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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.

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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.

 

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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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I have been wanting to write ever since the news broke this week of over 300 Roman Catholic priests perpetrating sexual and other forms of abuse, mostly on young boys, here in Pennsylvania. My heart goes out to many friends who are discovering this week that the clergy they trusted years ago were unworthy of their trust. And my heart especially goes out to the over 1000 victims.

Words seem so ineffective at a time like this, but my friend and colleague the Rev. Dave Ketter has written the best response I’ve seen so far.  With his permission I re-blog his post here:

“I… do not believe that any minister of the Gospel has the freedom to remain silent in the face of the recent report released by the Attorney General Josh Shapiro, of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania—a report that makes public the findings of a two year investigation into child abuse, molestation, and other heinous sins against the children among the faithful in the Roman Catholic Church. I have not been able to read much of the report, simply due to the horror contained. Use your own discretion in this. [Editor’s note: I’ve read a little further and agree with Dave’s assessment: this report is not something to be read out of curiosity.] But this is not something confined to Roman Catholics. This is a concern and need for every Christian church.

“The Apostle tells us in the Scriptures that “judgment begins with the household of God.” And Paul strongly rebukes Corinth for their toleration of sins that even non-Christians know to be heinous and evil. Jesus himself warns the Church in Revelation that tolerating the sins of leaders will lead to the removal of that church from the presence of God. So, I appeal to all who took vows before God to shepherd the flock of God—whether as Deacons, Presbyters, or Bishops—do not hide. Do not cover up. Do not tolerate, enable, or in any way pass by the abuse of children and others who are vulnerable in your churches. PROTECT them by all means. Believe those who speak up, for the love of Christ. Be the advocate of those who are victimized, as Christ is…because these undershepherds are unfaithful, and are preying upon the flock of God.

“To others in the Church, as we share a common baptism, I plead with you: Hear, Defend, and Love those who have been so evilly abused. There can be such temptation to “defend the reputation of the Church”. That is not your job. Leave the reputation of the Church in God’s hands. You are called to bear the burdens and wounds of those who have assaulted precious little ones who are made in the image of God. Love them. Support them. Cry out for justice for and with them.

“I don’t know whether anyone I know was abused by the priests in this report, or by others who managed to hide from the light of this investigation. What I want you to know and hold onto is that Jesus walks, sits, and stays with you. The sins done against you, He takes personally. He grieves with you. And I pray you experience His comfort, His healing, and His love for you. What was done against you is wrong, and Jesus does not bless or condone it. The Scriptures promise that He will hold everyone accountable for the deeds that they have done. The public exposure and any consequences that follow are only a pale imitation. In the meantime, I pray that if there is any way that others who follow Jesus can walk with you in gentleness, in grief, in compassion, and in solidarity with you, that this will happen. We as the Church owe you that.

AMEN.

 

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As requested, the following is a transcript of my comments at Gabe’s memorial service today at East Liberty Presbyterian Church, 7/29/18  Family and friends are welcome to share.

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I first met Gabe D’Abruzzo when he was 5, not quite 6, and I was in my early 20s and just out of Duquesne’s music school.

Gabe was one of my first piano students and I was his first teacher.  Working with Gabe was exceptional from Day One.  Gabe came to his very first piano lesson having already figured out some of the melodies of songs and commercials on the radio.  And even though he wasn’t quite sure which fingers to use, the notes and the rhythms were spot-on.

My mind immediately went to something one of our professors had taught us, which was: “don’t ever say to a parent ‘I think your child is going to grow up to be a musician’.”  It’s not fair to the kid, who has his whole life ahead of him. So I bit my tongue hard and got down to teaching.

Gabe was, from the very beginning, unquenchable, with a great love for learning and a sense of adventure. He just soaked everything up. Within a few months Gabe was starting to write jingles for his grandparents’ corner deli that used to be in the Allentown section of Pittsburgh.

Two stories I wanted to share from those early days. The first speaks to Gabe’s generosity of spirit. At its peak my piano studio had about 20 students, and at the end of each year I would rent out a church hall and we would have an informal recital.  The studio included some adult beginners as well as children, and the adults were a bit intimidated by Gabe.  And I would tell them ‘look, don’t compare yourself to him, he’s exceptional’ but it didn’t help much  At some point Gabe got wind of this, and he wouldn’t have it.  From that point on he did everything he could to encourage the adults: he would tell them ‘keep practicing, you can do it’ and he’d look for ways to make them feel comfortable and feel at ease.  Gabe never, ever wanted anyone to feel left out or left behind.

