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“One of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray…”

Lord’s Prayer in English



Twenty-eight years ago, a woman from Washington DC caused an international scandal when she greeted Queen Elizabeth of England (who was visiting the U.S. at the time) with a hug. Some of you may remember this: the Queen was visiting a new U.S. government project with then-first-lady Barbara Bush. The story, as it was reported in the London Telegraph, read: “Mrs. Alice Frazier, 67, threw protocol to the breeze and greeted the Queen with a rib-crunching bear hug.” And the Brits were not happy about this: not at all.

Generally speaking, we Americans aren’t used to meeting royalty.  We don’t know what the proper protocol is. (The Brits do not accept lack of experience as an excuse.) So just in case any of us should ever meet the Queen, here are a few of the things you need to know – and this is the Readers Digest Condensed version:

One should address the Queen as “Your Majesty” and then “Ma’am” after that. When you’re introduced, either bow or curtsy. Never touch Her Majesty, and only shake hands if she offers. Do not speak until spoken to; do not sit until the Queen sits; if there’s food present, do not eat until the Queen takes a bite.

As Americans, this kind of thinking is truly foreign to us. Which makes us fairly unique in the course of human history. In most countries, in most times and places, there were rules for meeting Kings, Tsars, Emperors, Pharaohs, and so on.

So what the disciples are asking Jesus in our gospel reading for today is: what are the rules when you’re talking to the King of the Universe? If we observe protocol when we meet governors and Caesars – what do we do when we meet with God?

What a great question!

The answer Jesus gives them is what we know today as The Lord’s Prayer. And I’d like to look at this prayer fresh, in its royal context. Because in our time – particularly here in the States, but to some degree around the world – the Lord’s Prayer has become cheapened.  At best, it’s something we say in church on Sunday; at worst, in popular culture, it’s like a cross between a good luck charm and a magic spell.

Lord’s Prayer in Spanish

Here’s what I mean by that: The Lord’s Prayer is one of the few passages of Scripture people outside the church know, mostly from TV and movies. A few years ago a pastor made a study of how the Lord’s Prayer is used in movies. He found, in the vast majority of cases, in movies like Shane, The Deer Hunter, or Master & Commander, the Lord’s Prayer is portrayed being read at funerals – at the gravesite, as someone is being buried.  The second most common use of the Lord’s Prayer is in horror films like The Omen, where the Prayer is used as protection against satanic forces.

So for people who don’t attend church, who never hear the Lord’s Prayer in any context other than movies, the Lord’s Prayer is associated mostly with either death, or the occult and demonic possession.

How far is this from God’s Royal Courts! This prayer, which ushers us into the presence of the King of All Creation, brings life (not death) and light (not darkness).

So let’s step now into Luke’s gospel, and into God’s royal courts.

Luke doesn’t say what time of day this event takes place, but Jesus often prayed outdoors, on a mountain-side, either late at night or early in the morning. Luke says the disciples approached Jesus while he was praying. As Jesus says “Amen” the disciples step up and say, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

Before I get to Jesus’ answer, I should mention there are two versions of the Lord’s Prayer in the New Testament. The version we pray every Sunday is found in Matthew’s gospel; it’s part of the Sermon on the Mount. The version here in Luke is shortened. It covers much of the same ground and it may have been a summary of the Sermon on the Mount version.

Lord’s Prayer in Russian

I should also mention the Lord’s Prayer is not just a prayer to be repeated from memory (although that’s one way to pray it). It can also be a starting point for our own personal prayers. We are welcome – and indeed invited – to respectfully weave our own thoughts and requests into the fabric of this prayer.

So having said this, let’s look at Jesus’ answer.

Jesus said to his disciples: “Whenever you pray, say, ‘Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.’”

All of eternity is summed up in these two sentences! And did you catch the royal protocol? Instead of ‘Your Majesty’ the title is ‘Father’.

Let that sink in for a moment: the one to whom we pray – the King of Creation – is ‘Father’.  This is not a parable; it’s not a fable, or a myth, or an allegory. We are God’s children because, as believers in Jesus, God’s Holy Spirit can be found in us. And even if we’re not believers yet, we are still created by God, made in God’s image, and in that sense we are all God’s children.

The apostle Paul says in Romans 8:14, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”  And Paul also says to the Greeks in Acts 17:28, “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.’”

The opening of the Lord’s Prayer is also very similar to the opening of many Jewish prayers, which start with the words “Blessed art Thou, O LORD our God, King of the universe…”  Over the past few years I have grown to appreciate these words, because they put God where God belongs and put us where we belong: God, our Father, King of the universe, and we His children. In this confidence, we can pray in faith.

The first request made of God in this prayer is: hallowed be your name.  Another way to translate this might be “may your name be reverenced”.  Rowan Williams, retired Archbishop of Canterbury, says here we are asking God “that [all people] will look upon God’s name as holy, as something that inspires awe… and that they may not trivialize it by making God a tool for their purposes… when you’re talking about God (he says)… this is the most wonderful and frightening reality we can imagine.”

The second request follows quickly on the first: your kingdom come.  In Greek the word translated from basileia means both kingdom and kingship. There is no distinction in Greek between realm and ruler. “Your kingdom/kingship come.” For thousands of years, Planet Earth has been in rebellion against its creator, against its king. “Your kingdom come” is a request that the world be set right – which will happen when God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done on Earth as it is in the rest of creation.

Lord’s Prayer in Greek

The third request in the prayer is that God would give us our daily bread.  This request may seem strange to us, because if we want bread we just run down to Giant Eagle. But for those of us who had parents or grandparents who lived through the Depression, we know better than to take this for granted. While I don’t remember the Depression myself, I was in Russia during the days of Perestroika, back in 1990, and I remember the grocery stores with empty shelves; and what little was in the stores was so expensive people couldn’t afford it. People were so desperate, the Russian ‘black market’ sold food, not drugs or guns.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not wishing for a return of hard times. I’m just saying life holds no guarantees; and for the vast majority of human history, for most people, daily bread was something to pray for and struggle for; it was not (and is not) a given.

There’s another meaning for ‘daily bread’ too, an Old Testament meaning. In the Jewish faith, the central event of their history is the Exodus – the people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. During their time in the wilderness, traveling between Egypt and the Promised Land, the Israelites ate manna. You may remember this: bread from heaven that appeared on the ground every morning, and had to be gathered and eaten the same day because if you kept it overnight it would go bad. And of course some of the Israelites didn’t listen to God when God said this, and they tried keeping it overnight, and when they got up the next morning they found maggots in the manna. God provided what was needed for each day, day by day, for forty years in the wilderness.

When we pray for our daily bread, we are praying for manna. We are praying for what we need for the day – nothing more, and nothing less. Manna makes God part of our lives on a daily basis. Manna teaches us that God will do what God has promised to do. And so we pray: Lord, provide what you know we need for this day.

The fourth request in the prayer is that God would forgive our sins. And this is needed because God is perfect and we’re not. God never makes mistakes, but we do. God has given us the law – the Ten Commandments – but we can’t keep them perfectly. And so we ask God’s forgiveness.

This request is similar to the request for manna: just like we need bread every day, we also need forgiveness every day.  And the apostle Paul assures us in our reading from Colossians that “when we were dead in trespasses… God made us alive together with Christ… erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Col 2:13-14 edited)

But this fourth request doesn’t stop there. It continues: “forgive our sins, for we ourselves forgive all who are indebted to us.”  This is a tough request! And it’s easy to get discouraged by it, or to misunderstand it.  This request is not God shaking his finger at us and saying ‘you better forgive if you want to be forgiven.’

Rather, I think the best explanation I’ve heard is this: our hands need to be open in order to receive God’s forgiveness.  But if we’re holding on to something someone else has done, our hands aren’t open to receive.

And I’d like to add one more thought to that: In this part of the prayer, we are practicing being like God. God forgives; and as God’s children we need to learn to forgive.  It’s kind of like trying on our parents’ shoes – did you ever do that when you were a kid? I can remember being around four years old and slipping into my mother’s high heels, and wondering how on earth anybody stayed upright with these things on.

In much the same way, spiritually speaking, we slip our feet into God’s shoes and attempt to forgive using God as our example: not because we can, but because we’ll grow into it someday. The danger is in getting discouraged and giving up. Someday we will be like our heavenly Father, and meanwhile we can trust in God’s forgiveness.

The fifth and final request is do not bring us to the time of trial.  This is another easily misunderstood verse.  God does not deliberately bring hardships or trials into our lives. God does not wish anything bad on us. God does allow times of testing – as Jesus experienced when he was tempted in the wilderness. So what this prayer means, basically, is “Lord, keep us so close to you that when tough times come, we won’t be tempted to rebel against you.”

There are a couple of things I want to mention about the Lord’s prayer in general:

(1) In this prayer all the pronouns are plural.  Give us each day… forgive us our sins.  This is a prayer that’s meant to be prayed with others.  Of course it’s OK to pray it alone as well, and to make the prayer our own. But the big picture in Luke is one of praying together with one’s own tribe. This prayer… this is us.

(2) Building on that thought, in the words of Fuller Seminary professor Clayton Schmit, “there is a sense of solidarity in knowing that Christians around the world are praying together.”  This prayer unites us with Christian believers in every nation, and in every time. This truly is us.

Lord’s Prayer in French

The rest of the passage in Luke focuses on God’s relationship with us as God’s children. Jesus says: if our neighbor wakes us up and asks to borrow something at midnight, we as imperfect people might grumble about it but we’ll get up and get it. How much more will our Heavenly Father help us when we ask?  Or if our children ask us for food, who would ever give them something poisonous to eat? How much more will God give us good things when we ask?

So, having been invited to enter God’s royal court, we as God’s children now have the proper protocol to accept the invitation: the Lord’s Prayer.  I’d like to challenge each of us to pray this prayer every day for the next 30 days – either here or at home. As we pray we can add our own thoughts and petitions: things we’re thankful for, people to forgive, reasons we praise God. Make this prayer our prayer, for 30 days… and let’s see where God leads us. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 7/28/19


Scripture Readings for Today:

Colossians 2:6-19  6 As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him,  7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

8  See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.  9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,  10 and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.  11 In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ;  12 when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.  13 And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses,  14 erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.  15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

16 Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths.  17 These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.  18 Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking,  19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.


Luke 11:1-13  He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”

2 He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.  3 Give us each day our daily bread.  4 And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread;  6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’  7 And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’  8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.  9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.  11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?  12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?  13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”


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Our Partnership churches have been going through a lot of very rapid changes in the past month or so, and I have been touched by the care you have shown for each other and for your pastors – both incoming and outgoing – during this challenging time.  And if I have seemed at all detached or unemotional, rest assured I’m not.  I’m not an outwardly emotional person, but my prayers and my heart are with you.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about something Pastor Matt said to me a few weeks ago. When it became clear the Partnership’s new leadership team would include two ordained pastors rather than one, he said to me, “we need to make plans for your last Sunday.” And I said to him, seeing as I’m facing into chemo treatments, I have no idea what my future holds, but I hoped that Pastor Dylan would keep me on the “call” list for vacations and conferences and things like that, as my health allows.  Whatever happens, I’m sure today isn’t ‘goodbye’ so much as ‘till we meet again’. (In fact I will be here next Sunday!)

But Matt’s question got me thinking: If this were my last Sunday preaching for you, what would I say? What would I want my last words to you to be?

The first thing I would want to say is a deep ‘thank you’ for all your kindness and generosity and friendship and support, both recently and over the past five years.  I have learned more from you than I can put into words. It’s been a privilege to get to know your families and to be a part of your celebrations and your sorrows. And so I thank you. And close on the heels of that, I want to say “please keep me on the email list” so I can continue to pray for you.

Having said this, what thoughts from God’s word would I want to leave you with?  After some consideration, I think I would want to say three things: (1) Love God with all you’ve got, (2) love each other, and (3) keep your eyes on the prize.

Today’s scripture reading speaks to the third point, keeping eyes on the prize, so let me touch on the first two first.

  1. Love God with all you’ve got. This is THE number one thing in life, above all else.  God: the creator of all that is, the Father who calls us His children, the One whose love inspires all genuine love.  In the Ten Commandments, loving God is Commandment Number One; it’s the foundation for the other nine. It’s the “Greatest Commandment” as Jesus called it: “love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.”

    Loving God can be easy and it can be difficult.  It’s easy to love God when you see a sunset or when you hold a newborn baby. All of nature speaks to us about the heart and mind and wisdom of God. But loving God can also be difficult because we can’t see God and we can’t touch God. When we go through tough times we wish we could, but we have to depend on imperfect people, with the Holy Spirit in them, to be the reflection of God we can see and touch. Which leads to the second thing:

  2. Love Each Other. Jesus said: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”This may be easier said than done sometimes, because people aren’t always easy to get along with.  It may help to call to mind that each one of us is made in God’s image. As our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters would say, we are “icons” of God. We are likenesses. The likeness may become dulled or distorted by evil in the world, but the image is still there. And as we open ourselves to God’s love, we have love to share with others. So as the apostle Peter says in his first letter: “love one another deeply from the heart.” (I Peter 1:22)
  3. Keep Your Eyes on the Prize. Which of course begs the question “what’s the prize?”  Ultimately the prize is God Himself, Jesus Himself – being with God forever.  But while we’re here on earth, we talk about the prize as the Kingdom of God.  Jesus said: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all other things will be added to you.” (Matt. 6:33) The apostle Paul wrote: “…this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14)

Bible scholar N.T. Wright teaches the ‘kingdom of heaven’ is not a place; rather the ‘kingdom of heaven’ has to do with the fact that God is King. God reigns over all. Jesus teaches us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  The kingdom of God is about the rule of heaven here on earth.

So God is King! But not everybody in the world is on board with that.  I’m reminded of a scene from the old classic movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where King Arthur rides up to a peasant and declares “I am your king!” and the peasant says “King? I didn’t vote for you!”


The irony of course is that Arthur’s kingdom is not a democracy – and neither is God’s kingdom. When we seek God’s Kingdom, we are seeking God’s ultimate truth, God’s ultimate reality, God’s ultimate goodness.

Our job here on earth, as believers, is to work for God’s kingdom. Jesus says it’s like investing. You remember the story of the parable of the talents: one servant took a talent and made ten more – and he is praised for his work. Another servant takes a talent and makes five more – and he is praised for his work. It’s not the amount of money they make that’s important – it’s the investing. The servant who makes no profit is condemned, not because he didn’t make money, but because he didn’t invest what God had given him for the sake of God’s kingdom.

So how does one go about investing in God’s kingdom?  The answer, I think, is as varied as there are individuals and churches.  But Paul tells us in I Cor 13 that there are only three things in this world that last forever: faith, hope, and love: and the greatest is love. So if you want to make an investment in eternity, if you want to ‘lay up treasure’ in the Kingdom of God, faith, hope, and love are the coins of the realm!

Our reading in Luke for today shows Jesus leading the disciples in making these kind of investments.  In this passage we see the disciples going out to proclaim God’s kingdom; and as they go, we can watch and learn.

I was able to find eight ideas in this passage – which is a lot; I usually try to focus on three or four. So take what you can use and leave the rest.

Luke starts out by saying, “the Lord appointed seventy others”.  By ‘others’ he means ‘not the twelve disciples’.  There had been a previous mission that involved just the twelve. This second mission involves many more. It was not limited to the ‘leadership team’ so to speak. It included people from all walks of life who were disciples of Jesus and who had been following him and learning from him.

The important point here is that Jesus chose who went and who didn’t.  All followers of Jesus are called to ministry of some kind, at some point in time; but not all people are called to all ministries.  For each mission, for each outreach effort, God chooses who goes and who stays. There is honor in going, and there is honor in staying, and welcoming home those who have gone out.

Second, Luke says Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs: so we see 35 ministry teams of two people each.  While there are exceptions to the rule, generally speaking God does not call people to minister alone. We are created and called to work together as teams.  So when we have ideas for new ministries or expanded ministries, pray that Jesus makes known what teams he has in mind.

Third, Jesus coordinates the efforts of many into a unified whole.  God knows the big picture, and God knows where He wants each disciple in that picture.  In Luke, the disciples were setting the stage for Jesus: they were sort of on a reconnaissance mission, and Jesus was planning a follow-up after they came back.

To use another analogy, the disciples are preparing the earth for the seeds Jesus is going to sow.  The apostle Paul describes it this way when he talks about working with other disciples. Paul says: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. […] The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose…” (I Cor 3:6-8, edited). Jesus coordinates all these efforts into one whole.

What this means for us in practical terms is none of us has to be an expert in everything. And what a relief that is!  One person might be good at ministering to the hurting… another person might be good at feeding the hungry… another person might be good at educating children. Whatever gifts God gives us, we bring them together for the common good.

This is one of the reasons why church is so necessary. I hear people say “I can worship God just as well on the golf course” – but they’re missing the point of church. We need each other; we’re meant to work together; we build on each other’s work; and God blesses this sharing, and God gives the growth.

