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Baptismal Question “Will you nurture (these persons) in Christ’s holy church, that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves, to profess their faith openly, and to lead a Christian life?”

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Scripture reading: Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Jesus answered him, “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? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”

Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?  No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.  And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.  But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” – John 3:1-21

So here it is the fourth Sunday of Lent, and we continue in our sermon series on baptismal vows. This week we are looking at the question, “Will you nurture (this child or these people) in Christ’s holy church, that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves, to profess their faith openly, and to lead a Christian life?”

This question is quite a mouthful!  It is also the first baptismal question that is asked, not of the person being baptized, but of those who are witnessing the baptism: the parents, the sponsors, and the congregation.

And how appropriate is this question for today, when we are rejoicing in the birth of Lila Joy Price!  Someday soon this young lady will be baptized. And for those of us who witness that joyous occasion, this question is the vow we will take to support her, and to be her family in Christ.

The Bible describes the church as a ‘body’ made up of living members, or like a large extended family, all of us related to each other by Jesus’ blood and by the Holy Spirit. All of us are Lila’s aunts and uncles and grandmothers and grandfathers and brothers and sisters in the faith. And as her older siblings, we are in a position to help her learn and grow, and get to know Jesus, and see us live out what it means to be the family of God. It’s a huge honor and a huge responsibility.

It’s also good to remember that when we were baptized, other people took this vow for us. And more than likely that’s why we’re here today: because somebody who made this promise taught our Sunday School class and told us about Jesus – or maybe they invited us to sing in the choir, or helped out with our vacation Bible school – or maybe they gave money so these things could happen. God’s family of believers was here for us when we were growing up.

Now that we’re older, though, we tend to think more in terms of babies being baptized, and so it’s babies we take this vow for.  But that wasn’t always the case, historically, in the church. And I’d like to submit for our consideration today the proposition that this vow still holds – for all of us!  Because who among us does not need nurturing from time to time, or guidance, or encouragement in living our Christian life?  We are still, and always will be, the family of God – always here for each other.  And just like any family we may have our spats from time to time, but when the chips are down (or even when they’re not down) we pull together and we are one.

In our Gospel reading for today Jesus gives us a beautiful example of this: of how an adult believer – in this case, Jesus – might support and encourage another adult – in this case, Nicodemus – in their life of faith. Let’s take a look.

This conversation takes place somewhere near Jerusalem, in the springtime, shortly after the Passover. We’re not sure exactly where this happened, but Jesus and the disciples often spent evenings on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem, so it may have been there. As I imagine the scene, it’s night-time, and there’s a campfire going, and Jesus and the disciples are sitting on rocks, warming themselves by the fire and talking. Suddenly a Pharisee appears: Nicodemus. He’s not one of the chief priests but he’s high up enough among the Pharisees that they recognize him.

Nicodemus has something on his mind, on his heart, and he’s not sure he can trust the other Pharisees with the questions that are churning inside him. So he turns to Jesus. (Smart man!)  And because he does, he will end up living into his name. ‘Nicodemus’ in Greek is made up of two words: Nike – which means ‘victory’, and Demos – which is the root of the word ‘democracy’. So his name means ‘victory of the people’. And in coming to Jesus this night, Nicodemus will show us, the people, how to have victory in Jesus.

The question Nicodemus leads off with is:

“Rabbi, we [meaning the Pharisees] know that you are a teacher from God, because no one could do the signs you do if God were not with him.”

But that’s really only half the question. The unspoken half of Nicodemus’ question is: “help me understand. Because my brother Pharisees – if anybody says they’re your follower, they toss them out of the synagogue. But I know they know you’re God’s messenger, Jesus – because nobody can do what you do apart from God. So what’s up with this? And what can I do?”

