these verses actually speak to though is the attitude of the heart.  Do our hearts lean towards God, like flowers toward sunlight? Or do our hearts pull back in fear and distrust?  Deuteronomy says, “If your heart turns away and you do not hear…and you are led astray to bow down to other gods, I declare to you today that you shall perish…”

This is not God being angry or vindictive.  God is simply explaining how things work.  If you put gas in your car, it will run properly. If you put sugar in your gas tank it will not.  It’s not closed-minded to say so.

Same thing here. If you love God and turn your heart toward God, God will bless and give life. If you don’t, the blessing won’t come. That’s the nature of reality.

Because if we turn away from God we always end up turning to something else.  And the something else we turn to is what the Bible calls an idol, a false god.  When people start chasing after idols we lose control of our lives, we get trapped.

Idols might be addictions like drugs or drinking or gambling. Idols could be relationships (50 Shades of Grey part two? ugh…)  Idols can even be good things like food or education or athletics or even going to church. If we put anything in the place of God – if we love anything more than we love God – we lose God’s blessing.

Having said all this, I should also mention one mistake I hear people make, based on scripture passages like this. I’ve heard people say that if you’re suffering, or sick, or injured, or poor, or in trouble in any way, it’s because you’ve turned your back on God and lost God’s blessing.  Not so. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. But for the people of God, whatever happens in life, we go through it with God, and God will redeem our suffering. In Joel 2:25 God says, “I will restore to you the years the locust has eaten” – which is God’s promise to bring good out of even the bad things that happen in life.

So if we obey God, and love God, and turn our hearts toward God, we will be in unity with each other. And unity is one of the blessings God gives to those who love God. It is a part of the victory of life over death, of prosperity over adversity.

So unity is one of the blessings that comes from the victory of life and prosperity over death and adversity. And when I think about this, I become concerned about the depth of the divisions in our country right now. Both in public discourse and in personal relationships, as best as I can tell, at the root of most of the divisions are hearts that love something more than they love God. It may be a political party that people love more than God, or a political platform. It may be a cause, or it may be a person who’s in the public eye. It may be liberalism, it may be conservativism. It may be the country itself. It may even a religious leader. All these things are good things – gifts given to us by God – but if we love any of them more than we love God, we lose God’s blessing. And if the divisions continue and grow, Deuteronomy says prosperity and life are at stake. And these words in Deuteronomy were written not just for Christians: they was written thousands of years ago for Middle Eastern and Semitic peoples even before the founding of Islam. So these words apply to all of us whose faith has roots in the Old Testament.

God says, “choose life, so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying God, and holding fast to God; for that means life to you and length of days…”.

Whatever’s out there in the world that concerns us, or troubles us, or divides us, if anything captures our hearts, or inspires our fear, or draws us away from God: bring that thing to God in prayer. Leave it at the foot of the cross for God to take care of. And then hold on to God, in love and in trust, without fear. Because God has for us life, prosperity, and blessing, so long as we hold onto God. AMEN.

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

Scripture Readings for the Day:

Deuteronomy 30:15-20  See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.  16 If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.  17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them,  18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.  19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live,  20 loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

1 Corinthians 3:1-9  And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.  2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready,  3 for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?  4 For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?

5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each.  6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.  7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.  8 The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each.  9 For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

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

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 2/12/17

 

Read Full Post »

“Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”– Isaiah 58:12 (the scripture lesson for the day is Isaiah chapter 58 complete)

I can’t think of a more appropriate scripture for where we find ourselves today! In our neighborhoods and in our churches, every day we see around us old buildings that are crumbling, old churches (many of them closed or made into bars), old neighborhoods where houses have been abandoned and the grass grows tall.

In our reading from Isaiah today God calls us to be ‘restorers of the breach’. This is an old battle term from back in the day when cities were surrounded by walls. An attacking army would try to create a breach or a break in the wall so they could get in and pillage the town.  “Repairers of the breach rebuild what the enemy had destroyed. And God is calling us to rebuild what our enemy has destroyed: to be “restorers of streets to live in. To make our neighborhoods and our churches places of welcome, and safe havens for the hurting and for those in need.

With these thoughts in mind I’d like to tell a true-life story by way of illustration. It’s the story of an old mill town.  There are many old mill towns in our area, and every mill town is unique in its own way, but all of them share some things in common: rapid growth, a few decades of prosperity, rapid decline, abandonment by the industry, stagnation and decay.  At which point every mill town and every neighborhood has to make a decision: will it live, or will it die?

