Archive for the ‘Worship’ Category

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.Matthew 16:13-20


Today I want to talk about GLORY: the glory of Jesus, the glory of God.

The dictionary says glory has to do with “high renown or honor won by great achievements” and/or has to do with “magnificence or great beauty”.

In today’s scripture we see both. That’s why I chose Non Nobis Domine as our prelude today: “not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name be the glory.” In this passage from Matthew we see the glory of Jesus and the glory of God the Father as they draw the disciples closer and further into the Kingdom.

Matthew begins the story by telling us Jesus and the disciples are in the region of Caesarea Philippi. There were lots of towns named Caesarea back in those days – it was a way of honoring Caesar, to name a town after him – so a town needed a second name so you knew which Caesarea you were talking about. Caesarea Philippi was in northern Israel near the border of Lebanon and Syria in what is today called the Golan Heights. And the town had a shrine to the Greek god Pan.

Let’s just say Jesus and the disciples were far from home, both physically and spiritually.

Jesus probably brought the disciples here to spend time with them away from the crowds, and to begin to teach them that he would need to go to Jerusalem soon and be crucified.

So in the opening verse, Jesus puts a question to the disciples. He asks: “Who do the people say I, the Son of Man, am?” Jesus frequently talks about the “Son of Man” in the Gospels – by which he means himself – but this is the only time where Jesus specifically identifies himself as the Son of Man. The title Son of Man comes from the book of Daniel where the prophet writes:

“The Ancient of Days (that is, God) gave to the one like a Son of Man ‘dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom… shall not be destroyed.’” (Daniel 7:13-14)

That’s glory for you!

In answering Jesus’ question, the disciples offered a number of possibilities. They said: some say John the Baptist come back to life. Some say Elijah. Others say Jeremiah or one of the prophets.

These answers weren’t really so far off. The people believed in resurrection; and John the Baptist was fresh on their minds, having been killed only a few weeks before; in fact King Herod himself thought Jesus was John the Baptist reincarnated. So the crowds were right in sensing something in common between Jesus and these men of great faith. They sensed a glory in this son of a carpenter.

But then Jesus asked the disciples; “who do you say I am?” (and he’s asking all of them; the ‘you’ is plural).

This is an important question for us too. Every person on the planet will someday need to answer question: who do you say Jesus is?

All of a sudden the disciples fall silent. And then Peter speaks up and says: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

Notice Peter says the Christ. Christ is a title, not a name. Kind of like when you say ‘Queen Elizabeth’: ‘Queen’ is the title, ‘Elizabeth’ is the name. With Jesus, ‘Christ’ is the title and ‘Jesus’ is the name.

We also get the word ‘christen’ from ‘Christ’. ‘Christen’ means to anoint; but back in those days they didn’t christen babies, they christened future kings, and they did this by pouring oil over their heads. And when God christened someone, when God anointed someone, God not only gave them a title but also gave them the ability to do that job, to fulfill that role.

Side note: Peter also calls Jesus the ‘son of the living God,’ in contrast to all the dead idols in this town devoted to Pan where they were. There are lifeless idols in our own time as well: things people worship that are not gods and have no power or life in them. They are lifeless idols; Jesus is the son of the living God.

Jesus the Christ has been christened the future king. This is why Jesus and the disciples, whenever they traveled, preached the message: “the kingdom of God is near! Change course and believe the good news!” This wasn’t theology they were preaching – the future King was really there!

“And we beheld his glory,” the apostle John says, “the glory of the one and only Son who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

So to sum up, Peter is saying that Jesus is the Crown Prince of Heaven, the Son of the Living God.

And Jesus answers: “you are blessed!” – meaning that only God could have given Peter that answer. And this is true of anyone who believes. If you know that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed King, the Son of God – then God alone has revealed this to you. How this happens is different for each one of us. Some people come to this knowledge by reading the Bible; some come through friends; some through nature; I’ve even heard of one person who came to this knowledge by trying to disprove it. But whatever happens – the moment of realization when the truth breaks over your awareness and you realize that Jesus is everything he claims to be and more – this comes from God. It comes when God’s spirit touches your own, and life is never the same from that point on. (By the way, if you’ve never experienced this certainty, pray about it – it’s a conversation God loves to take part in!)

Jesus said to Peter: “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” The word ‘revealed’ in Greek is apekalupsen (sp?) – it’s the word we get ‘apocalypse’ from, and it means ‘revelation’ (which is why the last book in the Bible is called Revelation – it’s when Jesus is finally crowned as king and revealed in all his glory.)

Jesus also says to Peter: “I say to you: you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Peter and rock is a play on words in Greek: Petros, the name Peter, and petra, the rock. “You are Petros and on this petra I will build my church.”

We also need to look at the word church because the church as we know it didn’t exist yet, so what was Jesus talking about when he talked about church? In Greek the word is ekklesian – which is the word we get ecclesiastical from, which in our day basically means ‘having to do with the church’.  But in the Greek the word means assembly or congregation or group (of Christ-followers). In other words, in Greek the word church has to do with people not real estate.

Many of us have discovered this, or re-discovered it, especially during this strange pandemic time: the church truly is not the building; the church is the people. You are the ekklesian, by the grace of God, by the revelation of God, by the blessing of God.  Whenever you say “Jesus is the Christ” you build up and strengthen and become part of the foundation of the church. This is the rock on which the fellowship is built, and the forces of evil cannot overcome it.

Jesus then says to Peter:

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

There’s been a lot of confusion and disagreement about the meaning of this verse. Let me start by saying this: when Jesus says “I will give you the keys of the kingdom…” the word ‘you’ is singular. Jesus is talking to Peter and only Peter. He’s not talking to the other disciples and he’s not talking to us in the 21st century. Just Peter.

Basically what Jesus is doing is handing off the leadership of this new Jesus movement to Peter. Just as Moses handed off leadership of the Israelites to Joshua before they crossed into the Promised Land, Jesus is handing off leadership to Peter. It’s just a few weeks before his crucifixion. Jesus knows his followers will need someone to look to, someone to help this ekklesian hang together. After Jesus’ ascension Peter gathers the believers in Jerusalem; Peter preaches on the first Pentecost; Peter becomes the lead spokesperson; and Paul defers to Peter’s leadership even though Paul has a better education and a higher social status.

After his resurrection, Jesus will tell Peter three times, “Feed my sheep. Feed my lambs.”  Jesus knows the early church will need leadership. And Jesus knows we need leadership in our time too. Pray for this. Pray, in our difficult time, that Jesus will raise up leaders for our time who will be as faithful and as blessed by God as Peter was.

And then after all this, Jesus ordered the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ!

Why would Jesus keep this a secret? This question has kept theologians busy for 2000 years… and I have nothing to add to what they’ve written. Maybe the time wasn’t right to tell the crowds. Maybe telling too many people might in some way have detoured the road to the crucifixion. Maybe, like the disciples in next week’s lesson, they weren’t ready to understand that the Messiah had to die. Peter himself suffered three days of doubt and darkness on that crucifixion weekend – and if his faith could be shaken, what would it do to other peoples’ faith? It could be any of these things, but we really don’t know.

For today the important question is: who do we say Jesus is? The answer to this question is life-changing. And when we answer, do we answer in words only, or in actions as well?

In the meantime, today we celebrate Jesus’ glory: the glory of the only Son of the Father; the glory of the coming King; the glory of the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Non nobis, domine; not to us O Lord, but to you be the glory.




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Old Testament Reading
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: These are the appointed festivals of the Lord that you shall proclaim as holy convocation, my appointed festivals. For six days shall work be done; but the seventh day is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation; you shall do no work: it is a sabbath to the Lord throughout your settlements. (Leviticus 23:1-3)

Gospel Reading
[Jesus said:] “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20)


Over the past few weeks we’ve been looking at Sabbath from a number of different angles: from the Old Testament, from the New Testament, from the Gospels. Today we bring it into the present. How is it possible to keep God’s commandment to observe the Sabbath in today’s world?

The quick answer is “most people don’t these days.” People who attend worship look around at empty pews and say “why?” People who find other things to do on the Sabbath say “why not?”

BTW this is true for every religious tradition. Every faith-based institution I’ve ever been in deals with the questions ‘how do we pass on our religious traditions to the next generation?’ and ‘how can we persuade people these traditions are important and worthy of our time?’

Here’s the thing: Keeping the Sabbath is not a tradition. It’s a commandment. It’s one of the Big Ten. And if the other nine are still valid: if it’s still true we worship God and not idols, we respect our parents, we avoid killing, stealing, lying, cheating and coveting – what makes us think Commandment #3 isn’t relevant anymore?

There’s a second rub: some people look at the Ten Commandments and say “well the God of the Old Testament was a legalist, and the God of the New Testament is a God of love.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The God of the New Testament who loves people dearly, loved people just as dearly in the days of the Old Testament. God doesn’t speak the Ten Commandments in the voice of a dictator but in the voice of a loving Father teaching his children how to thrive in the world.

That’s why Jesus says in our Gospel reading for today, “Don’t think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Jesus gives us a living picture of what obedience to the law looks like… and then he says “follow me.”

As we saw last week, Jesus and the Pharisees had some serious differences over how to obey the Sabbath laws. The Pharisees were like lawyers: they would pull apart every single word and every single phrase and try to prove things. Jesus, on the other hand, would heal people on the Sabbath, even though it was considered work, because it was the loving thing to do.  Jesus accused the Pharisees of “straining out gnats and swallowing camels.”  The Pharisees would give away 10% of everything they owned, right down to the spices on their spice racks, but then they would go out and make plans to frame and murder Jesus on the Sabbath. Gnats and camels, right?

So all of this is a backdrop to our world today. Two thousand years later people tend to forget that Jesus is Jewish, and that the God of the Christians is also the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So while we are different from our Jewish brothers and sister in the present time, Jewish teachings and traditions can give us amazing insights into our life of faith.

With that in mind, I want to share with you some of the teachings of Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin and his book To Be a Jew, which talks about how to live the Jewish life in modern society.

In his chapter on keeping Sabbath, he starts out by saying that keeping the Sabbath is the only one of the Ten Commandments Jewish poets have written poems about. Love songs, in fact. The poets call the Sabbath day “a bride – radiant and beautiful” “The Sabbath Queen – charming and pure”. Do you get the feeling they’re seeing something we’ve missed?

Here’s what else they say: The Sabbath is “a glorious release from weekday concerns, routine pressures, and even secular recreation.” It is “not just a day of rest but a holy day, a day set apart; the high point of the week; the day around which all other days revolve.”

Is this what Christians think of when we think of Sunday?

So how do the Jews observe Sabbath? First off, they observe it from Friday night to Saturday night. For most Christians it would be Saturday night to Sunday night. But notice it is from night to night – a full 24 hours.  And if for some reason you can’t rest on Sunday – for instance, if you work on Sundays – you can observe on another day. The day of the week isn’t as important as choosing one day every week and remembering the Sabbath.

The big rule for the Sabbath is that no work is to be done. People sometimes feel this is restrictive, as in ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ But it’s not meant that way; in fact the opposite – it’s meant to set us free from all the pressures to get things done. Rabbi Donin says there are two things to keep in mind on the Sabbath:

  1. Remember the creation of the world. A few weeks ago we read that God created the world in six days and then rested on the seventh. When we observe Sabbath we remember creation. We remember that creation is God’s, not ours, it doesn’t belong to us, and we don’t control it. (I think maybe this pandemic has been a reminder to us of just how much we don’t control – and that can be a scary thing, especially for people who are used to being in charge of their lives.) But on the Sabbath we put God’s work back in God’s hands and remember that any authority we have is only borrowed. God is the master.
  2. Remember the Exodus from Egypt. Freedom from slavery – which is a foretaste of the freedom from slavery to sin that the Messiah brings. The Sabbath means freedom from service to human masters, whether they be masters of soul, mind, or body. Sabbath freedom extends to our employees, our animals, and any foreigners living among us. Sabbath is also, as Rabbi Donin says, “a weekly protest against slavery and oppression.” He says it’s no surprise that tyrants throughout history have tried to abolish the observance of the Sabbath.

Therefore what is forbidden on the Sabbath is basically anything “in which people produce, create, or transform an object for human purposes.” It does not forbid physical exertion: as the Rabbi says, “you can tire yourself out on the Sabbath so long as you’re not doing anything constructive.”

Coming closer to home, we sometimes find our hardest taskmasters looking back at us in the mirror. “I gotta get this done!” “This has to be finished!” And we play just as hard as we work. For most people Sundays have become just one more day to run around from place to place, practice to practice, from event to event… a catch-up day that we dash through and then slide breathlessly into Monday morning just to do it all over again.

Sabbath is the right to stop. Sabbath is the right to say, “no.”  “For the next 24 hours I am a free person. There is nothing I must do.”  It’s not just a holiday, it’s a holy day.

So how does one keep Sabbath in today’s world?  There are lots of ways, lots of variations. I think what I’ve said so far gives a good foundation. As Christians we are not required to keep Sabbath the way our Jewish neighbors do – in fact most of us would find it impossible because we don’t know the history or the language. But speaking as someone who has been observing Sabbath (after a fashion) for a few years, let me just toss out a few pointers.

  • Keeping Sabbath is so good!! I look forward to the Sabbath. I count down the hours. I understand why those poets call Sabbath something to fall in love with. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
  • The good Rabbi points out: Sabbath must be prepared for. You can’t just stop. You have to get ready. Sabbath includes a meal, and you need to have the meal ready before Sabbath starts. It’s a family meal; but if you don’t have family with you, then friends are welcome. As the Rabbi says, “prepare as though you were receiving a distinguished guest.” Set the table and put out the best dishes. Prepare your best meal. It doesn’t have to be fancy but it has to be good. Clean the house. Put away all work. Be ready.
  • All this needs to be completed before sundown. Twenty minutes before sundown, the oldest female member of the family lights the Sabbath candles with a prayer. A translation of the traditional Jewish prayer is: “Blessed art thou O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us to kindle the Sabbath lights.” After this the people at the table greet one another with the words “Shabbat Shalom” – ‘Sabbath peace’
  • On the table, along with the meal, are two unsliced loaves of Challah bread and a Kiddish cup of wine. The head of the household blesses the children (each one by name), then blesses the wine and the bread. Hands are washed, then the meal is shared.
  • Sabbath worship is the following morning.
  • No work is done from the time the candles are lit before dinner until at least three stars are visible in the sky the following evening.

