The Man Born Blind

Scripture: John 9, the Healing of the Man Born Blind (text in full at the end).

In the Old Testament, in the book of Amos, God and Amos were having a conversation, and at one point God held something up and said to Amos, “what do you see?” And Amos said, “a plumb line.” And God said, “I am setting a plumb line in… Israel.”

My husband the carpenter knows more about plumb lines than I do, but basically a plumb line is a weight on the end of a string.  And the weight takes advantage of gravity, so that when you hold the end of the string, the weight makes the string straight up and down.  And when you hold this up against a vertical surface like a wall, it shows whether or not the wall is straight.

So God is setting a plumb line in Israel, spiritually speaking, and the plumb line is Jesus. We see a real-life example of this in our reading from John today. Let’s take a look at the story…

Actually I should back up a couple pages, because the 8th chapter of John sets the scene for our story. In John 8, Jesus is teaching in the temple and the Pharisees decide to test him by bringing him a woman caught in adultery. They ask him, “what should we do about this woman?” The Pharisees think they’re setting a plumb line for Jesus to measure up to: testing him to see if he will live up to that straight line called the Law of Moses.  But Jesus turns the plumb line on them. He says, “whoever of you is without sin cast the first stone.” And they have to admit none of them is sinless, so no stones get thrown.

Immediately after this, Jesus says to the crowd, “I am the light of the world.” And the religious authorities accuse him of having a demon.  Jesus then says something even more shocking: he says, “before Abraham was, I AM”.  “I AM” is the name of God. It’s the way God introduced himself to Moses in the Old Testament. So Jesus is claiming to be God.  And the religious authorities pick up stones to stone him for blasphemy, but Jesus manages to slip away.

So having just escaped the Pharisees – with their words and their rocks still freshly in mind – Jesus and the disciples are walking down the road when they see a man who was born blind. The disciples look at the blind man and then look at Jesus and say, “who sinned, this man or his parents, so that he was born blind?”

Back in those days people thought if something bad happened to you in life, it was God’s punishment for sin. And looking at the law of Moses and at Israel’s history, you could see why they might think so. In the Old Testament, God often said things like “if you obey me and worship me only, I will bless you; but if you rebel against me the blessings will be removed.”  And the Old Testament is full of stories of Israel rebelling against God and losing battles or going into exile.

But the thing is, the Old Testament covenant was between God and the nation of Israel. It didn’t mean good people always had good things happen to them, or that bad people always had bad things happen to them.  Job, for example, had terrible things happen to him, and he was a very godly man.

And this is still true today. I often hear people wonder out loud, for example, whether an illness is God’s punishment for something. The fact is, in a fallen world, sometimes bad things happen to good people, and we don’t always know why.

And that’s the case in our story today.  Where it comes to the man who was born blind, Jesus says his blindness has nothing to do with sin whatsoever.  He says the man was born blind “so God’s workmanship could be revealed in him.”

And I think that’s something to think about for us as well. When life gets tough, it might be an opportunity for God’s work to be revealed in us.  And we can pray for that.  In II Corinthians when Paul prays for a cure to an illness, God says to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul responds, “So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” (II Corinthians 12:9)

That’s what’s happening in the life of the blind man.  Jesus spits on the ground, makes some mud, puts it on the man’s eyes, and says ‘go wash in the Pool of Siloam’.  And the blind man does it, and he comes back able to see. But when he comes back, Jesus is gone – he and the disciples have moved on.

A little side note: this isn’t the only blind man Jesus will heal.  But the other blind people will be healed without mud. So why does Jesus make mud this one time?  There are a number of possible reasons but I think one of them was that Jesus was challenging the Pharisees’ understanding of the Sabbath (making mud on the Sabbath was considered work, and therefore breaking the Sabbath law).  It also sets up a parallel between the healing of the blind man and another healing, the healing of a paralyzed man back in John chapter 5. That healing also happened on a Sabbath, but with different results… and I’ll come back to that in a little bit.

So the blind man returns from the pool able to see, and the whole neighborhood is amazed. “How did this happen?” people ask.  “Is this really the same man who used to sit begging?” “Naah, it just looks like him.” And he’s standing there saying, “YES I am that man!!” And he tells them the story of what Jesus did for him.

Then the neighbors drag the him off to see the Pharisees.  Why would they do this?  They know the Pharisees don’t like Jesus. They know anybody who follows Jesus is in danger of being thrown out of the synagogue – which in that culture means being cut off from the community. So what’s up with this?

The crowd’s reasons were probably mixed. Some people who liked Jesus might have wanted to prove to the Pharisees that Jesus really was a prophet. Others might have wanted to score brownie points with the Pharisees.  Whatever they had in mind, the neighbors ended up bringing a lot of trouble on the blind man and his family, who suddenly found themselves being questioned by the authorities.

So the man tells his story to the Pharisees.  He says, “Jesus put mud on my eyes. Then I washed and now I see.”  And a huge argument breaks out among the Pharisees! It’s interesting to know that Pharisees don’t agree on everything. Some said Jesus couldn’t be from God because he didn’t observe the Sabbath. Others said he had to be because no sinner could do such miracles. And the apostle John says, “they were divided.” The word there is “schism” – like a major church split!

