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…and they took him and threw him into a pit. […] Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood?  Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites…” And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt. (Gen 37, excerpt. Full reading at end of post.)

“…they threw him in a pit…”

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Preamble: There are so many ways in which today’s scripture reading parallels yesterday’s events in Charlottesville VA, it’s a bit scary.  Both are stories of murderous hatred between brothers.

In the context of yesterday’s news this sermon may be difficult to talk about and to hear. But as the apostle Paul says, our battle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers, against the evils of this world. It is a spiritual battle.  No human being, no group, no political party, ever perfectly represents God’s will.  Only God can do that. And so today, even in the midst – especially in the midst – of our fear and our anger, we turn to God’s word for comfort and for direction.

As our sermon opens, we’ll be listening in on one of Jacob’s sons expressing his hatred for his brother.

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“What a brat! Can you imagine living with a kid brother like Joseph?  Oh, he’s Daddy’s favorite, he is.

“His mama was Daddy’s favorite wife too, Rachel. Of course she’s dead now so we can’t speak ill of her. But we older boys in the family have always had to pick up the slack from little Joseph and his bratty little brother Benjamin.

“Those two never pull their weight around here.  All of us – the sons of Leah and Bilhah and Zilpah – we do all the work.  Put up the tents! Take down the tents! Feed the animals! Take the animals out to pasture! Defend the family from creeps like those Shechemites who raped our sister! But nobody helps us!

“Meanwhile Joseph sits around the tent in the pretty robe Dad made him, doing absolutely nothing.  Oh, yeah, he’ll come out and help the younger brothers with the animals sometimes. But then he runs home to Dad and tattles on us.  I mean, so what if Dan and Asher drink and rough-house a little? So what if people in the town don’t like it? They’re young, they’ve got wild oats to sow. What’s that to Joseph?

“But noooo… he has to run home and tell Daddy.  And of course Dad believes every word he says. He could tell Dad the moon was purple and Dad would believe him.

“I can’t stand that brat.

“Oh! And here’s the best part.  Lately he’s been having dreams.  He dreams he has a big tall sheaf of wheat and all of our sheaves gather around it and bow down to it.  I mean, who does he think he is?!?  He’s the second-youngest son of twelve sons.  Reuben is the oldest – if anybody’s in charge he is, and he would never lord it over us. But this little runt thinks he’s going to be king?

“Oh, and then he had another dream.  He said he saw the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to him. Even Dad objected to that one – he said, “son, you think me and your mothers and brothers are going to bow to you?” But you know what, even while he was saying it I could tell Dad half-believed him.

“One thing’s for certain though – Dad will never punish Joseph for going on about those dreams. Oh, no… not the golden boy. Who needs him? Stick to the tents you little runt… go home and be with Daddy.  Sometimes I wish he would just drop off the face of the earth.

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That’s what I imagine Jacob’s boys would tell us if we could transport ourselves back in time 4000 years.  Many of us here today have brothers and sisters and have had our share of sibling rivalries, but for most of us it was nothing compared to this.

But I think it’s easy to sympathize with Jacob’s boys.  Even in average families, the oldest kids always complain they do all the work, and the youngest are getting away with murder. In Jacob’s family the youngest  sons were favored, because their mother was the favorite wife – which wasn’t fair to the rest of the boys.

And in our story when some of the boys actually do try to take matters into their own hands, it’s the oldest – Reuben – who is responsible and talks them out of it. When the younger sons throw Joseph into a pit, Reuben figures he’ll leave Joseph there for a while to think things over and then come back later and pull him out and send him home safely.

But when Reuben isn’t looking, the other brothers see some traders on their way to Egypt and decide to make some money instead of committing murder.

Picture the scene: Joseph, all of 17 years old, stripped of his robe, crying out for mercy, while his brothers haggle over what his life is worth.  How angry were they to ignore their brother on his knees, weeping and begging for his life?

Unknown to all of them, in this horrific moment the wheels of history are turning. What the brothers are doing is reprehensible, and the pain their father will feel is unthinkable.

Yet on a larger scale, this one action will set into motion a series of events that will save millions of lives and define the nation of Israel from which the Messiah Jesus will come.

Years later Joseph will say to his brothers, “what you meant for evil, God meant for good.”  And that’s very true. But in today’s story that’s still many years away.

For today we need to spend some time with the tragedy of this deeply dysfunctional family – because we see in this story a microcosm of the deeply dysfunctional human family in which all of us live.

So two things I’d like to focus on today: (1) what scripture tells us about Jacob’s family; and (2) what Joseph’s story says to us as Christians in the 21st century.

  • What Genesis tells us.

Genesis tells us Jacob was living in an town called Hebron, south of Jerusalem near the Dead Sea. Jacob’s sons were feeding the flocks in Shechem, a city about 50 miles away, north of Jerusalem in what Jesus would have called Samaria.  The distance between Jacob and his sons is about the same as the distance between here and Morgantown WV.

Shepherds back in those days needed to move around to find good pastures, but it’s doubtful they needed to go that far to find green grass.  The whole issue with Joseph caused such hard feelings that the boys were putting physical distance between themselves and their father.

On top of that, Shechem is also where, a few years before, Jacob’s daughter (their sister) Dinah had been raped and the brothers took revenge by killing a bunch of Shechemites. So they had worn out their welcome in this part of the country.  When Joseph arrived in Shechem he found his brothers had already moved on, even further north, to a city named Dothan, which is about as far from Shechem as we are from Monroeville, so Joseph had about another day to walk to get to them.

The name ‘Dothan’ translated from the Hebrew means “Law” – and we could say that the sons of Jacob, having run away from their father Israel and his God, are now trying to live by the Law (so to speak) and not by the grace of the word of God. We’ll come back to that in a moment. Physically, the brothers are moving northwest, headed in the direction of the Plain of Megiddo, or as we call it today, Armageddon.

I don’t think that’s coincidence. To make a long story short, they’re headed in the wrong direction. They’re moving away from their father, away from their families, away from those who care about them, away from righteous living, away from God, and into major trouble. And they’re so angry with Joseph, scripture says they couldn’t even greet him with the traditional greeting: they couldn’t even say shalom to him.

On some level their father Jacob must have known they were in trouble, which is why he sent Joseph to them. But the brothers saw Joseph coming from a distance and made plans to take his life. When Joseph got to Dothan, they stripped off his robe, tossed him in a pit… and then sat down to have lunch!

Can you imagine doing that? And yet even today people kill and steal and lie and cheat and abuse their spouses or their children – or light torches and surround churches in the night – and then go sit down and eat a meal like it’s nothing.

In our passage, Joseph’s brothers then spotted the caravan of Ishmaelites.  We met Ishmael earlier this summer: he’s the half-brother of Isaac, son of Abraham.  So the men in the caravan were their grandfather’s brother’s grandchildren. We don’t know if they actually knew each other, but Jacob’s sons were able to identify them as “Ishmaelites” on sight.

So the brothers decide to sell Joseph to their second cousins. And now they can go home and honestly say they didn’t kill Joseph, and they don’t where he is – they have total deniability – and they will come away with little extra money in their pockets.

