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Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category

[Scriptures for the day are at the bottom of the post]

They say parenthood is ‘the toughest job you’ll ever love’.  One of the things a parent tries to do is teach their kids about life and prepare them for adulthood. Kids need to know what’s expected of them, and how to be polite, and how to get along with other people, and what’s right and what’s wrong.

And we sometimes run into trouble when what other parents teach their kids is not what we’ve taught our kids.  But on the whole, as parents, we do our best to give our children the very best — and that’s something that comes from deep inside us. We teach them what we know. We tell them about the mistakes we’ve made. We give them advice.  We guide them. And in the end, if all goes well, our efforts result in healthy, reasonably well-adjusted adults who have a lot in common with their parents. Kids learn more from us than we realize, and they take after us more than they know.

Our relationship with God is like that.  Our reading from Leviticus today contains a lot of rules and regulations.  And our temptation is to read this like a rule-book… or like lawyers who are facing a tough judge, and are looking for loopholes.

Instead, let’s look at this passage as if it’s our own parent speaking — because it is.  God, our parent, is teaching us what’s expected of us, and how to get along with other people, and what’s right and what’s wrong. And these words come from deep inside God. They are an expression of who God is. And as we learn them and do them we become more like our parent in heaven.

Think about the Ten Commandments for a moment: God rested on the Sabbath, and tells us to do the same. God is a God of truth; and likewise God’s children should not bear false witness. God never desires anything that belongs to us. Likewise we should not covet. You get the idea. The commandments are rooted in God’s character, and when we obey them we become more like our heavenly parent.

So, understanding God as our parent, let’s look at today’s reading from Leviticus.  God starts out by saying “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  Whenever I read this I hear it both as a commandment – “be holy” – and as a promise: (“you shall be holy.”) Because we’re not there yet. Someday we will be. As God’s children, we will take after our heavenly parent, but we’re not there yet.

And then God goes on to say what holiness looks like. God begins with verse 9:

“When you reap your harvest, you shall not reap to the very edges… you shall not strip your vineyard bare… you shall leave them for the poor and alien.”

I love this verse!  It comes into play in the book of Ruth.  You may remember the story, which takes place after Moses but before there was a king in Israel.  Back then Israel was a farming society. And when harvest time came, the reapers would leave behind some of the grain crop – the wheat, the barley – and the poor people of Israel would follow behind the reapers and pick up whatever they left behind.  It made it possible for the poor to stay alive.

One day Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi came back from Moab where they’d been living for many years. Naomi’s husband had died, and Ruth’s husband had died, and they had nothing; they were poor. And so Ruth went out and joined the poor people picking up the leftovers in the fields.  And she worked hard – the Bible says she reaped all day from early morning until evening, and then threshed the grain, and when she went home the first night, she had gathered and threshed more than half a bushel of grain in one day.

The owner of the field, a man named Boaz, noticed Ruth’s hard work, and told his reapers to leave grain behind just for her to pick up. Long story short, Ruth and Boaz end up getting married and they become the great-grandparents of King David.

If Boaz had not been obedient to God’s command to leave grain behind for the poor and the alien – which Ruth was both, poor and an alien – he would never have married her, and David would never have been born.  Sometimes the smallest obedience makes the biggest difference!

And it makes me think about how we might be obedient to this command today. Does it still even apply to us today? I think it does in a way.  We don’t farm any more, but what we do have is money and time.  I think it’s possible to think of money and time in terms of “don’t reap to the edge of your field”.  Don’t spend every last dollar on our own households. Don’t use every minute of every day in pursuit of more income. Set aside a few hours every month to volunteer – maybe at a homeless shelter, or a hospital, or a soup kitchen. The meals we feed to kids here at church – that fits too!

Another thing we might do is set aside a few dollars every month to help the poor and the alien. And because it has become so easy to just write a check (or fill out a computer screen) one of the things I challenge myself to do is to give in ways that fill small needs that larger charities miss.  For example, there are local refugee families who can’t afford diapers. There are homeless people in our city who are out in the cold and need hats and gloves and hot cup of coffee.  There are places in the city that provide these things, and are happy to accept contributions of diapers and hats and gloves and coffee. These are the gleanings of our harvest… we don’t even miss them… but they can make all the difference to someone in need.

Leviticus then goes on to repeat some of the Ten Commandments: you shall not steal, you shall not deal falsely, you shall not lie to each other, you shall not profane the name of your God, you shall not defraud your neighbor… again, these are all things that God would never do to us, and as God’s children, if we take after God, we won’t do them either.

And then God gives us something new to chew on. God says: “you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning” — because back in the day, holding back wages till morning meant somebody wasn’t going to eat dinner.

Along these lines, this past week I finished reading a book about the relationship between Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick. For anyone who’s not from Pittsburgh, Carnegie and Frick were the kings of steel — and they were also the men in charge of the Homestead steel plant, the birthplace of union labor after the murder of striking workers. I can’t help wondering if either of these men ever read this verse!  The obligation of an employer to treat employees fairly starts right here in the word of God. I think this must be one of God’s most-frequently-violated laws.  Even to this day too many people can’t afford to live on what they make. And far too many people here in America and around the world are trapped in something worse: human trafficking. The fair and humane treatment of employees is not a political issue, it is a moral issue – it’s right here in God’s word.

Then God mentions a few more things: “do not revile the deaf” – even though they can’t hear you – and “do not put a stumbling block in front of the blind” – even though they can’t see you. God hears. God sees. And God says “you shall fear the Lord your God”.

Bottom line of the whole passage: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Loving God and loving neighbor are the two laws on which all other laws depend.

One other thing from our passage in Leviticus. Notice how at the end of every paragraph it says “I am the Lord”?  This reinforces God’s parenthood and God’s legal guardianship over us. But I think it’s more than that.  Without going into a long explanation, from the point of view of people living back in those ancient times, the laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy are written in the form of a treaty – and they would have recognized it as such, just like we would recognize a sales contract today.  It was a binding agreement between the Kingdom of Heaven and the people of Israel, guaranteeing rights to each and outlining the responsibilities of each.

And then remember when Moses met God at the burning bush, and Moses asked, “If I tell the people God sent me, and they ask ‘who sent you? What is his name’? What should I tell them?” And God answers, “I AM THAT I AM. Tell them I AM has sent you.”

So at the end of each paragraph we see: “I AM – the Lord”. It’s like God is initialing the contract.  God signs off on each command individually – so there’s no mistake. These are God’s legal requirements of us all.

And the law is summed up in love for God and love for others. “I AM the Lord”

Turning now for a moment to the words of Jesus in our reading from Matthew.  Jesus takes the law of Leviticus and goes even further. He says: “You’ve heard that it said, “love your neighbor and hate your enemy”. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your father in heaven…” Again, there’s that parental example. We are God’s kids… and this is what God, our parent, does. God sends sunshine on the evil and the good. God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Why? Does God do good things for the evil and the unrighteous hoping they’ll change their ways? No. I mean, God does hope they’ll change their ways, but… God does what God does because it’s who God is. God is love… and if God ever stopped loving, God would stop being God. If we are God’s children we also will be generous and loving because it’s who we are as God’s children.

This commandment isn’t easy. And when commandments get tough, the first instinct is to try to split hairs by asking questions like ‘who is my neighbor?’ – which Jesus answers later in the story of the Good Samaritan.

