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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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Today in church our Scripture lessons and sermon were about the journey to the Promised Land – both metaphorically and literally in terms of preparing ourselves for Heaven.  As I was choosing hymns I was surprised and thrilled to find the song above in the United Methodist hymnal.  It fit the scriptures and sermon perfectly.

Just two problems: (1) I suspected very few in the congregation knew it; and (2) how on earth does one explain what Mary’s weeping and Pharaoh’s army getting “drownded” has to do with going to heaven?

Here’s what I shared with the congregation. May it be a blessing.

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O Mary Don’t You Weep is an old African-American spiritual that has to do with arriving in heaven. But that’s not immediately obvious from the text of the song. Let’s take a closer look at it.

The verses are meant to be sung by a song-leader or soloist, with the congregation singing the chorus (“O Mary don’t you weep, don’t mourn…”).  And there are many verses (I know of about a dozen) that can be interchanged as the song leader chooses.  We won’t be using a song-leader today — I’m not going to ask anyone to sing a solo! – so we will sing just the three verses in the hymnal.

So what does Mary weeping and Pharoah’s army getting “drownded” have to do with going to heaven?  Hang onto that thought, I’ll come back to it.  But first…

African-American spirituals often talk about crossing rivers. Here are some well-known examples:

Michael Row the Boat Ashore
“River Jordan is chilly and cold, chills the body but not the soul”
“River Jordan is deep and wide, milk and honey on the other side”

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
I look over Jordan, and what do I see? A band of angels comin’ after me.

Deep River
Deep river, my home is over Jordan
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into Campground.

The river represents death, and crossing the river and arriving safely on the far side represents arriving in the promised land — in heaven.

So in this song, the writer of the hymn is standing by Mary’s side. [I assumed it was Jesus’ mother Mary, but it may also be interpreted as Mary Magdalene at the tomb on Easter morning.]  The song writer is telling her, “Don’t cry. Remember the Red Sea? Remember how God’s people ended up safe on the other side, and the river they crossed became the death of Pharaoh’s army, their enemies? Jesus is doing the same thing.  Jesus is crossing the river of death right now to make a way for God’s people, and the enemy (which is death) is being destroyed. So Mary don’t you weep.”

So this hymn is about looking through life’s challenges to the joy in God’s saving power and the celebration of our arrival in heaven.

Let’s sing!

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Scripture Readings: Romans 14:1–12 and Matthew 18:21–35

Before I dig into the scripture readings from Romans and Matthew, I want to mention three notes on these readings.

First, there is a third scripture reading assigned for this morning, from the Old Testament, that we did not read, that gives a great context to the words of Paul and Matthew. The Old Testament reading would have been from Exodus chapters 14 and 15, which tell the story of Israel’s liberation from slavery, crossing the Red Sea while God holds the waters back, and then the song of freedom and victory when they reach the other side. This picture of God setting his people free gives us a proper background for these two New Testament readings, because it gives us a picture of God’s mercy and power to set us free from sin and death.

When Jesus talks about forgiveness in the reading from Matthew – it is humanly impossible to forgive the way Jesus says to forgive, unless we know we are God’s people and God is with us. When Paul talks about not judging others – it is impossible to not judge others unless we know our own sins have been forgiven. It is human nature to point out the flaws of others; but as Christians we have been set free from the power of sin and death, through the mercy and power of God, and because of this we are able to live lives of mercy and compassion. So I recommend to your reading this week Exodus chapters 14 and 15.

Second, these two readings from Matthew and Romans are related to each other. They are both close to the very heart of the gospel. Jesus started his public ministry preaching, “the kingdom of God is near – repent and believe the good news.” The word ‘repent’ means to change course, or to change direction, or to change one’s mind. Repentance is not about regret or guilt or shame, it’s about facing into a new direction. So Jesus is saying basically, “The kingdom of God is near – change course and believe the good news.” The coming of the King, the coming of the Messiah, is what makes it possible for us to have changed minds and changed direction.

Third, both of these passages – from Matthew and from Romans – are difficult. They’re difficult to hear, and they’re difficult to live. This is going to be one of those sermons where I’ll be preaching to myself as much as I am to you.

With all that said, let’s dig in. We’ll start with the reading from Romans. Paul is writing to the church at Rome because the Roman church is on the brink of a church split (something that seems to happen a lot throughout church history!) Paul is writing to correct the attitudes of the people who are tearing the church apart.

The division in the Roman church is over the subject of eating meat. Should Christians eat meat or shouldn’t they? That’s the question. This is not about vegetarianism; the issue in the ancient world was that most of the meat a person could buy in the open market – not all, but most – came from religious sacrifices. In other words, these animals had been sacrificed to false gods. Some people said meat sacrificed to a false god was tainted by false religion and was therefore evil and should not be eaten. Other people said a false god isn’t a real god and therefore has no power to harm the meat or the person who eats it. The people who said the meat was tainted by false religion started to question every piece of meat they came across – at a dinner party, for instance, they might ask the host, “where did this meat come from?” You can imagine people started to take offense to this. On the other hand, the people who saw no harm in such meat tended to flaunt their freedom, deliberately eating meat in the presence of the non-meat-eaters in order to offend them.