Not being able to arrive at any agreement among themselves, the Pharisees then ask the formerly blind man: “what do you say about him?” They don’t really want his opinion! They’re triangulating, looking for places to throw blame.  And the formerly blind man answers, “He is a prophet” – which is not what the Pharisees want to hear.  They refuse to believe. In fact now they’re asking the man if he was really born blind in the first place.

By the way, as a side note – verse 18 says “the Jews did not believe…” and verse 22 also refers to “the Jews”.  The apostle John is talking about the Jewish ruling council or the Sanhedrin. He does not mean all the Jewish people.  The blind man was also Jewish, as was Jesus, and the disciples, and the crowd – in fact everybody in the story is Jewish. I mention this because verses like this have been used from time to time to fuel the fires of anti-Semitism, and that’s a gross mis-interpretation. There is no anti-Semitism here.

So the council calls for the formerly blind man’s parents and questions them. And the parents say ‘yes he was born blind, and yes he is our son, but we don’t know how it is that he can see’. And John comments that ‘his parents said this because they were afraid of the Sanhedrin.’

The parents wrap up their testimony by saying, “our son is of age, ask him.”  And the spotlight swings back on the man who has been healed.

The Pharisees now say to him: “Give glory to God!” which is sort of the ancient way of saying “swear on this stack of Bibles”. (Ironically, giving glory to God is exactly what this man is doing, but the Pharisees are missing that completely.)

So they say to him: “Give glory to God. We know this man is a sinner.”  They’re demanding that he agree with them. And the formerly blind man realizes he has a decision to make.  He can save his own skin, pretend to agree with the Pharisees, and life will be good. Or he can stand up for what he knows is true and risk losing everything he has.

His initial answer leaves the door open to dialogue.  He says: “I don’t know whether he’s a sinner. What I do know, is I was blind and now I see.”  He’s speaking the truth but he’s is not offending, and if the Pharisees mean well it’s an acceptable compromise of an answer.

But it’s not good enough for the Pharisees.  They reject his words and start to bully him. “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” Not like they haven’t heard the story already – twice!  And man loses patience and says, “I’ve told you already, but you’re not listening! Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to be his disciples too?”

At which point they start to heap abuse on him.  They say, “You are his disciple, we are disciples of MosesMoses is from God but we don’t know where this guy comes from.” Completely ignoring the fact that Jesus said to them back in chapter 5, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, because Moses wrote about me.” (John 5:46)

The formerly blind man can see the situation is out of control. The Pharisees are not going to accept a compromise, so he makes his decision. He will stand on the truth no matter what.  He says: “Funny thing, isn’t it? You don’t know where this man comes from, but he opened my eyes. We know God doesn’t listen to sinners, but God does listen to the person who worships and obeys him. Never since the beginning of the world has anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God he could do nothing.”

And the Pharisees threw him out.

Standing alone and speaking truth to power is a dangerous thing.  People are often willing to stand in a crowd and speak truth to power, but stand alone? Very few people can do it.  And we remember them. People like Joseph in the Old Testament. Or Moses, or Daniel, or the apostle Paul. Or Martin Luther, who stood alone against the entire hierarchy of the church. Or William Tyndale, who stood alone against an unjust law, translating the Bible into English, and paying with his life. Or Winston Churchill, who stood alone against the royalty of Europe, saying there could be no peace with Hitler. Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pastor who died in a prison camp rather than allow his church to collaborate with the Nazis. Or Rosa Parks, who sat alone on a bus, against an unjust system of prejudice… or Malala Yousafzai, who stood alone against the Taliban.

Just hearing their names is an inspiration.

Speaking truth to power is one of greatest acts of love a person can do. And it’s also one of the most costly.  Jesus, when he gave his life, did it to pay for our sins open the door for us into God’s kingdom; but from the Pharisees’ point of view, Jesus died because he was too good at speaking truth to power. They had to get rid of him. (They just weren’t counting on his coming back!)

So back to our story. The formerly blind man can now see, but the people he most wanted to see – his parents and his friends and neighbors – aren’t allowed to see him. He’s been kicked out of the synagogue, and he’s more outcast now than he was when he was blind.

And Jesus hears about it, and he goes looking for him.

Now there’s no guarantee this formerly blind man is going to accept Jesus.  Remember the other healing back in John 5 that I mentioned? Jesus had told a paralyzed man to pick up his mat and walk. This also happened on a Sabbath, which riled up the Pharisees because you’re not supposed to carry things on the Sabbath. In this case, later on when Jesus goes and visits him, Jesus says to the man, “Look, you have been made well! Don’t sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.” (John 5:14) And the man immediately runs off and betrays Jesus to the Sanhedrin. Hard as it is to imagine, some people will never commit themselves to Jesus, not even if they witness miracles, not even if they receive a miracle.  Miracles are no guarantee of faith.