But in this case – especially with some of the issues we’ve got going on in our contemporary society – I wanted to double-check the Greek anyway, and see what kind of wiggle room we’ve got.  And the answer is “not much”.  The translation is almost word-for-word with very little variation or shading. Jesus said what he meant and meant what he said. In verse 43, the word ‘neighbor’ is defined as someone nearby; and the word ‘enemy’ can be defined as a personal enemy, a national enemy, or an enemy of God. In verse 47 the word translated ‘Gentiles’ might be better translated foreigners. So verses 43 and 47 taken together point to, but are not limited to, our need to love people who are different from us, or who live in foreign lands.

And then verse 48 says, “Therefore be perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” The word ‘perfect’ here does not mean sinless. That’s a ballgame only Jesus can win.  But the word implies maturity or completeness. In other words, our heavenly Father is perfect, and we are God’s children… and our job is to become spiritual grown-ups.

For today, though, we are still spiritual children… clomping around in our parents’ shoes. Did you ever do that as a kid? Get into your parents’ closet and try on your parents’ shoes and go clomping around the house? I couldn’t imagine at that age how my feet could ever get that big.  But we grew into them, didn’t we?  And we will grow into God-likeness… someday.  That IS the word of God, and the command of God, and the good news of God… for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

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Leviticus 19:1-2  The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:  2 Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.

Leviticus 19:9-18  When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  10 You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.

11 You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another.  12 And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the LORD.

13 You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.  14 You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.

15 You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.  16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.

17  You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.  18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

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Matthew 5:38-48  “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;  40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well;  41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.  42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 2/19/17

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[Scripture readings are found at the bottom of this post]

I think it was a few weeks ago Pastor Matt preached on I Corinthians chapter one where Paul talked about divisions in the church: Paul said, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you…”

argument

In today’s reading from I Corinthians chapter three Paul again talks about divisions among believers.  In fact you could say he is still talking about divisions among believers. In fact when you get right down to it you could say the entire book of I Corinthians – all 16 chapters – deals with divisions among believers.

So it’s clear that disputes in the church and differences between believers are not unique to the 21st century!

I’ve named our sermon for today “Division Times Two” because both our readings for today are about divisions. Paul is talking about divisions in the church, and Deuteronomy talks about the dividing line between life and death, and good and evil.

So division times two.

I’d like to start with Paul and then sort of back into Deuteronomy, because even though it’s sort of backwards time-wise, in today’s readings what Paul says kind of leads into what Deuteronomy says.

Paul is writing to a congregation that has become split over a number of issues. The first issue Paul addresses is people being divided over their loyalty to different preachers. Some say “I follow Paul”, others say “I follow Peter”, “I follow Apollos” and so forth. And Paul is basically saying these divisions are bogus, because God’s people are supposed to be following Christ and Christ is not divided.

I can remember back in the 1980s, my pastor back then used to say in his sermons, “don’t follow me, follow Jesus”. And that’s the idea Paul is getting at. I can remember being tremendously relieved when my pastor said that, because you may remember back in the ‘80s there were a number of scandals with famous preachers getting caught in compromising situations. And it left a lot of people disillusioned. A lot of people left the church back then, and some even lost their faith, because they had following the preachers more than they’d been following Jesus. And so when the preachers fell, their faith fell.  And I’m not blaming the people for that entirely, because these preachers had encouraged this kind of following and competition. In many cases those ministries were already in spiritual danger long before the scandals hit.

So if we follow Jesus rather than following human teachers, we will avoid those false teachers who try to manipulate us.  We will understand that Paul and Peter and Apollos and all of our preachers and teachers who are true to God, are just fellow servants of God. It’s Jesus we all follow.

Now where it comes to divisions in the church, there are two things I think it’s important to mention that Paul is not saying.  The first is: when Paul says “I appeal to you … that there be no divisions among you…” Paul is not saying Christians need to agree on everything all the time.  If we disagree about clothing fashions, for example… or have different tastes in food… or root for different sports teams, maybe?… it’s OK to not agree on everything.  Just because you’re Christian doesn’t mean you have to love pierogis (although I do think it helps).

The second thing Paul is not saying is ‘peace at any price’ or unity at any price.  Later on in I Corinthians Paul tells the Corinthian congregation not to associate with immoral people. And he says:

“not meaning the immoral of this world – the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world.  But” (he says) “I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one” he says. (I Corinthians 5:9-11)

So if someone is constantly bringing sinful behavior into the church, we are not supposed to just carry on business as usual and ignore it in order to keep the peace. A person who deliberately and willingly flaunts sin after having been saved by the death of Jesus on the cross, is dirtying the cross and doing harm to the church. And Paul says don’t even associate with someone like that.

Let me give just one example.  Back in the 1990s there was an Episcopal bishop in New Jersey who published a list of things he didn’t believe in any more. He said he didn’t believe in the existence of a creator God, or that Jesus is the Son of God. He dismissed the idea of the crucifixion as barbaric, and he said that there is no such thing as resurrection.  And being a bishop, his teaching started to spread through the church and it was a major factor in a split in the Episcopal church ten years later.  But back in the 1990s, if the leadership of the Episcopal church had said, “hey Bishop, since you no longer believe in God, would you mind finding some way to make a living other than working in the church?” – things might have turned out differently. (They might not have, but they might have.)

Bottom line – letting rebellion against God go un-checked in the church is not a path to unity; in fact it’s just the opposite: it’s a path to division.

So what Paul is saying, is that among people of faith who want to live life God’s way, there should be a unity of purpose and of character and of calling that is evidence of being led by the Holy Spirit. While we may be different from each other, we are united.  This kind of diversity in unity can be seen, for example, in sports teams, whose goal is to win a trophy… or among veterans who have fought together in the same war… or in hospitals, where teams of professionals work together to save lives. These are all cases of very different people coming together to accomplish one thing; any time people come together for the sake of a cause greater than themselves, we see a reflection of this kind of diversity in unity.

And then add to that the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit to unite people and guide them – and what we have is Christian unity.

I discovered a wonderful example of this Christian unity this past week.  Last Monday we had a short prayer vigil for refugees at the Carnegie church. And while I was getting ready for that vigil, I googled a number of different church denomination websites to see what they had to say about the refugee crisis.  While different denominations emphasized different concerns – like safety and security, or addressing homelessness in general, or eliminating the causes of war – ALL the churches agreed on one thing: that we as Christians are called by God to minister to the homeless and to welcome the stranger.  This included Methodist, Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Reformed and Pentecostal churches.  When was the last time you saw ALL these churches agree on anything?!  It gives me hope…

In Psalm 133 King David says:

“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!  It is like the precious oil on the head, running down… the beard of Aaron… it is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the LORD ordained his blessing, life forevermore.” (Psalm 133:1-3 edited)

Where God’s people live together in unity, God ordains the blessing of life.

Which brings us to our reading from Deuteronomy.  God says in this passage, “See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.”  And God says “choose life.”  And then God explains what it means to choose life.

First, God says, “If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today… walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous…”

Now for us as Christians, on the other side of the Cross, we do not depend on the Law of Moses for our salvation. We depend on Jesus. But Jesus also said, “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.” So as Christians, the Old Testament law is not our savior but it is our teacher: it teaches us what pleases God, and how God designed life on earth to work. So we can still use the Ten Commandments (for example) as guidelines for moral behavior.

Second, God says “if you love the Lord your God… the Lord your God will bless you…”  It can be tough to love someone we can’t see, someone who is so much greater than we are. I think that’s part of why Jesus came to earth, so that we could more easily relate to God.