Now Jesus could have said, “here’s what you do. Gather together all the other Pharisees who believe what you believe, who believe in me, and take over leadership of the Pharisees. You have enough leadership experience, Nicodemus, to run the organization. And once you’re in charge you can require your people to listen to my message and share it with the chief priests. And our movement will grow and spread and eventually we’ll break the chains of the Roman Empire…”

Isn’t that usually how worldly power goes? But Jesus doesn’t operate on a worldly level. Jesus is God’s man, and he does things God’s way. And in God’s kingdom, Nicodemus’ heart and soul are more important than leading a movement.

So Jesus gives Nicodemus the answer he needs… though maybe not the answer he’s expecting.  Jesus explains why Nicodemus can see the truth where his fellow Pharisees can’t.  Jesus says: “With the greatest certainty I say to you, unless one is begotten from above, one is not able to perceive the kingdom of God.”

I need to stop here for a moment because this verse is so familiar. It’s usually translated something like: “Very truly I tell you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” But the phrase ‘born again’ has been so over-used in the 20th and 21st centuries, we have completely lost the meaning of it.  So I went back to the Greek and translated it fresh, and here’s what I found.

Jesus starts with the words “Amen, amen” – meaning “this is absolutely true and I affirm it”. And then he says, “Unless one is begotten from above…” – because ‘born again’ sounds like something we do.  Like, I was born in January – I am the do-er of this action. But if someone is begotten – we can’t beget ourselves. We are begotten by someone else, by our parents – or by God.  And Jesus emphasizes this by saying ‘begotten from above’. This is what John Wesley meant by prevenient grace. Before all time, and before we were aware, we were begotten by God and loved by God – and we had nothing to do with it!

Jesus says ‘unless one is begotten from above, one is not able to perceive the Kingdom of God.’  In other words, the ability to grasp that there is a reality beyond this worldly existence is a gift of God. One must have understanding given by the Holy Spirit in order to perceive the things of God. That’s why Nicodemus can see so clearly that Jesus is from God, while the other Pharisees keep denying it.  They have closed their minds and hearts to God’s Spirit, and they’re not able to see God’s truth.

Nicodemus doesn’t quite grasp what Jesus is saying right away, so he asks how it’s possible for an old man to be begotten: is he going to climb back into his mother’s belly a second time? The tone of Nicodemus’ question is slightly sarcastic but not overwhelmingly so; he doesn’t doubt Jesus’ sincerity, just the content of his answer.

Jesus answers, “with the greatest certainty I tell you, if one is not born of water and the Spirit one cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” Being born of water: that’s human birth, and all of us here on this planet have done that. Being born of the Spirit: that’s godly birth. And that’s why we refer to the Holy Spirit as being God. In the Trinity, God the Father creates… God the Son saves… and God the Spirit begets spiritual children. Jesus explains this, saying, “what is begotten of the flesh is flesh; and what is begotten of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I say to you, ‘you must be begotten from above’.

Nicodemus is beginning to catch the vision Jesus is casting. He’s got a toe-hold but now he needs a handle, so he asks, “how can these things be?” And Jesus answers, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? With the greatest certainty I tell you, we speak of what we know and bear witness to what we’ve seen, but you [plural] don’t grasp our testimony.” Here Jesus is referring to the Pharisees as a group and confronting their general lack of understanding.  Jesus continues, “If I have spoken to you [plural] about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I speak to you of heavenly things?”  In other words, Jesus hasn’t even started talking about the Kingdom of God yet – he’s still talking about the things of this world. There’s so much more to come, and so much more to know!  And in saying so, Jesus broadens Nicodemus’ vision to take in so much more than he imagined when he began this conversation.

And then Jesus shares with Nicodemus God’s plan for the salvation of the world.  He says: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…”  Jesus is referring here to ancient history, when Israel was traveling from Egypt to the Promised Land.  When the people of Israel sinned against God by not trusting God for their provision, God sent snakes into the camp and people started to die from snake-bites. So God told Moses to put a bronze snake on a pole and anyone who looked at the snake would live. The people had to have faith enough to take God at his word and look at the snake on the pole. In the same way people must have faith enough to take God at his word and look to Jesus on the cross.