Fourth, Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” The disciples – as they go – become part of the answer to their own prayer. They pray for laborers and they become the laborers. But more are needed. And we’re not talking just about more church members. We need more people who are gifted in outreach, in evangelism, in teaching and preaching, in meeting human needs.


I was having a Facebook conversation just this past week about meeting the needs of the homeless.  I have deep sympathy for the thousands of people who are fleeing for their lives, and coming to our country homeless and hungry and in need. And a friend of mine wrote back to me and said we have homeless veterans right here in Pittsburgh who need our help. And she’s right. Both groups of people are in desperate need. Where it comes to meeting the needs of the homeless – wherever they may be, and for whatever reason they may have become homeless – there just aren’t enough people to help out. We have the resources, but we don’t have the manpower.  Pray God will send “laborers into the harvest” – reaching out to people who haven’t yet heard the Good News, people who don’t yet know God loves them. We can show them God’s love, but the laborers are few; ask God for more laborers.

Fifth, we need to do God’s work God’s way. In this passage from Luke, Jesus gives very specific instructions to the disciples on how to go about their mission. He says, for example: “When you enter a house, say ‘peace be to this house!’” And he says, “Remain in the same house… and eat what is set before you…”.  Jesus’ instructions may vary from mission to mission, but the disciples, as they minister, allow God to provide through whoever God inspires. The disciples are not to house-hop, they’re told to offer peace to those they visit, and receive with gratitude whatever is offered. They need to do God’s work God’s way.

Sixth, Jesus is realistic about how the world will respond. He says, “I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.”  When we become citizens of God’s Kingdom, we begin to think and act like citizens of God’s Kingdom.  And when that happens, people notice. And it can make us targets for people who don’t like God.

When we tell people about Jesus, and share the good news of God’s kingdom, there will be people who doubt, or who make fun, or who try to sabotage our efforts. Jesus isn’t saying these things to make us afraid; he’s just being realistic, and reminding us we need to look to God for guidance and protection.

Seventh, Jesus tells the disciples to trust God for what they need.  Jesus says, “Carry no purse, no money bag, no sandals, and no extra clothes…” Going out to do God’s work empty-handed is a challenging thought. Bringing this into today’s world… can you imagine, for example, walking from here to Cleveland with no money and no extra clothes, preaching as you go, praying for the sick, and depending on strangers to feed you and put you up for the night?  (And how would people react to that kind of ministry?)

Mind you I’m not recommending we do this!  But I’ve heard it said that going out to do ministry with nothing in our hands – that is, going out in a position of need – is actually more attractive to people outside the kingdom because we’re not reaching down to them from a position of privilege. It’s less threatening, more approachable, and more authentically like Jesus – because that’s what Jesus did in reaching out to us. I’m still giving thought to what that might look like in the 21st century and I welcome your thoughts on it.

In the meantime it’s challenging to think about, this going out empty-handed. And I have to agree with the seminary student who said the toughest part of Jesus’ instructions is the part about “eating whatever is put in front of you” – because I’m a picky eater. Jesus would have us think of it as an adventure; and Jesus would have us learn the grace of receiving and being served as well as the grace of giving and serving.

I should also note Jesus doesn’t always say the same thing to the disciples every time he sends them out. One time Jesus says ‘take nothing with you’; another time he says ‘take an extra cloak, and a sword if you have one.’  The instructions are not always the same; but whatever we do, we need to depend on God and trust God for provision.

Finally, we need to know our message and our authority are God-given.  Jesus says “whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” We don’t speak on our own authority. We don’t do outreach on our own authority. The kingdom is God’s, and the message is God’s. Knowing this takes the pressure off us, because the results aren’t up to us. And yet, as Jesus says, when God’s power begins to move through us, we can “rejoice that our names are written in heaven.”

So if I had to say ‘goodbye’ today, this is what I would say. Love God, love each other, and keep your eyes on the prize. Keep your focus on the Kingdom of Heaven, and don’t let anything distract you. Do this, and we will never need to say goodbye because we’ll all be heading in the same direction. AMEN.


Scripture Reading

Luke 10:1-20  After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.  2 He said to them, ”   3 Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.  4 Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.  5 Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’  6 And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.  7 Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house.  8 Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you;  9 cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’  10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say,  11 ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’  […]

16 “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”

17 The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!”  18 He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.  19 See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.  20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”


Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 7/21/19; variation at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 7/7/19.


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Today we have two scripture readings from the New Testament that are pretty much unrelated in context. Our passage from Colossians is the introduction to Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae, and our passage from Luke contains one of Jesus’ best-known parables. But in the details of each passage we can find common ground, because both of them talk about what it means to be a neighbor.

All of us live in neighborhoods of one kind or another. We may live on a residential street, in an apartment building, in a retirement community. Here in Pittsburgh the sense of neighborhood is important; the phrase “won’t you be my neighbor” resonates for a reason. When I first moved here I was amazed at how my new friends from Pittsburgh couldn’t walk from one end of downtown to the other without running into somebody they knew. Or how, if I got lost, most Pittsburghers wouldn’t just give directions, they’d take you there: “Follow me!”  For a native Philadelphian like myself this felt risky… but here in Pittsburgh even strangers become neighbors very quickly. We’re in this together, and that’s how things are.

The Christian concept of ‘neighbor’ includes all that and more.  Both of our scripture readings for today define ‘being a neighbor’ in ways that take our breath away, even in a city that prides itself on neighborhood.

I’d like to start with Colossians. Paul’s letter to the Colossians gives us a picture of what the church was like back when Christian churches were first starting. Most churches back then didn’t own their own buildings; they met in people’s homes, or outdoors, or in public buildings that weren’t in use at worship time.  The Christian church was a new kind of community; in fact it was a new kind of family, defined not by blood relations but by each person’s relationship with God.

It has become cliché in our culture to say “if God is our Father, we are all God’s children, and that makes us all brothers and sisters.” There’s truth in that, but what Paul describes in his letter is deeper and more costly.

Paul leads off by saying: “When we pray for you we always thank God for you” (v 3) “because we have heard about your faith in Jesus, and your love for the saints, and the hope that is laid up for you in heaven.” (v 4-5a)

Did you hear the echo of I Corinthians 13 in there? In I Corinthians 13, Paul says there are only three things in this world that will last forever: faith, hope, and love: and the greatest is love. If you want to make an investment in eternity, if you want to ‘lay up treasure’ in the Kingdom of God – faith, hope, and love are the coins of the realm! And Paul thanks God for the reports he’s hearing about the Colossian church being rich in faith, hope, and love.

As Paul continues to teach the Colossians what it means to live as Christian neighbors, he brings together faith, hope, and love in such a way that we can see God’s grace and God’s salvation at work as it is being lived. Books upon books have been written on how salvation happens: how it is that people come to be “saved”. Paul’s description here sounds like something John Wesley might have written, with his three kinds of grace: Paul says, “we have heard of your faith” (justifying grace) – “and of the love you have for all the saints” (sanctifying grace) – “because of the hope laid up for you in heaven” (prevenient grace).  All three coming together and enabling human beings to inherit the Kingdom of God by the grace of God.

This is what defines the Christian concept of ‘neighbor’ because it creates the foundation on which we become members of God’s family and live as members of God’s family. With the grace of God in play, Paul writes to people he’s never met and calls them “brothers” and “sisters”, “fellow servants of the Lord” and “saints” who have been “rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son.” This definition of Christian community still applies today.

It’s important to see God’s hand in bringing all this together: God rescues people from the power of darkness through Jesus. God calls us to be servants, working together for the Kingdom. God inspires and directs our faith, and our hope, and our love. God bears fruit in us.

Paul’s prayer is that God will grow this neighborhood of faith, so that fruit will abound, and so that each person will grow in the knowledge of God’s will; and in spiritual wisdom and understanding; and in good works. So the learning we do here in church is meant to move us from being hearers of God’s word to doers of God’s word. Our outreach to the community is meant to invite more people out of the darkness and into God’s neighborhood where all is light.

So that’s Paul. Our reading from Luke approaches the concept of being a neighbor from a different direction but it still points us to the Kingdom.  In this passage the question becomes: how can we take the concept of neighbor and apply it to everyday life?

I’ll need to back up and lead into this story to set the scene.  Immediately before this passage, Jesus had sent out seventy of the disciples to preach and to heal and to prepare the way for Jesus’ ministry. The mission was successful: and the disciples come back excited, bouncing off the walls with joy. They say to Jesus: “Lord in your name even the demons submit to us!” And Jesus joins in the celebration and says “I saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning!” And then He goes on to say, “but don’t rejoice that the powers submit to you; rather rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”  And Jesus tells them that many kings and prophets longed to see what they have seen, and never did.

As they are all together, the family of God, neighbors to one another, filled with joy at what God has done… along comes a lawyer. And he throws cold water on their joy. (Keep in mind a ‘lawyer’ in those days was someone who specialized in the Law of Moses: Deuteronomy and Leviticus.  We’re talking about God’s law, not Roman law.)

And this lawyer has a lot of cold water to throw! I see four ways he did this:

  1. He ignores the mood of the room: all the smiles and laughter, all the stories the disciples are sharing about people being healed and people being reunited with God; and he comes up with a very serious look on his face.
  2. Jesus has just told the disciples that their names are written in heaven! The lawyer’s question implies that Jesus might not be in a position to say this. I mean, people study for years and attend synagogue for years before they understand what’s required for eternal life… right?
  3. The lawyer is questioning Jesus in general. Luke says the lawyer asked his question to “test Jesus” – to make sure Jesus is measuring up.
  4. The lawyer leads with the question – “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” – not because he wants to know the answer, but because he already knows the answer. He wants to get Jesus in a spot where he has to modify his position, even just a little: to argue Jesus into a place where he has to admit the lawyer is right.

But Jesus doesn’t take the bait. Instead he steps back into his role of Teacher (that’s what the lawyer called him) and he asks the kind of question a teacher would ask. He says: “What does the law say? What do you read there?”

And the lawyer pulls himself up straight and tall and pronounces the Right Answer. He says: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  The lawyer has pulled his answer from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18 and he has quoted the passages without any change or comment. If this were a seminary exam, he would have just aced the test – and he knows it.

And Jesus agrees. He says: “You have given the right answer.” And then Jesus says: “Do this and you will live.”

In the Kingdom of God it’s not enough to know the right answers. Once we know God’s word we have to live it.  And that’s the curveball the lawyer isn’t expecting.  Now if he wants to hold on to the A+ he just earned, he needs to prove he is doing what the law says to do. So in an attempt to prove that – or at least to prove that Jesus can’t prove he isn’t – he asks: “and who is my neighbor?”

I expect the lawyer is probably thinking neighbors are people he lives with, or people he works with, or people who live in his home town. But Jesus tells a story to expand the definition of ‘neighbor’ to something much larger, and much more challenging.

The Good Samaritan

Jesus tells the story of man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho, who falls among robbers and is beaten.  The specifics of Jesus’ story are foreign to us: most of us have never walked from Jerusalem to Jericho, and we don’t deal with Samaritans on a regular basis.  So to bring the story into our own world and our own time, allow me to paraphrase. Let’s say this man is driving from Pittsburgh to Wheeling. He is traveling alone down I-79, and when he stops at a rest stop some men ambush him, beat him up, steal all his things including his car and his clothes, and leave him lying on the grass outside the vending machine building, half-dead.

A little while later a priest stops in to use the facilities, sees the man lying on the grass, and passes by.  Jesus doesn’t say why the priest passes by. Scholars have debated possible reasons, but I think Jesus’ point is – for someone who knows the scriptures and who knows what God requires – there is no good reason to walk by and do nothing.

A little bit later a church volunteer stops in and does the same thing.  And then a third man comes along: someone whose religion is suspect, someone whose nationality is both foreign and unwelcome – that’s what Samaritans were: wrong religion, foreign and unwelcome. Today we might choose, say, an immigrant from Iraq. This immigrant sees the man, and is moved with compassion, and bandages his wounds; and at great risk to himself picks the man up, puts him in his own car, and drives him to the nearest Comfort Inn – where he gives the hotel manager two days’ wages and says, “take care of him; and when I come back I will repay you whatever you spend.”

And Jesus asks: “which of these three men was a neighbor to the man who was beaten up?”

The lawyer again gives the right answer. He says: “the one who showed mercy”. And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

What we see in both these passages is that while the facts are important, the kingdom of heaven isn’t just about knowing the right answers; it’s about wisdom, and it’s about compassion, and it’s about knowing the will of God.

And it’s about building right relationships and being good neighbors: first with God, as Paul says in Colossians. And then with each other, as Jesus describes in Luke. Jesus is not only our teacher; but in leaving heaven to reach out to us in love, and to help us when we could not help ourselves, he is also our example. Let us therefore go… and do likewise. AMEN.


Colossians 1:1-14   Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,  2 To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

3  In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,  4 for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints,  5 because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel  6 that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God.  7 This you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf,  8 and he has made known to us your love in the Spirit.

9 For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,  10 so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.  11 May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully  12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.  13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son,  14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Luke 10:25-37  Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”  27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

29  But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”  30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.  31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.  34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.  35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’  36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in Pittsburgh, 7/14/19


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

So turning now to our passage in Galatians…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For freedom we have been set free.


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

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

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



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


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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There are times in life when the going gets tough.  I’ve had a bit of that myself lately, and I know I’m not the only one.

I think partly it’s just the nature of life in a fallen world.  Being a Christian doesn’t shield us from life’s tough times. I’ve heard some preachers from time to time say that life in Jesus should just keep getting better and better, and that health and prosperity will be ours if we just believe. While it’s true keeping the Ten Commandments may help us to live longer, healthier lives, nowhere in the Bible is that guaranteed. In fact, if anything, scripture seems to support the opposite: from the Old Testament to the New, people who love God often have very difficult lives. Think about Job for example, who lost his family and everything he owned; or think about the apostle Paul, who was shipwrecked and beaten and left for dead more than once.

One of the characters in my favorite TV show once said (in his wonderful British accent) : “You know, I used to think it was awful that life was so unfair. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them? So now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the universe.” (Marcus Cole, Babylon 5)

This man has a very dark sense of humor! But things do get rough sometimes, and sometimes it seems the hard times go on much longer than we expected.

The men in both of our scripture readings today know what that’s like.

When God’s people go through tough times we tend to start asking questions like: Where is God? What is God doing? Why is this happening? We’re not asking because we’re wallowing in self-pity but because suffering tends to bring these questions to the surface. So as we look at today’s readings, I want like to approach with three questions in mind: (1) How is this person suffering? What is life like for them? (2) What is God doing during these difficult times? What actions does God take? (3) How is God’s call coming through? One thing I’ve learned about tough times over the years: for people who know and love Jesus, God’s call on our lives can be found, at least in part, in the middle of our suffering.

So turning first to Elijah. Elijah suffers because his country, the land he loves, has abandoned God.  Led by King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, they have turned away from worshiping God and have become Baal-worshipers. It started when King Ahab married Jezebel, a former priestess of Baal. She urged Ahab to build a temple to Baal in the middle of Israel, and then she brought in some of her old priest-buddies to run the place. 1 Kings 16:30 says, “Ahab did evil in the sight of the LORD more than all [the kings] who were before him” – and that takes some doing!

As God’s prophet and friend, Elijah is horrified to see his people turning away from the one true and living God. Elijah’s faithfulness to God puts his life in danger, but he doesn’t give up or back down. And when Ahab makes Baal-worship the law of the land, God gives Elijah a prophecy.  God tells Elijah to tell Ahab a drought is coming: a drought so severe, not even dew will form on the ground. Given that Baal was the Canaanite god of rain and dew, this hits Baal where it hurts.  And given that Israel depended on farming and pasture-lands for animals, this hits the country where it hurts too.

But rather than apologize to God and admit he was wrong, Ahab blamed Elijah for being “the troubler of Israel” (that’s what he called him). Ahab said it was all Elijah’s fault! Elijah answers, “If the Lord is God, then follow him; but if Baal is god, follow him.” Elijah then sets up a competition between the two gods: two altars will be set up, with an animal sacrifice on top of each one, and wood to burn the sacrifice, and the priests of Baal will call on their god, and Elijah will call on God… “and whichever deity sets fire to the wood and burns up the sacrifice, that’s the real god.”

All the people gather around and watch as the altars are set up, and the wood is arranged, and the animals are killed. The priests of Baal start dancing and praying and shouting around their altar, all day long, but nothing happens. Elijah then pours water all over his altar, and prays to God for fire, and fire falls from heaven. God’s sacrifice is consumed: and the wood, and the stone altar!

The people all shout “The Lord is God!” and the prophets of Baal are chased into the nearest wadi and slaughtered. Jezebel, royally ticked off, says to Elijah, “I am going to make you as dead as you have made my priests!” And Elijah takes off into the wilderness.