What these verses actually speak to though is the attitude of the heart.  Do our hearts lean towards God, like flowers toward sunlight? Or do our hearts pull back in fear and distrust?  Deuteronomy says, “If your heart turns away and you do not hear…and you are led astray to bow down to other gods, I declare to you today that you shall perish…”

This is not God being angry or vindictive.  God is simply explaining how things work.  If you put gas in your car, it will run properly. If you put sugar in your gas tank it will not.  It’s not closed-minded to say so.

Same thing here. If you love God and turn your heart toward God, God will bless and give life. If you don’t, the blessing won’t come. That’s the nature of reality.

Because if we turn away from God we always end up turning to something else.  And the something else we turn to is what the Bible calls an idol, a false god.  When people start chasing after idols we lose control of our lives, we get trapped.

Idols might be addictions like drugs or drinking or gambling. Idols could be relationships (50 Shades of Grey part two? ugh…)  Idols can even be good things like food or education or athletics or even going to church. If we put anything in the place of God – if we love anything more than we love God – we lose God’s blessing.

Having said all this, I should also mention one mistake I hear people make, based on scripture passages like this. I’ve heard people say that if you’re suffering, or sick, or injured, or poor, or in trouble in any way, it’s because you’ve turned your back on God and lost God’s blessing.  Not so. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. But for the people of God, whatever happens in life, we go through it with God, and God will redeem our suffering. In Joel 2:25 God says, “I will restore to you the years the locust has eaten” – which is God’s promise to bring good out of even the bad things that happen in life.

So if we obey God, and love God, and turn our hearts toward God, we will be in unity with each other. And unity is one of the blessings God gives to those who love God. It is a part of the victory of life over death, of prosperity over adversity.

So unity is one of the blessings that comes from the victory of life and prosperity over death and adversity. And when I think about this, I become concerned about the depth of the divisions in our country right now. Both in public discourse and in personal relationships, as best as I can tell, at the root of most of the divisions are hearts that love something more than they love God. It may be a political party that people love more than God, or a political platform. It may be a cause, or it may be a person who’s in the public eye. It may be liberalism, it may be conservativism. It may be the country itself. It may even a religious leader. All these things are good things – gifts given to us by God – but if we love any of them more than we love God, we lose God’s blessing. And if the divisions continue and grow, Deuteronomy says prosperity and life are at stake. And these words in Deuteronomy were written not just for Christians: they was written thousands of years ago for Middle Eastern and Semitic peoples even before the founding of Islam. So these words apply to all of us whose faith has roots in the Old Testament.

God says, “choose life, so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying God, and holding fast to God; for that means life to you and length of days…”.

Whatever’s out there in the world that concerns us, or troubles us, or divides us, if anything captures our hearts, or inspires our fear, or draws us away from God: bring that thing to God in prayer. Leave it at the foot of the cross for God to take care of. And then hold on to God, in love and in trust, without fear. Because God has for us life, prosperity, and blessing, so long as we hold onto God. AMEN.

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Scripture Readings for the Day:

Deuteronomy 30:15-20  See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.  16 If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.  17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them,  18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.  19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live,  20 loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

1 Corinthians 3:1-9  And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.  2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready,  3 for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?  4 For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?

5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each.  6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.  7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.  8 The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each.  9 For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

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Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 2/12/17

 

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“We are watching one of the most horrendous human rights crises of our generation.”

Try to imagine that your government wants to harm you and your family, maybe even take your life. You desperately seek refuge in another country, only to be turned away. With effectively no citizenship in any country, no place to legally live, what are your options? That is the situation for thousands of refugees at this very moment. We are watching one of the most horrendous human rights crises of our generation. I know firsthand the fear, dejection and hopelessness they feel. I’m receiving a constant flow of calls from refugees served by Gateway of Grace. Each one filled with fear and hopelessness, evoking doubts of worth and dignity.

There is no shortage of political discussions and media’s coverage of it, and that certainly has its place. But, what has been among the most unsettling comments is the reactions of some Christian leaders. I won’t enter the political wrangling of the matter, but I accept the obligation to correct a gross denial of Biblical authority on God’s love for the refugee.

I have yet to hear a more theologically inaccurate statement from a Christian leader than the one given a few days ago by Franklin Graham in which he stated that the refugee crisis is not a Biblical issue. From the brightest Biblical scholars to the Christians who faithfully read the Holy Scriptures daily, it is clear that God cares deeply for the refugee. And, how we respond or not respond reveals a lot about our knowledge of God.

We became refugees and were expelled from the presence of God the moment we sinned. God in His mercy reached out to us, repeatedly and lovingly to welcome us and bring us back to himself. God gave his only son WHILE we were still sinners, far from Him. He did not wait for us to convert before He loved us.

The theme of exile and finding refuge is undeniably the most prominent theme of the Scriptures. Acts 17 and 2 Chronicles 6:32-33 are very clear about the reason for welcoming the stranger. God’s desire is to bring ALL people to himself and restore them into the fullness of His image. God does not have a favorite nation and He has called us to be His redeeming, loving, and restoring presence to those who are hopeless. If as the Psalms point out over and again, God is our refuge, as little christs, we are the representative of that refuge to those in need.

For the sake of the Gospel, we are also called not to live with the spirit of fear.

We share the Good News of Jesus Christ with our loving actions and loving kindness and by obeying the commandments of Christ that fulfill that purpose. As Pope Francis poignantly said, “You cannot be a Christian without living like a Christian,” he continued, “You cannot be a Christian without practicing the Beatitudes. You cannot be a Christian without doing what Jesus teaches us in Matthew 25.” This is a reference to Christ’s injunction to help the needy by such works of mercy as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and welcoming the stranger.

“It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help,” he said. “If I say I am Christian, but do not do these things, I’m a hypocrite.”

As I write this, I see faces of our refugees, their tears as they share their stories and prayer requests, their hopes for the future, and their hard work to make a new life out of the ashes of the old one. As my friend Pastor Paul Wheatley puts it, “We are only as good as our ability to help the least of these.” And, that is what we will be held accountable for by our Lord.

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Author Samira Page is Executive Director of Gateway of Grace, a multi-denominational church-based ministry to refugees in the Dallas, TX area. She is an Anglican who studied at Southern Methodist University Perkins School of Ministry. She is herself a naturalized American citizen.

Samira adds: “Gateway of Grace will hold a cross-denominational prayer vigil to seek God’s wisdom, mercy, direction, and healing, and to pray for all who are involved in the refugee process. Consider this your personal invitation. The prayer vigil will be held next Monday at 6:30 at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Dallas. A reception will follow. Please RSVP to samira@gatewayofgrace.org”

(reposted by permission)

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“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.  Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” 
– Matthew 5:1-12

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Our scripture reading for today is one of the best-known and best-loved passages in the Bible.  It is also probably one of the most misinterpreted, mis-used and/or completely ignored passages in the Bible.  So I’d like to spend some time with it today, really digging into the meaning of Jesus’ words. I want to start out taking a look at the context of Jesus’ teaching, and then look at what these words might mean to us personally, and finally what they might mean to the church as the body of Christ.

So starting with context.  The Beatitudes, as these verses are called, are part of a much longer teaching known as the Sermon on the Mount, and the entire sermon is found in Matthew chapters 5-7.  So it’s a pretty long teaching. The Beatitudes are the opening section of that teaching.