And Joseph – the one who was sent by their father to help them – is bound and carried away to Egypt.

At first glance this story doesn’t seem to have anything to recommend it at all.  There’s nothing here we want to model our lives on. There are no good examples to follow (except for maybe Joseph, and Joseph comes across as innocent but very naïve).

  • So what does this all mean to us as Christians in the 21st century?

One of the common themes in Christian theology is that Joseph is a ‘type’ of Jesus.  That is, there are similarities between Joseph’s story and Jesus’ story – so much so that Joseph’s life can – in some ways – be interpreted as a prophecy of the Messiah. Looking at Joseph helps us understand Jesus.

For example: Genesis 37:3 tells us “Jacob loved Joseph more than any other of his children.” In Matthew, God says about Jesus: “this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”  Not that Jacob didn’t love his other children, and not that God doesn’t love all God’s children.  But Jesus is set apart, just as Joseph was set apart. Joseph was clothed by his father in a special robe; Jesus was clothed by his Father in the Holy Spirit and in power.

Here’s another. In Genesis, Joseph’s brothers hate him out of envy. In the gospels, the religious authorities – the scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees – hate Jesus out of envy.  Mark 15:10 says, “the chief priests delivered Jesus up out of envy.” And Jesus in his parable of the vineyard says, “the tenants saw the son coming and said ‘here is the heir – let’s kill him and the vineyard will be ours.’”

Here’s another. In both stories there is a prophecy that the Son will one day rule as king.  Joseph dreams of his brothers bowing down to him – which ended up actually happening. Joseph knew his dreams had to do with the future. He never intended them to lord over his brothers – he was trying to tell them the future that was coming!  And in Matthew, Jesus says, “you will see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.” (Matt. 26:64)  And the apostle Paul says one day “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” This is not Jesus ‘lording’ himself over us. He’s telling us what’s coming.

Joseph and Jesus both are sent to look out for the welfare of their brothers (and sisters). Both willingly go and search diligently until the people they’re seeking are found.  But as it says in the gospel of John, “he came to his own, and his own received him not.”  And this true of both Jesus and Joseph. The people who have gone to Dothan – that is, to the law – have rejected salvation as the gift of God, and both Joseph and Jesus plead with them to hear the voice of the Father and change direction – because the law cannot save; only God the Father can.

Joseph and Jesus both are condemned to die by those they came to help.  Both are stripped of their robes. Both are thrown into a pit (in Jesus’ time, prisons looked more like pits than jail cells).  Both are denied justice, or even a fair hearing. Both are sold for silver placed in the hand.

And as Joseph begins his new life in Egypt, the parallels between his life and the life of Jesus will continue. We’ll look at that next week.

For today, we leave ten brothers in a field, with hatred and violence and guilt in their hearts, far from where they should be, far from God, and far from home.  In a few days Jacob’s heart will break when they show him Joseph’s robe, covered in blood.

For today we leave Joseph on the road to Egypt… and Jesus on the road to Calvary. And just like back then, people are sitting down and eating and going about life like nothing has happened.

Next week we will see how the stories end. Until then, think about the people in these stories. Think about the choices they made. Think about their fear and hatred and anger, and where it leads.

Then think about God the Father, who like Jacob, suffers when his children suffer. Think about Jesus, who like Joseph, willingly searched for us and found us no matter what it cost him. Think about Joseph’s dreams of someday ruling, and the prophecies that Jesus will one day rule.  Are we, his brothers and sisters, ready for his coming kingdom? Are we ready to lay down our anger and our fears and make peace with God?

Think on these things… and we’ll pick up here next week. AMEN.

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Genesis 37:1-28  Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan.  2 This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father.  3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves.  4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

5 Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more.  6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed.  7 There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.”  8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.  9 He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”  10 But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?”  11 So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

12 Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem.  13 And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.”  14 So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron. He came to Shechem,  15 and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?”  16 “I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.”  17 The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.'” So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan.  18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him.  19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer.  20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”  21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.”  22 Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him”– that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father.  23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore;  24 and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

25 Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt.  26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood?  27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed.  28 When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 8/13/17

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[Scriptures for the day are quoted at the end of the post]
“I will not let you go.”  These words jump out at us from our passage in Genesis today. How many times in our lives have we said that to someone? Or thought it about someone?

When a parent takes their child to the big city for the first time, walking down the street, it’s “I’ve got you… don’t let go!”  Or when a child is learning how to swim: “Go ahead, try it… I won’t let you go.”

Lovers say it to each other, and love songs are full of the feeling. “Hold On” “I’ll Never Let You Go” “Stand By Me”  “I Won’t Last a Day Without You”

Sometimes love songs go a little too far, for example Sting:

“Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take
I’ll be watching you.”

(…which Sting calls his “Stalker Song”. Sting says he gets a bit worried when fans play this song at their weddings!)

This passionate sentiment of ‘not letting go’ is expressed in our readings from both Genesis and Romans today. In Genesis 32 a man says it to God, and in Romans 8 God says it to us.

Jacob Wrestles the Angel – Arthur Sussman
“Kick at the Darkness Until It Bleeds Daylight”

Let’s look at Genesis first.  In this passage we see the patriarch Jacob alone in the wilderness, wrestling with a stranger who turns out to be… sort of a human manifestation of God.  How Jacob came to be in this particular place on this particular night is a long story. So to make a long story short:

Jacob has been struggling and wrestling with God all his life. Even before Jacob was born, God told his mother Rebekah that her younger son (Jacob) would be blessed by God and would rule over her older son Esau.  As time went on, this started to become true, but for some reason Jacob and Rebekah felt a need to help God out a bit.  So first Jacob cheats his brother out of his birthright, and then he cheats him out of his father’s blessing.

At this point Esau is so angry he starts plotting to murder his brother Jacob.  So Rebekah sends Jacob about 500 miles away to stay with her brother Laban for safe-keeping.  On the way to Laban’s place, Jacob has his famous vision of the ladder, on which he sees angels going up and down into heaven, and hears God say:

“The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth… and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.  Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:13-15, edited)

Jacob is so amazed and moved by this meeting, he sets up a stone and calls the place Bethel which means “house of God.” Jacob has now heard, with his own ears, the same promise his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham heard God speak.  And yet when he gets to Laban’s place, Jacob still takes matters into his own hands.

And now, twenty years later, he finds himself with two wives (only one of which he asked for), eleven sons and a daughter, and huge flocks of sheep and goats – most of which he has more-or-less cheated his father-in-law out of. So Jacob’s family is now quite rich, but Jacob himself is tired and discouraged, and has worn out his welcome with just about everybody, and is caught between an angry father-in-law and an estranged brother.

So now Jacob is on the way home. Afraid of what he might meet, Jacob sends his wives and kids and animals on ahead while he spends a night alone.  But suddenly he finds himself wrestling with a mysterious man.

All.Night.Long.