The story I’d like to share today is the story of Aliquippa. It’s a town across the Ohio River from Ambridge in Beaver County, probably best known for being the hometown of Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett, and Henry Mancini. As part of my ministry training I spent a year there volunteering at a coffeehouse café ministry, and I got to know a little bit about Aliquippa’s history.

Aliquippa started out as a farming village. In the 1800s it became an important stop on the railway line between Pittsburgh and Ohio, which brought some business in and a little bit of growth. About the same time a park was built on the banks of the Ohio River near the train station, sort of a 19th century version of an amusement park, with rides and picnic areas and a bandstand – a great place for families to get away for the day.

With the exception of the train station and the park’s office, all of that was wiped out when the steel mill came. J&L Steel changed the face of Aliquippa.  Aliquippa became a city – rich and prosperous – a shopping destination with department stores and movie theatres. A true rags-to-riches story.

But there was another side to that story.  J&L Steel essentially re-designed the town.  They forced a creek that fed into the Ohio River underground and built the new main street on top of it. To this day whenever there’s heavy rain the underground pipes overflow and the main street floods.  (That was my introduction to Aliquippa– my first day volunteering was shoveling muck out of the basement of a building on the main street.)

The heads of J&L Steel had similar grand ideas about social engineering.  Those of us who have read history will recall back in the early 1900s it was a fairly common belief that “science” “proved” the superiority of certain people groups and the inferiority of others. For a few decades in the 1900s this kind of thinking was not only acceptable but was considered by many to be cutting edge. And the owners of the factory wanted to be famous for making Aliquippa the model city of the future.

The City of Aliquippa’s web page describes what happened this way: “The new [town] was in every way a company town. J&L laid out the borough in a series of “plans” identified by number such as “Plan 6,” “Plan 11,” etc., and settled people from various racial and ethnic sources separately in each plan.”

Talk about a recipe for disaster! It should have been obvious to anyone with half a brain that forced segregation would prevent the town from ever coming together as a unified community.  In fact I’m sure that was part of their thinking: people who are divided against each other are easier to manage. When you visit Aliquippa today, almost 100 years later, the mills are long gone, but the Plans are still there, and so is the segregated, prejudicial mindset they inspired. It makes you want to go back in a time machine and shake these guys and say “what were you thinking?!?

The saddest part of the story is that no one at the time spoke up to say, “this isn’t right”.  It isn’t right for a company to own a city. It isn’t right when the passion for money and fame causes company bosses to control every aspect of their workers’ lives. It isn’t right when neighbors turn their backs on neighbors just because they live in the wrong ‘Plan’. Nobody spoke up against this – not the politicians, not the media (who fawned all over this idea), not the churches, and not the workers.

After a period of about 30 or 40 years of economic prosperity – just long enough for people to get used to having steady incomes and benefits and reasonably comfortable lives – J&L Steel sold out to LTV Steel. A few years and some labor-management tussles later, LTV emptied the retirement accounts, declared bankruptcy, and the mill was closed.

Again, quoting from the town’s website: “One day in the late 1980s… veteran steel workers who had lost their jobs and then their retirement benefits gathered at the railroad tunnel at the entrance of the old plant to demonstrate…. Dubbed the “Tunnel Rats”, the group of steel workers were arrested by local police for disorderly conduct. There were tears in the eyes of some of the arresting officers as they were forced to handcuff their own family members…”

I will give the churches of Aliquippa credit for this: by the time the Tunnel Rats were protesting, the churches were taking a stand for what was right. There were a number of priests and clergy arrested along with those workers.

Sadly, the money had already disappeared and there wasn’t much that could be done.  Today if you walk through Aliquippa, the mills are long gone. There’s nothing but gravel and sand on miles of property where they once stood. Many of the homes and businesses are gone – not just closed, but torn down (or burned down).  The few buildings that remain are dirty, crumbling, many of them boarded up.

All of this history – initial prosperity but without a commitment to God, a community that turned its back on God’s call to love and care for neighbors, the corporate greed, the personal greed – directly or indirectly led to segregation, questionable business practices, the failure of an industry, a cascade of small business failures and personal bankruptcy – and a city that is now more a ghost town than a place to live.

And now the people who are still there look back and ask “why?” “Why did this happen to us? This town was great once.”

Our passage from Isaiah gives God’s answer to the ‘why?’ question… and it’s not easy to hear but it needs to be heard.