There are a lot more Sabbath traditions – I recommend reading more about it – but I think keeping just this much captures the spirit of Sabbath which teaches us, through joyful experience, that God truly is in control and blesses us richly.

God said through Moses: “For six days shall work be done; but the seventh day is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation; you shall do no work.”

Jesus said: “I am the Lord of the Sabbath.”

For those who want to know and love Jesus more, keeping the Sabbath is a wonderful way to do it. If you observe Sabbath already – keep going! And if you don’t yet, I pray you’ll give it a try. There are blessings to be found. AMEN.


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All My Hope on God Is Founded
Words: Joachim Neander (1650-1680)
Music: Herbert Howells (1892-1983)

All my hope on God is founded;
He doth all my trust renew,
Me through change and chance He guideth,
Only good and only true.
God unknown, He alone
Calls my heart to be His own.

Pride of man and earthly glory,
Sword and crown betray his trust;
What with care and toil be buildeth
Tower and temple fall to dust.
But God’s power, hour by hour,
Is my temple and my tower.

God’s great goodness aye endureth,
Deep His wisdom, passing thought:
Splendor, light, and life attend Him,
Beauty springeth out of naught.
Love doth stand at His hand;
Joy doth wait on His command.

Still from man to God eternal
Sacrifice of praise be done,
High above all praises praising
For the gift of Christ His Son.
Christ doth call one and all:
Ye who follow shall not fall.

We sang this little-known-in-America hymn in church yesterday and it reminded me how much I love it – both the music and the text.  There is a grandeur in the sound and a passion in the words that are hard to match.  I wondered aloud to the senior pastor and one of our choir members: “what inspired this song?” None of us had heard of Joachim Neander or knew why his life was so tragically short: he died at only 30 years of age.

Neander, originally from the city of Bremen, is probably best known for the hymn Praise To The Lord, The Almighty, The King Of Creation.  Like many upper-middle-class men of his time, Neander studied theology at university but wasn’t exactly on fire about his faith at first.  Hymnary.org writes: “German student life in the 17th century was anything but refined, and Neander seems to have been as riotous and as fond of questionable pleasures as most of his fellows…

“In July 1670, Theodore Under-Eyck came to Bremen as pastor of St. Martin’s Church… a Pietist and holder of conventicles. Not long after Neander, with two like-minded comrades, went to service there one Sunday, in order to criticize and find matter of amusement. But the earnest words of Under-Eyck touched his heart; and this, [and] subsequent conversations with Under-Eyck, proved the turning-point of his spiritual life.”

As for the inspiration behind this particular hymn text, history leaves us no specifics. But Hymnary.org writes: “Many [of his hymns] are of a decidedly subjective cast, but for this the circumstances of their origin, and the fact that the author did not expect them to be used in public worship, will sufficiently account. […] But the glow and sweetness of his better hymns, their firm faith, originality, Scripturalness, variety and mastery of rhythmical forms, and genuine lyric character fully entitle them to the high place they hold.”

There’s an interesting footnote to Neander’s family history: the family name was originally Neumann (“New man” in English) but Joachim’s grandfather changed it to the Greek Neander.  Before he was given his own church to lead, Joachim, who was a nature-lover, would hold gatherings and services and preach in the valley of the Dussel River.  The word in German for “valley” being “thal”, this area became known as Neander-thal or “Neander’s Valley”.  It was in this valley, in the 1800’s, that the remains of a man were found that became known as “Neanderthal Man”.




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Today being the first Sunday in Lent, we are kicking off a series of sermons on the theme Return to Me With All Your Heart, and today’s sermon is titles “God’s Generous Heart.” So our focus for the next six weeks is on hearts: God’s heart for us, and our hearts for God.

In today’s reading from Romans, Paul says, “the word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.”  In another one of his letters he writes, “in him [that is, in Jesus] we live and move and have our being.” It’s almost like we’re like fish in water: surrounded by God, kept alive in God. And as we allow it, God’s word comes inside us.

Paul also says:

“if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

When Paul talks about believing “with the heart” he’s not talking about feelings.  In the Greek the word for heart is cardia (which is where we get the word cardiac from) but the word cardia back then didn’t mean the organ in our chests. It meant the core of one’s being: the center and source of all of our inner life, including but not limited to our wills, our feelings, our minds, our conscience, and our sense of self.  In other words, we are to believe in Jesus with all that is in us.

The first of the Ten Commandments says much the same thing:

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.  You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deut 6:4-5)

Loving God with everything that’s in us is not easy. Life is full of distractions, and our hearts have many loves: love for our partners, love for our families, love for friends, love of our own lives. We are not called to love these less, but we are called to love God more. This is the love Paul calls us to in Romans, and this is the love we are being called to return to this Lent.

But I’m kind of diving in the deep end here. So let me back up and take a look at our readings, starting with Deuteronomy, but first a comment:

The decade in which I was born (nowadays referred to as “mid-century modern”) was an age of technology, of progress – an age that had faith in the power of science and the power of fact to make a the world a better place.  Nowadays we see things differently. Technology has given us the Internet, but it has also given us Twitter! Progress has given us medicines and cures that we never imagined back then, but it has also given us insurance companies that refuse to cover the cost. Nowadays we take ‘progress’ with a grain of salt.

And nowadays, instead of fact-based statements, 21st-century people prefer to hear stories: stories of what people have seen or done or experienced. Take the field of advertising for example: have you seen the Farmers Insurance commercials? Their tag-line is: “we know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” That’s a story condensed into one sentence! Fifty years ago the Farmers Insurance slogan was simply “Superior Service”.  No story; just a statement that sounds like fact.

In a way, our two scripture readings for today reflect this contrast: our reading from Romans is a no-frills, straight-to-the-point description of faith, in language worthy of 50 or 60 years ago.  Our reading from Deuteronomy talks about the same thing, but in story form.  So I’d like to lead off with the story: and Deuteronomy tells the story of what God has done for God’s people.

In our story from Deuteronomy, the people of Israel – God’s people – are about to enter the Promised Land.  Since leaving Egypt they have been on a long journey, and the Promised Land has been a long time coming. And Moses is passing along to the people the instructions God gave him about what to do once they’ve settled in the Promised Land. He says: when your first crops come in, the very first harvest in your new land, put some of it aside and bring it to the place where you meet with God. And when you’re there, declare out loud: “Today I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.”

Moses continues: you will recite the story of your people before the Lord, saying:

“my ancestor was a wandering Aramean; he went to live in Egypt, where he became a great nation; but the Egyptians put us to hard labor. So we cried out to the Lord, and the Lord heard our voice, and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with signs and wonders; and the Lord brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Therefore I present the first fruit of the ground that you, O God, have given me.”

In one short paragraph, the worshipper tells the events of nearly 500 years of Israel’s history. And the story it tells is the story of what God has done for God’s people. It speaks of God’s generous heart. God has called God’s people; God has led them; God has heard them; God has rescued them; God has provided for them.

And having told the story, God then says, sit down with your family and friends, and any aliens who reside among you, and celebrate! Have a party on Me, God says, with all the bounty of your harvest. This is the story of Israel.

I wonder: how might we tell our story of what God has done for us?  As Christians, we might say something like, “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”  We might say, in the words of Paul:

“while we were yet sinners Christ died for the unrighteous; and now that we have been justified by his blood [that is, by his death], we will be saved through him from the wrath of God.” (Romans 5:9)

With some minor variations, this is the story every Christian could tell. But each one of us also has an individual story to tell; and a family story to tell; and a church family story to tell; and in a way (sort of) a cultural story to tell – the “song of our people”, so to speak.

For example, doesn’t the story of the Israelites’ first harvest in the Promised Land put you in mind of the first Thanksgiving in a way? Our pilgrims were also travelers, following God’s lead across the waters to land they didn’t know. And when that first harvest came in, they celebrated, with their families and with their new Native American friends, in a holiday we still celebrate 398 years later.  I’m not saying America is God’s chosen nation or anything like that. God’s people today, as always, are defined by faith and not by nationality. I’m just saying there are similarities in the stories.

Imagine what might happen if we were to do what the Israelites were asked to do in Deuteronomy: remember out loud all that God has done for us. In a sense we do this every Sunday when we recite the Apostles Creed.  But imagine what it would be like if we, as a nation, looked back over our history and gave thanks to God for all God has done for us: for making us a nation; for giving us founding leaders of integrity like Washington and Jefferson and Hamilton; for giving us many years of peace and prosperity; for giving us a country that is one of the most beautiful countries on earth.  And God has given us all this in spite of the mistakes we’ve made, in spite of how often our people have rebelled against God and have done what was wrong in His sight.  Imagine what might happen if people started being thankful to God for all we have each day, and how that would change the tone of our national conversation.

We could do this on a personal level too.  Each one of us has ancestors that have gone before us, who have come to this country, or who were brought to this country, whose heritage God has blessed.  One of my ancestors, for example, left Europe because he couldn’t find a job there. He took a boat to Philadelphia, and God provided for him a home, and a job, and a family, and the strength to get through the loss of his sister who he was hoping to send for but who died in the old country before he could bring her over.

Each one of us could tell stories like this: stories of people who God blessed, even through hardship and difficulties. How often do we share these stories? Might this be a thing to do, to share these stories among ourselves this Lent, and to give thanks to God with our families and with our church family? And then to celebrate together all that God has done for us.

So coming back to the Gospel message: for people of God, for anyone who believes in Jesus, this earth, where we are right now – this is the Old Country. The Land we’re going to is still ahead of us: the kingdom of God. We can see it from a distance. And that’s what Paul is talking about in Romans.  Paul says this gospel “is near us; on our lips and in our hearts.” And Paul says that “no one who believes in Jesus will be put to shame.” No one who believes in Jesus will be disappointed in any way because the Lord is generous to all who call on him. God gives richly to God’s children, and we are God’s children if we believe with our hearts and confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord.

The Israelites in Moses’ day understood the promise.  They came into a Promised Land that was rich and fertile, where the cities and the roads had already been built. They had everything they could want, but the best of all was the feeling of being home at last. No more wandering; now they could settle down and be at peace and be free from their enemies.  We also have a Promised Land waiting for us where we will no longer be wanderers, but we will be at peace, and free from anything that might harm us.

For Paul and for us, this promised land comes through the Messiah: the Saviour, the Promised One, who will gather God’s people into God’s kingdom.  Paul says: faith in the heart and praise on the lips – this is what sets us apart as God’s people. And both Moses and Paul call God’s people to speak out loud what God has done for us.

God’s faithful are called to share what they have with others: in Deuteronomy, by sharing what we’ve been given with family, and friends, and foreigners; and in Romans by sharing our faith in words with any who will listen.  Both Deuteronomy and Romans remind us over and over of all that God has done for us.  God has been so generous with us – as God’s children, let us be generous like our Father in heaven. AMEN.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 3/10/19


Deuteronomy 26:1-11  When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it,  2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.  3 You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.”  4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God,  5 you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.  6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us,  7 we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.  8 The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders;  9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God.  11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.

Romans 10:8-13  But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim);  9 because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  10 For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.  11 The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.”  12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.  13 For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”


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Well yesterday was the 12th Day of Christmas, so Christmas is now officially over, although personally I think as long as we still have Christmas cookies and lights on the tree, the holiday continues!

But today is first day of Epiphany: the season in which the Messiah is revealed to the world. And today we hear the story of the Wise Men. It’s a very familiar story, and one that is, and always has been, a part of the Christmas story.

And yet… we’re not in Christmas any more. And neither is Jesus’ family.  We don’t know exactly when the Wise Men showed up but it wasn’t on the same night as the shepherds; in fact Jesus may have been a few months old or even a year old or more when he met the Wise Men.

As we turn to look at this scripture passage I’d like to draw attention to three things: Fulfillment, Fear, and Fealty.  More specifically: fulfillment of prophecy; fear, motivating King Herod; and fealty, or worship, on the part of the Wise Men.  These three things will give us a scaffolding on which the story can take shape.

We can gather from what Matthew has written that Mary and Joseph didn’t go back to Nazareth when the census was over.  After all the head-counting and tax-paying was done, and all the descendants of David had gone back to their homes, Jesus’ family stayed in Bethlehem for a while. Scripture doesn’t say why or how long. But they moved into a house, which Matthew mentions in verse 11, and this is where the Wise Men found them.  So by the time the Wise Men arrive, the manger was a thing of the past… and I imagine it was quickly becoming a thing of family legend: “hey, do you remember the night when Mary went into labor and there was no place for us to stay? Man what a night that was!”

So who were these wise guys anyway and why did they come?  The Greek word for Wise Men is Magi – it’s the word we get magic from, but they weren’t necessarily magicians.  They may have been. They may also have been Zoroastrian priests; they were certainly expert astrologers and possibly astronomers; many were interpreters of dreams; and they were men who had received the best of educations and who had mastered both secular and religious teachings. The Wise Men were probably from Persia or somewhere near there: close to what would be modern-day Iraq. And in ancient times Persia was one of the great cultures, as great as Greece or Rome, and somewhat predating them. We in the west tend to forget this: we have so much influence from the Greek and Latin cultures; but the Persian empire was responsible for many of the discoveries in fields like math and science that we still use today.

So these Wise Men from the east: educated, ruling class, wealthy, the peak of their society, looked at a star (or possibly a configuration of heavenly bodies – I’m not going to get into the various scientific theories of what the star might actually have been) – but they looked at the star and saw something stunningly unusual. And they watched, night after night, as this star made its way across the heavens, and then appeared to stop over Israel. And they interpreted this as indicating the birth of a king in the land beneath which the star rested.

How the wise men arrived at a king’s birth from watching a star, we don’t know. It’s possible that these men, being Persians, had access to the records of the prophet Daniel, who had served in the Persian courts hundreds of years before.  It’s possible they may have been known about the Jewish prophecies of a Messiah King, and were watching for a sign. It’s possible Daniel might have brought with him the books of Moses, or at the very least Moses’ teachings, which would have included prophecies like the words of Balaam:

“I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; A Star shall come out of Jacob; A Scepter shall rise out of Israel…” (Numbers 24:17)

The Wise Men might not have understood who the Messiah was meant to be – but even the Jewish people had some misconceptions about what the Messiah would do when he came. But the Wise Men were certain enough of their calculations and their interpretations of prophecy to travel nearly 700 miles to see this king.

What’s odd about all this – apart from the fact this is a group of Gentiles following a Jewish prophecy (which in itself is a fulfillment of prophecy) – what’s odd is, Herod’s son and the heir to the throne had already been born years before.  His name was Archelaus and he would inherit the throne while Jesus is still a small boy.