Jesus explains further: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” And Jesus adds, “those who haven’t believed are condemned already… they have loved darkness more than the light because their deeds are evil.” And he wraps up by saying, “he who practices truth comes to the light, in order that it may be seen that his deeds have been wrought by God.”

…which brings us back to where Nicodemus started when he said, “Jesus, you must be from God, because no one could do the signs you do apart from God.”

Jesus has explained patiently to Nicodemus what he needed to know. He has answered the questions, both asked and unasked.

Whether or not Nicodemus fully believed Jesus that night, the apostle John doesn’t tell us. But we can be certain he heard what Jesus was saying.  A few chapters later, in John 7, Nicodemus will stand up to the other Pharisees, defending Jesus’ right to a fair hearing – and he will be ridiculed for it. And then in John 19, after Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus will bring 100 pounds of myrrh and aloe to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Nicodemus was one of the men who personally wrapped Jesus’ body and laid it in the tomb.

Jesus’ kindness and patience touched Nicodemus’ heart and mind, and Nicodemus was never the same. He’s one of the few Pharisees who ‘got it’ and believed.

Our baptismal vows call us to do the same for each other. To nurture each other; to guide each other; to share what we know with each other; to encourage each other; to help each other grow in God’s grace. This is the example Jesus sets for us. And it’s the promise we make, as members of the Body of Christ, whenever someone is baptized. Looking forward to taking this vow again soon. 😊

 

Preached at Fairhaven  United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 3/11/18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

John Wesley

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This week marks the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  500 years ago on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the local church in Wittenburg, in hopes of inspiring reform in the Catholic Church. Instead he inspired the Protestant movement.

As with all events in history, context is critical in understanding the events that were unfolding, and the century Luther lived in was stunning in its creativity and genius. With this in mind I put together a very basic timeline of events in and around the Protestant Reformation, to give some background to Luther’s story. Enjoy.

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Reformation Timeline

1452 – Leonardo daVinci born

1455 – Gutenberg invents the movable-type printing press. Gutenberg Bible printed.

1473 – Copernicus born

1473 – Michelangelo born

1481 – Spanish Inquisition begins

1483 – Martin Luther born

1492 – Columbus sails to the New World, discovers corn

1494 – earliest record of Scots making whiskey

1495 – daVinci begins The Last Supper

1496 – Michelangelo begins the Pieta

1502 – Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, founds the University of Wittenburg

1505 – Luther becomes an Augustinian monk

1507 – Luther ordained priest, celebrates first mass

1508 – Luther appointed to teach at the University of Wittenburg

1509 – John Calvin, founder of Presbyterianism, is born

1509 – Henry VIII becomes King of England

1510 – Luther walks to Rome (approx 1000 miles) on a pilgrimage for his order (the Augustinians). He arrives with high hopes, but is “shocked by the lack of morality and piety of the local clergy and by the luxurious lifestyle of the Pope Leo X”

1513 – Luther’s “Tower Experience”: the meaning of Romans 1 (salvation by grace through faith) dawns on Luther’s heart and mind. For Luther this is the moment when the Protestant Reformation begins.

1517 – Pope Leo grants indulgences for rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica

October 31, 1517 – Luther nails 95 Theses to Castle Church door in Wittenburg protesting indulgences

1518 – Luther is charged with heresy in Rome, defends himself in Augsburg using Scripture rather than church doctrine. He is protected by Frederick the Wise.

1521 – Luther is excommunicated. He appears before the Diet of Worms. On his way home, Luther is “kidnapped” by friends and taken to Wartburg Castle and placed in hiding. He spends the next 10 weeks translating the New Testament from Greek into German.

1522 – Luther’s translation of the New Testament is published

1522 – Zwingli begins reformation in Switzerland

1523 – First Lutheran martyrs, Heinrich Voes and John Esch, burned at stake in Antwerp

1525 – Frederick the Wise dies; Luther marries the former nun Katherina von Bora

1525 – Tyndale visits Luther from England; under Luther’s influence the English translation of the New Testament is published and smuggled into England. Owning a Tyndale Bible in England carries a death sentence. Tyndale is declared a heretic, strangled to death and burned at the stake.