Isaiah 58, verse 2:  God says the people are religious, they claim to seek after God, they act “as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness.”  In other words, they went to church every Sunday, they said their prayers, they gave their money… this was true of everybody in Aliquippa, especially back in the 1940s and 1950s. They all went to church, from owners to management to workers… they all went to church… each in their own ‘Plan’ of course. And everybody was taught their church was the true church and all the others were shaky at best. God says, “Look, you serve your own interests on your fast day and oppress all your workers.”

God isn’t fooled. And even though our part of Western PA is not the same as Aliquippa, to some degree the same issues effect all of our communities. To use Carnegie as an example for a moment, because I know Carnegie’s history best: up until a few years ago there were five Catholic churches in the one parish of Carnegie: Irish, Italian, German (which have since merged), Polish and Ukrainian (which are still with us).  And not only that, but the social developers got hold of Carnegie too and they closed off Main Street in the 1960s to make a pedestrian mall… which nobody wanted, and which almost killed the town. I’m not picking on Carnegie: these are just examples, and I’m sure we could find similar problems in all of our neighborhoods.

The really difficult thing is, after all these years, one more problem cropped up in Aliquippa (and elsewhere), one that nobody saw coming: the loss of ability to imagine a future.  Here’s what I mean:

Aliquippa is a city with good bones. It was built solidly and well. It has natural resources and great natural beauty (if you can look past the blight). It could be rebuilt, repurposed. Someone like me with an entrepreneurial streak – when I walk down the streets I imagine the possibilities: put a preschool over here, put an animal shelter there in that abandoned building, and wow! look at that midcentury-modern bank, it’s all boarded up and just rusting away. Restore these things, and Aliquippa would become a destination again.

But when I talk like this to the people who live there, they look at me like I’m crazy. “It will never happen,” they say. And they’re right. It won’t… so long as people believe it won’t.  Because the people who live there are no longer able to imagine a future. All they see is the past. And if you ask them what kind of future they would like, what they describe sounds amazingly like the past.  The man who started and ran the Aliquippa café, after living there and working for progress for 15 years, all but despaired of getting the people of the town to hope for anything. They’re fixated on the past, on how things used to be.

God ran into this problem too, back in Moses’ day. After God liberated the people from Egypt, got them safely through the Red Sea on dry land, did away with Pharaoh’s army, and set their feet on the road to the Promised Land, Israel started complaining. They said: “We had good food to eat back in Egypt! We were ever hungry! We had comfortable houses… now all we have is tents and sand! Moses, have you brought us into this wilderness so we could die here?” God had to wait forty years for that entire generation of Israelites to die out before the people were able to imagine a different future and were ready to enter the Promised Land.

And I put it to us today: is there anything holding us back? How long is God going to have to wait for us?

God holds out hope to us. God has a future for us. God’s arms are open to us.  And in this passage from Isaiah God gives us a vision for the future and a road map to get there.  The vision and the road map each have ten points in this passage, and I could preach a sermon on each point but for now I’ll just read through them quickly.

Here’s the ten-point vision. God says:

  1. Your light shall break forth like the dawn
  2. Your healing shall spring up quickly (and haven’t we already seen healing in response to prayer? Already that’s coming true.)
  3. Your vindicator (that is, Jesus) shall go before you: leading the way, giving you the words, supplying your needs
  4. The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. In other words, God’s got your back!
  5. You shall cry out and the Lord will answer, “here am I”
  6. The ancient ruins shall be rebuilt
  7. You shall raise up foundations for many generations
  8. You shall repair the breach, restoring what the enemy has broken or taken
  9. You shall restore the streets, make them livable again
  10. God says, “I will make you ride upon the heights and will bring your heritage.”

That’s the vision.  Ten things God promises if we will… and then God gives us ten commands.  All these things will happen if we will do the following:

  1. Work for justice
  2. Free those who are in slavery or under oppression (and under ‘oppression’ I would include but not limit this to those who are enslaved to drugs, alcohol, and other addictions)
  3. Feed the hungry
  4. Welcome the poor
  5. Cover the naked
  6. Be present to your family (that is, both family-family and church family)
  7. Stop pointing fingers at each other
  8. Stop speaking evil
  9. Satisfy the needy
  10. Honor the Sabbath

That last point – “honor the Sabbath” – is the only item on the list God gives an entire verse to. God says: “If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth… for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 58:13-14)

When Isaiah says ‘the mouth of the Lord has spoken,’ remember Genesis chapter one. When God speaks, things happen. When God says ‘light be made’ light is made. Keeping the Sabbath brings rich rewards. The mouth of the Lord has spoken.