No wonder Herod was not thrilled when the Wise Men showed up asking about a baby king!  In fact ‘not thrilled’ would be an understatement. Matthew 22 verse 3 says: “When King Herod heard this he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him…”

All Jerusalem was frightened because they knew what Herod was like when he got upset.  Herod was duplicitous, vicious, and famous for not only killing his enemies but killing his friends, and even his family members. So when Herod was frightened, everybody was walking on eggshells.

As we look at Herod we should keep in mind that Herod the Great was not himself a believer in the Jewish faith. He was born Jewish, and he tried to come off as Jewish in front of the people, but he was essentially a puppet king of the Roman empire, and Rome was far more important to him than being Jewish. Herod’s job was to keep the peace and to make the Romans happy, and he did this by being really underhanded in his dealings and yet doing some really major public works projects that provided jobs for the people of Israel and glory for Rome.

BTW I got to see some of Herod’s projects when I was in Israel – some of them are still standing. The one that fascinated me most was the chariot-race-track, that looked like an ancient NASCAR track. It was by the sea, like Daytona, and would have given Daytona a run for its money.  The race track, and the city that surrounded it, next to a gorgeous harbor, is named Caesarea Maritima (that is, ‘Caesarea by the sea’) – the whole city and harbor being named Caesarea to curry favor with Herod’s master in Rome.

So Herod made some wise political maneuvers, but in moral terms he left a lot to be desired.  And he had no use for Israel’s Messiah, or for any prophecies about the Messiah, or for a Son of David who was planning to be a shepherd king who would rescue his people. Herod liked his job, and he intended to keep it and to pass it on to his son, not anybody else’s son, not even God’s son. And to be sure this baby didn’t get in the way, Herod ordered that all children two years old and younger in and around Bethlehem be put to death.

Strangely, even though Herod didn’t take the Jewish faith seriously, it seems he took the Wise Men seriously. Why was this? Was it because they were rich and relatively famous? Was it because Herod was superstitious (which isn’t unusual among fearful people)?  Did Herod take astrology more seriously than his own spiritual roots?  For Herod as a Jew, dabbling in the mystical arts was forbidden, because God wanted God’s people to seek God’s power and God’s advice – not things that might lead them astray into other religions, or into fearing what should not be feared.

And then we look at the Wise Men: and it’s remarkable to consider that God moved (literally) the heavens and the earth to communicate with these Gentile astrologers, in their own language, in their own way of understanding, and to bring them – by their own arts and sciences – into a knowledge of God’s kingdom and God’s truth. How great and deep and wide is God’s mercy and understanding!  If we ever wonder if God wants us to be part of his kingdom, we can call to mind the lengths God went to, to reach the Wise Men where they were.

So Herod heard the Wise Men’s message; and some Bible translations say he was “afraid” or “disturbed”.  The Greek word translates both “shaken” and “stirred”.  It describes something that shook Herod to the core of his being. And when the king is not happy, look out: and that’s as true today as it was back then.  When the leaders of nations are in fear, conflicts happen, and it’s always the little people who pay the price. There’s an old African proverb that says: “when elephants fight, the grass gets hurt.”  We could also say when elephants fear, the grass gets hurt.

So God warns the Wise Men to go home another way, and God warns Joseph to take his family and leave quietly for Egypt by night. And while Bethlehem pays the price for Herod’s fear, our Lord and his family experience what it is to be refugees. They will return to Israel a few years later, but finding Herod’s son Archelaus on the throne, at God’s leading they will head north to the town of Nazareth. And so the prophecy will come true that the Messiah would be from Nazareth.

So, so far, we’ve seen in our story the fulfillment of prophecy, and the results of a king’s fear.  The third thing to look for is fealty or worship.

As I was re-reading this story this week, one verse jumped out at me: Matthew 2:2 where the wise men say, “we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

The word homage in Greek is proskuneo, and it’s usually translated ‘worship’. But proskuneo is made up of two words in Greek: pros, to fall down before – it’s the word from which we get the word prostrate – and kuneo, to kiss.  So a literal translation would be to bow down and kiss someone’s feet.  The non-literal translation is simply to worship someone by falling face-down before them.

What caught my attention was this: these Wise Men, the most learned, intelligent, well-respected seers and teachers of their time, walked 700 miles for one reason: to fall face-down in front of a baby king. They said: “We have seen his star and have come to fall down at his feet.”

And the question came to my mind, for all of us (myself included): for whom, or for what, would we walk 700 miles?

700 miles is approximately the distance from Pittsburgh to the Jersey Shore and back again. Now I have driven 700 miles for something as silly as cheering on my favorite rock band.  But walk? I don’t think so.

What makes these wise men truly wise is they understand – with every fiber of their being – the need for heart-felt, personal, all-in worship. When they saw something they were convinced was true (and BTW the evidence they had for Jesus’ kingship was far less than we have today) they put their whole selves where their mouths were. And they knew the correct reaction to the events they witnessed was to fall at Jesus’ feet.

They are a sign to us, and to the whole world, that this Jewish Messiah is not just for Israel any more; that God was reaching out to – and welcoming – the foreigner and the stranger.  That the ones who once worshipped other gods were coming to Israel to worship the one true God.

At Jesus’ birth, God invited the shepherds: the poorest of the poor; and the wise men: the greatest of the great. And in between those two extremes, the rest of us are also invited: rich or poor, educated or not-so-educated, famous or obscure. All of us are invited to come and worship.

So what does it mean to worship?

Like the Wise Men, we are called to worship God with our whole being, with everything we’ve got, with all that we are and all that we have.  We should be willing, if not able, to walk 700 miles for the privilege of falling at Jesus’ feet. But since most of us aren’t called to do that, here are some things we might be called to do:

  1. Worship is closely tied to prayer, and one way to pray is to open our hearts and minds to God, for no other purpose than to enjoy God’s presence.
  2. Worship includes praising God, because when we catch a vision of God, even a glimpse, God’s awesomeness makes praise a necessity. We can’t help praising because God is so great.
  3. Giving thanks – for all we’ve been given: our lives, our talents, our families, our communities, our brothers and sisters in the faith.
  4. Turning away from doing wrong things, and making restitution where we need to.
  5. Giving of what we own to those who need it.
  6. Living what we believe in our daily lives, using the talents God has given us for the benefit of God’s people.
  7. And of course worship includes participation in the sacraments, especially communion, where we meet with God face to face.

So the story of the Wise Men blesses us with the fulfillment of many prophecies. The story of the wise men teaches us that fearfulness and leadership are a tragic combination. And finally the Wise Men show us the kind of fealty or worship our Lord Jesus is worthy of. By God’s grace may we learn to worship with full hearts and minds, with the Wise Men as our examples. [AMEN.]

Closing prayer used at Incarnation: And with this goal in mind, if we have a mind to, let’s make this prayer our own:

Lord Jesus, Let me be your servant, under your command,
I am no longer my own, but Thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt,
Put me to doing, put me to suffering,
Let me be employed for thee, or laid aside for thee,
Exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
Thou art mine, and I am Thine.
And this covenant which I make on earth,
Let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

(attrib. to John Wesley)


Matthew 2:1-12  In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,  2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”  3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;  4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.  5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:  6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.  8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”  9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.  10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.  11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District, 1/6/19



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Well, looks like we made it!  Shopping’s all done (I hope). Travel is mostly completed. The busyness of the holiday season is pretty much past, and now we can breathe.

Tomorrow is Christmas, of course: a day when the whole world stops for a moment. A day when the only people working are the people whose jobs are essential for health and safety, and we give thanks for them.  For most of us though, it will be a day spent relaxing, in the company of family and/or friends, eating good food, exchanging gifts, and just enjoying being God’s children.

If you were to go downtown tonight after the service, you would find the city quiet: quiet to the point of spooky.  What we experience, as Christmas Eve afternoon deepens into night, is probably the closest we Gentiles ever come to experiencing a Jewish Sabbath: a day when all work stops, and all shopping stops, and at home we’ve set out the best dishes and the most wonderful foods, and we bless each other and especially bless our children. Imagine what it would be like to have a little miniature Christmas once a week!  That’s Sabbath.

Someday I’m going to develop that thought into a full-fledged sermon, but not today, because tonight is Christmas Eve – a special night even by Sabbath standards.

Tonight I’d like to talk about two scripture passages: Luke chapter 2 and Matthew chapter 2.

Matthew 2:6 reads:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Shepherds and kings.  That’s what Christmas is all about.  The shepherds in the fields, and the “three kings” or wise men from the east; and the baby who was born to be our Good Shepherd and the King of kings.

The Christmas story as told by Luke is a beautiful story, but I think there’s a temptation to give it a Hollywood treatment in our imaginations, if you know what I mean.  When we hear the story we imagine it almost as if it’s being directed by Stephen Spielberg with a soundtrack by John Williams. We picture a simpler time, and a peaceful night long ago, in a beautiful setting, surrounded by angels in the sky and people of good will in the village.

But I’m not sure it actually happened that way. We sing about ‘silent night’ but the night was hardly silent with a newborn around, as anyone who has ever worked in a maternity ward can tell you. There were no angels singing in the sky; according to Luke there was only one angel who spoke with the shepherds, and he was on the ground. And the group of angels who showed up later, saying “glory to God in the highest” would have looked more like an army than a choir. And they also had feet on ground.

And there’s another difference. We live in a society today where the story of Jesus’ birth is known to everyone. Even people and countries that aren’t Christian have heard of Bethlehem.  But on that night 2000 years ago, the vast majority of the world had no clue that God had just taken up residence here. People wouldn’t begin to know that for another 30 years.

Except for the shepherds.

So what did the shepherds actually see and hear, and what does that message means to us, here, tonight?

Luke begins his story of the birth of Jesus with the words: “In that region…” And of course the region Luke is talking about is the area surrounding Bethlehem.  It’s an area that is hilly and rocky and would have been quite dark at night.  To give us sort of a mental picture of what this might have looked like, I’d like you to imagine being on McArdle Roadway.  (For those of you who don’t live around Pittsburgh, this is the road that connects Grandview Ave to the Liberty Bridge and travels precipitously along the face of Mt. Washington.)  OK, so imagine that road, at night, with no trees and no street-lights: rocky, hilly, and dark. Above and behind us, where Mt. Washington would be, that’s where Bethlehem is.  And off in the distance, where Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning would be – that’s Jerusalem, about an hour’s walk away. And of course down at the bottom of the hill, there would be no city, just more rocks and hills and wild animals between us and Jerusalem.  Most likely the shepherds would have had a campfire going, both for warmth and for light.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields…” and they actually did live in the fields.  The shepherds didn’t work an eight-hour shift and then go home. They were home. They probably had houses somewhere, but they basically lived outdoors with the sheep. They ate with the sheep, and slept near the sheep, and after a while they began to smell like sheep.  For this reason shepherds were generally not accepted in polite society – which makes them an unusual choice to be God’s messengers.

So there they were on this dark rocky hillside, surrounded by sheep, when all of a sudden an angel shows up.  Luke writes: “an angel of the Lord stood before them…”  Luke does not say ‘an angel flew in’.  Artists in medieval times painted wings on angels to help communicate the idea that angels are God’s messengers, and perhaps also that they travel quickly – which this particular angel seems to do. He just basically appears, startling the shepherds.

And when the angel comes, with him comes the glory of the Lord.  Luke says, “The glory of the Lord shone round around them…” I’ve sometimes pictured this in my mind (again, Hollywood) like a scene in an action movie, where there’s a bad guy on the ground at night being chased by a helicopter with a searchlight, and the searchlight finally finds the bad guy…

I don’t think there was a search-light from heaven. Luke would have had trouble describing something like that, and Luke is not at a loss for words.  He says: “the glory of the Lord shone around them”, that is, around the shepherds and the angel. Not just around the angel. I think maybe it was a light also shining between them and among them as Luke says, filling the space where they were standing.  God’s glory, among them.

Maybe for a moment, in that glory, they saw each other through God’s eyes.  C.S. Lewis once wrote: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal… next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” But we don’t usually see each other that way.

If this is what happened, as the glory shone around the shepherds, fear would have been a natural reaction – not fear of punishment but the fear that comes from suddenly realizing they haven’t been perceiving reality as it really is.  And now suddenly they do, and life will never be the same.

The angel greets them with the words “Fear not! I bring you good news of great joy. Today, this very night, in the city of David, a savior has been born to you. The Messiah is here!”


And of course the word ‘messiah’ means ‘anointed one’, so in other words this newborn is going to be a king.  In the city of the great king David, an heir of David, a future king has arrived.  The angel says: “you’ll know him when you see him – he’ll be wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was an army of angels praising God and saying  “Glory to God most high, and on earth peace to people with whom he is pleased.”

Have you ever wondered what those angel voices might have sounded like?  One thing is for sure: they were not native English speakers, or native Hebrew speakers for that matter. They would have spoken with the accent of heaven (which of course would be a British accent) (just kidding). I have a feeling their voices would have sounded like, or would have felt like… the sound of ancient times… of our eternal home.

One thing’s for sure: the angels’ words felt like truth in the hearts of the shepherds. There was no room for doubt. The Messiah, the King, had come to earth. Tonight.  The Son of David in the City of David.

And then the angels disappeared. The glory of God faded; the night fell quiet; and it was just the shepherds and sheep once more on that hillside.  Nothing had changed… but everything had changed. And the shepherds looked at each other and said, “Let us go now and see this thing that has happened…” You know what, I bet it was more like “hey, I’ll race you to Bethlehem!” Luke says: “they went with haste…” – they were moving quickly!

And they found Mary and Joseph, and the newborn king, Jesus, lying in the manger, just like the angel had said. And they told Mary and Joseph – and everybody else who was there – all the things the angel said. And by morning the whole town would have heard about it (even without Twitter.)

So what does it all mean to us, today?  People have been filling libraries with the answer to that question for 2000 years. But I think above all, one message comes through clearly: the shepherds witnessed, and we are witnesses to, the birth of a king. And not just any king: the King of kings and the Lord of lords.

A few months ago I joined a group of amateur singers gathered on the North Side to start rehearsing for Messiah. And on a warm September evening, our director asked us to pull out the Hallelujah Chorus for the first time as a group.

I know everybody here, even if you’ve never listened to Messiah, you know the song (singing) “Hallelujah!” You all have heard this.  But there’s a part in the piece where the words “Hallelujah” start jumping between the voices in the choir, like neighbors gossiping over the back fence. “Hallelujah” “Hallelujah” “Hallelujah” “Hallelujah” – which, as we were singing it, quickly turned into a hot mess.  And the director looked at us and shouted “Why???” and the men came in: (singing) “for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth!” Oh yeah. Hallelujah!