So Elijah has been suffering in a number of ways: He has lived most of his life as a member of a religious minority, persecuted for believing in God. He hasn’t been able to live in his own home town for many years.  After years of preaching, most of the people still follow Baal – it’s like his words have been falling on deaf ears. Elijah is weary and discouraged. And now, in his moment of victory, Queen Jezebel puts out a contract on his life!  Elijah is so down he says to God “I might as well just die.”

So what has God been doing in the middle of all this? First, unknown to Elijah, God has been calling people to faith and preserving the lives of believers. A few verses after our reading (verse 18) God tells Elijah there are “still seven thousand in Israel… [who] have not bowed to Baal…” But Elijah doesn’t know this yet.

God has also been working through Elijah to call the nation back to Himself.  But right now Elijah is exhausted and on the brink of burnout, so God sends an angel to watch over Elijah while he sleeps, and to feed him when he wakes up. God does this for two days, until Elijah is rested and refreshed. God knows Elijah’s physical needs, and he provides as tenderly as a Father would.

God then meets with Elijah in the wilderness and asks Elijah “why are you here?”  Of course God knows why Elijah is there: he’s exhausted and he’s afraid for his life. But God knows Elijah needs to be heard: Elijah needs to speak his fears and his pain.  And God listens.

Then God gives Elijah a fresh experience of Himself, because Elijah needs some first-hand experience of God’s goodness and power. God hides Elijah in a cave, and allows him to experience a great wind, and an earthquake, and a fire – none of which God was part of, but sent by God, while Elijah is protected from the dangers. And then God meets Elijah in the silence that follows.

Only after all these needs have been met does God call Elijah to his next task.  Elijah hasn’t failed, and God doesn’t hold Elijah’s negative feelings against him. On the contrary, God respects Elijah’s heart, and then assures Elijah he’s still God’s prophet by giving him his next assignment – which includes anointing Ahab’s replacement.

God does one other thing for Elijah that we don’t see in this passage: God provides a partner in ministry. God tells Elijah to anoint Elisha as his successor. Elisha will not take over as God’s prophet right away; he will be Elijah’s assistant for over 20 years. But from now on Elijah will no longer feel so alone in his ministry.

So God is with Elijah in the hard times; and God calls Elijah from within those hard times into a ministry Elijah could not have imagined before.

Turning now to our Gospel reading, and the meeting between Jesus and the Demoniac of Gerasenes.


The Demoniac suffers in many ways. First off, he suffers because people don’t even know his name. They know who he is; they know his story; but nobody ever wrote his name down, and even today we only know him as “the demoniac of Gerasenes” – which is what he was, not what he is now.

He suffers because he’s possessed by demons. How people have interpreted this over the centuries varies. It’s worth mentioning that the holy books of all the major world religions have something to say about demon-possession, so this is not just some weird corner of Christianity. Many Christian churches around the world today still practice exorcism. Modern psychology does not recognize demon-possession, and clinical specialists refer to the phenomenon as “dissociative identity disorder” often rooted in traumatic experiences or mental distress.

But however you interpret this – the bottom line is, this man has been suffering and has been out of his mind for a long time. Imagine what it’s been like for him: he’s been naked, living outdoors, and the region around Galilee does get cold in the winter. He has no house to live in, no place to call home. He’s been living in a graveyard, which has to be scary and extremely lonely.  The people of the town avoid him, and the only time they come to see him is when they come with chains to chain him up. Are they chaining him up so he won’t hurt himself or to keep themselves safe? Scripture doesn’t tell us. But no matter: the demons give the man superhuman power to break the chains. Even so he is still completely cut off from human society.

In his conversation with Jesus, we learn the man is also not able to control his own words. His greeting to Jesus is “what have you to do with me, Son of the Most High God?” – which are certainly not his own words, but the words of the demons.

While all this is going on, as the man looks at Jesus, he sees someone who is radically different from himself.  Jesus is psychologically in perfect health; morally, he’s perfectly good; and from a human standpoint (or from any standpoint) Jesus is perfect. It must have been incredibly difficult for this man to look Jesus in the eye.

I think to some extent all of us feel this, at least sometimes, when we’re in God’s presence. We’re not perfect like Jesus. We don’t have it all together like Jesus does. Sometimes it can be difficult to look our Lord in the eye, even in prayer.

But whatever was going on inside this man, whatever his demons were, Jesus sets him free… and sends the demons into a nearby herd of pigs. The pigs, being the intelligent and sensitive creatures they are, go mad and drown themselves. They would rather be dead than suffer with demons. Imagine how much pain that man had been in, and for so long!

As with Elijah, God meets this man where he is.  Jesus begins with the question, “what is your name?” Jesus knows this man has never been called by his name before. And he’s still not able even to speak his own name: he answers, “Legion, for we are many” – and that’s the demons talking, not the man. So Jesus kicks the demons out and sets the man free. When the people of the town came running to see what happened they found the man “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.”

You would think such a miracle like this would be cause for celebration – food, dancing, music!  But the people of the town react with fear. They’re so afraid they ask Jesus to leave. They’re afraid of the man; they’re afraid of Jesus; and so in this moment Jesus shares the man’s pain and loneliness, because both of them are rejected in fear.

So Jesus gets back in the boat. And the man says, “please can I go with you?” But Jesus says ‘no’ and gives him God’s call for his life: he says, “Go home” – for the first time – “and tell everyone what God has done for you.”

The people of this town are not going to get rid of Jesus so easily!  Every day for the rest of their lives they will see this man and remember what Jesus did.  They will hear his story, they will be told time and time again about Jesus and his love, they will have the opportunity to become believers.  Some will come to faith, and some will continue to fear.

Jesus’ calling on this man’s life is basically to return to the place where he has suffered and minister there. It seems God often makes this request of God’s people: to serve where we’ve been injured. It’s difficult, but it’s rewarding, and God’s calling redeems the painful times in our lives.

So I’ll leave us all, myself included, with these three questions:

  • Where is life difficult for us? Can we find ways to put our suffering into words and share it with God in prayer? This is not always easy; it may take time. Remember God can and does understand even without words, so if all we can say is ‘help, Lord’ it’s enough.
  • Can we find a way to offer our suffering to God, asking that ‘nothing be wasted’? One of the problems with life’s difficulties is they waste so much time and energy – time we could be spending with family, or working, or doing any number of things. Can we say to God “take this difficulty and use it – don’t let it be wasted”?
  • Can we watch and listen for God’s call? Because in times of difficulty, God’s call will be there somewhere. Expect it, listen for it, watch for it. God’s call is the beginning of healing, because as King David says in Psalm 30, “You have turned my mourning into dancing.” God’s call will make that happen. Listen for it. AMEN.


Today’s Readings:

1 Kings 19:1-15  Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.  2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.”  3 Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

4  But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”  5 Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.”  6 He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again.  7 The angel of the LORD came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”  8 He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.

9  At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  10 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”  11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake;  12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.  13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  14 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”  15 Then the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.

Luke 8:26-39  Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee.  27 As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.  28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”–  29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.)  30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him.  31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.  32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission.  33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34  When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country.  35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.  36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed.  37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned.  38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying,  39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.


Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 6/23/19




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Happy Father’s Day to all you fathers out there, as well as to grandfathers and all the men who have encouraged and guided young people as a father would do.  Thank you for all you have done and continue to do in the lives of the people around you.

Today is also Trinity Sunday, one of the newer holidays on the Christian calendar, which celebrates God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. With both of these holidays in mind I think it’s fitting that our scripture readings today focus on Wisdom: because it takes wisdom to be a good father, and wisdom is also a word that describes our God in heaven.

Wisdom is more than just intelligence; it goes beyond education. There’s an old saying, “knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting tomato in a fruit salad.”  But before we dig deeper into what wisdom is, I wanted to tell a story of a young man in love.

This young man had it all: he was strong, athletic, good looking, well educated, rich, and he was a person of good character. He was the kind of man anyone would have found attractive. But he wasn’t interested in just any woman. He was In Love.

Here are some of the things he wrote about the object of his affections:

“I would rather have her than scepters or thrones… wealth is nothing compared with her… nor will I compare her to any gemstone, for gold is but sand next to her… I love her more than health… I choose her rather than light because her radiance never ceases.  […]  There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique… irresistible, pure, and altogether subtle…” (Wisdom of Solomon 7, selected verses)

He goes on like that for a few more pages, and he wraps up by saying,

“I loved her and sought her from my youth; I desired to take her for my bride …”  (Wisdom 8:2)

The speaker of these words is Solomon, son of David, King of Israel. And the woman he’s in love with is a Lady named Wisdom.

Solomon is obviously seeing something beyond what you and I would usually think of when we hear the word wisdom. And we’ll get to Solomon’s definition in a moment. But on this Father’s Day, I encourage all men – and women as well – to get to know, and to fall in love with Wisdom the way Solomon did.

To fill in the back story just a little: when Solomon came to the throne after his father David died, one of his first things he did as king was to lead the people in worship and praising God. The story is told in II Chronicles chapter 1. That night God came to Solomon and said “Ask what I should give you.”

Solomon said to God, “You have shown great and steadfast love to my father David, and have made me succeed him as king.  O LORD God, let your promise to my father David now be fulfilled, for you have made me king over a people as numerous as the dust of the earth. Give me now wisdom and knowledge to go out and come in before this people, for who can rule this great people of yours?”

God answered Solomon, “Because this was in your heart, and you have not asked for possessions, wealth, honor, or the life of those who hate you, and have not even asked for long life, but have asked for wisdom and knowledge for yourself that you may rule my people over whom I have made you king, wisdom and knowledge are granted to you. I will also give you riches, possessions, and honor, such as none of the kings had who were before you, and none after you shall have the like.” (II Chronicles 1:8-12)

II Chronicles tells us that Solomon received Wisdom from God by asking, and that God approved so much of his request that He blessed Solomon with far more than he asked for.

The quotes I read earlier about Lady Wisdom were written in a book that’s not in our Bibles. The book is called The Wisdom of Solomon, and it’s found in the Apocrypha, a group of books Catholics have in their Bibles but we Protestants don’t have in ours. And so because it’s not “required reading” for us, I’ve never read it – until a couple of weeks ago, at someone request. And I thought, “this is too good not to share.”

Listen to what else the voice of Solomon speaks about Wisdom.

“Wisdom is more mobile than any motion;
Because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things
She is the breath of the power of God
A pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty
Nothing defiled gains entrance into her
For she is a reflection of eternal light
A spotless mirror of the working of God
And an image of God’s goodness.” (Wisdom 7:24-26)

“In every generation she passes into holy souls
And makes them friends of God…”  (Wisdom 7:27b)

“She glorifies her noble birth by living with God
And the Lord of all loves her…
[she is] an associate in all His works.” (Wisdom 8:3, 4b)

Solomon is in love with the best of the best; he is in love with what God loves. This wisdom knows and loves the whole Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and Solomon wants to know and honor God the way Wisdom does.  So Solomon prays this prayer to God:

“O God of my ancestors and Lord of mercy,
Who have made all things by your word
And by your wisdom have formed humankind…
Give me the wisdom that sits by your throne
And do not reject me… a man who is short-lived, with little understanding…
For even one who is perfect among human beings
Will be regarded as nothing without the wisdom that comes from you.” (Wisdom 9:1-2a, 4, 5b, 6)

Solomon describes Wisdom as the daughter of God, and Solomon is bold enough to approach the throne of God and ask God for His daughter’s hand in marriage!  And God rewards Solomon’s boldness: to this day Solomon is remembered for his wisdom.

So the first thing I want to draw attention to, from our readings today: it’s OK to be bold with God. When we desire good things that will benefit God’s kingdom and God’s people, it’s OK to bring our requests to God and ask boldly!

With Solomon’s love and passion for Wisdom as our backdrop, let’s turn now to today’s reading in Proverbs.  Proverbs 8:2-3 tell us that Wisdom stands “on the heights… [and] at the crossroads… [and] beside the gates of the town.”  Wisdom is right out there in the open; she’s not hiding; she’s right where all the paths meet, where business happens every day.  “At the gates in front of the town” is where a lot of business transactions took place back in those days.  Wisdom calls out to everyone who passes by; she speaks to all people.  And these are her words in Proverbs:

God created me.  Before God created anything else, God created me. Even before God said ‘let there be light’ – even before God created the foundations of the earth, God created me, Wisdom says.  She says, “When he established the heavens I was there… when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep… I was beside him, like a master worker… rejoicing before him always… and delighting in the human race.” (Prov 8:22-31, paraphrased)

There is so much delight and joy in this passage! God works with Wisdom to create all that we see around us: the sun, the moon, the stars; the oceans and beaches; the rivers and the mountains… (and by the way, this passage is an allegory; it does not conflict with modern science; its purpose is to teach us about the nature of God and the nature of wisdom). And so we see as God and Wisdom work together, there is between them a spirit of joy and even playfulness.  Our translation of Proverbs is written to sound poetic, which it is, but the original Hebrew translates something more like this. Wisdom says:

“I was beside him [that is, beside God] as a master workman; a daily delight, laughing before him all the time, dancing and playing in the world and in the earth, and delighting in the children of Adam.” (Prov 8:30-31)

I find it interesting that in CS Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, the children are called “Sons of Adam” and “Daughters of Eve” – which makes them royalty in the land of Narnia. Lewis gets that idea from this passage, among others.

All Creation – the world around us – is not something God cooked up in a laboratory, or built up on steel girders, or printed out blueprints for. The Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – were there during Creation, and Wisdom was the foreman on the job, and they were having fun!  Laughing and dancing and delighting in everything God made.

This is not a frivolous delight; God is not being silly. Their laughter has its roots in a deep, deep, joy; and their knowledge goes to the roots of the mountains. They delight in the rightness and completeness and perfection of the work being done. Wisdom understands biology and chemistry and physics and gravity and atmosphere – all the complexities of science – and helps God to bring forth life on this world: new life, innocent and marvelous.

This ability to delight so purely and so deeply in something so good is what we human beings lost when the human race chose to rebel against God. But we can still hear and feel echoes of it: in a sunset or in the cry of a newborn baby. And by the power of the Cross of Jesus, one day it will all be restored.

King David continues the thought in Psalm 8 when he says, “Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.” Something as simple and innocent as the laughter of children will one day bring the Evil One to an end.

The words that follow in Psalm 8 are one of my favorite passages in all Scripture. It’s a passage I love to call to mind on a warm summer evening when all the stars are out. David says to God:

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
or mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than Elohim
                                           (sometimes translated ‘God’, sometimes ‘angels’)
and crowned them with glory and honor.” (Ps 8:3-5)

David says the heavens – all the stars we see at night, and all the vastness of space – were created by God’s fingers! Which hints at the question: what might have been created if God had involved His whole hand? Wisdom delights in this: in this creation that Wisdom helped to create. This was God’s plan from the very beginning.

But when we look around at the world today, there is so much that is dangerous or harmful; so much hatred, so much violence, in our homes, in our places of worship, in our schools, where we work. All the troubles and all the pain come from forgetting who we are, and who we’re created to be, and choosing a path that God warned us not to walk.

But from the very beginning we were and are the work of God’s fingers.  We are made in God’s image, men and women. We are crowned with glory by God.  We are honored by God.  When we forget God, we forget who we are and who we belong to.

And there’s more! David continues:

“You have given us dominion over the works of your hands…
All sheep and oxen, all the beasts of the field,
The birds of the air and the fish of the sea…”

David began by asking the question: “What is one person? Compared to all the vastness of creation, what does just one person mean to you, God? Why do you care?”

In these verses the questions are answered: God created human beings not only to be a part of creation, but to have dominion over creation. God says: “you matter, and what you do matters, because you are the caretakers of everything I’ve created.” The word dominion – as in ‘you shall have dominion over’ – is related in the Hebrew to royalty: in other words, we are kings and queens over God’s creation, rulers as well as caretakers.

Whenever we take care of what God has created – by caring for the planet, or by rescuing animals, or by having jobs that provide food and shelter, or – as we celebrate today – by taking care of children… we are doing what God created us to do.

When people harm or destroy what’s in the world – by polluting, by mistreating living things, or by destroying human beings – we are rebelling against our creator and have forgotten what God put us here to do. And when we forget God, we forget who we are, and we forget why we’re here. I think this is one huge reason why suicide has become so common in our society: people don’t know who they are or whose they are, and they don’t know why they’re here.

For people who are hurting like this, we have the words of God, given through David, to share: “you O Lord have made us little less than Elohim and have crowned us with glory and honor.”

David ends his psalm the way he began: with the words (in Hebrew) “Yahweh Adonai” – literally translated “I AM the Lord” – “how majestic is your name in all the earth!”  With these words David joins in the celebration and the joy, shared by God and Wisdom on the day of Creation. And you and I are invited to join in that celebration.

So today’s message from Proverbs and Psalms is dedicated to the fathers, but it’s really for everybody: Take time today to remember God, our heavenly Father, who with Wisdom made the world and everything in it, and then put us in charge of that world. Take time today to remember Wisdom, the great lady who is at God’s side. Fall in love with her the way Solomon did. Take time today to remember who you are, Son of Adam, Daughter of Eve: steward with royal command over God’s creation. God has crowned us with glory and honor. All praise be to God on high. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 6/16/19


Proverbs 8:1-4  Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?  2 On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand;  3 beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out:  4 “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.