As the night wears on, the wrestler puts Jacob’s hip out of joint, but still Jacob won’t let go.  Finally the sun begins to rise, and the wrestler says “let me go, for the day is breaking”. But Jacob answers, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

…as if Jacob would be able to prevent God’s departure!  You have to admire Jacob’s chutzpah. You also have to admire the rich grace of a God who is willing to spend a whole night wrestling with a mere mortal – just to teach him how to say “I will not let you go.”

So the wrestler, now revealed as God, blesses Jacob with the words:

“You shall no longer be called Jacob (which means ‘supplanter’ or ‘deceiver’) but [you shall be called] Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.”

In the ancient world, names meant something, much more than they do in our culture. And the meaning of the name ‘Israel’ has been much debated.  I’ve often seen it translated as ‘he struggles with God’ or ‘he wrestles with God’.  But the Hebrew word, Isra-El, describes God, not Jacob. So a more accurate translation might be “God struggles” or “God wrestles”.

Of course it takes two to tango.  God has been wrestling with Jacob… and Jacob has been wrestling with God… all his life.  Now, finally, Jacob is at the point where he’s ready to put things in God’s hands.

For us, where we are today, if we find ourselves at the end of our ropes or at the end of our strength, if we’re hurting and ready to quit, if we feel like strangers in a strange land, will we look to God (as Jacob did) and say “I will not let you go unless you bless me”?  Will we hold on to God with all the passion of a romantic lover?

It’s a choice. Holding on to God is not so much rooted in feeling, as it is a decision.  It’s a persistence.

[As an aside – I think the ‘holding on’ and ‘not letting go’ that popular love songs sing about often has more in common with addiction than it does with faith. One of the things I discovered in my younger days is that it’s impossible to get ‘hooked on’ God.  A person can get addicted to religion or to church (or to church music) or to one kind of theology or another. But somehow God in His mercy has made it impossible to get hooked on Him.  For those of us with addictive streaks in our personalities, it would be easier to be a Christian if we could just get hooked on God because then we wouldn’t have to worry about letting go. We’d have to have God. There would be no choice in the matter.  But God has made human beings in such a way that our faithfulness and our tenacity has to be a choice, moment by moment, day by day.]

The fly in the ointment of course is that none of us is perfect, so none of us can hold on to God perfectly. And none of us is infinitely strong, so none of us can hold on forever. And that’s where our reading from Romans comes in. Romans assures us that when we come to the end of our strength, the end our abilities, God will not let go.  Jesus, who loved us even to death, is holding on to us and will not let go.

The apostle Paul says this is true in spite of any persecution or trouble we may face. It’s true no matter what. And then Paul lists a whole bunch of things that cannot separate us from God.  They include:

  • Death. Life. (That covers most of it, doesn’t it?)
  • Angels (fallen or otherwise)
  • At this point the Greek gets a little open to variation – most translations say ‘principalities’ (which is true enough – principalities can’t make God let go of us). But the word looks more like ‘the first things’ followed by ‘the present’ and then ‘the things that are to come’. In other words, past, present and future. Nothing in our past can make God let go of us. Nothing in our present can get in God’s way. And the future is nothing to fear when we’re in God’s hands.
  • Heights or depths (this can be interpreted either literally or figuratively. The highest high you’ve ever known can’t surpass God, and the deepest depression you’ve ever felt can’t overwhelm God.)
  • Nor anything else in all creation (Paul says) can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

God will never let us go.  Is this not good news?

And so as we move into this week and into our daily lives, think about how Jacob wrestled with God, and refused to let go.  Try approaching God in prayer with that kind of mindset and tenacity.

But also remember God is holding on to us, and God won’t let go, so we are secure no matter what happens, no matter what comes our way. We go out into the world in the confidence of God’s love that cannot be shaken.

God loves you – and will never let you go.  AMEN.

 

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Preached at Fair Oaks Retirement Home and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District, 8/6/17

Artwork: “Jacob Wrestles the Angel” by Arthur Sussman

“Kick at the Darkness” article by Victoria Emily Jones. Pull-quote:

“In the painting God’s various sets of hands are breaking Jacob down and holding him up. Some of his faces speak gentleness, some fierceness. Whatever mixture of approaches God may use on us, his goal is this: to bring us through our brokenness to a place of blessing and glory.”

With thanks to Fr. Paul Johnston for bringing these works into our worship today.

~

Scriptures

Genesis 32:22-31

“The same night [Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.  Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”  So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”  Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”  Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.  So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.”

 

Romans 8:35-39

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

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On this day churches around the world are remembering Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Ascension Day is not a major holiday for most folks – there are no Hallmark cards for it, and not every church in the world will be talking about it today.  But Pastor Matt and I both felt it was too important to miss.

A few years ago when my pastor led a tour of Israel, he took us to the top of the Mount of Olives, which is where the Ascension took place.

Here’s a photo of the chapel that was built on what’s believed to be the spot where the Ascension happened.  They’re not absolutely certain, but we know it’s within a few hundred yards.

You can see from the number of languages on the sign, the importance that’s given to this place.

And as you’re looking at the chapel, if you turn around you see this – looking out over Jerusalem.

As our tour group was standing here I’ll never forget what my pastor said:

“If not for the Ascension, you and I would not be standing here as Christians today. And I wish more churches taught that.”

Now I thought this was kind of an odd statement.  I could see saying something like “we wouldn’t be here without” Christmas or Good Friday or Easter. But the Ascension?  Two of the four Gospels don’t even mention it. So how could it be that important?

In our creed it says we believe in Jesus Christ, who died and rose again, and then “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty”.  If Jesus didn’t ascend – if the creed is wrong, then Jesus still has a human body – and is either impossibly old, or would have died again, and we’d be believing in nothing.

But that’s not what happened.  After Jesus’ resurrection things weren’t the same as they were before. Jesus’ body wasn’t the same as before. His resurrected body could do some really unusual things, like getting into a locked room without opening the door.

The Creator of the Universe, when he took human form, gave up a lot. Jesus entered into creation and became one of us, and lived and died like one of us, in order to open the door for us into God’s kingdom.

In Luke chapter 12 Jesus, speaking about his death and resurrection says: “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!”  In other words, there were things he couldn’t do when he was one of us.  For the creator of time and space to be limited within time and space is almost beyond imagination.

But that time of limitation, for Jesus, is almost over. And our readings for today tell us about how Jesus chose to spend his last 40 days here on earth, before returning home, where he could be fully himself again.

So let’s look at these readings.  Both of our readings for today were written by the apostle Luke.  They tell the same story but in slightly different ways.  The reading from Luke comes from the end of Luke’s gospel – which is about the life of Jesus.  The reading from Acts is the story of the beginning of the church.  We’ll look mostly at the reading from Acts (for those who want to follow in pew Bibles).

In the first verses of Acts, Luke dedicates his book to “Theophilus” – which is the same dedication as in the book of Luke. Nobody knows for sure if this is a man’s name or if it’s a title, but in Greek ‘Theophilus’ means ‘lover of God’ – and I think it’s safe to say Luke’s books were written for any of us who love God.

Luke starts out by saying

“after his suffering [Jesus] presented himself alive to [the disciples] by many convincing proofs.”