In terms of location, Jesus taught these words on a mountainside overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

beat6These photos show what the mountain looks like today.  Of course back in Jesus’ day the top of the mountain would not have been flattened, and there would be no church there.

beat4But you can still get a feel for what it was like.  It’s a breathtakingly beautiful spot.  I mention this because so many Bible movies show Jesus and the disciples trudging over brown landscape, rocks, and dust, and there are parts of southern Israel that look like that, but not Galilee.  The region of Galilee is one of the most naturally beautiful places on earth.

beat3So this is where Jesus and the disciples went – surrounded by beauty.  In a way this would have been for them kind of like going on a retreat to Jumonville would be for us, a way of getting away from the everyday and spending some time – I was going to say ‘in the word’, but with the Word in this case.

Matthew says very specifically “when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain” where the disciples came to him. So Matthew seems to imply that Jesus was speaking mostly to the disciples, probably not just the Twelve, but to people who were already following him.  As the Sermon on the Mount progresses, a crowd builds, so by the end of the sermon in chapter 7 Matthew says “a large crowd” was astonished at Jesus’ teaching.  And then at the beginning of chapter 8 Jesus goes back down the mountain, and Matthew says even larger crowds (plural) were at the foot of the mountain waiting for Jesus.

I’m going to come back to the significance of these crowds in a moment, but for now I’d like to dig into the text.  One side note first on the Beatitudes, especially for those of us who have heard teaching on this passage before. There’s a common pitfall, I think, with the Beatitudes, and that is to take the characteristics Jesus describes as “blessed” and make them into personal goals. We are not supposed to try to make ourselves mournful, or meek, or poor in spirit, and so on.  What Jesus is saying here is if you find yourself  in these situations, if you hunger for righteousness, if you are grieving (and so on), then count yourself blessed. Not go try to make yourself blessed.

So having said that, let’s dig into these Beatitudes.

First off Jesus repeats the word “blessed” at the beginning of every sentence. In Hebrew literature, this kind of repetition is meant to build, one upon the other. Not that there are levels of blessedness, but that taken together as a whole the blessing becomes magnified. And the Greek word here for blessing goes beyond mere happiness and implies transcendent joy.

So the first group of people Jesus calls ‘blessed’ are the poor in spirit.  This has absolutely nothing to do with economic poverty.  The phrase ‘poor in spirit’ is a concept in Greek that is not directly translatable into English. In Greek the phrase refers to a person who is humble about his or her own abilities, someone who recognizes their need for other people. The exact opposite of poor in spirit is illustrated in just about every Clint Eastwood movie I’ve ever seen.  You know, at the end of the movie, after killing the bad guys and saving the town, Clint rides off into the sunset alone.  He leaves the town behind, he leaves the woman behind, he leaves the cute little kid behind. He doesn’t need anybody. His entire life is bootstrapped. This is the total opposite of what it means to be poor in spirit. A person who is poor in spirit knows they need others, and knows they need God.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, Jesus says – because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Next Jesus says “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”.  The word for comfort here in Greek is parakaleo.  If you were here last week you’ll remember this is the same word Paul uses in I Corinthians 10 when he says, “I appeal to you brothers and sisters that there be no divisions among you…” The word translated “I appeal to you…” is parakaleo. The literal translation is ‘to call alongside’ or ‘to draw (a person) to one’s side’.  So if you mourn, if you are grieving, Jesus says you are blessed, because God will draw you to His side.

Next Jesus says blessed are the meek – the gentle, the considerate. This does not mean weak but rather strong with flexibility. Jesus says the meek are blessed because they will inherit the earth.

Next Jesus says blessed are the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness. In other words, people who long for and deeply desire righteousness. The word ‘righteousness’ has kind of gotten a bad rep in recent years, so we could substitute the word ‘justice’, if we define justice as an attribute of God, not as something we see on Law & Order. Jesus says those who hunger and thirst for what God says is right are blessed because they will be completely and totally satisfied by God.

Next Jesus says blessed are the merciful – people who are compassionate, who have empathy – because they will themselves receive mercy.

Next Jesus says blessed are the pure in heart – again, a difficult phrase to translate, but – literally, free from dirt; figuratively, free from wrong. Impurity and evil cannot exist where God is – just like darkness cannot exist where light is. So blessed are the pure in heart because they will be able to stand in God’s presence; “they shall see God”.

Next Jesus says blessed are the peacemakers. Literal translation peace-maker.  Someone who is able and willing to build friendly relationships between people. (Try that on Facebook!)  Jesus says peacemakers will be called children of God – because God himself makes peace between fallen humanity and heaven, so when we make peace we are being like God.  We are being God’s children.

Next Jesus says blessed are those who are persecuted – expelled, harassed, oppressed – for doing what God requires. Not for doing something wrong, but for doing what is right.  I’ve seen this kind of thing a lot in workplace politics – where standing up for what’s right can sometimes even cost a person their job.  Blessed are you, Jesus says, when people shut you out for doing what God has asked you to do; yours is the kingdom of heaven.

And last, Jesus says blessed are you when others reproach you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you falsely because of your loyalty to Jesus. Jesus says “rejoice and exult! For your reward is great in heaven” because they treated the prophets the same way.

So if we find ourselves in any of these situations, we are blessed. God knows what we are living through, and God will bless each of us beyond our ability to describe.

The Beatitudes are words of comfort for each of us.  But they’re also more than that.  There’s also what Jesus’ words have to say to us as a church, as the local body of believers in Jesus Christ in this community.

Remember a moment ago I mentioned I would come back to the question of who Jesus was talking to on the mountain.  Usually when Jesus went up a mountain it was to get away from the crowds. His public teaching was usually – not always, but usually – either in the cities and towns, or near shore of the Sea of Galilee, where there are natural ampitheaters.  Even so, after Jesus went up the mountain, a crowd managed to find him, and by the end of the sermon “a large crowd” had gathered.  But in chapter 5, where we began, Jesus is clearly speaking to ‘his disciples’, that is, his followers – not just the twelve, but a group of people who already believed in Jesus and were following him.

So as Jesus begins to speak the different blessings, he does not actually say ‘blessed are you’ when these things happen. He says, ‘blessed are they’.  Of course these blessings do apply to us, to the disciples, to believers – but in the moment Jesus is pointing the disciples’ attention away from themselves and onto others.  And I think what Jesus is doing, at least in part, is describing to the disciples what kinds of people will make up God’s kingdom – the kinds of people the disciples are to go look for as they go out into the world in Jesus’ name. Charles Simeon, the great British preacher and contemporary of John Wesley, said this in his introduction to the Sermon on the Mount: “[Jesus’] design in this sermon was to open to [the disciples] the nature of that kingdom which he had… announced as about to be established, and to rescue the moral law from [the] false glosses which the Pharisees had put [on] it.” (Expository Outlines, Vol 11)

Or to put it another way, the Sermon on the Mount is to be the church’s game plan.

The prophet Isaiah said, in a verse that Jesus quoted: “The spirit of the Lord… is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;  to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor… to comfort all who mourn…” (Isaiah 61:1-2, edited)

King David wrote: “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD rescues them from them all.” (Psalm 34:18-19)

Throughout scripture, both Old and New Testament talk about God’s love for the hurting and the oppressed, and God commands the people of God to do the same.

Looking at this from a practical standpoint, it’s interesting to contrast the Beatitudes with today’s advice on church growth.  If you’ve ever read books on church growth, so many of them say things like “find the leaders in your community” or “create an attractive worship experience” or “take a poll to determine the community’s perceived needs”. And there are a gazillion magazine articles out there like “7 Keys to Church Growth” or “10 Church Growth Strategies”. One even said “44 Church Growth Strategies”!