Proverbs 8:22-31  The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.  23 Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.  24 When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water.  25 Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth–  26 when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil.  27 When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,  28 when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep,  29 when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth,  30 then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always,  31 rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.

Psalm 8:1-9  <To the leader: according to The Gittith. A Psalm of David.>

O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark
because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
7 all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the air,
and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9 O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!



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Every Sunday morning during worship our sermon is followed by the Apostles Creed. This is a time-honored tradition, given to us not only to reinforce what we believe in, but also to engrave it in our memories.  When I go to lead worship in retirement homes, often times even people who are suffering from memory loss can recite the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles Creed: if I start it, they will finish it. It’s a gift that keeps on giving, the older we get.

In the Apostles Creed one of the things we say is:

“on the third day [Jesus] rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”

That’s all one sentence; and there have been books upon books of theology written on just that one sentence. For today I’d like to point out just two things:

  1. this part of the Creed is connected to Easter. It starts out: “on the third day Jesus rose from the dead” – so this part of the Easter story; and
  2. this part of the Creed applies to us today.  We are included in the ‘quick’ – that is, people who are still alive and waiting for Jesus’ return. So this one sentence connects us directly to Jesus!

This past Thursday was a holiday we don’t usually observe in Sunday worship because it always lands on a Thursday: Ascension Day. Ascension is forty days after Easter, the day Jesus “ascended into heaven and was seated at the right hand of the Father” as the Creed says. Because this is such an important day in the lives of both Jesus and the disciples, I chose today to read the assigned readings for Thursday, so we can celebrate this holiday before the Easter season ends. (Today is the last Sunday of Easter, and next Sunday is Pentecost: don’t forget to wear red!)

Jesus’ Ascension is a bit of a mystery – and I’ll get to the mysterious part in a moment. Two things that stand out in our scripture readings about the Ascension:

  1. The focus on Easter
  2. The focus on outreach and mission

Jesus’ resurrection and Jesus’ final instructions to the disciples, are intimately connected. As we dig into these readings we will see Easter leading directly to Pentecost by way of the Ascension.

Starting with our reading from Acts:  Luke, the author of Acts, tells us “Jesus presented himself to [the disciples] alive by many convincing proofs.”

Does this statement strike you as odd? It does me.  Why would a person need to prove that they’re alive? Apparently something about Jesus’ resurrected body was different than his original body. In fact a lot of things were different. Jesus walked with a group of disciples on the road to Emmaus without being recognized. He walked through locked doors to meet with the disciples in an upper room. He met Peter and the other fishermen on the shore of the Sea of Galilee without being recognized until he told them to fish on the other side of the boat and a miracle happened.

Something about Jesus was very different. On the other hand, his body also still bears the scars of the nails. And the things Jesus said and did convinced the people who knew him best that this really was him. In fact they were so convinced they were willing to die martyr’s deaths rather than change their story.

Luke tells us that Jesus removed all doubts, even for the ones who, like Thomas, doubted at first. Jesus also came with forgiveness. He forgave Thomas his doubts; he forgave Peter his denial; he forgave all the disciples for running away on that night in the Garden of Gethsemane. As he meets his friends alive again, he greets each one with the words “peace be with you” – putting their hearts and minds at rest.  The resurrected Jesus greets us also with the same forgiveness and the same words of peace.

When forty days had passed since the resurrection, Jesus called the disciples together and told them it was time for him to go home to his Father, and he gave them some final instructions.

Luke tells us Jesus’ final teaching was given in the power of the Holy Spirit. I’m sure all of Jesus’ teaching was given in the power of the Holy Spirit! What’s significant is the disciples are beginning to recognize this. The Holy Spirit is mentioned in the Old Testament, but not often; the disciples were still learning. The foundations for Pentecost are being laid.

Jesus’ final teaching included instructions to remain in Jerusalem until the disciples were baptized in the Holy Spirit. Did they understand what Jesus meant by this? Probably not, at least not completely. But they understood they needed to wait.

As an aside, it occurs to me that living for God involves a whole lot of waiting.  In the Old Testament, Joseph waited in jail for at least a decade before God’s promises came true. David waited for at least 20 years between the time he was anointed king and the day he was actually crowned king.  The people of Israel waited over 200 years for God’s promise of the Holy Land to come true.  As Christians we spend Advent waiting for Christmas, and Lent waiting for Easter, and today we are still waiting for Jesus’ return.  Waiting is so much a part of Christian life, there’s even an internet meme about it: “Until God opens the next door, praise Him in the hallway.”  I don’t know why God asks us to wait so much, but I have noticed waiting develops patience, and endurance, and faith, and hope, and love. And we can trust God’s timing.

So back to our reading from Acts. First off, Acts focuses on Easter and the proof that Jesus is alive again. The second focus of the passage is mission – not in the sense of ‘sending missionaries’ (although that might be included) but in the sense of purpose. That is, as Christians, why are we here? What are we doing? What does God want of us? The disciples ask the question this way: Is now the time that God will restore the kingdom to Israel? – implying they might help with this restoration.

Jesus’ answer to this question is mysterious: in the Greek, it reads literally, “it is not for you to know the time or the time which the Father has fixed by his own authority.” The time or the time: two ways to understand time: time, as in, by the clock or the calendar: what day is Jesus coming back? Or time, as in ‘the right time’ or ‘the proper time’: when is just the right moment for Jesus to come back?  Either way you look at time, the answer is in God’s hands, and not for us to know.

BUT! “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth.”  That’s the mission: to bear witness to what we have seen and heard, throughout the whole world.

This mission continues today.  There is a nonprofit organization called The Joshua Project whose mission it is to identify and reach all the people groups in the world who have not yet heard the Gospel. According to their research, there are still over 4,000 people groups in the world who have not yet heard about Jesus, representing just over 40% of the world’s population. So we still have a lot to do!

Another side note: the phrase “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth” has been used in some churches to help define and guide mission and outreach efforts, both in terms of how people give and in terms of what people do, and I think it can be a helpful concept. The thought goes like this: Jerusalem represents the church’s own neighborhood (in our case, Carnegie or Allentown). Judea represents the surrounding area: Pittsburgh or Allegheny County.  Samaria, further out, might represent either Pennsylvania or the nation. And the ends of the earth represent foreign mission.  The teaching goes that every church should have at least a little bit of outreach or giving in each of these four areas. It helps balance giving, and it helps our awareness, and it helps us to know how to pray for others. Of course this is not the only way to think about this verse; but I think it’s a practical and workable idea, so I share it for whatever it’s worth.

But back to the disciples in Jerusalem.  Having done and said all these things, Jesus then disappears into a cloud. Luke says “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him.”  This is a mystery.  The Greek says literally ‘cloud’ so this is not figurative speech.  But the presence of God is often represented in the Old Testament by a cloud: you remember the Israelites in the wilderness were guided by a ‘pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night’.  Isaiah, when he saw his vision, saw a cloud filling the Temple.  So the cloud represents God, the implication being that, at the ascension, Jesus returned to God.  Which is exactly what the Apostles Creed says.

Back in the temple in Jerusalem, the scribes and the high priests and the Pharisees were completely unaware of any of this. Jesus never visited the temple after his resurrection.  The priests put a story out that Jesus’ body was missing from the tomb because the disciples had stolen it.  And Jesus had once remarked in Luke’s gospel: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (Luke 16:31) So he left them alone.

For the people in the city, it looked like one more Jewish rabbi had been crucified. People had wept, and then life simply returned to the way it had always been. But the disciples knew differently: they knew the world had changed. They knew Jesus was now enthroned with God, as king and Lord – which means Caesar and all the other powers of earth are not Lord. And that makes all the difference.

So the disciples stayed in Jerusalem as Jesus told them: eating together, praying together, going to the temple and praising God together, and waiting together… waiting for the Holy Spirit.

And today we join them in that waiting, till next Sunday, when the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost.

While we wait this week, let’s think about and pray about Jesus’ call to share the good news: that He is alive, that He forgives, and that He is King. And let’s pray for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit – “power from on high” – in our lives, in the life of the Church, in the life of our nation, and throughout the world. AMEN.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 6/2/19


June 2 – Easter 7

Sunday after Ascension

Acts 1:1-11

Luke 24:44-53

“He Was Taken Up”

 Acts 1:1-11   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.”

Luke 24:44-53  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.


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It’s Memorial Day weekend!  I hope you’ll have a chance to relax a bit with family and friends this weekend. Tomorrow we will remember all the men and women who served our country and gave their lives so that we could live in freedom and safety. It’s comforting on a holiday like this to hear the words we just heard from Revelation, where God says: “…he will wipe every tear from their eyes; death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more…”  We worship a God who is not ashamed to know, and to enter into, our pain and our grief; and who promises us one day all things will be made right.

I sometimes wish we Christians had a Memorial Day for the faith: a day to remember those who have given their lives so that we could have eternal life. Some of the people we would honor would include people we met in our scripture readings today: the apostles Paul and John, the disciple Timothy, and of course Jesus. All of them gave their lives so that we could know the joy of knowing God. It is fitting that we should remember them today.

What I wanted to focus on today is the vision that guided these men of faith.  All three of our scripture readings today have to do with vision (or visions), each in their own way.  In Acts, Paul has a literal vision of a man from Macedonia; in Revelation, John shares with us a vision of heaven; and in the gospel reading from John, Jesus shares a vision of God.  Today I’d like to spend a little bit of time with each of these visions, in hope they will be an inspiration to us as well.  I’ll be working chronologically backwards, starting with the vision in Revelation.

The apostle Paul writes in I Corinthians 15:19: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”  In other words, if this world is all there is, and we have been following a Messiah who talks about a different world, when there really isn’t one – then we will have lived our one and only life caught up in a lie. BUT! If Jesus’ words are true, then our hope and our joy begin now, in this life, and carry into the world to come.

Revelation gives us a glimpse of that world to come.  (One of these days I’m going to preach a sermon, maybe a whole series, on the book of Revelation because there is so much good stuff in here, and so much that is relevant to our time, but for now just a glimpse.) Bear in mind Revelation was written to a church going through tough times, to encourage them and to remind them God hasn’t forgotten them.

In these verses from Revelation, John shares with us a vision of the eternal city, the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming out of heaven, prepared and decorated like a bride for her husband; and God says, “behold, God’s home is with mortals… they will be his peoples (and that word is plural: many peoples) and God will be with them.”  And he will wipe away every tear; he will make all things new. God will give to the thirsty a drink from the fountain of the water of life.

The Holy City

In John’s vision, this beautiful, radiant city is also called the wife of the Lamb. When I hear the words ‘holy city’ what I usually see in my mind’s eye is white stone skyscrapers and city walls glowing in the sunlight… but I think that’s the wrong vision. The city is people, not buildings; just like the church is people, not buildings. The wife of the Lamb is not real estate; she is a living, breathing bride, made up of all of us together.  And it will take all of us together to make a bride worthy of Jesus.  How that will all work out, I don’t know. Revelation is an allegory, it’s not meant to be read literally; but it begins to give us a vision.

John continues to share his vision, and he says: in this city, running through it, running through the middle of the main street, is the river of the water of life. The river’s source is the throne of God and the throne of the Lamb. On either side of that river is the tree of life, with twelve kinds of fruit, one fruit for each month.  And the leaves of the tree of life are to be used for “the healing of the nations”.

When you consider how much violence is done every day in our world, and how many days there have been since the world began… that’s a lot of healing to do. How great is God’s healing power! And God Himself will be the light in the city; there’s no need for lamp or sun, and God and the Lamb “will reign for ever and ever.”  But that’s not all: this scene includes the Bride – us – God’s servants, elevated to the throne as well. Or perhaps more accurately, restored to the place Adam and Eve were originally given before the fall of the human race.

What will make this city different from all others is that, as John says, “nothing accursed will be found there”.  Anyone who has denied or abandoned God – the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and liars – these will have been removed and they will no longer trouble us.  We will enjoy God’s presence, as the Bride of the Lamb, always.

This vision, this future, is a great part of what makes the Christian life worthwhile. But it’s still a ways off.  In the present, being a servant of God can sometimes mean a life full of curve balls. Paul’s vision in Acts is a great example of this.

Just before our reading in Acts, Paul was traveling and evangelizing with Silas and Timothy throughout the regions of Phrygia and Galatia, which is in the center of what is today known as Turkey. From where they were, the logical next step would have been to either turn right (north) and preach in Bithynia, or turn left (south) and preach in what is now western Turkey – both of which were highly populated areas. But scripture tells us Paul and his companions were “prevented” by the Holy Spirit from going in either direction.

This is unusual. Usually the idea, speaking as a preacher, is to preach in all the places one possibly can, so as reach as many people as possible.  I’m reminded of John Wesley (I’m reading his memoirs right now) who often preached three or four sermons in a day, in three or four different cities, and then rode on horseback to another city and did it all over again the next day! Or remember the Billy Graham crusades: would Billy Graham ever say ‘no’ to a city that asked him to preach? Not that I ever heard of.

But in this case, Paul is clearly told ‘don’t go there’.  And he sees a vision of a man from Macedonia, pleading with him and begging him to “come over to Macedonia and help us.”  This vision is not a figment of Paul’s imagination, and it’s not a dream; it is a supernatural experience, and it most likely came to Paul while he was praying. But the vision’s instructions are not detailed: how to interpret and obey the vision was up to Paul and his companions. God in His wisdom chooses to invite mere mortals to help flesh out the plans.

By the way, this is not the only time God used a vision of a messengers to communicate an outreach strategy. Paul’s story reminds me of the story of St. Patrick, who had a similar experience. Patrick had a dream in which he saw a man coming from Ireland. The man handed him a letter with the heading Vox Hiberniae – ‘the Voice of the Irish’. And as he read the letter, he heard the people he had known in Ireland (when he was younger) calling to him: “…come and walk among us once again.”

St. Patrick was British; he had been a slave in Ireland when he was young. He escaped from Ireland and made it home to Britain, where he became a priest, and then he had this vision.  I imagine St. Patrick’s first reaction must have been surprise, at the very least: God wants him to go back to the land where he had been a slave? It’s probably not what Patrick had in mind for his ministry. And Macedonia was probably not what Paul had in mind for his ministry.

Both Patrick and Paul had dreams and plans for their ministries that ended up going by the wayside because God had something else in mind. And it must have been frustrating at first. But as Patrick and Paul followed God’s lead, opportunities for ministry opened up like they’d never dreamed of. St. Patrick spent the rest of his life ministering to the people of Ireland, and he is credited with single-handedly bringing the Christian faith to Ireland. (He did have some help but he did the lion’s share of the work.)

Back in Turkey, Paul and his friends got on a boat and sailed to the region of Macedonia, to the city of Neapolis, which was the main harbor for the nearby city of Philippi.  Once in Philippi, life continued to take unexpected turns. Ministering there would eventually bring them close to the heart of the Roman Empire, because Philippi was a Roman colony. But at first, nothing happened.  They were in the city a number of days doing nothing in terms of ministry.  Then, on the Sabbath, they went to look for people who believed in the God of Israel – who (if there were any) would be gathering outside the city. And they went to the banks of the river, probably expecting to run into a Macedonian man, and instead they meet a Thyatiran woman!  Ironically, Thyatira is one of the cities God had told them not to go to when they were in Turkey.  Turns out the Thyatirans got to hear the message through her.

Lydia was not just any woman: she was “a businesswoman” and “a dealer in purple cloth”: she was a successful person with influence. Paul and his companions had come on this journey planning to give to others – which they did, preaching the good news of Jesus – but they also found themselves in the position of needing to receive: specifically, food and shelter. So after Lydia and her whole household were baptized, she urged them to come to her house and stay.  The word ‘urge’ in Greek has the same root as paraclete, which is a word used to describe the Holy Spirit: it means ‘to come alongside’ and stay alongside. Lydia didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, and it’s a beautiful expression of her new-found faith.

All of this happened as a result of a vision that started out with the message, “don’t preach here – preach over there instead”. We never know where God’s vision is going to lead us.

The final vision in our readings today is in the gospel of John. In this passage Jesus gives us a vision of our amazing God.  As we read and hear this passage I think it’s important not to try to understand it literally, that is, with an analytical mind.  This passage is more like a song, and it needs to be interpreted from the same part of our hearts that music would be.

In this short passage, Jesus is (as they say on the TV show The Bachelor) “putting himself out there.”  He’s saying ‘I love you and here’s what I have to offer: will you accept me, will you be mine?’ And he’s letting us know the road ahead with him won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.

Listen to Jesus’ words as he tells the disciples – and through them, us – the plans he has in mind. Jesus says:

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But [when I’m not here on earth with you any more] the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

“You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it happens, so that when it does happen, you will know and believe.

“Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” – literally translated, ‘we will share your tent’.

