Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.”  He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father. So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”

Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” – Matthew 15:1-20


Today’s reading from the book of Matthew begins with the word “Then…” – which means we’re starting in the middle of the story. It begs the question, ‘what happened before then?’

What happened before then was Jesus was having a very rough week. A few days earlier, John the Baptist’s disciples came to Jesus and told him that his cousin had just been murdered by King Herod. John the Baptist was beheaded, and his head was presented to Herod’s stepdaughter as a gift in exchange for her dancing for his dinner guests.

When Jesus heard this news he wanted to be alone for a while. He needed time with his Father God. I think all of us can relate to this: there are times when the world is just too much and we need to be alone with God.  I think that’s why the song In the Garden means so much to so many people: it captures the feeling of being alone with God.

So Jesus got in a boat and went away from the crowds, towards a lonely wilderness on the other side of the lake. But the crowds followed Jesus on foot, skirting the shore of the sea of Galilee, so that when Jesus got to the far shore they were waiting for him. And Jesus looked at them, and he had compassion on them, and healed the sick. And then, because they were in the middle of nowhere and getting hungry, Jesus and the disciples collected up five loaves and two fish, and Jesus blessed the food, and Matthew says they fed at least 5000 men, not counting women and children.

When they’d all had enough to eat, Jesus blessed the crowd and sent them home, and told the disciples to get in the boat and leave Jesus there so he could be alone to pray. Jesus finally got that alone-time with his Father.

After night-fall, Jesus walked across the water and joined the disciples in the boat – which is a whole other story – and the next day they landed at Gennesaret, where Jesus was soon recognized and more sick people were brought to him for healing.

All these things happened in a span of just a few days! And in spite of everything, Jesus was still on his feet, still ministering, and still loving people in the name of God the Father. Then…

Then the Pharisees came, with the scribes. Side note on these two groups of people: In spite of what we read in Scripture, the Pharisees were actually popular in the day. They were the peoples’ pastors. They opposed the Sadducees, who were the elite, the “one percent” of their day, and many of the Pharisees’ teachings became the foundation of modern-day Judaism. The reason we tend to see Pharisees in a negative light is because Jesus often took them to task for being legalistic and for being hypocritical… and as we read in the Gospels, Jesus was right. But this wasn’t true of all the Pharisees all the time; some of them actually ended up becoming Christian believers.

The Scribes were essentially lawyers who specialized in the Law of Moses – that is, they specialized in the Ten Commandments and all that’s written in the first five books of the Bible. Back in those days there was no separation between church and state, so these experts in religious law could also draft contracts and give legal advice.

So the Scribes and Pharisees, Matthew tells us, arrived in Gennesaret from Jerusalem. They walked approximately 75 miles just to ask Jesus a question. And the question they asked sounds like something a nasty person would have written on Jesus’ Facebook page. They asked:

“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.”

They walked 75 miles to ask this?

In the Greek it’s clear the Pharisees are accusing the disciples of transgression. They’re referring to a religious tradition, handed down for generations, that all decent Jewish people wash their hands before eating bread. This is not hand-washing as we think of it, to remove dirt and germs. This is a brief religious ceremony requiring clean water and a silver cup and a short ritual of words and motions. It would have been impossible for those 5000 men, women and children Jesus had just fed, to come up with enough silver cups and clean water for everyone to wash their hands. And the Pharisees (as they so often did in scripture) completely missed the miracle and fixated on obedience to the letter of the law – or in this case, the letter of the tradition.

Two things I want to draw attention to here:

(1) the disciples were accused of breaking religious tradition. And it was true – they had. I want to ask this: have any of us ever broken a church tradition? I know I have. One Sunday shortly after being ordained I wore the wrong color stole – I wore a purple one when I should have worn a pink one. Priests are supposed to know better! But if you ever trip over a tradition like that, trust me, You.Will.Hear.About.It.  In my case, I didn’t hear about it from the people but from the other priests.


We all had a good laugh about it. But how many people, I wonder, have been put off by the church because they’ve been attacked for something silly like this? Or how many won’t go into a church because they don’t know how to ‘do church’? They say to themselves: “I don’t know how to pray. And when do I sit, stand, or kneel?” So I put this question to all of us: How can we make our churches welcoming and easy to get to know? How can we keep tradition in its place and not let it be a hindrance to people who are seeking God?

(2) The Pharisees are keeping the letter of the law – well, the letter of the tradition – but they’re completely missing the spirit of it. The point is to be clean before God. Washing hands doesn’t accomplish that.

By the way, Jesus never taught his disciples not to wash their hands. (And neither would I in this pandemic time – keep on washing your hands!)

But the Pharisees are accusing Jesus of allowing his disciples to break religious tradition. Jesus doesn’t answer this. He doesn’t waste time trying to help the Pharisees understand where he’s coming from. Instead, Jesus answers by saying the Pharisees commit greater transgressions – they transgress God’s commands – with their traditions.

And Jesus gives an example. He says: One of the Ten Commandments says “honor your father and your mother”. But the tradition of the Pharisees and scribes says that a child can say to an aging parent “any help you might have had from me is given to God” – that is, given to the temple or the synagogue – and then that person need not take care of their father or mother. Honoring one’s parents in the Old Testament began with providing for their physical needs and went from there. So Jesus says: “you revoke the word of God for the sake of your human tradition.”

Jesus then turns to the crowd and says:

hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of it.”

The disciples pull Jesus aside and say, “do you know the Pharisees were scandalized by what you said?” And Jesus answers, “every plant my father has not planted will be uprooted.” This echoes the passage we read last week, the parable of the wheat and the weeds – that pictures God as a farmer who plants good seed, and then an enemy comes along and plants weed seeds. And they grow up together for now so that the good plants don’t get pulled up with the weeds. But – as Jesus says – every plant the Father has not planted will be uprooted.

Jesus says: Let them go. Give it up. They are blind guides; and if the blind lead the blind they will both fall into a pit. This is a hard word from Jesus. He’s basically saying, “Don’t even try with them.” How sad is that, when Jesus says about somebody, ‘don’t even try’?

Peter says “Lord I don’t understand” – which is a great prayer to pray when you’re feeling confused. So Jesus explains: what goes into one’s mouth enters the stomach, passes through the intestines, and is dropped into the latrine. (That’s literally what the Greek says.) But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and that’s what defiles a person, because out of the mouth comes evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false testimony, blasphemy and abusive language.

You’ll notice Jesus doesn’t rank these sins. He says all of them equally begin with evil thoughts, or as the Greek says, in the inner dialogue we have within ourselves. The things we say to ourselves when we’re alone with our own thoughts – that’s where all sins begin.

So two things I’d like to take from this passage today:

  1. Let’s pray – for ourselves and for others – that God will cleanse our hearts and sweeten our words. That God would make what comes out of our mouths worth being heard, helpful to others, kind, loving, and just. Pray for that.
  2. Remembering the Pharisees – and how their hypocrisy often made God’s people feel like they didn’t belong in the synagogue – for those of us who are still in the church, let’s give some thought to the questions: what traditions do we have that might invalidate a command of God? What doctrines do our churches teach that are man-made and not God-made? For example, does the church’s tradition of holding up marriage and children as the Christian ideal have the effect of minimizing the involvement of single people? Divorced people? Widows and widowers? Does it make childless people feel like second-class citizens in God’s kingdom? That’s just one example of how a church tradition might get out of hand.  And where it comes to doctrines – nowhere in the Bible does it say Lent must be purple and Pentecost must be red. That’s all human-made. Having the “wrong color” is not a sin.