That’s what tonight is all about! The Lord God omnipotent reigneth. It’s a truth so phenomenal, so amazing, that it can really only begin to be expressed in poetry or in music because mere words are not enough.

King David wrote of this moment in Psalm 45:

“Your throne, O God, endures forever… Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity;
you love righteousness and hate wickedness.
Therefore God… has anointed you with the oil of gladness…
your robes are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia.” (Ps 45:6-8 edited)

Why do we sing ‘Hallelujah’? Because Jesus reigns.

From year to year, from century to century, from one nation to another around the world, songwriters have sung this message:

  • From the 9th century: “O come thou root of Jesse’s tree, an ensign of thy people be; before thee rulers silent fall; all peoples on thy mercy call.”
  • From the 16th century: “What child is this? This, this is Christ the king, whom shepherds guard and angels sing…”
  • Charles Wesley wrote in the 18th century: “Come, Thou long-expected Jesus… born a child and yet a king…”

And tonight we sing the carols:

  • “Hark! the herald angels sing: glory to the newborn king
  • “Joy to the world! The Lord is come. Let earth receive her king
  • “O morning stars together proclaim the holy birth, and praises sing to God our king, and peace to all on earth!” (O Little Town of Bethlehem)

And from literally 200 years ago this night:

  • “Silent Night, holy night, wondrous star, lend thy light; with the angels let us sing “Alleluia” to our king

When Jesus began his earthly ministry, the gospel he preached – the good news – was always this: “the kingdom of God is near! Change course and believe the good news!” Not “believe in me and be saved” – although that may be true, that’s not what Jesus preached. Jesus’ words were always: “the kingdom of God is near, change course and believe good news.”

The fact that Jesus is King is the best news ever! Why? Because it means the powers of this earth will not have the last word.  Heads of corporations, political leaders, boards of institutions, heads of state, news outlets, media personalities, celebrities… instigators of wars, organized crime bosses, criminals and people who live by violence… all the causes of pain and darkness in this world… none of these will have the final word.

As Isaiah says, all of these things are nothing but “fuel for the fire.” Why? “Because to us a child is born, to us a Son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders; and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  One day every knee will bow and acknowledge Jesus as king.

Each one of us, tonight, is invited by King Jesus to be citizens of his kingdom, citizens of heaven.  And how much better is His kingdom than the one we live in now? Is there anywhere else you’d rather be? Is there anything keeping you from leaving behind the rulers of this dark world and following the king of light and love?  Knowing this baby, and following this king, is the greatest joy on earth or heaven.

“Come adore on bended knee, Christ the Lord, the newborn King.”




Scripture Passages:

Matthew 2:1-12   In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,  2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”  3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;  4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.  5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:  6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.  8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”  9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.  10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.  11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Luke 2:1-20  In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  3 All went to their own towns to be registered.  4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

 8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,  14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

 15  When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”  16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.  17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;  18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.  19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.  20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.


Preached at Incarnation Church (Anglican), Pittsburgh, and Carnegie United Methodist Church, 12/24/18



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My heart is full of admiration
For you my Lord, my God and King
Your excellence – my inspiration
Your words of grace have made my spirit sing

You love what’s right and hate what’s evil
Therefore your God sets you on high
And on your head pours oil of gladness
While fragrance fills your royal palaces

All the glory, honor, and power belong to you
Belong to you
Jesus, Saviour, Anointed One I worship You
I worship You 

Your throne O God will last forever
Justice will be Your royal decree
In majesty ride out victorious
For righteousness, truth, and humility


~Graham Kendrick’s paraphrase of Psalm 45~
 (“My Heart is Full of Admiration” – Graham Kendrick, © 1991)
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q7Qcbl7-nxc


I’m going a little off-lectionary today for a number of reasons, partly because we’ve been in the books of Samuel and Kings all summer long, and today’s psalm follows nicely from that; and partly because Psalm 45 is one of my all-time favorite passages of scripture and I didn’t want to pass it by.

I was introduced to this psalm back in the 90s when it was paraphrased and set to music by an Englishman by the name of Graham Kendrick (see above). You may know him as the guy who wrote the song Shine Jesus Shine. Kendrick’s version of Psalm 45 is what I came down the aisle to when Neil and I were married – 18 years ago this month.

Kendrick interpreted Psalm 45 as a praise song to Jesus. But if we look at Psalm 45 (see the end of this post for the text) – we see that Jesus isn’t mentioned at all. In fact the psalm was written around 500 to 1000 years before Jesus was born, give or take a century.  But Kendrick’s interpretation works, and the reason it works is because this psalm has a double meaning.

Psalm 45 is a very unusual psalm in a number of ways. The book of Psalms was basically the hymnal of ancient Israel – it’s a collection of song lyrics for songs that were sung in worship in the temple.  However this Psalm wasn’t written for worship, and it wasn’t written for the temple. This song was written for a civic  occasion: for a royal wedding.

At the beginning of most of the Psalms we find a few comments about the psalm’s source and its use, and this psalm is no exception.  In the Bible the notes above Psalm 45 read: “Ode for a Royal Wedding. To the leader: according to Lilies. Of the Korahites. A Maskil. A love song.” This last comment – ‘a love song’ – gives us the title for today’s sermon.

A Royal Wedding

What these opening comments tell us is that first off this was meant for a wedding. It doesn’t say whose wedding, and historians disagree on whose wedding it was. I would love to be able to say it was for one of Solomon’s weddings, partly because we’ve been talking about Solomon lately; and partly because it would give us a glimpse into Solomon’s life without any theology involved – just a picture of ‘a day in the life’ of one of Israel’s kings.  But we don’t know for sure who this was written for. If it wasn’t written for Solomon it would have been written for one of the kings of ancient Israel or Judah before the fall of the monarchy.

This psalm has been used in connection with weddings on and off over the years, throughout Israel’s history and throughout church history, sort of in cycles – which leads me to suspect that this is one of those wedding songs that was so popular it got overdone and then was forgotten, and then was re-discovered, and then forgotten again, and then remembered again, kind of like “Here Comes the Bride” in our day. Every few generations the beauty of Psalm 45 is rediscovered, and I think we’re due for a rediscovery.

So continuing with the directions at the beginning of the psalm, it says: “to the leader, according to Lilies.” So this song is to be given to the choir director to be set to music. And Lilies was probably a musical reference of some kind, possibly the tune, possibly the choice of instruments (it might mean “add a string quartet”) – we don’t know for sure. “Of the Korahites” means it was written by the professional temple musicians, which was a group of priests who specialized in writing and performing music for worship. (I have always found it interesting, as a musician, that the position of ‘church musician’ in ancient Israel was an ordained position – theological training required.  I don’t draw any conclusions from that but I note it.)

And then it says “a maskil, a love song”.  The exact meaning of the word “maskil” has also been lost, but it is believed to have something to do with genre. The root of the word ‘maskil’ is related to the Hebrew word for wisdom or understanding. So this is a song that should inspire or teach a truth about God, in spite of the fact the song is not written for worship.

Another reason I love this psalm is because it goes a long way to answering a question I used to pester members of the clergy with when I was young, specifically: ‘where are we going?’  And by that I didn’t mean location.

What I meant was, ‘I hear a lot of talk about God and about heaven, but what is God really like and what is heaven really like? And how does the church help us get there? What is the goal of living life in a Christian way? How can we (as Jesus put it) ‘store up treasure in heaven’ if we don’t know what kind of treasure is going to be needed in heaven? Where are we going with all this religion stuff?’

These aren’t questions with instant answers, and the answers don’t really lie in the realm of reason. Philosophers and theologians have filled volumes trying to answer questions like these. But God’s reality is broader and more complex – and yet in some ways more simple – than anything our minds can hold. The answer to the question ‘where are we going?’ can’t always fully be described in words. The answer may be found more often in the realm of poetry or music…

…which Psalm 45 gives us.  Psalm 45 is about the Messiah and his Bride – that is, Jesus and the Church. Jesus, in whom all the fullness of God dwells; and the Church, in whom all the fullness of God’s people dwell (not the institution, but the human community); these two coming together as partners – in love and in eternity.

Now this is not the only interpretation of the psalm, and it is not the original meaning. And I say this because people have sometimes gone way too far in digging for Christian meanings in this psalm. Some interpreters have seen historical events, some have seen references to the Mother Mary, some interpreters come off sounding like people who are trying to figure out Nostradamus. Let’s not go crazy with this!

I like how one Bible scholar (Peter Craigie) puts it. He says:

“In its original sense and context [Psalm 45] is not in any sense a messianic psalm. And yet within the context of early Christianity (and in Judaism before that) it becomes a messianic psalm par excellence.”

For Christians the tie-in can be found in the book of Hebrews where God says of Jesus:

“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever;
A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness;
Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You
With the oil of gladness more than Your companions.”  (Hebrews 1:8-9)

…which is a direct quote from Psalm 45:6-7.

And if, as scripture teaches, the church is to be the bride of Christ, then this is our wedding song! This is will be our love song in heaven. This is our destiny. You want to know where we’re going? We’re right here, stepping right into Psalm 45.

So let’s step into it!  The songwriter starts by declaring his purpose: he says, “I address my verses to the king.”  In ancient times this would have been a standard introduction to a formal event in the royal court. And it reinforces the fact that this psalm was not originally written for the temple or for worship.

Then the songwriter praises the groom, the King. He says the King is “the most handsome of men” but then goes on to describe, not the King’s good looks – he says nothing about hair or eyes or build – but he describes what makes the king inwardly handsome: grace, glory, majesty, and victory in the cause of justice and righteousness.

The military imagery in verse five (“your arrows are sharp in the heart of the king’s enemies; the peoples fall under you”) may be disturbing for some of us, especially as we try to apply it to Jesus, the Prince of Peace. I like 19th-century preacher Charles Spurgeon’s interpretation: that Jesus’ “arrows” were his words. As Spurgeon puts it, they were “arrows of conviction, of justice, of mercy, of consolation; aimed at the heart and never failing to find their target.”

These are all qualities that a human king may strive for, but none have ever achieved perfectly. But our wedding song, if it’s going to be true, must be about someone who can and does embody all these qualities perfectly; and so we enter into a prophecy of the Messiah.

In the psalm our king stands front and center, dressed in royal robes, smelling of myrrh and aloe and cassia – all three perfumes that are taken from plants that can also be used for healing; which brings to mind the words of Revelation, where the apostle John describes heaven: “on either side of the river was the tree of life… and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” (Rev 22:2)  Our king brings healing when he comes.

We enter then into the palace, which is decorated in expensive items made of ivory. As we read verse eight some of us may be reminded of the old hymn Ivory Palaces: “out of the ivory palaces/into a world of woe/only his great eternal love/made my Savior go.”  The lyrics of this hymn speak of how Jesus left this beautiful scene in Psalm 45 to enter into our wounded world, so that we could someday be with him in the ivory palaces.

And in this beautiful palace, brightly lit and smelling of perfume, we begin to hear the music of stringed instruments. The queen and ladies in waiting stand to one side as the bridal procession begins.  And the psalmist says to the bride: forget your people and your father’s house, for the king desires your beauty and he is your lord. From now on the richest of people and nations will seek your favor.  And the bride enters, dressed in robes of many colors (that’s us!) inter-woven with gold. And her bridesmaids follow as she is led to the king.

So Psalm 45 was originally written for a human king in a particular time and place. But it is also a song of the Messiah.  And if all of this sounds too much like mythology, three thoughts:

  1. In Judaism, and in the Eastern Orthodox church, it has become tradition to address a bride and groom as royalty. If you ever go to an Orthodox wedding, you’ll see the bride and groom given crowns to wear during the ceremony. Even though Psalm 45 was written for a secular event, there is a rich spiritual meaning in it.
  2. In verse six where the psalmist writes “Your throne O God endures forever” – this cannot refer to a human king because no human king has lived forever. This line was interpreted as referring to the Messiah long before Jesus was born.
  3. CS Lewis writes that if the Christian story sounds like a myth of some kind, he says the meaning of the word myth “contrary to popular usage, is not simply a story that isn’t true. A myth is truth communicated in story-form.” And he adds, “the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us the same way as other myths [do], but with [a] tremendous difference… it really happened.”

Psalm 45 gives us a truth, in myth-form, in poem form, so that it can address and satisfy our hearts as well as our minds; our imaginations as well as our sight. This is a work of art designed to address and delight our whole selves.

So as we apply it to ourselves, and try to answer the questions “where are we going?” and “what is heaven all about?” a few final thoughts:

  • Just as the bride in verse ten is called to leave her people and her father’s house, we also are called to leave our home, this earth, behind. The bride is told: “the king desires your beauty” – and our focus needs to be on the King: on Jesus. Not looking back but looking forward. As the apostle Paul says: “forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead,  I press on toward the goal…” (Phil. 3:13-14a)  Jesus is our goal. Jesus is the King of heaven, who rules over the Promised Land that we’re going to.
  • There’s another scripture passage that speaks of our future in terms of marriage, and that’s Isaiah 62:4-5, where the prophet writes: “You shall no more be called Forsaken, and your land shall no more be called Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”This is our future. This is the answer to the question ‘where are we going?’
  • To quote CS Lewis again: “This is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight…”

‘Where we are going’ is a place of joy and delight. We go to a King beautiful beyond the power of words to describe. How then can we prepare for this?  Anything we can do in the meantime to increase in our hearts the capacity for holy delight; anything we can do to introduce others to our king, so they can share in our joy; anything that we can do to bring our King’s qualities of grace and justice and righteousness into our world; these things will help prepare us for where we’re going.

And if you get a chance this week, make this psalm your prayer to Jesus. AMEN.


Psalm 45
Ode for a Royal Wedding
To the leader: according to Lilies. Of the Korahites. A Maskil. A love song.

My heart overflows with a goodly theme;
I address my verses to the king;
my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.

You are the most handsome of men;
grace is poured upon your lips;
therefore God has blessed you forever.
Gird your sword on your thigh, O mighty one,
in your glory and majesty.

In your majesty ride on victoriously
for the cause of truth and to defend the right;
let your right hand teach you dread deeds.
Your arrows are sharp
in the heart of the king’s enemies;
the peoples fall under you.

Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever.
Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity;
    you love righteousness and hate wickedness.
Therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions;
    your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia.
From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad;
    daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor;
at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.