Contrast this with our formerly blind man. Jesus comes to him and says, “do you believe in the Son of Man?” and he answers, “Who is he, so I can believe?”  And Jesus says, “you see him, and the one who is speaking to you is he.”  And the man says, “Lord, I believe” and worships.

Jesus then comments on the irony of the situation: “I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”

But wait a minute: this doesn’t seem quite right. A couple weeks ago we were looking at the story of Nicodemus in John 3, and Jesus said, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17) So what’s this talk about judgement?

Here’s where the plumb line comes in.  A plumb line does not judge. A plumb line is what it is: it’s a straight line. But being what it is, a plumb line will show up any flaws, or any crookedness, in what it’s held up next to.

And that’s how it is with Jesus. Jesus does not judge. But simply by being who he is, he shows up any flaws or crookedness in our lives, and in society.

Or to put it another way, Jesus is the light of the world. Those who see, see by the light. Anyone who claims they see – without Jesus – is actually blind.

And that point is not lost on the Pharisees, who say to Jesus, “Surely we’re not blind, are we?” And Jesus says, “If you were, you would have no sin. But since you say ‘we see’, your sin remains.”

That’s the real tragedy of the Pharisees. They spend their whole lives trying to live the way God wanted people to live, but they got so focused on the do’s and the do-not’s, the shoulds and the shouldn’ts, that they missed God himself when he was looking them in the eyes.  If they had been able to admit their faults, Jesus would have received them. He did it for Nicodemus. But most of are truly blind.

But our story has a happy ending.  Jesus has a new disciple, another soul saved for eternity… and this man loves Jesus very much, and has given up everything to be with him.

So for today, just a few closing thoughts:

First, all of us have weaknesses and issues to deal with in life. Some of us have health issues, some have family issues, some have work issues or financial issues, some of us have all of the above! Having issues is human. Bringing them to Jesus is what God would have us do.

Second, as we trust God, as we walk with Jesus in our lives, we become more the kind of people who, like the formerly blind man, are able to stand alone if necessary and speak the truth in love… even to power.

Third, Jesus is our plumb line. Jesus is the one we need to measure our lives by. Not by each other. Not by our parents or siblings or friends. Not by what other people think we should be. Not even by our own standards sometimes, because we don’t always see ourselves clearly.

When we measure ourselves by Jesus, we may discover some of the things we thought were strengths are actually weaknesses, and some of the things we thought were weaknesses are actually strengths.  In fact it’s kind of a true-ism in ministry that the places where we have been injured in life is where we can best minister to others.  But in order to do that we need to stand next to the plumb line in faith, and we need to trust that God will show his workmanship in us and through us, in spite of our weaknesses.

So especially in this season of Lent, let’s not hesitate to stand next to the plumb line… and let God do his work in and through us. AMEN.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 3/26/17


John 9:1-41  As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.  2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.  4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”  6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes,  7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.  8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?”  9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.”  10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”  11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.”  12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.  14 Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.  15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.”  16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.  17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

18  The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight  19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?”  20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind;  21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.”  22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.  23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

24  So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.”  25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”  27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”  28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.  29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”  30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.  31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.  32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.  33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”  34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

35  Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”  36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”  37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”  38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.  39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”  40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”  41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”


Born Again

“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”  Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?  No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” – John 3:1-17


Nicodemus was in a quandary.

There was a new rabbi in town. His name was Jesus. He worked miracles, and the people loved to listen to him. The people were amazed by how loving he was – he loved everybody, even children and prostitutes and tax collectors.

Two weeks ago people had been saying he turned water into wine at a wedding. And last week he’d gone into the temple and turned over the tables of the money-changers, and let all the animals that were about to be sacrificed run free through the city, all the while shouting something about ‘house of prayer’ and ‘den of thieves’.

Nicodemus had to admit Jesus was right about that: those money-changers were thieves. And the temple authorities had been looking the other way far too long.

Once when Jesus was teaching in the temple, Nicodemus slipped into the crowd just to listen for a minute. He saw that Jesus taught with wisdom and with humor. Jesus understood the Law of Moses but he understood people too. And he never got caught up in any of those theological-political debates the religious types loved to indulge in.

Nicodemus admired Jesus.

He also knew most of his colleagues didn’t.  See, Nicodemus was a Pharisee. And not just any Pharisee. While he wasn’t as high up as the high priests, he was above the synagogue leaders.  He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council. (In the distant future in something called ‘the Methodist Church’, Nicodemus might have been a District Superintendent.)  He had a position of authority over the people, and he had some sway in the religious councils. And he knew a few other Pharisees admired Jesus too; he wasn’t the only one. But they were in the minority.

Nicodemus also knew that ever since that incident in the temple with the money-changers, the religious authorities were looking for ways to silence Jesus. They couldn’t have that kind of thing happening on a regular basis. Too many public scenes and the Romans would come down on the chief priests for not keeping the peace. And since the chief priests were the leaders of the nation, for the sake of the nation Jesus had to be stopped… at least that’s how they thought.