Luke is using legal language here – if I were going to translate this into American English I would say Jesus ‘proved his case beyond the shadow of a doubt’ – not once, but many times over.  The disciples had absolutely no doubts that Jesus had been dead, and was now alive.

For people in the 21st century who may doubt Jesus’ resurrection – I think one of the strongest replies we can offer is that so many men and women in the book of Acts were willing to die rather than deny what they saw.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, and we’ll be remembering those who gave their lives so that we could be free. Today let’s also remember those who gave their lives so that we could know the truth, so that our freedom would be something worth having. These men and women in the book of Acts were eyewitnesses to the living Jesus, who was crucified but didn’t stay dead, and they refused to say otherwise even if it cost their lives.

So having proven to the disciples that he was alive, Jesus gave them these instructions: stay in Jerusalem, and don’t leave until the promise of the Father comes.

Jesus had mentioned this before. He said: just as John baptized with water, soon you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Wait for it. He said, “Stay here… until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

And the disciples asked him, “Lord… is this when you’re going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

At this point a lot of theologians and commentators roll their eyes at how dense the disciples can be.  They still don’t get it that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world?  But I wouldn’t be so fast to roll eyes at the disciples – because their question about restoring the kingdom is still around today, just in different forms.

What I’m about to say here is not meant to be political – I don’t support any particular party – but looking at Acts 1:6 in the Greek, the phrase “restore the kingdom to Israel” sounds familiar. What the disciples are asking about is a return to a previous state of being: a restoration of greatness.

Their mistake is not in wanting to be ‘great again’.  Their mistake is in looking to the past rather than the future.

The thing is, the past is easier to imagine than the future, because we know the past – it’s familiar.  I was in the bank the other day, and they had on the wall an artists’ rendering of downtown Pittsburgh back in the late 60s or early 70s: streetcars, Kaufmann’s windows decorated for Christmas, the Kaufmann’s clock at the corner of 5th and Smithfield… the way things used to be… my banker and I had a ‘moment’ right there in the bank.

The past has such a strong pull on our hearts! And the future… sounds like an awful lot of work.

Of course we only ever live in the present – not the past or the future. And that’s true for the church as well as the nation.

But the kingdom Jesus is talking about is not about the past: it’s about the kingdom of God, which, to Jesus, is the present but to us feels like the future. So Jesus answers the disciples’ question by saying: the times and periods of nations are in the hands of God the Father.  YOUR job is to be my witnesses: in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  And when the Holy Spirit comes, he will give you power to do that. And the Holy Spirit is coming very soon.

Acts 1:3 tells us Jesus spent his last 40 days on earth teaching the disciples “about the kingdom of God” – giving them a vision of the kingdom.  And Luke’s gospel says  Jesus reviewed with the disciples “everything written about [him] in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms…” and “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”

This word ‘opened’ is an interesting word in the Greek. It’s word often used to describe the opening made when a woman is giving birth to her first child. It means to open completely, as far as their minds can stretch, so that they see clearly, and can bring all the parts of Jesus’ story together in a way that makes sense.

And then, having taught the disciples from the Old Testament how all these pieces come together, and having promised them that the Holy Spirit would come, Jesus blessed them and was carried up into heaven.

Luke says Jesus disappeared into a cloud, and suddenly there were two men in white standing near the disciples saying “why are you staring up into heaven? Jesus has been taken up into heaven and will come back again the same way.” And so the disciples went back to Jerusalem with great joy, and waited until the Holy Spirit came. And we’ll talk about that next week on Pentecost!

So I’d like to focus on two things from today’s readings: (1) what the ascension means to Jesus; and (2) what the ascension means to us.

What Ascension Day means to Jesus is going home.  It means Jesus’ work here on earth is done. It’s a time when heaven rejoices at the return of her King.  (You think the Steelers got a victory parade?)

It also means Jesus’ work in heaven is just beginning.  Jesus is now at God’s right hand, praying for us, forgiving us, preparing a place for us. He is our high priest in the temple of God, as Hebrews says, “entering into heaven with his own blood” for our forgiveness.

It means Jesus’ time of being limited to one time and one place is over.  Now he can send the Holy Spirit to be with every believer, everywhere, at all times.

Ascension Day for us is little different.  For us, it’s a reminder that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world.  God’s kingdom is something we are saved into, redeemed into, by our Lord Jesus, not something we have to work for.

But Ascension also means the disciples will have new work to do, just like Jesus has new work to do.  Our job is to bear witness. And this work will be directed by Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Ascension means that the Holy Spirit is now available to every believer. So the disciples are told to wait until the Spirit comes, because God’s work can only be accomplished through God’s power.

Even today, we as believers need to wait and pray for the Holy Spirit, and wait for the Spirit’s direction and gifts – like the disciples waited – in order to accomplish God’s will.  This not ‘religious talk’.  There was a time when I thought it was.  I grew up in a church where the Holy Spirit was hardly ever mentioned, and in my 20s when I first saw someone ministering in the power of the Spirit my question was “What kind of power is this?” (which is pretty much how people reacted to Jesus in the Bible.)

Just in case your experience has been anything like mine: I want to assure you the Holy Spirit is real.  If Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us, then the Holy Spirit is God-in-us.  And sometimes it takes awhile to grow into this.  John Wesley himself was an ordained minister for 10 years before his heart was ‘strangely warmed’ at that meeting at Aldersgate (an event whose anniversary is also remembered this week). That’s when he met the Holy Spirit. And the coming of the Spirit gave Wesley such power as a preacher – preaching not in human power but in the power of the Spirit – that God used Wesley to change the course of history.

(Not all of us are going to be called to change the course of history – but that’s an example of what the Holy Spirit can do.)

The Holy Spirit is a gift given by God, to God’s people, for the purpose of ministry.  So for us, Ascension Day gets us ready for Pentecost. It points to the coming of the Holy Spirit and to our calling to bear witness to what we know about Jesus.

Jesus tells his disciples:

“You will be my witnesses, to Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

No one believer could possibly cover all this ground! But as a group – as the Body of Christ – they did.  By the time Peter and Paul were martyred, the good news of Jesus had spread throughout the Roman Empire and into northern Africa and parts of Asia.

One of the helpful things one of our seminary professors taught us is: we can think of witnessing as being in three concentric circles: local, national, and international.

For the disciples, Jerusalem was local, it’s where they started; then they went on to preach throughout the region and nation (Judea & Samaria), and then to the rest of the known world.

So how might we define our concentric circles?  The local one would probably be Brentwood or Carrick.  The middle circle could be Allegheny County, or Pennsylvania, or the United States.  That’s a little flexible. And the outer circle is still “the whole world”.

For those of us who are involved in the ministries and missions of this church, either as groups or as individuals, I’d like to suggest reviewing our outreach programs, and praying over them, in terms of these circles.  What does God want us to do in our neighborhood? In the region or the nation? And in the world?