That’s just for starters. As Jesus says, the real issue is in the heart. Our work on our hearts will be life-long, but thank God we don’t have to do the work by ourselves. We have a Father who loves us, we have Jesus who died for us, and we have the Holy Spirit to guide us. And we have Christian brothers and sisters to help. So let’s ask the tough questions, and welcome the outsider, in the name of our Lord Jesus. AMEN.


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(This is the second in a series of online worship sermonettes being offered weekly in the No Walls Faith Community Facebook group. If you’re interested in seeing the video or catching Sunday morning’s live stream look us up on Facebook. Online worship is organized using the Book of Common Prayer‘s Family Morning Prayer service.)

Today’s Scripture Readings: Exodus 34:1, 4-9; Ephesians 6:10-19

As I did a couple weeks ago, I’m looking at a couple of passages that were in this past week’s Lenten Devotional, that I felt speak to where many of us have been these past few weeks.

The reading from Exodus takes place shortly after God set Israel free from slavery in Egypt. God led them through wilderness to the foot of Mount Sinai to meet with them; and what God says to Israel, the people would have recognized as being in the form of a treaty. Usually this kind of treaty was made between a conquering king and a subject nation: “I’ve conquered you and now if you want peace you will do this…” but instead God says “I’ve conquered your enemies the Egyptians and I want you to be my chosen people, a royal priesthood…”  The people are thrilled and say “yes, whatever God says we will do.” And God’s treaty with them is what we know today as the Ten Commandments.

Moses goes up on the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, but he is delayed 40 days coming back down, and the people get antsy and start to wonder of Moses has disappeared. So they make a golden calf to worship – breaking the first of the commandments – and Moses returns down the mountain just as the party is heating up. We may remember the scene from the Charlton Heston movie The Ten Commandments: God is angry, Moses is angry, and he smashes the tablets of stone and God executes justice.

Ultimately God forgives, and Moses goes back up the mountain, which is where our reading today begins.

The Lord said to Moses, “Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. Be ready in the morning, and then come up on Mount Sinai. Present yourself to me there on top of the mountain. No one is to come with you or be seen anywhere on the mountain; not even the flocks and herds may graze in front of the mountain.”

So Moses chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones and went up Mount Sinai early in the morning, as the Lord had commanded him; and he carried the two stone tablets in his hands. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”

Moses bowed to the ground at once and worshiped. “Lord,” he said, “if I have found favor in your eyes, then let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance.” (Exodus 34:1-9)

Moses has asked God: “May I see your glory?” and this is God’s answer. And isn’t this a question we’ve all wanted to ask at one time or another? “God, I wish I could see you. I wish I could see your greatness. I wish I could take a break from all the sadness and sorrow in the world and just be with You for a little while.”

God says to Moses: “yes, but…”  God’s greatness is so great, and God’s goodness is so good, and God’s purity is so pure, that for humans to see God face to face – we can’t survive it, not as we are now in this life. In the next life, yes – “we will be changed” as the apostle Paul says. But in this life seeing God face to face is too much, it would overwhelm us. So God says to Moses, “I will hide you in the cleft of a rock, and put my hand over you to protect you as I pass by, and you will see my back.” (this is where we get the text for our opening hymn for today: “He Hideth My Soul… in the cleft of the rock that shadows a dry, thirsty land…”)

He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock
That shadows a dry, thirsty land
He hideth my life in the depths of his love
And covers me there with his hand

The rock represents Jesus; God hides us in Jesus so that we can survive meeting God face to face someday. But back to Moses…

As God passes by God describes God to Moses: “The LORD, the LORD” – that is, “I am, I am” – which is the translation of the name God speaks to Moses. God IS.  If we ever have doubts about God, all we need to do is remember God’s name!

God continues with the self-description: God merciful and gracious,“slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation.” And Moses bows down and worships.

So how do we live for a God like this in a time like this?

The apostle Paul gives us some ideas when he compares the life of faith to a soldier wearing a suit of armor in our reading from Ephesians:

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel…” (Ephesians 6:10-19)

Paul says: “Put on the whole armor of God so you’ll be able to stand. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood but the authorities and cosmic powers of this present darkness.  Therefore…  Fasten the belt of truth around your waist.”  Truth is what holds everything else up, so to speak. Without truth we are…exposed!  “Put on the breastplate of righteousness.” – Doing what we know is right protects our hearts. “Put on the shoes of the gospel of peace.” We stand in God’s truth, in Jesus’ message of hope and faith and love, when we share these things. “Pick up the shield of faith…” that is, trusting God’s word, “…and the helmet of salvation.”  Knowing God is merciful, knowing God accepts us and forgives us, protects our minds from doubt. “And the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God…” The only offensive weapon in a Christian’s armory is God’s word: nothing more… nothing less. “And pray in the Spirit at all times.” Pray for those in need; pray for those who minister to us; and pray for those who have asked for our prayers.”

Go into the week ahead in God’s strength, sure that God IS, and we belong to God.


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This coming Wednesday, February 26, is Ash Wednesday.

For some of us who follow Jesus, this is a day we observe every year: a day to attend worship and receive ashes and be reminded that “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

For some of us who follow Jesus, Ash Wednesday is an odd tradition that some churches observe “but we don’t, because faith isn’t about observing special days, it’s about loving Jesus every day.”

For some people Ash Wednesday is simply the beginning of Lent: the time of the year when we “give up” something in honor of what Jesus gave up for us.

But where does Ash Wednesday really come from, why did it start, and what does it mean to believers today?

Ash Wednesday dates back to early in Christianity’s history, when Lent was a time for new believers to give up their old ways and learn how to live as Christians, and for those who had walked away from the faith to return to it. The forty days of Lent was a time to grieve over wrongs done with prayer and fasting and receiving ashes.

But the practice of putting ashes on oneself as a sign of mourning dates back before Jesus. In the Old Testament, the prophet Daniel wanted to ask God why the people of Israel were still captive in Babylon. Daniel writes: “Then I turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.” (Daniel 9:3)

And in the New Testament, Jesus reproached people who witnessed his miracles and refused to believe: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” (Matthew 11:21)

So Lent is a time to grieve over our sins and discover new ways of walking by faith. And Ash Wednesday, which begins Lent, is a solemn reminder of our mortality and our need to be reconciled with God.

So how do believers today observe Ash Wednesday? In the churches that observe it, the tradition is to fast (refrain from eating) until sundown, attend worship, and receive ashes on one’s forehead in the shape of a cross. (Some churches no longer practice fasting because of health issues.)

In the Roman Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is an obligatory day of fasting and abstinence; Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Moravian, and other Protestant churches hold services but don’t necessarily require attendance or fasting. (Eastern Orthodox churches begin Lent on a Monday and so don’t observe Ash Wednesday.)

For me, I think the most poignant and meaningful word in the Bible about fasting – and one that brings me to repentance –is this passage from Isaiah, where God says:

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?  Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly…” (Isaiah 58:5-8)

So how do you observe Ash Wednesday? Or how would you like to? Feel free to share a few thoughts.

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In the ancient world in which the events in the Bible take place (particularly the Old Testament), hospitality was an essential part of life. In a place and time when there were no supermarkets, running water, electricity or other public utilities, hospitality – especially to strangers – was essential and could be life-saving.