The second thing I remember from back then was the first time I introduced Gabe to gospel music.  Gabe has always loved the music of the church, from the very beginning. So one day I pulled out an arrangement of the old gospel song Precious Lord Take My Hand. This particular arrangement started out in a slow, straight 3/4 and then the second verse launches into a 9/8 swing with blue notes tossed in.  Gabe looked at the first verse, and looked at the second verse, and his eyes got huge, and he said, “You can do that?!?” – meaning ‘it’s OK to not play exactly what’s on the page, it’s OK to take a melody and change it around a little bit and make it your own’ – and a whole world opened up in his mind. Those of you who have heard Gabe play know that you could just toss him a melody and he’d just take off with it.  That started when he was maybe eight years old.

By the time Gabe was in middle-school he was playing things I’d learned in college… and I was starting to wonder what to do next!  So I figured it was finally time to sit Pam and Lou down and have ‘the talk’: “I think your son could become a professional musician, if that’s what he wants. Ask him, and if he’s interested, I’d like to introduce him to one of my teachers.”  And the answer came back ‘yes’ so I set up an appointment with Carmen Rummo at Duquesne.

Some of the musicians here may remember Carmen Rummo (may he rest in peace). He was a favorite professor at Duquesne, much loved, once you got past the sheer terror at the idea of playing in front of him. (Gabe wasn’t the least bit fazed.)  And Carmen’s reaction was “he’s good” – which was about the highest praise a person could get from him.  So I asked Carmen ‘what do I do next?’ and he said ‘you’re doing fine, keep going’ and he gave me a few pointers.

And so we went on for about another year. About that time, like many musicians back in the 90s, I changed careers into the computer field.  (I kinda liked eating!) So I disbanded the studio – with the exception of Gabe – but it became clear to me over that year, in spite of Carmen’s encouragement, Gabe really did need someone who could take him to the next level – someone who could prepare him for auditions and competitions and things like that.  So again I spoke with Pam & Lou and we settled on Charlotte Day, who did a fantastic job of preparing Gabe for Duquesne.

At the time, though, when Gabe got wind of the change in piano teachers, he was very hurt and angry with me. I think he felt like I was abandoning him, which of course couldn’t have been further from the truth, but it was painful for both of us.

After that I think the first time Gabe and I had a real conversation was after he’d finished his undergrad degree.  He had just played a concert at Ascension and I went backstage and told him ‘you sound great!’  And he began to talk to me about one of the pieces – I think it was a Bach Partita – and about how something in the bass line of the development was a retrograde-crab-walk-thing… I had no idea what he was talking about!  And he realized he’d lost me, and the penny dropped… and for the first time he realized he now knew more about music than I did, and could play things I would never play. He understood, but he was also like, “you know you could if you wanted to…” and I assured him it was OK, I really was happy in my new career.

From that point on, Gabe always introduced me to his friends proudly as “my piano teacher” – not ‘my old piano teacher’ or ‘my first piano teacher’ but ‘my piano teacher’.  He would not allow me to be left behind.

And so today it’s a great and sad irony that all of us are the ones feeling left behind.  Gabe would never in a million years have wanted that for us. But where it comes to making the final journey, none of us knows when that will happen. We know each one of us will have to walk that road someday. And we know we will see Gabe again, alive and happy and whole, and singing in the celestial choir. Or better yet, listening to the angels sing and saying, “You can do that?!?”

As the Apostle Paul says, “we do not grieve as those without hope”. (I Thess 4:13) “For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and… God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep in him.” (I Thess 4:14)

So I think maybe the best way to remember Gabe and to honor his life is to love God the way Gabe did, and to do our best to see that nobody is left behind.

I’m going to miss him so much….

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

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

This past week has been a horrible week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OldArk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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Psalm 29:1-11  (A Psalm of David)

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

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

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

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

And yet scripture also speaks of:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of the things Meaghan had to give up include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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