10 Hear, O daughter, consider and incline your ear;
forget your people and your father’s house,
11     and the king will desire your beauty.
Since he is your lord, bow to him;
12     the people of Tyre will seek your favor with gifts,
the richest of the people 13 with all kinds of wealth.

The princess is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes;
14     in many-colored robes she is led to the king;
behind her the virgins, her companions, follow.
15 With joy and gladness they are led along
as they enter the palace of the king.

16 In the place of ancestors you, O king, shall have sons;
you will make them princes in all the earth.
17 I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations;
therefore the peoples will praise you forever and ever.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District, Pittsburgh, 9/2/18



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“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!” And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke.  So I said: “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, The LORD of hosts.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth with it, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; Your iniquity is taken away, And your sin purged.” Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: “Whom shall I send, And who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”” – Isaiah 6:1-8


Psalm 29:1-11  (A Psalm of David)

Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name; worship the LORD in holy splendor.
The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters.
The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.
The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.
May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace!


We’ve been having a lot of “two-fer” Sundays recently. A couple weeks ago it was Mother’s Day and Ascension on the same day.  Then last week it was Pentecost and Communion.

And this Sunday it’s Trinity Sunday and Memorial Day, which is kind of a weird mix.

Trinity Sunday is an odd holiday to begin with, because it’s one of the more recent additions to our list of church holidays so there’s not a whole lot of tradition built up around how to celebrate it. It’s also odd because the word Trinity doesn’t actually appear in the Bible.  The idea of one God in three “persons” (for lack of a better term) came into being over hundreds of years of people studying what God has revealed in scripture. And what Scripture tells us is the God of Israel – the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus – is one God: Scripture says, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One.”

And yet scripture also speaks of:

  • God as Creator, called the Father (although there are also a few “mother” references in the Bible);
  • God as Redeemer, called Jesus (because he will save his people from their sins. And, as the apostle John says “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” and “All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made” – so Jesus was present at Creation as well as in Israel 2000 years ago);
  • God as Comforter and Advocate, called the Holy Spirit: that part of God that bonds with human spirits who are open to God and who love God.

So that’s what Trinity is about. And today we remember and celebrate all that God has done for us in creation, and in saving us on the cross, and in living among us through the Holy Spirit.

And we also have Memorial Day, which of course is the day when we as Americans remember and honor those men and women who gave their lives for our country. And it is right and proper that we should remember them and honor them before God, because they have followed in Jesus’ footsteps by showing their love for us by making the ultimate sacrifice. Their sacrifice, and the sacrifices of their surviving families, goes beyond the power of words to honor. We have to live it. We need to show our appreciation by living well.

Seeing these two holidays together on the same day makes me wish, as a Christian, that we had a holiday to remember our martyrs, Christian martyrs – like a Memorial Day for those who, in answering God’s call, have died in the service of others and of the Gospel.

I’m not saying we should replace one holiday with the other: I totally want to have both. But I’d like to see a day when we could remember those who have given their lives so that we could hear the good news of Jesus’ love and salvation.

This Christian holiday would include remembering people like Paul, whose letters make up much of the New Testament, and who was beheaded rather than deny Jesus; and Peter, who was crucified upside down because he said he didn’t deserve the honor of dying like Jesus. It might also include people like John Wycliffe, who was persecuted for daring to translate the Bible from Latin into English so everyday people could understand it. Or Bishops Latimer and Ridley who were burned at the stake in Oxford, England, whose teachings laid the foundation for John Wesley’s ministry at Oxford. And it would include the thousands today around the world, whose names we don’t know, but whose faithfulness to Jesus puts their lives in danger, and whose courage is inspiring record numbers of conversions to Christianity, particularly among Muslims.

So with all of these thoughts in mind, I’d like to take this sermon in a slightly different direction than originally planned. I’d like to replace the sermon title for today – “The Voice of the Lord” – and make it instead “The Ultimate Royal Wedding”.

I’m sure I’m not the only person here who watched the Royal Wedding a couple weekends ago. As royal weddings go, this one was unique in a number of ways. It’s the first time a gospel choir has ever sung at a royal wedding. It’s the first time an American has ever preached at a royal wedding.  And it’s the first time in over 100 years that a foreigner has married into the royal family.

But did you ever stop to think what Meaghan Markle gave up in order to marry her prince? I mean, so much of this wedding looks and sounds like a fairy tale, but in the U.K. being a member of the royal family is serious business. Royals are expected to serve the country, much as someone in the military would – in fact most of them are veterans. It’s not a life of ease.

Some of the things Meaghan had to give up include:

  • Her privacy (she’ll never go anywhere without paparazzi following her ever again)
  • Her acting career. In fact all of her career up to this point, including her fashion business and her personal website and participating in social media
  • Wearing whatever clothes she wants (in Britain, royals are expected to promote British clothing designers)
  • Her home here in America

And last but not least, more than likely, she will have to give up her American citizenship. That’s not required, but if she doesn’t, the IRS would (theoretically) have the power to audit members of the royal family and I can’t see that happening.

In the meantime she’s becoming a citizen of Great Britain and she will swear allegiance to the Queen.

Meaghan gave up all that for the love of the grandson of the monarch. Can you imagine yourself in her shoes?

Her upcoming change in citizenship has been talked about widely in social media, with some wonder and concern. One person I know wrote: “Why would any free person submit to a monarch?” Of course the British are every bit as free as we are – they have a democracy like ours, in fact ours is loosely based on theirs – but it raises an important question.

Offered an opportunity to marry the child of the king (or the queen in this case), would we do it?  With all the obligations and sacrifices that go with it, would we do it?  Would we be willing to give up our jobs, our careers? (some of us may be saying ‘My job? You can have it’) Would we give up our homes, or living close to our relatives? Would we give up social media? (Again I know some of you are saying ‘no big loss there’) Would we allow others to tell us what to wear? Would we be willing to become a citizen of a foreign country?

In a sense, in a sense, God asks this of all of us. Not everyone is asked by God to do all these things, but all of us will be asked to do some.

In our passage from Isaiah today we hear the words, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up…” and in today’s psalm David writes, “the Lord sits enthroned as king forever”. When God adopts us into God’s family, we become engaged to be married, in a spiritual sense, to Christ, the son of the King. Every one of us who loves and believes in Jesus will one day be royalty! In fact, if we could only perceive it, we are royalty already: engaged, but not yet fully married.

Now being royal, as any Brit will tell you, is not an easy thing.  The expectations and the pressures and the public scrutiny (at least in part) led to the death of Princess Diana.  And before Harry and Meaghan’s wedding they were interviewed on British TV, and one of the questions asked was something along the lines of “Harry, have you told Meaghan what she’s getting into?” And he was very honest. He said: “I tried to warn [her] as much as possible… I had to have some pretty frank conversations with her about what she’s letting herself in for… it’s not easy for anybody.”

As followers of Jesus – and members of his royal family – we also live under public scrutiny (to a much lesser extent of course – we don’t have paparazzi chasing us around). Our faith is meant to be both public and shared.  As Jesus said, our city is set on a hill; our light is set on a lampstand, not under a bushel. And like Meaghan we may be asked to give up things that are precious to us for the sake of Jesus.  Jesus himself said:

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20)  And “If anyone wants to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)

The life of a child of the king is a life of service and self-sacrifice. But it is also a life lived with the King. And as Isaiah says, he is “high and lifted up, full of majesty and glory” and our God gives the blessings of strength and peace to his people.

The voice of our King asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” As Christians we have sworn allegiance to our King, so how can we say ‘no’?  Especially with a King so worthy of our love and service?

Our response to the Son of the King, who died for us and rose again for us, is to worship him with all that we have in us: mind, body, heart, and soul. As it says in the old English wedding vows, “with my body I thee worship and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.” That is our pledge to him.

And we join the seraphim in proclaiming his glory and singing “holy, holy, holy”.  We say with Isaiah ‘woe is me; I am a person of unclean lips living in the midst of a people of unclean lips’ – but we also say with Isaiah, “here am I, send me.”

If Meaghan Markle could give up so much to marry the son of an earthly king, what would we give to spend eternity with the King of Kings? Each one of us has received an invitation to that heavenly wedding. All we need to do is RSVP.

Let’s pray. Lord, we give you thanks for love and for the gift of love. We give you thanks that you loved us first and created us to be with you forever. Help us to count all things as loss for the surpassing joy of knowing you and being with you; and teach us to worship you with all that we have and all that we are. AMEN.



Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 5/27/18



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[Scripture reading: 2 Kings 23:1-6, 21-25 reprinted at the end]

In the beginning… there were matinee idols. Errol Flynn. Clark Gable. Greta Garbo. Then there were pop idols: Elvis Presley. The Beatles. And then there was American Idol – pop stars taken from anonymity to fame for our young people to look up to.

This week in our Lenten series on “Giving Up…” things for Lent, we’ll be looking at Giving Up Idols.

Parents of teenagers have never been entirely comfortable with the younger generation’s idols, but most parents figure it’s just a phase. The kids will grow out of it, right?

Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But I think this is only a tiny, tiny part of what the Bible is talking about when it talks about idols.

And the Bible does talk about idols a lot! In fact the words idols or false gods – between those two phrases – appear over 400 times in the Bible.

For most of us, when we hear the word ‘idol’, we either think of pop idols or we think of those statues people in ancient times used to worship: false gods with names like Dagon or Molech or Ba’al, idols carved out of stone or wood, and worshiped by primitive people who didn’t know any better.

But ancient people weren’t stupid. They knew these statues were just representations of things in the spirit world.  The statues represented concepts like health or fertility or wealth. And the worshipers were worshiping the spirit world, not the statues.

But the priests of the false gods demanded sacrifices: sometimes even human sacrifices. And so these ancient religions brought death to their worshipers, not life, partly because following the so-called ‘gods’ made people to do unholy things; and partly because they were worshiping a lie. And as the apostle Paul says, these gods don’t exist anyway.

No wonder the one true and living God, who loves all he has created, objects to people worshiping what isn’t real and following lies that will destroy them.

But what about us today?  We don’t talk much about ‘idolatry’ much any more – the word has gone out of fashion kind of like the word ‘repent’.  But idols are still very much with us, and their lies are still very much with us. “Fake news,” for example, puts lies in the mouths of celebrities who never said any such thing; or may put forward propaganda in a way that people are tempted to believe it.  Perpetrators of fake news are counting on the fact people have idols and can be led astray by them.

Idols can also be things we spend too much time or money on. Buying stuff. Having the best. Tucking money away. Spending too much time with the TV (or Facebook). We even make idols out of God’s blessings sometimes: good gifts like careers or friends or family or food or exercise.

Anything that becomes more important to us than God, or that gets in the way of God being the Lord of our lives, is an idol. And God knows that idols eventually lead us into death.  And what’s more, idols steer our love and loyalty away from the people around us who need what God has given us to share.

I saw a quote the other day that speaks to this. Given that idols are objects of our praise, the quote said: “Biblical praise – is always both praise of the true Lord, and praise against all false lords – human and nonhuman – who seek to set themselves up in God’s place… prais[ing God] not only evokes a world, it also undoes, it deconstructs, all other worlds.”

Once we become convinced that only God is worthy of our worship, and we decide to get rid of our idols (whatever they may be) we may find it difficult to get rid of them. They’re not easy to shake.

The temptation is to try to tear our idols down. We’ve had them up on a pedestal and it’s so easy when we’ve put something on a pedestal to throw it down and break it. Think of how many famous people – even in the news recently – have been on pedestals for years and then their reputations all of a sudden are smashed on the ground. The problem is, throwing things off pedestals is just the flip side of building them up.  We are still relating to the idol. Our attention is still on it.

But throughout scripture, when God confronts idolatry, God’s words are always “put it away”.  Not ‘tear it down’.  ‘Put it away’ – like a parent telling a child to put a toy back in its box. Leave it where it is, God says, and let’s you and me do something else.

All through scripture God says to His people ‘put it away’.

  • In Genesis (35:2) God says to Jacob’s family, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you…”
  • When the Israelites were entering the Promised Land, God says, (Joshua 24:14) “put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt.”
  • When the prophet Ezekiel was comforting a nation in exile God said, (Ezekiel 43:9) “let them put away their idolatry… and I will reside among them forever.”
  • And even at the end of the book of Revelation, as God’s judgement is being poured out on the earth at the end of time, people still have not given up their idols. The apostle John writes: (Revelation 9:20) “…they did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshiping demons and idols …”

From Genesis to Revelation God has been saying to his people “put them away”.

So this Lent, let’s put away anything that comes between us and God: anything that is more important to us than God.  And for those people and things in our lives who we love and that are important to us – place them in God’s hands, for God’s blessing. By doing this, we will love them even better, because we’ve set them free to be who they are in the Lord.

So let’s free ourselves of serving anything that can’t save or satisfy. Let’s put away all idols and live our lives as God intended – free to serve the Lord of Love. AMEN.


2 Kings 23:1-6, 21-25  Then the king [Josiah] directed that all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem should be gathered to him.  2 The king went up to the house of the LORD, and with him went all the people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the LORD.  3 The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the LORD, to follow the LORD, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. All the people joined in the covenant.

 4 The king commanded the high priest Hilkiah, the priests of the second order, and the guardians of the threshold, to bring out of the temple of the LORD all the vessels made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven; he burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron, and carried their ashes to Bethel.  5 He deposed the idolatrous priests whom the kings of Judah had ordained to make offerings in the high places at the cities of Judah and around Jerusalem; those also who made offerings to Baal, to the sun, the moon, the constellations, and all the host of the heavens.  6 He brought out the image of Asherah from the house of the LORD, outside Jerusalem, to the Wadi Kidron, burned it at the Wadi Kidron, beat it to dust and threw the dust of it upon the graves of the common people.

The king commanded all the people, “Keep the Passover to the LORD your God as prescribed in this book of the covenant.”  22 No such Passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah;  23 but in the eighteenth year of King Josiah this Passover was kept to the LORD in Jerusalem.

 24 Moreover Josiah put away the mediums, wizards, teraphim, idols, and all the abominations that were seen in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, so that he established the words of the law that were written in the book that the priest Hilkiah had found in the house of the LORD.  25 Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him.

Preached at Wednesday Lenten Lunch Series, Carnegie Ministerium, St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church, 2/21/18


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What are you Giving Up for Lent?

Come get our take on this subject!