I love that phrase, ‘sharing a tent’. Back in those days, tents were large and well-equipped, big enough for a family, and the words stir up images of cozy family life. It also speaks of our share in the Holy Spirit while we are here in this earthly tent. When the heavenly tent comes… well, that can only happen if Jesus goes back to the Father and gets it ready. And so we rejoice because that’s where Jesus is, and that’s what he’s doing right now: getting the tent ready.

The question then remains: Jesus has ‘put himself out there’ for us; will we ‘put ourselves out there’ for Jesus?  Loving Jesus may take us on some very unexpected paths and journeys. But do not let your hearts be troubled: His peace and his Spirit are with us.  So will we love him back? Everything in life – everything – hinges on our answer to this question.

Let’s pray.  Lord, thank you for the visions you share with us, and for the future you have promised us.  Thank you for loving us and ‘putting yourself out there’ for us.  Guide us now, as you guided Paul and John. Stir up our hearts to love, and give us a vision for the future you have in mind, to your honor and glory. AMEN.


May 26

Easter 6

Memorial Day Weekend

Acts 16:9-15

Rev 21:1-10, 22:1-5

John 14:23-29


 Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church

 Acts 16:9-15  During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.  11 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis,  12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.  13 On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.  14 A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.  15 When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

Revelation 21:1-10, 22:1-5  Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;  4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.  7 Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.  8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

9 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.”  10 And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb  2 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  3 Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him;  4 they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.  5 And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

John 14:23-29  Jesus answered him, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.  24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

25 “I have said these things to you while I am still with you.  26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.  27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.  28 You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.  29 And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.



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We continue this week in our Easter season readings from the New Testament, and I’m going be focusing mostly on Acts today with a little bit of input from the other two readings.

As I was looking over our passage from Acts this week, it occurred to me that the cultural and religious issues Peter runs into in this reading are not something most Americans have first-hand experience with.  We as Americans think of ourselves and speak of ourselves as living in a “melting pot”.  We come from hundreds of different countries and dozens of religious backgrounds; and while the different groups don’t always get along, and in spite of some lingering prejudices, on the whole all these different people share life together pretty well. We love our families, we work together, we get along with our neighbors (most of the time), and we don’t always have to agree with each other in order to care for each other.

That said, for some people groups in America there are certain rules and expectations that don’t go along with the majority culture. If you go to Squirrel Hill, for example, you may see men wearing yarmulkes on any day of the week. And if you look closely, you may see what looks like fishing lines over some of the streets, which extends the boundaries of peoples’ homes so they can carry things outdoors on the Sabbath. For conservative Muslims, women wear a hijab (or scarf) to express devotion to God, as well as for modesty and self-respect. In their culture, to go without a hijab is to be a loose woman, and it brings shame on the family.

To set aside any of these beliefs, or to disrespect them, would cause major problems within a family or within friendships. These examples begin to give us an idea of what Peter was up against in our reading from Acts.

In Israel of Jesus’ day, Jewish people lived apart from the other cultures. They believed the surrounding Roman and Greek cultures were blind to the one True God, that is, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If a Roman or a Greek person wanted to get to know God, they would have to become Jewish: attend synagogue, learn the law of Moses, and if you were a man, be circumcised.

Side note: all through Israel’s history, God’s intention was that the Jewish people would be a witness to God to the other people groups around them.  The purpose of the law of Moses was to show God’s wisdom and greatness. But throughout the Old Testament, Israel failed to bear witness to God – particularly their religious leaders, who turned God’s law (which was a thing of glory) into a legalistic burden for the people. It wasn’t until Jesus came along that the law and God’s glory found common ground again.  As Jesus said: “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.”

So at the very beginning of Christianity, by force of habit if nothing else, the first Christians (who were all Jewish) continued to follow the Jewish laws and Jewish traditions.  The first believers continued to meet in synagogues, and they kept the Law of Moses, and if a Gentile wanted to become a Christian they would basically have to become Jewish first.

The early disciples hadn’t quite yet grasped the full meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection and what it had done for the world. They didn’t quite yet grasp what Jesus meant when he said things like:

  • Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life. (John 3:36)
  • This is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:40)
  • God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

It’s interesting all these verses are found in the gospel of John. John, who was the “disciple who Jesus loved,” seems to be the only one of the twelve who caught on to the idea of salvation by faith right from the very beginning. Maybe it’s because John was the youngest of the group: he was only a teenager when he met Jesus, so he wasn’t as steeped in tradition as the others: not quite as committed to “the way things have always been.”

Whatever the reason, the rest of the disciples didn’t quite get it yet.  But as John writes in Revelation, God is making all things new!  The old is passing away: not just the old faith or the old synagogue (both of which are still with us) but the old earth is passing away, along with all the things that come with a fallen world: mourning and crying and pain and death – all the ‘first things’ are passing away. The requirements of the Law of Moses have been fulfilled in Jesus, and something new has begun.  You and I live in a time where the old is passing, and the new is phasing in – it’s kind of like the ‘now and not yet’ – we’re in that in-between time where we can see both the old and the new but we’re not quite at home in either.

So as this new thing called Christianity got off the ground, Peter – being essentially the lead disciple in the new movement – needed to be brought up to speed.  And that’s where we begin today.

So I’ve taken as our sermon title for today A Light to the Gentiles – which are words from a prophecy spoken over the baby Jesus when he was presented in the temple. A wise elderly man named Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms and praised God and said:

“Lord, now dismiss your servant in peace, according to your word,
For my eyes have seen your salvation
Which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples
A light for revelation to the Gentiles
And glory for your people Israel.” (Luke 2:28-32, my translation)

The arrival of the Messiah was meant, from the very beginning, to unite the Gentiles and the Jews into one family of faith in God.  Now, here in Acts, it’s time for that plan to bear fruit.

The reading we heard from Acts today comes from chapter 11, but to get the full story we need to back up to chapter 10.  In Acts chapter 10, Peter was living in Joppa and had been visited by some servants of a Roman centurion named Cornelius.  Cornelius had seen a vision of an angel, who told him his prayers and generosity have been noticed by God, and the angel said, “send to Joppa for a man named Peter: he has an important message for you.”

Peter in the home of Cornelius

At the same time, God showed Peter through a vision that Peter should not consider ‘unclean’ what God had made ‘clean’.  And just as the heavenly vision disappeared, the messengers from Cornelius arrived at the house where Peter was staying, and ask Peter to come with them. Peter went, and shared the gospel of Jesus with Cornelius and his family, and while Peter was still speaking the Holy Spirit fell on the whole extended family, who started speaking in tongues and praising God.

Peter said to the believers who came with him, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47) So Peter baptized them and welcomed them into the family of God. And Peter stayed with Cornelius and his family for a number of days before returning home.

Without Cornelius and his family you and I would not be here today: like them, we are Gentiles who believe in the Jewish Messiah.  These are our ancestors in the faith – and they should be remembered and honored.

But there was a problem.  For the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, there were some things that simply shouldn’t be done, and eating with Gentiles was one of them. Word of what Peter had done got to Jerusalem before Peter did. (You don’t need a computer to get the old gossip mill going!). News spread all over the city: Gentiles have become believers! And Peter went and ate with them!!

These folks were more focused on what Peter did than they were on what God was doing in the lives of the Gentiles. God’s salvation had come to a family of Romans! Eternal life is now open to every person in the world!  But they missed it.

The next time Peter goes to visit Jerusalem, the believers there start throwing accusations at him, saying, “you went to men who still have their foreskins on and you ate with them!”  That’s the literal translation. It’s as rough in the original language as it sounds in English.

What’s more, people who were speaking politely back then would have started the conversation in the form of a question – kind of like on Jeopardy!  You see examples of this all through scripture. In fact, in many of the English translations of this verse it is translated as a question, because it’s how it would normally have been spoken. But there is no question in the original Greek. This is an accusation, plain and simple.

Peter knew there were going to be objections: he saw that going in. Wisely, he brought a half-dozen witnesses with him to Cornelius’ house, who could back up his story, and they came with him to Jerusalem.  Peter then explained what happened, fact by fact, without getting emotional, without getting sidetracked, without throwing around his God-given authority as an apostle. He told them what happened: what God said, what Cornelius said, how an angel visited Cornelius’ house, how the Holy Spirit came over Cornelius and his whole family, and how the whole family had been baptized in the name of Jesus. Peter reminded them of God’s words: “what God has cleansed, you must not call common.” And Peter – politely – ends his defense in the form of a question. He asks: “If an equal gift was given to them by God that was given to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus, who am I that I would have the power to hinder God?”

I wonder sometimes how many differences and debates in our world today, and even within our churches, might be de-fused by approaching them as questions; and particularly with this question.  Peter was faced with a long-standing tradition that was meant to protect peoples’ holiness, and to protect their relationship with God, but which was now driving a wedge between the people and God.  How many of our disputes and debates could be resolved, or at least brought down a few notches in volume, by asking the question “if God has done such-and-such, who am I to stand in God’s way?”

In this case, the people hearing Peter – the Christians in Jerusalem – were soft-hearted toward God and they were able to be guided by God’s word. At first they received Peter’s news quietly, thinking it over; and then they broke out in joy, praising God and saying, “God has given to the Gentiles the repentance that gives life!”  What a glorious thing, when God’s people allow God’s love to overcome prejudices and outdated traditions!  So they celebrated this new thing God was doing: adding people from the nations to the family of God.

It would be nice to be able to say that from that point on, everything was smooth sailing between the Jewish and non-Jewish believers, but it wasn’t.  Long-held beliefs are hard to change.  We read later on in Acts (Acts 6) about Gentiles sometimes being overlooked in the daily distribution of food, and complaining about it.  (This led to the appointment of the church’s first deacons.)  We read in Paul’s letters about certain Judaizers who went around teaching Paul’s Gentile converts they needed to be circumcised in order to be ‘real’ Christians. Paul responded to this with a comment I won’t translate, but the bottom line was, as Paul explained: salvation comes from believing in the right person – Jesus – not by doing the right things.

Paul basically said: Yes, Christians are supposed to live differently than the rest of the world; but personal holiness is not found in keeping a list of laws. Salvation is by faith; and the life of faith is in relationship with Jesus. Jesus says: “I give you a new commandment… as I have loved you, so love one another. In this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

That’s what sets Christians apart. Not our missions, not our good works – as important as those things are. Love is what sets us apart. The way we love Jesus, the way we love each other, and the way we care for the people we work with, and live with in our neighborhoods. Christian faith and Christian life is about being personally involved, and taking risks for the sake of others, as a reflection of God’s love.

John Wesley spoke of this when he said things like:

“Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? Though we are not of one opinion, may we not be of one heart?”

As the apostle Paul would have said, we are all part of one body: a hand is not a foot, an eye is not an ear, but we all need each other and we need to work together in unity, and it’s love that holds the body together.

So today we remember with joy the day when we, as Gentiles, were welcomed into the family of faith: remembering it is our faith alone in Jesus alone that keeps us in God’s kingdom. Our way of saying ‘thank you’ to God is to care for ourselves and care for each other and care for the people God has placed in our world.  Today let’s rededicate ourselves to this truth, and to welcoming others in love. AMEN


“A Light to the Gentiles” Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 5/19/18


Acts 11:1-18  Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God.  2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him,  3 saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”  4 Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying,  5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me.  6 As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air.  7 I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’  8 But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’  9 But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’  10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven.  11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were.  12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house.  13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter;  14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’  15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.  16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’  17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”  18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

Revelation 21:1-6  Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;  4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”  5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

John 13:31-35  When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.  32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.  33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’  34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”




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In one of the traditional communion services there’s a point where the pastor lifts up the bread and cup says, “the gifts of God for the people of God.”


Today I want to talk about “the power of God for the people of God” because one of the gifts God shares with his people is power.

We can’t just appropriate God’s power; we can’t take it for ourselves. I have heard preachers say sometimes that Jesus said, “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive” (Matthew 21:22) and therefore if you pray and don’t get what you’re asking for you’re not praying with enough faith.  But prayer doesn’t work like that. It’s not like a vending machine, where if you put enough in, you get what you want out. We pray to have a relationship with God, our heavenly Father; and just like with any loving parent there are times when God has to say ‘no’ or ‘not right now’ to the things we ask for.

That said, God does share God’s-self with us in many ways, including in power. The gift of God’s power shines through in all three of our scripture readings today.  In Revelation it’s God’s power to save; in John it’s power of faith; and in Acts it’s the power of resurrection.


Starting with our reading in Revelation: this passage begins right after the sixth seal out of seven has been opened. God is in the process of judging the earth, and with the first five seals we read about scenes of apocalyptic destruction. But at the sixth seal in chapter seven everything stops for a moment, while God’s angels mark the foreheads of 144,000 saints: twelve thousand from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. And when this is done, multitudes upon multitudes of people from every tribe, every nation, every ethnicity, appear before God’s throne and before the Lamb, saying:

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” […] “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Rev 7:10-12 edited)

What’s going on in front of God’s throne is beyond our imagining. We try, as we read these words, to picture in our minds what it will look like, but our imaginations fall short. And I think that’s the way it should to be: because if we could get our minds around God, our God would be too small, know what I mean?

These words were written for everyday believers like you and me who are going through tough times.  The whole book of Revelation was written to and for believers who were being persecuted, in order to encourage and strengthen them. Today in our country Christians may not be persecuted like they were back then, but many in our society consider Christianity to be irrelevant, a throw-back to a previous era, and so they marginalize faithful people.  And some churches, particularly black churches, are very much targets of persecution today, as are many churches around the world.  The scene we see in Revelation shows the power of God for the people of God – assuring us that God’s victory is sure and salvation truly is ours and nothing can take it away.

In our passage from the Gospel of John, we see the power of God working through faith – faith in God and faith in Jesus Christ; and in the case of the religious leaders, we see the power people don’t have when they lack faith. In this story the religious leaders working in the temple decided to take Jesus on.  From a strictly human point of view, these religious leaders had wonderful lives: they lived in the capital city of Jerusalem; they had power at their command; many of them came from influential families and had inherited wealth. They were intelligent, well-educated, and successful, but they lacked faith.

Jesus arrived in the temple at the Festival of Rededication, which is another name for Hanukah. Hanukah celebrates the rededication of the temple at the end of the Maccabean Revolt which happened around 165BC. So for Israel in Jesus’ time, this was a fairly new holiday; and it was a holiday that was both religious and nationalistic in meaning.

So one day Jesus is walking in the Portico of Solomon, in the outer temple, in an area that offered at least a wind-break from the chilly winter breezes. John says “the Jews gathered around him” – meaning the religious leaders – surrounding Jesus in a circle, and not a particularly friendly circle.  Have you ever found yourself in a situation like that? I’ve witnessed it a couple times – people gathering around one person in a circle – and it can be very intimidating.  And they said to Jesus, in 21st century language: “Dude, you’re killing us here. If you are really the Messiah, say so.”

Jesus answered, “I have said so, and you don’t believe.” Jesus had told them and shown them who he was in many ways: through his teaching, through his miracles (for example, the healing of the paralyzed man, when Jesus said to the Pharisees “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”– he said to the one who was paralyzed—“I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go home.” Luke 5:23-24).  But they didn’t believe him.  He told them who he was in their debates over what should and should not be done on the Sabbath.  He even said, “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” – but they didn’t believe him.

At the same time, the scribes and Pharisees had admitted they knew who Jesus was:

  • Matthew 22:15-17: Then the Pharisees… sent their disciples to Jesus, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth…” (They said this to set a trap, but still they admitted it.)
  • John 3:1-2 a Pharisee named Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”” ‘We’ meaning all the Pharisees: ‘we know’.
  • John 12:42 “many, even of the authorities, believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue…”

So the religious leaders knew intellectually who Jesus was; but that knowledge never made it to their hearts or into their wills, because it would have meant giving up everything they had worked for, and letting Jesus lead them.  They would have lost their place, their status, their means of making a living, and their authority over the people. And they weren’t going to do that. So the religious leaders lost out on God’s blessing for themselves and God’s power in their lives.

Jesus holds the power of truth, but they denied it. They rejected God’s good will for themselves, and their families, and – because they were in positions of national authority – for their country.  And the apostle Mark tells us their hardness of heart made Jesus angry. (Mark 3:5) The power of God could not operate in their lives because of their hardness of heart.

The story we read in Acts is in total contrast to this.  From a human point of view, the women we meet in this story were the lowest in their society.  They lived in a town about nine miles from Joppa, in the heart of the country; they had no political power, no influence with the religious establishment, no wealth, no position. They may not have been poor; the town of Lydda was located at a crossroads where business was good. But there was nothing about these women that would have made them stand out in a crowd. They were ordinary, everyday people.