Nicodemus – I’ll call him ‘Nic’ for short – Nic didn’t know what to do. Should he take the risk of speaking up and defending Jesus in front of the Sanhedrin? Should he lay it out there and say “look, this man speaks truth and you know it”? Or should he should resign his position and join Jesus’ followers? And if he did that, what would become of his own disciples? Nic couldn’t see what was the right thing to do.

Finally one day the light bulb came on and Nicodemus said to himself: I know! I should just go talk to Jesus.  Tell him how things are.  Tell him what the Sanhedrin are saying, how they’re plotting against him. Ask him “is there anything I can do to help?”

So one day after work and after he’d had the chance to grab some dinner, Nicodemus went out looking for Jesus.  While he walked, he thought about his family and especially his parents.  His dad had given Nicodemus a name that means “victory of the people.” Nic wasn’t feeling particularly victorious that night, but he appreciated the encouragement. And it was true the people of Israel looked up to him. (In the far future people would have said Nicodemus ‘one of the 99%’ – not like the Sadducees who were the 1%. ) And besides, Nic knew he was not alone in doing what he was doing that night. There were lots of other people looking for Jesus too. Nic was very much one of the people that night.

At last Nicodemus found Jesus. And – in a totally unexpected break – Nic actually caught Jesus in a moment when there weren’t a gazillion people around him! So he introduced himself to Jesus and said “may I have a word with you?” and Jesus invited him to pull up a rock and have a seat. The disciples had a campfire going, taking an edge off the chill of the night air. There were a few men and women gathered around the fire, having conversations. The only person nearby was a young disciple named John who was listening in on their conversation quietly.

Nic started the conversation by saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know (‘we’ meaning the Pharisees) – we know you are a teacher from God. Nobody could do the signs you do unless the power of God was in him.”  Of course Nic and Jesus both know that’s not what the Pharisees say in public.  What they say in public is things like “it’s only by Beelzebub that this man casts out demons.” And they tell the people not to follow Jesus.

Nicodemus is just getting ready to say “as a Pharisee I can see their hypocrisy – what do you recommend I do?”  But as the apostle Matthew says, God knows what we need even before we ask, and even before Nic had the chance to ask the question, Jesus answers: “you must be born again.”

Nic is speechless.  He had come prepared to offer Jesus an entrée into Jerusalem’s religious establishment, or to offer to stand by Jesus as he made his case to the Pharisees. But here was Jesus, caring about Nicodemus, and taking the conversation to a level Nicodemus wasn’t even aware existed.  What kind of an answer was this?

+++(change to ‘teacher voice’)+++

I need to step out of the story for a moment to say a word about Jesus’ statement ‘you must be born again’. In my lifetime (and probably in many of yours) the phrase ‘born again’ has become – depending on where you’re coming from – a cliché, an insult, a badge of honor, a word to describe a group of Christians who don’t believe in denominations, a way to describe people who preach to you on the street corners of Pittsburgh… in short, anything but what Jesus meant.

When contemporary culture has got things so twisted around that you can’t even believe the opposite of what you hear, it’s time to go back to the original language and see what Jesus actually said. “Born again” – gennao anothen in Greek. Gennao, which has the same root as genesis, which means ‘the beginning’. Literally, gennao means to be born; figuratively (and figurative meanings are valid in Greek) it means to be regenerated. Gennao is the word used to describe God’s action in Jesus’ resurrection – what God did when Jesus came back to life.

The second word, anothen, can be translated ‘from above’ or ‘from top to bottom’; or figuratively, in its entirety, from the beginning, or into the future. There’s an element of time implied, which is why the word is so often translated again.

So taken together, gennao anothen as a phrase that means to experience a complete regenerative change in one’s life.  It’s far more than simply turning over a new leaf.  It is being re-created into what God designed us to be in the first place. It is to become, by the power of God and by the action of God, what we were originally intended by God to be.

And I think that’s pretty close to what Jesus meant.  But at the same time, the phrase ‘born again’ can be taken very literally. And that’s where we find Nicodemus.

+++(step back into the story)+++

Nic is puzzled by Jesus’ words. And he asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” And again Jesus is a step ahead of him, answering a question that’s only halfway asked.

He says: “No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born both of water and of the Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh; and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

Nicodemus is reaching for it mentally.  He’s starting to track with Jesus, but he’s not quite there yet, so Jesus explains further: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

Nic recognizes the play on words, because “wind” and “Spirit” are the same word in Greek. But what puzzles him is what Jesus is implying. Because if the second birth, the spiritual birth, is brought about by the Spirit of God, then… then… all the laws of Moses, and all the rules and regulations Nicodemus has lived by all his life and taught other people to live by… can’t bring a person into God’s Kingdom.

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asks. And Jesus scolds him gently: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and you don’t understand these things?”

Jesus then presses his case just a little bit further: “The things we know and the things we teach are true but you don’t receive the teaching. What you’ve heard so far is only about things on earth, and you haven’t believed it; how will you believe if I start telling you about things in heaven?”

Nic understands Jesus is speaking about the Pharisees, because the word “you” in these sentences is plural – Jesus’ comments are not aimed at Nicodemus personally. And Nic knows the Pharisees indeed haven’t been willing or able to receive Jesus’ teaching, even about the basics. Jesus is right.