A couple of months ago I preached about the need to rediscover the Sabbath.  In this passage Isaiah tells us why that’s so important. Human beings made in the image of God need to rest from our labors, rest from our concerns, rest from our drive to make money, rest from other peoples’ demands on our time. One day a week we and our families need to have a day that belongs to God, for our own sakes as well as to honor God. The Sabbath is a gift from God, a rich gift, and we should receive it with thanks, and honor it.

Getting back to Aliquippa for one more moment… For the past two decades the churches of Aliquippa – including that café – have been some of the greatest sources of hope in the town. The churches help in small ways most of the time. There’s not a lot of money to be had any more, so what’s done relies on God’s Spirit and human cooperation rather than cash (which is an excellent place to be). They do things like cleaning shop windows of the stores that still remain. Weed-whacking a vacant lot to make room for a playground. Starting a community garden and teaching people how to care for it. Holding collections of prom-dresses in the spring, or coats in the winter, so no-one has to go without. Opening a bike-repair shop and teaching young people how to fix bikes so they have a trade.

As I walk the streets of Aliquippa I begin to understood what Isaiah was talking about. To catch the vision. “the ancient ruins shall be rebuilt… you shall be repairers of the breach, restorers of streets to live in.”

And in our own towns, things are starting to happen.  In Carnegie, the church took part in the Carnegie Crawl. In Allentown, we hosted a National Night Out event for the community. In the Strip District we supported a family who lost their home in a fire. We’re making a start. And I believe God honors that.

So let’s take the next step.  I’d like to invite you to join me in making this passage from Isaiah a guiding light for our future: both the future of the church, and the future of our communities. This passage, in so many ways, is a road map to renewal. I invite you to join me in praying over this passage, asking God for specific ideas about how we can make God’s words a reality in our congregation. To ask God to encourage us with a clear understanding of the goodness of God’s vision, to open our minds and hearts to to God’s thoughts. To ask God to show us how we can do what God commands… how and where we can become repairers of the breach and restorers of streets to live in.

Does that sound like an adventure or what? Can I get an Amen?

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Anglican Church (Strip), 8/21/16

~

Read Full Post »

Scripture Readings: Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities- all things were created through him and for him. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”  (Col 1:15-16, 19-20)

Sabbath Living: The Hope of Glory

I have been wanting to preach a sermon about the Sabbath for a long time. And our scriptures for today, even though they don’t mention the Sabbath directly, tie into it. So I’m going to start out talking about the Sabbath today, and then tie in the scripture readings and see where they take us.

As many of you know, before I became a pastor I directed a church choir for many years. And I loved my choir. But there was one thing they did that bugged me.  Every fall I would get calls or emails from some of my choir members saying “I can’t be there Sunday, sorry.” And if I asked “why?” they would say “Steelers game.” And I would say “But church ends at noon, and the game starts at one… what’s the problem?” (Apparently I just didn’t get it.)

Finally one day I looked at my choir and I said “God… Football… Weigh them in the scales: which is more important? God? Or football?”

(The very fact that I would ask that question is a dead giveaway that I was not born and raised in Pittsburgh!)

But it got me to thinking: how did we, as Americans, as Pittsburghers, as churchgoers, get to where we are with the Sabbath? I mean, when I was a kid the stores were all closed on Sundays. You didn’t work on Sundays (unless you worked at a hospital). You didn’t play sports on Sundays (unless you were a professional athlete).  I don’t even remember watching TV on Sundays (except for the Ed Sullivan Show, and that was on at night). Sundays were for going to church and then having dinner with your family… better still, with your extended family. Sundays were a day to relax.

These days we don’t have Sunday any more, not like that. Employers expect people to work any day of the week.  Schools and sports coaches demand our children’s time (or our grand-kids’ time) every day of the week. And stores have sales on Sundays to compete for what little time we have left on weekends.

It’s no wonder church attendance has dropped. Church has become, for many people, just one more thing to do, one more demand on our limited weekend time.

And if I sound like somebody who’s missing the good ol’ days, I’m not. I could tell stories about the ‘good ol’ days’.  But my experience with my choir made me start to re-think things.  Were we missing something back in those old days? Are we missing something now?

