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A few years ago I started a blog called Good News for a Change in which I hoped to share uplifting articles, encouraging news, and stories of people finding ways to accomplish good things. Sadly the blog fell by the wayside for a number of reasons but I’ve always liked the idea.

SO… with this post… I am reinstating Good News for a Change, not as a blog, but as a category within this Getting Started blog — which has a much longer history and larger readership.

The following was submitted by a fellow clergyman and written by a friend of his, Steve Farmer. Enjoy the good news! And anytime you have good news to share please do. Add a comment below, or send me a note back-channel and I’ll write up an article for you.

Steve writes:

“Back to work today, forgot my pass so locked bike outside Cannon Street [London] station. Left work at 6pm to find just the cut lock and no bike, resigned to never seeing my trusty stead again asked the station if they have cameras. A guy appeared waving at me, asked me to put the code into my cut lock. He replied ‘I have your bike’ with a smile I will never forget!! His name is Abdul Muneeb and he works for South Eastern Railways, he was on a break and saw a guy bolt cut the lock and challenged him to give it back, he then took it inside and waited 4 hours after his shift finished to personally make sure I got my bike back. The world needs more Abdul’s, he is a legend of a man and a credit to his employer.”

 

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A week ago today the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that our nation’s Dreamers will be allowed to stay awhile longer — that efforts to dismantle the DACA program were attempted illegally.

DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) protects people who came to the United States as dependent children from deportation. It also provides work papers for those who are old enough to legally work.

DACA recipients – or “Dreamers” – have grown up in the U.S., gone to school here, gone to college or learned a trade here, have not broken any laws, and in many cases have served in the military. They are people who embody “the American dream”.

This past week I received the following email from a Christian organization that supports legal immigration. It was written by Liz Dong, a Dreamer, who is head of the organization Voices of Christian Dreamers. Shared with permission.

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“Like many people in my situation, I will never forget the day that I first heard about DACA. By the grace of God – and thanks to a lot of advocacy from brave young immigrants who were sharing their personal stories when I was not ready for that myself, not to mention many Christian leaders who were beginning to speak up for immigrants in ways guided by biblical principles – the DACA program was announced eight years and one week ago. I’d recently graduated from Northwestern University, which in itself was a miraculous answer to prayer as an undocumented student from a single-parent family, without a lot of financial resources and ineligible for federal financial aid. But even after graduation, I still could not work lawfully.

“DACA changed that for me: I was able to get a job and contribute, which is precisely what I’d always wanted. It’s allowed me to go on to graduate school, earning my MBA from the University of Chicago, and to work with the Evangelical Immigration Table for many years, mobilizing local churches to advocate.

“Last Thursday was another day I’ll never forget. That morning, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in such a way that – for the moment at least – DACA remains in place, despite administrative efforts to terminate it. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude – first and foremost to God, but also to you and others who have advocated with and for me and the many other Dreamers within your congregations and communities.

“I’d ask you now to keep praying and keep advocating – because while the decision is a huge relief, it’s not the end of the story. The majority of the Supreme Court found that the administration’s process for terminating DACA was unlawful, but not that they (or a future administration) could not terminate DACA by a more appropriate process. The only way for Dreamers to become citizens of this country, which a great many of us are eager to do, would be for Congress to pass permanent legislation.

“So, thank you for praying. Please don’t stop.

“Thank you for advocating. Please don’t stop. You can start by adding your name to this letter to Members of Congress, and by asking those you know (at your church, via email, on social media, etc.) to add their names as well.”

In Christ,

Liz Dong

Founder, Voices of Christian Dreamers

P.S. Dreamers like me are thankful after last week’s decision, but that’s not new. This video is our tribute to some of the people for whom we’re thankful, who have helped us along the way!

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Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.Matthew 15:21-28

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The story we hear about in Matthew’s gospel today is a strange one. It’s also troubling. It leaves us with a lot of questions, especially the question: did Jesus really call this woman a dog?!?

But let’s start at the beginning.

Matthew says “Jesus left that place” – so we’re not at the beginning of the story, and we need to back up and figure out where we are. Last week Jesus was in Gennesaret, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. He had just had a confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees about what it means to be ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’.

In today’s reading, Jesus has left there and traveled to the region of Tyre and Sidon. This is important information. It tells us Jesus and the disciples walked 50-70 miles, either over a mountain range or around it; they have left the region of Galilee, and in fact have left Israel, and they are now in Gentile territory. Tyre and Sidon are a pair of busy seaport towns on the Mediterranean coast, where Jesus is trying to travel incognito. He wants to keep his whereabouts a secret, and as far as we can tell, he succeeded…

…until this woman arrived. And she Would.Not.Shut.Up.  She followed Jesus around shouting “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David…” and asking for help for her daughter. She made noise. She persisted. And she was annoying the heck out of the disciples, who came to Jesus and said, “please send her away, she keeps following us around!”

Jesus, meanwhile, is ignoring the whole situation – which is very unlike him. It’s almost as if Jesus took this trip into Gentile territory for a mini-vacation and he’s sworn off work for a few days. He’s taking a break from the constant demands for healings and miracles and verbal sparring matches with religious authorities. Even Jesus needed a few days off now and then: he was as human as we are, as well as being the Son of God. So was this trip into Gentile territory meant to be a long weekend away?

Or was it that God sent Jesus there specifically to meet this woman? That’s possible too. Jesus had been confronted with a lot of people lacking faith the past few days. Maybe the Father knew his Son needed some time with someone who really believed in Him.

We don’t know for sure. What we do know is that this woman was (a) a foreigner, from a country that Israel was not particularly friendly with; (b) a Gentile, not Jewish, and therefore (one would assume) of a different religion; (c) had a daughter who was in serious trouble; and (d) most importantly, knew who Jesus was. In fact she understood who Jesus was even better than the disciples did at this point!  Listen to her words. She says to Jesus: “Have mercy on me Lord” – literally kyrie eleison in Greek (some of you raised in certain church traditions may recognize those words).

Then she calls Jesus Son of David” – the name given in Old Testament prophecies to the one who would be the Messiah, the King of Kings. How did this woman, a foreigner and a Gentile, know to call Jesus this? How did she, born and raised in a nation of unbelievers, have greater faith than people who had been raised to keep an eye out for the Messiah? She must have been listening very carefully to the stories coming out of Israel about this man.

She also becomes proof of what Jesus said to the Pharisees in earlier verses: “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth” because what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart. By Jesus’ standards, this woman’s heart was far closer to God than the hearts of the scribes and the Pharisees.

We also notice this woman is not coming to ask Jesus for favors for herself. Her plea is for her daughter, who is suffering greatly from demonic attacks. The Bible gives no further detail on what precisely that meant; only that her daughter was in bad shape. And what mother would not put everything on the line for the sake of her child?  That’s exactly what this lady does.

Jesus’ first reply is a hard word: he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

There is an element of truth in these words: Jesus’ mission was to the people of Israel. The Messiah was to be the redeemer of Israel. It would be up to his disciples – including us – to carry Jesus’ message to the rest of the world.

TyreSidonMap

But that didn’t mean Jesus had no dealings with non-Jews. So she ignores his answer and presses on. She kneels in front of him – prostrating herself as one would before a great king or a Caesar, and says simply, “Lord help me.”

Jesus’ reply is condescending at best, and there’s really no other way to interpret it. He says:

“It is not proper to take the children’s food and throw it to little dogs.”

I suspect – and this suspicion is shared by some religious scholars, particularly those who come from minority backgrounds – I suspect that Jesus is speaking not so much his own opinion as he is reflecting prejudices of his day. As one Bible scholar puts it, “We see ourselves mirrored in Jesus’ attitude, but not our best selves.” Jesus speaks this opinion for a moment so that he – or in this case, she – can comment on it.

The answer the woman gives shows the depth and richness of her faith. She says: “Yes Lord; yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Her words (1) acknowledge that Jesus is the Master; (2) point out that her request is a tiny crumb of a thing compared to the greatness of Jesus’ power; and (3) that even if she can’t claim the rights of a child she can at least claim the rights of a family pet. She knows Jesus will say ‘yes’. She knows, somehow, that her prayer is already in the process of being answered…

…which Jesus confirms by saying, “Woman, how great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Imagine how refreshing this conversation must have been for Jesus, especially after all the hassles of dealing with the Pharisees! And what a wonderful thing to come to a foreign country and find oneself refreshed by the faith of a foreigner. As Proverbs 25:25 says: “Like cold water to a weary soul is good news from a foreign land.”

For us, hearing this story 2000 years later, what can we take from this passage? Four things I want to draw attention to today.