1527 – The Plague strikes Wittenburg. Luther’s home becomes a hospital. Luther writes the hymn A Mighty Fortress

1530 – Augsburg Confession presented to Charles V at Diet of Augsburg

1533 – Henry VIII of England is excommunicated

1534 – Luther’s complete German Bible is published.

1536 – Henry VIII allows English Bible to be published in England

1539 – Catholic Counter-Reformation begins

1546 – Luther passes, age 63

1555 – the “Peace of Augsburg” gives the reigning prince of a country the right to determine the religion of his subjects (authors of this Peace hope to put an end to religion-based violence. Some days it works better than others.)  Reformation continues for the next hundred years or so.

 

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“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.  Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.  Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well – since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.”  – Philippians 1:21-30

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Welcome to week two of our series in Philippians.  Last week we kicked off the series by setting the scene for this letter, and this week we begin to dig into the meat of Paul’s message.  Before I do, just a quick review of the cast of characters in this correspondence. Last week we met:

The apostle Paul – the author of the letter, who also wrote probably about half the New Testament.  Paul was born and raised in Tarsus in Syria, and moved to Jerusalem as a young man to study with the Pharisee Gamaliel who was one of the greatest teachers of the time. (Gamaliel is mentioned in Acts 5 where his address to the council saves Peter’s life after he was arrested.) Eventually Paul became a Pharisee himself, and when Christianity came along, Paul persecuted the church because he believed they were teaching heresy… until the day he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. Jesus called Paul to be the apostle to the Gentiles, and at the time Philippians is being written, Paul is in jail awaiting trial, most likely in Rome. We also met…

Timothy – Paul’s disciple and pastor-in-training.  Timothy traveled with Paul on many of his missionary journeys. While Timothy was not arrested, he was with Paul to provide for Paul’s needs while Paul is in jail. Back in those days jails didn’t supply much so it was necessary to have a friend ‘on the outside’ who could bring in what was needed, and that’s what Timothy was doing. We also met…

“The saints in Philippi” – Philippi was the first European city where the gospel of Jesus Christ was preached – and when Paul preached there, one of the first believers was a woman named Lydia, who was a dealer in purple cloth.  She was wealthy enough to have a house big enough to host the Philippian church.  We also heard about…

The Imperial Guard – who were the elite Roman troops whose job it was to protect the Emperor and his household, and who were also guarding Paul.  So because of Paul’s imprisonment, the Imperial Guard and members of the royal household were hearing the good news of Jesus, and some were becoming believers… and Paul is thrilled with this.  It’s interesting to note the emperor at the time was the infamous character Nero… and it’s entirely possible that Nero heard about Jesus because of Paul.

Paul opens his letter by giving thanks to God for the Philippians – for their faith, and for their faithfulness in friendship, and for supporting him while he’s in jail.  Paul says he’s been praying for them that their love will continue to grow, infused with knowledge and wisdom.

And then he begins to give the Philippians an update on what’s happening in his life, because Paul knows the Philippians are concerned. They know he’s in prison, and they know prison is not a healthy place to be (dirty and disease-ridden compared to our modern prisons, and even today they’re no walk in the park). So Paul fills them in on how he’s doing, and that’s where we pick up today.

Paul is sharing that in spite of the fact he’s in jail, and trying to recover from physical injuries he suffered from shipwreck and flogging, he says he is overjoyed that his sufferings are leading to glory for Jesus and to new life for the people around him. He says he doesn’t mind being in jail when it means others will come to know Jesus. And he’s excited to see his experiences making other believers bold in sharing God’s message.

Paul then declares, “for me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” – and this is such a striking statement I had to make it our focus for today.

“For me, living is Christ” – can we relate to that? When we think about our daily lives, is Jesus so close that every moment is touched by his truth and his love? The answer to that question of course is “yes” whether we’re aware of it or not – because as scripture says, “in him we live and move and have our being”. So Jesus is always close.

