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

Lord’s Prayer in English

 

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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!”

MontyPythonIAmYourKing

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.

LaborersHarvest

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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

So turning now to our passage in Galatians…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For freedom we have been set free.

Garden

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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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.

DemoniacGeresenes

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.

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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.

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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

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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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