As the story opens, we meet Tabitha, whose name means “gazelle”. Historians believe she was a widow, but that’s not certain; what we do know is she spent her life doing good for others, doing acts of charity.  She was known among the people for her good works – all the people, both Jews and Gentiles – which is why scripture gives us her name in two languages: she was Tabitha to the Jews, and Dorcas to anyone who spoke Greek. She gave generously to both: especially widows, orphans, and foreigners. She did this because the Old Testament men of God had taught this was God’s will:

  • In Deuteronomy God spoke through Moses, telling the people to show “justice for the orphan and the widow, and [to] love the stranger, providing them food and clothing” (Deut 10:18)
  • In Jeremiah God says to the people: “if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood… and if you do not go after other gods… then I will dwell with you…” (Jer 7:6-7)
  • In Ezekiel God warns the people of Israel about coming disaster. God says: “the alien residing within you suffers extortion; the orphan and the widow are wronged in you.” (Ez. 22:7) These evils brought disaster and exile to Israel.
  • In Zechariah God says: “do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor” (Zech 7:10)
  • In Malachi, God says he will judge “sorcerers… adulterers… those who swear falsely… those who oppress the hired workers… [those who oppress] the widow and the orphan, [and] those who thrust aside the alien…” (Mal 3:5)

Tabitha understood God’s words, and took all these words to heart.  She cared for the widows and the poor with her own hands. She was particularly good at making clothing – for both men and women.  When she died she was grieved by many. And the people she had loved and cared for in life, cared tenderly for her in death. They observed the Jewish rituals for washing her body; and by doing so they made themselves ‘ritually unclean’ – according to Jewish law, they would not have been able to worship in the temple for seven days after touching a dead body. They were willing to do that for her because they loved her.

Joppa shoreline

And they also sent two men to go find Peter, who was staying nearby in Joppa, with this request: “please come to us right away.”  And so Peter did, and they took him to the upstairs room where Tabitha’s body was laid out. And the widows came to him, weeping, and showed Peter all the garments Tabitha had made for them. And they told him all about her kindness and her generosity.

I’m not sure what they expected Peter would do: certainly he would share in their grief. Maybe he lead her funeral service? I don’t think it ever crossed their minds that Peter might do what he did.  I mean, apart from Jesus and a few Old Testament prophets, no one had ever raised a person from the dead. I’m not sure even Peter knew what was going to happen.  One thing we can be sure of: Peter wanted to have a word with Jesus in private. So he asked everyone to leave the upstairs room, and then he knelt down and prayed.  And Jesus must have told him during that prayer what to do and what to say.  In the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter rose from his prayer and turned to the dead body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” And she did!

Side note: the word Peter used in Greek for “get up” is anestethi which is the word we get anesthetics from. The word anesthesia essentially means resurrection drug.  So for those of you who might be facing surgery at some point, the word anesthesia doesn’t so much mean put you under as it means bring you back up. I have always found that encouraging.

Back to our story.  Peter says, “Tabitha, get up” and she opens her eyes, and she sees Peter, and she sits up! And Peter offers his hand and helps her stand. And then he calls out to all the believers and the widows waiting outside, and their tears turn into shouts of joy and praise to God!  The woman they loved, who loved them so much, was alive again!

News of this spread all through Lydda and Joppa, and many people came to believe in Jesus because of this miracle. This is the power of God for the people of God – given so our joy can be full and so that sinners can be saved. And after this, Peter decided to stay for awhile in Joppa, teaching the new believers; so he was in the right place at the right time about a week later when a Roman soldier named Cornelius was visited by an angel and told to send for Peter because Peter had a message for him.

This meeting between Peter and Cornelius brought the gospel of Jesus to the Gentiles. Cornelius was the first non-Jewish person to become a Christian. Without him we would not be here today. And all of this was made possible by one woman’s generosity – doing what she able to do to love God’s people with the gifts God had given her.

Today being Mothers Day I think it’s particularly appropriate to remember that ordinary things in ordinary lives, done with God’s extraordinary love, mean more to the world (and to God’s plans) than the most powerful people at the heights of society.  In God’s economy, what we do – as everyday people – has more meaning for eternity than any politician in Washington, or any official in church hierarchy, or any board of directors in a corporation. Praise God! This resurrection power is the power of God for the people of God. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Fairhaven United Methodist Church, 5/12/19


Scripture Readings for the Day:

Acts 9:36-43  Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.  37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs.  38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.”  39 So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.  40 Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up.  41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive.  42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.  43 Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

Revelation 7:9-17  After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.  10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”  11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God,  12 singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”  14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.  16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;  17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

John 10:22-30  At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter,  23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.  24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”  25 Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me;  26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.  27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.  28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.  29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.  30 The Father and I are one.”


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Have you ever felt like somebody owes you an apology? Somebody let you down, or did something they knew you wouldn’t like, and you feel like, if they were really your friend, they’d say “sorry”?

If Google is anything to go by, this is a common frustration, and a huge issue, for all kinds of people: psychologists, psychiatrists, team-building experts, diplomats, and everyday people from all walks of life – we all wrestle with this issue.

And if the mistake or the offense is a really big one it might be hard for the other person to face you, let alone admit what they’ve done.

In our scripture readings today we heard the stories of two men who hurt Jesus deeply – and who owed him more than just an apology: men who needed a change of mind and a change of heart before their relationships with Jesus could be set right.

The first person we meet is Saul, who later became the apostle Paul. Saul was a Pharisee who believed Jesus was a false teacher and the Christian movement was heretical and needed to be stopped.  So with the blessing of the religious hierarchy, Saul was arresting Jesus’ followers, and in some cases even approving of their murders.

The second man we meet, Peter, had been one of Jesus’ best friends; but on the night of Jesus’ arrest he denied knowing Jesus three times.

These two men became two of the greatest evangelists the church has ever known. So what brought about the change?

I’d like to focus today on Peter’s story. (Paul’s story is worth spending time with too, but we can only dig into one passage today, so today it will be Peter’s.)  Peter’s story takes place probably two or three weeks after Jesus’ resurrection.  The disciples – including Peter – have already seen Jesus alive a couple of times in Jerusalem; but ever since the resurrection Jesus has been coming and going.  He hasn’t been with the disciples every day like he had been in the past, so the disciples decided to head home to Galilee.  As our story opens, Peter and some of the disciples are on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, which is another name for the Sea of Galilee.

As we enter into this story today, I’d like all of us to imagine ourselves there, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Imagine yourself actually in the story, as one of the disciples: maybe as Peter, maybe as Thomas, maybe as James or John or one of the others.

Imagine the sights, the sounds, the smells. Picture yourself there with them. The beach is surrounded by gentle hills, green with grass; the sun is warm and you can hear the water lapping on the shore. It feels good to be away from Jerusalem, out of the spotlight, out of the public eye, away from the Pharisees and Sadducees. It’s good to be home. It’s good to be back where family and former co-workers are nearby, it’s good to be with friends.

At the same time, everyone on the beach is feeling a little out-of-place, because the future is murky. After three years of traveling with Jesus, life can’t go back to the way it was; but how does one find a way forward?  Jesus had said to meet him in Galilee, but he hasn’t arrived yet, so… now what?

Suddenly Peter says, “I’m going fishing!” And everybody else says “we’ll go with you!”  And the whole gang climbs into a boat and launches out onto the lake.  (I’m thinking the boat was probably owned by Zebedee, James’ and John’s father… they didn’t just hijack a boat.)

After fishing all night, not a single fish was caught.  And as dawn begins to break, and the boat heads for the shore, there’s a man on the beach! He calls out, “children, don’t you have any fish?”  (I should mention the word ‘children’ is a somewhat misleading translation. It’s technically correct; but in ancient Greece the word paidia (the word we get pediatrics from) was used by blue-collar workers to address each other – kind of like saying ‘hey lads’ or ‘hey boys’.) Jesus is addressing his friends with casual camaraderie.

In answer to Jesus’ question “don’t you have any fish?” the disciples answer “no”. ☹  And Jesus says, “cast the net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.”

At this point you would think the disciples might be getting a feeling of déjà vu because they’ve been here before. They have been in this boat, on this lake, in the morning, after a night with no fish, with a stranger on the shore telling them “let the nets down one more time” – they’ve been here before.  But if that memory came to mind none of the disciples says anything about it.

So they let down the net. And they can’t haul it back into the boat for all the fish!  And at last the penny drops, at least for John, who turns to Peter and says, “it’s the Lord!” And hearing this, Peter puts on his street clothes and leaps into the water so he’ll be the first to get to Jesus. Of course, in his enthusiasm, he has left everyone else behind to wrangle all the fish to shore, but John points out the shore is only about 100 yards away at this point, which is a mercy.

One side note on this catch: Jesus tells the disciples to cast the net on the right side of the boat. There is nothing significant about the right side of the boat. What is significant, though, is the disciples’ willingness to follow Jesus’ direction. This miracle is, for them, a parable: it speaks of the missionary work they will shortly be doing, in which their success will depend on following Jesus’ lead. And the same is true for us: the success of our ministries and our outreach efforts depends on hearing and following Jesus’ direction. In addition to that, God will make use of all the skills the disciples bring to the table. Jesus tells them to make use of the net, and the boat, and their muscle power in addition to the action God takes in this miracle. The mission is a combined effort between God and the disciples. And so it is with us.

Back to our story: When everyone arrives on the beach, Jesus is already there, tending a charcoal fire, with fish on it, and bread as well.  Where Jesus found the charcoal, fire, and fish, John doesn’t tell us.  It’s enough to say ‘God provided’.  And then Jesus says, “bring some of the fish you caught” – adding the catch to what’s already there.

So Peter goes aboard and hauls the net ashore, and the disciples count 153 fish. Estimating about two pounds per fish this comes to about 300 lbs. of fish – which gives us some idea of how strong Peter was. After all the fish are counted, Jesus serves breakfast, and everyone eats together, and it’s just like old times.

Except for one thing: John writes, “no one dared ask Jesus ‘who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord.”  Apparently Jesus’ appearance – his resurrected body – was different than it had been before the crucifixion.  When the disciples saw Jesus on Easter day they recognized him by his scars.  Here on the beach, they recognized him (1) by the repeated miracle of a full net after a whole night of catching no fish; (2) by the breaking of the bread; and (3) by the power of the Holy Spirit which Jesus had breathed into them in Jerusalem.  Scripture tells us the Holy Spirit leads God’s people into truth, and bears witness to us about Jesus. So John could say with certainty, “they knew it was the Lord.”

Then after breakfast, while everyone was relaxing and chatting, Jesus takes the opportunity to clear the air between himself and Peter.  And watch how gently Jesus does this, and how he sticks to his goal, which is reconciliation and a restoring of the relationship.

Remembering a few weeks before, on the night Jesus was arrested, Peter had said he would be willing to stand by Jesus even if all the other disciples deserted him; he said he would even die with Jesus.  And Jesus had warned him, “before the rooster crows in the morning you will have denied me three times.”  And that’s exactly what happened: the disciples did desert Jesus, but Peter followed at a distance. And at the very moment Peter was saying for the third time “I don’t know who he is; I don’t know what you’re talking about” – the rooster crowed, and Jesus turned and looked at Peter, and Peter ran out to a lonely place and wept. And he and Jesus hadn’t really talked since then. They’d seen each other, but they hadn’t really talked.

So now, sitting around the campfire, in the presence of the other disciples, Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (indicating the other disciples).  And Peter answers, “Yes Lord you know I love you.”

“Do You Love Me?”

There’s something in the Greek here that we can’t see in English.  In Greek there are three common words for love (there are more than three words for ‘love’ in Greek, but three words commonly used in scripture): agape, philos, and erosEros is romantic love; philos is brotherly love (as in Philadelphia = “City of Brotherly Love”); and agape is a self-giving love, the highest form of love.  Jesus asks Peter “do you agape me?” and Peter answers “yes Lord I philo you.”  Peter is no longer shooting too high. His failure has humbled him, and he’s not putting himself above the others any more.  And Jesus answers, “Feed my lambs” – and in saying this, he restores Peter to his place as a disciple.

But Jesus isn’t done yet. A little while later he asks again: “Simon son of John, do you agape me?” And Peter answers the same way: “yes Lord; you know I philo you.”  And this time Jesus says, “tend my sheep” – which means a little bit more than the last command: it puts Peter in the position of a shepherd, one whose job it is to care for the sheep and lead them to pasture. Peter is now restored to leadership.

And then Jesus asks a third time: “Simon son of John, do you philo me?” And this cuts Peter’s heart. He says, “Lord, you know everything; you know I philo you.” And Jesus says, “feed my sheep.”  So the three denials have now been matched by three declarations of love. And Peter is given the opportunity to demonstrate his love for Jesus by taking care of Jesus’ sheep – that is, by caring for Jesus’ followers, his fellow believers, including you and me.

And then Jesus talks to Peter about his future. He says: “Truly I tell you, when you were young you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you get older, someone else will dress you and will lead you where you don’t want to go.”

I wonder how many of us who are getting older recognize the truth of these words?  The days when we just threw on clothes and dashed out the door are gone.  We move slower, and we can’t always go where we want to go or do what we want to do.  I think one of our greatest fears, as we age, is losing control over our lives; and having to depend on others to care for us and take us places (to which very often we’d rather not go).

John tells us Jesus said this to Peter to “indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.”  In other words, Jesus is telling Peter he will die a martyr’s death: and that when the final test comes, Peter’s courage will not fail. Peter will be faithful to the end. And as it turns out, in his old age Peter was sentenced to be crucified; and as he protested that he wasn’t worthy to die the same way his Lord did, the executioner crucified him upside-down.

After all this has been said, Jesus says to Peter, “Follow me.”  On the very same spot where, three years before, Jesus first said to Peter “follow me and I will make you fishers of men” – Jesus says “follow me” one more time. It’s a brand new beginning, starting all over.

So three take-aways for us today: (1) For those of us who may find our relationship with Jesus feeling strained, we can take hope seeing how gently Jesus restored Peter not only to friendship but to his place in God’s kingdom.  We can also give some thought to Jesus’ question “do you love me?” and how we might answer.

(2) If someone in our lives owes us an apology, we may be able to follow Jesus’ example.  Jesus leads off with questions, tailored to spark answers that will both search the heart and rebuild the relationship.

And finally, above all, we see in Peter’s story the depths of God’s love and forgiveness. There truly is nothing we can do that Jesus can’t forgive. And we can trust that with our lives. AMEN.




Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 5/5/19


Acts 9:1-6  Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest  2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.  3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.  4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

John 21:1-19   After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way.  2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.  3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.  5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.”  6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish.  7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea.  8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread.  10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.”  11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.  12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord.  13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.  14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”  16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”  17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.  18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”  19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”




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Welcome to the second week of Easter!  (In traditional churches, including the Methodist and Anglican churches, the Easter season lasts until Pentecost – so we can keep on celebrating!) And rightfully so!  How often do we get to rejoice over somebody walking out of the grave?  There will come a time when people walking out of graves won’t be an unusual thing, but for right now, it’s a marvel, and it’s a taste of things to come.

My theme for today is Filled with Joy – which fits the Easter season.  Our scripture readings from Revelation and from John both talk about joy-full things.  In Revelation we hear about God’s all-encompassing love for us; and in John we hear about the gentle love of Jesus even for those of us who doubt sometimes.

And these two passages go together like donuts and crème filling: the gospel of John is like the sweet creamy filling, and Revelation is like the donut that wraps around it. So we have a double helping of joy today.

Boston Creme Donut

Let’s start with Revelation.  The book of Revelation was written to churches facing persecution, in order to encourage them; and given the persecution Christians and people of other faiths are suffering today in various parts of the world, these words are as good for our time as they were back then.

The author of Revelation begins with the words “grace to you and peace”.   Grace and peace are two words we hear frequently in scripture so often we’re tempted to brush right past them and move on to the next idea. But these two common words have uncommon meanings.  Grace: a gift of God, related to the Hebrew concept of hesed which speaks of God’s overflowing lovingkindness, mercy, and faithfulness toward us. And with that – peace, which relates to the Hebrew word shalom – which goes beyond lack of conflict and speaks of the health and well-being that comes from God’s image being restored in us.

So all of that is included in those two words grace and peace – to you! – from the one who is and who was and who is to come, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness.

And again the author packs so much into these few words.  “The one who is” – literally, “from the I AM” – that is, using God’s name – AND who was, AND who is to come.  God covers all the bases.  There is no time in which God does not exist. There is no place in which God does not exist. We are surrounded by God both in time and in space. As scripture says, “in Him we live and move and have our being.”

The writer continues: “…and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and ruler of the kings of the earth.”  The kings of the earth may not realize this yet, but there is a King of kings and a Lord of lords they will answer to one day. This Jesus is the one who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood.

The king of kings – the Lord of all creation – loves you and me. Present tense. Right now. And he freed us from bondage to sin and death – past tense – that is, the work is done, and nothing more needs to happen. We have been freed, like slaves being set free. It puts me in mind of an old spiritual called O Mary Don’t You Weep. It was recorded by Bruce Springsteen not too long ago and I recommend it.  It’s an African-American song of freedom: a song of slaves whose chains have been broken, and it draws a parallel between resurrection and Moses leading the people out of Egypt. This is our song too because all of us have been slaves to sin and death… but Jesus, who loves us, has set us free, and the work is done.