  1. As we read Scripture, remember who we are. All of us have been adopted into God’s family. All of us should equally, in the words of one seminary professor, “take our places on our knees… shoulder to shoulder with this woman; side by side with all the outcasts, the wounded, the hungry, the lonely, the homeless.” The vast majority of us everyday believers around the world have more in common with this woman than we do with the disciples.
  2. This woman was from Syria — a country that has been in the news in the past few years because of a civil war there and the millions of refugees who have fled for their lives. With a few exceptions, the nations of the world have responded to this crisis of hunger and homelessness by closing their borders and saying essentially “we can’t take what belongs to the children of our own people and give it to Syrian dogs”. Consider how Jesus makes an example of this kind of thinking, and how the faith of the Syrian woman overcomes it.
  3. This woman shows us how to have great faith – faith that trusts Jesus, and knows Jesus for who he is, and knows that Jesus will always do right. This faith is available to anyone, no matter who you are or where you’ve been.
  4. Don’t give up on prayer. If at first it seems like God isn’t listening, keep asking, keep asking. Jesus is the King of Heaven: his abilities and his mercies are so great that healing a child’s illness is just crumbs under his table. So keep on keeping on with prayer – because our God is a God who delights in mercy. AMEN

 

 

 

 

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“[Jesus] put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the servants of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

[A little later Jesus] left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!” – Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

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I was at a prayer meeting about a week ago and the leader asked everyone how they were doing, and one of the women responded and said she was feeling down. When asked why she hesitated for a moment and then sighed and said, “Why do all these bad things keep happening?”

I could relate to her question. I think probably most of us can.

And I think it’s good not to rush into an answer to that question. Apart from the fact there are no easy answers, the question itself can have so many shades of meaning. It could mean: I’m tired. (That’s what I’m hearing from my African American friends lately: ‘I’m so tired and I don’t want to talk about it any more.’) It could mean: I’m frustrated. I’m sad. I’m hurting. I’m angry. I’m weary. I wish the world wasn’t this way. I wish all the sick people could get well. I wish all the people who have died could come back to life. I wish all the unemployed people had jobs. I wish all the working people could get some rest. I wish people weren’t so prejudiced. I wish people would be kind to each other. I wish our world was a peaceful place. I’m weary of hearing bad news after bad news after bad news.

The longings of our hearts give insight into what we were created for – but that world isn’t here yet.

I think the ‘why’ question is the toughest question to answer. And if we’re feeling these things, there’s no way to avoid the feelings. We can’t dodge them; we can’t drown them out with busyness or with pleasures; the only real way out is through. The emotions need to be felt and expressed. For some of us that might mean joining a protest; for others it might mean writing a song or writing a letter to the editor or writing to an elected official, or even just talking to a friend. One way or another the feelings need to come out.

But as Christians, I hope the first thing we do is talk to Jesus about it. Jesus knew what it was to live in an age of sickness and violence and injustice. Where it comes to sickness, think of all the people Jesus healed – people who had no access to health care other than what Jesus had to offer. When Jesus walked this earth it was a violent time. This week in our weekly scripture readings we read about the martyrdom of John the Baptist – how Herod had John killed as a reward for Herod’s step-daughter’s dancing. John was Jesus’ cousin – and when Jesus was told the news, the first thing he did was head up into the mountains alone to pray and talk to his Father God. Jesus knew what unjust killing was all about. He has been where we are.

Jesus in his teachings addresses a number of these things. Jesus knew the words of the Psalm we read today (Psalm 8) that says: “out of the mouths of babes you have founded a bulwark… to silence the enemy and the avenger…” – it’s a verse that points to the Messiah.

Jesus knew the words that said “what are human beings that you are mindful of them… yet you have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor.” Jesus knew this is what human beings are created for. Jesus knew first-hand the glories of God’s kingdom, which is what we were made for.

But Jesus was also realistic about the evils in our world. And he was very familiar with the question “why?” Why in a good world created by a good God do so many things go wrong? Jesus answered that question by telling a story about a farmer. He says: a farmer plants good seed in a wheat field; but after he does, someone who hates him comes and plants weeds in with the wheat. And when the wheat plants start to grow the weeds grow up with them.

As anyone who’s a gardener knows, weeds don’t just look ugly. They are ugly. They will kill any healthy plant they can. Weeds choke out healthy plants, make it impossible for them to breathe. They make it impossible for the good plants to become what the good farmer meant them to be.

Jesus says God is the farmer. God planted good seed – that’s anyone who loves God and loves God’s people. And the one who planted the weed seeds is the enemy of God – called the devil, though I don’t think we really have a clear concept of what this creature is. (The devil is not somebody running around in a red jumpsuit with a pitchfork. The Bible says the devil is an accuser, who likes to masquerade as an angel of light. The book of Revelation tells us when this creature is revealed at the end of time we will all be amazed at what we see. Till then we need to keep our focus on Jesus.)

And the weeds in the wheat-field are the children of the evil one, who Jesus calls ‘evildoers’. And the farmer – God – says ‘don’t tear them out yet, because if you do, you’ll tear out the good with the bad. You’ll tear out the wheat with the weeds. Let them grow together until the harvest…”

That’s why there’s all this evil and pain in the world: because the weeds haven’t been removed yet. And we who belong to God, we still need to grow and mature and be fruitful in spite of the fact all these weeds are in the way.

The farmer says it won’t always be like this. Someday the weeds will be gone. In the meantime, how does one tell them apart – the wheat and the weeds, the children of God and the children of the evil one? It’s not always easy to figure out, because all of us are human, and all of us make mistakes, and all of us have times when we’re confused, or when we’re in the process of learning and growing.

In a way it’s not ours to judge between the wheat and the weeds: Jesus says in the end the angels will do the sorting. But at the same time, it is ours to be wise: and if we ask, God will give us wisdom through the Holy Spirit. There’s an old song that says we shall know God’s voice “by the holy harmony which his coming makes” in us. There is a peace, when we’re led by the Spirit, that can be experienced nowhere else.

And when it’s all over, Jesus says, and the weeds have been removed, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father.”

We are Kingdom People. We are citizens of a foreign land. This world is not our home. As the old hymn says, “we’re just a-passin’ through.” The countries we live in are only temporary citizenships. Our permanent citizenship is in a land we haven’t seen yet; but we’ve met the King, and He is the king of glory, and it will be a land of beauty and righteousness and peace and justice, where the King will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

“The righteous will shine like the sun” – that’s God’s promise. In these dark days, we remember the words of our Lord, and keep our eyes on Him.  AMEN.

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Old Testament Reading
“Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.  2 Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.  3 “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.  4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.  5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?  6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?  8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.  9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,  10 if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.  11 The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.  12 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.  13 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, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;  14 then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”Isaiah 58:1-14

Gospel Reading
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand.  2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him.  3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.”  4 Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent.  5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.  6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.Mark 3:1-6

Jesus heals the man with the withered hand

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This week we continue our series on the Sabbath and what it means to keep the Sabbath.  This is a subject that’s very close to my heart because I’ve discovered over the past few years there is a great blessing, and a sense of emotional and spiritual stability, in keeping the Sabbath.

With the crazy schedules many of us keep, sometimes we have to observe the Sabbath on a Tuesday or a Friday instead of the weekend, and that’s OK. The important thing is to find one day a week in which we do no work, and spend that day with God and with family and friends, or even alone sometimes, recharging our batteries and enjoying all the gifts God has so richly given us.

So far in our Sabbath series we’ve seen in the book of Genesis how God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh day and therefore declared the seventh day holy. Whether you interpret creation as six literal days or six thousand thousand years is beside the point – the point is God rested on the seventh.  And God taught people to do the same in memory of what God had done.

God wrote this command into the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” This is Commandment Number Three.  And God said on the Sabbath everyone is supposed to rest: God’s people, the children of God’s people, anyone who works for God’s people, any animals belonging to God’s people, and any foreigners who are living in the same land as God’s people. Everyone is to rest and enjoy the gifts God has given.

This week we move into what the Psalms and Prophets have to say about the Sabbath. As we soon discover, there’s a problem: the people refuse to rest.  This is true in spite of the promises and warnings the prophets give down through the years.  For example, God says through Isaiah:

“…all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant —  7 these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer…” (Is. 56:6b-7a)

God says through Jeremiah:

“Thus says the LORD: For the sake of your lives, take care that you do not bear a burden on the sabbath day…” (Jer 17:21)

God speaks through the prophet Amos, talking about a people who can’t wait for Sabbath to be over so they can start selling things at high prices and cheating the poor. God says:

“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land,  5 saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, 6 buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” 7 The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.” (Amos 8:4-7)

All through the Old Testament prophets are reminding the people over and over that the Sabbath must be observed in order for society to be just and fair.