All of these may contain some interesting tips; but not one church growth strategy I’ve ever seen says “go out and look for the humble, and the meek, the ones who are grieving, and the oppressed, and the ones who show mercy, and the ones who don’t compromise what they know is right, and the ones who build bridges between people, and the ones who are willing to suffer for doing God’s will. Go find these people and tell them God blesses them, and tell them God’s kingdom is at hand, and don’t bother counting how many show up on Sunday.” Sounds crazy, yes? But in the first few hundred years after Jesus, believers did these things and the faith spread like wildfire throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.

And if any of this sounds vaguely political – it is, but in not the way we expect.  As one pastor and author wrote recently, the problem with both the Christian Right and the Christian Left is that they reduce the word “Christian” to an adjective. God does not serve any worldly power.  To live as a Christian is to live under the reign and rule of Christ. And this is revolutionary, in fact (as the author put it) the only truly revolutionary politics the world has ever seen. And he adds, “The church doesn’t need to enforce this revolution, the church only needs to live it.” (Brian Zahnd, http://www.evangelicalsforsocialaction.org/faith-and-public-life/the-jesus-revolution/)

After Jesus came back down the mountain he went out and showed the disciples how this plan works in real life.  So we see him reaching out to people like the Samaritan woman at the well – who was rejected by her own people but whose heart was open to God – or the Roman centurion with the ill slave, who wasn’t even Jewish, but who had faith like no-one else.

So this is Jesus’ game plan. Go. Find the people who are grieving, the people who are victims of injustice, the people who the world overlooks because they’re too small or too unimportant, the people who long for righteousness, the compassionate ones, the people who are looking for God’s way and don’t care what the cost is. Find them, welcome them in God’s name, and invite them to be with us.

How do we do this? Start with prayer.  The opportunities will come.  In fact if I know this church at all, some of the opportunities are already here. Pray for God’s leading and keep an eye out for the opportunities.

Each one of us here, in some way, knows what it is to be blessed by God in the places where we are weak or where we’ve been hurt. Each one of us at one time or another has found ourselves described in one (or more) of the Beatitudes. We have received God’s comfort, and now it’s our turn to offer God’s comfort to others – blessing them and welcoming them in Jesus’ name. Let’s go for it. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican), Pittsburgh, 1/29/17

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“Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.  For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.  What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”  Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius,  so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name.  (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)  For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” – I Corinthians 1:10-18

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“Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:  “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles– the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

“As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea– for they were fishermen.  And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.  As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” – Matthew 4:12-23

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In our New Testament reading for today the apostle Paul says: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you…”

How much these words needed to be heard this week!  It’s been a week when we saw Donald Trump become President, which brought hope to some and fear to others. The very next day we saw the Women’s March, protesting against the new President… which brought hope to some and fear to others. I haven’t seen our country so divided since the days of the Vietnam War.

Speaking as a history buff, I’m sure there’s a history lesson in here somewhere… but that’s not what you came to church for today. And besides, the apostle Paul is much more to the point when he says the message of the cross stands above it all.

I’m going to come back to that thought in just a moment, but first I’d like to look at our reading from Matthew, which tells the story of Jesus calling his first disciples.  This story sheds light on what it means to be a disciple because it’s how the whole Jesus-discipleship thing began.

In our reading from Matthew, Jesus calls the first four disciples. They are two sets of brothers: Peter and Andrew, and James and John. All four are fishermen and all four are at work on the Sea of Galilee when Jesus calls them.  The thing that stands out in this story is that when Jesus calls them, all four men immediately drop what they’re doing and follow Jesus.

These men are tradesmen, average men from average families, and fishing is the family business.  But they drop everything to follow Jesus. They don’t ask questions about how they’re going to make a living, or who’s going to look after the family.  In fact Matthew says James and John “left their father in the boat” and went with Jesus, just like that.

Can you imagine doing that?

But listen to the words Jesus uses to call the fishermen. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” If someone said that to you, how would you react? Would it make you curious? Would you wonder if he was joking? Would you wonder what ‘fishing for people’ might involve?

I think our English translations address the mind, but in the original Greek language, Jesus’ words have a different feel.  It’s more like: “Come! After me! I will make you fishermen of people!”  There’s a spirit of enthusiasm and invitation and adventure that is absolutely compelling.  Jesus will take something as common as fishing and give it eternal meaning.  These four fishermen, by following Jesus, will play a part in changing the history of the world. They don’t know that yet, but what they do know is the feeling, in this moment, is a feeling of deepest joy, a joy you can’t say ‘no’ to, and they want more than anything to be part of it.

This joy is something we are called to also.  In Jesus, the kingdom of God begins to break into our world, pushing back the darkness and bringing in light.  Following Jesus does have a cost, and the road to eternity does pass through Calvary.  But a large part of the essence of the Christian life is joy, because we know who we are and whose we are, and we are looking for a world, for a kingdom, in which righteousness / kindness, and justice /mercy, and greatness /humility, are no longer contradictions because they come together perfectly in Jesus Christ. We have our sights set on the joy of that kingdom.

Now contrast this feeling of joy with the feelings we had watching the election last fall. Did we feel joy? Or did we feel uncertainty? Did doubts and fears creep into our hearts? Have we been looking to human beings to provide what only God can give?

I would submit that if we fear any human being more than we fear God, we’re in trouble.  If we think any group – political or otherwise – is going to accomplish God’s will (any other way than by accident) we’re in trouble.  If there is anything more important than God in our minds or in our hearts, whatever that thing is needs to go.

After Jesus called his disciples, the message he preached was “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near”.  And the Greek word ‘repent’ literally translates to perceive afterward, like we’re seeing something too late. For example, have you ever had the experience of having a conversation with someone, and then thinking of something you should have said about a half-hour after the conversation is over? That’s what the word repent means: to perceive afterwards.

In the future, when we look back on these days of division in our nation, will we regret how we’ve spent our time? Will we be sorry for things we’ve said to people? or for putting our trust in imperfect people instead of in God?  Will we be peacemakers?

How we treat each other, and what we say to each other makes no difference to the people in Washington DC – but it makes a difference to the people we see every day. And our words and actions have spiritual repercussions.

Which brings us back to Paul, and Paul’s words to the Corinthians. The Corinthian church Paul was writing to was made up mostly of new converts to the Christian faith, and most were Gentiles, not Jewish.  The new converts found themselves, to their surprise, richly gifted by the Holy Spirit with spiritual gifts like healing, speaking in tongues, hospitality, service, and many other gifts. But with so much giftedness they began to compete with each other. “My gifts are better than your gifts.” “My baptism is better than your baptism.” And so on.  Which sounds silly to us today. But think about how gifted we are as Americans. Are we enjoying our gifts and thanking God, or are we backbiting each other?

The ultimate point of Paul’s letter is found in I Corinthians 13, where he says the greatest spiritual gift of all is love. Treating others with kindness and dignity. Just the opposite of what the Corinthians were doing.

In this morning’s reading, in I Corinthians 1:10, Paul writes: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

“I appeal to you” Paul says. In Greek this phrase is one word, parakaleo – it’s a compound word made up of para (“alongside” – the word we get parallel from) and kaleo (“to call”).  This word is translated – depending on your version of the Bible – “I appeal” or “I urge” or “I exhort”. But the actual shading of the word implies not one who is pushing us (“I urge you”), but one who comes alongside and draws us.

Para-kaleo – to call alongside. Like Jesus calling his disciples, Paul’s words are an invitation to join him in a new way of life and in great joy.

Parakaleo, brothers and sisters” – be united in mind and purpose.  Have no schismata (no schisms, no rending of fellowship). And Paul makes his appeal in the name of Jesus, the same name by which the lame get up and walk, and the same name by which the sick are healed.