And there’s more!  Not only are we free, but Jesus has also made us priests in the service of his God and Father. All of us are priests, not just the ones with collars on, and this begins now, not in the next life.

So what do we do as priests?  In our world today, when you say the word ‘priest’ most people think of Roman Catholic clergy, or people wearing collars, but that’s not what John is talking about here.  (In the early church there were no priests: they had bishops and deacons, and these were not as formal a thing as they are today.) But John is talking about people who will teach others about God’s glory and kingdom and power, and invite others into a saving relationship with God, and set an example of what it means to be a holy people, to live lives pleasing to God.  These priests are called from every nation and race and tribe and tongue around the world – anyone who loves Jesus.

So the joy of Revelation is that Jesus, who has set us free from sin and death, sends us grace and peace and love, and gives us the privilege and honor of calling us into God’s service.  That’s the donut. Here’s the filling:

In the Gospel of John, we read the story of what happened the evening of Easter day.  Earlier that day, in the morning, Mary Magdalene had seen the risen Jesus, and had told the disciples he was alive, but they didn’t believe her.

So that night the disciples were gathered together, indoors, with the doors locked because they were afraid: John’s gospel says ‘for fear of the Jews,’ but of course the disciples were Jewish as well; what John means is they were afraid of the Jewish religious authorities – the ones who had arrested Jesus and would be more than happy to arrest Jesus’ followers as well.

And then suddenly Jesus walks in… right through a locked door!  Apparently resurrection bodies are different than the bodies we have now.  Luke tells us in his gospel that the disciples thought they were seeing a ghost; and seeing Jesus walk through those doors might make a person think that.  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus asks the disciples for something to eat, and sits down to a fish dinner, which is proof that he’s not a ghost, because ghosts can’t eat (so they tell me).

John writes: Jesus stood among them and said, “Peace be with you” and he showed them the scars in his hands and in his side.  And the disciples were filled with joy.

We all have experienced the joy of being reunited with a loved one. It pales by comparison to seeing someone who was dead, alive again.  The disciples had believed with all their hearts that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, but then they’d seen him beaten, tortured, and murdered. The loss of Jesus was a loss of faith, a loss of hope. They had seen him taken down from the cross. They had heard the laughter of the religious leaders.  And as they banded together for safety and for friendship, suddenly… there was Jesus, alive!  Talking with them, eating with them, showing them the scars. Faith is restored, and hope is alive again.

And then Jesus gives them an assignment. He breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  And he adds: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

This verse has gotten the church in a lot of trouble over the years so I’d like to clarify it a little.  Many people when they hear these words think of the Roman Catholic practice of going to confession, but that’s a limited understanding, and not particularly helpful in this passage.  We need to keep Jesus’ words in context.  Jesus is commissioning the disciples into God’s service – all of the disciples being laypeople at this point.

Their mission is to make more disciples; to spread the good news. So the forgiveness of sins Jesus is talking about has to do with bringing people into God’s kingdom.  In other words, ‘sin’ in this verse is defined as rejecting Jesus.  So basically what Jesus is saying is, ‘if you recognize a person as a fellow believer, then they are. And if you believe someone doesn’t really know me yet, then they don’t’. This is not as subjective as it may sound, because Jesus has given the disciples the ability to discern, through the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, where people stand. However this is still a HUGE responsibility, not one to be taken lightly. I could preach a whole other sermon on just this one verse, but for today it’s enough to say this gift of forgiveness of sins has to do with preaching the gospel and making disciples and bringing people into the fellowship of believers and into God’s kingdom.

Meanwhile, while all this was going on, someone was missing: Thomas, one of the twelve disciples.  When he returned from wherever he’d been the other disciples immediately shared the good news, but Thomas doubted.  Thomas didn’t come right out and say “I don’t believe you”; but he made his belief conditional. He said, essentially, “IF I see the mark of the nails and put my hand in his side, THEN I will believe.” (One theologian jokes that he should be called ‘conditional Thomas’.)

Thomas sounds to me like the kind of person who (1) is deeply aware of the human capacity for wishful thinking, and (2) has had some experience with fake news. Which, by the way, made me wonder if indeed Thomas was familiar with fake news.  So I did a little digging and found out the ancient Romans were the inventors of newspapers.  Granted their newspapers weren’t on paper: sometimes they were on papyrus, sometimes on a thin piece of metal or stone.  But around 100 years before Jesus was born, the Romans began publication of the Acta Diurna, or “Daily Events” of the empire, which were posted in public areas like marketplaces and public baths.  And they kept people informed on things like weddings, births, deaths, criminal trials, gossip about the Imperial family, love stories of the rich and famous, results of the gladiator contests, and of course military and political news.

Things haven’t changed much in 2000 years! And of course the emperors knew how to use these communications to manipulate public opinion; in fact it’s said Julius Caesar was a master at it.  So yes – Thomas would have been all too familiar with propaganda. So skepticism was a very reasonable reaction.

A week later, the disciples were again hiding behind locked doors. (Even though they had seen Jesus alive they still weren’t feeling very courageous.) But this time Thomas was with them.  And again Jesus walks through locked doors.  And he says to Thomas the exact same thing he said to the other disciples: “put your finger here and see my hands; reach out your hand and put in my side.”

And Thomas exclaims: “My Lord and My God!”

There is no joy greater than the moment we see Jesus as he is, and know that he is who he said he is, the Son of God, the one who loves us with his life. It’s the greatest joy in the universe.  And the second is like it: the joy of sharing this experience. And so Jesus commissions us to share his joy as priests of God the Father.

Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” As people who fit this description, we may wonder why Jesus says our place is more blessed than Thomas’.  I think all of us would love to meet Jesus face to face on this side of eternity.  But scripture tells us – all through the Old and New Testaments – that faith comes not by sight, but by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.

Earlier this week I was reading Ezekiel and came across the story of the dry bones. You remember the story: God shows Ezekiel a valley full of dry bones, and asks Ezekiel “can these bones live?”  And Ezekiel answers “Lord only you know.”  And God says, “prophesy to the bones.” And Ezekiel does, and the bones come alive.

This valley of dry bones represents all the people in the world whose lives are spiritually dry and dead: who sense a lack of purpose, a lack of meaning, a lack of vision or inspiration… who lack life.  As priests of our God, our commission is to speak God’s words to dry bones.  God’s words carry within them the power of life, kind of the same way seeds carry within them the life of a plant.  In Genesis chapter one when God said “let there be birds, let there be animals” – living things appeared on the earth.  God’s words have life in them. And as we speak God’s words we share in that life-giving ministry.

And so, like Thomas, we are filled with joy at Jesus’ resurrection. We are filled with joy that no power in heaven or on earth can stop Jesus, not even death itself; and we are filled with joy that we are called into God’s kingdom and God’s service. Let us share that joy with those around us. And may God’s grace and peace be with us as we go. AMEN


“Filled With Joy” – Preached at Fairhaven, Spencer, and Incarnation, 4/28/19


Revelation 1:4-8  John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne,  5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood,  6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.  7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.  8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

John 20:19-31  When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”  28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.



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(Today’s scripture readings can be found at the end of this post.)

Best wishes for a joyous Palm Sunday! And since I won’t be with you next week, a Happy Easter in advance!

Today we celebrate once again, with believers all over the world, the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem to the praises of all the people: a great festival of palms and singing.

Today also brings our final installment in the Lenten sermon series Return to Me with All Your Heart, and today’s message focuses on Preparing. Palm Sunday is a good day to think about preparing.  We are preparing for Holy Week – for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  We are preparing to remember the day Jesus saved the world. We’re also preparing for Easter when we rejoice in his resurrection.  We are preparing to follow Jesus through the darkness of this week and into the light of next Sunday.

But it occurred to me as I was looking at our scriptures for today: in the events of this week, God is also preparing us – preparing God’s people – for everything that lies ahead.

Our reading from Luke begins with the words “after [Jesus] had said this, he went on ahead to Jerusalem…” – which of course begs the question ‘after he had said what?’

Just before Jesus’ grand entrance into Jerusalem, he had been teaching the people, and the subject of his lesson was this:

“the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

This is the framework and the backdrop to all the events of Holy Week.  Jesus, in his teaching, was helping people understand what God was planning all these events.  As the week unfolded, and things went from praise to grief, and from joy to despair, the disciples would have some way to understand why.

Jesus also talked about God’s desire to seek and save the lost in answer to some people who had been criticizing Jesus for his choice in friends: specifically Zacchaeus the tax collector, as well as other notorious sinners.  Jesus drove his point home by telling the parable of the talents. You may remember the story:

A nobleman travels to a far country to receive royal power – that is, he was like a prince traveling to his coronation. Before he leaves, he gives money to his servants and says “do business with this until I return”.  While he’s away the citizens of the country rise up and say, “we don’t want this man to rule over us!” – which of course doesn’t change the fact that he will be king, but it points out the people are in rebellion.  When this new King returns, the first servant comes up to him and says “Lord, your talent has made ten more” and the King replies, “well done! …take charge of ten cities.”  And the second servant comes and says, “Lord, your talent has made five more” and the King replies, “Well done! Take charge of five cities.”  The last servant comes up and says “here is your talent. I wrapped it up in a piece of cloth, because I was afraid; because you are a harsh man: and you reap what you did not sow.”  And the King says, “I will judge you by your own words. Why did you not put my money in the bank, so that I might have it with interest?” And he takes away the one talent and gives it to the man with ten.  And then King puts down the rebellion, and makes an end of the people who said they didn’t want him to be king.

This is a strange story Jesus tells.  It’s an odd parable, unless we remember that the king in the story is in fact not a harsh man but the most merciful and the most wonderful of kings; and his kingdom is a joy without end.

Jesus tells this story as he is preparing for the last week of his earthly life, because Jesus knows he is that king.  Jesus knows – better than even the disciples know – that he is the king of kings, and that his kingdom is coming. Jesus is looking ahead to the other side of the cross.

Jesus is saying to the disciples: I’m about to leave you. I am going to my coronation. And while I’m away, people will rebel against God. But be faithful with what I’ve given you, and when I come back you will share in my joy. 

And having said this, Jesus then leads his disciples in the direction of Jerusalem. They are approaching from the east side of the city, passing through Bethany (where Mary and Martha and Lazarus lived) then through Bethphage, and to the Mount of Olives.

And what happens next is an unusual series of events!  Jesus says to a couple of the disciples, “go into the village” (probably Bethphage) “and you will find a colt tied up, one that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it here. And if anyone asks you why you’re taking it, just say ‘the Lord needs it.’”

It is true, as scripture says, that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it; so if Jesus wants something, he has a right to it. On the other hand, to just walk up and walk off with someone’s mode of transportation, without saying so much as a word, would have been as unusual back then as it would be today.  I mean, if you walked out of church today and saw a stranger getting into your car, and you tried to stop them and said “what are you doing?!?” – and the person said to you, “The Lord needs it” – what would you do? (I would probably say ‘funny, the Lord didn’t tell me about that! Get out of the car!’)

But in this case the owner of the colt didn’t object. Maybe he was a man of faith. Maybe God had already told him someone was going to borrow his colt that day.  Maybe he knew Jesus, and for him Jesus’ word was enough. We don’t know, and Luke doesn’t say.  We do know from the other gospels that the colt was returned to its owner at the end of the day.

So that’s the first unusual thing.  The second unusual thing is: this colt had never been ridden.  Those of us who have been around colts, or at very least have seen some old cowboy movies, are amazed to see Jesus climb onto a colt that has never been ridden.  Colts usually object very strongly to being ridden… at least until they get used to it.  But here in Luke’s gospel we see an example of how Jesus truly is the Lord of all creation, including colts.

So with everything in place, a huge crowd of disciples and followers of Jesus gather around.  They spread their clothes on the ground under Jesus and the colt as he rides; they spread out palm branches; and they keep on doing this as the crowd travels down the side of the Mount of Olives.  As they wind down the hill they pass through an orchard of olive trees, and down further they pass through the Garden of Gethsemane, and then across the Kidron Valley and up the hill to Jerusalem.

In those days there was a city gate facing that path, so a person could walk from the Garden of Gethsemane straight up not only into Jerusalem but into the Temple itself, and it was about a ten-minute walk from Gethsemane to the temple.  Today that gate is walled shut, but Scripture tells us one day it will be opened again and King Jesus will enter through it one more time.

As the people are walking they sing and shout praises to God, and the sound travels all through the city. Everyone in Jerusalem is drawn into the scene, and people start asking what’s going on.  Meanwhile the crowd is shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven!”

All of this happens in fulfillment of what prophet Zechariah said:

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Behold, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey… he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” (Zech 9:9, 10b)

What a glorious day! What it would have been like to be there!  But hearing all this praise, the Pharisees tell Jesus to tell the crowd to pipe down.  (How is it that wherever Jesus goes and whatever he’s doing, the Pharisees always seem to pop up and throw cold water on things?) In this case what’s bothering them is that the people are calling Jesus “a king” – which they’re afraid the Romans will take the wrong way.

And indeed, at Jesus’ trial later that week, Pilate’s main concern was Jesus’ claim to be a king. Pilate didn’t care about the theological differences between Jesus and the Pharisees; Pilate just didn’t want any challenges to Rome’s control. It’s interesting that when Jesus said ‘my kingdom is not of this world,’ Pilate seemed to be OK with that.  He understood Jesus wasn’t trying to lead a rebellion against the Roman Empire; Jesus had his eye on something else, and Pilate was fine with that.

But too many people were of the opinion the Messiah would come to set Israel free from the Romans (and any other occupiers) and restore the throne of King David.  And Jesus was a descendant of David, so he qualified for the job!  And now here Jesus is, surrounded by believers praising God and proclaiming that Jesus comes in the name of the Lord.

And what the people are saying is true; and Jesus confirms it by telling the Pharisees “if they are silent the very stones will cry out.”  God’s praises can never be silenced!  But the people have not yet caught the vision of God’s kingdom, as a kingdom that is not of this world. And Jesus needs to correct that.

So after all the celebrating and all the rejoicing, Jesus enters the temple area, looks around, and then leaves. And the crowd goes home.  Nothing happens that would suggest Jesus is trying to make himself king in Jerusalem.  In Luke’s gospel Jesus does go on to turn over the tables of the money-changers, but this is a commentary on how the temple is being run, not on how Jerusalem is being run. As always, Jesus’ focus is on people’s relationship with God.

So as we prepare to remember this week how Jesus set up his eternal kingdom, which is a kingdom not of this world, we hear the words of Paul explaining how Jesus did it.  He says that Jesus, who in his true and original form was and is God, did not desire to hold onto his rights as God, but took on the form of a servant and was born in the likeness of human beings.  And as a man, he became subject to the same law of entropy and death that all human beings are subject to; but Jesus gave himself up to death on the cross in order to defeat death.

Paul says: therefore God has raised him up to the highest height and given him a name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

And this brings us back to the parable Jesus was talking about in the beginning: back to that young prince who went away to a foreign country to be crowned King.  This is where Jesus is right now, today.  We are still waiting for him to return from that country, where he has been crowned king, and where God has given him the name above all names.

While we wait for Jesus’ return, the people of this earth rebel against him and they say “we don’t want this man to be our king.”  But we who are his servants – we prepare for his return by investing the talents he has given us (our skills and our treasures). And if we are faithful we will rejoice with Jesus in the heavenly kingdom when that kingdom comes in its fullness.

So we can prepare for this Easter by saying “yes” once again to Jesus, saying “yes” to being his faithful servant, so that he will raise us up, just as God the Father has raised him up.

This week let us walk with Jesus once more through his last hours of agony… in faith that we will share in his joy on the other side of the cross.  AMEN.


Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 4/14/19


Luke 19:28-40   After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.  29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples,  30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here.  31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.'”  32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them.  33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”  34 They said, “The Lord needs it.”  35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.  36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.  37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen,  38 saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”  39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”  40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Philippians 2:5-11  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,  6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,  7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,  8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.  9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,  10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.


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I was just saying to the folks at Carnegie and Hill Top last week that I’ve always felt like Lent is a dark time of year.  It’s physically dark because it begins in the cold of winter; it’s emotionally dark because we know at the end of the forty days we will find ourselves standing at the foot of Jesus’ cross; and it’s spiritually dark because God’s message is: this cross is necessary for the forgiveness of sin.  The Cross reminds us – as if we need reminding – that there’s darkness in our world. As we wrestle with our flaws and shortcomings during the season of Lent, we learn all over again that God is right and we need Jesus.

But every year, right about now, a ray of light begins to shine in the darkness. Winter is fading, spring is breaking through; the days are getting longer and warmer; and as we listen to Jesus talking about Calvary, we begin to hear the message that the crucifixion will not be the end, and there’s a new life and a new home on the other side of the Cross.

So it’s appropriate that our sermon series on Returning to God should focus this week on Making a New Thing.  That is: God is making a new thing.