Wednesdays during Lent, 12:00 Noon at St. John’s Lutheran Church, Carnegie

February 14 (Ash Wednesday): Giving Up for Lent

Fr. Richard Seiler – All Saints Polish National Catholic Church


February 21: Giving Up Idols

Rev. Peg Bowman – Carnegie United Methodist Church


February 28: Giving Up Fear

Rev. John Kent – Carnegie Simple Church (Seventh Day Adventist)


March 7: Giving Up Giving Up

Rev. Jim Snyder – Pittsburgh Prayer Network


March 14: Giving Up Ingratitude

Rev. Dr. René Whitaker – Carnegie Presbyterian Church


March 21: Giving Up Despair

Rev. Dan Pastorius – First Primitive Methodist Church of Carnegie

Services and Luncheons will be held Wednesdays at Noon at:

Saint John Evangelical Lutheran Church
601 Washington Avenue
Carnegie PA 15106

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“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,  2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.  4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.  5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

6 And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”  7 So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so.  8 God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

9 And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so.  10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.  11 Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so.  12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.  13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years,  15 and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so.  16 God made the two great lights– the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night– and the stars.  17 God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth,  18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good.  19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

20 And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.”  21 So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good.  22 God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.”  23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so.  25 God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”  27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”  29 God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.  30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.  31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.  NRS

 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.  2 And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.  3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.  4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.” – Genesis 1:1-2:4

credit: http://jennbowers.deviantart.com/art/In-the-Beginning-173825924

As you can see in today’s bulletin insert, today the Partnership’s pastoral team is launching a summer series on the Old Testament.

As Christians we are a New Testament people.  Jesus lived in New Testament times, the Christian church begins in the New Testament, and we tend to focus on the New Testament most of the time.  But when Jesus preached, he taught the Old Testament. Jesus was raised Jewish, raised in the synagogue, and Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. So the Old Testament is the foundation on which the New Testament church is built.

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (Matt 5:18) And when Jesus talks about the Law, he means the Old Testament, particularly the first five books – which will be the foundation of our summer series.

So today, here we are at the very beginning!  Genesis chapter 1 verse 1.

As we approach this passage I think it’s helpful to remember the old journalist’s saying that if you want to get to the bottom of something there are five questions to answer: Who, What, When, Where, and Why?  Genesis chapter 1 answers those questions about life on the planet Earth from God’s point of view.

Before we dig into this passage, a little bit of background for reading and understanding Genesis. Genesis is not meant to be read like a newspaper: journalism as we understand it did not exist back then.  Genesis is not meant to be read like a science textbook: schools hadn’t been invented back then.  And Genesis is not meant to be read like the transcript of a court case: lawyers had not been invented yet.

The first human beings, who are created in this chapter, didn’t even know how to read and write.  So the words of Genesis were compiled generations later. But the lack of science and newspapers and lawyers in the first few dozen generations of the human race did not mean ancient people were beneath us intellectually. There is knowledge and wisdom to be found here – just not quite the way it’s usually expressed in the 21st century.

Genesis tells us the story of creation from God’s point of view, metaphorically, in a way that our human understanding can grasp some meaning and apply it.

Of course I can’t talk about the first chapter of Genesis without also mentioning the debate over creationism vs evolution. People argue that either Genesis is the literal truth, or else they say it’s a total myth. Let me suggest that both of those points of view are flawed.

To those who say Genesis should be rejected – who say God had nothing to do with the earth being here – I would say this: look around you. Look at the flowers and the trees and the mountains. Better yet, look at a baby; and tell me these things happen by accident.

As a musician I can tell you a song can’t exist without a songwriter. Likewise a creation can’t exist without a creator.

To those who say Genesis must be taken literally: the choice of words God uses in Genesis chapter one tells us this is not literal.  For example, God describes the process of creation in terms of days – day one, God did this; day two God did that – but the sun wasn’t created until Day Four, and it’s impossible to measure out a day (as we understand it) without the sun.

Scripture itself says that for God, 1000 years is like a day and a day is like 1000 years. And if you want my opinion, where it comes to evolution, there’s no reason why evolution couldn’t be one of many tools in God’s toolbox.

But that’s just my opinion. Today we’re here to listen to the word of God. So let’s dig into it.

Genesis chapter 1, verse 1: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…”   That’s WHEN God created, not IF.

In the original Hebrew there’s something unusual about this first verse.  The noun for ‘God’ is plural… but the verb for ‘created’ is singular.  Mixing a plural subject with a singular verb doesn’t happen in the Hebrew language. In fact it doesn’t happen in English either. In English we would say ‘he makes’ or ‘they make’. We wouldn’t say ‘they makes’. But that’s exactly what the Hebrew says here: God (plural) created (singular).

So in the first chapter of the Bible we meet the foundation of the reality that becomes our understanding of the Trinity. And we meet the Holy Spirit in verse two. ‘The wind’ hovering over the waters can be translated ‘spirit’ – it’s the same word. And then in verse 26 we overhear a conversation among God saying: “let us make humankind in our image”.  God does not say “I’m going to make people in my image.”  And God does not say “our images”.  God says “let us make humankind in our image”. This is not a mistake in the translation.  The Trinity is in the very first chapter of the very first book.  (And it just so happens today is Trinity Sunday which makes it really appropriate that we’re looking at Genesis Chapter 1.)

So moving on to verse two: “when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless and void” – in other words, there was nothing here. Nothing at all. It was empty and dark. And God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light.

My favorite translation of verse three is the very first English translation ever made. The translator was John Wycliffe and the year was 1382. (Aside: Back then copying the Bible into any language but Latin was a crime punishable by death. So Wycliffe risked his life to give us this Bible in English because he believed so strongly that people need to hear God’s word in their own language.)

Wycliffe’s translation of Genesis 1:3 reads:

“and God said ‘light be made’ and light was made.”

Isn’t that fantastic?  When God speaks, things happen. Can you imagine coming home at the end of the day and walking into the kitchen and saying ‘dinner be made!’? God says “light be made” and light is made!

God’s will is done.

“And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.”

Getting back to evolution for a minute, and the theory of the Big Bang: according to recently retired Harvard astrophysicist Professor Owen Gingerich and his colleagues, the Big Bang had to have been made out of something. In other words a bang can’t happen out of nothing. You need to have something there to go ‘bang’. Many scientists now agree that the substance, the material, the Big Bang was made out of, was light. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

But the important thing here is what God does: God separates light from darkness. God calls light ‘good’.  And from this time forward, God will be in the business of separating light from darkness, and good from evil.

Moving on a bit more quickly now… on Day Two, God separates earth from the rest of the solar system by placing an atmosphere around the planet.  On Day Three, God brings the planet’s waters together to make seas and to make dry land. On Day Three God also creates all kinds of plant life including fruit trees… and all these plants have seeds in them that will produce more plants! Life has begun. God created the earth with life in mind.

On Day Four, God creates the Sun and the Moon to give the earth light (which is something the plants are going to need) and also to mark off time: the movements of the sun and moon determine the days, and seasons, and years. The stars are also noticed for the first time but the author doesn’t say anything more about them. Was creation happening on any of the other planets out there? We don’t know, and the Bible doesn’t say, but someday that question will be answered.

On Day Five, God creates life in the ocean: things that swim. It’s interesting that the theory of evolution agrees that animal life on earth has to have begun in the ocean. God also creates birds on the fifth day, and God says to them, “be fruitful and multiply” – and they do.

On Day Six, God creates animal life: cattle, wild animals, snakes, tigers, horses, and cats of course. And then last but certainly not least, God makes human beings “in our image, according to our likeness, male and female.”  The man and the woman were equally created in God’s image; and God blesses them both and gives them both instructions for life. And these instructions still apply today. God says:

  1. “Be fruitful and multiply.” For many people this will mean having children, but not for everybody. For some it may mean teaching or mentoring – passing on knowledge from one generation to another. For some it may mean sustaining life through health care or through growing food or providing shelter or making clothing. For all of us it means taking the gifts and talents God has given us and investing them for the good of other people.
  2. “Fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over it.” This verse has been used many times in human history to excuse damage to the environment.  And the Hebrew word here for ‘have dominion’ does imply force. But the interpretation is not correct.  What’s being said here basically is: nature is wild. Tame it. Prune it.  Rule over it with care. Make the earth produce what you need… but where it’s defenseless, protect it. Be responsible for its well-being.
  3. “I have given you every plant yielding seed… and every tree with seed in its fruit… you shall have them for food.” And God says the same thing to the animals.  The eating of animals… by either people or other animals… doesn’t happen until after the Fall, until after Adam and Eve rebel against God.
    Paul writes in Romans 8: “creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility… We know that the whole creation has been groaning [as] in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves…” (Romans 8:20-23 edited)  Violence between living creatures was never part of God’s original plan, and it’s one of the things that will be healed in God’s coming kingdom.  (By the way, I don’t interpret this to mean we should all stop eating meat… but I do think God’s intention merits our attention.)

And then, at the end of Day Six, when God has said and done all these things, God sits back and says, “this is good!”

And on the seventh day, God rested. The word for ‘rest’ in Hebrew is Shabbat, or Sabbath as we call it today.  It means to cease and desist.  And God blessed the seventh day, and set it apart as holy.

The Sabbath and its meaning, and God’s intention for it, needs a sermon in itself.  And I’m looking forward to writing that sermon someday! But I’m running out of time today so here’s just a sneak preview.

Keeping the Sabbath is not about following a set of rules. Many of us here can remember the days of the ‘blue laws’ when everything was closed on Sundays. And sometimes this caused problems. What happened, for example, if you needed to go to the hospital on a Sunday but your car was out of gas?

There are times when the rules need to bend.  And that’s what Jesus and the Pharisees were always arguing over where it came to the Sabbath.  Jesus said the Sabbath is made for human beings, not vice versa.

The purpose of the Sabbath is to give God’s people the right to have one day out of every seven where we cannot be required to work. One day when we cannot be required to run ourselves ragged going to every sale at the mall, or trimming every hedge in the yard, or getting all the kids to all their practices on Sundays.  The Sabbath gives us the right to say “NO”.  It’s liberating! The Sabbath is freedom. The Sabbath is a foretaste of God’s kingdom to come. And while I don’t believe in blue laws, I do believe our society’s abandonment of the Sabbath is one of the causes of many of the evils of our time: especially when people become unhinged by the pressures of life.  Human beings were not meant to work 24/7/365. We can’t do it and stay healthy. And God knows that, so God gave us the Sabbath.

More on that some other day.  For now, to sum up Genesis 1:

  1. What we read here is that you and I and all of creation are created by a good and loving and creative and powerful, Triune God.
  2. Second, we see that God’s word is active. What God says, happens. And we can take that to the bank.
  3. Third, we see that God cares very deeply for life. And related to that…
  4. Fourth, we see that nature is given to sustain life. Not us only, but all living things. Part of our job here on earth is to care for, and give back to, the earth that sustains us.
  5. Fifth, God looks around at creation and says it’s all good!
  6. And sixth, resting every seventh day is the rhythm of creation – and of eternity.

So this week, think on these things… turn them over in your minds… and apply them as God leads. AMEN.


Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 6/11/17



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[Jesus said] “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” – John 15:1-9

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” – 1 John 4:7-21

This week and next week both of our scripture readings are from the apostle John: one reading from John’s gospel and one from John’s first letter. And – since I have the rare privilege of being with you for two weeks in a row – I’d like to do a sort of two-week mini-series.

The subject John is writing about is LOVE. This week we’ll be focusing on loving others, and next week on loving God.

Love is such a huge subject… where does one begin to talk about love? On the one hand people stretch the meaning of the word too far: I love my car, I love my job, I love my nails. On the other hand, finding real love in action can be hard to do sometimes. We all know what it is to feel love, but how do you put those feelings into words?

The first thing we need when talking about love is a working definition. I have to confess I’m no expert on the subject. I can’t even live up to my own standards where it comes to love, let alone God’s standards.

But I can say this: God is love. And the apostle John says the same thing in our reading from I John this morning. “God is love” – this statement does not mean God-equals-love in the sense that you can switch around the wording like a math problem and say love-equals-God. A lot of people make that mistake. But as Christians we don’t worship love. We strive for love, but we worship God.

God is the source of love; love is not the source of God. When scripture says “God is love” it’s describing God’s nature. It’s like saying “rain is wet”. If rain ever stopped being wet it wouldn’t be rain… if God ever stopped loving, God would not be God. I think this is what the apostle Paul means when he says in 2 Timothy 2:13, “if we are faithless, [God] remains faithful– for [God] cannot deny himself.”

But we still need a working definition of love: what is love? The best definition I’ve ever come across is Paul’s description in I Corinthians 13. It’s a familiar passage – often read at weddings – and rightly so, but it was not originally written for people who were in love. Just the opposite: Paul wrote these words to a church where the members were fighting among themselves (those of us who have been in the church for any length of time have no idea what that’s like!).

The Corinthians were fighting over the spiritual gifts: which ones were greater? Paul, trying to help bring peace to the church at Corinth, praises all the gifts (such as tongues and prophecy) but then he says “I will show you a more excellent way.”

“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. 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. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast [that is, as a martyr], but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” 1 Corinthians 13:1-8  

Does this not describe God’s love for us? Patience; kindness; unwillingness to lord over us how much greater God is than we are; God is never arrogant or boastful towards us, or rude to us. God doesn’t even insist on his will being done – God waits for us to pray ‘thy will be done’. God is never irritable or resentful; God rejoices in the truth. God bears – and has borne – all things. God’s love never ends.

As we grow in the faith, and as we grow closer to God, our aim is to become more like God in the way we love. Which in a large part is what John is getting at in both of our readings this morning.

Starting with I John, I’d like to pull out three points and then do a quick tie-in with the gospel reading.

First, from I John: the source of real love. John says, “Let us love one another…” because love is from God and those who love are born of God and know God. In some ways this seems obvious, but in other ways it’s kind of deep and mystical.

If you’ve ever seen Les Miserables, in the last line of the story, Fantine says to the hero Jean Valjean who is dying, “to love another person is to see the face of God” – I think what the apostle John is saying is the same thing Victor Hugo was trying to say. When we love with the love that God gives, we catch a glimpse of God, because love is from God.

We love one another because God loved us first. God set aside the glory of heaven and became flesh and lived on earth, ‘moved into the neighborhood’ as The Message Bible puts it, died for us so that we can live, and God sends the Holy Spirit to guide us into love.

The second thing I would point out from John’s letter is this line: “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…” I am becoming more and more convinced of the truth of this with every passing day. This is why I pray in the pastoral prayer every week that God will inspire in the hearts of our people a faith that does not fear.