Is Paul saying all Christians should think the same, vote the same, be members of the same political party? Of course not.  What Paul is saying is, the divisions among us – whether in the church or in society in general – are caused by people who feel they’re better than others, or at least that their leaders are better than others.  So Paul is asking: Are some people better educated than others? Are some people more gifted than others? Are some people richer than others? Is it better to be baptized by Paul or by Peter? Do we follow Paul or do we follow Apollos? (And we could insert any number of names of politicians, celebrities, or media personalities in these questions.)

Paul replies: “Did I die for you? Was Apollos crucified for you? Has Christ been divided?”

In the world, among unbelievers, differences in education and wealth and giftedness cause division.  But among believers, among followers of Jesus, this should not be so. John Wesley said: “Though we may not think alike, may we not all love alike?”  That’s the essence of Christian joy and Christian unity.

There will never be permanent, meaningful, un-forced justice or peace in this life.  This doesn’t mean we stop working for these things. It just means we know any justice or peace we find in this world is temporary. It’s a foretaste of things to come, not a permanent thing here on earth.

Paul says:  “Christ sent me not to baptize but to proclaim the Gospel, and not with fancy words.” Paul doesn’t want to risk emptying the cross of its power.

And the power of the cross is this: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the source and giver of all life and all joy, died in our place and three days later walked out of the grave alive, opening the door to God’s kingdom for us sinful human beings.

Paul says this is “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”  As we look at the cross, the power is this: out of unfairness comes justice. Out of despair comes hope. Out of injury comes wholeness. Out of betrayal comes trust. Out of death comes life. Out of sacrifice comes Joy.

The powers of this world cannot accomplish these things. They never will. And if they say otherwise they’re lying. Only our Lord Jesus can bring life out of death.

In the book of Galatians Paul says, “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  And he says, “for freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Slavery happens whenever any thing, or any person, or any cause, becomes more important or more desirable to us than Jesus.

The message of the Cross is the love of Jesus and the power of God for forgiveness and redemption. It is liberation. It is freedom. It is new life. It is Joy. And it is unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ – not sameness – but unity in purpose, one in direction and one in destination.

Jesus calls us, as he called those fishermen long ago, to leave behind our former life and follow him into the kingdom of God.  Paul encourages us to be united in that vision, and help each other along the way to the kingdom.  Will we answer yes?

 

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 1/22/19

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[Scripture readings for the day are quoted in full at the end of this post.]

In the book of Romans Paul writes, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Romans 10:17)  And this is true.  But in our reading from the book of John this morning, Jesus says to John the Baptist’s disciples, “come and see”.  And it occurred to me there’s a difference, spiritually speaking, between hearing and seeing, and I wanted to spend some time with that thought today.

The Bible does not anywhere say ‘seeing is believing’; but it also does not say ‘believe what you hear and ignore what you see’.  We are designed to learn about God with every sense we have. But as I look through Scripture, as a whole, a pattern seems to emerge: the relationships people have with God – both people individually and as groups – tend to begin with hearing, and mature with sight.

Here’s what I mean.  The thought came to me while I was driving out to Philadelphia on the turnpike this week to visit my brother. As many of you know my brother had open-heart surgery this past Tuesday – by the way, thank you for your prayers, it went very well.  This surgery came up on us very quickly though, even though it’s been a long time coming.  It was one of those things where the doctors said to my brother, “we can’t operate until it gets bad enough, but if we wait too long you won’t be strong enough to survive the surgery.” So a week and a half ago the doctors said “NOW!” and four days later my brother was in surgery.  It happened so fast I wasn’t able to get there before he was in the hospital.  He was being operated on while I was driving across the state.

Somewhere around the Sideling Hill rest stop – and if you know the turnpike you know that’s about halfway to Philly – I got a phone call from my sister who said our brother’s out of surgery, everything went well, he’s doing well.

And faith comes by hearing, right? I knew right then my brother would be fine.  So theoretically I could have turned the car around and come back home to Pittsburgh. But of course I didn’t do that!  I kept on driving. And when I got to Philly my sister called again and said “they’re keeping him under for the night, he won’t wake up until tomorrow, just go to your hotel. We’ll visit in the morning.”  And again… faith comes by hearing.  And the next morning I took the train into the city and by the time I got there my brother was awake.

And that’s when faith became sight.  Now I could see how my brother was doing. Now I could see what the doctors and nurses were doing. Now I could enter into the story and become a part of it. Now there are relationships happening. Now I was present and available to do some good if anything needed doing.

This pattern of hearing, and then believing, and then seeing, and then being in relationship… I see this same pattern throughout the Bible and in the history of Israel’s relationship with God.  Follow with me:

In the beginning, in Genesis, God is in relationship with human beings.  In the very beginning, before the serpent came along, there was face-to-face relationship. Adam and Eve walked with God in the garden. After the serpent, people hid from God – didn’t want to be seen – and from that point on God is only heard, not seen. The relationship between God and humanity has been damaged. And the rest of the book of Genesis describes human society as it moves further and further away from God. It becomes harder and harder for people to hear God’s voice.

So God chooses Abraham, and promises to work through him and his descendants to reach the people of the world. In Exodus, Abraham’s descendants are led by Moses out of Egypt, and they are given the Ten Commandments and the Law of Moses which is known as the Covenant or Testament.  And the people learn about God by hearing. Exodus 24:7 says “Then [Moses] took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people.”

Later on, when King Josiah, a descendant of David, wanted to reform the nation and bring the people back to God, the book of Kings tells us, “The king went up to the house of the LORD… [and] he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant…” (II Kings 23:2)

When the prophet Nehemiah went to rebuild Jerusalem, on the day the temple was rededicated, scripture says “On that day they read from the book of Moses in the hearing of the people…” (Nehemiah 13:1a)

And even in the New Testament people begin their faith journey with hearing. When Paul preaches in Corinth, the book of Acts says, “On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 19:5)

And when Jesus preached, in the book of Luke it says, “he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down… [and said], “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:20-21) Jesus could have said “in your sight” because he was right there – the Son of God, visible to all the people – but he said “in your hearing”.

Faith begins with hearing.  But relationship grows with sight.  In scripture seeing is the necessary step in relationship-building.

In Exodus God says to Moses, “The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them.” (Exodus 3:9)  God is making plans to rescue Israel based on what he has seen.

In the beginning of the book of Nehemiah, the prophet says, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins… Come, let us rebuild…” (Nehemiah 2:17) – which is an invitation to relationship, and to hope for the future.

In the New Testament, after Jesus is raised from the dead, the angel says to the women at the tomb, “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples…” (Matt 28:6-7)

As for ourselves, we also we hear and believe.  Faith comes by hearing, even for us.  Someone, somewhere, told us that Jesus is the Son of God, and that he lived a perfect life, and taught us how to live, and that he died for our sins on the cross, and walked out of the grave alive, to prove that neither God nor love will ever pass away, and to open the door for us into God’s kingdom. Someone, somewhere told us this and we heard it and believed it. And that was the beginning of faith for us.

But if we stop there, we’re missing the larger part of the story.  We need to continue on and to see what God is doing. Granted we can’t actually physically see God. But we can be in God’s presence, and we can see God at work. When we pray we are in God’s presence and when prayers are answered, we see God at work.  When the Holy Spirit works through another person in our lives, we see God at work.  When the church does what God calls the church to do, we see God at work.