There are some people who would say that a book that’s over 2000 years old isn’t going to produce anything new: and that would be true if the Bible was just words on a page. But the Bible speaks about the living God – and while God is always the same, yesterday today and tomorrow, God’s word is always new, and it brings out new things in us.

In our reading from Isaiah God says, “do not remember the former things…”.  God’s not saying ‘wipe your memory clean’, God just wants us to not focus our attention on the past.  This can difficult for us, because if you think about it, all we know is ‘the former things’. Unlike God we can’t see the future. We do have the present, but the minute you say that, the present has slipped into the past.

So when God says “I’m about to do a new thing,” this can be a little bit unnerving.  As we mature, we learn that there is stability and safety in the familiar. The older we get, the more the word ‘change’ sounds like a politician’s promise rather than something we really want.  New things and new experiences – especially ones we’re not planning on and haven’t asked for – require trust. Praise God, our God is a God who can be trusted, with every thing in every way.

The two scripture readings we have for today – Isaiah 43:16-21 and Philippians 3:4-14 – both talk about new things. I counted five new things between the two passages (you might find more, and if you do let me know). Let’s take a look.

In Isaiah, the first new thing – New Thing #1 – is “thus says the Lord”.  Of course it’s not a new thing that God speaks; God speaks all the time, in many ways: through the Bible, through nature, through other people, through the Spirit speaking into our hearts and minds.  But when God speaks, things happen. You remember the words in Genesis: “let there be light” and there was light. “Let there be birds” and there were birds.  “Let us make human beings in our image” – and there we were.  And Genesis tells us “it was good”.  We can trust whatever God speaks into existence will be new and will be good.

New Thing #2 in this passage is that God is creating a road in the middle of water. This verse will be translated differently depending on which version of the Bible you read; it may say, for example, “a path in the rushing waters” or something like that. Bottom line, Isaiah is talking about a road through a body of water that’s in motion. Imagine for a moment building a road from Mt. Washington to downtown Pittsburgh without using a bridge or a tunnel. This is something new!  God has done it once before: in the book of Exodus, when the people of Israel left Egypt and crossed the Nile on dry land (and then God used the same Nile to defeat the chariots and armies of Egypt, which is what Isaiah is talking about here.)

But Isaiah says this time God is doing something new with those mighty waters: God is making a way in the wilderness. This has a double meaning: first it looks forward to John the Baptist, who is the “voice crying in the wilderness” and baptizing, preparing the way for Jesus.  And second, Isaiah is speaking of a passage through the wilderness of death.  Because in addition to passing through the Nile, the people of Israel also passed through the River Jordan as they entered the Promised Land; and the Jordan River has often represented the passage from this life into the next.  You remember the old spiritual “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” – the second verse says “River Jordan is chilly and cold/chills the body but not the soul.” God is making a way through the Jordan, and this is a new thing.

I remember when we visited Israel a number of years ago, we went to the Jordan River (and it IS cold!)  My old pastor got down into the river and was baptizing people – which he very much enjoyed doing – but when he came out of the water he was practically blue from the cold. I looked at him and said “chills the body but not the soul, right?” and he laughed and said “good one!”

God is making a way for us, a road for us, through those waters: the waters of baptism, and the waters of the Jordan, which we will all cross someday. God is making a way, Isaiah says.

New Thing #3 in our passage from Isaiah is water in the desert.  We’ve all seen movies of people traipsing across deserts, squeezing the last drop of water out of their canteens, seeing mirages on the horizon, and finally collapsing into the sand before somebody rides to their rescue.

Watering desert farmland with dew-catchers

Water in the desert transforms the entire landscape.  In modern-day Israel this is happening right now. Using new irrigation techniques, and using filters that can even capture the dew out of the air, Israel is turning the desert into a garden. Take a look…

Forest in the Negev Desert

In much the same way, God promises to satisfy our thirst.  This speaks to both justice – that is, giving water to thirsty people in the physical sense – and righteousness, that is, providing water in the spiritual sense.  Spiritually speaking we live in a world that is parched for God, dying of thirst for God’s word and God’s Spirit.

I’m reminded of a CS Lewis quote I saw this week on Facebook. Lewis wrote:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our [worldly] desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like a… child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday [vacation] at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

For those of us who long for the good things God gives, God pours out the water of new life, and the eternal Kingdom begins to break into our world: God’s justice, God’s righteousness, here and there, a little bit at a time. It’s enough to give us a taste of what’s coming: a new kingdom, a new world.

Turning to Philippians, we see New Thing #4: a new righteousness. Paul contrasts this with the ‘old righteousness’ which is found by obeying the law of Moses.  The problem is, this ‘old righteousness’ didn’t work, because the vast majority of us are just not capable of being that good.  And if we are, then the temptation is to become self-righteous, which is a failure in the opposite direction.  That’s where Paul was, as he says: he was circumcised on the 8th day, a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee, blameless under the law.  But Paul counts this as rubbish compared to knowing Jesus.

The new righteousness Paul talks about has its foundations in faith – faith in Jesus Christ – not in keeping rules.  This righteousness comes from God and is completely independent of human power or human effort.

Paul is so blown away by God’s goodness and greatness – and he so aware of his own sins (including having participated in the death of the first Christian martyr, which, to a Pharisee’s way of thinking, was what the law required) – Paul is so amazed at the depth of Jesus’ forgiveness and compassion.  Which leads us to…

New Thing #5: first love.  I don’t know how else to put it into words.  Do you remember your first love? Remember how it was: this other person was all you could think about, all you could talk about, you drove everybody else nuts talking about this person.  You wanted to be with him or her all the time, you couldn’t imagine life without them. You might even have married the person.

Paul’s love for Jesus is as personal and as passionate as that. Listen to Paul’s words: “whatever I gained I count as loss next to knowing Jesus”; “whatever I have I count as rubbish next to knowing Jesus”; “I have lost everything so I can gain Jesus” (keeping in mind had Paul lost his job, his promising career as a Pharisee, his home, his health (after all those beatings and shipwrecks), and his freedom (he is writing this letter from prison). Paul says: “I want to share in Jesus’ suffering so that I can share in his resurrection”; and he says “I press on to make him my own because Jesus has already made me his own.” Doesn’t that sound like a first love?

Paul is a man who never wanted to be without Jesus. He drove everybody nuts talking about Jesus. He wanted to be with Jesus all the time, in this life and the next. Like first love: except this love is truly forever, because death will not them part. And it will not us part.  Paul says a few verses later, “brothers and sisters, join in imitating me.” (Phil 3:17) and “I wish you were as I am, except for these chains.” (Acts 26:29)

As we prepare to head into Easter, we see that Jesus went to the cross so that all who believe in him will share with him in a love like this.  The writer of Hebrews says: Jesus “for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2)  And Isaiah writes: “He shall see of the travail of his soul, and be satisfied.” (Isaiah 53:11 KJV) In other words – Jesus did what he did on the cross because of the joy of sharing love with us forever. That’s what Paul means when he says “Jesus has already made me his own.”

This is the ultimate New Thing: it’s THE love story of all creation. And it’s still being written. The sooner we jump into the story, the longer our joy will last. AMEN.



Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 4/7/19


Isaiah 43:16-21  Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters,  17 who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:  18 Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  19 I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.  20 The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people,  21 the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.


Philippians 3:4-14   If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more:  5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;  6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.  7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.  8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ  9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.  10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death,  11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

12  Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,  14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.



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Today we continue in our Lenten series on Return To Me With All Your Heart, and this Sunday the emphasis is on reconciliation and new life in Christ.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always felt like Lent is a dark time of year.  It’s physically dark because it begins in the cold in winter; and it’s emotionally dark because we know at the end of the forty days we will find ourselves standing at the foot of Jesus’ cross; and it’s spiritually dark because God’s message to us is that the cross is necessary for the forgiveness of human sin.

Lent reminds us – as if we need reminding – that there is darkness in the world, around us and inside us, and as we wrestle with our flaws and our shortcomings during Lent we become convinced more than ever that God is right and we need Jesus.

But every year, right about now, right around the 4th Sunday of Lent, a ray of light begins to shine into the darkness of Lent. In spite of the fact it’s snowing today, the promise of Spring is beginning to break through; the days are getting longer; and as we listen to Jesus’ words as he draws closer to Calvary, we begin to hear the message that the crucifixion will not be the end; that there’s a light, and a new life, and a new home on the other side of the Cross. (My friends from “high church” traditions tell me this is indeed Laetare Sunday, a day of relaxation of the austerity of Lent.)

A new life and a new home: that’s what both of our scripture readings are about today. This isn’t immediately obvious though, so if you’d like to, it might be easier to see what I’m talking about if you have Joshua chapter 5 and II Corinthians chapter 5 at your fingertips.

Speaking of new homes: have you ever watched any of the home renovation shows like Fixer Upper or Trading Spaces?  The people whose homes are being worked on in those shows know at the beginning of the show that they’re going to end up with a house that looks nothing like it did before; but they don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like until the very end.  In some cases they get an absolutely gorgeous house, and in other cases, especially on Trading Spaces, mileage may vary.

Yes, that’s actual straw glued to the wall. [Trading Spaces]

No matter what happens, the process is interesting and the end result is something new, and a newly renovated house implies change. The people in the house are still the same people, but patterns of movement within the house change: people sit in new places and eat in new places. Old habits go by the wayside and new ways of living come into play.

In the Bible we see a similar thing happening.  From a very big picture point of view: in the Old Testament, God makes a covenant with Abraham that his descendants will live in the Promised Land, where they will become a great nation.  And in the New Testament, God makes a covenant with all who believe in Jesus that we will have a new home in God’s eternal kingdom. In both cases, when God’s promises come to pass, old ways will disappear and new ways of life will come into being. God’s people will always be God’s people, but everything else about life will change: how we live, what we think, how we feel about God.  We will have new points of view, new ways of seeing and understanding. And because of the nature of God’s kingdom, when we become believers in Jesus Christ, new life begins right then and there.  As my old pastor used to say, eternal life doesn’t begin when you die; it begins now and carries into the future.

So that’s the big picture behind our scripture readings for today.  In addition to this meta-story, both of our readings today tell smaller stories; and both stories talk about reconciliation with God. So let’s start with the Old Testament reading.

Our scripture reading from Joshua tells the story of what happened on the day God’s promise to Abraham was fulfilled.  The covenant God made with Abraham was that his descendants would become a great nation and would live in the Promised Land after having been slaves for many years (Genesis 15:13). God had also made a covenant with Moses that he would lead the people out of slavery to the Promised Land. And now all of this has come true.  The people of Israel spent four hundred years in Egypt (a good bit of that time as slaves), and then Moses led them out, and the people spent forty more years traveling in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land.  During those forty years they received the Ten Commandments, and entered into a covenant with God: that God would be their God, and they would be God’s people, and through them all the people of the earth would be blessed.

As our story opens, Moses has recently passed away, and Joshua is the new leader of the nation.  And God says to Joshua and the people: “today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And they named the place Gilgal.

There’s a lot of meaning packed into these two short sentences!  First off the Hebrew word for ‘roll away’ sounds like ‘gilgal’. They named the place Gilgal in memory of what God had done.  Secondly God chooses the words ‘roll away’: God could have said ‘taken way’ or ‘removed’ but ‘rolled away’ points to another time and another day when a stone will be rolled away from the tomb of our Savior.

Last but not least, God acknowledges and shows compassion for what the people have been through in Egypt.  Slavery is one of those horrible tragedies – like abuse or rape – where the disgrace belongs on the perpetrator but the feeling of shame too often lands on the victim.  And God acknowledges this, and says ‘today your disgrace is rolled away’.

The past is behind, and a new future is ahead.  God welcomes the people into their new home and into a new way of living. And the first thing the Israelites do in their new home is to celebrate the Passover, remembering the night they were set free from slavery. You remember the story: God told Moses ‘tonight the firstborn of every household in Egypt will die, but not in the homes of Israel. The people of Israel are to take a lamb without blemish, and eat it that night, and place some of its blood over the doorway of the house; and when the angel of death sees it he will pass over the house.’

And now, here, the people are finally home in the promised land of Canaan, and all of God’s promises have come true; and the first thing the people do is to remember God by celebrating the Passover, honoring all God has done for them.

Joshua then says on the day after the Passover, for the very first time, the people of Israel ate the produce of the promised land – which probably included things like bread made from wheat or barley, lentils, chick-peas (in other words: hummus!), figs, cucumbers, melons, dates, grapes, olives: quite a feast!

Modern-day Israeli Breakfast – with traditional foods

The day after passover, for the first time in forty years, the people of Israel no longer ate manna, the food from heaven that had kept them alive for those forty years. Joshua 5:12 says “the manna ceased” that day – and the word for ‘ceased’ in Hebrew is shabbat – the word we get ‘sabbath’ from.  This day was a day of holy rest, both for God and for God’s people.

This was a rest at the start a new beginning: a new life; a new home; new foods; and most importantly, a new way of understanding and relating to God. There had been some rough times between the people and God during those forty years in the wilderness, but now the people are no longer rebelling. They are reconciled to God, and they begin their new life by worshipping and enjoying God, and having a feast and enjoying each other.  The reading in Joshua closes with a picture of peace and joy in the Promised Land: a picture that looks forward to the feast Jesus spoke of that will take place one day in God’s Kingdom.

Israeli Hummus – Yum!

…which is where we pick up Paul’s story!  In our reading from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, we also hear words that speak of a new home and a new beginning.

Paul and the Corinthians have a long and ‘complicated’ story. Paul spent a year and a half living in Corinth, teaching them about Jesus and getting their church off the ground; but after he left, false teachers came in, whose words and immoral actions divided the church. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians deals with this situation and begs the people to set things right… which, with some difficulty, they did. So this second letter is a follow up to the first, where Paul expresses joy that the people have returned to God and also expresses his love for them.

In this part of the letter Paul is reminding the Corinthians that, because we now have a new home in Jesus, the way we see things by definition has changed.  We no longer understand from a human point of view. Paul says: “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away and everything has become new!”

To use the Israelites’ experience as a metaphor, on a spiritual level we are no longer living in Egypt. We were once slaves to sin but like the Israelites, our shame has been rolled away, and we are set free by the blood of the spotless Passover lamb: Jesus Christ.

Paul reminds us that this is who we are.  We are new creations by the power of God through Jesus. We are reconciled to God.  Paul says: “all this is from God, who reconciles us to himself through Christ.” (II Cor 5:18)

Paul then goes on to say: “and now God has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”  Now that we are new creations, we see people differently as we look at them through the eyes of Jesus. We see that all people are made in God’s image; all people are precious in the eyes of God; and all people have the opportunity to be set free from sin through Jesus’ death and resurrection. We see that all people who put their trust in Jesus have become our family by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Paul says our calling is to be ambassadors to people who don’t yet know Jesus. God’s game plan is to invite them into the kingdom through us.  We have the privilege of carrying an invitation sent out by the king of kings.

Whenever I read these words I’m reminded of the British tradition regarding invitations to royal weddings.  Royal invitations – at least until recently (I don’t know if they still do it) – were traditionally delivered by hand by a royal servant who would knock on your door, personally hand you the invitation, and then stand and wait for your reply.  The messenger who delivered this invitation would not pester you, or lecture you, or quote to you from the king’s speeches; the invitation would speak for itself.

As for what our heavenly invitation says: the word Paul uses for invitation in the Greek is parakaleo, which literally translates “to call alongside.”  In other words, God’s invitation basically reads “come walk with me.” Or as Jesus said to the disciples when they asked what he was up to, “come and see.”  If the person being invited says ‘yes’ our job is to put their hand in God’s hand and then step aside.

If you’re anything like me, and you find the idea of evangelism a bit intimidating, what Paul is talking about here is very do-able; and I think it helps to remember a lot of what passes for evangelism in our world has been done very badly.  All we have to do is simply be the messenger and carry the invitation: “God says to you ‘come walk with me.’”

Paul then wraps up this part of his letter by saying, “since God is making his appeal through us… be [yourselves] reconciled to God.” God made Jesus to be sin, who knew no sin, so that we sinners might have the righteousness of Jesus.  We are now living in a new place: a new life, a new home, a new calling in Jesus.

A few verses after this Paul says: ‘now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation.’  For believers, today is always the day: the day of new life, the day of the privilege of carrying God’s invitation. And if anyone here is still searching and still questioning: there is no other day. All we ever have is today.  God invites you to walk by his side, today.  What is your reply?

Let’s pray:  Lord, thank you for your invitation. Thank you for paying such a price to remove from us the shame of our slavery to sin.  Thank you for new life and a new home with you.  Help us, like the Israelites, to celebrate our passover with joy; and to rejoice in new creation and the promise of your kingdom coming. To your honor and glory, AMEN.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District, Pittsburgh, 3/31/19


Scripture Passages for the Day:

Joshua 5:9-12  The LORD said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” And so that place is called Gilgal to this day.  10 While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal they kept the passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho.  11 On the day after the passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain.  12 The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

2 Corinthians 5:16-21   From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.  17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;  19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.


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