As we’ve been reading through the book of Genesis this month, examples of hospitality shine out from the pages. Here are two of them:

“[Abraham] looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.” (Genesis 18:2-8)

Abraham sees it as an honor and privilege to serve the strangers who have arrived near his tent – so much so that he bows down and begs them to stay. No doubt travelers would bring news with them which Abraham will be interested to hear; but more than that, he has plenty to share and, as a traveler himself, he knows how wearying the road can be. “Let me bring a little bread” he says – and then orders up a feast!

Here’s another scene. It precedes a sad and violent story so it’s often lost in the melee:

“The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground. He said, “Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.” They said, “No; we will spend the night in the square.” But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate.” (Genesis 19:1-3)

Notice Lot greets the visitors (not knowing at this point they are angels) the same way Abraham greeted his visitors: bowing down and asking for the privilege of hosting them. In Lot’s case, he knew the town and knew it wasn’t safe for strangers to bunk down in the town square for the night, so his request is somewhat urgent.  (We find out in the following verses Lot was right; one of the great sins of Sodom was their refusal to protect strangers and make them welcome – and instead to do the opposite.) Again, like Abraham, Lot minimizes his offer: “come wash your feet” is all he suggests, but he immediately presents the visitors with a feast.

Isn’t this how God is with us?  “Come rest from the road,” God says.  “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest,” says Jesus.

The invitation is for all of us.

And for those of us who have said “yes” to God’s invitation: If God has been so unbelievably generous with us, can we fail to welcome others?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Scripture Reading

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Good Samaritan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Today’s Readings:

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

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

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

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

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


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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there’s more! David continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

The Holy City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May 26

Easter 6

Memorial Day Weekend

Acts 16:9-15

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

John 14:23-29


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modern-day Israeli Breakfast – with traditional foods

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

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

Israeli Hummus – Yum!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Scripture Passages for the Day:

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

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


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Today is Transfiguration Sunday which means this week is the beginning of Lent already!  I don’t know about you but we still have a few Christmas poinsettias living!

When I was growing up as a Presbyterian we didn’t pay much attention to Lent, at least not the way our Catholic brothers and sisters do. I could never figure out what was up with eating fish on Fridays. Of course nowadays I appreciate a good fish fry! And now I understand that if we give up eating meat (or anything else) for Lent we do it remembering all the things Jesus gave up for us. So giving up something for Lent is like an act of solidarity with Jesus.

But we’re not in Lent just yet.  Today, being Transfiguration, is a day that prepares us – and a day on which Jesus was prepared – for what lies ahead: for the cross.  Today is a day of strengthening and confirmation and encouragement.

There is a lead-up to the story of the Transfiguration. Our Gospel reading today starts out with Luke saying: “Now about eight days after these sayings…” – which means we need to look back and see which sayings he’s talking about.

Luke is talking about a conversation Jesus has with his disciples in which Jesus asks them, “who do people say I am?”  The disciples answer, “some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, others say Jeremiah or one of the prophets”.

There are two observations I make in hearing this.  First, what the disciples are hearing from the crowd indicates their thinking centers on the past.  The crowds are not looking to the future, nor are they thinking about the fulfillment of prophecy. In fact they’re not even thinking ‘hey, this is something new in the present’. Their focus is on the past.  The other thing I notice is that members of the general public back then were firm believers in resurrection. This is interesting because resurrection was a very controversial issue back then.  The Pharisees believed in resurrection but the Sadducees didn’t, and this was a very hot and divisive topic. It’s interesting the people agreed with the Pharisees on this.

Today, the subject of resurrection is a little less divisive but people still disagree about it.  Some people say this life is all there is: you live once and then you die. Others believe in reincarnation.  Some people believe when we die we all go to a place where our spirits become one with the universe as the universe gets to know itself.  I think people in our time are less likely to believe in the kind of out-and-out resurrection that Jesus’ crowds are talking about – that is, people from the past literally coming back to life. For example, can you imagine what would happen if George Washington walked into the room right now? Or CS Lewis? Our minds don’t usually entertain thoughts like that in our age, at least not seriously.

So the question Jesus asks is still a relevant question today: “who do people say that I am?”  People today would probably offer a variety of answers: some might say “he was a great man” or “a good teacher”. Some might call Jesus a prophet. Atheists might say Jesus was a deceiver, or that he was deluded. There are some who believe Jesus is just a myth.  But all over the world, and all through history, there are people who would answer the way Peter did: “you are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  And Jesus called Peter blessed, because “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven has.”

And Jesus’ saying is still true today. Anyone who knows that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, knows this because God has revealed it to them.

Being able to say (and believe) that Jesus is the Messiah is the definition of a Christian. Christian faith is not about where we stand on issues; it is not about how we vote; it is not about what school we went to or what we do for a living; it is not about our culture or our nationality or our family life or what church we go to – we may have all these things in our lives, and they are blessings from God, but they’re not what defines us as Christians.  The definition of Christian is someone who believes Jesus is the Messiah and follows his lead.

And the word Messiah is not some religious, pie-in-the-sky concept.  The word means “anointed one,” and anointing in Biblical times designated a king.  Saul, the first king of Israel, was anointed before he was made king. David was anointed before he became king.  And Jesus is the anointed one, the coming king.

Whenever Jesus preached, he always started off by saying “The kingdom of God is at hand! Change course and believe the good news!”  The kingdoms of this world, the kingdoms that oppress people and give wealth to the 1% while the rest go without, these kingdoms will end soon – all of them. Because a new king is coming and is in fact here now and he will set up a kingdom of justice and righteousness.

This is what Transfiguration is all about.  It’s a glimpse of the coming kingdom. It’s a sneak preview.  We’re not there quite yet, but we can see it coming, and we’ll recognize it instantly when Jesus returns.

There’s one more conversation that takes place in Luke’s gospel before the disciples head up the mountain, and in this conversation Jesus tells the disciples he’s going to die. At this point in time, Jesus and the disciples are in the north of Israel, far from Jerusalem. But he tells the disciples he must go to Jerusalem, where he will be handed over to the religious authorities and be killed, and then three days later will return from the dead.

And hearing this, Peter says, “No Lord! God forbid! This must never happen to you!” And Jesus rebukes Peter, saying, “Get behind me Satan! Your mind is set on human things not divine things.”

It’s hard to hear Jesus talk like this. We don’t like to think of Jesus being angry, but he did get angry sometimes – usually when someone got in the way of people coming to know God. Remember what he said to the Pharisees: “You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”  And without knowing it, Peter is getting in the way of people coming to God.

Why does Peter say what he says? He’s probably speaking out of affection for Jesus.  I think our hearts at first tend to agree with what Peter is saying. We who love Jesus don’t want to see him die. We don’t want to see him suffer. Jesus is a friend, a teacher, someone we look up to, someone we want to be with.

And it’s possible Peter might have been thinking a few other things. He might have been thinking, “Jesus, you’re too good for those scribes and Pharisees – leave them alone, they’re not worth your time.”  It’s possible he’s saying the disciples will defend Jesus and fight for him. Or maybe he’s saying he can’t imagine this world without Jesus in it. Any of these thoughts or feelings would do Peter credit.

But Jesus objects because, he says, Peter’s mind is “set on human things, not divine things.”  God has something greater in mind than what Peter can see from a merely human perspective.