And I would like to suggest today, that as the South Hills Partnership churches reach out into our communities, one of the best things we can say to people is what Jesus said: “come and see”.  Because “come and see” invites people into relationship and into presence.

Jesus invited John the Baptist’s disciples to “come and see.” And a few verses later the future disciple Nathanael asks Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And Philip says, “Come and see.” (John 1:46)

When Jesus met the woman at the well, and she came to believe he was the Messiah, she ran to the people of her town and said, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” (John 4:29)

When Jesus visited Mary and Martha after Lazarus died, he asked, “where have you laid him?” and they answered, “Lord, come and see”.  (John 11:34)

The words “come and see” invite others to understand and to be present.  It’s interesting that in the Greek language, the word for “see” doesn’t just mean “look” but also ‘perceive’ or to ‘have spiritual sight’.  So when God sees us, God is seeing and understanding and being present to us.  When we say, “come and see” we are also saying “come and understand… come be part of us.”

Mother Teresa understood this.  She was frequently asked about her ministry to the poor in Calcutta. People wanted to know how she did what she did. And in spite of her amazing generosity and kindness, not everybody agreed with what she was doing or how she did it.  But without fail, if someone asked what she was doing or why – no matter who the person was: a politician or a reporter or a visitor – she would always answer “come and see”.

And we can answer the same way here in our Partnership churches.  If someone asks, “what is your church doing to address the drug overdose crisis?” we can take them to the meetings Mr. Gus leads at Fairhaven and say, “come and see”.  If someone asks “what is your church doing about the poor and the hungry?” we can bring them to Hill Top and to the Allentown community meetings and say, “come and see”.  If someone asks “what is your church doing about the needs of children and youth?” we can bring them to Carnegie or to Spencer and say “come and see”.  You get the idea. And if someone asks us a question about something we don’t do… we might want to prayerfully consider doing that… or inviting that person who asked to come and do!

I’d like also to suggest when people ask us where our church stands on a hot-button issue, rather than taking the bait and diving into controversy, just say “come and see”.   Because you and I know that the church is made up of all kinds of people with all kinds of opinions, but we are united in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit – and that is a miracle. That’s God at work. Christian unity is evidence of God’s presence. When we say, “come and see” it challenges people to stop sitting on the sidelines. It challenges them to step into the sometimes messy – and often joyful – reality of relationships and community.

So to sum up, in scripture and in life, faith comes by hearing; but relationship comes by sight and by presence. And I’d like to suggest a third step. Faith comes by hearing; relationship comes by seeing; and out of both comes praise.

Which brings us, briefly, to Psalm 40. The psalmist writes:

“I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD.”

Notice our progression is in this Psalm as well.  Verse 1: “he turned and heard my cry…”  Verse 3: “many will see… and put their trust in the Lord”  And as the band U2 sang back in the 1980s, then “I will sing, sing a new song…”

In verse four the psalmist says “blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord.” Verse nine, “I proclaim your saving acts in the assembly…” As the psalmist is wrapped up in praise, we find ourselves back at the beginning again, back to hearing. Because someone will hear the praise, and will believe, and the progression begins again.

So faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. Relationship and community come by seeing and by presence, which come by invitation. And praise comes from all of these, and starts the whole thing over again.  So as we reach out into our communities, let’s do so speaking the word of God, and inviting others to “come and see”.  And as we do, we sing praise… to the God who sees and hears us. AMEN.

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Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 1/15/17

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Scriptures for the Day:

“I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry.

He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog,

and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.

He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.

Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD.

Happy are those who make the LORD their trust,

who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods.

You have multiplied, O LORD my God,

your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us;

none can compare with you.

Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted.

Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,

but you have given me an open ear.

Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.

Then I said, “Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me.

I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.”

I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation;

see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O LORD.

I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,

I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;

I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.

Do not, O LORD, withhold your mercy from me;

let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever.” – Psalm 40:1-11

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“The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!  This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’  I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

“The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.   When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed).  He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).” – John 1:29-42

 

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[Scripture readings are found at the end of this post.]

“Then Jesus came from Galilee…”

Matthew’s gospel for today begins with the word “then” – which of course leaves us asking, “what happened before then?”  In this particular story – the story of Jesus’ baptism – that’s an important question.

In Matthew’s gospel, after the Christmas story, Jesus appears on the banks of the Jordan River to be baptized as a full-grown adult. But what happened in between birth and baptism?

What Matthew skips over, some of the other gospels talk about.  Jesus was born the Son of God, but he was also born a human baby.  And he had to learn all the things that you and I had to learn growing up: how to eat, how to walk, how to do chores around the house.  He did all the things that kids do like playing, and learning to read, and recovering from chicken pox.

It’s important to remember the human side of Jesus.  We see Jesus as Lord and Savior – and rightfully so – but he was also human.  He lived life day to day just like we do.

Which raises the question, how much did Jesus know about himself being the Son of God when he was growing up?  His parents, Mary and Joseph, would have told him about his Father, that he was the Son of God. And they would have told him what the angels said about how the Savior had been born that night, and what the shepherds said and the gifts the wise men brought.

But Jesus would have had to grow into an understanding of what that meant.  I suspect that’s why Jesus as a 12-year-old stayed behind in the temple, asking questions of the religious teachers. He needed to know, he needed to learn, what it meant to be Messiah.  Scriptures say after that he ‘went home and was obedient to his parents’ – which I’m sure was practice for being obedient to his heavenly Father during his ministry.

And after that, Jesus worked in the family business for a while.  He was well liked in the community, and for the first 30 years of his life Jesus led a fairly unremarkable life in Nazareth.  He did not, as some people claim, travel to the far east or to Egypt to study mystical religions.  And the one thing that was a little unusual about his early life was that he did not marry or have children. Sorry, Da Vinci Code.

And then one day all that came to an end.  One day, Matthew says, “Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan”.  We don’t know why that day, other than Jesus was being led by the Holy Spirit. We have very few details.  We do know Jesus was around 30 years old, and we know the place where John was baptizing was about 60 miles southeast of Nazareth as the crow flies (not quite as far as from Pittsburgh to Morgantown WV.) And we know Jesus most likely walked to the Jordan. How long would that take? For someone in his shape – with a carpenter’s build – two or three days maybe?

And more than likely Jesus made the trip by himself.  He didn’t have family with him, and he hadn’t called any disciples yet.  But the road he was traveling on was well-traveled, and there were probably other people traveling in the same direction at the same time. And he would have walked with his fellow travelers, and chatted, and maybe shared a sandwich.  For those of you who travel, you know some of the best memories of a trip is the people you meet while you’re on the road. And I imagine these conversations were an encouragement to Jesus, a confirmation of the rightness of what he was about to do.

Where exactly where John the Baptist was baptizing has been lost to history, but most historians believe it was near Jericho or a little further south towards the Dead Sea.  So as Jesus walked, the countryside around him would have changed… from hilly and green in the north, to dusty and dry in the south.

And so at last Jesus arrived at place where John was baptizing.  And there in the wilderness, in semi-desert, on the banks of the Jordan River, a large crowd had gathered.  In the middle of the river, a man wearing camels-hair clothing was listening to people as one by one they came forward and confessed their sins, and were baptized in the water.

In those days in Israel baptism was mostly a thing done for ritual purity, that is, to cleanse oneself after doing something nasty like burying a dead body.  But John taught a different meaning to baptism, a meaning that was taught at the community at Qumran at the time, which was that baptism represents inner cleansing – a way of preparing oneself for the coming of the Lord.