In looking for answers to these questions I came across a book called To Be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin. It’s standard reading for Jewish families.  And I chose a Jewish author because the Sabbath has its roots in Judaism. It started with Moses and the Ten Commandments.

You remember the Fourth Commandment.  God says:

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11)

This law comes before the laws against murder, theft, adultery, false witness and coveting! Why? Why was God so serious about keeping the Sabbath?

The Jewish people have had thousands of years to wrestle with these question. So I turned to a Jewish expert for some answers.

Rabbi Donin writes that the Jewish people have a great love for the Sabbath. They sometimes call it ‘the Sabbath Bride’ because they love it so much.

He says looking at it from the outside, Sabbath rules (like no working) may seem restrictive – ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that’ – but in reality it’s just the opposite.  The Sabbath is, in his words, “a glorious release from weekday concerns, routine pressures, and even secular recreation. It is a day of peaceful tranquility, inner joy, and spiritual uplift.” And after a week like the one we’ve had this week – with everything that has happened in the news — couldn’t we use a bit of peace, joy, and spiritual uplift?

The author also says the Sabbath speaks to us of  “…the eternal Paradise, of the world to come, [which will be] one long extended, unending, eternal Sabbath day.”

In other words, the Sabbath is meant to be a small picture, a taste, of eternity with God – a living picture of God’s Promised Land – where all earthly concerns will be behind us.  A world in which the powers and obligations of this world will be things of the past.

The Sabbath is one day out of seven when we can, with God’s blessing, tell the world to knock it off. It speaks to us of God’s justice, because God says all workers get time off. And it speaks to us of God’s joy and love, because it’s family time for the family of God.

For Jewish people, the Sabbath begins on Friday night at sundown. Friday dinner is served as if an honored guest were coming to visit: the best dishes are laid out, and the family dresses as if for company. Candles are lit. Prayers are said. Parents lay hands on their children and bless them in God’s name. And as dinner is eaten, songs are sung and celebration is in the air. Saturday morning the family goes to synagogue, and then the rest of the day is free to enjoy: to spend time with friends, visit neighbors, or enjoy some rest or a good meal. The Sabbath day continues all day until the stars come out on Saturday night.

Doesn’t that sound like a soothing break from our crazy pace of life? Doesn’t it make you hungry for something our society is missing? It does for me. It is a taste of the future, it’s a taste of God’s kingdom.

The apostle Paul knew all of this: knew it better than most of us, because he was a Pharisee. He was trained in Jewish law.  But he says in Galatians that Christians don’t have to keep Jewish law any more. Did he mean to include the Sabbath in that? Did he mean the Ten Commandments aren’t law for us any more? Yes, basically.  But does that mean we should disobey the Ten Commandments? Are we allowed to go around killing and stealing and lying? Of course not.

The Ten Commandments are still a good thing, guidelines for living. So we ignore the Sabbath at our own risk. Not because salvation is about keeping the law… but because if we miss it, we are missing someing really important. We miss out on rest that our bodies and minds and hearts and souls need. And we miss out on catching a glimpse of the coming kingdom of God. Sabbath points us in the direction of our future with Jesus in Paradise.

Listen to what Paul says in our reading from Colossians today:

“He (that is Jesus) is the image of the invisible God.” The word image in Greek is icon, and it has the same meaning as the word ‘icon’ in our day: it’s a picture that represents or stands in for something.  Jesus is the icon of God. And just like Jesus is the icon of God, the Sabbath is the icon of eternal life: a picture of what eternity looks like.

Paul says: “By him (that is, Jesus) all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible; thrones, dominions, rulers, authorities – all things were created through him and for him.”

And if Jesus was there in creation, as Paul says he was, then Jesus was also there on the seventh day when God rested.  Creation and the Sabbath are linked together, in such a way that they can’t be torn apart.

Paul goes on to say: Jesus is “the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead… in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” And Jesus has reconciled us to God in his body by his death. Paul says this is “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.” The mystery is: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

This is Kingdom-talk.  In the book of Colossians Paul is teaching the Colossians about the Kingdom of God, about the rule of Christ. He is teaching them that, because Jesus is King and because Jesus is in us… he is in us, and he is in the Kingdom, and we are in Him, so we are in the Kingdom. Christ in us, the hope of glory.

The Kingdom will be a place where Jesus will rest from all he has done for us; and we with him, and in him, and he in us.  The kingdom and the Sabbath are related. Intertwined. That’s why the Sabbath is so holy, and why it’s so important.