But right now in the moment Nic feels Jesus’ eyes on him, looking at him personally, without accusation… in fact, with understanding and concern. Nic is beginning to see he’s got a decision to make: is he going to keep on thinking and living like a Pharisee, or is he going to start believing and trusting in Jesus? Does he really have to give up everything he’s ever believed in?

Again Jesus answers the un-asked question. He says: “The Son of Man has both ascended to heaven and descended from heaven. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. In fact, God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.”

Nic recognizes the story of the serpent in the wilderness. He knows it well. He remembers how the people of Israel, wandering in the desert, one day found their camp full of poisonous snakes, and how many people had been bitten and died. And they cried out to God, and God told Moses to put a bronze snake on the end of a pole, and whenever someone was bitten, they should look at the snake and they would not die, they would be healed.

And hearing Jesus mention the name of Moses, Nicodemus realizes: he does not have to give up everything he’d always believed in. In fact the story of the snake on the pole explains what Jesus is doing. It made perfect sense to Nic. All the things Moses had done and taught point to Jesus and find their completion in Jesus.

And that’s where the story ends. The apostle John, who has been listening in this whole time, doesn’t tell us what Nicodemus said or did next.  Did Nic experience spiritual rebirth that night? We don’t know. We do know that later on Nicodemus will stand up to the other Pharisees on Jesus’ behalf.  And he will be present at the crucifixion, and will give Jesus’ body a burial worthy of a king.

Christian tradition has it that Nicodemus did become a believer and was one of the founding fathers of the church in Jerusalem. But we don’t know for sure. I hope we get to ask him someday in God’s kingdom.


So just a few thoughts about what this story might mean to us today.  Thinking about what Jesus said about the wind blowing where it wills, and how we never know exactly where it comes from or where it goes… and how this is like the Holy Spirit when people are born again… John Wesley once said, “it is the work of God alone to justify, to sanctify, and to glorify; [and these three things make up] the whole of salvation.” There is no way that any human being can ever create the spiritual birth or cause it to happen. Only God can do that. We can pray for someone to be born anew, we can share our faith with others, but being born from above is entirely in the hands of God.

At the same time this new birth is ours by faith.  Wesley also said, “I believe [in] justification by faith alone, as much as I believe there is a God.”  God brings the Spirit like a flame; and our faith is like the wick of a candle that God sets on fire. We need faith enough to trust that God knows what he’s doing and to look to Jesus on the cross, who is being held up before our eyes so that anyone who looks at him in faith will have eternal life.

Jesus did come not to judge but to save. He was, in the words of Charles Wesley, “born to give us second birth”.  That new birth, being born of the Spirit into God’s kingdom, is what Jesus is all about. It’s what he came to earth for. And it’s what Nicodemus came looking for, even if he wasn’t quite aware of it yet.

Today there are some people here who have been born of the Spirit and some people who have not yet been born of the Spirit. For those who have, I want to invite you to renew your commitment to Jesus today. And for those who have not yet been born of the Spirit… I invite you to take a page from Nicodemus’ book.  Be honest with Jesus. Ask the hard questions. Be upfront with him about where you are and what you feel. And then keep your eyes and ears open for Jesus’ answer.

Let’s pray together.

Lord Jesus, you have said that no one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born again of the Spirit, and that the Spirit is like the wind that goes where it wills. We pray your Spirit will fill us today. Renew and refresh our hearts as we believe in you. And for any who are searching, or doubting, or who fear they may be beyond hope – we pray you will call their name right now and begin in them your new creation. For all of us, Lord, give us the courage to believe… and to be honest with you… and to see the love in your eyes… and to move with your Spirit wherever you lead. Thank you Lord for loving us and for making a place for us in your Kingdom. AMEN.



Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 3/12/17











What Is the Creed About?

As I look over the list of phrases people Google to arrive at this blog, I find a number of questions keep popping up — things like “what are the basics of the faith?” or “what should I feel when I pray?” These questions have inspired a mini-series of posts, of which this is the first: “What is the Creed about?”


There are actually a number of creeds that have been used by Christian churches down through the years.  The most widely used and most popular are the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.

But basically they’re all about the same thing: outlining what it is Christians believe in, and doing it in a way that’s easy to memorize and take to heart. The creeds are meant to be used both as teaching tools for new believers, and in worship.

The creeds teach about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and their actions in history:

  • God is the creator of the universe and all that is in it.
  • Jesus is the unique Son of God, born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, died, was buried, and rose again three days later. Jesus is now “seated at the right hand of God” and will come again in glory as judge of the living and the dead. Jesus is the future King of God’s Eternal Kingdom.
  • The Holy Spirit, “giver of life”, “proceeds from the Father and the Son” and exists in glory with them. The Spirit has spoken through the prophets.

The creeds then list a few other essential beliefs of the faith: that there is one worldwide church, made up of all believers (inclusive of all denominations); forgiveness of sins; and the world to come in which the dead will be resurrected.

The various creeds generally came into being to correct false teachings that threatened the church’s unity at various points in history.