I tripped over something amazing on Google this week. It’s an article about Yom Kippur and the Sabbath by Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, a leader in Conservative branch of Judaism. (I’ve edited a good bit for time and space but recommend the entire article. [words in square brackets are my notes]) She writes:

“The obligation to observe Shabbat [that is, Sabbath] demands that every person and animal, merely by virtue of being alive, be entitled to a day every week to experience rest, plenty and safety. This was a radical vision… in the time of Isaiah [here she refers to the passage from Isaiah at the top of this article] It is an equally far-reaching concept today. The vast majority of the world’s people are too poor and too oppressed to… take a day off from work. Even in our own communities, there are many who can’t afford a day of rest.  The genius of Jewish tradition is that… Shabbat is an obligation, which – in order to be fulfilled – requires an entirely different social structure. […] In Jewish thinking, a day of rest is not a human right derived from an abstract notion…  Rather, it is a religious obligation, emanating from a concrete notion of what we are required to do for each other…”

In other words, in order to keep the Sabbath, society needs to be fair. Last week I mentioned that if you’ve heard of the saying ‘no justice, no peace’ – what God’s word says is ‘no Sabbath, no justice’. Rabbi Schonfeld’s words are what I meant by that. She wraps up her thoughts by saying:

“In order to practice… Shabbat, a panoply of ethical social systems must be put in place. That is why Shabbat is described… as… a taste of the world to come…”

In this imperfect world Sabbath will never happen perfectly. But it’s a vision to bear in mind as we celebrate the Sabbath and look forward to God’s kingdom and the joy that will be ours.

If anyone’s wondering why a Christian priest is quoting a Jewish rabbi: the Old Testament is the holy book of the Jewish people, and they’ve been practicing Sabbath a lot longer than we have! Besides, Jesus was a Jewish rabbi…

And if all this sounds a bit ‘heavy’ and feels kind of foreign, let me bring us back to familiar territory. Our second scripture reading is from the Gospel of Mark, and it tells the story of what happened when Jesus healed someone on the Sabbath.  You remember how the story goes: Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and a man came in who had a withered hand. In those days most people made their living working with their hands, so this man would have suffered not just a hand that didn’t work… he would have been limited in the work he could do, and therefore his life was limited.

The religious authorities – who had just gotten done scolding Jesus’ disciples for picking wheat and eating it on the Sabbath – were watching to see if Jesus would heal on the Sabbath. They were stuck on keeping the letter of the law (“do no work”) and completely missed the spirit of the law: justice and mercy.

Remember what Rabbi Schonfeld said about the connection between Sabbath and justice: that on the Sabbath “everyone is entitled to rest, plenty, and safety.” Is this man with the withered hand going to receive ‘rest, plenty and safety’ from Jesus or from the religious authorities?

Jesus calls the man forward. And he looks over at the religious experts and he says:

“Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath, or to do harm? To save life, or to kill?”

And they looked at him in silence.

Jesus looked at them in anger and in grief: these were the men who were supposed to be teaching God’s people – by their word and example – what God is like. And their hearts were hard as stone, unmoved by the man’s pain.

But Jesus was moved. And he said to the man, “stretch out your hand.” And he did, and the hand was made whole.

And the apostle Mark tells us, “The Pharisees went out immediately and conspired with the Herodians… how to destroy Jesus.”

It’s like Jesus said: “what is lawful on the Sabbath? To heal or to kill?” The law that tells us “don’t work on the Sabbath” teaches us that showing mercy is the highest form of obedience.

Today on this Sabbath day there are people who are giving up their Sabbath in order to heal: our medical workers, our emergency responders. They’re not resting: but Jesus says what they are doing is fulfilling the law. (May God grant them the opportunity to rest in the near future.)

In the meantime the rest of us can observe the Sabbath. We can set aside one day a week to remember God’s creation and enjoy God’s rest. We can thank God that even in the middle of this strange time we are richly blessed, and we can enjoy God’s “rest, plenty and safety.”

This is the heart of the Sabbath and a taste of God’s kingdom to come. AMEN

 

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The Lord said to Moses at Mount Sinai, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord. For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest. Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.

“‘Count off seven sabbath years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years. Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields.”Leviticus 25:1-12

Last week we started a series of teachings on the Sabbath. God introduces us to Sabbath in the second chapter of Genesis; and in Revelation, the description of God’s kingdom is (in part) a description of the Sabbath; so Sabbath is a central concept throughout the Bible.

Last week we saw God teaching Israel about the Sabbath while the people were still wandering in the wilderness after being set free from slavery in Egypt. God told Israel the seventh day of the week was a day when no-one was to work. This was partly to remember that God rested on the seventh day after creating the world; and partly to begin to teach a people who had been slaves for 430 years what it’s like to not have to work. The people needed to know – as we need to know – that they had the right to say ‘No, I’m not working today. Today is God’s day.’

For the next few weeks we’ll be looking at what God teaches Israel – and us – about the Sabbath. We’ll look at the Old Testament, the Psalms and Prophets, the New Testament, and how the sabbath is practiced today.

Today we look at the Old Testament.  Shortly after introducing Israel to the sabbath, the Israelites came to Mt. Sinai, and here God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. The commandments were written in the form of a treaty. You and I in the 21st century, when we read the Ten Commandments, tend to hear them as a list of things to do and not do. But people in the ancient world would have recognized the treaty format right away. It was a special kind of treaty: one usually used by conquering kings to enforce a new set of laws on a people they had just conquered.

Only God had a twist: rather than conquering Israel, God had conquered Egypt. Now God comes to Israel saying essentially, “I have conquered your enemies and set you free. If you want to be my people these are my terms.” Who would say ‘no’ to an offer like that, from someone who has set you free from slavery? Of course Israel said yes.

From a Christian perspective today, these events give us a picture of how God rescues people – anyone who trusts in God. God rescues people from slavery to sin, by the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. How appropriate this scripture is for the season of Easter!  Just as God broke Israel’s chains, God breaks the chains of sin by the power of the cross. And anyone who thinks we’re not slaves to sin should try not sinning for just one day. It’s impossible. We can’t free ourselves, but God can free us. And just as Israel passed through the waters of the Red Sea on their way to the Promised Land, we also, when we become believers, pass through the waters of baptism to become God’s people. In Jesus Christ, God wins victory over our enemy and sets us free.

So at the foot of Mount Sinai, God gave the treaty: the Ten Commandments. God says to Israel: If you will be my people, I will show the world my glory through you. And my wisdom will shine in the eyes of all people whenever you obey my laws. And here are the laws:

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods but me. 

“You shall not make for yourself an idol… you shall not bow down to them or worship them…

“You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God…

“Remember the sabbath day, and 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; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.  For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. (Ex 20:2-11, edited)

Notice God gives the Sabbath law before all the laws dealing with justice issues: honoring father and mother, not killing, not cheating on a spouse, not stealing, not lying in court, not desiring what belongs to someone else. Today, in our time, murder, adultery, theft, and perjury are still illegal. But we’ve forgotten the Sabbath: and the Sabbath is the foundation of all the others. If we don’t have the right to say ‘no’ to the world and ‘yes’ to God; if we don’t have the right to worship God and spend time enjoying God’s company and God’s gifts – the other laws lose their meaning and our ability to keep them. God knew that; and that’s why – after loyalty to God Himself – the Sabbath law comes first.

The Sabbath is God’s gift to God’s people: it is God’s glory and our freedom.

Notice what else this law says. Not only are we set free – but our children are set free. And anyone who works for us is set free. Most people these days don’t have servants: but we have employees, and we have public servants, people who serve us all. I don’t need to detail at a time like this how valuable public service is: in coronavirus time, we are all so aware and so grateful for those who serve the public good. These people also are children of God and they also need to be set free one day a week. And God doesn’t stop there. Animals are not to work on the Sabbath. I love that God gives rights to animals in the law! And last but never least, the resident alien is not to work: the immigrant and the foreigner who lives among us are to be blessed on the Sabbath day, and set free, and treated as one of us.

So what does it mean to ‘keep the Sabbath holy’?  That question has been debated ever since Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments. Not because God’s meaning is unclear; but because human beings have been trying to find a way around this commandment since Day One.

One would think a commandment to take a mini-vacation every seventh day would be the easiest, most agreeable commandment to obey! But there’s always someone who would rather make a little more money than take a day off. There’s always someone who would rather have a nicer car, or some new clothes, or do a little schmoozing, and can’t wait just one more day.  What it really comes down to is: people don’t trust God to provide for their needs.

Back in ancient Israel, when God said “you have six days go out and pick up manna, but on the seventh day there won’t be any so on day six, gather twice as much, so you will have something to eat on the Sabbath” – there were people who simply wouldn’t trust God and insisted on going out on day seven and hunting for manna, when there wasn’t any, just as God said.

The Sabbath Day is God’s treat. The Sabbath is like a little miniature foretaste of life in God’s kingdom in heaven – where everything we need is ours and more. But if we don’t listen to God and stop working, we miss it. And so do our children, and the people who work for us, and our animals, and the foreigners who live among us.

Sabbath is so important that God warned the people of Israel: in the future, if you decide to ignore the Sabbath, your enemies will come and desolate the land. “Then the land shall enjoy its sabbath… while you are in the land of your enemies…” (Lev 26:34)

SabbathJustice

God doesn’t want this to happen any more than we do. But it underscores how essential the Sabbath is. Sabbath so much more than just a day off. The Sabbath is the foundation of all God’s laws on justice.  You’ve heard the saying ‘no justice, no peace’?  God says: ‘no Sabbath, no justice.’ In Deut. 5:15 God says: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” The Sabbath is God’s foundation for our freedom; and without freedom there can be no justice.