So having heard what Paul has to say, we turn to the story of Mary and Martha.  And we see Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening, while Martha is rushing around, preparing food, serving guests, trying her best to be the ‘hostess with the mostess’.

It’s clear from the story that Jesus honors Mary’s choice over Martha’s… but why? Is Jesus saying it’s better to sit and learn than it is to be busy working? No! Disciples of Jesus are called to work just as much as we are called to learn.

But when I look at this story in the Greek, what I see is Mary being with Jesus – not just physically with, but emotionally with, spiritually with Jesus: following his words, following his thoughts. She’s being a disciple. Martha, on the other hand, is drawn away from Jesus by all her worrying and fretting. She feels alone and left out. She’s feeling at the end of her rope. Martha wants her sister’s company. She wants her sister to help her. And it’s not a bad thing that Martha’s asking for… it’s just not the right way or the right time.  Mary didn’t left her sister alone; Mary made a choice. And Martha also made a choice to do what she’s doing. And Jesus hints that Martha still has time to change her choice if she wants to.

What I come away with in this story is that if we find ourselves feeling anxious, distracted, troubled, bothered… we may need to put things down for a little while and spend some time with the Lord like Mary does. In other words, Martha needed a Sabbath! And Mary was taking one.  Our picture of Mary – sitting peacefully at Jesus’ feet listening to his words – is a beautiful picture of Sabbath rest. And that’s why Jesus says she has chosen the better portion.

So what does all this mean for us today? I think three things:

  • First off it may seem strange to be talking about Christians taking a break after a week like this one. The world around us needs Jesus desperately, and we Christians need to be about God’s business, proclaiming the gospel, speaking God’s truth, bearing witness to God’s love in a world that is spinning out of control. But it’s at times like these when the Sabbath is even more We need to be rested, we need to let Jesus refresh us and teach us, so that we can go out into the world and be effective for God the other six days of the week. Otherwise we’ll just be a bunch of Marthas running around upset and distracted and wondering why nobody’s helping. Human beings were not designed to be on the go 24/7. We need rest, we need time with God, we need time when we can tell the world to go away for a little while, so that we can come at life again fresh.
  • Take some time to learn about the Sabbath and what God had in mind when God created the Sabbath. Read what Scripture has to say about the Sabbath. If you have a computer, go to biblegateway.com and run a search on the word ‘Sabbath’. Find out why the Sabbath is so important to God. Read about what happened when the ancient Israelites gave up on the Sabbath because they decided they’d rather make money on Saturdays… and how their society gave way to a culture of greed.  Are we seeing the same thing happening today?  How did God respond when this happened back then?  Take a look at these issues, and talk about them with each other.
  • As you are able, do some experimenting with the Sabbath. I have to admit I’m still experimenting myself, I’m still learning. So what I suggest here are some of the things that have worked for me, but feel free to improvise. Try setting aside one day a week when you will do no work. You might not be able to clear off one day a week at first… maybe just one day a month to start with. But make it a day when you will do absolutely nothing, from sundown one night to sundown the next. And it might not be Sunday – you might have too much to do on Sundays. Try a Saturday or a Tuesday, whenever you can clear off a day.  For that one day, be a human being, not a human doing.  Turn off the phones, turn off the computer, turn off the TV news (movies and entertainment are OK, but I recommend avoiding the news) and just live in the now. Be free of all obligations to anybody else.

I want to warn you, observing the Sabbath not easy. It’s amazing how fast distractions crop up and how hard it is to keep one day completely clear.  But it is worth the effort.  As you experiment, try different things. Try setting aside time to read scripture and pray. Try lighting a candle when the sun goes down on the first night. If you have kids or grand-kids, try pray God’s blessing over them. Listen to music… or if you play an instrument, play.  Visit a neighbor. Read a book. Go for a walk.  Sit out in the backyard with some sunscreen and a tall glass of iced tea.  And do no work for a day.

And whatever you do, do it with prayer. Ask God to guide you and teach you about this gift called Sabbath. Ask God to lead your thoughts and activities. Tell God you’re doing this because you want to know God better, and you want to know God’s Kingdom better.

And when you try this, let me know how it goes. I’d love to compare notes!

In the meantime, remember: the Sabbath is our icon, our picture, of the eternity to come. So step into the Sabbath… and enjoy!  AMEN.