The Apostles’ Creed (late 100’s AD?) is the earliest of the creeds, widely accepted as foundational by most churches.

The Nicene Creed is a product of the First Council of Nicaea (325-381AD). This is the preferred creed of the Eastern and Orthodox churches, and is also used in Western churches. It was originally written to counter the Arian heresy that God predated Jesus; this creed describes Jesus as being co-eternal with the Father.  There are two varieties of this creed, the 325 version and the 381 version. Both may be found by following the link at the beginning of this paragraph.

The Chalcedonian Creed is a product of the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) in answer to heresies about the nature of Jesus. It specifically teaches that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human.

The Athanasian Creed (early 500’s AD?) is used mainly in Western churches, and focuses on defining the Trinity (Father/Son/Holy Spirit) as both three and One.  Because Christians believe in one God, and because the word ‘trinity’ is not found in the Scriptures, teaching the concept has been a challenge throughout the centuries. The Athanasian Creed takes on that challenge. It has often been helpfully summarized by the illustration below:


(Note: This letter was originally written for the newsletters of the South Hills Partnership of Methodist Churches but I wanted to make it available in its entirety to a wider audience.)

Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

In the near future our Partnership will be asking for food donations for newly-arrived refugees in our Partnership neighborhoods, in conjunction with the South Hills Interfaith Movement.

I know a number of people have questions about refugees: where they’re coming from, why they left home, why they’re here in the U.S., if their backgrounds have been properly checked. To give brief answers: refugees come from all over: South America, Africa, the Middle East, and the Far East. Here in Pittsburgh the majority have been from the Far East until 2016 when the Middle East began to take the lead. The refugees never wanted to leave home; they were forced to leave by war, natural disaster, persecution, or other life-threatening circumstances. That’s the legal definition of a refugee; as opposed to a ‘migrant’ (someone who travels across borders) or ‘illegal alien’ (someone who crosses our borders without permission). They wanted to come here because, like so many refugees before them, they’ve heard wonderful things about the United States.  The background checks before they can enter the U.S take an average of two years, plus more interviews and tests once they’re here.

Those are the facts. But like most things in life, facts don’t tell the whole story.

I have known a number of refugees, and without exception I am better for having known them. One is a classmate by  the name of Abraham. abrahamnhialAbraham was one of the “Lost Boys” of South Sudan. When he was a child during the Sudanese civil war, soldiers attacked his village, burned it to the ground, and killed the people. Abraham survived only because he was in the fields tending the cows. He saw his village burning and knew if he went home he would be killed, so he ran. As he traveled east – walking a distance of nearly 300 miles to refugee camps in Ethiopia – he met up with other ‘lost boys’ who also survived, and they helped each other. From Ethiopia they were brought to the United States, where they were able to finish their educations, and Abraham trained to become an Anglican priest. He said: “I am going to go back to Sudan and find the men who killed my family and tell them about the love of Jesus.” Abraham is now serving as a Bishop in the Anglican church of South Sudan.

menrefugeechildOne refugee family I met here in Pittsburgh – an extended family of two brothers, their two wives and many children – are from Aleppo, Syria. They became refugees when their home and city were bombed. They are anxious to learn about their new country, and eager to hear about Jesus, so they invited about a half-dozen people connected to the seminary to visit for dinner. What a spread! Tabbouleh, grape leaves, chicken, salads, naan bread… more than we could possibly eat… followed by tea and coffee.  Their elementary-school-age children know more English than their parents, so they carried the evening.  And though we couldn’t communicate much, I indicated my appreciation to the one mother who had done all this cooking while very pregnant. She smiled and pointed to her belly and said “American!” – so proud to be the mother of a future American! I haven’t been able to visit again but the family is now hosting an international Bible study in their home every other week, which friends of mine attend.

I could talk about facts and figures… point out that right now there are more than 65 million people in the world who are without a country… but numbers like these are too big to get our minds around.  Consider instead the words of one refugee: “you don’t put your children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”

I believe this refugee crisis will be the defining moment of our generation. The repercussions of so many homeless people will change the course of world history for decades to come. How we respond to the crisis will determine not only the future of the refugees but our future as well – because care for the stranger is so important to God, and so central to what God requires of His people.

There’s little most of us can do, from where we live, to ease this crisis that’s happening so far away. But what little we can do, we need to do. At a time like this, every act of kindness makes a difference.

Thank you,

Rev. Peg Bowman


A few statistics to think on

Where refugees come from… (in millions)
(notice Colombia, South America, is in the Top Ten)  (source: Buzzfeed)


…and where they go (in millions) (source: Buzzfeed)


Refugee travel routes to Europe (source: Human Rights Watch)
Countries that were formerly “destination countries” — like Libya and Jordan — are now becoming source countries themselves.