But I don’t know if it’s actually possible to be consciously aware of Jesus’ presence every minute of the waking day. When we get really involved in what we’re doing – like driving or cooking or fixing the vacuum cleaner, we tend to block out everything else… and it’s probably a good thing that we’re not distracted when we do these things. But if we stop and reflect for a moment, do we find ourselves thankful for the good meal we just had, or for the skill and knowledge it takes to drive a car or to repair a vacuum? Do we sense God’s goodness with us?  Do we see God working through us, even in small ways, to make our corner of the world just a little bit better? For a Christian, living really is Christ, and many times it is the little moments that make the difference.

But then Paul goes on to say “and dying is gain” or to translate it another way, “dying is profit”. This is tougher to take in, because it seems from our point of view like death means not gain but loss. Death takes away everything we own, everyone we know, our country, our town, our home, our education, our career, even our own bodies. So how can this be gain?

On the other hand, there are times when eternal life with Jesus looks pretty good… especially during painful times.  When we’ve lost someone close to us, or when we’re suffering through a serious illness; or when we’re facing major surgery; or when we get older and realize we’ve got more years behind us than in front of us, and more friends and family already in the Kingdom than here on earth. Those of us who are trusting Jesus, who believe Jesus meant what he said when he said “today you will be with me in Paradise” – we know the truth of Paul’s words. None of us looks forward to the actual process of dying, but when we look past death we see something glorious and far better than anything this world can offer.

That’s what Paul has in his sights.  Paul has been through beatings, shipwrecks, and imprisonment, and now he lives with chronic pain. He’s very aware of his mortality: he’s in prison accused of capital crimes, and he may not get out.

But Paul tells the Philippians he believes he’s going to be released, because God has more for him to do, and because the Philippians have been praying for him. Paul says If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.”  By the way, this is not Paul being egotistical – he’s not saying “I have to stay here on earth because you need me”.  It’s more like a loving parent who wants to stay alive as long as possible – even if it’s painful – to see their children grow and become the people they are becoming.

Besides that, the Philippians have been praying for Paul, and Paul says ‘I look forward to sharing in your boasting in Christ Jesus’ when Jesus answers their prayer. Paul is saying ‘When I come to visit, there will lots of answered prayers to talk about. You’ll tell me what Jesus has been doing in your life, and I’ll tell you what Jesus has been doing in my life, and we can brag on the Lord.’  It’s kind of like being in the Steelers locker room after a win.  You can hear the guys saying “Man, did you see that play? Did you see Antonio make that catch? Man he pulled that right out of the stratosphere!”

There are times when boasting is appropriate – and when Jesus has given us victory is one of those times! Granted, we need to boast appropriately. There’s a saying in the Old Testament, in the book of I Kings, that says, “One who puts on his armor should not boast like one who takes it off.”  But when we get the chance to sit down after the spiritual battles and take off the armor for a little while, and share stories of what God has done, it is entirely appropriate to boast. And Paul tells the Philippians he is looking forward to “sharing abundantly” in that boasting.

In the meantime, Paul says, ‘until I can join you, live your lives in a way that brings honor to the gospel of Christ and to the name of Christ. Be one in spirit; strive side by side with one mind for the faith; and don’t be afraid of those who oppose you.’

I wish our churches today – all the denominations – would take these words to heart!  Because all the churches are struggling against divisions right now.  The mission of the church – given by God, to all believers – is to share the gospel message Jesus gave us, and that message is: “the kingdom of heaven is near: change course and believe the good news. Jesus has died and has risen and has broken the chains of sin and death. Trust in him and receive salvation.”

That’s it!  The church’s job is to be God’s ambassadors to a dying world, to save lives. So how can we allow ourselves to be pulled off course by controversies?

Paul says, “stand firm in one spirit… with one mind.”  Does this mean we all have to agree on everything? No!  What it means is we know why we’re here and we agree on the gospel message and we work together in unity to share it.