 

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church 7/17/16

 

~

 

 

Read Full Post »

I have written often how deeply I believe Americans have a duty to assist people in crisis – the homeless, the hungry, and those who are fleeing for their lives from war and terror we can’t begin to imagine.  Every American has been blessed with peace, opportunity, education, and an abundance of resources, and with these gifts comes an obligation to share them with those who need them.

Today Western Pennsylvania took a step forward in marshaling those resources for the benefit of refugees arriving in our city. A public panel discussion, organized and emcee’d by Liddy Barlowe of Christian Associates of Southwest PA, was held at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary today to reach out to, and help organize the efforts of, churches and individuals who are looking for ways to welcome refugees to the Pittsburgh area.

My notes on the meeting are transcribed below.  Comments are welcome. Feel free to share on social media.

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

Welcoming Refugees: How Your Congregation Can Help
Seminar & Panel Discussion at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
March 16, 2016  2:00-3:30PM

Emcee – Liddy Barlowe, Christian Associates of Southwestern PA

Panel

  1. Ms. Williams, AJAPO (Acculturation for Justice, Access, & Peace Outreach)
    Welcoming agency, resettlement agency. First point of contact. Services include micro-enterprise development, family cohesion & empowerment, youth development, immigration services, employment services, links to education, jobs, health, and support services.
  1. Leslie Aizenman, Jewish Family & Children’s Services
    Welcoming agency, resettlement agency.  Services include employment, case management for the vulnerable, centralized immigration information, support groups, citizenship, food pantry (including Hallal and Kosher). Recently received include Napalese, Congalese, Burmese; Syrians are just beginning to arrive.
  1. Barb Murac (sp?), Allegheny County Department of Health & Human Services, Immigrants & Internationals Initiatives
    Advisory Council, Funding, Collaboration.  Services include language/translation, children’s, referrals to other services.  Funds ISAC (Immigrant Services and Connections).
  1. Jen Hays, Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council
    Literacy. ESL programs and English language classes; also GED instruction and computer training.  Professional teachers downtown, volunteer tutoring.
  1. Kheir Mugwaneza, CARR (Community Assistance & Refugee Resettlement)
    Welcoming agency, resettlement agency.  Services include social adjustment, cultural orientation, employment, matching grants, landlord assistance, senior services. Recently received include Bhutanese, Iraqi, Somali.
  1. Betty Cruz, Mayor Peduto’s Office, Welcoming Pittsburgh
    Mayoral Initiative.  Visibility, awareness, Citizenship Days. Coming events include a partnership with Doctors Without Borders to put up a demonstration refugee camp in Pittsburgh.
  1. Cathy Nieble, Refugee Resettlement Director, Catholic Charities – on the roster but out with the flu.
    Welcoming agency, resettlement agency.

Answers to the question “What are the greatest needs?”

  • Say “welcome” and help the newcomers feel welcome. Language and communication.
  • Health care
  • Housing (for people with no credit history)
  • Jobs
  • Emergency funding (tide-over from arrival to first job)
  • Housing supply (dormitories, homes)
  • Mental health; trauma recovery
  • Mentoring (literacy, career)
  • Transportation (accompany them, supply bus tickets)
  • Space – a place to meet, have celebrations, socialize
  • Education
  • Combatting isolation; feeling safe and welcome
  • Cultural adjustments
  • Not to be discriminated against because of accents; celebrate their culture
  • Household goods
  • Escorts on buses

Answers to the question “What other suggestions would you make to churches that would like to help?”

  • Form multi-parish, multi-church, or interdenominational groups of churches to tackle larger needs
  • Pick out just one thing that your congregation can do (for example, “supply 10 bus passes a month” or “provide welcome packages”)
  • Invite one of today’s panelists to come and speak at church – either a ‘mission moment’ or a sermon
  • Invite a refugee to come and speak at church
  • Volunteer to make follow-up visits for longer-term resettled families (1+ years here). Ask them: “what do you need?”
  • Acknowlege community leaders in immigrant communities
  • Attend immigrants’ parties and celebrations
  • Volunteer in literacy and other training
  • Volunteer as an escort on the bus
  • CARR has storage and will take furniture
  • Work with Habitat for Humanity to refurbish homes for refugees
  • For churches who do not have refugees nearby and want to invite refugees to settle in their area – this has been done in Sewickley; must be willing to commit to full service case management.
  • ANNOUNCE AND TAKE PART IN WORLD REFUGEE DAY – FRIDAY JUNE 17. Events will be presented 11AM-2PM in Market Square downtown.
  • Other upcoming events:
    • “Bread for the World” hunger advocacy, Saturday April 2, Christ U.M. Church, Bethel Park
    • Fall 2016 – 2-day conference on welcoming refugees in our communities

Answers to my personal questions: (1) Why are there no refugee service locations west of the city (Carnegie, Crafton, Robinson, Ben Avon, Bellvue, etc) and/or in Beaver or Washington counties? and (2) with the “Welcome Packages” – do donors need to put together entire packages? Or can we collect lots of just one item?