I’m not suggesting we run out and start throwing money in all directions. Just the opposite: I’m suggesting building – and continuing to build – personal relationships on each of these levels.  Let the Spirit guide us into those relationships. And then – as needs arise – respond to the needs. Because in the Kingdom of God, it’s Jesus who makes the difference, and it’s love that makes the difference, not money and not social programs.

Pray about it, and see where God may lead with this.

In the meantime, let’s celebrate with joy the anniversary of our Lord’s homecoming – and his promise to return for us and bring us to where he is, in the kingdom of God.  Amen.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 5/28/17

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Scripture Readings

“In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning  2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.  3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.  4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me;  5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

6 “So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.  8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” – Acts 1:1-11

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“Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you– that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”  45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,  46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,  47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  48 You are witnesses of these things.  49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

50 “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.  51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.  52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy;  53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” – Luke 24:44-53

 

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Today we’re going to talk about a love story… and a rather unusual love story at that.

Lots of our favorite movies and books are about love stories: two people meet, fall in love, overcome challenges, grow stronger together, and live happily ever after. Or not, as the case may be.

But the love story we’re looking at today is a very rare kind of love story. It’s a love story where the one who’s loved doesn’t know it. It’s a love unknown.

An old hymn-writer back in the 1600s in England captured this kind of love when he wrote:

“My song is love unknown
My Saviour’s love for me;
Love to the loveless shown
That they might lovely be…”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  We’re going to be looking today at Acts 17:22-31, but first I want to touch briefly on our reading from John 14:15-21.

John is relating a conversation that takes place between Jesus and the disciples during the last week of Jesus’ life. Jesus is teaching the disciples what they’ll need to know when he’s no longer with them on a daily basis.  And the disciples are not catching on very well.  Jesus is saying the Messiah (himself) is going to die – which goes against everything the disciples have ever believed about the Messiah – and then after three days he will rise again, and then ascend into heaven, and then he will send the Holy Spirit.  And – Jesus says – when all this happens, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. Whoever loves me will keep my commandments and will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

This passage tells us there is a love yet to be revealed by Jesus. A love unknown.  Bookmark that thought – we’ll come back to it.

Turning to our reading from Acts, the reading for today starts in the middle of the chapter, which means we are coming in on the middle of the story, so we need to back up and start at the beginning.

Paul and Silas were traveling through the part of the Roman Empire that was occupied Greece.  And as they traveled, they would stop at the local synagogues and share the gospel – because for people who attended synagogue, the gospel was not entirely unknown. It might be unexpected, but the Old Testament was taught in the synagogues, and the Old Testament included prophecies about the Messiah, so their listeners at least had the background to understand the gospel message.

First Paul and Silas arrived in Thessalonica. They went into the synagogue and taught and preached for a few weeks, giving evidence from the Old Testament that the Messiah had to suffer and then rise from the dead, and proving that Jesus met the criteria.  And some of the Jews believed, along with a large number of Gentile Greeks.

The synagogue rulers were jealous to see so many Gentiles responding to Paul’s message.  So they went out and stirred up a mob who went and grabbed these new believers and had them arrested.  Of course having no charges the people were released, but Paul and Silas (for their own safety) were sent on to the next city.

So they travelled to a town called Berea, about 45 miles away.  When they got there, again they went to the local synagogue and started preaching. And this time the good news about Jesus was well-received.  Verse 11 says: “they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so.”  And many of them became believers, both Jews and Greeks.

Now the synagogue rulers in Thessalonica heard about this, and they were so ticked off they walked 45 miles to Berea stir up trouble for Paul and Silas. (45 miles is roughly the distance from Pittsburgh to Uniontown!  Have you ever been so ticked off at somebody that you would walk to Uniontown just to bother them?)

Anyway for safety’s sake the Bereans suggested Paul and Silas move on, and they accompanied them as far as Athens (about 150 miles from Berea – at which point the Thessalonians gave up).

So Paul and Silas arrived in Athens.  During Paul’s lifetime, and for about 400 years before he was born, Athens was one of the greatest educational centers of the world.  Aristotle had taught there, and Socrates, and Plato; Hippocrates, the founder of modern medicine (you’ve heard of the Hippocratic oath).  Athens was the birthplace of democracy – the first place democracy was thought of, and the first place it was ever tried.  Life in the United States in the 21st century would not exist as we know it, if not for Athens back then.

Even the Romans appreciated Athens.  Though they conquered all of Greece, they considered Athens a ‘free city’ so that it’s teaching and its arts and culture would continue uninterrupted.

Paul and Silas, when they got to Athens, had a lot to see, and a lot to take in as they walked around the city.  But what Paul noticed more than anything was that it was “a city full of idols”.  Verse 16 says he was deeply troubled at this; because the message Paul had to share was a love story – a story about a love unknown.  As Paul and Silas walked around the city, they saw people who did not know they were loved by God, people who were being led astray to worship idols and to serve what was not God.  And this moved Paul’s heart very deeply.

Paul started out, as usual, in the local synagogue. And he had a little success there.  But then he went to the marketplace – the Agora as it was called (you remember that name from high school social studies?). The Agora was a place where people would buy and sell, but it was also the central public space in the city – a place for events, a place where political speeches would be made, and where religious and philosophical debates happened.

So Paul joined in the debates in the Agora. Verse 18 says he got into conversations with the Epicureans and the Stoics. The Epicureans belonged to a school of philosophy that taught materialism and the pursuit of happiness, and ridiculed the idea of God interfering in human affairs. The Stoics on the other hand belonged to a school of philosophy that believed the path to happiness is found in accepting what we’re given in life; and not being controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain, but using our minds to understand.

Do I really need to say how much these philosophies still influence people’s thinking?  We may not call it by those names any more, but we still live in a materialistic culture, that pokes fun at religion, that pursues happiness, and that values logic over too much drama in our relationships. Things haven’t changed much in 2000 years!

Paul made enough of an impact on the Greek philosophers to be invited to speak at the Areopagus where many of the great debates were held.  So he came, and they asked him, “what are you teaching?”  And that’s where our reading for today picks up.

What Paul said to the philosophers is a wonderful example of how we can share our faith in the world around us.

  • Step One, Paul begins where his listeners are. He says “I observe that you are very religious in all respects.” Paul doesn’t attack their idols; he doesn’t stand up and call the people ‘idolaters and sinners’.  He takes his observation of their idols and casts it in a good light.  He praises the fact that they’re religious. In today’s culture we might say something like, “I see that you are very spiritual.  You care about living things, you care about the planet, you believe in doing what is compassionate, and you are mindful of how you treat others.”
  • Step Two, Paul builds on where his listeners are and finds a connection to the gospel. He says, “as I went through the city and looked at the objects of your worship, I found an altar with the inscription ‘to an unknown god’.”  Paul knows about this love unknown, knows that it is a universal truth, and he connects it to their ‘unknown god’.In our own day there are still many people who call themselves agnostic – who say they don’t know who God is, or they’re not sure. Even churchgoers sometimes can be sort of functionally agnostic –knowing there’s a God and his son’s name is Jesus but not really sure what that means. The word agnostic – a Greek word – literally means to not know.
  • In Step Three, Paul zeros in on the unknown and makes it known. He says: “What you believe is unknown, this is what I proclaim to you.’ And he goes on to talk about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  He says God created the world and everything in it; God does not live in temples or buildings made by hands; God is not served by people, as if God needed anything; in fact God gives us what we God sets the times and boundaries for nations and encourages people to seek God “groping around as we do, though God is not far from us” – Paul says – “for in Him we live and move and have our being”. And Paul adds, “as some of your own Greek poets have said, “we are God’s children.””

Can you imagine how people today would appreciate hearing that God does not live in buildings and is not served by people?  And that we live and move in God – and as God’s children, we are loved?

Paul does criticize the making of idols: he reminds his listeners that God isn’t made of silver or gold.  These days people don’t usually have household gods, but idolatry is still one of the most commonly practiced sins.  Today’s idols might include wealth, power, youthfulness, fame, food, sex, shopping… anything that becomes more important to us than God.

King Solomon once said: “the worship of idols… is the beginning and cause and end of every evil.” (Wisdom 14:27 edited)  In Paul’s words, idols are “a representation by the art and imagination of humanity”.  I could preach a whole sermon on just that – but for now the important concept is that idols are made up. They represent a lie.  And when people put their trust in lies, tragedy is the result.  If Paul were here today he would most likely remind us that God doesn’t need fame, or political power, or front page headlines, or a pile of money in order for God’s will to be done.

Bottom line, Paul says in verse 30: in the past God has overlooked such ignorance – overlooked our not knowing – but now God requires all people everywhere to have a change of heart, because there is a day coming in which all people will be measured by the man who walked out of the grave alive.

As soon as Paul mentions the resurrection of the dead, the philosophers in the Areopagus begin to laugh and poke fun. But some believe and want to hear more.

As for Paul himself, he’s not interested in debating for the sake of debating (which sets a very good example for those of us who hang out on Facebook).  For Paul, once he’s delivered the message, his job is done, and he’s ready to move on.  Next stop: Corinth!

But back to our love story.  We’ve been talking about an ‘unknown’ God: a God who knew us and loved us before we knew God.  Can you imagine what that’s like for God – to love us, and for us to not even know it?

You don’t see that kind of love story in movies very often. But I did see a story like it once in an old TV show.  It was a story about two soldiers – a man and a woman, Marcus and Susan. They cared about each other as comrades: they teased each other, they had each others’ backs, but their duties kept them apart most of the time, so they were friends and nothing more.  But Marcus loved Susan… and for her sake and the sake of her career he never let on.

One day in the heat of battle there was an explosion and Susan was mortally wounded. She didn’t die right away, so Marcus found her and carried her back to the medics, but there was nothing could be done.

Except this particular story takes place in the future, and in the future there’s a machine used for healing by which a healthy person can transfer health into the body of an injured person in order to heal them.  So for example, if a child scrapes their knee a parent can hook up the machine to themselves and to their child and pour healing from their own body into the child’s body.  Or if the child breaks a bone, which is a greater injury, it would require more energy from the parent, but it could still be healed.  But if the wound was fatal… using the machine would be fatal.

And for that reason the machine was made illegal. But Marcus finds one, and hooks it up, and pours his life into Susan. And just as she’s coming around, with his last breath, Marcus whispers ‘I love you’.

That’s the kind of love God has for us: a love that gives all it can give, before we even knew it was there.

The good news is that Jesus lives.

Which brings us back to the Gospel of John, where Jesus says: “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; and because I live, you also will live.”  Jesus also says “If you love me, keep my commandments” – and the first and greatest commandment is love: love of God, and love of neighbor.

So the first thing we can do with all of this is to know God’s love.  Don’t let God’s love go unknown. Read about God’s love, meditate on it, immerse ourselves in it, until our souls are convinced, by the power of the Holy Spirit, of how very much we are loved.

And second, tell others about the unknown God (who is now known) and about the unknown love that’s waiting for them.

The old hymn I quoted earlier ends with these words:

“Here might I stay and sing
of him my soul adores:
never was love, dear King,
never was grief like yours.
This is my friend in whose sweet praise,
I gladly would spend all my days.”  AMEN.

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Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) Pittsburgh, 5/21/17

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[collection of video clips summarizing the story from which the illustration was taken:]

Acts 17:22-31  22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.  23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.  24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands,  25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.  26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live,  27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us.  28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’

29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.  30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,  31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

John 14:15-21  15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.  19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.  20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.  21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

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(Jesus said:) “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”  Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.  Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.  I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” – John 14:1-13

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A week ago today I was standing in the front of Carnegie United Methodist Church taking my vows as an Anglican priest. I’m glad many of you were able to join me for the occasion. I want to say a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone who helped make the day possible, including those who volunteered to be presenters, to sing in the choir, and/or to help out with food.  We had so many compliments on the music – and on the food, especially the pierogis (I hope the pierogi team will be getting lots of repeat business!)

OrdSHP1

During the ordination ceremony, one of the questions the Bishop asked me was: “Do you believe that the Holy Scriptures contain all [that is] necessary for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ?”

The passage we’re looking at today from the Gospel of John is one of the reasons I answered ‘yes’.  It’s one of those key passages in Scripture from which we can know that faith in Jesus is the path to salvation.

In this passage John has recorded a conversation between Jesus and the disciples. This conversation takes place sometime during the last week of Jesus’ life: sometime between Palm Sunday and the Last Supper.

Jesus has just given the disciples a new commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.”  And he is building up to the promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit, who will be an advocate for the disciples and will lead them into the truth.  As Jesus puts it, the Holy Spirit will make it possible for them to be branches in the one true vine, which is himself.

So Jesus is getting the disciples ready for his departure.  He’s preparing them for a time when they won’t be able to just turn to him and say “hey Jesus – I’ve got a question for you…” because he won’t physically be there any more.  They will need to rely on the word of God in scripture, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus starts out by saying “do not let your hearts be troubled.” These words alone would be message enough for this morning. With all the conflict and pain in the world – with questionable politics, questionable news, conflict in the workplace, conflict within families, conflict within the church, with illnesses and injuries and all the things we deal with day to day – we hear, and need to hear, the voice of Jesus above it all saying “do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.”

Jesus then goes on to explain why he’s going away.  He’s not leaving us and moving on to something more important. Far from it: Jesus has us in his mind and heart every moment of every day. In fact he says he is going to prepare a place for us.

This might not make a whole lot of sense to contemporary American ears, but in ancient Israel, the disciples would have immediately understood that Jesus is talking like a bridegroom.  In that culture when two people were betrothed, the groom would go and prepare a place for his bride – build a house for them and for their future family. And when the house was ready he would come back and marry his bride and take her home. And so we hear Jesus saying to the disciples – and to us – “I will come again, and will take you to myself, so that where I am, you may be also.”

Jesus’ emphasis here is on making ready for his bride.  And it’s also clear from his words that this isn’t going to be just any old house he’s preparing.  Jesus is preparing a place for us that ‘contains many mansions’.  As the bride of Christ we are going to be marrying a king! Buckingham Palace is nothing compared to what Jesus is getting ready.

In ancient Israel though, the bride never knew exactly when the groom would arrive.  That’s why we have in Matthew the parable of the wise bridesmaids (who had lots of oil for their lamps) vs the foolish bridesmaids (who didn’t buy enough). The bride and her party had to be ready for the groom and his party whenever they got there.  And like them we are told to be ready for Jesus’ return, whenever that may happen.

But then Jesus puts a little unexpected twist on the end of the story. He says, “and you know the way to the place where I am going.”  Normally the bridegroom would come back to the bride’s house to get her… but here the metaphor shifts a little, and the disciples are confused.  So Thomas asks: “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way?”

In answering the question, Jesus says three things about himself that his followers need to know – both then and now.  He says “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

The first thing that strikes me about these words is that Jesus is restoring what was lost in the Garden of Eden – specifically, life, truth, and a sense of purpose or direction.  Remember in the story of Adam and Eve, God said, ‘you may eat the fruit of any tree in the garden except that one tree, and if you eat from it you will die’.  When they ate the fruit from that tree, Adam and Eve didn’t die immediately but death entered into the world.  And they lost the truth (and began pointing fingers of blame at each other). And to some extent they lost their sense of purpose to tend the earth and keep it. To this day the human race has a lousy track record at taking care of the planet, which is the job we were given to do.  But Jesus comes to restore what they lost: he is the way, he is the truth, and he is the life – and he brings the promise of a new creation.

The second thing that strikes me is – these words leave no doubt about Jesus being the Messiah. Jesus later says to Philip, “How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” Jesus’ claim to be in the Father, and to be the way, truth and life, brings to mind C.S. Lewis’ famous saying:

“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. […] Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. […] I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”

So what is Jesus saying when he says he is ‘the way the truth and the life’?  I want to take a look at each statement for a moment.

  1. I am the Way. Not “a way”, not “one possible way”, not “one of many options”. He is THE way.  In the Greek, the way is both the path and the vehicle. In other words, both the road and the car we’re riding in.  We as Christians are in Jesus just as Jesus is in the Father – which is what Jesus prayed would happen in his priestly prayer in John chapter 17.Being in Jesus, we are guided by him, by his Spirit. This is not like being in touch with some impersonal ‘Force’ like in Star Wars. We do not turn the course of events by becoming spiritual Jedi knights.  But we are in union with a personal God, in a relationship that looks more like a marriage.  It’s like as we get to know each other we begin to finish each other’s sentences. We know what pleases the other and what doesn’t. We are in him and he is in us.

    So whenever we find ourselves wondering where we’re going, or where life is taking us, or why we seem to be stuck where we are, Jesus not only knows the way but IS the way.  If we’re walking with Him we’re on the right path, no matter what we see around us. And for those of us who feel like we’re wandering right now, take comfort in the words of Psalm 91 (edited):

“You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
2 will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence…;
and under his wings you will find refuge…
5 You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day…
7 A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you. …
9 Because you have made the LORD your refuge…”

  1. I am the Truth. At Jesus’ trial before Pilate, at one point Jesus says to Pilate, “everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” And Pilate answers, “what is truth?” And people today are still asking the same question. How do we define ‘truth’ in a world where what’s considered true today will be different tomorrow?

God’s truth is not “a truth”, or “my personal truth” or “one of many possible truths”.  Jesus IS truth. When we look at Jesus we are seeing Truth personified.

But when we look at Jesus we are also seeing Love.  We mere mortals tend to shy away from 100% pure truth because truth seems to us like a sharp blade, like a two-edged sword, something that cuts rather than heals.  Compassion is more highly valued in our society.  But in Jesus there is no conflict between truth and compassion. In Jesus the two come together and are one.  Love is the ultimate truth – not romantic love, not the kind of love that gets stirred up by hormones, but love which completely and unselfishly seeks the good of another no matter the cost: the love that moved Jesus to volunteer for death on the cross in order to save our lives.  This is truth – the truth that is love.

  1. I am the Life. Not “a lifestyle”, not “a living”, not “giving birth to life” or even “preserving life” – Jesus IS Life.  This includes physical life, spiritual life, freedom from death, and freedom from that which kills.  In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul writes: “”Death has been swallowed up in victory.”  “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Cor 15:54-57)Jesus is the source and the destination of all that lives. And until we know Jesus we are at best only half-alive.

So why does the world need a way, truth, and life? Because people are confused, uncertain, wondering where to turn, wondering what to do; baffled by conflicting opinions and rumors.  And too many die before they figure out how to live.

In one of my favorite TV shows that nobody’s ever heard of, called Babylon 5, there’s a scene where the hero’s life hangs in the balance.  He has been brave, he has done all he could do for the sake of what’s right, and now he’s badly injured. It would be easy for him to just close his eyes and enter into the peace of death. In that moment his mentor speaks to him and says, “It’s easy to find something worth dying for. Do you have anything worth living for?”

And of course our hero finds the answer is ‘yes’, he does have something worth living for, and he survives. Interestingly enough what he chooses to live for boils down to faith and love. (Not bad writing for TV!)

The point of Jesus’ words is the same: to believe and to love.  The Christian faith is not fluff. It is not a blind ‘leap’. Our faith is faith in a person.

Even the best and brightest among us, like Philip, can sometimes have difficulty understanding Jesus’ point. But Jesus knows that and is able to get us back on track.

So our take-home for today I think is two things: (1) “Let not your hearts be troubled.”  We believe in God, and we trust Jesus as well.  And (2) give thanks to Jesus for being our way, our truth and our life – and give thanks to God for such saviour. AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 5/14/17

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Scripture reading: the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35)

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia for the grocery shoppers in the congregation.  (Those of you who like yogurt may already know this.)

A few years back, not too long ago, the Dannon company came out with a new brand of yogurt.  They used a Greek method for making the yogurt, and they wanted to emphasize the Greek tradition, so they gave it a Greek name. They called it Oikos.

This yogurt came out while I was in seminary studying Greek.  And it puzzled me why anyone would name their yogurt ‘house’ — which is what oikos means.  When you buy yogurt you’re not buying a house. I’ve heard of ‘house wines’ but I’ve never heard of a ‘house yogurt’.  Is that a thing?

The word ‘oikos’ does have a secondary meaning of household, so maybe what they’re suggesting is this yogurt is ‘right for your household’.  But I don’t know. And Google didn’t have any answers.

So what does all this have to do with our scripture reading for today?

I always like to glance over our weekly scriptures in the original Greek just to see if anything odd jumps out. And this week something did. I found the word oikos in the story of the road to Emmaus – which is definitely odd considering there is no house in the story. In fact the disciples, as they’re traveling, are about as far away from a house as they can get.  So this caught my attention.

The word appears in verse 18, which reads:

“Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered Jesus, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?””

The word oikos in this sentence is combined with the prefix ‘para’ – the word we get parallel from – so the word is para-oikos. It literally means ‘to dwell alongside’ – but the implication is that the home isn’t permanent. The word describes a person who doesn’t belong in the neighborhood.  In the 21st century we might call this person a migrant.  But in verse 18 the word is translated ‘stranger’.

Para-oikos is what the disciples call Jesus. And there’s a deep irony in calling a friend, who also happens to be the savior of the world, a ‘stranger’.

But there’s also some truth in it, because as Jesus says, his kingdom is not of this world.  The apostle John says in his gospel, “[The Messiah] was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” (John 1:10)

Even as mere human beings we sometimes find ourselves feeling like strangers in a strange land.  And when we do, I think it shows we were meant for something else, something greater than just this world. We were made for the kingdom of God.

This feeling of being a stranger in a strange land is part of what the disciples are wrestling with as they walk to Emmaus. Exactly a week before this story takes place, Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem with the crowds shouting “Hosanna!” and waving palm branches.  They thought the Messiah had finally come. Then that same week the religious leaders arrested Jesus and crucified him. And the disciples were shattered.

Cleopas and his traveling companion decided to get away from Jerusalem for a while and walk to Emmaus. And just before they left some of the women visited Jesus’ tomb and came back to the disciples saying “he’s alive!” – but that couldn’t be, could it? I mean, dead is dead, right?

These two men have had their entire sense of reality shaken. No wonder they feel like strangers in a strange land. No wonder they’re talking things out, over and over, calling to mind everything they can remember of the past few weeks, trying to make some sense of it, trying to rebuild some foundation to their worlds.

And while they’re talking, Jesus walks up and joins them, but they don’t recognize him.  Luke’s choice of words here implies something supernatural. It’s not that the disciples are so upset they can’t see straight. The words imply they were temporarily prevented from knowing Jesus.  Luke says their eyes didn’t recognize him.  But something in their hearts did.  Later on the disciples say to each other, “did not our hearts burn within us as he was speaking?” So there was something familiar about this stranger.

So Jesus asks them what they’re talking about, and they repeat the story of the crucifixion, and they describe Jesus (to Jesus) as “a prophet mighty in deed and word” who they “had hoped would be the one to redeem Israel”.  His disciples expected the Messiah would save the nation – that he would take charge politically or socially.

It’s interesting that even today people make the mistake of either seeing Jesus as ‘a great prophet’ or as someone who will ‘save the nation’.  These thoughts are, at best, half-truths.  Then, as now, people tend to miss one of two things: either (1) that the Messiah must pass through suffering before he comes to glory, or (2) people grasp Jesus’ suffering, his ability to relate to our pain and walk with us through our trials, but they miss the Messiah’s glory: his awesome power and his kingdom.

It’s not easy to hold in our minds and hearts both the Messiah as Suffering Servant and the Messiah as Glorious King.  But if it makes us feel any better, even the disciples – who knew Jesus personally – didn’t know it perfectly either. Knowledge is a good thing, and studying the scriptures is a very good thing; but our salvation doesn’t depend on us knowing all the answers, thank God. What matters is being teachable when Jesus gives us fresh insights – as he did for these disciples on the road to Emmaus.

So as they were walking along, Jesus gave the disciples a crash course on what the Old Testament teaches about the Messiah. Luke says “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them all the things about himself in the scriptures.” (And for the past 2000 years Bible scholars have wished we had a recording of that conversation!)

But we can make an educated guess as to some of the things Jesus might have said.  He might have pointed to the promise made to Eve that one of her offspring would crush the serpent’s head.  He might have pointed out that Noah suffered a flood before he was brought to new life.  He would have mentioned the first Passover, when the people of Israel put the blood of a spotless lamb over their doors to protect them from death… and he would have connected that to the crucifixion of the Lamb of God which also happened on Passover.

He probably quoted Isaiah 53, which says: “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity.” And, “by a perversion of justice he was taken away. […] he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:8-9 edited)

Jesus would have mentioned King David, who delivered Israel from the Philistines. He would have quoted David’s words from Psalm 22:  “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads [and saying] “He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.”” (Psalm 22:7-8) – which were the exact words thrown at Jesus by the scribes and the priests as he was hanging on the cross. David wrote those words 1000 years before it happened.

For the disciples, who were expecting a Messiah who would become king without having suffered, these words would have opened a whole new understanding of reality and of God’s purposes.

And for disciples who may understand the Suffering Servant, but who need to be reminded of the Glorious King, the Old Testament speaks to this as well. Psalm 89 says in part: “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to my servant David: ‘I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.’

And Isaiah says: “Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers, “Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” (Is 49:7)

The Old Testament also predicts glory will to come to God’s people when the Holy Spirit comes.  In the prophet Joel, for example, God says: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” (Joel 2:28)

This theme of the Messiah bringing glory to God’s people is carried forward into the New Testament. The apostle John (for example) writes in his first letter, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. […] what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (I John 3:1-2, edited)

One of our readings for last Sunday – I Peter chapter 1 – is a passage we hardly ever get to hear because there are so many other great scripture lessons that come around Easter-time, but the passage is very relevant to what we’re talking about.  Peter is writing to a church that is suffering persecution, he says:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.” (I Peter 1:3-4)

Peter goes on to say, “even if now for a little while you have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold… tested by fire… may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (I Peter 1:6-7 edited) And the glory Peter is talking about in this passage is glory for us. Faith in Jesus, in the suffering and glorified Messiah, by God’s great mercy, results in praise and glory and honor for us in God’s kingdom.

It’s like Peter is saying that we who are strangers in this world – we who are para-oikos – are being welcomed into God’s house, into God’s oikos. Jesus said “in my Father’s oikos are many mansions, and I go to prepare a place for you.”

So for those of us, and for all people, who sometimes feel like para-oikos, strangers in a strange land: the message of Easter, and the joy of Easter, is that we have an oikos with Jesus… a home where the streets are paved with gold, and the gates are made of gemstones, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

All of this is ours by the power of Jesus’ resurrection.

Easter… continues.

Amen.

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Scripture reading:

“Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem,  14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.  15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,  16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.  17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad.  18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”  19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,  20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.  21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place.  22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning,  23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.  24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”  25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”  27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on.  29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them.  30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.  32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”  33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.  34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”  35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”  (Luke 24:13-35)

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Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 4/30/17

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From a sermon I heard at the local Ukrainian Orthodox Church earlier today.  This isn’t quite verbatim but it’s how my big-picture brain summed up the details of what the good padre was saying:

“Just as Eve was taken from Adam’s side to be his bride, the church was taken from Jesus’ side to be his bride.”

In the Genesis story, God causes a deep sleep to come over Adam, and takes a rib from his side and forms a wife for him. “This indeed is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh,” Adam remarks later.

In the Passion story, Jesus enters into the sleep of death, and while he is asleep a spear is thrust into his side to be sure he is dead. His sacrifice, and victory over death, makes possible the body of believers — “the bride of Christ” — who witness his resurrection three days later (and continue to witness to his resurrection).

One day Jesus will look at us and say “this indeed is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” and he will delight in us just as Adam and Eve delighted in each other.

If you’ve ever doubted that Jesus loves you…… doubt no longer.

 

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