You want to know why people are so overworked and underpaid? Why it feels like we’re on a treadmill that never slows down? Why it feels so incredibly foreign and unsettling when we’re forced to stop like we have been recently? It’s because we’ve lost the Sabbath.

In this strange time I’ve heard many people saying, ‘when we get back to normal, there are some changes that need to be made. We need to do things differently.’  And they’re right. This tragedy, this pandemic, has pulled back the curtain. It has allowed us to see through the smoke and mirrors… it has allowed us to see the powers of this world at a complete and total loss, pointing fingers at each other because they can’t think of anything more useful to do.

This strange time has helped us re-focus on what’s important and what isn’t; on what brings healing and what doesn’t. And if we’re listening, we can hear God’s voice calling to us in this time and saying, ‘return to me and I will provide… and I will give you rest unto your souls.’

At this point you may be thinking, “Sabbath sounds wonderful but it sounds like a lot of work! We’d have to change how we live.”  Well… yeah, it’s kind of like changing your diet (which admittedly I’m still working on.) You can’t change your diet if you don’t buy different food at the grocery store. It just takes a little planning. Same thing with the Sabbath. A little bit of prep time – a few to-do items before the weekend – and a Saturday or Sunday of ‘not working’ not only becomes possible but it becomes a joy you don’t want to live without. It becomes a point in life where for just a moment our lives touch eternity.

This coming week, think about the Sabbath. Pray about it. And if you decide to try keeping the Sabbath, write to me and tell me about it, let me know how it’s going.

Sabbath blessings to you and yours. AMEN.

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Scripture Reading:  Matthew 28

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.  For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.  But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.  Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.  Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.  Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The Lord is risen indeed, hallelujah!

This, by the way, is one of the few things all the disciples agree on.  When we read the Gospels we often see Jesus’ disciples disagreeing with each other, and it’s not unusual for the gospels themselves to give different versions of the same story. This only assures us the disciples were human —  imperfect people like all the rest of us. But after the resurrection the disciples were willing to stand in front of religious leaders and rulers and put their lives on the line to say “Jesus is alive”. The disciples went to their graves rather than deny what their eyes had seen and what their ears had heard.

Here in Matthew’s gospel, Matthew highlights three things:

  1. The two Marys meet an angel
  2. The guards are given a story
  3. Jesus is reunited with the disciples

According to the other gospels, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were bringing spices to the tomb for the burial of Jesus. They were stunned by the events they’d witnessed on Friday and they’re grieving. And then the earth moves – literally! – as an earthquake shakes the ground and an angel appears and rolls back the stone in front of the tomb.

Angels are not cute little fluffy things we see in decorations. Matthew says, seeing the angel, the guards trembled and passed out cold. The women were probably about to do the same when the angel called them by name and told them, “don’t be afraid. You’re looking for Jesus who was crucified. He’s not here! He has risen, as he said he would. Come and see!” The angel invites them to check out the empty tomb. Now they’re really scared.

The angel says “go quickly and tell his disciples! And tell them Jesus said he’ll meet them in Galilee.”

Just so we don’t miss it, in saying this, God is changing the way things are done. In ancient times women were not allowed to give testimony. The testimony of two men could convict someone in a court of law, but not the testimony of women. On this day, on this first Easter Day, in the power of Jesus’ resurrection – God appoints two women to give testimony to the disciples and to the world: the Messiah, God’s savior, is alive.

As the women were on their way to the disciples, they run into Jesus Himself, and fall at his feet, and worship him. And he lifts them up gently and says “don’t be afraid, go tell my brothers the good news. I’ll see them in Galilee.”

The second thing that happened is: the religious leadership of Jerusalem heard the testimony the guards gave. They heard about the angel and the earthquake and Jesus walking out of his grave. Of all the people in this Easter story, it seems like they’re the only ones who aren’t surprised. Inconvenienced, maybe… but not surprised. Jesus himself had said “they won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31b)

It’s not that the religious authorities didn’t know who Jesus was. They did. Nicodemus, the Pharisee, admitted this when he came to see Jesus in John chapter 3. He said, “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.” (John 3:2) Nicodemus became a believer. In fact Matthew tells us he helped Joseph of Arimathea take care of Jesus’ body after the crucifixion.

So the religious leaders knew – but they would never allow it to be spoken. They gave the guards a bribe. Under ancient law, a guard who failed in his duty was supposed to receive the punishment that the person he was guarding was going to get. So for example if the prisoner was on death row, if the prisoner escaped, the guards themselves would be killed. What would happen to a guard who allowed a dead man to escape – I don’t think they had a law for that one! But the religious authorities gave the guards a generous bribe and said, “tell people you fell asleep and his disciples stole the body while you were sleeping… and if the governor asks any questions we’ll cover for you.” And that’s what they did.

And then finally Jesus is reunited with his disciples, in Galilee. Matthew says “they worshiped him, but some doubted.” Was Matthew speaking of “Doubting” Thomas? Maybe… but I don’t think Thomas was the only one.  I find it comforting, though, that even the people who knew Jesus best had a hard time wrapping their minds everything Easter means. Wrapping their minds around life after such a horrific death… wrapping their minds around Jesus dying for our sins and then walking out of the grave alive. If we have doubts from time to time we’re in good company. And it doesn’t disqualify us from being followers of Jesus.

Jesus’ words to the disciples back then are for us as well: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

This is our resurrected Lord. This is his word to us, and this is our joy. Happy Easter!

 

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Somewhere around 600BC (give or take a few decades) the prophet Daniel wrote these words from exile in Babylon. The words seem very timely as our season of Lent and repentance comes to a close this year:

In the first year of Darius son of Xerxes (a Mede by descent), who was made ruler over the Babylonian kingdom—in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the Lord given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years.

So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed:“Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our ancestors, and to all the people of the land.

“Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame—the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where you have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to you. We and our kings, our princes and our ancestors are covered with shame, Lord, because we have sinned against you. The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him; we have not obeyed the Lord our God or kept the laws he gave us through his servants the prophets.

All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you. Therefore the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against you. You have fulfilled the words spoken against us and against our rulers by bringing on us great disaster. Under the whole heaven nothing has ever been done like what has been done to Jerusalem. Just as it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come on us, yet we have not sought the favor of the Lord our God by turning from our sins and giving attention to your truth.The Lord did not hesitate to bring the disaster on us, for the Lord our God is righteous in everything he does; yet we have not obeyed him.

“Now, Lord our God, who brought your people out of Egypt with a mighty hand and who made for yourself a name that endures to this day, we have sinned, we have done wrong. Lord, in keeping with all your righteous acts, turn away your anger and your wrath from Jerusalem, your city, your holy hill. Our sins and the iniquities of our ancestors have made Jerusalem and your people an object of scorn to all those around us.

“Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. For your sake, Lord, look with favor on your desolate sanctuary. Give ear, our God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act! For your sake, my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.” (Daniel 9:1-19)

And the apostle John writes these words to describe the events of the first Maundy Thursday:

It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.”
For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen. But this is to fulfill this passage of Scripture: ‘He who shared my bread has turned against me.’ I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am who I am. Very truly I tell you, whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me; and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me.” (John 13:1-20)

The word “Maundy” in “Maundy Thursday” comes from the Latin ‘mandatum’ which means ‘command’ — referring to Jesus’ “new commandment” that we “love one another” which appears in verses 34 and 35 of the same chapter of John.

Jesus’ teaching has been from the beginning, that love for God and love for neighbor is the fulfillment of all the law and the prophets. In Matthew 22:37-40 Jesus tells us: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Praise God for this! Because the law of Moses, as given to us in the Old Testament, is complex, difficult to understand and impossible to keep. Love on the other hand is… well… also difficult to understand and to keep, but at least the message is clear and direct. And more than that, Jesus gives us — through His life, through His death on the cross, and through His resurrection — a living example to follow.

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Reading from the Psalms: Psalm 118: 19-29

Open for me the gates of the righteous;
    I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord
    through which the righteous may enter.
I will give you thanks, for you answered me;
    you have become my salvation.
The stone the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
    and it is marvelous in our eyes.
The Lord has done it this very day;
    let us rejoice today and be glad.

Lord, save us!
    Lord, grant us success!

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
    From the house of the Lord we bless you.
The Lord is God,
    and he has made his light shine on us.
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
    up to the horns of the altar.

You are my God, and I will praise you;
    you are my God, and I will exalt you.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his love endures forever.

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

Gospel Reading: Matthew 21:1-17

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”  This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

“Say to Daughter Zion,
    ‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
    and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”  The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”

The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant. “Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him.

“Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read,
“‘From the lips of children and infants
you, Lord, have called forth your praise’?”

And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.

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

Palm Sunday is sort of a strange holiday even during normal years. During normal years, at many churches, children would lead in a procession of palms, and most churches would celebrate Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem; but the service would end in the shadow of the cross.  What began in joy would end in gathering gloom.

And that’s in a normal year.

This year it feels like the gloom has already gathered. The powers of pain and sickness and death have already been turned loose on the earth. As one Facebook meme says: “This is the Lentiest Lent I’ve ever Lented.” And it’s only Palm Sunday – things get darker from here!

I have a feeling Holy Week this year is going to feel very dark.

I also believe and hope and pray this Easter will be exceptionally joyful, in unexpected ways.

But we’re not there yet.

Today is Palm Sunday, we find ourselves in the crowd – waving the palm branches, singing “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

And isn’t it wonderful to hear the words of Psalm 118? “Open the gates of righteousness that I may enter through them…” “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone…” “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord…” “the festal procession with branches…” – all these words written hundreds of years before Jesus was born – looking forward to Palm Sunday and the day Messiah would come.

That’s what the people are saying in Matthew’s gospel. “Hosanna! (which means “save us now”). “Behold your king comes to you, humble and riding on a donkey…” was what the prophet Zechariah had predicted. This is God’s anointed! This is the King! That’s what the crowd is shouting, and that’s why the priests are telling them to shut up: they don’t want the people going around saying Jesus is the Messiah, even though they know it’s true.

So Jesus arrives in the temple – and instead of leading a coup (as the people expected) he goes to the temple and turns over the tables of the money-changers who have been cheating the people as they try to worship God. Jesus says to them: “it is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer – but you’ve made it a den of thieves.’” Jesus is far more interested in confronting oppression and injustice, and in bringing people close to God, than he is in claiming earthly power – because Jesus knows all power is his: it’s been his in the past, and it will be his again in the future.

Jesus has only temporarily set aside his royal power to become one of us. And it will only be a few more days before that power is his again.

And so we head into Holy Week: rejoicing that the King is here, just as the disciples did back then. And like them, we have no idea what lies ahead; but we know who holds the future.

Hosanna to the King of Kings! AMEN.

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This coming Wednesday, February 26, is Ash Wednesday.

For some of us who follow Jesus, this is a day we observe every year: a day to attend worship and receive ashes and be reminded that “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

For some of us who follow Jesus, Ash Wednesday is an odd tradition that some churches observe “but we don’t, because faith isn’t about observing special days, it’s about loving Jesus every day.”

For some people Ash Wednesday is simply the beginning of Lent: the time of the year when we “give up” something in honor of what Jesus gave up for us.

But where does Ash Wednesday really come from, why did it start, and what does it mean to believers today?

Ash Wednesday dates back to early in Christianity’s history, when Lent was a time for new believers to give up their old ways and learn how to live as Christians, and for those who had walked away from the faith to return to it. The forty days of Lent was a time to grieve over wrongs done with prayer and fasting and receiving ashes.

But the practice of putting ashes on oneself as a sign of mourning dates back before Jesus. In the Old Testament, the prophet Daniel wanted to ask God why the people of Israel were still captive in Babylon. Daniel writes: “Then I turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.” (Daniel 9:3)

And in the New Testament, Jesus reproached people who witnessed his miracles and refused to believe: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” (Matthew 11:21)

So Lent is a time to grieve over our sins and discover new ways of walking by faith. And Ash Wednesday, which begins Lent, is a solemn reminder of our mortality and our need to be reconciled with God.

So how do believers today observe Ash Wednesday? In the churches that observe it, the tradition is to fast (refrain from eating) until sundown, attend worship, and receive ashes on one’s forehead in the shape of a cross. (Some churches no longer practice fasting because of health issues.)

In the Roman Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is an obligatory day of fasting and abstinence; Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Moravian, and other Protestant churches hold services but don’t necessarily require attendance or fasting. (Eastern Orthodox churches begin Lent on a Monday and so don’t observe Ash Wednesday.)

For me, I think the most poignant and meaningful word in the Bible about fasting – and one that brings me to repentance –is this passage from Isaiah, where God says:

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?  Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly…” (Isaiah 58:5-8)

So how do you observe Ash Wednesday? Or how would you like to? Feel free to share a few thoughts.

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In the ancient world in which the events in the Bible take place (particularly the Old Testament), hospitality was an essential part of life. In a place and time when there were no supermarkets, running water, electricity or other public utilities, hospitality – especially to strangers – was essential and could be life-saving.

As we’ve been reading through the book of Genesis this month, examples of hospitality shine out from the pages. Here are two of them:

“[Abraham] looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.” (Genesis 18:2-8)

Abraham sees it as an honor and privilege to serve the strangers who have arrived near his tent – so much so that he bows down and begs them to stay. No doubt travelers would bring news with them which Abraham will be interested to hear; but more than that, he has plenty to share and, as a traveler himself, he knows how wearying the road can be. “Let me bring a little bread” he says – and then orders up a feast!

Here’s another scene. It precedes a sad and violent story so it’s often lost in the melee:

“The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground. He said, “Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.” They said, “No; we will spend the night in the square.” But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate.” (Genesis 19:1-3)

Notice Lot greets the visitors (not knowing at this point they are angels) the same way Abraham greeted his visitors: bowing down and asking for the privilege of hosting them. In Lot’s case, he knew the town and knew it wasn’t safe for strangers to bunk down in the town square for the night, so his request is somewhat urgent.  (We find out in the following verses Lot was right; one of the great sins of Sodom was their refusal to protect strangers and make them welcome – and instead to do the opposite.) Again, like Abraham, Lot minimizes his offer: “come wash your feet” is all he suggests, but he immediately presents the visitors with a feast.

Isn’t this how God is with us?  “Come rest from the road,” God says.  “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest,” says Jesus.

The invitation is for all of us.

And for those of us who have said “yes” to God’s invitation: If God has been so unbelievably generous with us, can we fail to welcome others?

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In Psalm 15, King David asks God a question I think a lot of people are curious about. The question is: how do I get to heaven?

King David doesn’t actually put the question that way. What he asks is: “Lord, who can stay in your tent?”

Tent

I like the mental picture that gives: Lord, who can move in with you? Who can sit around the campfire with you? It brings to mind what families do together – which is appropriate when we think about God.  The Bible says in the beginning, God made human beings in God’s image, so we were made to be in a family relationship with each other and God.

But things went wrong in the Garden of Eden, and they haven’t been right since then.  And that’s the focus of today’s reading from the prophet Micah, which will be our main scripture for today. (See complete scripture readings below.)

The other scriptures for today are related.  Micah presents a problem. In the passage from Matthew, Jesus presents the solution to the problem. And in the passage from I Corinthians, Paul explains how Jesus’ solution works. So all these readings speak to each other.

For the sake of time I’m not going to cover all three in detail. Briefly, in I Corinthians, what Paul says about the solution is that it makes no sense! Paul says: “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” (I Corinthians 1:18) He says, “Jews demand signs and Greeks (that’s the rest of us) desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (v 22-23)  “BUT!” Paul says, “To those who are called… Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (v 24)  That’s Paul’s two cents.

So what’s the problem that the Cross is the answer to?

The problem is that God’s people have become separated from God; and in the separation, God’s people have started to rebel against God. In the book of Micah, who was speaking to the nation of Israel, the rebellion looked like this: people were dishonest in the marketplace (that is, in business); they bribed their officials; there was corruption in the religious leadership; there was corruption in the government; and the people were worshipping things that aren’t God.

Does this sound at all familiar?

So in the passage from Micah, God speaks and says:

“My people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery…”

(This applies to us too, because we were once slaves to sin and have been redeemed into God’s kingdom through the cross of Jesus. So we know from experience what God is saying here. Micah continues, and God is saying…)

“O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
And what Balaam son of Beor answered him…”

The people of Israel would have known what Micah was talking about when God mentions Balak and Balaam, but none of US have been around quite that long.  So to recap the events God is referring to:

(this is from the book of Numbers, which takes place during the time of Moses) When the people of Israel left Egypt and were on their way to the Promised Land, they had to pass through a number of other kingdoms. Usually they sent messengers ahead to the local king, saying, “hey look, we’re just passing through, we’re not going to cause any trouble, no worries, we’re here and gone.”  And sometimes the local king would say ‘fine, no problem’ and sometimes the local king would say ‘no way, not in my back yard’ in which case Israel would either go around them or they’d have a war, depending on what God told Israel to do.

But then comes the day Israel is about to enter the Promised Land. Balak, King of Moab (the country next door) wasn’t having it. He didn’t want Israel for a next-door neighbor. And he didn’t just want Israel gone, he wanted Israel cursed.

So Balak sent for a prophet he knew from his old country, whose name was Balaam. Balaam was not Jewish, he was a prophet of other gods, but he knew about the God of Israel, and he knew how to get in touch with the God of Israel.  So he prayed to the one true and living God, and said, “Lord, the king has asked me to do such-and-such. What should I do?” And God answered him and said, “You must not curse these people, because they are blessed.” (Num 22:12) (Which, by the way, is what God says about us too.)

And Balaam sends this message back to the king: “no can do.”

King Balak figured Balaam was just holding out for more money, so he sent a committee of his royal friends to Balaam with promises of lavish gifts and the message “I really mean it, I want these people gone, come curse them for me.” Balaam told the royal committee what he’d told the king, but he said, “wait here, I’ll go double-check with Israel’s God and see if He has anything else to say.” (Num 22:19)

Balaam goes inside and prays to God again, and God gives him this answer: “Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.” (Num 22:20)

So Balaam goes with them, and on the road he meets an angel and a talking donkey – which is a whole nother story – both of whom reinforce that Balaam is to speak only what God tells him to say. Finally he meets up with King Balak, and he tells Balak: “I can’t say whatever I please. I can only speak what God puts in my mouth.” (Num 22:38) So they go up a mountain and look out over the camp of Israel, and Balaam speaks God’s words – which are words of blessing!

As you can imagine King Balak is ticked off. He says, “let’s go up to a higher mountain where you can see more of Israel’s encampment and we’ll try it again.” And they try again and the same thing happens: God gives Balaam words of blessing.  King Balak says “one more time” and he offers all kinds of sacrifices to his god and then says “go for it”. And the Bible says:

“When Balaam looked out and saw Israel… the Spirit of God came on him and he spoke… ” (Num 24:2) He said:

“How beautiful are your tents, Jacob,
your dwelling places, Israel!

“Like valleys they spread out,
like gardens beside a river,
like aloes planted by the Lord,
like cedars beside the waters. […]
“May those who bless you be blessed
and those who curse you be cursed!” (Num 24: 5b, 6, 9b)

And then, still speaking in the Spirit, Balaam says:

“I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near.
A star will come out of Jacob;
a scepter will rise out of Israel…”  (Num 24:17)

Here we are, in the days of Moses, and a foreign prophet is blessing Israel and predicting the coming of the Messiah!

The prophet Micah reminds Israel of all this, and says to the people of Israel, speaking for God: I have caused your enemies, who wanted to destroy you, to speak blessings over you, and I am sending you a King who will reign forever.

God gives us the same promises today: there will come a day when people who consider themselves enemies of the Cross, who look down on us for being Christians and speak against us because we’re God’s people, will one day bless us.  And the promised King, the Messiah, has come – both for Israel, and for us – and is coming again.

And God says to God’s people through Micah: “What more can I do for you?”

And the people, remembering God’s great kindness, are cut to the heart, and they answer: “With what shall I come before the Lord?” (Micah 6:6)  Which echoes David’s question: “Who can stay in God’s tent?” Who is worthy of living with God?

The answer is, none of us are – which is why Jesus came: to do what we couldn’t do.

But there is something God wants us to do.  Micah puts it this way:

“What does the Lord require of you,
But to do justice, and to love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

We hear a lot these days about ‘justice and peace’. Of course justice and peace are good things; but in scripture, ‘justice’ is more often paired with either ‘righteousness’ or ‘mercy’.  Justice by itself can be a two-edged sword.

Jesus builds on this thought in his Sermon on the Mount, where he teaches us what to strive for.  Jesus says:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit” – that is, those who are willing to volunteer for a lower place, or who do good things in secret. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn” – not that we want to mourn – but we are blessed when we do, because heavenly comfort will be ours.

“Blessed are the meek” – that is, the gentle in spirit. Being meek does not mean being a doormat; it means having an attitude of humility for the sake of others, and it comes from a position of strength. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” – that is, wanting to do things God’s way, wanting to see God’s will being done in the world – the person who prays ‘thy will be done’ – such a person will be satisfied.

“Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.”

“Blessed are the pure in heart” – not double-minded, but thinking and feeling and living in one direction, in God’s direction – for “they will see God.”

“Blessed are the peacemakers – for they will be called children of God.”

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” – people who are doing what’s right, who stand up for what’s right, even if it’s not popular. The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. Why? “Because in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

King David asks: “Lord, who can abide in your tent?” And the answer is, those who have followed in the Lord’s footsteps.  Those who have heard Jesus’ words and taken them to heart. Those who do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

And when we come up short sometimes, we look to the Cross to make up the difference. We look to Jesus, the power of God and the wisdom of God. Jesus stands at the door to David’s tent, and welcomes us as family. AMEN.

 

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 2/2/2020

Scriptures of the Day were:

 

Micah 6:1-8

Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.

“O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.
O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, [the cursing of Israel]
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

 

I Corinthians 1:18-31

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

 

Matthew 5:1-12

 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

 

 

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This week, on Thursday, we will celebrate the 243rd anniversary of the birth of the United States of America. It’s is a day when we remember and celebrate our many freedoms: freedom from Great Britain (much as I love Queen Elizabeth), freedom to live as we choose, freedom to worship God in peace, freedom to do and to become the very best we can be.

So I was delighted when I discovered our New Testament reading today talks about freedom.  Our passage is from Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

By way of background: Paul was Jewish but he was also a Roman citizen, and Roman citizens considered themselves free people.  In Paul’s parents’ lifetime, Rome was a democratic republic, much like ours; in fact, our government is to some extent modeled after it. The Republic had built-in political safeguards and balances of power. But in the years leading up to Jesus’ birth, Rome was divided by civil war; Julius Caesar was assassinated: and the Republic fell. What remained for the next few hundred years was the Roman Empire.  Under the Empire, power was concentrated in the emperor’s hands. While the Senate continued, as time passed it had less and less real power, and the emperor became essentially a dictator.

Paul was born after the Roman Empire had begun; but Paul’s parents most likely remembered the days of the Republic. And as citizens, all of them would have grown up thinking of themselves as free people even though the political ground under them was shifting.

I mention all this to point out that where it comes to freedom, Paul’s mindset was probably very similar to ours: he was a ‘free man’. He was also a member of an ancient and traditional religion, one that was not really in favor with the upper echelons of power but which was tolerated. Paul was not above using his rights as a Roman citizen to help spread the good news of Jesus.

As we listen to what Paul has to say about freedom we might get the feeling that he believes in anarchy – total lawlessness. Most of the book of Galatians is about not being trapped by the law. By ‘law’ Paul means the teachings of Moses, which would have included the Ten Commandments and all the other laws God gave to Israel through Moses. But what Paul says about the law could really apply to any set of laws.

Paul drives his point home so well, some of his contemporaries claimed he was saying that Christians are above the law. Rest assured this could not be further from the truth. The fact is, Paul has his sights on something higher than law: life in God’s Kingdom. Jesus came to earth to proclaim God’s Kingdom, and as we enter into God’s Kingdom, the law is no longer necessary.

Paul leads off our reading today with the words “For freedom Christ has set us free.” As citizens of the United States we might ask (and Paul as a citizen of Rome might also have asked) are we not already free?

But in Paul’s eyes, there’s freedom and then there’s freedom.

~~~~

Paul writes to the church in Galatia because some religious leaders visited from Jerusalem and told them Christians are obligated to keep the Jewish law – and this included male believers being circumcised.  Circumcision was (and still is) the rite of initiation into the Jewish faith; but you can imagine how the Gentiles in Galatia felt about this.  And Paul takes the Galatians’ side – in words that I won’t repeat!

Paul’s argument, though, goes way beyond circumcision and cuts to the heart of the matter: we are saved by grace and not by keeping the law. Christ has set us free from the law.  Jesus died to forgive our sins – all the times when we have not been able to live up to the law. “The wages of sin is death”, but Jesus took our place on the cross. God receives us because when God looks at us, God sees the righteousness and perfection of Jesus. So if we try to be good Christians by obeying the Old Testament law, we take ourselves out of God’s grace and put ourselves in a place where we must keep the whole law. And if we do that, we lose our freedom in Christ and fall back into slavery to the law. We need God’s grace: there is no other way; all other roads lead to slavery.

That’s Paul’s message, and that’s the big picture of Galatians in a nutshell.

In our passage for today, however, Paul warns that our freedom in Christ can be misused, if we choose to use our freedom to indulge ourselves.  And Paul gives us a long list of things people frequently indulge in.  As we listen to this list, we might be tempted to think Paul is setting up a whole new set of laws, but that’s not his point. Paul’s point is that Godly freedom is found in service, not in self-seeking.  And the corollary to that point is that using our freedom to indulge the passions of the flesh, strips away the very freedom we think we’re exercising and leads us back into slavery.

So turning now to our passage in Galatians…

Paul says “for freedom Christ has set us free.”  Believing in Jesus fulfills the law of God. In believing we are counted as righteous.  ‘Believing’ does not mean intellectual assent, but rather the kind of faith that lives what is believed. Paul says “stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”  He warns: if we use our freedom to indulge ourselves we will find ourselves enslaved by our own desires (or by the desires of those who feed our desires).

One of the great truths of life is (in the words of the old Bob Dylan song) “you gotta serve somebody”.

We can’t escape that. We might serve our bosses, we might serve our spouses, we might serve our families, we might serve God – but one way or another we will serve somebody.  What Paul says is this: if we are going to serve God, what God has commanded us above all other commandments is: “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Paul says ‘become servants to one another in love’.

Paul then goes into some detail about how not to get caught up in being self-serving.  He warns that serving ourselves might look like a pleasant idea at first, but it’s actually a trap: and it’s the kind of trap that gets tighter the more you struggle.  Paul explains that God’s Holy Spirit within us is opposed to the flesh, and the flesh is opposed to the Spirit.

As an aside: when Paul talks about ‘the flesh’ he does not mean that our bodies are evil, or that our bodies drag us into immorality. This view of ‘the flesh’ is an ancient Greek concept that snuck into the early church, but the Jewish understanding of human nature does not think of the spirit as more holy than the body; or even that the spirit is separate from the body. Body and spirit are united and are equally redeemed by Christ.  What Paul means by ‘flesh’ is anything in us that cannot survive contact with God; that is, anything unholy or anything in us that dies when we pass through death and step into God’s kingdom. The Greek word Paul uses is sarki, which is the word we get sarcophagus from – having to do with death.

So the fleshly activities Paul lists in verses 18-21 talk about things that won’t go with us into God’s kingdom.  This list is not meant to be comprehensive, and Paul says so. This is just a short list of examples. Serving the ‘flesh’ might include indulging the body, or it might include indulging negative attitudes or behaviors.

By contrast, with God’s Spirit in us, we are able to have godly thoughts, holy desires, holy passions.  And yes, there are holy passions.  As one theologian put it: ‘The flesh has its desires and the Spirit has other desires, but the contrast is not between having passion and having no passion, but rather different kinds of passion.’  Christians aren’t supposed to be like Mr. Spock on Star Trek.  God never asks us to give up being passionate! God loves people who love passionately.

As human beings we will always have passions, desires, and longings. Paul’s point is, if we use our freedom selfishly, to indulge ourselves, gratifying our own flesh will result in harming the flesh of others. This is what Paul is getting at in verse 15 where he says: “if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”

One look at our world today shows the truth of this.  People desire power, so they take up arms and start wars. People indulge hatred, so they take guns into schools and synagogues. People desire wealth at any cost, so workers are cheated out of their pensions, and global warming is ignored. People in wealthy countries crave drugs, and the governments of smaller countries fall apart under the anarchy of drug lords. And then we have refugees at our door… Lord have mercy.

If we indulge our flesh, we end up consuming one another. This is the ultimate end of a ‘consumer culture’.

Looking at Paul’s list of fleshly cravings – which again is not comprehensive – I’d like to spend a few minutes with just four of them: four ‘sins of the flesh’ that we don’t usually think of as ‘sins of the flesh’.

The first is Idolatry.  Idolatry is the root sin of all sins.  It is disobeying Commandment #1. Idolatry is having something in our hearts that is more important than God or that takes the place of God. It could be drugs or alcohol or pornography… but it could also be something good, like a job, or our families, or earning an income, or a hobby, or even some kind of recreation. These are all good things – blessings from God – meant to bring God’s goodness into our lives, and to inspire praise and worship. We thank God for our families, for supplying our needs, for the abilities God gives us to play sports or to grow vegetables or to enjoy a movie. But if any of these things becomes more important than God, it becomes an idol.  It is my belief that idolatry is the #1 slavery of our time.

The second is like it: Sorcery – which is an old-fashioned word. We tend to think of sorcery as being a kind of dark magic, sort of like witchcraft, but that’s only a small part of the definition. Sorcery may or may not involve calling on evil spirits. At its heart, sorcery is playing God: grasping for power that only God should have, or trying to manipulate the world around us, and the people around us, to do what we want rather than what God wants.

The third is Enmities – which includes hatred, either in action or in thought; along with strife, jealousy, anger, and selfish ambition.

And the fourth is dissension and factions – or to put in another way, disunity and partisanship. Examples include all the divisions we see in public life today. People remark these days how much more violent public conversation has become, and how much more divided our country is. These divisions are reflected in everything from Facebook debates to TV newscasts that sound more like gossip columns than real news. Have you ever wondered what it is that motivates people to spend hours arguing with total strangers on the Internet? Dissensions and factions gratify the flesh; they engage the passions every bit as much as sex, maybe more so.  And these dissensions and factions are tearing our nation apart.

One more reason to pray fervently that God’s word is heard across this land.

These four things are just a few of the things Paul mentions in his list of fleshly pursuits.  God considers these four just as serious and just as fleshly as the sexual sins (if not more so) and they are equally hazardous to our freedom.  The self-seeking passion that drives people to adultery has the same root in our hearts as the passion that drives the political divisions in our country. And people are equally addicted to both, and addiction is loss of freedom.

Paul warns us: what looks like freedom, what looks like the ability to do as we choose, and to get what we want, will ultimately trap us, and in the end will prevent us being and becoming who we really want to be.

Thank goodness God doesn’t leave us there – and neither does Paul.  Paul closes by pointing us in a positive direction: “By contrast” he says “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, a gracious attitude, generosity, moral excellence, faithfulness, gentleness, courtesy, and self-control.” (I added a few words in that list because they’re implied in the Greek but haven’t quite made it into most English translations.) If we have the fruits of the Spirit in our lives, we are free of the law – because in loving and serving others, we fulfill the law.

For freedom we have been set free.

Garden

Jesus once said, “if you would be my disciple, you must take up your cross and follow me.”  Paul’s words in Galatians 5 help explain what Jesus meant: letting go of the flesh and living in the Spirit. This only makes sense, because flesh is mortal; it is doomed to die.  But life – eternal life – comes from walking in the Spirit. In spite of all appearances, the cross is the doorway to life.

When we are born into this world, we are born in bondage to the corruption of this world. When we are born in the Spirit, we are born into freedom. We might be tempted to think if we follow God’s law to the letter, it would be a good way to avoid evil; but Paul says not so: trying to follow the law will only take away our freedom.  Those who walk in the Spirit produce the fruit of the Spirit, against which there is no law; and therefore we are free.

For freedom Christ has set us free. This holiday week, let’s rededicate ourselves to REAL freedom – setting aside desires that would enslave us, and serving one another in the love and power of the Spirit. AMEN.

 

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

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 6/30/19

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Galatians 5:1, 13-25  For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. 13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.  14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.  17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.  18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.  19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness,  20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions,  21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,  23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.  24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

Luke 9:51-62  When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.  52 And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him;  53 but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.  54 When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”  55 But he turned and rebuked them.  56 Then they went on to another village.  57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”  58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”  59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”  60 But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”  61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.”  62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

 

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I’m currently reading the book Love Undocumented, about an American woman who falls in love with and marries an immigrant from south of the border. The book gives a personal, American-citizen’s experience of our immigration system.

In this book Sarah Quezada writes:

“A 2015 study from LifeWay Research [a conservative Christian think tank] revealed only one in five evangelical Christians said their church had ever encouraged them to reach out to immigrants in their communities. Yet almost 70 percent of those surveyed said they would appreciate a sermon that taught how biblical principles and examples could be applied to the issue of immigration.”

Question for Christian believers of every stripe: does this paragraph ring true for you? Would you indeed welcome preaching on a Biblical approach to the issue of immigration?  And if so, what questions do you have?

Thank you in advance for your replies.

 

 

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“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea;
There is kindness in His justice which is more than liberty.
There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good;
There is mercy with the Saviour; there is healing in His blood.” – hymn by Frederick William Faber
O Lord inspire our hearts today to know you and to trust you more, to your honor and glory. AMEN.

Heads up: Today’s sermon is going to be a little dark.  It kind of fits the weather today. And besides, we’re only a few weeks away from Lent, and this sermon goes well with Lent.

We’ll be looking today mostly at the reading from Jeremiah (Jeremiah 17:5-10) which leads off with the words: “Thus says the Lord: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength…”

Jeremiah is speaking to the rulers of Israel, and through them to the people of Israel, during Israel’s darkest days: dark, because the nation was in complete and total rebellion against God.  Jeremiah’s task was to warn them that if they didn’t turn back to God, the kingdom would fall and the people would go into exile – which is exactly what happened not long afterwards.  Jeremiah’s listeners responded by making fun of him and persecuting him and saying “can’t you ever say anything positive???”

That’s the context of today’s reading. But today I don’t want to focus so much on ancient history as I want to talk about now, recent history, and present day, in a sermon called “Parched or Planted?”

Parched or Planted?

Jeremiah, sharing God’s word and God’s heart, tells the people ‘you have a choice.’ Your life can either be like a shriveled up little shrub trying to squeeze water out of what’s essentially a lava-field or desert sand, or your life can be like a tree planted near a fresh-water stream, never dry and always producing fruit.  And God says through Jeremiah what makes the difference between the two, is what direction the heart is pointed in: the dried-up shrub has a heart that is turned away from God; the fruitful tree has a heart that trusts God.

The President of Jewish Theological Seminary, Behar Behukkotai, recently pointed out that in the Hebrew language and in Jewish thought, God’s curses are related to drought and dryness and a failure of crops. He writes that the Law of Moses teaches us to live by faith in this regard.  The law says “Do not sow seed in the seventh year, as you do the other six.” Be confident that God will take care of your needs that year and the next. Buy and sell property knowing that, in the jubilee year, all property will revert to its original owners. Walk through the land… tak[ing] responsibility for its stewardship… follow[ing] God’s commands, and subordinat[ing] your will to God.”

Behukkotai sees a parallel between disobedience to these commands and idolatry.  And when he talks about “being confident that God will take care of our needs” in the sabbath year – this is the definition of what Jeremiah is talking about when he says “trust in the Lord”. This kind of trust is not just an intellectual thing; it means to rest in, to feel completely safe. And so the question comes to us today: are we trusting in human power, or are we trusting the Lord? Are we parched, or are we planted?

The answer to these questions may not be as easy as we think.  At the end of our passage in Jeremiah, God comments: “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it?” This is not a change of subject; it’s a continuation of the earlier thoughts.  So in case we start thinking, “I know which direction my heart is pointed in,” God confronts us with the fact that we don’t even know our own hearts.

And this is where the message begins to get dark.

Even psychologists will tell us that we don’t really know ourselves; that all of us have at least some mild neuroses; and, as the saying goes, “‘Normal’ is only a setting on the dryer.”  In some ways we can only know ourselves by getting feedback from others, and that’s why intimate relationships and friendships with faithful people are so important. The apostle Paul tells us to “encourage one another and build up each other” (I Thess 5:11) and we can do this for each other because we are able to see things from different perspectives and help each other fill in some of the missing information.

But then we have to take into account that other people aren’t perfect either, and the fact is, we often hurt each other without meaning to. You may remember the old song “You Always Hurt the One You Love”. This is not some sado-masochistic theme song, it’s reality: only the people closest to us are in a position to hurt us deeply. And I know, for myself, my prayers of confession are incomplete; there are a lot of sins I’ve forgotten already, a lot of memories that have faded over the years, and a lot of things I’ve done that I can’t begin to explain. We really don’t know our own hearts.

By way of illustration: Over the past few months I’ve been reading a couple of books that bring the depth of our human lack of self-knowledge into brilliant focus. The first book was a best-seller back in the 1960s called Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer, who was one of Adolf Hitler’s closest friends.  The second book is written by prize-winning European journalist Gitta Sereny, called Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth.

I should explain I was drawn to these two books by many conversations I’ve had recently with people who are afraid that Nazi-ism is on the rise in America today, and in the world in general. I think there’s a great deal that 21st-century people can learn from these two books, and I recommend both.

Speer’s book

Speer’s book is a memoir: an inside view of Nazi Germany, which he wrote while serving 20 years in prison for war crimes.  He tries to be as detailed with his memories as he can be, and he brings to life all the major characters of the Nazi hierarchy. The first thing that struck me as I was reading this book was that he is talking about people.  Today we make Nazis into monsters, which is a natural thing to do knowing what they did, and remembering all millions who died; but putting a human face on the perpetrators is necessary if we are going to say “never again” and make it stick. Because if the Nazis were not human, then Nazi Germany was just a fluke, and it never will happen again.  But if these people were human then we must remember, and we must keep watch, and we must say “never again” and make it stick, because the possibility is always there.

Speer as Hitler’s Architect

So Speer’s book is the confessions of one man who realized what he’d fallen into – but too late. He had served Hitler first as an architect, and then as Minister of Armaments, he provided all the materials the army needed for the war. He was convicted of war crimes at Nuremburg because some of the factories he controlled made illegal use of prisoners of war and other forced labor.  But Speer is known to history as the only Nazi who ever said “I’m sorry.” Towards the end of the war, when they knew the war was lost, and Hitler was descending into suicidal madness and ordering a “scorched earth” policy for Germany, Speer traveled the country countermanding Hitler’s orders and telling the people “when the Allies get here, for God’s sake surrender. Don’t blow up the factories, don’t blow up the bridges, leave something standing for the next generation.”  And then… he risked his life to return to Berlin and tell Hitler what he’d done, and to say ‘goodbye’. There was something in Speer that could not let go of the charisma of this madman. And Speer can’t explain this; he finds that he doesn’t even understand himself.

Gitta Sereny’s book

So the second book I read is titled well: “Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth”. Gitta Sereny spent 12 years of her life researching this book, including three years of interviews with Speer himself in which she becomes the most brilliant psychologist I’ve ever read, holding her own self out of the picture, and asking him questions that slowly tease the truth out of his memories, for 700 pages.

Speer being interviewed by Sereny

If you want to know her conclusions you’ll have to read the book. Or you could save yourself some time and read Jeremiah.  “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals…”  Nazi Germany was taken in by one particularly evil mortal, but any mortal will do to prove the truth of this verse. If our trust is in political leaders, economic leaders, even religious leaders, we’re going to find ourselves in some very parched places.

But! Blessed are those who trust in the Lord.  They shall not fear when drought comes; they will be like trees that stay green; they will not cease to bear fruit.

And Gitta Sereny’s book gives a brilliant example of this.

After spending 20 years in prison, from 1946 to 1966 – think about how much the world changed in those two decades – Speer was released and was faced with rebuilding his life. And one day he received a letter from a Jewish rabbi by the name of Aba Geis, a man who trusted in the Lord. He wrote:

Sehr geehrter Herr Speer,

In 1963 I read G.M. Gilbert’s Nuremburg Diary, and after that I thought of you time and again. You were different from the others accused at the Nuremburg trial and I found the sentence you were given too severe…

Not long ago I saw parts of two of your TV interviews and was again impressed by you. You will have to go on bearing your lot, as I and the survivors must bear ours. But I did want to tell you that even where I don’t understand you, I respect you.  But even more than that, as a devout Jew, I feel that there has to be forgiveness, and I am profoundly convinced that you are under the star of this forgiveness, for you are today an honest man.  I haven’t read your book yet, but… I didn’t want to delay until then sending you these few words.

With warm greetings, Raphael Geis

Speer commented to Sereny, “I think the day I received that letter was one of the most important days of my life.”  The two men became friends and remained friends until Geis’s death.

This letter contains the words of a man who is a tree planted by water; who knows the truth of human hearts, and who places his trust in the Lord. And with his trust in God, he turned the heart of a former Nazi.

Sereny quotes one other letter from Geis in her book that I think speaks very clearly to life in the 21st century, as well as illustrating the words of Jeremiah. Geis writes to Speer:

“When I was a young rabbi in Munich, at the beginning of the Third Reich, I couldn’t allow myself tears, because I had to be strong for the confused and frightened Jews in my care. That is how I survived Buchenwald… [and the passing of] my sister and her family at Auschwitz. Why do I write you this? Certainly not in order to open up a mercifully drawn curtain, but to tell you that my own fate in the Third Reich… taught me that one cannot categorize human beings. I knew, for instance, high-ranking Nazis whose helpfulness was exemplary, and I knew of Jews who denounced me to the Gestapo. I always understood about the quality of the world’s so-called compassion… Without the cowardly silence of the great powers, Hitler would never have become the awful reaper of death he became. And in the subsequent years? Vietnam, Greece, Spain, South America, South Africa… If one does not wish to despair and if one recognizes that the battle is on many fronts, then one knows that the first victory is to say time and time again “Yes” to individual human beings. I can look upon you as a comrade because I sense you to be true…”

This is a foretaste of life in God’s kingdom: this is a place where living waters flow; where there is nothing to fear, and nothing is lacking. As Jeremiah says, God searches human hearts: to understand, and to bring truth: but ‘searching’ a wound is also the beginning of healing. And so we see in Luke, Jesus comes as the great healer. Luke says: “Power came out from him and healed them all” – that is, all who were following Jesus. Jesus didn’t heal everybody in Israel that day, but he healed all who were there… everyone who put their trust in him.

BTW there’s a lovely postscript to the story these books tell: just last month, Albert Speer’s daughter received the Obermayer German Jewish History Award, presented on Holocaust Remembrance Day (2019), for work she has done creating a foundation to support Jewish women artists. And they remark that she also has welcomed refugees from Syria and Afghanistan to live her own home.

Parched or planted: the decision is ours.  We live in a world that is dying of thirst, and yet continues to put its faith in mere mortals; a world that trusts in human power, in spite of the fact that human power has led to tragedy over and over and over.

Will we live like dried-up shrubs in the desert? Or will we live like fruit trees planted by the stream? And the fruit we bear – what will it help others to become? As we turn our hearts to the Lord in trust – resting in God’s goodness and mercy – Jesus brings healing and the hope of rich blessings to come. In a world of uncertainty, this we can trust. AMEN.

 

 

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Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District, Pittsburgh 2/17/19

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Jeremiah 17:5-10  Thus says the LORD: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD.  6 They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.  7 Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD.  8 They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.  9 The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse– who can understand it?  10 I the LORD test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.

Luke 6:17-26   He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.

 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.  19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

 20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.  22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.  23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

 24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.  25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.  26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

 

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