To give a somewhat more modern parallel, there was a similar kind of debate in many churches when I was growing up. Some of you may remember it. The issue was rock n roll music, particularly its use in the church, and the argument went something like this: one side said, “rock music promotes sex and drugs and a godless lifestyle… and besides the Beatles claim they’re more popular than Jesus… so rock music is evil and must be avoided.” The other side said, “a musical style is not in and of itself good or evil. Rock music can be good and can be enjoyed.” Cliff Richard even wrote a song about the debate called Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?

It’s the same species of argument, the debate over eating meat and the debate over rock music. People who are against, are concerned with holiness – they want to do what pleases God and avoid what doesn’t please God. People who are for, are concerned with freedom and justice. They know we are set free from sin by the death of Christ on the cross, and therefore we don’t need to live in fear. So both sides start out with legitimate concerns. But then the arguments quickly devolve into name-calling and finger-pointing and arguments at church councils and nasty messages on Facebook.

It’s interesting to note that Paul describes the abstain-from-meat argument as being the weaker of the two. In Romans 14:2 he says: “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.” So on this particular issue Paul sides with the meat-eaters. But Paul does not press that point. He goes on to say each person must obey their own conscience. In other words, if a person believes eating meat offends God then for that person it would be wrong to eat meat.

And more importantly, whatever a person does, whether abstaining or enjoying, it is to be done (v. 6) “in honor of the Lord, [giving] thanks to God.” Those who eat meat are not to despise those who don’t… and those who don’t eat meat are not to pass judgement on those who do. The most important issue is the attitude of the heart towards God and toward our brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul nails that argument down by saying (v. 4), “Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”

Paul says so much in that one little verse! Every one of us is someone else’s servant. Each of us answers directly to God. Each of us belongs to God. It is before God that each of us stands or falls.

This is where Jesus’ parable from Matthew chimes in. Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wishes to settle accounts with his slaves.” One slave owes him 10,000 talents. We don’t know exactly how much money that would be in today’s terms, but scholars generally agree it’s far more than a person could earn in a lifetime. So the slave and his family, and all that he has, is to be sold to pay off the debt. The slave begs for mercy and the king forgives the debt. Erases it completely. The slave then goes out and sees another slave who owes him about a day’s wages. This other slave begs for mercy, but the first slave says ‘no’ and has him beaten. The king is furious – he says to the first slave “I forgave you all that debt just because you asked me to, and you won’t forgive the little bit your fellow slave owes you?”

We forgive each other, not because it’s a nice thing to do (though it is), but because we know our forgiveness has come at a higher price than we could ever pay. How can we possibly demand payment from a fellow slave?

Having said this I need to step back for a moment and point out some things people sometimes say about forgiveness that need to be addressed. Three notes, and the first two are caveats:

  • Caveat #1. Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness is often misinterpreted and mis-applied where it comes to people who are in danger. Are we expected to forgive someone who threatens us? Are we expected to forgive someone who deliberately hurts us or bullies us? Are we expected to forgive someone who is self-destructive and is pulling family and friends down into a vortex of self-destruction? The Christian answer is “Yes, but…” Yes, but forgive from a safe distance. Get away from danger first. And know it may take a long time before we’re able to forgive these kinds of things. Christian forgiveness does not mean being a martyr to someone who may injure you or someone you love.
  • Caveat #2. Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness is not a command to look the other way or let people off the hook where it comes to immorality or injustice. As much as it is possible, as Christians we need to address issues and concerns without attacking persons.
  • Third note (not a caveat) : Alcoholics Anonymous gives us one of the world’s best examples of Paul’s teaching in Romans, so much so that I would like to spend some time with it.

Most of you have heard of AA’s Twelve Steps. Step Four of the Twelve Steps has to do with “making a searching and fearless moral inventory” of one’s life. This step is essentially a confession, in which the person in recovery writes down everything they’ve ever done wrong, as best they can remember, with the purpose of making reparations where possible. In the process of recovery, the inventory is shared with God and with one other trusted person, and that’s it. As you can imagine this inventory is extremely personal.

What Paul is describing in Romans – the way people were passing judgement on each other – is what AA calls “taking someone else’s inventory”. And it’s a huge red flag in recovery. Focusing on someone else’s inventory is more than just fault-finding. It is one of the primary characteristics of addiction. On a spiritual level, when we’re taking someone else’s inventory we’re not leaving room for God to work in that person’s life – or in our own.

The apostle Paul didn’t have the Twelve Steps to pull from, but he’s got the idea in spades.

So where does this all lead us?

First, where there is disagreement between Christians on an issue, each one of us must do what our own conscience dictates, as best we are able, based on what we know. It helps to be informed on the issues, but ultimately the questions are spiritual, and we will answer to God for what we choose.

Second, we need to remember that our Christian brothers and sisters are someone else’s servants. They belong to someone else, and they will answer to Him. Our job is to do whatever we do “in honor of the Lord, giving thanks to God.”

Third, we need to remember God has already forgiven us far more than any person will ever owe us. Therefore we are in a position where we can afford to show mercy to others.

Fourth and finally, above all we need to remember that the kingdom of heaven is near, and our salvation is already secured. Just as the Israelites passed through the Red Sea to freedom, Jesus has passed through death into life, giving us freedom from sin and death.

Therefore the victory is already ours. We have nothing to fear, and we have nothing to lose.

Lord, help us to forgive and be forgiven. Help us to remember the price you paid for us… and for our brothers and sisters in the faith. Help us to include… understand… confront fairly… and listen with compassion as we seek to follow You. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 9/14/14

Soli Deo Gloria

~

 

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