And this is true of all of us. What we see from our human point of view is always, at best, extremely limited compared to God’s understanding.


In my mind it’s like a caterpillar and a butterfly. Imagine seeing the world the way a caterpillar sees it: all of life is a tree branch. You’re born on the branch, you eat on the branch, you live on the branch. If you tried to talk to a caterpillar about the whole tree, or better yet the sky, the caterpillar would think you were nuts. There’s no such thing as tree or sky in his mind, there’s just this branch. Until one day the caterpillar makes a chrysalis and goes to sleep, and wakes up a butterfly and flies into the sky, or lands on the tree. Same creature, totally different perspective.  That’s how we will be when Jesus comes in his glory.

What we know now is nothing compared to what we will know. And what we see now is nothing compared to what we will see. In Peter’s case, he did not yet know that when Jesus died he would take on himself the sins of every person who had ever lived and ever would live, and pay for those sins so we wouldn’t have to.  Peter couldn’t yet see God’s plan. He didn’t yet understand that death could not conquer Jesus. Peter would understand all this someday, but not this day.

So Peter is called Satan by Jesus because he is tempting Jesus to abandon his role as Savior, and save himself.  But Jesus understands and forgives even this.  And he explains that anyone who wants to follow him must deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow in his footsteps; that those who try to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for Jesus’ sake will find them.  And that’s true of a lot of things in life: if we try to hold on to it we will lose it, but if we lose it for Jesus’ sake we will find it.

A few days later, Peter is among the handful of disciples Jesus invites to join him on a mountain-top. And there, the disciples see Jesus transfigured.  Not just transformed – which would imply mere change – but transfigured, changed into something more beautiful, more glorious, than a mere human being.  As one theologian puts it:

“Jesus’ change in appearance gives us a glimpse of not only who He truly is, but also what we have a share in as children of God.”

Change for the better – isn’t that what we all really want? Isn’t that what we’re longing for? Change for the better in our lives, in our home life, in our relationships, in our world? But the thing is, God’s plan for our lives and for this world can be difficult to grasp. And we are still in the caterpillar stage.  Our main task is just to keep moving towards God. As Jesus would say, “change course and believe the good news.” Or as one Christian writer puts it:

“The more we unite ourselves with Christ in prayer, and in reading Scripture, and in acts of charity, the more we ourselves become transfigured by Jesus acting in us.”

So the transfiguration shows us both who Jesus really is, and something of what we will eventually become in God’s eternal kingdom.

So for today, there are three things I’d like to take with us.

First, we need (and all people need) to feel confirmed and encouraged.  Even Jesus needed this. We need to approach this with some empathy. We, like Peter, can’t fully grasp what Jesus is planning. We can never fully understand how Jesus felt as he looked towards Jerusalem, and saw in his mind’s eye the coming confrontation with the political and religious powers of this world, and beyond that a cross with his name on it. Jesus was a man of incredible courage. Speaking as someone who gets nervous when I know I need to see a dentist, I can’t imagine what it would be like to know that in two weeks’ time I would be flogged and nailed to a piece of wood. I cannot imagine living with that knowledge.

For Jesus, the Transfiguration confirmed his calling, and all that was about to happen.  If there were any doubts in his mind, and I don’t know that there were, but just in case he ever wondered “What if I’ve mis-interpreted the prophets?” – Jesus’ time with Moses and Elijah would have put any questions to rest.  Luke tells us Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, “appeared in glory [like Jesus!] and were speaking of Jesus’ departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:31)  Moses and Elijah were able to say to Jesus, “yes, you read us right. This is what God the Father showed us. And yes you can do this – you’re the only one who can – and our words will back you up. And by the way we can’t wait to welcome you back home in heaven.”

Second, Transfiguration gives us a vision of what is to come for us. We will no longer be like caterpillars only knowing one branch of a tree. We will become like butterflies, soaring through God’s creation. In the Transfiguration, we have a glimpse of the beauty God created in each one of us, which will be revealed at Jesus’ coming. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky: the kingdom of God has already broken into our world.  The revolution and the revelation have already begun.

Third, we need hear again God’s word to us who follow Jesus: “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” God makes the same point Jesus’ mother Mary makes at the wedding at Cana: “whatever he tells you, do it”.  Jesus’ earthly ministry begins and ends with the same advice to us.  When God says “listen to him” –we need to do it!

The disciples on the mountain-top, having seen and heard all these things, are about ready to set up tents and stay there, when all of a sudden everything returns to normal. The cloud is gone, the glory is gone, it’s just Jesus standing there, looking like he usually does; and it’s time to go back down the mountain and turn their faces toward Jerusalem. We now enter with the disciples into the dark days of Lent, and we listen as Jesus teaches about what’s coming: his betrayal, his trial, and his death, and beyond that his resurrection.

As we enter into Lent this week, and walk once more with our Lord through his suffering, may the memory of the Transfiguration stay with us to inspire us, and to encourage us with a vision of the kingdom to come. AMEN.



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


Exodus 34:29-35  Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.  30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.  31 But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them.  32 Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him on Mount Sinai.  33 When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face;  34 but whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded,  35 the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

Luke 9:28-43   Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.  29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.  30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him.  31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.  32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.  33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”– not knowing what he said.  34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud.  35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”  36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.


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Specifically, “Are Nazis really on the rise again, here in America? And if so, what can people do to work against the trend?”

And another haunting question, perhaps seemingly unrelated at first: “Does the current worldwide refugee crisis — and our response to it — contain echoes of World War II that we ignore at our own spiritual peril?”

How does one begin to answer questions like this without falling into a quagmire of pop-culture politics, without being lost in the noise of morally bankrupt mantras of the major political parties and media pundits?

My instincts say: Seek out original sources contemporary to WWII.

A few months ago as I was mulling over these thoughts I discovered a book on my shelves I didn’t even know I owned: Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer.

I’d never heard of the book, or of Speer, even though both were on the best-seller lists in the 1960’s. For those who are as in the dark as I was, Speer was an architect hired by Adolf Hitler to design many of the government buildings and civic projects that were built during the early (mostly pre-war) years of the Nazi regime.  When WWII got under way Hitler promoted Speer to Minister of Armaments, where he had responsibility to manufacture everything Germany needed for the war. Speer was also one of Hitler’s closest personal associates — personally overwhelmed by Hitler’s personal charisma and yet professionally with a mind sharp enough to navigate the bizarre political waters that were the upper echelons of the Nazi party.  When it became clear Germany was not going to win the war, and that Hitler was determined to take Germany down with him in his suicidal mania, the scales fell from Speer’s eyes, but it was essentially too late. Speer was convicted of war crimes at Nuremburg and spent 20 years in Spandau Prison, where he wrote these memoirs.

What better source to give insight into what the Nazis were really like behind the scenes, and to draw any parallels to 21st century life?

The book surprised me on many levels; probably the biggest surprise being how brilliant and engaging Speer’s mind was. Could a man like this really have been a cold-blooded Nazi? I discovered many people before me have asked the same question.

Speer’s text shed a great deal of light on both my questions. I recommend it highly to anyone who wants to give serious thought to our current political climate.

On the first question, “are the Nazis on the rise again?” — I discovered quite a few parallels between German politics of the 1930s and American politics of the 21st century.  The parallels seem to be just about evenly split between the two major parties at this point, but in the long run I’m not sure it makes much difference: a general atmosphere of prejudice, bullying, and scapegoating combined with unrelenting group-think never bodes well for a nation.

But as I read further in Speer’s book I began to doubt him a little: even in this tell-all book it felt like he wasn’t quite telling all. A quick Google search led me to another book called Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth by award-winning European journalist Gitta Sereny.

Mrs. Sereny spent 12 years combing through Speer’s documents, interviewing Speer himself and his family, co-workers and contemporaries. Her work is amazingly deep and rich, both historically and psychologically, not an easy read, but very worth the effort. She fills in the missing pieces and more, and I recommend it to anyone who reads Speer’s book, as a balance — it gives a far more complete picture, both of the man himself and of the inner workings of the Nazi party. What emerges from her pages is a portrait of a deeply and tragically flawed human being, about whom there is yet much to admire.

As to my second question: is there a connection between the refugee crisis of today and the millions of displaced persons during WWII?

To my great joy I discovered today: Speer’s daughter, Hilde Schramm, who has suffered much because of the things her father has done, considers this question a no-brainer.

She has hosted Syrian refugees in her own home.


PS – I would love to hear from others who have read one or both of these books. They’ve left quite an impression….






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Watching children grow up is an amazing thing, isn’t it?  How quickly they grow and how quickly they learn!  When we look at babies we dream about what they might become when they grow up: will she be the one who finds a cure for cancer? Will he be the first man to walk on Mars?  And as kids get older and we get to know who they are, and what their interests are, we may find out we have a budding pianist on our hands rather than an astronaut, and that’s OK too. For us as adults it’s exciting watching kids in the process of becoming.

But for the kid it may not always feel like an adventure.  Life can be tough, and there are growing pains, and setbacks, and moments of uncertainty. And then there’s the teenage years!  I think a lot of times if kids could put it into words they’d say to us, “don’t give up on me, I’m not quite grown up yet.”

And I think even we grownups feel like that sometimes.  I remember an old bumper sticker that read “please be patient, God’s not finished with me yet.” Even at the age of 50 or 60 or 70 or 80 or 90(!) we are still learning and still becoming, so it’s important to have patience: with one another and with ourselves.

Our scripture readings for today speak to this feeling and this experience.  In our psalm for the day, King David ends the psalm by saying to God “do not forsake the work of thy hands.” And that’s where I’ve taken our sermon title for today: Lord, Don’t Let Go Of What Your Hands Have Made.

King David prayed this psalm to express three things:

  • Passionate thanks to God for God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. This psalm hints at answered prayers. David doesn’t say specifically which prayers, but it’s clear God has said “yes” to David’s requests. David says, “on the day I called you answered me” – and David calls on all the kings and great ones of the earth to bow down and worship the one true God.
  • David wants to describe God (as best he can in words) and to say why God is so great. David talks about the glory of the Lord; about how the greatest glory of God is that no matter how high and exalted the Lord is, God still sees and cares about us, who are so small by comparison. There’s a hint here of Psalm 8: “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…?” (Ps 8:3-4a) This leads to David’s third point, which is:
  • “You O Lord are with me.” God reaches out to us and delivers us from our troubles and our enemies. And so David sings out: “On the day I called, you answered me, you increased the strength of my soul.” But then, having said this, David ends the psalm by saying “do not forsake the work of thy hands”.

I think it’s part of being human, to worry about being God-forsaken. In fact we all fear being abandoned, or losing the ones we love.  Whenever we form close relationships – marriages, children, friendships, partnerships – we fear the loss of those we love.  As adults we sort of turn our minds off to the possibility most of the time, but then something comes along and reminds us – in the words of the songwriter Sting – “how fragile we are, how fragile we are”.  And at times like this – or at other times of trouble – we fear that God might abandon us and we pray, “don’t let go of what your hands have made.”

God is both far above us and as close to us as the air we breathe.  It’s true God’s hands made the universe and all that’s in it. Hebrews 1:10 says “you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands.”  In Isaiah 48:13 God says: “Surely My hand founded the earth, and My right hand spread out the heavens.”  But then Isaiah also says: “O LORD, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You our potter; and all of us are the work of Your hand.” (Isa. 64:8)

So if we should find ourselves afraid that God might abandon us, or if that thought ever crosses our minds, first off, we’re not alone.  In Psalm 27 the psalmist says: “Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!” In Psalm 71 the psalmist says: “Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent.” (Those of us who reach a certain age can relate to this.) The prophet Jeremiah cries out: “we are called by your name; do not forsake us!” (Jer 14:9)

And God knows we need reassuring sometimes. Moses says in Deuteronomy: “It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.” (Deut. 31:8)  And the book of Hebrews tells us: “he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”” (Heb 13:5)

If it helps at all, we can bring to mind all the people God has not forsaken.  God did not forsake David, even after the episode with Bathsheba.  God did not forsake the Pharisee Nicodemus, even though he snuck out to meet Jesus at night so the other Pharisees wouldn’t see what he was up to. Jesus did not forsake Peter, who, on the night of his arrest, denied that he knew Jesus three times.  God did not forsake Paul, even though he had believers arrested and thrown in prison.  God did not forsake even Billy Graham, who was once turned down for membership in a church youth group because he was “too worldly”. So if we ever feel like we’ve done something so awful God might forsake us, we’re in good company.

And if we worry about God leaving us behind, it doesn’t mean we lack faith. It just means we need to bring our thoughts and feelings to God. As the old saying goes: “courage is fear that has said its prayers”.  And so in our Psalm, David, rejoicing in thanksgiving for prayers answered, still says, “Lord don’t give up on me. Don’t let me go.”

In an odd sort of way, our reading from Luke today points in the same direction.  In this story we see Jesus teaching on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (which is the same as Gennesaret – the lake has many names).  The Sea of Galilee almost looks like it’s in a valley, below the mountains that surround it, so it was not unusual in Jesus’ day for people to use the shoreline as a natural amphitheater.  Jesus could stand, essentially with his back to the lake and his feet in the water, and a crowd of 4000-5000 people could sit on the hillside and hear him perfectly. So one day when he was doing this, there were so many people and the crowd was pressing in so tight, Jesus finally climbed into one of the fishing boats nearby and pushed out away from the shore. And from there Jesus sat down and finished teaching his lessons for the day.

View from the Sea of Galilee

When Jesus was finished speaking (and I wish somebody had written down what he said! But in the eyes of Luke, the gospel writer, what happened next was more important for us to know.) When the lesson was done, Jesus turned to Simon the fisherman and said, “head out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”  Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked all night and caught nothing; but at your word I will let down the nets.”  And so they did – and the nets began to break with all the fish: they caught so many fish they had to call for the second boat on the shore, and their fishing partners James and John, to come help bring in the haul. And even with two boats there were so many fish the boats nearly sank.

Boat on the Sea of Galilee

Seeing this, Simon fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Leave me, Lord, for I’m a sinful man.”  If we’re honest with ourselves, all of us would say the same thing; because Jesus is too holy for us, just by being who he is.  And it doesn’t matter what our background is. Construction worker or fisherman or office worker, poor or wealthy, high school diploma or advanced degree. We are all sinful people.

The reason God did not forsake Simon Peter, or Paul, or Nicodemus, or Billy Graham, is that when they came to understand their sins, they were horrified and turned away from them. And that ‘turning away’ is called repentance. That’s what the words means: to turn and go in a different direction. For anyone who has the courage and the honesty to say to God “I’m a sinful person” the answer Jesus gives is always: “Don’t be afraid.” And to Peter he adds: “From now on you will be catching people.” The number of fish Peter caught that day was nothing compared to the number of people who have come to know Jesus through Peter’s ministry.

We are all the work of God’s hands.  Peter, who said “I’m a sinful man,” was never forsaken; the people who came to God because of Peter’s ministry were never forsaken; and you and I – who have inherited this faith from the generations before us (who were never forsaken) will never be forsaken ourselves. God will never let go of what God’s hands have made: not because of who we are, or how good we are, but because of who God is and how good God is.  God sent his son Jesus to pay the price for our sins, and for those who believe and receive Him, God will never let us go. AMEN.


Preached at Carnegie, Hill Top, and Fair Oaks, 2/10/19


Scripture Readings:

Psalm 138:1-8  A Psalm of David.

I give thee thanks, O LORD, with my whole heart;

before the gods I sing thy praise;

2 I bow down toward thy holy temple

and give thanks to thy name

for thy steadfast love and thy faithfulness;

for thou hast exalted above everything thy name and thy word.

3 On the day I called, thou didst answer me,

my strength of soul thou didst increase.

4 All the kings of the earth shall praise thee, O LORD,

for they have heard the words of thy mouth;

5 and they shall sing of the ways of the LORD,

for great is the glory of the LORD.

6 For though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly;

but the haughty he knows from afar.

7 Though I walk in the midst of trouble, thou dost preserve my life;

thou dost stretch out thy hand against the wrath of my enemies,

and thy right hand delivers me.

8 The LORD will fulfil his purpose for me;

thy steadfast love, O LORD, endures for ever.

Do not forsake the work of thy hands.

Luke 5:1-11   Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God,  2 he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets.  3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.  4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”  5 Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”  6 When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.  7 So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.  8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”  9 For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken;  10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”  11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.


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A long time ago when I was much younger than I am now, the church I attended had a very eloquent preacher.  He had such a way with words, it wasn’t unusual for his sermons to move people to tears.  So when I Corinthians 13 came around in the lectionary (which it does every few years) I couldn’t wait to hear what he would have to say. I mean, one of the most beautiful passages in all the Bible combined with one of the most moving preachers would make for an incredible sermon, right?

But that morning he combined the lesson with John 14:15 in which Jesus says: “If you love me, keep my commandments” – and his sermon centered on love being defined as obedience to God.  The point’s well taken but I have to say I was disappointed.

I’m not going to do that today! But having said that, I Corinthians 13 is not what it may appear to be on the surface.  It has been read so often at weddings – and there’s nothing wrong with that; this passage makes a wonderful foundation for a marriage – but the love between a couple getting married is not what Paul had in mind when he wrote this.

So I’ve called our sermon today “God’s Gold Standard.”

Gold Bars – 999.9% pure.
God’s love – 1000% pure.

This looks back to a time, even further back, when our currency was backed up by gold.  That is, if you took a dollar bill to a bank you could (theoretically at least) get a dollar’s worth of gold in return. So our paper money actually represented gold. It was a way of measuring the worth of something, the value, by comparing it to something that never changed.

Antique $20 Gold Certificate

And I take this as a parallel to Paul’s great chapter on love.  People use the word ‘love’ in all kinds of ways; so many ways the word often loses its meaning. But what Paul gives us here, on a spiritual level, is God’s gold standard. Something by which every word and every action is given value; something against which we can compare and measure the worth of things that are said and things that are done.

In fact what Paul describes here isn’t human love at all.  I Corinthians 13 – as well as our reading from Jeremiah – talks about God’s love.  And in times like these, it’s a good thing to hear God’s message of love for us.  God’s love gives us a foundation we can build our lives on. God’s love gives us confidence when we feel uncertain. God’s love gives us something to trust when things around us look untrustworthy.  In times like these, when people are afraid, and it seems like violence and hatred are all around us, we need to be surrounded and comforted by God’s heart of love.

And all three of these passages today assure us of God’s love for us.

Looking first at our psalm: the psalmist cries out: “Lord – deliver me, rescue me, be my refuge.”  He says, “rescue me from the hand of the wicked, from the unjust and from the cruel.”  Have we ever felt that way? Have we ever felt surrounded by people who don’t know (or don’t care) what’s fair or what’s right? The lack of compassion in public speech these days, combined with constant bad news from TV and online, can sometimes leave us feeling a bit shell-shocked. “Lord, rescue us…” – isn’t that our prayer for ourselves, for our children and grandchildren, for our communities, for our nation, for the world?

“Thy kingdom come, O Lord” is a heartfelt prayer; God has answered it and will answer it again. And so the psalmist reflects:

“You O Lord are my hope… on you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb.”

And our reading from Jeremiah echoes the same thought. God says to Jeremiah:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you…”

In this passage God is calling Jeremiah into a lifetime of service: in which Jeremiah will be bringing God’s word to the people of Israel during that terrible time in their history when the nation was decaying from the inside, leading to the people’s exile to Babylon. But right here at the beginning of his story, Jeremiah doesn’t see all that yet. What he sees is that he’s young and inexperienced in speaking and unsure of himself, and he answers God: “But Lord! I don’t know what to say, I’m just a boy.”

I wonder: Do any of us ever look around and say “but I’m just one person” or “I’m just a housewife” or “I’m just a senior citizen” or “I’m just a kid”? Do our churches ever say “but we only have 30 or 40 people” or “but we’re just a poor little church”?

God said to Jeremiah:

“Don’t say, ‘I’m just a boy’; you will go to whom I send you, and you will speak what I command you. Don’t be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD…” (Jeremiah1:7-8)

Would God say to us: “Don’t say ‘I’m just one person’”? or “Don’t say ‘We’re just a small church’”?  Does God want to say to us, “Follow My lead, and don’t be afraid, for I am with you”?

Not that any of us is being given Jeremiah’s job! But we have been commissioned by God to speak, both as individuals and as a church, to share God’s message with those around us, “to build and to plan” as God says to Jeremiah.

And as we follow God’s lead, God’s love will our support, our guide, our defense, and our comfort.

In Jeremiah, we see God’s love in the words: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you…” These words are for us as much as they are for Jeremiah. God formed you and me to be in this world, at this time and in this place.  God has a plan and a purpose for us. And so we can pray with the psalmist, “In you O Lord I take refuge, let me never be put to shame.”

The question then becomes what should we do? What actions does God want us to take? And I think God has made us a variety of people and a variety of churches for a reason, so the answer will be unique to each of us. But before I bring us back to God’s Gold Standard, one side note: when we look at all the disputes and disagreements in the world today, I think for people of goodwill, so many issues seem to come down to having to make a choice between doing righteousness or doing justice: that is, choosing what’s right or choosing what’s compassionate.

I submit for your consideration that God is both perfectly righteous and perfectly just. In God, righteousness and justice are two sides of the same coin. As human beings we struggle with that because we’re not perfect. But God is perfect, and in God, what is right and what is loving is the same thing: oftentimes in ways that surprise us.

And this is what I Corinthians 13 is all about.  Even in the opening words: “if I speak in tongues of mortals and angels but have not love… if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and have not love… if I have all faith, even to move mountains, but have not love I am nothing.  If I give away all I have, even my own life, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

The kind of love Paul is talking about here is not romantic love. In fact, what Paul is talking about here is a spiritual gift. I Corinthians 13 is in the middle of three chapters of teaching on spiritual gifts.  So what he’s talking about is something that comes from God.

In I Corinthians 12, Paul begins this teaching about the gifts of the Holy Spirit by listing a number of them: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment… he goes on at some length talking about how, while nobody has all these gifts, all of them are needed in the church; and how the Church is like the Body of Christ.  So, as Paul puts it, “the eye cannot say to the hand ‘I have no need of you’ nor the head to the feet ‘I have no need of you’.”  And Paul ends chapter 12 by saying “strive for the greater gifts; and I will show you a still more excellent way” – and then he launches into I Corinthians 13.  And then in chapter 14, Paul shows how all these wide variety of gifts come together, in love, in the church to build up God’s people and to build up our communities.

So I Corinthians 13 is talking about love as a gift of the Holy Spirit.  It is not the same thing as affection or compassion or kindness or tenderness or any of those things, although it may include them. This kind of love isn’t even a choice, although it may include choices.  God’s love is God’s nature. God loves because if God ever stopped loving, God would stop being God.

Therefore God’s love does not depend on us.  It doesn’t matter what we do, or where we’ve been or what we’ve said. Yes, these things do matter, but they don’t change God’s love.  We as mere mortals don’t have the power to change God’s love. Nothing we can do can stop God’s love.  And those of us who have given our lives to Jesus and have received the Holy Spirit – we receive, as one of the Holy Spirit’s gifts, a bit of God’s unstoppable love in us.

And Paul then goes on to say, “this is what it looks like”.  This is what God’s gold standard of love looks like in action.  Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious – that is, it doesn’t desire to have what others have or to be in someone else’s shoes.  Love is not boastful – it doesn’t brag.  Love is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way. Love is not easily bothered or easily offended. Love does not rejoice in what’s wrong but rejoices in truth (which assumes there is such a thing as truth – that’s something we as Christians believe in, because God is truth.)  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never gives up or fades away.

Human beings can’t love like this.  We can try.  We can take this list of Paul’s and make it our goal and work on it every day, and while the effort would be worthy it’s doomed to fail unless God is in it. Because we can’t love like this without God.

This is kind of love God has for us.  God is patient with us. God is kind to us. God doesn’t want what we have. God doesn’t brag on himself (although I do think Spring is God showing off a little bit.) God is never arrogant or rude to us. God only insists on God’s way when it’s what’s right for us: like a loving parent who sets limits for a child for the child’s own good.  God is not easily offended. God rejoices in what’s right and what’s true.  And Jesus on the cross bore all things, believed all things, hoped all things, and endured all things, for us.  God’s love never fails.

So wherever we are today, in joy or in sorrow, in busyness or at rest, in hope or in discouragement, God loves us like this.

This is God’s gold standard: the measure against which all things are measured, the value by which all things are valued.

And God calls us to carry God’s Spirit in ourselves so we can share this love with a world that desperately needs it.

So today: take with you the assurance and the confidence of God’s love. “And now abide faith, hope, and love, these three: and the greatest of these is love.” AMEN.


Jeremiah 1:4-10   Now the word of the LORD came to me saying,  5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”  6 Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”  7 But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.  8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.”  9 Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.  10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

Psalm 71:1-6   In you, O LORD, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame.

2 In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me;

incline your ear to me and save me.

3 Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me,

for you are my rock and my fortress.

4 Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked,

from the grasp of the unjust and cruel.

5 For you, O Lord, are my hope,

my trust, O LORD, from my youth.

6 Upon you I have leaned from my birth;

it was you who took me from my mother’s womb.

My praise is continually of you.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13  If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

 4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant  5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

 8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.  9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;  10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.  11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.  12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 2/3/19



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We have three Scripture readings for today, one from II Samuel, one from the Gospel of John, and one from Revelation.

II Samuel 23:1-7: Now these are the last words of David: The oracle of David, son of Jesse, the oracle of the man whom God exalted, the anointed of the God of Jacob, the favorite of the Strong One of Israel: “The spirit of the LORD speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue.  The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me: ‘One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.’  Is not my house like this with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure. Will he not cause to prosper all my help and my desire? But the godless are all like thorns that are thrown away; for they cannot be picked up with the hand; to touch them one uses an iron bar or the shaft of a spear. And they are entirely consumed in fire on the spot.”

John 18:33-38  Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”  Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”  Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him.”

Revelation 1:4-8  John, to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, every one who pierced him; and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.


Today is the last Sunday of “Ordinary Time” – that is, the last Sunday before all the holidays begin. Next Sunday we begin Advent, followed very quickly by Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost – and by that time Spring will be here and we’ll be back out in our gardens again!

This Sunday is also Christ the King Sunday – or “The Feast of Christ the King,” which means it’s a day to celebrate.  ‘Christ the King’ is one of the newest holidays on our church calendar. Most other holidays, like Christmas or Pentecost, have been around almost as long as the church has been around. But the Feast of Christ the King is not even 100 years old.

So I was curious as to why this holiday was created.  Turns out it was created in the Catholic church and then quickly spread through all the major Protestant denominations. And whenever all the churches agree on something, that gets my attention!

This is the back story: the Feast of Christ the King was created in 1925 by Pope Pius XI.  In 1925, Europe was still picking up the pieces after World War I: it was a difficult time.  And in reaction to those difficulties, there was a steep rise in two things: secularism and nationalism.  And the combination of these two trends led to an increasing number of dictatorships, including Stalin in Russia (who came to power in 1922), Mussolini in Italy (also 1922), Hitler in Germany (who came to power in 1933 but was a rising star in the 20s), Franco in Spain (1936, also rising through the 20s).

Pope Pius “hoped to combat the growing influence of absolute dictators…” so he created the Feast of Christ the King as “as a reminder…”  that “Jesus is king and there is no other.” (source: http://blogs.jwpepper.com/index.php/the-celebration-of-christ-the-king-sunday/  )

Christ the King

I think these are important words for our own time as well, and indeed every time – because throughout human history there have been people who have claimed the kind of power and loyalty that only God has a right to.  Not that secular powers are a bad thing; Scripture says they are given to us by God for our benefit.  But when secular powers forget that they answer to God, it is the duty of Christians to remind them.

Pope Pius is not the only theologian who has stressed the importance of recognizing Jesus as King. In more recent years, British theologian N.T. Wright has written extensively about the subject of Jesus as King.  In fact Wright has gone so far as to say the church’s message of salvation has had the wrong emphasis for many years.  To fill in the back-story: some churches have taught a person is saved by being baptized and joining the church; some churches have taught that a person is saved by doing good things, by living a good life; some churches have taught that a person is saved only by God’s choice, by predestination; some churches that have taught a person is saved by having a conversion experience, by being ‘born again’.

N.T. Wright says that putting the emphasis on ‘getting saved’ is missing the point of what Jesus taught in the gospels.  This may sound shocking at first, but Wright is not saying that heaven is unimportant.  What Wright is saying, is that the focus of Jesus’ teaching in the gospels is and was about the kingdom of God.  Over and over Jesus says to people “the kingdom of God is near – change course and believe the good news.”  In other words: God’s reign is within arm’s reach, so turn your hearts and your minds, and turn your actions, in God’s direction.

So is Wright right?  As it says in the Bible, whenever we hear a new teaching we should measure it against what we read in Scriptures.  And in this case, one of the ways we can do that is to count how many times Jesus talks about various subjects.  It’s fairly safe to assume the more often Jesus talks about something, the greater importance or greater emphasis it has.

So with that in mind, I went and counted the number of times Jesus spoke certain words in the gospels. (Results will vary a little depending on which version you use. And computers help with this kind of thing.)  The word I found most frequently used in connection with Jesus is the word “answered” – as in, someone asked him a question and Jesus “answered saying” (whatever he said). And I find this encouraging, because it means we can ask questions too, in confidence that Jesus will answer.

The second most common word – and the first most common Jesus spoke about – is ‘kingdom’.  Jesus uses the word ‘kingdom’ more often than he uses the words love, faith, and peace, combined. Jesus certainly taught about love, faith and peace! But Jesus talks about the ‘kingdom’ more often. In fact Jesus uses the word ‘kingdom’ more than five times more often than he uses the word ‘saved’ and more than ten times more often than he uses the word ‘repent’.

So I think N.T. Wright is onto something. We may need to shift our emphasis from getting people ‘saved’ to welcoming people into the Kingdom.

Now I should mention – in order to balance this a little bit – that the rest of the New Testament (apart from the gospels), that is, the teaching of the apostles, is weighted somewhat differently. In these books the most common words are Love, Faith, Hope, Peace, and Righteousness, in that order.  These words describe what God’s kingdom is like.  In other words, the apostles were teaching us about life in God’s kingdom, and what it means to grow into that reality.  So Jesus announces the Kingdom, and we who follow him are called to teach the kingdom and to model what it’s like to live in the kingdom.

So with this kingdom emphasis in mind, let’s take a look at what our scripture readings for today tell us about the Kingdom.

In our reading from II Samuel, the Holy Spirit gives David an oracle. And the words David speaks apply both to himself and to Jesus.  David begins by saying “The Spirit of the Lord speaks through me.”  These same words are echoed in the book of Isaiah, chapter 61, which Jesus quotes in the synagogue in Nazareth.  Isaiah is describing what the king of God’s choosing will do, and he writes:

“The spirit of the Lord GOD 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…” (Isaiah 61:1-2)

And in Luke’s gospel, Jesus reads these words and adds, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21)

David’s oracle continues saying: “the king rules over the people in justice” and “his coming is like the light of morning”.  In the book of Revelation Jesus says: “I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” (Rev 22:16) So again we see a parallel between David and Jesus.

David says God’s covenant with him is everlasting; and God says to Jesus in Hebrews 5:6 “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” So the two of them share God’s promise of eternity.

Throughout scripture, Jesus is called the “Son of David” – and so all these things that David says, while they’re true of himself, are also true of Jesus.  Jesus is king, both by being descended from David, and by God’s anointing.

Moving on to our reading from John: here we see Jesus, the King of the universe, standing before Pilate, accused of being a king!

Of course back in Roman days, a person who claimed to be a king would have been guilty of treason, because there was only one king and he lived in Rome. So when the high priests and the religious authorities arrested Jesus and dragged him off to see Pilate, they knew exactly what to accuse him of to get a death sentence.

For whatever reason, Pilate chooses to question Jesus privately rather than in open court. Pilate comes straight to the point of the accusation by asking: “Are you the King of the Jews?”

We might think that the direct and honest answer would be ‘yes’, but Jesus doesn’t answer the question directly. Instead he asks, “Is this your own question, or were you told this by someone else?”

Jesus is not dodging the question here; he already knows what the outcome of this trial is going to be. But Jesus is doing a couple of things (probably more than a couple, but I’ll look at two for now). First, he is putting a stop to the triangulation.  In psychology, triangulation is (quoting Wikipedia) “a manipulation tactic where one person will not communicate directly with another person, but instead uses a third person to relay communication to the second, thus forming a triangle.”  Triangulation is an unhealthy way to communicate.  So if Pilate is talking to Jesus about what the priests said, and Jesus is talking to Pilate about what other people said about him, they’ve got a triangle going.  And Jesus puts a stop to this right away by asking Pilate whether these words are his or someone else’s.

The second thing Jesus is doing is opening the door to direct and honest communication – so that Pilate can know who Jesus is, and has the opportunity to trust Jesus if he chooses to.

Pilate agrees to get rid of the triangle. He answers: “I’m not a Jew am I? Your own nation and chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”

Pilate’s answer is honest but it’s not very polite. First off it smacks of anti-Semitism.  Pilate looks down his nose at the chief priests and he also looks down his nose at Jesus. As far as he’s concerned they’re all alike.  On the other hand, Pilate doesn’t like being manipulated.  And as he looks at Jesus, he knows he’s not looking at a rebel. He knows the chief priests are setting Jesus up, and he wants to know why.  “What have you done?”

And this question opens the door for Jesus to present Pilate with the truth, and to give Pilate the opportunity that Jesus gives every person: to accept the truth or to reject it. So Jesus says: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were,” Jesus basically says, ‘as a king I would have an army and servants and they would be fighting for me. But as things stand, my kingdom does not come from this world and therefore I am no threat to you.’

Pilate answers, “So you ARE a king?”  Pilate is still only interested in whether or not Jesus is guilty of treason; he has no interest in the finer points of what Jesus is saying. So Jesus answers, “You say that I’m a king.” (pointing out the word ‘king’ is now Pilate’s, not his accusers’) And Jesus continues: “For this I was born… and came into this world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  Jesus is now very gently questioning Pilate and saying, “I’m speaking the truth – will you hear it?”

And Pilate looks Truth in the face and says “What is truth?”

And he walks away.

Pilate wasn’t missing Jesus’ point, he just doesn’t care. He rejects the truth, and he rejects Jesus as king.

Where it came to kings, Pilate chooses Caesar over Christ. As it turned out, just two or three years later, Pilate was recalled to Rome to answer charges of harsh treatment of the Jews.  Shortly after that he committed suicide, and rumor has it he was ordered to do so by the Emperor Caligula. (What a choice between kings – Jesus or Caligula! Pilate chose poorly.)

Pilate did speak one truth: when Jesus was crucified, as was the tradition in Rome, he wrote the charge – that is, the reason he was being crucified – on a piece of wood, attached to the cross above his head.  Pilate wrote “The King of the Jews”.  Pilate meant this to be insulting, and the high priests were definitely insulted.  They asked him to change it to “this man said I am the king of the Jews”.  But Pilate answered, “what I have written, I have written” – and in his cruelty, he spoke the truth.

The king we worship today, and the king we proclaim to the world, is a king who, for our sakes, was tortured and killed on a cross.

And this brings us to our reading from Revelation, which picks up the theme and transforms it into a song of praise. The apostle John writes: “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever.”

I could write a whole other sermon on what it means for us to be Jesus’ kingdom, and for us to be God’s priests.  This is our future! Priests, serving under our great high priest.

But for today I just want to close with John’s vision of our king. John writes: “behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him…  ‘I Am the Alpha and the Omega’ says the Lord God, the one who is, and the one who was, and the one who is coming, the Almighty.”

John tells us two things: (1) Jesus will return. This is a message given to a church that was under pressure from all sides. These words are as good an encouragement for us today as they were for believers back then; and (2) John is saying: God is God, and God is in charge.

So this is our King. And our king says “I come quickly.”  And so we celebrate today, Jesus, our King, to him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. AMEN.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 11/25/18


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