Syrian refugees accepted into the U.S.
(actual numbers, not thousands or millions) (source: CDC)


A Tale of Two Mountains


“The LORD said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.’ So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, ‘Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.’
“Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.” – Exodus 24:12-18

“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
“As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’ – Matthew 17:1-9
The very best stories in the world are stories about love. Have you ever noticed that? They’re the ones that stick with you, whether it be movies, or TV, or books. The ones we go back to time and again are love stories. Not necessarily romantic stories (though they count). But take for example the Harry Potter stories – you’ve got Harry’s love for his parents, and his parents’ love for Harry, and Harry’s love for his friends, and the self-sacrificing love of Professor Dumbledore and Professor Snape, which Harry honors by naming his first child after them. Love is what makes these stories so unforgettable.

Today’s scripture readings may not look like love stories at first glance, but they are. And like most stories about love, they’re not just about love, they’re about life. And, like most love stories, “the path of true love never did run smooth”.

Our love story for today – told in two parts on two different mountains – is a love story between God and God’s people. (The beginning of the story is actually back in Genesis chapter one but we’re not going to go back that far.) For today we’ll start where most love stories start: with a meeting. Only in this case we’re not talking about a meeting between people, we’re talking about a meeting between God and a group of people who are about to become a nation.

The scene opens at the foot of Mt. Sinai in the Arabian desert. It’s been about three months since the people of Israel walked through the Red Sea on dry land. God has been leading them through the wilderness in a pillar of fire at night and a pillar of smoke by day, but the people haven’t actually met God. They’ve only heard God’s words through Moses.

But then today comes. God has called 70 of the leaders of the people to come part-way up the mountain and have a feast with God. From where they are sitting they can see up the mountain just a bit of the glory of God. They see fire and smoke and “something like a pavement of sapphire stone” it says in verse 10.

This feast is a celebration of the new partnership between God and God’s people: because back in chapter 20 God gave Moses the Ten Commandments – verbally, that is (the written version isn’t here just yet). And when Moses gives God’s words to the Israelites they answer with one voice “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (Exodus 24:3)

Giving and receiving a list of commandments may not sound like much of a love story, unless we look at it as a love story between a parent and children who are deeply loved. Because God is our parent, and we are God’s children. As Jesus says, the Spirit within us cries “Abba, Father”. And just like any loving parent, our heavenly parent has some house rules. We may not understand them right away, but as members of the family we are expected to follow them. So just like our parents taught us to shut the door, and “no snacks before dinnertime”, and “wash your hands before you eat”, God also has house rules: honor God, honor your parents, keep the Sabbath, no killing, no stealing, no lying, no cheating, no wanting what somebody else has.

So Moses gives this message to the people, and the people say “sounds good to us!” – and the feast is a celebration of that agreement.

But love stories are never quite that easy. After the banquet, God asks Moses and Joshua to meet him further up the mountain so they can receive the Ten Commandments written on stone. And this is where our reading for today begins. Moses goes up with Joshua. Before he goes he tells the 70 elders “stay here, wait for us until we come to you again. If you have any problems while we’re away, talk to Aaron, he will help you out.”

So Moses and Joshua go up the mountain and they see the glory of God. Seven days later God gives Moses the Ten Commandments written on stone. And then God decides to keep Moses a bit longer. God says Israel needs a place to worship, and God gives detailed instructions on how to build a tabernacle. These instructions take up Exodus chapters 25 through 31 – six chapters! By the time God has told Moses all these things, 40 days have gone by. And that’s as far as our reading for today goes.

But we know what happens next. While Moses has been talking with God on the mountain, “the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses… we do not know what has become of him.”” (Exodus 32)

It’s only been four months since the people walked through the Red Sea, and less than a month since the people saw God’s glory on the mountain, and already they’ve forgotten what they saw and forgotten the promises they made. The creation of the golden calf breaks the First Commandment, which then leads to breaking all the other commandments.

But that’s another story for another day. For now let’s just say the path of true love never does run smooth.

One side-note: it is still true today that most of what is wrong in the world happens after the First Commandment is broken. False gods lead to ‘alternate truths’, ‘fake news’ and from there to every sin in the book. The sin of worshiping something other than God, or valuing something more highly than God – whether it be money or power or security or self-gratification, or whatever it may be – is the pressing sin of our generation.

So back to Exodus. The part of the story we read today – the part where Moses and Joshua go up the mountain and see the glory of the Lord – that’s the part we want to focus on today. And here are some things to sort of mentally bookmark before we head into Matthew.

As I mentioned earlier, God and God’s people are just getting to know each other at this point. In the book of Genesis, God’s relationship was mostly with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob – the patriarchs and their immediate families. But now, 300 years after Joseph, Jacob’s descendants have grown into a huge group of people. And God has plans to make them into a holy nation.

So God is introducing himself, and God is making himself known to the people. The whole point of this scene of glory on the mountaintop is God communicating who God is. The fire and the smoke are not God, but they are an expression of God’s greatness and power. And the commandments are not God, but they are a reflection of the holy character of God, as well as instructions for the children of God.

But above all, God is a God of love. And it is the nature of love to want to share oneself with the beloved. And so God makes himself known. It is also the nature of love to hope to be loved back. And in order for the people to love back, they need to know who they’re loving, because it’s impossible to love someone you don’t know.