So people came to John and confessed their sins and were dunked, whole body, into the river, and raised out again.  In the meantime, at a slight distance, there were observers: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the political elite from Jerusalem.  They came, not to be baptized, but to ask awkward questions and cast doubts on what John was doing.  One theologian I came across said: Remember at the time of John the Baptist, the ‘rulers of the nation… rejected the counsel of God… by refusing John’s baptism’ while the tax collectors and sinners received it.  He said, “we should prefer entering heaven with publicans and harlots over being excluded… with the great and mighty of the earth.” (Charles Simeon, Expository Outlines)

So on the banks of the Jordan River, Jesus, after standing in line with everyone else, Jesus enters the water and approaches John.

Now John and Jesus were related, as we heard a couple weeks ago in the Christmas story. But they grew up far apart from each other: Jesus lived in the north in Galilee, and John lived in the south near Jerusalem.  Whether or not they ever met after birth is unknown.  But we do know that by the power of the Holy Spirit, John recognized the Messiah.

(As a side note, I think it’s comforting to know that even John the Baptist – who as baby leaped in his mother’s womb when Jesus’ pregnant mother walked into the room – even John had questions and doubts sometimes.  In Luke 7:20 we read, “John the Baptist [sent messengers to Jesus] to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” Even for John the shape of Jesus ministry was unexpected. And it’s interesting that Jesus answered “go and tell John… what you see and what you hear”.  Faith comes by hearing, not by sight as we might expect.)

So back to the Jordan.  John sees Jesus, recognizes him as the Messiah, and objects to Jesus being baptized.  He says, “I need to be baptized by you! And you come to me?”  John knows himself to be an imperfect person, as much in need of baptism as the people he’s ministering to.  (Which is true of all of us in ministry.)  And so John confronts Jesus, not saying ‘no’, but asking a question, and giving Jesus the opportunity to respond.

Which Jesus does. He says, “Let it be so now” – and Jesus speaks this as a command, but gently – “for it is fitting that we fulfill all righteousness.”  Notice how Jesus includes John in this: ‘It is fitting that we fulfill.’ Jesus is – from the very beginning of his public ministry – looking for people to work with him.

And so Jesus is baptized by John. And as he comes up out of the water the heavens open and the Spirit like a dove lights on him.  Can you imagine what that looked like? ‘The heavens opened’ – and a voice was heard saying “this is my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

John, and all those who witnessed it, knew they were seeing a once-in-the-history-of-the-world event. The Messiah, the savior of the world, the Son of God, come to earth in the flesh, was revealed this day by the very voice of God.

…and then, Jesus was immediately led by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days, where he was tempted by the devil. Does this strike you as odd? It does me. I mean, Jesus has finally made himself known – and God has given witness that Jesus is the Messiah – and no sooner is this made public that Jesus is sent into the wilderness for over a month.  This is not the way people usually roll out a new ministry!

But God’s ways are not our ways. And Jesus’ time in the wilderness was necessary, because even though Jesus knew he was the Son of God, there were still some things he needed to grow into.  And I suspect the depth of the meaning of his baptism was one of those things – because Christian baptism is not just about confession and forgiveness, it also represents dying to sin and being raised again.

From this point on, Jesus’s future is set.  The goal of his life is the cross, and the resurrection beyond it.  The temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness were temptations that called his goal into question… that tempted Jesus to find some other way to achieve his purpose, to find some short cut around the cross.  Praise God it didn’t work.  Jesus was, and always has been, completely faithful.

So I’d like to wrap up with two thoughts.

The first is just how astounding this event is. After 4000 years of waiting for promises to come true, Messiah is finally here!  God says: “my son, my beloved with whom I am well pleased.”  In his baptism Jesus is identified and his arrival is announced to the world.

This won’t necessarily mean what people think it means.  In Jesus’ day, many people believed the savior would save the nation from the Romans, and return control of Israel to the Jewish people, but they were mistaken about that.  And today there are people who make a similar mistake, thinking Jesus has come to create a Christian nation here on earth.  Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.”  Jesus is our Savior because he saves us from our sins – which makes it possible for us to become citizens of the kingdom of heaven – which is a whole new ballgame.  The majority of Jesus’ teaching will be about the kingdom of heaven: what the kingdom is like, how much the kingdom is worth, the things we can do here on earth to take with us to the kingdom. This is the heart and soul of Jesus’ teaching.

Which leads us to the second thought, summed up in Jesus’ words to John: “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

John the Baptist objected to baptizing Jesus because Jesus had no sins to confess, no uncleanness to be washed from.  John’s objection was rooted in an honest, perceptive, and loving heart.  And Jesus does not argue with him or find fault with his theology.  Rather Jesus overrides John with a higher calling.

Jesus is not in need of baptism, but we are, and Jesus came to take our place in every way.  Jesus does not come to earth to judge us or to make demands of us. Jesus comes to identify with us, to become one of us, in order to raise us out of sinfulness and into holiness, out of death and into eternal life.  The Word put on flesh and – as the Message Bible says – “moved into the neighborhood”. (John 1:14)

It’s an astounding thing to take in, that God would become one of us.  It’s not quite what the Jewish people expected in a Messiah.  And the non-Jews – the Romans and Greeks – were offended by it. They considered it shocking that a god would lower himself to put on flesh.  Greek philosophy taught that human flesh was corrupt, and spirit is our higher nature: so much so that some of the early Greek converts to Christianity started to teach that Jesus didn’t really come in the flesh at all, but only appeared to.

I point this out because our society today, without being aware of it, is very much influenced by this thinking. There are many today who try to separate body from spirit, flesh from spirituality, as if what a person does in the body has no effect on the spirit and vice versa.  As if only the spirit is eternal.  The Bible does not teach this.  As we say in the Creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body…” and that’s not just Jesus’ body, we believe in the resurrection of our bodies too.

In Jesus, God has become flesh and blood in order to bring us – body and spirit – into God’s kingdom.  Jesus is born into our world to stand in our place, and to do for us what we could not do for ourselves: by his death destroying death and by his resurrection opening the door for us into God’s kingdom.

And all of this is foreshadowed by Jesus’ baptism.

So Jesus says to John: “let us fulfill all righteousness”  And Jesus invites all of us to take part with him in the ministry of reconciling the world to God and God to the world.  How will we respond?

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(In the Methodist Church the sermon on the First Sunday After Epiphany is immediately followed by a ceremony of renewal of baptismal covenant. See Baptismal Covenant IV on this page for the text of the ceremony.  This Sunday we segued into the renewal ceremony with the following comments: )

One of the ways we can respond is by remembering our own baptism.  For some of us, who were baptized as children, we were welcomed into the family of faith even before we can remember.  For others, baptism may have come later in life.  And some of us may not even know if we were baptized.

In the New Testament, baptism is not just for repentance and forgiveness but is also the sign a person has come to faith in Jesus.  Over and over in the New Testament we hear the words, “they believed and were baptized.”  Most of the time in scripture these were adults being baptized, or adults along with their children.

Today we usually baptize our children very young as a sign of their being received into the family of God.  Before we come forward today, we will remember the promises we made, or that were made on our behalf, and recommit ourselves to those promises.

For most of us this will be a service of remembrance, but if anyone has never been baptized, or isn’t sure if they’ve been baptized, and would like to be, please let me know after the service.  In the meantime, all are welcome to come forward and touch the waters of baptism.  Let’s remember our baptismal covenant in the words of this ceremony….

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Scriptures for the day:

Isaiah 42:1-9  Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.  He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.  He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

Matthew 3:13-17   Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.  John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.  And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District, Pittsburgh, 1/8/17

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