So much of what we hear and experience in our world today is designed to make people afraid. If you can scare people you can motivate them – whether it’s to buy more insurance, or to do something morally questionable in order to keep a job, or to villainize people who vote for that ‘other’ party, or to look the other way when someone’s being bullied.

Love cancels out fear, just like light cancels out darkness. Fear cannot exist where love is. And so God says to us: ‘put an end to fear and instead, love’.

The third thing John shows us is that the love of God in our lives cannot be separated from God’s salvation. John says, “…the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.”

The world would have us believe that it is possible for humans to love with a perfect, selfless love, without God; that we as humans can love the way people need to be loved, with all the power and self-giving the world needs to be healed of its ills, without involving a deity. That’s a misconception at best, because (as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous) we all worship something, and whatever we worship controls us. If we’re not turning our lives over to a ‘higher power’ (as AA would put it), then something else, something less honorable and less trustworthy than God, is controlling us.

That’s a hard truth to come to terms with. But Jesus makes the same point in our gospel lesson. Jesus says, “I am the true vine”. Jesus does not say “I am a true vine’ or ‘I am one of many possible vines’. I double-checked the Greek just to be sure. Jesus is saying “I am the one true vine.” In order to bear fruit for God’s kingdom we need to be tapped into, connected to, the one true living vine, which is Jesus himself.

So when Jesus talks about vines, what is he getting at? This is obviously metaphor, so what are the characteristics of vines that might apply to us?

When we think of vines, we think of plants that grow quickly and spread all over the place and cling to houses and are impossible to get rid of. There are some interesting spiritual possibilities in those characteristics. But when the writers of the Bible talk about vines they’re usually talking about grape-vines.

Where it comes to grape-vines, there are vines and there are vines. There are vines that look like grapevines but aren’t, and they don’t bear fruit. There are vines that are wild grapes, and they bear fruit, but it’s bitter – that’s where the term ‘sour grapes’ comes from.

Jesus says ‘I am the true vine.’ Real fruit from the real vine does not set your teeth on edge. It’s sweet and succulent and it makes great wine.

Grape-vines also have one very long main stem and the branches and leaves and fruit grow from that main stem. So each of us needs to stay connected to the main stem in order to bear good fruit.

Speaking of fruit, what kind of fruit is Jesus talking about? John doesn’t say specifically, but my educated guess is he’s pointing to the fruit of the Spirit… which brings us back to I Corinthians 13. At the end of his great chapter on love, Paul lists the three greatest gifts of the Spirit: faith, hope and love. In Galatians 5:22 Paul also gives us a list of the fruit of the Spirit, which includes “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Against these, he says, there is no law. And all of these things could be considered aspects of love.

Jesus says, in John’s gospel, that God helps us in our efforts to love and to bear fruit by cutting away the dead branches: anything in us that isn’t really alive any more, God breaks away and gets rid of it. And God also prunes the vine so it can bear more fruit. Pruning may seem harsh sometimes, because it cuts away living parts of the plant (as opposed to dead ones). But as any gardener knows, what appears harsh will actually make the plant more productive. I’m thinking right now of my hydrangeas, poor things. A few weeks ago I cut back last year’s stems and except for a few green leaves at the base of the plants they look like dead sticks sticking up out of the ground. I know by July they’ll be gorgeous, but right now you’d never guess it.

I think sometimes God’s work in our lives is like that. Sometimes we can feel like God has cut away too much. Sometimes the very best we can manage is to just hang on and trust God knows what God’s doing. As Jesus says, “abide in me as I abide in you… and those who abide in me and I in them will bear much fruit.”

The good news is that, as we are connected to the vine, fruit will happen. It is the nature of a grapevine to produce fruit. It doesn’t take a whole lot of effort… you never see a grapevine trying to push fruit out!… it just happens. The connection with the vine makes the fruit possible.

The best way that we can love others is to live in God and allow God to live in us… staying connected to God the way branches are connected to a vine. Godly love is a supernatural thing; it’s a miracle. It comes from God, and flows through us, and bears fruit to feed a hungry world. The closer we are to God, the better we will love others. Pray for this: for ourselves, for each other, for our churches, and for our neighborhoods. In Jesus’ name, AMEN.

Preached at Castle Shannon United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 5/3/15




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The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long. – Psalm 23

[Jesus said:] “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away– and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” – John 10:11-18

As some of you know starting this past fall I have been a chaplain trainee at a retirement home in the east end of the city. One of the things I’ve learned there (not from experience thank goodness!) is Psalm 23 is not something you want to read at the bedside of an elderly resident. It makes people nervous, because Psalm 23 has become connected in many people’s minds with funerals and death. The verse that says “yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” might have something to do with it! But that’s not really what this psalm is about.

So today I would like to steal Psalm 23 back, away from the funeral parlor, and put it in a happier place, because I think this psalm is meant for the living.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want; he makes me to lie down in green pastures…” These words have moved people’s hearts for over 3000 years. The words give us a feeling of comfort, of being at home.

Speaking as a musician, I can’t hear the 23rd Psalm without hearing music, because it’s been set to music so many times, and because the Psalms themselves were written to be sung – the Psalms were the hymnal of ancient Israel.

And I think there’s another connection to music that can be found: in the larger setting of Psalm 23 within the book of psalms, though it’s kind of unusual to talk about ‘context’ where it comes to the psalms. A hymnal is basically just a collection of songs, not in any particular order. The songs in our hymnal, for example, aren’t in alphabetical order or organized by composer. On the other hand our hymnal is loosely organized by subject matter: Christmas songs in one place, Easter songs in another, and so on. And I think to some extent the people who collected the psalms and put them together into one book tried to do a similar thing.

Here’s the thought. In classical music there is a form, a structure for composition, called the concerto. If you’ve ever been to a Pittsburgh Symphony concert you’ve probably heard one. (And if you haven’t been to the Pittsburgh Symphony, what are you waiting for? The Pittsburgh Symphony is to classical music what the Pittsburgh Steelers are to football. But I digress…) The concerto is a long piece for solo instrument with orchestra typically in three movements, or three sections. And the movements are usually arranged Fast – Slow – Really Fast. The first movement is usually upbeat and cheerful and draws the listener in; the second movement is usually quiet and introspective; and the third movement is a grand conclusion that sweeps the audience to its feet in applause.

And I think that’s basically what we have in Psalms 22, 23, and 24: they’re like a three-movement concerto. I call it the Concerto of Our Salvation.

OK so… a concerto, first movement, usually opens upbeat and bright. Usually. But every now and then, a composer starts the first movement in a minor key: dark and brooding. This is a signal to the audience that what they’re about to hear is serious and needs careful attention.

That’s what we have in Psalm 22. Grab a Bible and follow with me. The psalm opens with a darkness that takes our breath away: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Words that plumb the depths of human sorrow. And we recognize the speaker: Jesus, who quoted these words from the cross, identifying Himself as the person King David was writing about in this psalm.

Psalm 22 goes on to describe the scene at Calvary, 1000 years before it happened. Look at verse 8: “He trusted in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him.” These exact words are found in Matthew 27:43, spoken by the chief priests and scribes as Jesus was hanging on the cross. Look at verse 16: “They have pierced my hands and feet; I can count all my bones…” David is describing crucifixion, a form of capital punishment that wasn’t invented until around 500 years after David’s death. Look at verse 17: “They divide my garments among them; they cast lots for my clothing…” – exactly what the Roman soldiers did in Matthew 27:35.

So the Concerto of Our Salvation begins with the suffering and death of the Son of God. That’s the first movement.

The third movement, the finale, Psalm 24, ends with a rousing victory. Take a look at verse 7:

“Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.

George Frederick Handel quoted these lines in his oratorio Messiah. The psalm (and the oratorio) continue:

“Who is the King of glory?
The Lord, strong and mighty,
the Lord, mighty in battle.

Who is the King of glory? The same suffering servant we met in Psalm 22. He has been raised from the dead and God has made him king over all creation. And so the greatest concerto ever written ends with the greatest victory the universe has ever seen.

And in between these two movements… in between the pain and darkness of the first movement and the shining victory of the third… is a tender song, Psalm 23, the song of the shepherd. Actually it’s the song of the sheep, singing about the shepherd. It’s the song we sing in between the cross and the crown.

Psalm 23 is where we live. It’s a song of trust and quiet confidence. It begins and ends with the Lord: verse 1, “The Lord is my shepherd”; verse 6 “the house of the Lord”. In the same way our lives begin and end with God.

David says the presence of the good shepherd gives us a number of things. The first is confidence. “The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want.” We are confident that God will provide all we need, because God has been faithful in the past. David wrote: “I have been young and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.”

The presence of the good shepherd also gives us rest and refreshment. “He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.” God’s provision is abundant, and good, and we rest in safe places. “He restores my soul…” David says. At the end of a long day or a long week when we’ve had the mud of the world tramped through our souls we can come to the Good Shepherd and he will restore us.

The presence of the good shepherd also gives us guidance. “He leads me ‘in right paths’ for his name’s sake” – for His name’s sake. Not because we deserve it, but because God is our creator, and God leads us in what is right because doing so is part of who God is.

The presence of the good shepherd also gives us life. “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” Notice David doesn’t say if I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. He says “though I walk…” He’s already there, and so are we. That’s the reality of living in a fallen world, where addiction and abuse and violence and persecution are everywhere.

In spite of the darkness, (David says) “…I shall fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The shepherd’s rod was used as a club for fighting off wild animals, and the staff was a crook for guiding the sheep. As we pass through this world we have nothing to fear as long as we are with the shepherd.

David focuses his attention on God and not on his fears. I want to stress that point, because so much of what we hear and experience these days is designed to cause people to fear. If you can scare people you can motivate them – whether it’s to buy more insurance, or to do something morally questionable in order to keep a job, or villainize people who vote for the ‘other’ party, or to look the other way when someone’s being bullied. That’s why I pray every Sunday, when we pray for our nation, that God will raise up in our nation people whose hearts trust in God and do not fear. We fear no evil – not because evil doesn’t exist but because the good shepherd is here with us.

The presence of the good shepherd also gives us eternity with God. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…” and what a feast it’s going to be! The prophet Isaiah tells us, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees…”. This feast is going to make a 5-star restaurant look like McDonald’s by comparison. And David continues: “You anoint my head with oil, my cup runs over”.

“Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Goodness and mercy will follow me… the meaning there is ‘chase after’ – goodness and mercy will pursue me’. As the great old English preacher Charles Simeon put it: “Are you bold enough to carry this confidence beyond the grave?” If so, he says, “while all the [world is] following after happiness and it eludes their grasp, those who believe in Jesus have happiness following after them.” God’s loving kindness runs after us like the father of the Prodigal Son runs to meet his son.

And when our time on earth is done, by God’s goodness and mercy, we will move from Psalm 23 into Psalm 24 – ascending the hill of the Lord and celebrating his victory. In the meantime, Psalm 23 is the gentle, quiet second movement in the Concerto of Our Salvation. No matter what happens, no matter what we see around us, we can trust Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who has given his life for our protection, our restoration, and to bring us safely into our eternal home. Rest in Him. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Crafton United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church on 4/26/15


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The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. – John 2:13-22

The time is right before the national holiday of Passover: the celebration of freedom from slavery. The place is the outer courts of the temple in Jerusalem, at the top of the temple mountain, with the city at its feet.

Jesus and the disciples are there in the outer courts of the temple. And Jesus is royally ticked off. He’s found some leather, and sits weaving the strips into a whip. As he does you can see the temperature rising.

When he’s done, Jesus takes the whip and starts a stampede. The outer courtyard of the temple is crowded with sacrificial animals up for sale – cows and oxen and sheep and goats – and all of a sudden, with Jesus behind them, they take off, running in every direction down the hill and into the city streets. Can you picture the scene?

Then Jesus throws over the tables of the moneychangers and all the coins go flying, rolling over the stone floors and into the streets. I like to think that some of the poor beggars sitting near the temple got their bills paid that day.

In the middle of all this the priests come dashing out and confront Jesus and demand to know who-he-thinks-he-is to be doing such things.

The disciples meanwhile remember the words of the prophets, who said of the Messiah:

“Zeal for God’s house consumes me”.

Or in more modern language, “I’m on fire for God’s house.”

What does that mean, to be “on fire for God’s house”? And what does that have to do with the Path of Community we’re looking at today?

First question first. When Jesus is described as being ‘on fire for God’s house,’ the prophets are not talking about the physical temple. Jesus himself predicts the destruction of the temple that happens in the year 70AD. Granted, places of worship are beautiful and meaningful. But there’s an important question to ask: if the building God’s people worship in disappears tomorrow, would we still be the church?

As the congregation up at Hill Top, has discovered since last year’s fire, the answer is yes. Because the church is not the building, the church is the people. So when Jesus is described as being passionate about God’s house, we’re talking about Jesus being passionate about God’s people, about us.

Getting back to the scene: Jesus shouts at the moneychangers:

“Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

Or, in other words, ‘God’s people are not your emporium’. (Emporium is the literal word in the Greek. It’s not just a small business, it’s more like a shopping mall.) Jesus says, ‘God’s people are not your commercial enterprise.’

And then Jesus is confronted by angry temple priests who have no clue what he’s going on about. These men who are supposed to represent God to the people have gotten so used to seeing the people of God as a source of profit that they demand that Jesus defend his actions! They say:

“What sign can you show us?”

— without even realizing they’ve just witnessed a sign.

Jesus takes advantage of this teachable moment and draws a parallel between the temple and his own body. Actually it’s a three-way parallel: between the temple building, the ‘body of Christ’ or God’s faithful people, and Jesus’ physical body. All three – the building, the people, and Jesus’ body – are the dwelling place of God. All three are being desecrated by men who claim to represent God. All three are about to be cleansed and made whole by God’s Messiah.

This passage is a picture of how passionately Jesus loves us, and how passionately Jesus hates injustice. The temple system he overturned that day wasn’t just commercialism. It was that; but the animals were there because they were required for worship, for sacrifice. But the people couldn’t sacrifice just any animal. The sacrifice had to be a perfect animal, according to the law of Moses: an “animal without blemish”. And you can bet if the people brought an animal from back home on the farm, the temple inspectors would find a blemish. So they had to buy animals perfect enough to sacrifice. And they couldn’t buy these animals with Roman coins. The Roman emperor – whose face was on the coin – claimed to be a god and you couldn’t bring false gods into the temple. So you had to change your money from Roman coins to temple coins. And you can bet the exchange rate was a bit high. So God’s holy house had become a place where people were ripped off before they were even allowed inside to worship.

And that’s not all. These animals and moneychangers were set up in the outer courts of the temple. The inner courts were for Jewish worship; the outer courts were for the seekers and the Gentiles, the foreigners and the beggars. The very people who needed God most were being crowded out of God’s house.

Jesus was royally ticked off. Praise God!

So what does this scene have to do with the Path of Community? The community of believers, also known as the Church or the Body of Christ, faces injustice today just like God’s people did back then. There are still people around today who see us as their own personal marketplace. I got something in the mail awhile back from a ministry out in Ohio saying “pray on the enclosed prayer mat” They had enclosed a decorative piece of paper about the size of a place mat that you were supposed to put on the floor and kneel down on. The instructions said: “pray on this mat and ask God how much money God wants you to send our ministry.”

Not quite as bad, there’s Christian merchandise and Christian books and Christian music – which I enjoy – but it’s become big business, and there are many stories of believers who go to work for these companies and walk away disillusioned.

And there are churches that lift up an impossible standard of perfection in Christian living, so much so that people who are single or divorced or childless or sick or poor or out of work or in recovery don’t feel welcome because they don’t measure up.

The community of believers should not be like this. And Jesus is as ready today as He was back then to cleanse the church, with the power of His death and resurrection.

Which leads us to the Lenten discipline of the path of community. So what is Christian community all about? There’s a lot that could be said, but five things I want to look at today:

  1. As the Body of Christ, we are one. This may sound a little strange given that there are hundreds of denominations in the world. Christian unity has proven to be elusive for the past 2000 years. Nonetheless, everyone who believes in God and in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord is a child of God and a member of God’s family. We are one in Jesus.
  2. The Christian community is counter-cultural; it goes against the grain of the culture around us. Christians believe what Jesus said about the last being first and the first being last. We believe that the poor and the meek and the persecuted and the lovers of peace and the children are the greatest in God’s kingdom… not the rich or the powerful or the popular.
  3. Christian community is a place where anyone can find welcome. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done. The door is open, and we can offer a hot meal if it’s needed, or a listening ear, or a shoulder to lean on, or a prayer.
  4. Christian community is not found in just one place. It can be found wherever two or more believers are gathered together, anywhere around the world. One of the greatest joys I find in travel – across this country or in other countries – is meeting and getting to know believers from all kinds of places. People who love our Lord can be found everywhere on this planet. And wherever they are, Christian community is. They belong to us and we belong to them.
  5. The Christian community also extends through time. Jesus said that when God says, “I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” that God is not the God of the dead but of the living. So Christian community includes our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents; our ancestors who came across the ocean; and the ancestors who stayed in the old country. Christian community includes the saints: John Wesley and Martin Luther and John Calvin and St. Benedict and Peter and Paul, and Abraham and Isaac. The community of faith is forever. Even death cannot end it.

These five things are a large part of why it’s important not to give up on coming to church. Yes, we can worship God on the golf course… but not as part of the community. When we gather together as a community, we worship, we celebrate the sacraments, and we send people out to do mission, locally or around the world. We pray, and we study and learn, and we serve – together. And the fact that you’re here today tells me most of you already know how important Christian community is. You’re here, and I’m preaching to the choir. But it’s good to hear anyway.

So what does this mean for us today? I think this: to ask ourselves where are we in Jesus’ scenario? Where do we find ourselves in the community? Are we among the worshipers in the inner courts, praying and praising God, enjoying God’s presence? Are we in the outer courts, where we can hear the praise and worship happening on the inside, but things seem worldly and commercial where we’re standing, and God feels kind of far away? Are we outside the temple completely, on the city streets, unsure about anything, unsure about God, but feeling strangely drawn to this man from Galilee?

To anyone who is here today who is feeling unsure about God, or feeling like an outsider, I want to say this: It takes a lot of courage to feel the way you feel and still set foot inside a church. I admire that kind of courage and I’m glad you’re here. Jesus said, when He was talking about His body, “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” He was talking about His death and resurrection, which is the heart of our faith and the reason for our hope. The grave could not hold Jesus. The grave could not defeat His love. If you get nothing else out of today, take that faith and that hope with you.

To anyone who is here today feeling like they’re in the outer courts, feeling like God is far away: I want to say this: don’t let the world distract you, and don’t let people who make a show of religion discourage you. God has called all people to Jesus and that includes you. God loves you, and it’s your turn to enter into the inner courts.

And to those who are in the inner courts, enjoying fellowship with God and the family of faith – praise God for you! Just remember one thing: remember the people in the outer courts. Invite them in, help them feel at home.

The Path of Community is an intentional journey. We are being built up into the Body of Christ day by day. And that can’t happen if we’re not here. We are called into God’s family. Let us live into that calling, cleansed and defended, created and redeemed by our Lord Jesus Christ. AMEN.


Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 3/8/15


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When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-46)

Do you ever stop and wonder what is life all about? Do you ever wonder what are you and I doing here on this planet? How do we little human beings go about reaching God? What does God want us to do with our lives?

I don’t know about you, but when I was a teenager questions like this used to rattle around in my brain all the time. Even at this stage in the game many of us are still trying to figure out what we want to be when we grow up!

I used to get really discouraged trying to get a sense of direction for my life from the Bible. On the one hand, the Bible is too general. It doesn’t give answers to questions like “what career should I choose?” or “who should I marry?” or “should I marry?” If I want to know why I happened to be born in this particular place at this particular time in history the Bible doesn’t offer much of an answer.

On the other hand, the Bible can be very specific. There are lots of things it says to do, and lots of things it says not to do. The Old Testament has three books devoted mostly to God’s commandments (Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy). There are lots of “Thou shalt do this-es” and “thou shalt not do thats” – too many for my teenage brain to remember! I thought to myself: what chance do I have of ever figuring out what God wants me to do, and getting it right?

Of course the Gospel message – the Good News – is that we don’t have to get it right. Jesus gave his life to pay the price for our sins, and to set things right between us and God. We don’t have to remember every single “do” and “do not” in the Bible… we can’t… it’s too much for most of us.

But the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisee in today’s reading from Matthew gives a wonderful guideline for those of us who want to please God but have problems remembering all the details. In their conversation, pleasing God comes down to two things: love God with all you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Easy to remember. Not so easy to do.

For starters, we need to come up with a working definition of “love”. What does it mean to love? Talk about a word that is over-used, misunderstood, and shrouded in mystery! People talk about it, fall into it, fall out of it, and even then still can’t figure out how to explain it. People write songs about it. Love Is an Open Door, Love is a Many Splendored Thing, Love is All You Need, Love Makes the World Go Round, might as well face it, you’re Addicted To Love. But what is love?

I would like to suggest that love is primarily a decision – a decision to take a course of action, to do what is beneficial for others. To be sure, love touches the emotions, it stirs our hearts. I don’t mean to make love sound like a cool, clinical, intellectual thing, because it’s not. Whether it’s falling in love, or loving a friend, or loving a parent or loving a child – when we love, our feelings are very close to the surface. But love is not primarily a warm fuzzy feeling. Jesus says elsewhere in scripture, “No one has greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And we rightfully honor men and women who spend their lives, or give up their lives, in service to others. People don’t do these things because they have fuzzy feelings; they do it because they sense a higher call, a higher purpose.

So bringing this back to our reading from Matthew… Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love God with everything we are – heart, mind, and soul. But what does it mean to love God? I mean, if you have a friend you can give them a hug; if you’re visiting someone in the hospital you can hold their hand. But how do you love someone we can’t touch, can’t see, who is so much greater and more holy and more perfect than we are?

I’d like to suggest three things today. First, like with human love, loving God includes praising Him – telling God and telling others how wonderful God is. When we love someone we can’t shut up about them, and it’s the same way with God. Second, like with human love, loving God has more to do with actions than feelings. And third, when we love God we try to understand things from God’s point of view, to see things God’s way.

On the first point – finding wonderful things to say about God is pretty easy, because our God is fantastic! But we tend to get bogged down in life’s difficulties and forget to look up and be amazed by our God. At times like this I find it helpful to read the Psalms, particularly a psalm like this one that I was reading this morning:

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits –
who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy…
He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel.
The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
Bless the LORD, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding…
Bless the LORD, all his hosts, his ministers that do his will.
Bless the LORD, all his works, in all places of his dominion.
Bless the LORD, O my soul. (Psalm 103, excerpts)

That’s the heart of loving God.

On the second point – my old pastor, a wise man, has often suggested that loving God has a great deal to do with obeying God. The first time I heard him say that I kind of felt let down, like he was taking all the fun out of love. I mean, isn’t the word ‘obey’ the first thing we take out of the wedding vows? And I don’t know about you but I’ve seen enough of bullying and injustice and mis-use of authority in this world – ‘obedience’ can be a dangerous word. But when we’re looking at Jesus we’re not looking at the world or at human authority. We’re looking at a man who loves us enough to sacrifice himself for us.

Jesus says in John 14:13: “if you love me, keep my commandments”. And he amplifies that a few verses later:

“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.” (John 14:23)

Which commandments, then, does Jesus ask us to keep? Jesus talks about many commandments during his time on earth, but often what he’s referring to are the ones God gave Moses – particularly the Ten Commandments.

When we think about the subject of love, the Ten Commandments are probably not the first things that spring to mind! But think about it. Think about what the Ten Commandments tell us to do. Honor our parents? That’s loving. Resist the temptation to kill, lie, cheat, steal, or want what doesn’t belong to us? That’s loving. It’s even more loving if we can do the opposite: if we can be faithful, if we can be honest, if we can be happy with what we have, if we speak the truth, if we let our enemies live. That covers a lot of ground on the road to love.

These commandments are about our relationships with other people. Which makes sense in light of what Jesus said about the second greatest commandment: “The second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In God’s world, loving other people is one way to love God. Mother Teresa said about the poor people she worked among, “Each one of them is Jesus in disguise.” And when asked how we can begin to love this way, she added, “Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.”

So loving others is a powerful way to love God. But there are some other commandments that deal with loving God directly. The first is “I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods but me.” God commands us not to bend our knees to anything or anyone else. And I want to suggest that if we obey that one command all the others fall into place. It’s only when we make something more important than God that we start to do things like steal, kill, lie, or cheat. If we love God we will speak his name with honor and we will live in such a way that brings honor to his name.

There’s one more commandment I haven’t mentioned yet, and that is: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. God says through Moses:

Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work– you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. (Exodus 20:9-10)

The longer I live, and the more I read God’s word, the more important this commandment becomes in my mind and in my heart… and here’s why: when Jesus says “love your neighbor as yourself” his words assume that we love ourselves. It’s impossible to love your neighbor without loving yourself. If your love-tank (so to speak) is empty, you’ve got nothing to give. Keeping the Sabbath is the one commandment that falls almost exclusively into the category of loving yourself.

When we work our fingers to the bone we’re not loving ourselves. When we’re running around trying to make this appointment and that meeting and this ball game over here and that event over there – we’re running ourselves ragged, and that’s not loving ourselves. God gave us a beautiful gift in the Sabbath. The Sabbath is not just about Sunday morning church – the Sabbath in Moses’ day was understood as a full day off, 24 hours from sundown to sundown, when God’s people have God’s permission to say “no” to the demands of the world and “yes” to rest and re-creation. A time to turn off all the noise that demands our attention and enjoy family, friends, nature, books, art, music… and prayer. All the things that make life worth living. Keeping the Sabbath can sometimes take a little creativity when we mix it with our modern schedules, but that’s OK. Your Sabbath can be Wednesday if that’s your day off. The important thing is to give ourselves the same permission God gives us to stop and rest once a week.

Which leads us to my third point – loving God means seeking to understand things from God’s point of view. Why is it that loving others and loving ourselves is a way of loving God? Because we are God’s creations, God’s handiwork. When we care for what God has made, we show our respect and care for God. It just makes sense. For example, if I plant a garden, and someone walks through that garden with me and bends over to smell the flowers and remarks on how beautiful it is, that person is loving and respecting me. But if someone throws trash in my garden or tears up the plants I worked so hard to grow, that person doesn’t love me. And it’s the same with God. If we love what God has made, we honor God.

So loving others and loving ourselves is a way of loving God. And there are other ways of seeing things from God’s point of view. Moses was an expert at this. His prayers in scripture are amazing in their depths of understanding God. Think back to Exodus and the episode with the golden calf. Moses was up on the mountain talking to God, receiving the Ten Commandments, and down at the foot of the mountain the people had made a golden calf and decided to call it god and worship it. God was furious and threatened to kill the people and build a new nation with Moses and his descendants. Remember Moses’ prayer for the people? He didn’t try to make excuses. He did not say, “The people didn’t know what they were doing Lord… they’re new at this “Chosen People” thing… c’mon, give ‘em a break.” No; Moses saw things from God’s point of view. He prayed, “Lord, what about the honor of your name? What will the Egyptians say? That you brought these people out into the wilderness in order to kill them? That you were not able to carry out your plan to make them your holy nation?” Scripture says Moses changed God’s mind.

Some of the things Moses says in Psalm 90, which we read earlier, profoundly express God’s point of view.

  • He says, “before the world and the earth were formed, from eternity to eternity, God was there.”
  • He says, “a thousand years in God’s sight are like yesterday when it is past”
  • He says, “grass flourishes in the morning, and in the evening fades and withers… [and] we humans are like the grass; our years come to an end like a sigh; days full of trouble and soon gone.”
  • Moses therefore prays, “Have compassion on your servants O Lord!”
  • He says, “satisfy us… with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days…”
  • He says, “Let us see your works, your power, let your favor be on us, prosper the work of our hands”

Moses knows God’s will for his people is mercy, health, and love; and that with him our lives will be abundant, full of joy, and have eternal meaning.

Jesus says in John 10:10, “I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” This is God’s will for us. Loving God means understanding this. Loving God means trusting that God’s intentions towards us are good.

Life will always have its difficulties; but we trust that ultimately all things are in the hands of a loving God. To love God is to believe what God says… to follow where God leads… and to love the people that God has created.

Let’s pray.

Lord thank you for this word of Yours that we can keep in our hearts, that all the law and all the commandments can be summed up in loving You and in loving each other as we love ourselves. Thank you for making love the purpose of our lives. Teach us to love better and better each day, and by the power of your Holy Spirit inspire in our hearts love for each other, and above everything else love for Yourself. We pray in Jesus’ name, AMEN.


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