We tried when we were younger though, didn’t we? Do you remember your first crush? ‘Some enchanted evening’ we looked across a crowded room, and… there that person was! A crush might feel like love, but if the other person isn’t involved we’re just in love with the thought of being in love.

The same is true in our relationship with God. We may worship God from a distance, but ‘from a distance’ we don’t really know God. That’s one of the reasons I don’t like that song “God is Watching Us From a Distance” – because it’s not true. If God is at a distance, we can’t know God. We can’t know what psychologists call The Other. And God wants us to know, God wants to be known.

As we get to know God, one of the first things we notice about God is God’s glory. God’s glory has to do with beauty and majesty and holiness and weightiness (in the sense that it’s not something to be taken lightly). In Exodus, God’s glory is represented by fire and cloud. But a little further on in Exodus, Moses asks to see God’s glory specifically. And God answers:

“I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’… But… you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” God’s glory, taken straight on, is more than mere human beings can bear. So God says, “There is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by…” (Exodus 33:18-23)

So God makes provision for Moses by hiding him in a cleft of the rock. Which reminds me of that old gospel song:

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

God shelters us, just like God sheltered Moses, in the cleft of the Rock. And the name of that Rock is Jesus.

Which brings us to the second mountain.

Matthew starts out his passage by saying “six days later” – which tells us we need to look back to see what happened six days before. Six days before, the Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus demanding a sign from heaven. And although they didn’t say exactly what they were looking for, what they probably meant was a sign to prove Jesus is the Son of God. And Jesus didn’t give them one.

But later Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am, and who do you say that I am?” – and Peter says, “you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. And Jesus answers, “God has revealed this to you… and on this rock” – that is, on the rock of knowing who Jesus really is – “on this rock I will build my church”.

And then Jesus starts to talk about being killed by the chief priests and the scribes, and rising from the dead three days later. And he tells the disciples, “you also must take up your cross and follow me.”

So six days after these conversations, Jesus takes Peter and James and John and leads them up a tall mountain. And when they get to the top, Jesus is transfigured – the Greek word here is “metamorphosis”. (Isn’t it wonderful when Greek actually makes sense?) And suddenly Jesus’ face is shining like the sun, and his clothes are dazzling white.

And suddenly Jesus is in conversation with Moses and Elijah. Moses and Elijah are there representing the Old Testament: the Law and the Prophets. And Jesus is consulting with them. While the Bible doesn’t say what they were talking about, my guess is Jesus was talking with them about his death and resurrection. (Who else could Jesus talk to about things like that?)

While this conversation is going on, Peter offers to set up some tents, which would have been appropriate hospitality back then. But while he is speaking, a bright cloud comes over them – similar to the one in Exodus, I imagine – and a voice speaks out of the cloud saying “this is my Son, my beloved… listen to him”.

And the disciples are overcome with fear. (One version says “…and they were sore afraid.”) But Jesus says, “get up, do not be afraid.” And when they look up the vision is gone and they are alone with Jesus and things are back to ‘normal’.

Here on this mountain, just like on Moses’ mountain, God is making Himself known. What the disciples saw when they looked at Jesus, shining like the sun, is a glimpse of Jesus as he really is – the King of kings and Lord of lords. It’s as if Jesus is saying “know me for who I really am, so that you can trust me and love me for who I really am.” Jesus already knows us, and loves us. Now we need to know Jesus.

At the same time the disciples learn something about God’s power. When God speaks to the disciples directly they fall to the ground in fear. When Jesus says “don’t be afraid” – this is not an expression of sympathy, it’s a command, spoken by the same voice that once said “let there be light”.

With a word Jesus takes away our fears, because it’s impossible to love someone we’re afraid of, and Jesus knows that. He makes it possible for us to stand in God’s presence.

In this moment we are touching God’s Kingdom. Because it will be the same way on that great resurrection day. It will be a fearful day, but Jesus will have the word of command to make it possible for us to stand. Jesus will make us what we need to be… and what we long to be. By the power of his word and by the power of his death and resurrection, Jesus makes us into children of God.

These two mountaintops give us the opportunity to know the God who loves us, and who invites us into a relationship of love that will last for an eternity.

In Exodus we learn about God’s mercy and God’s character. In Matthew, we learn about Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, and about his glory and his word of command. These two mountains lift us out of the everyday. They help us to remember who we really are as children of God. They help us to grow into a mature love for God – knowing who we love, and loving without fear. And while all this is going on, we are being remade into God’s likeness.

And like the elders of Israel, we have been invited to a feast. It’s a banquet in the Kingdom of Heaven, prepared for us by a God of infinite love. Our response (hopefully!) is to say “yes!” to the invitation… and then to share the invitation with others, telling them what we have seen and heard.

This is a love story. Like all love stories, the road has not always run straight – not even in each of our lives. There has been pain and struggle and hope and fear… but through it all there has been God’s faithful love.

And on these mountaintops – for a moment – we can see where this love story leads. And in the distance, bathed in brilliant light, we see the happiest of endings.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 2/26/17

Love Your Neighbor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Division Times Two

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

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


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

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

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

So division times two.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Psalm 133 King David says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Scripture Readings for the Day:

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

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

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


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