Paul says: the enemies of the gospel, hearing God’s words through us, understand the words to be the evidence of their own end. And Paul is not being snarky here, he’s telling it like it is.  For those of us who have been Christians for a long time, we tend to forget what the gospel sounds like to people who oppose it or who don’t believe it. The words sound sweet to us, but they’re convicting to people who aren’t there yet.  And Paul says, “this is God’s doing” and he leaves it at that.

So coming back to Paul’s original thought – that for him, life is Christ and death is gain, or profit… I wanted to think about the profit angle for a moment.  People who have money learn to invest, and people who have lots of money learn to make the highest possible profit from their investments.

I knew a guy in college whose goal it was to a make a million dollars by the time he was 30 (he was about 18 when he said this). I don’t know if he ever succeeded but I imagine he might have. Because to reach a goal – any goal – takes focus and energy and an unwillingness to be distracted from that goal… and he had those qualities.  I also imagine if he made that first million he probably looked around and said, “OK…what next?” Because human beings have a need for life to be about something.  When we reach a goal, we need another one.

So what if we looked at the things we do every day, and the words we speak, as investments in God’s kingdom? What if, as Jesus suggested, we spent the majority of our time building up treasure in heaven, where rust and moth cannot consume, and thieves cannot break in and steal?  The question then becomes – what can we do that invests in God’s kingdom and what might we do sometimes that might take away from that investment?

The answers to those questions are not easy as one might think. I mean, there are some things we can be sure of: when we obey the Ten Commandments we are investing in God’s kingdom. When we tell others about Jesus we are investing in God’s kingdom.  When we do the things God has asked us to do, like showing mercy, or welcoming the stranger, or providing for the poor, or feeding the hungry, we are investing in God’s kingdom.  When we do what Paul is talking about in this letter: living a life worthy of Christ without fearm living in a way that brings honor to God, we are investing in God’s kingdom.

But there are times in scripture when God is doing a new thing and God’s will doesn’t seem to be quite that clear. And in the Christian life, past experience is not always the best guide for future action. God may want to do something totally unexpected. That’s why Paul prays in verse 9 that the love of the Philippians will “overflow with knowledge and full insight”.

Paul knows, as Jesus taught, that love is the fulfillment of God’s law.  But Paul also knows human love can go off course – unless it’s guided by knowledge and has wisdom to infuse it with beauty.

So if our words and actions are rooted in love, that is guided by knowledge or truth and infused with wisdom, we can be confident what we do and what we say is an investment in God’s kingdom.

Paul ends this passage by saying if we do these things there will be times when we suffer for it. So not only is investing in the Kingdom challenging, but when we finally start to get it right, people aren’t going to be thrilled about it!  But Paul sees suffering for Jesus’ sake as a privilege. And Jesus himself said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” (Matt 5:11-12)

This doesn’t mean Paul wants to be persecuted or tries to do things that will bring on suffering. There have been times in the church’s history when people have gone overboard with this idea and tried to get themselves persecuted, or even martyred, so they could get God’s blessing.  This is not sound thinking. But if we are doing God’s will, suffering will come, and Paul is honest about that. But Paul says when it comes, we share in the suffering together and we bear each other’s burdens, and God will bless us.

So the bottom line is, whether in suffering or in joy, whether in life or in death, Jesus Christ will be exalted. And no matter what happens, we will be with Jesus and Jesus will be with us. So to live is Christ; and to die is gain.  Let’s pray. 

 Lord, we are challenged by Paul’s words, and yet we are encouraged to hear about his joy and his boldness in the face of adversity.  Show us how we can invest in your Kingdom in our own time, by what we do and by what we say. Help us to live in a manner worthy of the gospel. Help us to be one in spirit and in mind as we share the faith and fulfill your commission. Help us to be faithful, as the Philippian church was faithful, bringing honor and glory to your name. AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 9/24/17

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[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…”

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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.

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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.

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

 

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“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

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