  1. Refugees depend on public transportation. Must be able to access food, work, and health care either by bus or on foot. This leaves out many suburban locations and neighboring counties.  Western suburbs that are well-served by bus (Carnegie, Crafton, Bellvue) are a possibility.
  2. Lots of just one item would be fine. Suggestion: take the list to church and collect one kind of item each week, going down the list.

While I was listening to the presentations I was jotting down ideas for what I could do and what our various congregations – individually or collectively – might be able to do.

Here are some things I personally could do as an individual:

  • literacy training
  • computer training (tie-ins to PAWW)
  • bus escort
  • in-home volunteer
  • transportation
  • welcome and visit
  • sign up for newsletters and share via Facebook

For our churches, depending on the skills available and the level of interest, possibilities include:

  • sign up to welcome refugees
  • sign up as in-home volunteers, employment mentors, or literacy volunteers
  • invite guest speakers to talk about the refugee crisis
  • provide bus escorts
  • offer access to church programs such as senior citizen services, church dinners, and special events
  • collect items for Welcome Packages (AJAPO, Jewish Community Services, and/or Catholic Charities need these)
  • provide space where refugees can meet for socialization and community celebrations
  • business owners/employers: hire a refugee
  • look around for potential refugee housing
  • work with Habitat for Humanity to rehab homes for refugees (I have worked on a Habitat house in the past – this is very do-able)
  • work with the Mayor’s office to help establish refugee families in the communities where we have churches

Read Full Post »

John Lodge, bass player and one of the front men of the Moody Blues, recorded a new album this year. The album is his first solo effort since the 1970s and was released within months of his 70th birthday.

Asked about his thoughts behind the making of the album, Lodge commented “obviously you need songs. But you need a way… the right way for you to record the album.” He explained that with this work he was returning to the way the Moodies developed albums “like in the early days… as a band… all creating together…”

In the ‘early days’ the Moody Blues were famous for arranging songs not so much in a studio (with the musicians on one side of a glass wall and a producer in a control room on the other side) as around a coffee table. In fact the coffee table in the Moodies’ offices became legendary among fans, an iconic representation of how the band members worked together.

The coffee table was lost to history around the time the Moodies took a break from recording in the late 1970s, and fans have often commented that the band’s sound – and musical teamwork – was never quite the same afterward. Later works were good, yes… but they never quite felt like the same band; they felt more like collections of solo and duet efforts.

Lodge continued his recent interview by saying he wanted to “get out of a control-room situation and back into a creative mold where you can be creative with other people…”

Where it comes to the Church: Juxtapose this with comments like “Why should I bother going to church on Sunday mornings? I can worship God just as well rafting down a river and being one with nature.”

Yes – and a musician can create and record music without a band too. Many do. All it takes to make an album these days is one musician with a recording studio and a bunch of electronics. Everything else – instruments, drums, backing vocals – can be synthesized.

But something important is lost in the process: the creative gifts and talents of others. Nothing can replace what happens when band members bounce ideas off each other, play in response to each other, even get on each others’ nerves and then work to resolve differences.

Juxtapose Lodge’s comments also with people who say “what the church needs is programs that appeal to young people” (or whatever the target demographic of the day might be).

Top-down leadership leaves little room for inspiration, just as control-room recording leaves less room for musical teamwork. Where it comes to the church, the One in charge is not sitting in a glass booth. God works within hearts, and the institution needs to find ways to teach, support and inspire Holy-Spirit-directed creativity and collaboration.

So I submit for your consideration: the Body of Christ works a lot like a band. We need each other. We need to inspire each other, challenge each other, build together. And we need to learn how to be guided by God’s Spirit in working together.

The word “symphony” is a combination of two Greek words meaning to “sound together”. We can’t sound together alone.

 

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Towards the end of his life the apostle Paul wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the ceremony begins.

Who would say “no” to a royal wedding?

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s pray…

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

 

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

~

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »